A couple of the lines from the musical Rent strike a particularly resonant chord with me this week. The lines are from the number “What you own.”
And when you’re living in America
At the end of the millennium
You’re what you own
So I own not a notion
escape and ape content
I don’t own emotion, I rent.
There are two angles I will take with these particular lines. The first I will discuss today, and the second I will talk about during Wednesday’s blog.
The lyrics plainly state the focus of today’s blog - you are what you own. Many people in this country associate themselves with their material goods. They show off their purchasing power as frequently as they can in as many ways as they can. Their belongings function as status symbols; they believe they deserve respect from their peers due to the tangible goods in their possession.
In my experience, I am always amazed at this, and I admit that I am not immune. First, take the computer I use - a MacBook Pro. When I purchased this computer, it was not because I needed an Apple; I preferred one. The same with my iPhone. I have owned three sports cars, not just because I like to drive fast, but because of what I would look like as I sped by you in my fast car.
I remember growing up, begging my parents to let me purchase the clothes my school friends wore. In middle school I chased the Z Cavaricci pants (those of MC Hammer fame), and Girbaud jeans. In college I had to have an expensive surround sound system for my apartment to go with my large TV.
As I have grown older, with the exception of a few items, I have become more practical with my expenditures. I have come to the realization that our goods are designed to serve us, not the other way around. We should never be weighed down by our desire to own something, simply because we are told we should or because someone else does - which was my problem.
Now, acting on this in my own life is relatively easy. I look at the price tag. If the cost of the item doesn’t accurately reflect the value I have assigned to it, the good remains on the shelf. No longer does the credit card eagerly slide from my wallet, absent the concern for future debt. While many of the purchases I made early in my youth are no longer in my possession, I am still paying for them. It took a lot, but I am fairly hopeful I have learned my lesson.
Passing that lesson on is harder that I ever imagined. Many of my students frequently come into the band hall sporting their brand new $150 shoes, wearing a clothing ensemble that would rival my monthly car payment. They get their instrument, sit down in their chair and attempt to play, but can’t. Their instrument is poor quality, in need of repair, and they tell me they don’t have the money to fix it. My heart breaks.
A kid doesn’t eat lunch, and when we ask why, we are told he doesn’t have any money. We give him some. Later, he is picked up in a gigantic, brand new Escalade. My heart breaks.
A kid can’t afford new reeds for his instrument, he doesn’t sound good on the ones he has so he doesn’t practice. He has the innate talent that could earn him a scholarship and pay for college. Later, when asked if his parents are on their way to pick him up, he calls and checks with his iPhone 4. My heart breaks.
Conceptually, I understand what these parents are thinking as they make their purchases. Even though they might live in squalor and they aren’t able to provide for their child’s needs, society looks upon their goods and thinks them wealthy. You must have high social standing if you drive a new Cadillac or wear the newest Jordans. You have to be smart and hard working if you have the newest electronics, the best cars, and wear the trendiest clothes. Society has to appreciate you because of it.
This logic is extremely faulty. Unfortunately, this is the American Dream. We are a country who has been fed the disgusting fodder of 5th Avenue advertising houses. Television, radio, and other media advertising has convinced us that we are what we own. Instead of us owning our things, they have turned it on our head: they own us now. Whether we can afford it or not, we have to have the things advertisers say we should. So we incur debt.
Who else does this? The United States of America does. We have learned from the best, the proudest, the most important nation on the planet. The lesson our politicians have passed on: solve our financial problems by borrowing more with out regard to the consequences for the future. To each of us, our individual debt will eventually catch up with us. The debt of the United States, if it does not come under control, will eventually catch up to all of us.
The same will occur for every individual who honestly believes their stuff represents who and what they are. Amassing a horde of expensive items only weighs you down. I am certainly not a shining example of someone who has overcome their attachment to material goods, but hopefully, through my awareness of my problem, I will eventually get to a place where I could be.