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Jon Foreman

Jon Foreman

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Compassion vs. Consumption

Posted: 11/24/09 06:49 PM ET

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.