In my last part of Being Human, I spoke about the choice between material possessions and gathering knowledge. There is a common theme in all humans that we share, to some degree, and that is, collecting.
A little while ago, I went to my mother’s house, and we were talking about a relative who owned an apartment complex. A small, six apartment “block”. The thing is, I found out that he’d been kicked out by his brother, my other uncle, who’d bought the block. The whole conversation had started because he was giving away his books. I love books. Can’t get enough. I have tons, it seems, and always find ways to get more. In any case, my uncle, who also loves books, had filled his own apartment with them. Then the basement. Then one of the free apartments above him. So much so that he’d sunk all his money into his collection. He is a hoarder.
I look at my mother’s home. She has a work room where she collects books and papers and activities for kids. She makes new games constantly. She’s a teacher. The place is awash in stuff. I told her that she was a hoarder. She said: No, a hoarder is a person who collects garbage, and is very messy. I reminded her of the fact that my father also collected electronic parts and gizmos in the basement of our old house, and that half of it was put away, and half was messy. He was a hoarder.
I told her that most of my books are put on shelves, but I have growing stacks at their feet. I am a hoarder, and it might get out of control. My aunt collects craft things. Her craft corner is redolent with stuff. My wife used to get lots of clothes, before. My sister sews, and has an entire room of her house filled with fabrics and sewing equipment. I used to collect movies, the more, the better. Of course, to a certain degree, those who collect lots of garbage or have messy homes have just lost control over their collection, but the basic premise remains the same: most people have this deep-rooted obsession. Just remove the negative connotations you automatically associate with the word. Concentrate on the mechanics.
Now, before I go any further, I want to say this: I’m not shaking my head or wagging my finger in anyone’s direction. I’m only analyzing. There is nothing inherently wrong with anything. I mean that in the most profound sense you can take it. Yet our philosophies have taken us in one direction or another. Remember, we are at the base only animals, and our behavior is predicated on instinct, plus whatever extra mental baggage we’ve developed to behave in social ways.
I spoke a bit about “sins”. If you look at the specifics, sins are just natural animal instincts: the urge to gather, to reproduce, to eat, to get angry, to relax, to show off, and to desire what others have, at the core. These things, in and of themselves, are not “bad”. They are natural. The trouble, I think, comes in the form of obsession. We get obsessive about things. If you think about your own “stuff”, or your own life, there are certain aspects that, whether positive or negative, you obsess about. In the religious context, they halt people from doing the most important thing to them: worshipping God.
The church thought that people should have a “higher” purpose, that of fearing and obeying the church. This runs through much of organized religion. The fact that people ran from one obsession to the next probably got under their skin, and the deadly sins had to be invented to curtail these activities. Originally, though, it was a need for social order, so that our fore-fathers coming from hunter-gatherer tribes could settle down into larger populations into agrarian societies. I’m sure you can see the advantage of people self-policing in pre-scientific societies where clashes could endanger a settlement, or unchecked venereal diseases could do same, etc.
The fact that we have obsessions is not in and of itself bad, either. Some people are obsessed with their art, and only want to create the best of what it is they do. Remember, there are positive and negative aspects to everything. It only depends in what you are getting your mental pleasure from. It all stems from the pleasure chemicals we release when doing something we enjoy, of course.
So, obsessions mixed with a desire for objects will produce a desire to acquire more of similar objects. Obsession for sex, for food, etc., creates this sort of unhealthy imbalance that makes us seek out the objects of our desire. You could call it a dependence as well, or addiction. I kept on collecting movies way after I stopped really watching them. So there are many elements involved in hoarding, and obsessions, not just the pleasure aspect. For my family, and those who keep their garbage, or just random stuff, there might be an irrational element of: “I might need it later.”
I look at my library and think: “I have way too many books.” Then that other little voice kicks in and says: “You’ll need them for research.” No I won’t. I really won’t. Well… maybe…
So I keep them all, and let them accumulate and multiply, even though people swear every time I move, and bring thirty heavy boxes of books with me. I will never read three quarters of those books again, but I need them somehow. Like they are the proof that I’ve existed, as well. They are my mark on the world, my legacy. But so what? Like I said, there are many different aspects to obsessions, as there is to everything.
Obsessions can be good and bad, in the societal context. My uncle collecting so many books he’s lost his home and can’t pay his mortgage: bad. The mathematician obsessed with an equation that will solve a major problem: good. It all depends on how you look at it.
My personal pet peeve stems from the fact that yes, we do get obsessed with our base natural instincts, but more than that, we no longer have a higher purpose. I mean, the higher purpose of worshipping God was always a sham and we know it. If there is a God, and he does love you, and you do love him, you don’t need to prove it to others or to any authority. That’s between you and your deity. So that was always about controlling the poor and uneducated through a fallacy. What I mean is, we should be dedicating more time to things that are not purely ourselves or our families. We should find that higher purpose in our community. Who’s got time, though, right? Well, people used to find time every Sunday to go to Church and put money in a basket to turn the Vatican into the biggest bank in the world. People still go to Megachurches to turn venal preachers into multimillionaires, against the tenets they themselves preach.
Here, to me, on the obsessions front, is what I see, as Western values. We are obsessed about making money to buy things to add to our collections, about sex, about our phobias and anxieties, which we feed with our obsessions for food, and the only higher purpose we have, unwittingly, is giving money to, or making money for, people who are much wealthier than we are, because their obsession for money surpasses anything we can imagine. I’ll leave out the politician’s obsession for sheer power, because we try not to think about it. We take that as a given.
