Thursday, March 06, 2008

On Affluenza

I've had it in mind for some time to write extensively here on hominy grits about voluntary simplicity, and its importance in addressing our environmental problems. I was further prodded in this direction by a piece in the latest issue of the Mountain Record by John Daido Loori, abbot and head priest of Zen Mountain Monastery. So let's consider today's post as a sort of prologue to further discussions.

In his essay, Daido roshi reminds us of the concept of "affluenza," famously popularized by a PBS special of the same name back in 1997. More than ten years have elapsed, and I think few would doubt that affluenza is still very much with us.

For those out there in cyberspace who may have missed the PBS show or who haven't noticed in their cybertravels any of the several websites that discuss affluenza, a short definition is in order (courtesy of the wikipedia):

a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. (de Graaf [1]) ; or

1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth. (PBS [1])

On the subject, Daido roshi writes:

"[Affluenza] causes mental and emotional deterioration in that it affects the will, commitment, and drive. It causes confusion between what we need and what we want. It weakens vitality, and results in lethargy and an overwhelming lack of spirit."

Daido roshi is particularly concerned with the effects of this affliction on the young:

"A growing number of children are so wealthy nowadays that they have anything they want. They have nothing to strive for, nothing to challenge them. Nothing to give them spirit."

Why is this a problem?

Daido roshi correctly recognizes that this syndrome of having everything given to one without any effort on one's own part also affects teaching and learning.

More than ever, the incredible fallacy that education is simply a matter of giving knowledge to the student by the teacher gains acceptance. Some institutions of learning even go so far as to refer to their students as "clients" or "consumers." While these dubious organizations continue to purport to sell you an education (as if it could be commodified) the fact remains that there is nothing there that can be given or received without the full engagement and emotional investment of the student.

Daido roshi continues:
Children that grow up in that kind of environment are not equipped for life. If anything goes wrong to tip the structure that supports them, they're lost, to say nothing of the question of life and death."

2008 is shaping up to be a dismal one, economically, for the United States. We have not seen the end of mortgage foreclosures, and inflation is beginning to rear its ugly head. The environment is, of course, a wreck, due entirely to the incredible overconsumption and waste that Americans (and others!) have grown accustomed to. Perhaps this year can be a turning point. Maybe now we can finally begin to address and cure ourselves of this terrible affliction known as "affluenza."

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