Do We Really ‘Need’ to ‘Want’..?

As the Christmas holiday approaches and Thanksgiving is in our collective rear view mirrors one cannot turn on any device attached to the web, or any TV or radio, and not be bombarded by a myriad of commercials for all manner of materialistic items and services.  Sadly, this has become the norm for these holidaze and we even have names for highlighted days involving supposed great sales such as ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’.  More and more brick and mortar operations drag their employees in on Thanksgiving Eve, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve to insure they can make every possible sale.  This is sad and is really an issue ‘we the People’ not only created but accelerated in scope by participating in such sale days.  At the heart of all this is our perceived need to have things or services.  Madison Avenue has done a yeoman’s job of convincing us we ‘need’ that new cell phone, new car, new clothes or similar even though we already have perfectly acceptable versions of all of the aforementioned and so many more items.  And here is what I see as the crux of this entire conundrum; are we really purchasing things we ‘need’ or things we are told we ‘want’..?

By all reports this holiday season will be a record setter in terms of merchandise/services sold and I suppose this is good in terms of reflecting a much more robust economy after eight years of stagnant economic growth.  But I also really wonder just how much of the goods and services purchased were truly needed as versed with just being wanted.  Let’s start by defining these terms; I’ll use as my source for these definitions ‘Dictionary.com’.  ‘Need’ is defined as; “a requirement, necessary duty or obligation”.  ‘Want’ is defined as; “to feel a need or desire for; to wish for”.  Hmmm, it appears the two terms are very closely related in terms of definitions even to the point that the definition of “want” employs the term “need”.  But if one looks closer ‘want’ is more of an emotionally based tendency while ‘need’ seems to be more of a desire to fulfill a void or a gap in one’s existence.  If we assume this is correct then it is easy to see why advertising seeks to create within all of us the ‘need’ to purchase goods and services.  If we can be made to feel that by purchasing that new iPhone or wearable electronic device we are filling a perceived gap in our life we are much more likely to part with our hard earned cash.

A very simple means of helping us to decide whether we truly need an item or service or we just want it is to kill the ‘impulse purchase’ reaction.  Before making any purchase one should stand back, try to be as objective as possible and ask one’s self; “Do I really need item X or service Y or am I just responding to the fact I like what I’m seeing and want to own it?”.  Even better would be to take a full day to consider the pros and cons of making said purchase.  Ancillary to this pause is another pertinent question one should ask; “Do I want/need item X or service Y or am I just considering the purchase to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ or to somehow reaffirm my social status?”.  Asking these simple questions and being brutally honest with our answers would probably stop a majority of ‘impulse purchases’.  And this is a large part of why so many sales tout a ‘limited time only’ window of opportunity or claim ‘purchase now while supplies last’.  The provider doesn’t want you to think rationally and without a time constraint about making a purchase; they want you to ‘go with the feeling’.

If I were a conspiracy advocate, which I’m not, I could probably make a case for the cultural and social shift we’ve seen across the last fifty years in which everything – be it materialistic items, services and/or information – has to be available ‘right now’ is being fostered by large corporations intent upon selling their wares regardless of one’s needs or ability to finance.  While I do believe this questionable change in our attitudes towards obtaining things ASAP is real I don’t think there’s any global conspiracy behind it.  Rather, I see it as an outgrowth of our rapidly growing reliance on technology and the need it drives to be aware of as much as possible as soon as possible.  Be this as it may, we the People are definitely being manipulated by Madison Avenue and similar; sadly most of us aren’t even aware this is ongoing.  And that is just the way big business prefers to have it.  As with so many other facets of our existence people who do not question the status quo and who lack basic training in thinking critically – a virtually epidemic now that our educational system is overrun with progressive idealism – remain blissfully unaware of the aforementioned manipulation.

At a time when personal debt is through the roof being very circumspect regarding making any purchase, regardless of size, would seem to be the order of the day.  But if we fail to recognize our culture is ‘rigged’ to encourage us to buy, buy, buy whether we truly ‘need’ these items and services or not we are doomed to continue this path.  It has taken me sixty plus years to finally recognize the difference between my wants and my needs on a personal level.  And it was necessary, for me, to leave behind the frenetic pace of life in and around the lower 48 population centers and move to semi-rural south central Alaska before I really began to understand my wants verses my needs.  Once my lifestyle slowed down and I began to focus on what I found to be the really important things in my life – family, friends, health, spiritual nourishment and giving back – I began to realize just how much stuff I had accumulated based upon me confusing my ‘wants’ for my ‘needs’.  I suppose this is the classic case of ‘better late than never’..?!  So as I embrace the ‘holidaze’ I find myself doing so from the perspective of ‘what can I do to help’ as versed with ‘what can I purchase for me’.  This is very new and something I find I truly enjoy.  Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all..!!

Materialistic Xmas

Merry Christmas..??

