12/18/2011 05:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2012

Out in the Cold, On the Inside

We can find books and programs telling us how to avoid the cycles of materialism, but they seem to ignore our immense dependency on the opinions of others. So if we read the current book Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, by James A. Roberts, (Harper Collins, 2011) we can find the support of a new guru saying things most of us have heard before. Embracing the book that has come out for the pre-Christmas season can offer us specific advice and suggestions for belonging and buddy systems as we change our spending habits. For many beleaguered souls who need a movement to justify a shift in behavior, this kind of book may be something to hold onto that dignifies a shift away from the bottomless pit of materialism.

At the same time, the book is an example of fashions that become bibles which give permission for those of us already feeling stranded, to hold on to a lifeboat of alternatives. My interest lies more within the arena of how to attend to the omnipresent comparison shopping on personal and social levels as well. This search is important because Shiny Objects isn't for everyone, and as we speak, too many of us are consumed in subtle ways by the need to conform. As one example, we can use the Facebook phenomenon which many people blame for the cycles of bullying among teens and the hyperactive quest to know other people's whereabouts, physical and emotional dress, in order to arrange our internal feelings about ourselves. Facebook comes to exploit the need to know and compare which we see in adult television programming and advertisements, not to mention plain old gossip and rejection of adults as well as kids for the slightest faux pas.

As long as there is no dignity for the outsider and we don't model diversity for our kids, they will be all the more prone to be targets of bullies or bullies themselves. Being fat is but one small example and by this I mean some of us our fat and some of our kids are fat. And though we could philosophize on the harmfulness of obesity, bullying and being bullied will hardly help the problem on a deeper level. Solving problems of bullying means also asserting the right to be diverse, sometimes too fat or skinny or poor or shy or learning disabled, and it means that we have both the need and the right to talk about these things out loud.

This need to be the same extends to the Christmas season for which most people that I know, at least in my therapy practice (don't say they're sick because they aren't) participate in the mad dash to provide things they may not be able to afford. Exactly how easy would it be to tell a family in the suburbs where there is little local farming consciousness or community sharing experience, that this year Christmas will not be about materialism. I think that unless we look deeper into how mired we are in being like other people we cannot begin to help our kids shift. To do so would mean we would have to tell them we fell into something that is creating a negative cycle and we have to stop it. We would disappoint them big time: we would have to face their accusations, and we would have to be reasonably secure about our own motivations.

I know people with a less materialistic vantage point and I feel they are lucky, at least those who have confidence and can help share the magic of any holiday, be it Christmas or Hanukkah or having an ice cream which may just become a holiday. This also isn't meant to become a diatribe on materialism because I for one am known among my friends for having too many coats, and I am still working on how to stop. It is about, more importantly the notion of being different in ways we can dignify, and say out loud.

Last evening I hosted a party for a friend of mine, and had a fairly long talk with a young female political science graduate school student from Indiana. I was using the microphone to MC and she put herself in the background, not being interested in dancing which didn't come easy for her, she said. She was shy, and reflecting on the experience the morning after, provoked me to look at her shyness very differently than I had hours before. I remembered my first days of working in a residential treatment center years ago when a bunch of kids came over to me the first day, and they were talkative about their backgrounds: they were attractive and even exotic. Someone told me moments after that one of the reasons they were so charming and that made them so sick is that they had no shyness. Shyness, my colleague said, was our healthy way of being cautious, of protecting our boundaries.

We are teaching our kids tolerance, fairness and kindness but I'm afraid, too little about the dignity about being different or just being. It's assertive to say out loud, "I'm shy" or "I'm fat", or "Yeah I suck at soccer". But it's also the beginning of creating the boundaries we need, to become honest about who we are without deciding we have to change it all up so we buy into either the materialistic fashions or those of the current psychologically popular trend.

Materialism is not just having material goods but a pseudo esteem that comes from the outside, the kind of recognition from a crowd. It's my finding that many kids wish to lead, to be part of a a radical shift by which they share with us their observations of us, and their suggestions. They have lots to teach us about dignity, and working together to discover rather than repeat tired sayings, could add to the dignity of changing it all up. Exciting?

Just one small affirmation: Just because some people are richer or louder or smoother it doesn't make them right. Now we need to get into the intestinal tracts where most of our emotional resistances are lying in wait and in need of attention.