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Sun

21

Dec

2008

If I am not a Consumer, Who am I?
Sunday, 21 December 2008 17:53
by Carolyn Baker

alt WINTER SOLSTICE, DECEMBER 21, 2008 On December 17, a Reuters story Downturn Spurs Survival Panic reported that, "A paralegal, recently laid off, wanted to get back at the ‘establishment' that he felt was to blame for his lost job. So when he craved an expensive new tie, he went out and stole one.

The story, relayed by psychiatrist Timothy Fong at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, is an example of the rash behaviors exhibited by more Americans as a recession undermines a lifestyle built on spending."

In the coming months, the story continues, "mental health experts expect a rise in theft, depression, drug use, anxiety and even violence as consumers confront a harsh new reality and must live within diminished means."

In yet another story, The Great Accumulation Hits The Wall, the Wall Street Journal reported that:

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the first official day of the holiday shopping season, 31-year-old confessed shopaholic Nikki Ebben was holed up in her bedroom in Appleton, Wis., while her husband went to Wal-Mart to snag a $500 flat-screen TV. Ms. Ebben, who has maxed out 15 credit cards and racked up more than $80,000 in debt, says she vowed to stay away from stores. Still, she couldn't resist the temptation of e-commerce, particularly the appeal of 30% off and free shipping. While her husband was gone, she spent $400 at Toysrus.com and Target.com, using money from the couple's joint bank account.

I went crazy, admits Ms. Ebben, whose mother stopped speaking to her for a time because she owed her parents so much money.

Both the Reuters and Wall Street Journal stories conclude that buying and consuming have become part of the national culture and offer people an identity-the identity of a consumer, which many will now be forced to abandon. Additionally, shopping has become a way for countless individuals to cope with their emotions. Not only do the things we buy allow us to feel good momentarily, but the disease of consumerism has become so pathological that in many instances, people have come to believe that they are what they buy, and the more expensive and coveted brand or product makes a statement about who one is. This is enormously significant because there's obviously more than "survival panic" going on here.

I believe that it's not a stretch to conclude that for some, the inability to consume may be creating a fundamental existential crisis in terms of losing one's identity. This would certainly explain the bizarre violence that occurred at the Long Island Walmart on Black Friday a few weeks ago where an employee was trampled to death. If consumption "rewards" human beings with a positive identity as well as the sense of financial security, then it is nothing less than an extremely powerful addiction. Withdraw the addictive substance or activity-or put it on sale at 70% off, and many people will behave like the street junkie who will do whatever it takes to score his next fix.


I hasten to add that short of living on air, none of us can totally cease consuming. The issue, of course, is not consumption itself, but consumption that isn't about buying or bartering for what we truly need-consumption based on fear, insecurity, alienation, all of which are rooted in the human ego, as opposed to the human soul.

While we may want to shake our heads when hearing reports like the ones above, I consider them very positive aspects of economic collapse. Yes, these desperate individuals are suffering a plethora of emotions as they are forced into withdrawal from their drug of choice, shopping, but in my opinion, this is the upside of the unraveling. There are no guarantees that any of them will experience a personal psychological or spiritual epiphany regarding the meaning of life, but as with any addiction, when the drug of choice is no longer available, an opening exists for the addict to make a different choice which may not have been possible without forced withdrawal. Welcome to cultural rehab in the throes of the collapse of Western civilization!

In addition to their profound connection with the earth community, which dramatically informs their desires, indigenous cultures have in place a tradition, namely initiation, for planting and harvesting in their young, a foundational sense of identity. This tradition is not simply a "rite of passage" but rather a series of ordeals, almost always occurring in a natural setting, through which the youth must pass that allow him/her to discover and utilize a deeper self. In fact, the ordeals are often constructed in such a manner that unless the youth can access that self, he/she may not physically survive. Any woman or man who has passed through such an experience will almost always attribute his/her survival to the support of the tribe, one's own connection with nature, and the opportunity to discover a previously unknown reservoir of courage, enabled by trust in oneself and other members of the community.

In a culture where tribal community, intimate connection with nature, and concomitant initiatory rites are absent, then the human psyche, which appears to inherently requires these for optimum functioning, will consciously or unconsciously devise its own rituals for constructing an identity. If this is so, then we may conclude two things: that initiation makes mindless consumption unnecessary, and that mindless consumption in search of identity is a substitute for initiation.

In indigenous/traditional cultures, even when entire nations or villages are steeped in poverty, there is almost always a curious sense of "enough." In fact, one usually finds there, more generosity, magnanimity, and compassion than anywhere in industrial civilization. One reason for this may be that beyond a sense of "I have enough because the tribe shares with me and I with them" is a more fundamental sense of "I am enough because I know who I am."

In the Native American tradition, the four directions are guideposts for living and relating as we journey through the seasons of the year. I am fascinated by the dramatic discrepancy between what Winter symbolizes in the that tradition and what the culture of empire demonstrates at this time of year. On the Native American medicine wheel, we find four directions, each representing a season of the year as well as a totem animal. Winter is the season of the North which contains the energy of the buffalo who has the courage and stamina to face the cold winds of the North. It also holds the energy of the tribal elder who has journeyed many times around the wheel and now looks back on her journey with seasoned wisdom and gratitude. The word "elder", of course, has little to do with age and everything to do with allowing oneself to be wizened as one traverses the wheel of experience and learning.

The North is also symbolic of warrior medicine-the definition of warrior being profoundly larger than someone engaged in combat. Much more than a mere fighter, the warrior is one who takes a stand for all that is harmonious with nature and all that supports the well being of the earth and tribal community.

Derrick Jensen frequently tells the story of the Cheyenne dog warriors who in battle would tie a rope around their waists to which was attached a picket pin. Driving the picket pin into the earth, they would remain in place until the battle was over, or another warrior relieved them, or until they died. In this way, the warrior committed to taking a stand and omitting any possibility of capitulation. The moral of the story, Derrick emphasizes, is the opportunity it presents for us to contemplate where in the culture of empire we will drive in our picket pin and not be moved. Specifically, I would ask all of us, what are we willing to not consume? Where are we willing to take our stand, at the risk of losing life itself, on behalf of the earth community?

An antidote to the frantic, voracious consumerism of modernity's holiday season might be quiet contemplation of the place of the North and its "medicine" as described above. I write this on the eve of Winter Solstice in this dark time of year-a time in which, complementing the sun's journey, we are invited to focus within and commune with buffalo and the elders, a practice even more essential if we ourselves have entered elderhood.

Although spring will come, and beyond it, summer, we are certain to face energetically the cold winds of economic collapse from now on, indefinitely. Now, more than ever, we need buffalo medicine, strength, courage, wisdom, gratitude, and the perspective of the elder who holds a deep conviction that regardless of what we will be forced to endure, the medicine of the North, and the medicine of the other sacred directions, is at our disposal.

We are not consumers; we are the medicine of the North, South, East and West. Certainly, this is one of countless lessons that collapse has come to teach us. What would happen if we fully inhabited and savored the North and discovered that we are absolutely, unequivocally, enough? What would happen if each of us drives in our picket pin and refuses to be moved?

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