Solo Holidays Aren’t So Bad!

It is another deep winter sunrise this Christmas Eve morning and I’m enjoying the slowly increasing light as viewed through the thick layer of condensation on the base of my office window. With an external temperature of -9.9°F (-23.3°C) such condensation on double pane window glass in this area is typical although getting a fire going in the new wood stove will help dry out my humble abode and minimize the condensation. We have not seen double digit outdoor temps since December 20th so it has been a bit cool of late here in Talkeetna.

While staring out my window and marveling at the beauty of the below zero landscape I was reminded of some concerns voiced by some of my well-meaning friends regarding spending the ‘holidaze’ with only the ‘kidz’. In particular one friend was actually worried about me which I found touching but also a waste of her concern. This started me thinking about the whole ‘holidays with family and friends’ routine and why some folks cannot imagine spending said times alone while others find it preferable. I most likely fall in between these two extremes with a definite leaning towards the latter.

I acknowledge the historical preference to spend the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with family and friends and, indeed, for the first forty years of my life I was always with at least my parents and sometimes one or more siblings. But as families ‘age’ there is a tendency to move apart; many develop families of their own and in addition being part of the ‘working world’ limits the amount of time many folks can devote to holiday travel. Add to this the grief involved in just basic air travel and I do not find it surprising that it becomes more difficult for families to gather. But what led me to spend my holidays solo was first the separation of our family; my sister and family live in Monument (CO) which was far away from Dearborn (MI) where my folks lived. My brother lived in Chicago but largely remained incommunicado by his own choice. A bit later on as my folks aged they really didn’t observe the ‘family gathering’ piece; they preferred to attend their church services, mingle with friends but largely avoid a lot of holiday gatherings. After they passed I sometimes spent the holidays with friends but slowly began to just remain by myself. This was accentuated by the fact I rarely had a ‘significant other’ in my life and also had no children.

Everyone has read stories of ‘poor’ or ‘unfortunate’ people who are alone at the holiday season when they so pine for companionship and cheer; given there are so many I can only assume this does happen. But not everyone who is ‘solo’ is lonely or would prefer companionship. I am quite comfortable spending the holidaze with just my canine companions; during some of the past holidays I’ve attended meals at the local VFW but for the most part I truly prefer to be solo and comfortable. As my weight has become more of an issue with age I am much happier avoiding the calorie laden albeit delicious holiday cuisine. And I am able to better maintain the routines my canine companions so prize when it is just us.

It is not that I’m a ‘Grinch’ or someone who hates the holidays; quite the contrary as I truly enjoy the feeling of joy that permeates the atmosphere along with the fun in wishing folks a ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’. Rather, I prefer to celebrate them in my own way which is on a much lower key than the fondly remembered huge family gatherings around a table almost bowing under the weight of all the delicious food. And I always take a bit of time to honestly remember ‘the reason for the season’.

I truly do understand that some people cannot imagine being alone across the holidays and they extend their own discomfort to anyone who is solo; they want only to have everyone be happy and a part of the festivities. But there are a lot of us folks who really do prefer to be by ourselves during the holidays and it is not for any dark or sad reason; we just prefer it. Ultimately such people are far more comfortable spending the holidays in relative quiet and calm. They are mostly what I call ‘un-holiday people’ and I count myself among them. Again, we don’t hate the holidays; we just prefer to celebrate them in a different fashion.

So to all you well-meaning ‘holiday people’ I would ask this; please step back and think just a bit before you become overly concerned for someone spending Thanksgiving and/or Christmas alone. It is entirely possibly they prefer it that way…

Existence of Open Ended Systems..?

I suppose given the season this piece would seem like a natural extension of the joy and giving so often associated with Christmas but there is actually more to it. Although I had to retire before I really came to understand the value and delight in volunteering I feel very lucky I was finally able to discover what has now become an integral part of my life. So when I read a marvelous piece by another blogger (Athabascan Woman Blog) I follow on WordPress centered on the topic of recognizing just how much we truly have and enjoy the sentiment struck a chord within me. And, in so doing, formed the basis for this piece which is really about the importance of helping others regardless of the time of year.

As I look back upon my life I recognize that as a child I was far too caught up in myself to even consider assisting others although I could be at least charitable to my family and friends. Through my teens and early twenties I was busy looking into myself trying to decipher who I really was and why I did, or didn’t do, so many things. Once I entered the working world my time was slowly but continually eroded by the increasingly more demanding positions as well as my continued need to look within myself. Yet in many ways I remained self-absorbed because I was fixated on trying to start and develop a long term relationship with members of the opposite sex. Sadly this never worked well for me and now that I have the ‘lens of time’ with which to look back upon those decades I understand that my consistent failures were at least as much my fault as my partner’s and probably even more so.

