To Create is the Opposite of To Consume

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everyone I am close with struggles with despair and whether or not there is meaning in their lives.  I believe finding meaning is necessary to bolster the sheer will to survive.  Especially for those of us who are in a relatively privileged position where our energies are not spent meeting our basic needs, we seem to come on to the next chapter of struggle and contend with despair.

It seems the hallmark of the postmodern world is despair – a nagging sense that we are in the process of destroying ourselves without the certainty that we are worth saving.  I remember in a class on Czech literature how I felt stunned by the transition in tone of novels written before and after the First World War.  It was as if a harm had been done to the collective psyche, humans took on a profound sense of our own capacity for evil that overwhelmed us.  I’ve heard it described that the injustices rampant in places other than the first world came home, inevitably, as systems of dominance reached their apparent conclusion (much as they are now in the US).

In the end, our society only has use for us except as consumers.  We work, and we buy.  That is our purpose.  There is very little meaning in that.  During college, like a lot of people I focused an incredibly amount of time and energy on reducing my consumption.  I started to decompartmentalize and question where things I consumed came from and where they went.  It was, of course, horrible.  But it pulled me away from despair.  It gave me meaning and generated enough political will to massively reshape my lifestyle.  It was very energizing, and as my life got simpler, it was happier, as well.

Eventually it seemed my efforts were reaching about as far as they could.  I found myself putting a date on my box of Q-tips, anxious to determine whether they were a luxury item and trying to track how many I used in a year (I realized I use less than a box every year and so decided to keep buying them for those of you who hate cliffhangers).  The question that had been fueling me – How can I consume less? – was generating fewer and fewer answers.  And I seemed to meet again with despair.

The end result of my individual struggle not to consume felt much like trying to erase myself. But I was working away from that meaning, and I needed something else.  Otherwise, I’d be left with nothing.

I read this beautiful little book recently called If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which rather than being the usual (decidedly unhelpful) self-help writing advice, was essentially one woman’s philosophy of creativity.  Her argument is that the Muse or creative energy, the Holy Spirit, and our own true soul’s voice are the same thing, and that human beings are essentially meant to create.  We are taken away from it by society, and when we restore it we find our purpose and joy again.

In my mind these days the opposite of consuming is not “not consuming”, it is creating.  And recovering our ability to create, to overcome our internalized shame which leads us to self-censor and seek out safe places where we can be creative without being done the sort of knee-jerk harm common in this culture, seems to me one of the strongest needs we have as a society nagged by despair.

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