And when Karma Tashi came to the Navajo, he paused for a long time and pointed out the turquoise jewelry and the silver hair and the deeply lined faces and saw himself, and in his recognition implied a sense of how these people, 20,000 years ago, had made the journey from Asia across the Bering Strait to North America.
They were like him, but not quite him. He looked upon the Navajo as one of Darwin’s famous finches might have looked upon its cousin in the evolutionary journey. But when we came to the display of the Tibetan people dressed in their traditional mountain clothing, it startled me to realize that Karma Tashi was wearing western clothes: khakis, a button-down oxford shirt, and a thin sweater. Karma Tashi was looking more like us than like his own Tibetan people.
Who could blame him for wanting to eat our food, wear our clothes, enjoy what appeared to be our better lives? In coming to America, Karma Tashi believed he was improving his own life and, in a bigger sense, adding positively to the evolutionary journey of his people. Being with him in America, while knowing his history and the story of his people in Nepal and Tibet, made me face painful questions: To what extent is my way of life creating a world of refugees from the land? And what is being gained and lost in this exchange?
That day in the American Museum of Natural History, we spoke for hours about the natural beauty of the clothes and tools we saw. We expressed our awe for the diversity of ceremonies and skills. We marveled at how the people of the Northwest with their totems are so different from the people of the Southeast with their open armadas. We compared these ways of life with the people of the Northeast with their longhouses and wigwams. The unique beauty and richness of each people came from their communion with the weather, with the rivers, with the mountains, and with the forests in which they lived. They looked different, spoke different languages, built different houses, and evolved different mythologies, not solely from human artifice but because the world around them offered these different gifts. The heights of their creativity and humanity came from the depths of their communion with where they lived; their humanness emerged out of the way the mountains touched the skies, the way the trees died in the forest, and the different ways that the creatures cried out to them. The people evolved with their place. And the full implication of this long story is inescapable. What has happened to that diversity of life? Why do we all increasingly look the same today? What is shaping us today if not the land?
If you're still smiling, you haven't understood the question.
More and more, we’re shaped by a closed and artificial world of our own creation. We’re told this smaller, shadow world is sufficient, yet we are rarely satisfied by it. In response, many seem to strive for wealth, thinking money will provide longed-for meaning and safety. Today, our sense of humanness comes from gazing upon ourselves and upon our own creations. Our most dominant creation is the technology that permeates all aspects of life and has people going faster and faster to the point where bodies and nervous systems have little physical connection to the world around them. The land is out of body, out of mind, out of sight. Is it any surprise that the average American today can recognize over one thousand corporate logos but can’t recognize ten plants or animals native to his own region?
This ignorance frees us up to be what our culture most highly esteems: citizens of the marketplace, global consumers of goods and services. The Canadian social critic, David Suzuki, has written “consumerism has taken the place of citizenship as the chief way we contribute to the health of our society.” This focus on what we own as the definition for who we are may have many positive economic results, but it has also helped to create a deeply personal crisis in how we view our potential and purpose as human beings. By accepting the daily advertisements and the “news” that tell us what to fear, what to desire, how to be in the world, we undermine our own bodies and our own potentials.
Consumerism is today’s guiding story for much of the Unites States and, increasingly, much of the world. It’s an age-old story of buying what we once earned for free or didn’t think we needed in the first place. And in the process of swapping money for the promise of satisfaction, we remove ourselves one more step from what is real and true in the world. We take one more step toward swapping our lives for lifestyles. We all do it. For over a hundred years, the world’s leading human psychologists have painted an increasingly clear picture of the impact of consumerism on our human progress, on our search for meaning. Abraham Maslow saw human development in terms of the process of moving from basic needs (food and shelter) to social needs (love and esteem) to the highest needs of “full humanness,” a hierarchy that culminates in the ability to find the sacred in the ordinary. Maslow saw our human aspiration for compassion, truth, goodness, justice, and wholeness as true spiritual values, not the exclusive possession of organized churches but the general responsibility of all humankind for how to be in the world.
The consumer culture has greatly expanded our list of “wants” and leads us to believe that our highest development as humans means meeting these desires. It wants us to believe that our legitimate hunger for love, belonging, esteem, and recognition can be met through what we purchase and possess as opposed to how we relate with the world around us. By making this argument in over 30,000 advertisements that our children see every year, the culture highjacks our own human development, replacing our legitimate search for meaning with a yearning for what can never satisfy us. We all recognize this personality of craving and desire, but few of us want it to be the vessel that carries our soul and spirit through the world. We want instead to be defined by our sense of compassion and justice and wholeness with the rest of life. Human beings are both matter and spirit, body and soul. The consumer culture focuses on the matter and the body, confusing physical needs with spiritual objectives. We come to think of our identity in terms of short-lived perks we can give ourselves as opposed to the truly personal acts of our enduring human spirit.