April 27, 2012 § 9 Comments
The more lavish the gifts, the more the status of the gift-giver was enhanced.
Gifts were not distributed equally. The gift received was a graphic appraisal of the recipient’s worth, kind of like Aunt Martha getting a pair of socks for Christmas while the boss gets tickets to the opera.
Sometimes, in these public displays of opulence, the gifts were destroyed as part of the ceremony. What better way to demonstrate excessive wealth?
We humans have always viewed our “stuff”as important for reasons other than utility. Like the tribes of the Pacific Northwest we derive status from what we own.
We drive, and live in, and wear our opinion of ourselves. You can buy a watch at Walmart for ten bucks or a TAG Heuer Formula One watch for a thousand bucks plus. Both tell time. Only one will enhance your status and require a jeweler to change the battery.
The destruction of Potlatch gifts grew more common with the introduction of trade goods brought in by Europeans. Having lots of “stuff” made that stuff less valuable, not more.
In modern America stuff is cheap and plentiful and having enough is never enough. Constant advertising keeps us in a state of gotta-have-it hunger. But the “it” we desire never satisfies because what we seek is beyond the limits of any material object: prestige, happiness, a sense of belonging.
The advertisers and manufacturers who fuel this constant yearning long ago realized they don’t even need to deliver a reliable product, just promises. Things break more easily than they used to and they can’t be repaired. I sometimes think that what we buy today is not the real thing, just a visual representation.
A bicycle or a hammer or a pair of shoes, things which once lasted, don’t last anymore. Even if they could be repaired few of us know how to fix anything or care about an object long enough to make the effort.
We do not burn this bounteous supply of shoddy merchandise in a public ceremony, but when we dump it at the curb or in the garbage can the effect is the same.
In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” two characters known only as the man and the boy wander a devastated landscape, scavenging. For them the difference between survival and death is a shopping cart filled with useable odds and ends gleaned from the dead civilization of which they were once a part.
For days after reading this book I picked things up along the road as I took my walk, every nail and screw; anything that could be reused.
If we could see and value the objects in our lives for what they can do we wouldn’t walk past the stainless steel carriage bolt lying in the dust at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. We’d stick it in a pocket. We’d use it.
Seeing material objects as useful but limited, we would look inward for our sense of worth, not wear it on our wrists; the ten-dollar watch would do us fine
And wildflowers, not trash heaps, would bloom beside the curb.