There are, as they say, alternatives. We can sit down, and look around us. We can think about our thoughts, and picture what our obsessions are. Whether they are truly healthy for us. Because, don’t we want to do good to ourselves? Don’t we deserve to treat ourselves right? For that we need to know where we focus all our energies, to gain some form of satisfaction. Easy as that.
Perhaps we need to think about the idea of “too much”, and what we need to do to curb our excesses, if they are unhealthy. To find a new focus, which will give us the satisfaction we crave, but will not harm us physically, or mentally.
The Buddhists choose the middle path, meaning not too little, or not too much. That’s a road worth investigating.
There is also seeking a higher purpose. By that I mean to seek out an activity that does something to benefit the community. Simply put, it is investing in people who are not just yourself.
If you think about it, you spend most of your time either taking care of yourself, or your family. There are 168 hours in a week. 56 are spent sleeping. That leaves you 112 hours. Apart from the time you spend at work, or with your wife, husband, kids, or Facebook, the odds are you can find an hour of time to do something altruistic. There is a reason I say this. The vast majority of people read this and think: “Dammnit, not another do-gooder hippy bastard.” No, not at all, actually. I don’t smoke weed, don’t put flowers in my hair, I don’t eat granola or play guitar. But I am being serious.
The bonds that hold society together are the glue that ordinary people put in to make things smoother for everyone else. Think of charitable organizations, non-profits and the like. Making sure that those who have trouble staying on the bottom of the ladder don’t fall off. Well, they need help as well. We need to ensure that not only people do not fall off the ladder, we who are higher up on it give them and their kids a hand to climb higher than just the bare minimum. Everybody needs a hand, sometime. Whether to get out of poverty, or have an ear to talk to, or someone who can teach them something useful. We all have something we are good at, that we can help others with. We’re all teachers in a way.
“But why do all this?” you think, if you weren’t disgusted with what I’ve said up until now and have kept on reading. “I have no time for this crap. It’s bunk.” That’s the cynical view of the society you live in, is all. You don’t have to think that way. You’ve been conditioned to. If you thought just that: congrats! You’re well-conditioned. Why would you give your time away for free? It’s simple. Because you will feel amazing.
There is no sales pitch, I’m not trying to sell you religion, or a product, or anything tangible. Just your own feeling of inner peace and well-being. You don’t have to shave your head and join a cult. It’s funny, as well, when I used to hear people say the words “inner peace and well-being”, I thought of homeopathy and quack medicine, and fake spirituality, and all that bullshit. That meant I was well-conditioned. I un-conditioned myself from cynicism. Didn’t need it.
What I do need, is inner peace and well-being. So how do I get it? There are many different ways, but it’s just about helping, really. Giving time or, in my case, money to charities that I know are helping real people, and not just those that run the charity gives me a sense of accomplishment I don’t get otherwise. “Good for you, pal.” You think, snarkily, but you know what, it really is your loss. I don’t pity you, I just wish you could see how happy you could be. That would make me happy for you, in turn. Hey, that’s why I wrote this in the first place: to help you.
That’s another thing I do now. I obsess over ways to help other people find happiness, and then I give those methods away for free. Because hey, why not?
It’s been discovered that you get a greater thrill from giving than receiving. You’ve given Christmas presents, and waited with anticipation to see what others’ reactions would be. The excitement you felt when they finally opened their gift, and the glow in their eyes when they saw it for the first time. You can feel it now, as an echo of the moment itself. Now think of doing that, over and over. Not giving the “gift” of an object, but the “gift” of your time, or your expertise, to help people out, even just a little. It brings genuine joy to your life the way hoarding, or sex, or eating cannot. Because the “stuff” gets old quickly, and you need more. The sex is over within an hour, and then you want more. The food gets digested and you get hungry again. The money you send to save a refugee’s life will stick with you. You saved someone’s life! How cool is that?
An hour a week is all we would need to do some real change, in your life and the lives of others. Donating an hour a week to, say, Habitat for Humanity, to help someone build a house. Or give your time to read or hang out with elderly people. Or choose a worthy charity or political party and help boost them so that we could all enact real change. Because the difference between those “sins” I was talking about earlier and becoming a helping person is turning our obsessions away from ourselves and toward giving a hand to others. Getting the obsession to help seems counter-intuitive, but it’s scientifically proven to work.
But the things you do for others? The thought of the joy you spread around? That stays with you. It’s a buzz, and it feels good.
I have my own obsessions, and, you might think: “Well, what you’re describing sounds more like passions than obsessions.” I think it’s just a matter of semantics. Passions are the obsessions you have that appear to have some sort of positive influence on either your life or that of others. Passions are the things you obsess with that your family hasn’t disowned you for. Yet.
I’ll be honest, I have a ton of obsessions, but I’m trying to turn them into passions, as it were. I want to be a business owner, someone who helps other, someone who gives great advice, someone who can ameliorate who he is, someone who writes worthy prose, and someone who will have a positive influence on his community. Those are my obsessions. There are many more, of course, but to me, they are the ones that count.
And you, where do your obsessions lie? More importantly: do they bring you positive, or negative things? Mull it over, and see what you come up with.