Obsession with Material Things?

materialismIt can seem, in the affluent parts of our globe, that to buy is our fortune. It could also be said that, if buying is good, more buying is better.

Of course, we’re in the middle of an economic crisis and some folks might think we need moderation in interaction with the human-created marketplace—that we not treat it as some magically powerful entity that must be worshiped with human sacrifice.


I’ll get back to that human sacrifice idea in a bit…

Today on SoulPancake a discussion was started called, Are we completely obsessed with material possessions? Do they mean anything?. Here’s a representative sample of the comments:

“An iPhone to match your sneakers? Sneakers to match your vest?”

“I love clothes and dinners out with friends, and new shiny things but understand the completely vapid nature of these things.”

“They only mean something if you let it mean something. If it makes you happy then buy it.”

“Honestly, if you have the CASH to buy this stuff up front, go right ahead.”

“Few people lie on their death bed and talk about that car they should have bought or that purse that they were so close to buying”

“As someone below pointed out it does have a huge impact on making the world as we know it go round”

“…yes we are obsessed, and its not a good thing. And yes, these things are important but shouldn’t be occupying our thoughts and efforts to the extent at which it is.”

” Its all one big contest and a race to the finish line. Its a shame most people don’t stop and look around them more often.”

I was happy to see, at least, a range of responses in the normally affluent participants on the site.

I was very sad about a few of them: “If it makes you happy then buy it.”, “Honestly, if you have the CASH to buy this stuff up front, go right ahead.”

Here’s where the idea of materialism brings up the idea of human sacrifice.

Who suffers for the extraction of the raw materials needed to make all the fanciful things people buy?

Who receives no help in their daily lives because they happen to live where the marketeers won’t put their markets?

Who sweats away their days making the toys of the affluent?

Who can any longer ignore that We are One Human Family and what hurts one hurts all ?

Spiritual Quote:

“Whether as world-view or simple appetite, materialism’s effect is to leach out of human motivation—and even interest—the spiritual impulses that distinguish the rational soul. ‘For self-love,’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said, ‘is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good.’ In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfilment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilization a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomization of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration about which the writings of Shoghí Effendí speak so urgently.

“To accept willingly the rupture of one after another strand of the moral fabric that guides and disciplines individual life in any social system, is a self-defeating approach to reality. If leaders of thought were to be candid in their assessment of the evidence readily available, it is here that one would find the root cause of such apparently unrelated problems as the pollution of the environment, economic dislocation, ethnic violence, spreading public apathy, the massive increase in crime, and epidemics that ravage whole populations. However important the application of legal, sociological or technological expertise to such issues undoubtedly is, it would be unrealistic to imagine that efforts of this kind will produce any significant recovery without a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour.”
Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 90

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Cafe owner thrives with no-pricing policy

no_price_cafeI hang out at a local café (you may have noticed I use many imaginative dialogues at the beginning of posts and they’re almost always in a café). I also do some of my own work at the café plus volunteering a little marketing and promotion—basically, I like the place.

However, this creeping, crawling economic downturn (aka recession or crunch) hit the owner of Java Street Café  pretty hard. I’ve spent hours talking business with him and watched as a bright and friendly man became progressively morose and extremely exhausted (when a business has hard times, paying employees becomes a problem and the owner has to not only run the business but literally Work  it).

Months went by, things getting worse, while the owner, Sam, in spite of the grueling conditions, continued  to try various ideas to attract customers…

Finally, last week, an idea he’d been experimenting with became a what-the-hell—”I can’t lose more than I already have”—Decision:

Take All The Prices Off The Menu—let people pay whatever they  feel is a Fair Price!

Sam had his back against the wall, he was willing to try just about anything, and he “happened” to choose and made a commitment to act  on what could seem like a very crazy idea…

That was last week…

Since then, he’s been interviewed on CNN twice, phone interviewed on MSNBC and Fox, appeared on all four of the local channels, been on three out-of-state radio talk shows, will be appearing in a morning cooking segment on the local Fox affiliate, and received calls of thanks from three other states and Canada…

As if that weren’t enough, the blogosphere is starting to warm up to the story and it’s on the edge of tipping into the viral realm.


Because it’s “crazy” and unusual?


That may have been the initial and conscious decision of the media but, after watching it happen and, especially, watching his customers react, the real and deeper reason for all the interest certainly seems to be related to a nearly archaic principle—Business Ethics…

Sam’s customer’s have a variety of reactions when he takes their order then says, “O.K., what do you think is a fair price for what you just ordered ?”:



“What’s your usual price?”