When a shift in marketplace employment needs coupled with my demographics (single, white, 50+ year old male) forced me out of the workplace far sooner than I intended I was left with lots of time to contemplate my past and while some of this was helpful often it devolved into ‘self-flagellation’ sessions with very limited value and generally not at all productive. But this same mix of events also left me time to care for my aging parents and to even become a care-taker for the family’s home while my mother spent her final few years in an assisted living facility. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time Mom was setting the stage for her most wonderful gift to me – the opportunity to experience volunteering. It seemed natural I should volunteer at the facility in which she lived as this gave me a chance to be around her more often; however, it also opened my eyes to the ‘relativistic’ nature of our own perceptions regarding what we have versus what we perceive others enjoy. And herein started my own voyage of discovery regarding the act of volunteering and the motivations behind my need to do so.

Initially I felt the volunteering was something that helped out Mom as well as the staff at the assisted living facility while giving me a chance to work with a variety of younger mainly women. But providing any sort of care to elderly folk, and particularly to elderly dementia victims, requires one be very observant and empathetic. As I increased my volunteering time I began to really get to know many of the residents; with time I stopped seeing them as ‘poor victims’ of a wicked disease and began to recognize them as people with often long and varied histories. Because of the nature of dementia in general and Alzheimer’s in particular one can never really escape the understanding these souls are nearing the end of their lives and doing so trapped by a wicked disease that strips them of their dignity, their memories and eventually their lives. But I also came to recognize most had long and interesting lives which, sadly, were coming to an end under rather unpleasant conditions. Many had been kind and generous people so to be able to offer them even just a modicum of assistance and care in their final years just ‘felt’ right. And the more I could positively impact the better I felt!

In college I remember learning there was no such thing as an ‘open ended system’; that the nature of the Universe was to tend towards disorder and eventual chaos and there were definite limits on energies and dimensions which would not allow for a truly open ended and hence ‘never ending’ system. The classic example of the futility of looking for such systems was man’s quest for the perpetual motion machine. This made sense at the time and I never really had reason to question this premise. Yet 35 years later I was wondering if maybe I hadn’t found an open ended system in volunteering..?!? Without question the more time I spent volunteering the better I felt and the more ‘good’ I seemed to perpetuate. I still marvel that when I volunteer folks are always thanking me for my time and effort when I feel I should be thanking them for the opportunity simply because it makes me feel so wonderful and, indeed, ‘complete’. Regardless of what, or how much, I did I always came away feeling I’d taken in so much more than I’d given out. And this feeling fed my urge to volunteer more time and effort; in effect that mythical open ended system.

With such positive forces driving me on I began to wonder at how this could be and perhaps more importantly ‘why’ this could exist. I believe most human beings are inherently ‘good’ and will always gravitate towards being helpful and caring. Of course there are many exceptions but some can be ruled out simply because they have organic or psychological damage while others are the victims of conditioning be it through upbringing, religions, environments or similar. In reviewing my own situation I needed almost 60 years to finally try volunteering even though I had received lots of encouragement regarding the practice during my earlier years. But what was it that made assisting others feel so very good? It occurred to me that in general I favored assisting others whom I viewed as either needing my assistance or those I felt had so much less than me. This made sense and I certainly felt there were so very many people falling into these categories. I came to recognize I had lived a very full and ‘easy’ life; these revelations almost forced me into wanting to give a little something back to those who I deemed were in need of what assistance and care I could provide.

And the more I did in terms of giving and assisting the more I recognized just how lucky I’d been which in turn drove the urge to help even more. I came to understand that sometimes I could assist by just giving someone a smile or holding a door open or wishing a stranger a good week; this, in turn, showed me it is not the perceived size or value of what one offers as assistance but rather the act of offering it in the first place that really matters. In reviewing what I’ve tried to do for others across the past eight or so years I’ve come to understand the more I offer the more I realize I have to offer. Another example of an open ended system in action! But I also noticed the more I give the more I have to give and this is rooted in a shift of one’s perceptions regarding themselves. I’ve become a so much more positive person thanks to my volunteering and as I’ve become so I learned what I believe is possibly one of the five most important concepts we humans can embrace: ‘attitude is everything’! Nurturing and developing a positive outlook on life can and does affect all aspects of our lives and does so in a most decisive and unequivocal manner. I still marvel at the power and far reaching consequences of truly accepting the immutability of such an apparently simple phrase!

So as I sit here in my semi-rural Alaskan home office living a lifestyle still new but also very dear to my heart in a place I’d only dreamt of living a few years previously I truly understand just how lucky I have been and how much I now have to share. Volunteering is a great means to ‘pay it forward’ and I’ve had wonderful opportunities at Talkeetna’s KTNA and at the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. Without question I hope to indulge myself in even more such opportunities and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit much of my motivation stems from the peace, pleasure and serenity I reap from such actions. At this point I no longer question the how or why of such situations; I just ‘go with the flow’ and reap the benefits knowing in my own small way I can make a positive difference in other people’s lives.