How Much Stuff do we Actually Need?

Trying to parse the consumerist orgasms that are Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Another holiday, another mattress sale or so it goes in America, the country where people play homeless for one night to secure bargains.

In pursuit of cheap consumer goods, some will swap the comforts of their bedroom for the sidewalk, waiting in line in the cold for stores to open so they can be the first to snap up great deals. At some stage, fighting will inevitably occur, people might get trampled but if all goes well, no one will lose their life this year.

Media outlets will once again have a field day exploiting the disempowerment of the poor. And the multitudes assembled in front of screens will lap it up, point the finger, and laugh at what they perceive to be stupidity or perhaps even greed.

The internet will raise the ante as it always does. There’s even a website that has been totting up Black Friday deaths for the last eleven years because we humans need shocking before we even begin to consider self-inquiry.

But what if Black Friday is your one and only chance to own something you’ve scrimped and saved for all year because you desperately need it? The poor don’t have credit cards and payment plans come with a high interest rate attached, when those are even a possibility at all.

Need, not greed is what drives some folks to spend a night out in the cold in the hope of acquiring something that might improve their quality of life.

Holidays are about indulgence so why shouldn’t everyone be given the opportunity to partake?

One day a year, those capitalism leaves behind have a chance to catch up and we mock them for daring to try and buy their way into the American Dream like everyone else. Where is the line between need and greed, we wonder out loud, especially if we’re in the privileged position to have never known need.

By judging our fellow humans for their shopping compulsions, we declare ourselves better than them. We are morally and philosophically evolved, we do not need the empty trappings of materialism to confirm our self-worth.

Then again, this is easy to say when you hold a key to a place you call home that features all the amenities of modern living, from dishwasher to AC via cable TV. This isn’t everyone’s reality as evidenced by the ongoing existence of laundromats and booming sales of fans during heat waves.

For many, scarcity isn’t an irrational fear but a feature of a life where shelter, three meals a day, and medical care are challenges. And yet, no matter what station we’re at in life, we all need a little relief, a little release, and a little comfort on occasion, don’t we?

This is why those of lesser means sometimes own what the privileged call incongruous objects. The same giant TVs adorning McMansions across the country also take pride of place in some humble homes and why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t a food service worker on minimum wage enjoy a cappuccino if that is the only treat they can reliably afford?

What if that occasional treat had a greater impact on their mental well-being than the prospect of a lump sum representing a year worth of cappuccinos? And what if a TV offered an entire family the chance to share a moment together and forget about their hardships whenever they find the time?

Unless you have a library card and are lucky to live somewhere like Seattle where the public library system offers much more than books, escapism has a price tag. And we all need it to stay sane in a world consumed with the pursuit of profit at all cost.

Creature comforts are a basic human need otherwise why would all children have a favorite toy or blanket?

We grow up but the need for familiar comforts never goes away; it morphs into thousands of things and pursuits we never knew we were even interested in. Depending on how curious and how sensitive to marketing we are, we pin our hopes of an improved quality of life on what we don’t have. And we end up acquiring or doing things unfathomable to all but those who are similarly wired, like collectors for example.

Lately, the trend has been to urge us to collect people and experiences, not things. However, someone whose daily life is diminished by homelessness and hunger will only tend to focus on those immediate needs. And if they’re very lucky after society has completely given up on them, they’ll have the warmth of a canine or feline companion to keep them going.

If homelessness does fall under experiences, it isn’t one we choose and therefore likely not eligible for the criteria above.

The nature of privilege is that we’re blind to it until our circumstances change abruptly or someone points out our good fortune.

Although we’re wont to react defensively, few are those of us who couldn’t use a reminder to be grateful for and appreciate what we already have.

And when needs remain unmet, who are we to shame, deride, and humiliate others for trying to meet them, whatever it takes?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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