catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 4 :: 2007.02.23 — 2007.03.09


Socially transmitted disease

I grew up in rural east Tennessee and have come to love the fall, when my hometown has a small annual festival called Heritage Days to celebrate the beginning of our town. We are given the opportunity to look back on how life was when our town began. Many blacksmiths and carpenters skilled in making crafts using 18th century methods come to demonstrate how these items were made. Old country music rings out from the courtyard steps, and across the street on the steps of the Masonic Lodge, cloggers dance to the live music. Walking along Main Street in downtown Rogersville, you will find hundreds of vendors selling woodcrafts, ironwork, handmade quilts, pop guns, hand woven baskets, and local artwork portraying the natural beauty of East Tennessee, both past and present.

Were it not for the parking lots full of SUVs, minivans, and heavy-duty trucks that you must pass to walk on the closed Main and Depot streets, you would think that you had traveled back in time to a small town bursting with business. The last time I had the opportunity to go to Heritage Days in Rogersville, I was reading a book called Affluenza as a senior in a local Christian college. The book changed my worldview so much that I actually noticed that the Heritage Days festival was a celebration of times past, but I was moved to think, “Why aren’t we doing more to preserve what beauty and richness we have remaining?” I was confronted with my own responsibility in being wasteful, and the Heritage Days festival became the starting point for a new, more prudent way of life for me.

John DeGraff, David Wann and Thomas Naylor, the authors of the book, define "affluenza" as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” The book begins by defining affluenza as a disease. It is organized like an information pamphlet on this disease. As with any disease, the best way to begin is with identifying the symptoms. The authors list some symptoms of affluenza as shopping fever and bankruptcy, stating that “seventy percent of us visit malls each week, more than attend houses of worship,” and that “current bankruptcy rates exceed those experienced during the Great Depression.”

One of the leading symptoms in affluenza, however, is one that is not so easily measured. The authors titled Chapter 3 “Swollen Expectations” to identify a reason for all the seemingly steroid-enhanced swelling in the United States. They point out that the size of homes has grown along with the size of vehicles. The authors also show that today we have many more simple conveniences that used to be considered luxuries as recently as thirty years ago. Could you live without your dishwasher, your clothes dryer, or your air conditioner? What would that do to your life? How would that change your electric bill?

We always hear our elders talk about how cheap it was to live “back then.” However, in some parts of Southern Appalachia, people still live that way. In the Southwest Virginian town of Pound on Bold Camp Mountain, I met a lady who grew and canned her own vegetables, washed her clothes with water from a well that her husband had dug, and sat out on her porch with vines growing on the homemade lattice work for coolness and shade in the hot summer. I met her in 2002, and she was just then getting information in the mail about water pipes being put in by the local water company. She bought her house in the 1940s, and she stayed there to raise her children and cultivate her family. She doesn’t have a mortgage; her electric bill never reaches over $50; and she listens to the radio for entertainment and news. Her home doesn’t have 3,000 square feet, and she doesn’t have a car. But she doesn’t really need to get out much anyway. She mends the clothes she has, and depends on her younger family members to bring her more clothing material as needed.

It may not be practical for us to live this way in Suburbia, USA, but there are at least a few things we could learn from a more simple way of life. I watched Oprah the other day, and she told the story of an organization specialist who helped a family de-clutter their home. She showed footage of the home before and after. It was clear that this family was drowning under the piles of their own stuff. Affluenza calls this symptom “Chronic Congestion,” and they say this gives way to the “Stress of Excess,” where they discuss the actual physical toll that affluenza takes on people. The authors spoke to Dr. Richard Swenson who stated that, “Possession overload is the kind of problem where you have so many things you find your life is being taken up by maintaining and caring for things instead of people,” and “you look at the countries that have the most prosperity and they’re the same countries that have the most stress.”

The convenience of commercialism has taken its toll on us in an even more personal way, though. Far more than causing stress to care for all the things we have, more than the energy we use in overcoming bankruptcy, more than a three digit electric bill, commercialism has spread the disease of affluenza to personal decisions. It is so easy to be the masters of our own destiny—to have everything we could ever want. Commercialism tells us that if we don’t have what we want, we need to either buy now and pay later, or work ourselves to the bone to get it, and that getting whatever it is we want will send us to the other side of the “happily ever after” fairy tale that commercialism writes.

In life, if things don’t go our way, commercialism tells us that what we have is broken, and we can just get a new and improved one. If our spouse is not satisfying us, instead of trying to get to the root of the problem, we get a divorce and get a new mate. If our parents disappoint us, we cut off all communication, replace them with mentors who support our ideas, and go on with life avoiding all challenges. The result of commercialism’s invasion into culture is that we are still working at 70 years old because we did not save for retirement, facing the reality that we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices spewing our own philosophies right back at us, kicking ourselves for not making things right with our parents before they died, and owning up to our own responsibility for all of those failed marriages and troubled children. However, the only way we figured any of this out is because we paid $30,000 to a psychologist for two years of therapy to deal with the depression that the doctor diagnosed along with the heart disease and hypertension at our yearly checkup.

Before we let things get that far, there are small things that each of us can do to curb the spread of affluenza in our own lives. Just as Affluenza offers treatment of the disease, so I will offer a few suggestions. Not everyone is called to sell all of his possessions and follow a life of simplicity. More practically, start small. If you don’t recycle at all, start with recycling one thing, and then move up. Take an inventory of all the things you have. If you haven’t used it within a year, sell it or give it away. When you shop, be conscious of what you are purchasing or why you are purchasing it. Are you purchasing an item or a brand? Car pool to work one or two days a week, or if you live in an area where it is safe, bicycle to work.

One of the largest expenses we all have without realizing it is the expense of entertaining ourselves. Plan entertaining activities that cost little to no money. Recently, I’ve moved, and with moving comes a load of expenses. I don’t have television service, and I don’t go out for entertainment. After I got settled, the first thing I bought was an 89-cent pack of cards. I invite friends over, each person brings a dish, and we play cards. We go hiking; all I need for most trails is time. Join a book club at your local library. Develop useful and entertaining skills. In college, I learned to knit, and I joined a club that made hats, booties, and blankets for the neo-natal wing of the local hospital. I’m sure you could think of even more ways to be more resourceful, and consequently reduce a lot of stress in your own lives, and in doing so, you may begin to undo the damages of affluenza.

To learn more about affluenza, go to your local library and check out either the PBS documentary that inspired the book or check out the book itself. 

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