I speak a few languages, and can get by in a lot more. I often find myself the interlocutor between people who’ve hit a communication dead-end, allowing me to preempt rather hairy situations from arising. At the airport in Doha, Qatar recently I managed to convince the stern-faced immigration officials that the visibly sick, sweet old German lady they were hounding wasn’t carrying a serious communicable disease as they feared, but had a combination of heart issues, emphysema, and fatigue after a long flight. I vouched for her in Arabic and they let her in. Through my microscopic knowledge of German, her faint grasp of English, and our mutual fluency in hand gestures, we spoke.
En route to London yesterday, I stopped for a quick bite at an airport bistro that sells everything from paninis to sushi. Ahead of me in the queue was a rather gaunt looking, young Middle Eastern man who had presented a voucher from his airline for free food. The cashier and his side-kick were struggling to communicate with him. I guessed with some level of certainty he was probably a Kurdish Iraqi, so I fired some exploratory Arabic at him and he responded, although being Kurdish, Arabic was not his first language. I relayed to him what the Italians were desperate to explain: He was entitled to another free sandwich and a bottle of water. He shook his head politely and explained to me all he wanted was that one sandwich.
“Seriously? Take it, you may need it,” I goaded him on. But he stood his ground.
The cashier, his attractive lady side-kick and myself were baffled why anyone in this day and age would turn down a free anything. I could have sworn the cashier mumbled a few choice Roman insults under his breath. I suppose the three of us had mentally assessed his BMI and sunken cheeks and figured if anyone needed the extra calories, it was this young kid. The side-kick then suggested I take the bottle of water and the extra sandwich since it was already paid for by Alitalia. And perhaps as a token of gratitude for negotiating with the young man. Better me than a failing, bankrupt airline, right? So I took the bottle of water, because, hey, it’s free. I thanked my unwitting benefactor as we both sat to eat.
When I was done, I felt a little guilty to have taken the bottle of water. Maybe he hadn’t fully understood his entitlements, or thought we were trying to upsell him, or something? I walked up to him and insisted he take the damn bottle, because it was bloody free. Mostly I was curious to know why, if had understood, hadn’t he cashed in on all the pro bono items on his voucher? His grasp of Arabic was perfect, I found out, and he had understood me the first time. His explanation was simple, but one I hardly expected. “Because I don’t need them. I just wanted that one one sandwich,” he said, like I had asked an inanity.
I insisted nevertheless he kept the water and after a bit of traditional Middle Eastern polite back and forthing, he reluctantly agreed then took off. A minute later he came back with a few plastic cups, poured exactly half the water for me and left with the other half.
In a world of consumerism on steroids, we’ve been programmed to take what we can get, rather than what we need. This mindset is prevalent in every facet of our life. Two for the price of one. Buying bulk. And upsizing anything for little or no money. We live in a time of plenty, and somehow the major corporations that make and sell things to us have narrowed in on a defect in the design of the human psyche. It’s called greed. And they’re using it to their advantage to spike their profits.
While it’s presumptuous on my part to make socioeconomic assumptions about the young man based on how he looked, it’s safe to say he didn’t strike me like money was easy to come by for him. I’ll go further for dramatic effect and presume he was a political refugee seeking asylum, jumping from one European city to the other until he finds a place that would take him. In other words, if there is anyone who could benefit from scoring a free meal and bottled water, it was him. And it doesn’t get more primal than food and water, right? When the apocalypse or zombie invasions happen, we won’t be scrambling to hoard as many iPads or New Balance shoes as we can get. We’ll be looking for food and water, just like the man and his son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
At the other spectrum, there I was accepting a free bottle of water because I found a loophole in the system, even though the cost of buying one, if I had indeed been thirsty, was not something that would have even registered in my mind as possessing monetary value. Not a purchase I would mull over or stir buyer’s remorse in my chest.
