Lagom…

teenagers, shopping mall

In Sweden, despite the mythology of the almost-egalitarian welfare capitalist state, apparently the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. It is the way of the world, and despite never having been to Sweden I feel a sense of disappointment.

The idea of the existence of a stable, well ordered nation populated by reasonable (if slightly dull) people, dressed in cardigans and listening to too much euro-pop exists for us like some kind of promised land. So much so that the countries of Scandinavia are touted as role models by those selling us the idea of an independent Scotland. We can be like them too if we vote for independence.

Perhaps we can, and I hope that Sweden finds its way back to the principles that gave birth to their national identity- something about being ‘humble towards life, and humble towards success’ (a quote from a recent TV programme about Sweden.)

The Swedes have a word that has no direct translation into English- one of those that I reckon we should borrow. it is this one; Lagom;

The Lexin Swedish-English dictionary defines lagom as “enough, sufficient, adequate, just right”. Lagom is also widely translated as “in moderation“, “in balance”, “perfect-simple”, “optimal” and “suitable” (in matter of amounts). Whereas words like “sufficient” and “average” suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection. The archetypical Swedish proverb “Lagom är bäst“, literally “The right amount is best”, is translated as “Enough is as good as a feast” in the Lexin dictionary. That same proverb is translated as “There is virtue in moderation” in Prismas Stora Engelska Ordbok (1995).

 

Enough is as good as a feast. I like that.

Knowing when enough is enough is the trick though.

The new 3 R’s we are teaching our children…

williams wave

I had a conversation with Will last night about camping. He was wanting to go to a small island, by canoe, in February. I suggested that the canoe was probably not a safe means of transport to get to the islands in question (right out to sea in some fast tidal waters) and also February might be a bit cold. As I said these things, I felt like I was damaging something precious- some kind of freedom, adventure, companionship that might easily be stolen by time, or the internet.

It started a discussion between Will and I about what we would like to do- as well as planning some camping trips ourselves, we revived an old idea of organising a trip for adult/child pairings along the lines of one of our wilderness retreats.

Today I was reading something George Monbiot wrote on a similar theme. He was writing about the way that our relative freedom from oppression, slavery, poverty, war has seemed to lead us towards LESS freedom- we become obsessed with a kind of freedom to consume, to shop. We talk about our consumer rights as if they are laws of the universe, a bit like gravity.

A couple of quotes that rather hit home;

Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest…

…Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores…

Ouch.

Returning to my discussion with Will- how might we start to raise the eyes of our kids above Monbiot’s three R’s? I suppose we might start with the big W. (Wilderness.) Here is Monbiot again;

Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

I am not sure Will and I are quite ready for ‘fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion’, but there does seem to me a real need to get out of our digital comfort zones.

To leave behind the wide screens and look instead to the wide horizon.

Come with us if you like…

The relationship between materialism, happiness and Christmas…

consumerism

There are some things that all the worlds religions kind of agree on- almost as if in the distillation of spiritual wisdom of the the millennia, certain concepts were inescapable. One of these is our attitude towards possessions. Quite simply, they are more often than not regarded as an obstacle to enlightenment, not a path towards it.

Perhaps the most hard core religious response to the accumulation of wealth and possessions was Jesus- we all know the biblical passages and the perenthetical BUT we have added on to each and every one of them. It remains one of the great human paradoxes as to how Consumer Capitalism has been able to grow in a western culture dominated by Christianity- not just in spite of our faith, but almost because of the way we live it out. We have come to believe that Jesus is at heart a white middle class respectable home owner.

visa cross

There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday that opened all this up again for me. He took a long look at consumerism, sharing some research about the impact of materialism on well being, sociability and mental health. He pulls no punches; Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.

Monbiot quotes a lot of research into the impact of materialism- here are a few examples;

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, aseries of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.

In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.

In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.

shop window

These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

As we read these studies, we instinctively know them to be true; there are no surprises here. Perhaps this is because of some kind of spiritual residue left in our psyches from all those religious people who made these discoveries previously. Perhaps also each generation has to learn it anew.

However, we in the West are more than pilgrims who have wandered off into some consumer-bog, we have become hostages.

consumerism

A few years ago I read Pete Ward’s excellent book ‘Liquid Church’, in which he suggested that  ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’ What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. I found this idea very helpful at the time- it enabled me to move from a fixed blinkered position which saw culture dominated by consumerism as universally bad (despite my full participation within it) towards a deliberate attempt to read culture through its patterns of acquisition. So if you look hard at lots of the advertisements we are bombarded with you will start to see the yearning behind the selling. What the advertisers are trying to do is to connect us with something beyond the physical aspect of the object, into the meaning it brings into our lives- so a car is not a good piece of engineering, it is a symbol of freedom, of self expression, of celebration of our lives.

Having understood this however; having looked again at our culture through its predominant consumer characteristics, where does this take us? I am more and more convinced that it takes us towards one thing only- the need to become engaged critics. Enraged critics even.

Let us turn over some tables in the temple.

Which brings us to Christmas again.

I know, I know, the calls to make Christmas less consumer-driven are getting a bit old. I have been banging on about it on this blog for years. Lighten up a little! Have some fun! There is nothing wrong with spending a bit more at Christmas after all.

Except, as our religious forefathers knew, and as Monbiot has underlined, let us not kid ourselves that any of this is making us happier. Let us not suggest that buying lots of stuff (even for others) is making us more sociable, more loving, more empathetic, more caring.

Rich and poor alike are caught up in this addictive destructive cycle. What would it mean to be clean?

