Say you had an obscene amount of money. What would you do? I mean, after you’d bought everything you’d ever wanted, travelled everywhere you wanted to go, satisfied every material whim, what would you do after that?
Take a minute. All right. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. The point is this: most money fantasies have to do with either avoiding pain—or seeking pleasure. After you’ve banished the things you’re afraid of, like having the bank foreclose on your house, or desire issues, such as buying your dream car, then what? Well, I think you’d only have three choices. Get very bored. Do some noble service for mankind. Or get creative.
The interesting thing is, in historical terms, we’re all fabulously wealthy. Our social safety net in Canada allows every one of us to have free medical care when we need it. Our kids get free schooling. If we’re out of work we qualify for unemployment insurance, or if things are really dire, we can sign up and get welfare payments. When we’re old we get our government social security cheques.
Not that I want to paint a Utopian picture. Clearly there’s nothing particularly appealing about having to struggle to make ends meet while living under the poverty line in Canada. And certainly, having less money still translates into a harder life and a shorter one, too.
But what if we could live our lives as if we were extremely wealthy? What I’m trying to say is this, maybe if we behaved as if we were rich, we’d live a lot more responsibly. If I behaved as if I had a ton of money, I think I’d be more inclined to stand up for what I believed. And I think I’d be less tempted to shop compulsively for useless crap that doesn’t make me happy. At least that’s my theory.
On the other hand, we live in a consumer society that has invented a commercial sales psychology around the notion of “artificial deprivation.” The more we’re hungry for stuff—feeling deprived—the more we’ll work our tails off to get that stuff. That’s the philosophy hidden inside the consumer magazines, TV commercials and home renovating shows. In fact there’s a whole marketing industry fuelling those cravings. It’s all designed to give us the feeling that we don’t—and won’t ever—have enough.
I call this work-hard-to-get-money-to-spend-money-to-go-make-more-money “mousewheeling.” But there’s another, darker, side. I remember talking to a couple of young tradesmen—a young guy and his dad— who were working on our house. We were talking about cars. In the middle of this, son blurted out that he was going to buy a top-of-the-line Ferrari. The father and I exchanged a look, “as if that’s ever gonna happen,” and let it go. But the fact is, our consumer society creates hunger and expectations that can never be satisfied.
Those unmet expectations lead to all sorts of weirdness. Men fantasize about, then act out meeting the pretty news anchor who must be in love with them, otherwise known as stalking. Women fantasize about, then act out eating everything in sight and still wearing a size two, otherwise known as bulimia.
Cravings on such a scale lead to addictions on an equally large scale. Today, obesity and drugs are among the more pervasive problems we have. It’s no surprise that weight loss ads seem to make up at least a quarter of all advertising on TV. Or that drug-related crime makes regular headlines even our local newspapers.
Not that long ago residents of Grand Manan island had a Wild West-style shoot out with a suspected drug pusher. A few years ago the RCMP conducted a massive, province-wide drug bust. Almost every second week some drug user gets convicted in St. Stephen for sticking up a store using some kind of weapon, from blood-filled syringes to BB guns. And then there are the two allegedly intoxicated young men who got off the Deer Island ferry, beat up an 84-year-old-man and stole his pick-up truck. These aren’t clever crimes calculated for profit. These are dumb-ass crimes to satisfy the immediate cravings of addiction.
These are just a few of the effects of artificially induced deprivation. But there’s a lot of real deprivation around—and I don’t mean the financial kind. We’re deprived of interesting things to do.
In our YouTube–eBay–eHarmony culture, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the program laid out in front of us, rather than inventing our own program. We’re now communicating, buying things and meeting people on-line at an unprecedented rate. But for young people in small towns like St. Stephen and St. Andrews, and across New Brunswick, life in the addictive artificial pipeline is better than doing nothing at all.
So it comes down to this. The sources of endless craving, the Internet and cable TV, are pretty affordable. But sources of creativity, the dance lessons, music lessons, karate lessons, soccer and hockey all cost money. So what inexpensive things can kids get into if their parents don’t have a lot of money?
It takes being creative. Anybody can perform or play music on street corners. Anyone can make chalk masterpieces on sidewalks. Any adventurer can go Goth and do medieval role-playing pageants. Or start a theatre company or a band. Or make up poetry or songs. Or write a play or borrow a video camera and make a movie. Or start a board game tournament. All of us can do creative stuff that may contain ideas that offend other people—like the Burning Man Festival does in northern Nevada—without threatening society.
So here’s the thing. Why is it that we see so little of this kind of independent creativity reported in the local newspaper, yet so much crime? Sure, there’s a lot of organized sports and culture—but not a whole lot of unstructured creative expression.
This should worry us. Instead of creative expression we see expressions of violence. This is no country for old men or addicted youth—until we figure out how to trade our cravings for creativity.