All things have a mean. A sweet spot where there is neither excess nor deficiency. A life that achieves that golden mean is called The Good Life.
One might think such a life would not be materialistic and that the world today is too materialistic.
The opposite is true.
The Good Life embraces materialism while the world is not materialistic enough.
A materialist values Supreme Objects, items that are inherently good for their own sake.
The opposite of a materialist is not a person who spurns material goods. To live in this world means to own and use physical things.
Even minimalists value the select objects they own.
The opposite of a materialist is someone who cares about the symbolic value, the social meaning of what they buy, rather than the inherent qualities of the goods themselves.
The focus of buying becomes more about the message the object conveys about the purchaser rather than how well it performs its inherent purpose.
More and more consumers care less about the quality of materials and construction and more about what others will think of them when they wear or use the item.
Raymond Williams writes:
"It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object being sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly."
Raymond Williams, Advertising: The Magic System
The problem with valuing the social meaning of goods rather than the goods themselves is it exponentially increases the volume of goods we consume.
A world that values symbolism over quality is a world drowning in garbage. Literally. We become a throwaway society, always searching out the next new thing.
If an object will not enhance our social status because no one will see it or care then our default criteria for choosing it is price. The lower the better.
The way to break this destructive cycle is to buy less things and pay more, much more for what we do buy.
We need to seek after objects and experiences that exhibit exceptional quality, beauty and uniqueness.
We need to slow down and admire the elegance of how those gifts were packaged and delivered.
We need to relish the stories of the makers and acknowledge what was sacrificed in order to hold that chosen object in our hand.
Such goods fill an inner need.
Most useful objects of the present day are too superficial to answer our daily inner need: they are the victims of commercialism that characterizes the contemporary artistic world, for commercialism is the enemy of man, extirpating all beauty from his culture.
Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
I own a waxed canvas laptop case. It is made by ateliers PENELOPE. Their studio and store is hidden in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood surrounded by traditional Japanese houses. It took us thirty minutes of walking and searching to find it. Their selection is small and they sell almost exclusively in Japan.
The small label on the outside of the case says fait-main dans un atelier par ateliers PENELOPE 1996 (handmade in a workshop by Ateliers PENEOLPE 1996).
The bag cost less than $100 and it will last the rest of my life.
Every time I open it I am reminded of that shop and the kind man who interrupted his sewing in order to help us.
I remember the intoxicated young man who stepped out of a restaurant and invited us in for a soda on our walk back to the train. As we sat with him, he lamented how difficult it is to be a gay man in Japan and how he longed to visit the U.S. again.
My bag is plain looking. It is a nondescript brown. No one has ever complimented me on it. No one I know has heard of ateliers PENELOPE.
But if you held it in your hands and ran the canvas through your fingers, you would understand immediately why this bag is special. You would say, "It is beautiful."
"Only an object that is natural and wholesome manifests true beauty, and this "natural beauty" is the Buddhist ideal. Objects that reveal ambition, objects in which lack of taste is knowingly simulated, objects where some quality such as strength or cleverness is exaggerated ‒ these will not be universally admired for long, although they may create a momentary furor."
Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
May we all learn to be materialists in the true sense of the word.
-J.D. Stein | February 2014