What would it mean to be free?

Buy Nothing Day…

This Saturday is Buy Nothing Day!

We are being asked to consider our immersion in the stuff of commercialism and over consumption as Christmas approaches, by stopping buying stuff for one day.

It might be harder than you think.

It’s time to lock up your wallets and purses, cut up your credit cards and dump the love of your life – shopping.

Saturday November 24th 2012 is Buy Nothing Day (UK). It’s a day where you challenge yourself, your family and friends to switch off from shopping and tune into life. The rules are simple, for 24 hours you will detox from shopping and anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

Everything we buy has an impact on the environment, Buy Nothing Day highlights the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. The developed countries – only 20% of the world population are consuming over 80% of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage, and an unfair distribution of wealth.

We know all this of course- we the middle class, the former activists, those tired by the tension between a moral imperative and western lifestyle.

Will one day make a difference? This is of course up to us- but we have to start somewhere…

I liked this from the Guardian;

So perhaps it’s time for a new kind of materialism, based on an economy of better, not more: one that is rich in the good-quality work created by providing useful services, that makes things which last and can be repaired many times before being recycled, allowing us to share better the surplus of stuff we already have. It is emerging now in things ranging from furniture to tools, cars, fridges, clothes and food. “Repair, reduce, re-use, recycle”, long a mantra of green economists, could be the basis of a new economic model that performs the neat trick of boosting demand without increasing consumption

Repent, Christmas is nigh…

REPENT POSTER- Buy nothing Christmas

I am a sinner.

I try hard to rid myself of my sinful ways. I get up in the morning with every intention of living the day like it was my last stop before the pearly gates- but then find that sometime before breakfast I have squeezed in one more visit to the fleshpots.

So it is, my friends, with consumerism.

I try to resist, but the flesh is weak, the stuff so seductive- I am captivated as if by some golden snake in a gadet filled garden.

We live to our means- and then a little beyond them in our western culture. To NOT do this is strange. The challenge to all of us, for the sake of the planet, is to find ways to break the bonds of addiction, and to move towards simpler lifestyles.

Perhaps you are not ready to do this- but if you are not, then it is likely that neither will your neighbours, and more worryingly, neither will your children.

Which brings us back to Christmas- the jewel in the consumer crown. The cash cow. The season when the ship comes in (from China of course.)

We repentants need to pawn the crown and find something more meaningful to do with the money.

We need to kill the cash cow and feed it to the hungry.

We need pirates to plunder the ships on the high seas, and empty out the sweat shops of the global south.

OK, I am getting a bit carried away by all this imagery. But how do you change? Can anything we do really make a difference?

I have tried the left wing middle class option for years- doing much the same as everyone else, with a little guilt and ‘fair trade’ product placement. Always being unsatisfied in theory, whilst greedy for more in practice. I want so much better for my kids, as I fear that it may already be too late- that the addiction has taken hold with them.

And more and more it seems that Christmas is the key. If we can not resist consumerism over the season named after Jesus Christ- then perhaps we never will.

What I have discovered however is that only one thing really will make a difference- and it is a rather counter intuitive one-

STOP buying presents!

What? Is this not the meaning of Christmas I hear you cry? The joy of giving and the sparkle in the eye of Tiny Tim? How mean spirited and gloomy that is!

Do you really believe this though? Is it really not possible to be full of joy and love and laughter unless you have spent hundreds (and thousands) on stuff that for the most part will be in a landfil site within the year?

You see- we have tried asking people not to give us gifts- that is the easy bit. People gave anyway, as the powers of obligation are strong- and also, we are so conditioned to beleive that there is simply no alternative.

And the whole system is perpetuated.

The difficult thing is to contact people who you love, and discuss the fact that you will not be giving them shiny stuff this year.

This is not the same thing as giving nothing of course- but there are so many cash free alternatives.

Flee from the sin, and you will be on the road to freedom.

But… there is that golden snake again.

Not going shopping…

We did not do it.

Today was to be our day Christmas shopping. Michaela and I were going to take a day out and go somewhere like Stirling or Ayr- but when we sat down to plan it, neither of us wanted to go. This for the obvious reasons, but also (given all our recent discussions about doing Christmas differently) it just seemed hypocritical and frustratingly conformist-to me at least- Michaela is not so given to wallowing in angst.)

We were going shopping for a lesser amount of stuff anyway- we have been planning different activities and ways of Christmas sharing with many of our friends.

So instead, we spent a day at home MAKING THINGS.

I made a massive pot of chutney, and another of Piccalilli. I chopped veg for about 3 hours and the house is full of a heady smell of spice and vinegar. We will jar them up with hand made labels.

Total cost of ingredients- around £30 plus gas and plus TIME.

Michaela made clay Christmas decorations, which she will paint and string together. Later we will make some wind chimes.

Total cost so far around £20 for clay paint and varnish. And TIME.

And in the process we had a day at home together- listening to radio 4 and CDs.

While a gale is blowing outside.

Because the joy of the thing is never in the buying. Perhaps there may be some people who like shopping- who enjoy the cut and thrust of Christmas commerce, but I suspect they will be very few.

 

Another poster…

Here is another poster from Buy Nothing Christmas.

I confess- I am going shopping the day after tomorrow.

Christmas shopping.

Because, despite the journey we are on away from this consumer addiction that we call ‘Christmas’, I have not yet gone (forgive me for this) cold turkey.

I intend to treat this latest journey into the world of commerce as an expedition into a hostile land.

I may not return alive.

Poster_santa-came