Interesting Articles

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Need for Growth?

Bigger is better! This is the philosophy of life that we learn from the time we are very young. I have been reading a book that speaks to that mindset as applied to growth. In “The Poverty of Affluence,” Paul Wachtel submits that in our culture there is a perceived need for continual economic growth. Most Americans believe that to really make it in life, they must be better off than their parents were and even better off than they themselves were just a few years earlier. It’s the old case of keeping up with the Joneses. The same can be said of our country as a whole, in which constant and considerable economic growth is seen as essential. We often become quite concerned when the economic growth rate slips - forgetting that most of the time we're still growing, just not as fast as before. Wachtel questions how long this never-ending growth can go on, believing that if it continues it will eventually collapse under its own weight. Nevertheless, the expectation and requirement for growth is all around us. For a person to maintain a reasonable standard of living and be content with what one has is viewed as lazy or complacent. We must always be working for more. Wachtel goes on to explain that the need for continual growth has even expanded beyond the economic and material realms:

“A corollary of the restlessness that afflicts our culture is a hesitancy to stay put. We are not only restless, but rootless. In the pursuit of more, in the effort to better ourselves, we must leave behind what we previously had; we must not get “stuck.” This is not just a matter of not getting stuck in a particular job or at a particular standard of living. Subtly, but inexorably, the same attitude has pervaded our relations to family and community. Upward mobility has frequently meant not just moving up (in status, in class, in material position) but also moving away (either geographically or psychologically – distancing oneself from the values and tastes of one’s parents). Put differently, our culture of growth requires us not just to grow – to expand, to increase, to acquire – but also to outgrow or to grow away.” (p 95)

Sacrificing some of our relationships and leaving behind our “roots” may bring us success in the world’s eyes, but it often leaves some of our more basic non-material needs unmet.

“Our present stress on growth and productivity is, I believe, intimately related to the decline in rootedness. Faced with the loneliness and vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encompassing community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our possessions. When we can buy nice new things, when we look around and see our homes well stocked and well equipped, we feel strong and expansive rather than small and endangered.”
“In all eras people must find means to reassure themselves in the face of their finiteness and mortality. We are all ultimately helpless to a far greater degree than we dare admit. Our fragility before the forces of nature (both those outside us and those within that cause pain, disease, and aging), as well as the certainty that death is our ultimate earthly destiny, are unbearable to face without some means of consoling ourselves and of giving meaning and purpose to our lives. Religion, as well as the sense of belonging to a community, once provided that means for most people. But over the years the progress of science and the development of newer, more efficient modes of production undermined religious faith, as it did the traditional ties between people that, together with religion, made life livable.” (p. 65)

For many, materialism and technology have taken the place of God. It’s the classic example of trying to meet our need for God and for community with shallow counterfeits that leave us just as empty as before, if not more. Rarely is this the intention, of course. Many people first move away from family and community for very good reasons and without any conscious decision to reject God and neighbor. Likewise, the lure of materialism is a very subtle and sneaky temptation but I think that as a society, we have gradually moved in the wrong direction. The desire for economic success and our lack of rootedness feed off one another, until we are in lives that we no longer recognize. I think that this sad reality is what Mother Teresa was talking about when she said that the people of the United States were some of the poorest people she’d seen. We’ve lost sight of what really matters in life. We spend our energies on what fails to satisfy. Pope Benedict reminds us in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, that the kind of growth or progress that we ought to be working toward is not one of material acquisition, but one in which we come to a better understanding of ourselves in relation to God and learn how to become fully alive in Christ! Hopefully, we as Christians can provide an example of people who do not buy into the craziness of this world or the things that our society tells us will bring happiness, but instead find our hope, fulfillment and purpose in the Lord and offer that consolation to others.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Interesting post Matt.

It reminds me of a part of a play we were reading the other day in my Islamic Mysticism class. The play is called the Death of Al-Hallaj, and its about a Sufi who was executed by the state for a variety of crimes- among them, however, were the preaching of social justice (that's not the only, or even primary crime, to be far, but its an element of the play). There is a part of the play where Hallaj says he is being killed in order that those in power can advance my seeming to accomplish something. The need for continued accomplishment means they need to blame someone for the problems of the state, then kill that person, and then make that a point on their resume. Here is an excerpt,

"...Scoundrels have small goals
For which their lives have high stakes. My death
Is not momentous as a goal to me
But their continued need for power
Depends on it. Their triumph
May not last too long. It may appear
Much less important when I'm dead.
But scoundrels never think ahead. Longevity
Is useless, for they must work fast."