Mind you, I am a capitalist at heart and marvel at the cleverness of all the things human beings can make out of the basic raw materials we’ve come to find on this planet. But as I sashay comfortably in my middle years, I’m starting to have second thoughts about the growing disconnect in my mind between acquiring things I genuinely need, and getting things simply because the monetary value is either nil or drastically low. I am particularly aware of, even allergic to this bloated layer of acquisitions in my life I neither want nor use, but that misleadingly, and for fleeting seconds satisfy some amorphous need within my soul. Then when it’s time to get rid of them, I realize I’ve erred and get that dark, gnawing feeling eating away at me.
I’d like to blame the Costcos of the world for this culture of hoarding hysteria, but it would be terribly unfair and hypocritical on my part. Retailers and manufacturers do what they were created to do: Maximize their profits. There’s no shame in that. They’ve tapped into our natural greed and desire to hoard for future uncertainties, and have successfully exploited it to the extreme. Sure it would be great if corporations showed some level of ethical proactivity and stopped trying to tempt us, but that’s a topic of another discussion.
The solution to hyper consumerism is not in the supply chain, but rather the demand. As consumers, we can’t alter modern systems of production, sales and marketing, but we can fix ourselves, if we really want to be fixed. If enough people stop buying and acquiring things they don’t particularly need, this may ultimately ripple back to the supply side and start balancing things.
All it takes is a close study of our habits to really understand how very little we need to feel happy and to function at our maximum capacity. Acquiring fewer, high-quality possessions that I need is a much healthier proposition than hoarding reams of cheap things I never needed in the first place. And it applies to all our purchasing decisions, be they services or products. Invest in a lovingly-made, locally-sourced expensive loaf of bread that tastes like bread, rather than freezing five packs of the chemically-enhanced, mass-produced alternative, that taste like…nothing. Buy just a handful of delicious, pricey strawberries you and your family can realistically eat, rather than a cheap jumbo sized case of beautiful-looking varieties that taste like pickles, which will grow mold on the third day because you simply can’t consume them in time. Travel business once a year, rather than economy five times. Watch three great films, rather than twenty duds. Buy one collectible rather than one hundred fakes. And so on and so forth.
The notion of choosing quality versus quantity is hardly ground-breaking, yet it’s surprisingly much harder to put in practice than to preach about. Part of the problem lies in the decreased perceived value of production in our eyes because we are no longer surrounded by industry. Everything we consume is produced in remote locations for cheap, and therefore highly disposable in our minds. We no longer value the manufacturing process because economies of scale are much easier and faster to achieve, invisibly.
I was a child in the seventies and eighties where gifts and toys were special events acquired only on birthdays, Christmas, or when one of my parents traveled off to some fancy place and had to come back with something. I envy my children for living in a world where toys – the building blocks of childhood – are readily available at reasonable prices. And I’d be a fool to try to recreate the circumstances of my childhood because we don’t live on an Island. Well, okay my wife and I do try to game the system sometimes: On birthdays we request that in lieu of gifts friends and family donate money to a children’s charity. Still, even with our little symbolic interventions, we can’t control the onslaught of consumerism on our children because friends, family, and especially grandparents are going to puncture whatever it is we try to inflate. Unless we become Amish, it’s a lost battle.
Instead, what we try to do is redraw the long eroded link between “stuff” and what it took to create it in their minds. On any given day, this sort of conversation could be heard at our dining table. “Do you know that Mr. farmer worked really hard to raise the adorable chicken that laid this delicious egg for you to eat?” The point is not to guilt the child, but to try to connect the dots again between goods and production to instill respect and value. That’s one part of the solution. The other is to work hard on nurturing a healthy understanding in our children’s minds of what they need, rather than what they can get. Not surprisingly, what children need most, in fact what we all crave, are experiences rather than objects. Because when you look back at your life, it’s what you did and who you did it with that really counts and remains nostalgically vivid in your memory, rather than the consumer products you managed to get for a killer deal online, with free Saturday shipping to boot.