We are bombarded with advertisements all the time, whether on television, radio, Internet or printed materials. There’s nothing new about this at all, though the ingenuity used to invade our consciousness is sometimes surprising. (I still maintain that the ads over urinals in public restrooms is arguably the most captive approach.) But I’ve encountered a number of messages lately with the same refrain: “It’s All About You.” There’s the recurrent ad on the radio for a local bank which uses that line in its musical imprinting. (As if banks these days are even conceivably “all about” their customers.) One of my favorite retailers has begun to use the phrase in its website ads. (In reality, it’s more about my purchases than about me, I’m quite sure.) And it’s a message that makes me uneasy.
I understand the implication: I’m worthy of the product being offered and the benefits that it will provide. I must have worked hard in life and am entitled to the luxury-pleasure-convenience-status of the item being offered as a visible affirmation of my worth, one that others will see with admiration and maybe even jealousy, because they, too, are worth it.
It’s an easy trap for us consumers to fall into. The latest versions of luxurious living and tempting toys are alluring, indeed. Caribbean cruises on floating hotels and cars that drive and park themselves are nearly beyond imagination. Even in the far reaches of Nicaragua, cell phone accessibility has become an increasingly commonplace wonder. If some of the chronically poor peasants enjoy such technology, surely the rest of us are entitled to that and more; we must be entitled.
But the promise of “all about you” and the attendant requirement for acquiring more items in our lives is a misnomer for fulfillment, whatever our socioeconomic status. Not only because shiny things become dulled in time, but also because they- and we- are all so temporary. We don’t get to take any of our toys with us when we depart the planet, and they will come to the temporary ownership of someone else. The cycle will continue indefinitely and we will have been owners for only a second in time, nothing more. We are only stewards of things, whether they be greater or fewer than others, but they are never truly a part of us.
In reality, it’s not all about me. It’s hardly about me or any of us at all. (I was even reminded of that recently in church, sometimes not a bad place for new perspectives. See the message from January 25.) Each of us is but one seven billionth of the planet; a mere one one hundred and eight billionth of human history. Clearly, it cannot be about you or me; we are not that unique. So it must be about something else, a perspective that makes the center of attention somewhere other than ourselves. If not me, if not you, then our focus must be on “the others,” the marginalized among us who need and deserve our consideration.
Yet the more I consider the notion, an unexpected reversal of thinking occurs to me. Maybe it is all about me. Not in the sense of the receiving and entitlement, but in the giving and opportunity. Maybe it truly is about each of us individually taking ownership, not of our things but of our stewardship. Maybe instead of competing in the marketplace for the most goods, our competition ought to be seen in divesting ourselves of the incredible wealth we have accumulated during our lives of privilege. Is it possible that the hallmark of success could be measured by the number of lives touched, the number of hungry fed, the number of homeless sheltered? For we do lead lives of great privilege in contrast to most of the other humans on earth, present and past alike. How even those kings and emperors of antiquity would be astounded at the lifestyles most of us live!
I received a product ordered online the other day, another manifestation of my own consumerism. It arrived in a carton marked, “Happiness delivered.” I was immediately struck by the presumption that the product delivered would make me happy, and that I never even had to leave the comfort of my home to achieve such joy. The presumption was yet one more attempt to equate a purchase with personal and lasting fulfillment. In reality, the item was one that, yes, I felt (right or wrong) that I needed, but it did not make me happy. That emotion has to come from somewhere else, somewhere from within. And that is all about me, and my relationship to other human beings.
I am informed in my thinking by Native American perspectives on the idea of ownership, not only the impossibility of owning individual lands but of things, as well: ““It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving… The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.” (Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Dakota Physician, 1858-1939.)
I’m not an ascetic and thus cannot call others to such a lifestyle. But I recognize, like Native Americans long before me, that what we have- whether in material, opportunity, education, energy or aspiration- is never owned by us. Rather, any of these are gifts to be shared in the best ways that we can, part of a collective competition of largesse, and our lives are truly about discerning how to do just that….