The bus this evening was fairly empty, except for a few ultra dedicated grad students and a woman (maybe mid 70s) with a bunch of shopping bags stuffed with clothing and trinkets. I sat in the first seat towards the front of the bus and stared out the window at a rainy college town, but the bus had barley started moving when the woman began chatting with me about my umbrella. She said I should go to the dollar store and pick up some white trash bags to put the umbrella in when it was wet, and maybe make some sort of base so that the umbrella wouldn't poke through the bottom. She had all sorts of plans for how to make this umbrella holder functional and usable, whatever the use was suppose to be. We talked for a while, mainly she talked about some feud she was having with what sounded like an auctioneer, but her earlier comment struck me.
We live in a world where everyone wants stuff. You, me, your uncle, my hairdresser: we all want stuff. I want one of those infomercial pans that makes the perfect meat loaf, even though I can make meatloaf without it, and that's the catch. We are conditioned to want stuff like a meatloaf pan with a removable base or an electric can opener or a stove that boils water in ten seconds instead of ten minutes. We live in a society where these little inventions to make life easier are highly valued and sought after. The possession or ability to posses these things has come to define who we are to both ourselves and to those around us. So what happens to a person who can't have those things?
Most of the people reading this blog are either in a position to get at least some of the things that they want, or have decided that what they want is the absence of those things. This woman, with her bags of clothing and inventive design for an unnecessary product, was a paradox of reality meeting fantasy. A person raised to value the possession of “widgets” but unable to own a “widget” herself, so she creates a proxy. She carries things around in grocery bags because they represent what she believes she is suppose to have. They give her worth and, even though it's probably a hassle to lug it all with her, she gets comfort from her possessions.
We like to think of ourselves as enlightened, I know I do. But the fact is that we are all social constructions: products of the culture that we were raised in. We value things, and not just physical things but emotions and ideals and beliefs, because we are social beings and we grow up with a certain ideology. Sometimes I think that the hardest thing we can do is break our social conditioning. To recognize that expectations, even our own, are not foolproof. Just because thousands of people think you need to posses certain things, like a house or a bed or a big TV, doesn’t mean they are right. Individual facts cannot be dictated by the majority. Sometimes we need to let go of the group fantasy in order to find our individual ideal.