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Compassion vs. Consumption

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I feel a strange sense of isolation when I'm on tour. During the part
of the day that I spend off-stage and off-air a gloomy detachment
begins to set in. I watch the towns fly by on the side of the road. I
call home from a new city day after day. I feel lonely and yet I want
to be alone for some reason. Sometimes I walk around a bit, find a
coffee shop and observe. I watch young couples in love, a man walking
his dog, people rushing through the traffic to get somewhere else. And
for these brief moments of stillness I become the old man on the park
bench watching life from the outside. During these quiet intervals of
reflection I often see pieces of myself in the folks around me.



Today I have a day-off in Albuquerque. That's right, the town that
never looks like it's spelled quite right. There's a chill in the air
today. Allegedly it snowed a bit this morning. Even if the white stuff
didn't stick, the styrofoam snowflakes are up in ribbons and bows to
decorate the local shopping center near the hotel where our bus is
parked. I sit in this caffeinated postmodern watering hole feeling
completely disconnected from the yuletide trappings, almost irritated
by the decor. Maybe my sentiment stems from my detached life on the
road. Or perhaps, I feel this way simply because it's not even
Thanksgiving yet and Christmas is more than a month away. Either way,
as I sit here bracing myself for the pending shopping season. I read
that last sentence and start to feel downright Grinchy. I hate feeling
Grinchy...



From where I sit I can see a bearded man on the corner asking for
change with his hand-made cardboard sign, "homeless, please help."
Other more elaborate cardboard signs inside the coffee shop are also
looking for my money -- advertising a warm glass of Christmas cheer for
only a few bucks. The line moves briskly inside the coffee shop, full
of interesting human specimens, every one of them a story in process.
I try to read each one like a novel -- full of intentions, hopes, fears,
dreams, and desires. The man outside on the corner has a story too.
Where are his parents? Does he have any kids? I can identify with this
bearded outcast more than than anyone in the coffee shop, but nobody
else seems all too interested.



My mind starts to think about the economics of the situation. Are
the coffee shop and my bearded friend outside in direct competition?
Does he simply need a better product? Are we declaring his cause to be
less valuable than a cup of coffee when tell the barista our choice?
These people are lined up to buy coffee for the same reason that I'm
here. This is a product that we know. We might complain about how
expensive it is, but we prove that the warm beverage is "worth" our
hard-earned pay by throwing our money down time and time again.
In our free market economy, the man on the corner is offering an
alternative use for the scarce resource of our currency. But his
"product" is a bit more nebulous than even the most complex soy latte.
Still this language of product and consumption just doesn't fit his
situation. He's a human soul, and with a few unlucky turns I could
easily see myself in his situation. My detached thoughts this morning
feel stuck in the traffic, stuck at the corner of Consumption and
Compassion.



At a mall during the Christmas Season the line gets pretty blurry
between consumption and compassion. On the one hand, we are buying for
others, what could be more compassionate!? And in these shaky economic
times, we are told that our purchases are crucial. Our consumption
helps to create jobs as the "invisible hand" of free economics helps
to support the American economy. But what about my bearded friend
outside the mall? I can hear Scrooge in my head: "He needs to get a
job. He needs to stop freeloading off of the hardworking American
Public. His situation is the simple justice of the free market
economy." Maybe... but we all know that the story simply isn't that
simple.



Even though the statistics only tell part of the story, they can help
illuminate the complexities of the situation: One in five people in a
soup kitchen line is a child. (America's Second Harvest, Hunger 1997:
The Faces & Facts). Research indicates that 40% of homeless men have
served in the armed forces. (Rosenheck, Robert, Homeless Veterans, in
Homelessness in America, 1996). According to the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration, 20-25% of the homeless
population in the United States suffers from some form of severe
mental illness. These are daughters and sons, brothers and sisters.
These are stories in need of hope.



We all need grace from time to time. I look back on my own life. I
grew up in a stable home environment with a pretty good education and
some solid friends. Over the years I have had incredible chances to
achieve, to live, to learn. And even with all of this I have made some
horrible decisions in my life. To a certain extent, justice means that
I'm on the corner looking for change. No, we all need compassion that
goes beyond the free market economy. And though it might be high on
our wish list this Christmas compassion is not that easy to give away.
Maybe Adam Smith, the father of modern economics might be able to shed
some light on the line between compassion and justice.



