How our mass consumption consumes our service to others.
Stories are, in many ways, the glue of our existence. They are the way we make sense of reality. Without a story within which to situate the numerous, disparate events of life, we wouldn’t be able to function. Story strings the seemingly unrelated events of life together into one coherent whole. It is a means of creating order out of disorder, and understanding out of confusion.
Think of our collective reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11 in trying to make sense of the events we witnessed. We were trying to fit those bewildering events into the story we told ourselves about reality, but they didn’t fit. We couldn’t understand how someone could be motivated to take a plane hostage and fly it into a skyscraper. Neither could we understand how someone could hate America so much as to kill thousands of innocent civilians.
So we adjusted our story, maybe slightly, maybe significantly, to accommodate those events into an updated version of our old story that then seemed to do a better job of depicting reality.
Nations too find their meaning through story. Every nation subscribes to certain transcendent narratives that help it explain its existence. America, for instance, might be defined by such “meta”-narratives as equality, freedom, independence, perhaps even supremacy, to name a few.
Narrative is the impetus that turns mere “values” into a potent force. When such ideals are placed in the context of a larger narrative, they acquire energy and animate people to action. Whether America, China, Israel, Russia, or Iran, every nation is drawn to certain narratives that infuse its existence with meaning. The better we can understand those animating narratives, the better we can understand why a nation acts the way it does, for its actions flow out of the overarching narratives that define its existence.
There are undoubtedly some (perhaps many?) features of society that we find troubling today (the partisanship and gridlock in Washington might top most lists). We’re often bewildered at trying to explain their existence and sometimes ask ourselves How did we get to this point? To the extent we do ask this question, narrative will help us come to an answer.
In other words, by understanding the overarching stories we are subscribing to, we will be able to make sense of some of what we see happening before us.
Service and participation has long been a prominent, defining narrative of the United States. It has been one of this land’s animating narratives since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. A narrative so powerful, in fact, that our national government was shaped by it in the form of a representative democracy. To be sure, an entire third sector of our economy (to the tune of $1.4 trillion) was legislated into existence in order to foster its development.
And yet the narrative of service is – and for some time now has been – petering out before our eyes. Our generation sees a flame that doesn’t shine with quite the same brilliance it once did; it seems we need to exert a greater effort to feel its warmth today.
One could point to the recent debate about reducing or even eliminating the charitable deduction, or the deserted polling stations of county and state elections, or the general lack of participation in community organizations, or the diminished role civics plays in our education system as evidence of this narrative’s decline. There are many others.
So what exactly is causing this? Looking at the narratives to which we as a country subscribe, we have simply exchanged one meta-narrative for another. We have, in recent decades, moved increasingly away from a narrative of service and exchanged it for a narrative of consumption. The narrative of consumption has captivated us more than the narrative of service.
It’s not exactly that we have made a mental choice to be a “consumer” over and against being a “philanthropist”. Our increasing consumerism, while it has been intentional, hasn’t exactly been a conscious decision in the same way that we “decide” to get married or “decide” to leave our job. Rather, as we have enjoyed unmatched prosperity over the last 70 years or so, the driver of that success – a consumer economy – has caused us to extend the behaviors we exhibit as consumers and unthinkingly apply those sorts of behaviors to all aspects of life. We have become conditioned to act with a consume-r mindset in other areas of life beyond just economic. The narrative of service simply hasn’t had sufficent energy to counter the much more prominent narrative of consumption. Indeed, it is the latter that is hitting us from all directions.
Just look at advertising, perhaps the most explicit medium through which we are being conditioned into consumers. Ever since the invention of the TV, there has been a growing invasiveness of advertising in all areas of life. The more frequently we’re brought in contact with this narrative, the harder it is to act contrary to it. The result is that we carry this behavior into places it doesn’t belong. Whether it be with marriage, religious communities, or civic organizations, we find ourselves subtly and increasingly approaching society’s institutions – and even relationships – with a “what’s in it for me?” mentality.
The point is, we’re being trained into being great consumers at the expense of being great contributors. This is not to say the two cannot exist in tension, for I believe a coherency between them is certainly possible. But an imbalance has been created as we have increasingly prioritized a narrative of consumption. Unlike service, consumption seems to be the kind of narrative that grows more detrimental as it becomes more prominent.
To the extent we see an American public who doesn’t invest themselves in others, to the extent we see our peers reluctant to commit themselves to the claims of community, to the extent we see citizens who expect a government to satisfy (all) their own needs, to the extent we see growing class divisions in society, is the degree to which we have fallen captive to the consumer narrative.
It seems we have grown accustomed to taking more and more from society without giving back in the same proportion. And yet, while this may be discouraging, it’s not beyond reversing. Restoring a balance to the two narratives begins with each of us. We cannot wait on government or some nonprofit to initiate the restoration. Their call will only fall on deaf ears if we aren’t first primed to hear its tune.
-Originally published here on Philanthro.pe