Exploring Values & The Meaning of Stuff | Part 2

Apr 17th

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Fancy cars, oversized homes, perfect-looking lawns and designer clothes – these are just a few things that people use to demonstrate how “accomplished” they are to the rest of society.

Have you ever wondered when owning an Audi meant you’ve made it?

You may be surprised to learn just how far back our societies focus on outward appearance is rooted.

I became intrigued after first reading about the pilgrims that made that famous voyage on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock back in 1620. What they endured (seasickness, disease, rotten food and an otherwise yucky environment) proved these people weren’t just on a joy ride across the Atlantic. They had a purpose. While there’s some debate on what exactly that purpose was, the most common theory is that the pilgrims were trying to escape the Church of England and their pension for removing the heads of those that disagreed with them. Others suggest that religion was THE primary purpose for the exodus and that the pilgrims hoped to establish a more “pure” colony in the new world.

So in order to really dive into the reason for of all this material stuff that has come to litter our lives, we have to review a quick history lesson.

Note, this is a condensed version. Tons of great information can be gathered with a quick google search focused on .edu sites.

To start, the pilgrims were Puritans. Puritans were followers of Calvinism, a belief framework largely put in place by its namesake, John Calvin. One of the core tenants of Calvinism is predestination – the idea that humans were pre-ordained to be saved or damned from the beginning of time. Human actions could not alter this predestination. This concept may not sit well with us in today’s society – but you have to remember the context. During the 1600’s there was no iPhone’s, no radio, no fast food – heck, there was no plumbing or electricity. It was comforting to believe that God had everything worked out and, whether or not you were amongst the select few “saved”, you were still a part of the plan. I’m over simplifying things a bit, but you get the idea.

When I studied early American literature as one of my very first college courses this whole section in history really stuck out. Here was the first inklings of the what we know as the “American Dream”. You see, the only way folks knew if you were amongst the chosen was if God bestowed upon you things such as wealth, a good family and property. These outward appearances expressed to others that God had selected you to receive his grace. If you were down and out, poor, jobless or otherwise a misfit, then surely you were damned. Again, I’m over simplifying things here, but here we show the first signs of materialism in America.

Horses took place of Audi’s. A well maintained home, with perhaps a grassy lawn – a luxury only afforded by the well off – and maybe even that white picket fence showed the world you’ve made it. Nice, modest clothing and even expensive items such as books further enhanced the image. Yes, you were amongst the few selected if you could afford more than a family bible and spend time and money on frivolous things such as growing flowers.

It may seem a world completely disconnected from today’s society. But when you consider how we judge our fellow community members by what they own and how they dress the parallels are obvious. While the goal may not be quite the same – the game remains intact: he who appears to have the coolest stuff wins.

Note the word appear. Much like it was important in Puritan society, today we still put great weight on how we appear to the outside world. This had led us down the road to where the American Dream is no longer defined by values such as independence, free will, or even the pursuit of happiness. Instead, nice cars, fancy restaurants and big home have become the new goal. And without these things then you haven’t “made it”.

At least thats what we’ve been told.

During my next post we’ll take a look at how materialism has evolved, and along with it, the American Dream.

Photo Credit: Dean Terry, 2003. Title: The McMansion. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 license