“Oh, my! I have to think  about it?”

“You’re kidding, right?

Sam’s not kidding, they do have to think about it, his “usual” price is now “your price”, and, when the day is done, the under-payers and the over-payers even out and he’s collecting what he used to get when he had prices…

Of all the various reactions, my personal favorite, and the one that sings  of ethics in business during hard times, is what the woman from Missouri said, when she called to thank Sam for his decision:

“After I saw the story on CNN, I cried…”

Spiritual Quote:

“As a practical step in contributing to a dialogue about development and social transformation that explicitly takes account of spiritual values and perspectives, some 100 influential development organizations, international and government agencies, religious representatives, and academics recently gathered in New Delhi to participate in a colloquium on the theme of Science, Religion and Development. The primary goal of the event was to explore how a unified interaction between scientific methods and religious insights can promote the building of human capacity, particularly in the areas of governance, education, technology and economic activity.”
2001 Jun 11, Universal House of Justice, Overcoming Corruption

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Path Toward Peace – Step Four


Fostering altruism and philanthropy

Placing others’ welfare above our own can seem such an impossible ethical directive but, imagine… Your most dear partner is being physically assaulted. Cling to that image and read on.

From the Boston Globe: Nonprofits gird for loss of funding “Some local nonprofits and charities fear they may lose millions of dollars in funding following the collapse of major Wall Street investment firms.”

From WorldChanging: Using Philanthropy to Fuel Innovation “…share some thoughts about how we might better use philanthropy to fuel innovation for sustainability.”

From the Wall Street Journal: Wealthy Son Aims to Build His Legacy “…build a profitable business and serve as a platform for people looking to do good.”

Placing others’ welfare above our own is a critical need as we follow the Path Toward Peace. The example up there of putting ourselves between our beloved and an attacker is the archetypical pattern. It can also serve as a model for other aspects of our life—infusing them with an altruistic motivation.

Let’s go to an extreme here, a situation that many Faith traditions hold up as noble—placing the welfare of our enemies above our own welfare…

Many folk will immediately reject this as an option. Fact is, this very prescription for a truly spiritual reaction to adversaries is the type of admonition that scares many people away from religion…

We’ll be exploring the material/spiritual polarity in a future post but, for now, consider this:
If we truly love someone we will do all in our power to attend to their welfare. So, it appears to follow that those we don’t feel worthy of our altruism must be those we don’t truly love.

Spiritual Quotes:

“But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”
King James Bible, Luke 6:27-28

“The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…. Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, ‘It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community’, and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

“Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it.”
Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 238

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Money and Value

Money doesn’t always equal value.

These news items are about the United States but what’s happening there is impacting the global economy . . .

From The New York Times: Worried Banks Sharply Reduce Business Loans “Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.”

From the Economist: Inflation or deflation? “The markets have become incredibly volatile as investors vacillate between these outcomes.”

From the BBC: Record deficit for next president “The next US president is expected to face a record federal budget deficit of almost half a trillion dollars.”

Economics used to seem as opaque as metaphysics to me. Then, as I hit the middle of middle-age, it became apparent I was studying the economics that businesses use, that nations use, that politicians manipulate.

The economics that has squandered vast quantities of non-renewable resources.

The economics that keeps certain people away from creativity, away from a decent livelihood.

The economics that spawns wars and utterly brutal treatment of innocent civilians !

I don’t want to start ranting so here are some spiritual quotes to ponder:

“The repudiation of national right and power to make war represents the first step toward mutual wealth and sound economy. Short of a world economy mankind will not achieve the fruits of civilization.”
Bahá’í International Community, 1947 Feb, A Bahá’í Declaration of Human Obligations and Rights

“Widespread uncertainty about the condition of the economy indicates a deep disorder in the management of the material affairs of the planet, a condition which can only exacerbate the sense of frustration and futility affecting the political realm.”
The Universal House of Justice, A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters 1983-1992, p. 102

“…participants in the informal sector of the economy, women in particular, must be involved in reconceptualizing economics altogether, both theory and practice. If women have a unique approach to economic activity, it would most likely be apparent in the largely unstructured informal sector of the economy. For example, preliminary findings in an on-going study of women industrial sub-contractors in Malaysia, show that the business objectives of the majority of women sub-contractors are defined not so much in monetary terms as in terms of values.”
Bahá’í International Community, 1995 Aug 26, Women in the Informal Sector in Malaysia

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