"...we feel ourselves to be under a stricter obligation to act
according to justice, than agreeably to friendship, charity, or
generosity; that the practice of these last mentioned virtues seems to
be left in some measure to our own choice, but that, somehow or
other, we feel ourselves to be in a peculiar manner tied, bound,
and obliged to the observation of justice." —Smith, A. (1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments)



So justice and compassion are set into separate piles of thought.
Justice becomes imperative, (bringing murderers and thieves to trial)
but Scrooges are tolerated. Recent events on Wall Street might even
make us question whether justice comes to the Scrooges who break the
law... but that's a different story. Like I wrote about a few weeks
ago, there are no law to regulate kindness.



I suppose there is even a sense of justice to the shopping mall. The
consumer is judge and jury. Her money is hers alone. She, the
autonomous individual weighs all of the evidence: the marketing
dollars, the products reputation, the past experiences are all brought
into the courtroom of the consumer. And then in a split moment of
decision, the almighty consumer swings her gavel and chooses her
verdict. The purchase is made. The exchange marks the karma of
consumption, the justice of the free market system.



But the "justice" of this system enslaves millions around the world.
The "justice" of industry destroys the weak, ignores the hungry, and
disfigures our planet. Our consumption is not sustainable monetarily,
ecologically, or spiritually. The illusion of the individual is
equally flawed. I, the almighty American consumer did not grow this
morning's coffee beans. I did not knit my socks or cut my own hair. In
fact, I, the consumer actually know very little about the products
that I consume. My entire world is facilitated by others in an ever
shrinking global economy.



Wealth is a subjective term that compares one individual with the
rest. As such, the concept of wealth is only possible in community.
Our affluence is always relative to those around us. The average
American is richer than most humans that have ever lived upon the
planet. As such, wealth necessitates poverty. Scarcity is necessary
for sales. Hunger is necessary for consumption. The consumer is
restless- yearning to be satiated. But the consummation of the sale
does not gratify our appetite for long.



Where do these desires come from? Certainly there are needs. Food,
clothing, shelter, companionship. But we have deeper desires that are
harder to explain. We want to be accepted, validated. We want to know
that our lives have worth, that this day has meaning and purpose. We
are searching for the meaning behind our physical existence. I walk
through the hallowed halls of our times. I see good looking models
smiling down at me, wearing colorful new sweater-vests and lingerie. I
smell the food-court. I feel overwhelmed, like a fish staring at a
million hooks. An endless palate of color, size, shape, style,
marketing variations in the cathedral of consumption. All of this a
few yards from the man on the corner with his simple request for change.



We are the target market, we are the demographic. The purchase adds
to a bottom line that will help pay for the overhead of raw goods,
rent, and human resources (a telling title), ultimately investing back
into the machine of progress. A dog chasing his tail. The endless
desire of the consumer, (me) fueling the fires of industry around the
world. Our Cathedrals of Consumption are well stocked with the
"justice" of the free market economy. And compassionate acts will
always be in direct competition with my endless desire for novelty. Do
we define our desires or do our desires define us? Do we define our
purchases of do our purchases define us?



I am not looking for a redistribution of wealth. No, this would
require a significant amount of trust in the political system that,
quite frankly I do not have. No, I am not looking for a redistribution
of wealth I am looking for a redefining of wealth. A new understanding
of fulfillment, of satisfaction, of satiation, of joy that transcends
the consuming transaction. A definition of wealth that accounts for
more than the individual and looks to the community at large. Maybe
this season's celebration, (a commercial season that I can't believe
is already here) could be a chance to be more than a consumer, more
than an individual. Maybe we could partake in community. Maybe we
could befriend the outsider, feed the hungry, and be wealthy in ways
we've never known. We could spend time together instead of throwing
money at the mall.



I'm not saying to throw money at man on the corner. But I am saying
that he is our brother. He is our father. He is our community. There
is wealth hidden in his situation. It's not well lit or well
advertised. There is wealth in giving him your respect. There is
wealth in discovering his story. You might be able to trust him with
your compassion. Yes, we are consumers. But we need not be consumed.