“Am I a worthwhile person?” we ask ourselves. “Well a worthless person wouldn't live in a big house and drive a fast sports car, would they?” we answer. But the fact that we are asking the question means that, in a very real sense, we are alone. We are trapped in an ego, the insecurity of which keeps us turned inwards, keeps us obsessed with physical evidence that we are loveable, while cutting us off from any possibility of really loving or being loved by anyone.
But this doesn't mean that materialism is a bad thing. The route to our liberation is through learning that we are worthy, and, if material goods give us that message then that is a good place to start. We shouldn't feel ashamed of our materialism any more than we should feel ashamed about masturbating. In fact, to the extent that materialism is an addiction, it is a sense of shame associated with it which is the driving force of that addiction.
Addiction occurs when we need more of something to achieve that same effect, when the appeal of something wears off. No matter how right wing our political beliefs may be it is very hard to escape an underlying sense of guilt that we have luxuries while others are starving. But this sense of guilt doesn't help anyone, because the more it undermines our sense of worth the more material luxuries we need to compensate. So we are less happy and more addicted, and the starving are still starving.
Now we could adopt the form of idealism known as voluntary simplicity in which conspicuous consumption is eschewed and greater material generosity shown to others, but if this is another way for the insecure ego to prove its worth then we are still not healing where we need to heal and we may be contributing to the sense of guilt of those still trying to enjoy their materialism. It may just be another form of selfishness if what matters to us is how we are perceived and the net effect on the social system around us does not concern us.
The road out of addiction, whether it be an addiction to materialism or an addiction to idealism, is to enjoy it more and thus need it less. If the purpose of our materialism or our idealism is to convince us that we are worthy, then let it carry that message unadulterated by the guilt that may accompany materialism or the sense of superiority that might accompany idealistic acts. Pleasure is healing, and the more we are healed the more available we become to be a healthy part of the wider social system, and thus the more others benefit. Of course pleasures can carry a price, and it is better to chose a pleasure which doesn't do us physical harm. Taking heroin may be pleasurable at first, but the price of physical addiction far outweighs any temporary psychological benefits arising from that experience.
Masturbation is a healthy activity, an easy risk-free source of pleasure, but it carries an association of loneliness and accepting a substitute for what we really desire. And this is why I make the connection between it and materialism. We find our meaning, and our deepest opportunities for pleasure, in our relationship to others. Even when someone like Thoreau departed from human society for a couple of years to live in the woods and find himself, he found himself in relation to the natural environment, and that experience only achieved its full significance when he wrote about it and communicated his ideas to others.
Just as meaning is conveyed by a letter of the alphabet only when it takes its place in the context of a word, our meaning derives from our relationship to the whole of which we are a part. This is not to say that we should submit ourselves to that whole in the way that forms of idealism such as communism or various forms of religion would have us do. To submit is not to be a part of something but to be crushed by that thing, to cease to be a healthy part. We can only be a healthy part of the whole by being fully and completely ourselves. If discipline is required then we are not there yet.
Self-interest is the motivation for all human behaviour. Even in the case where a person may lay down their life for another, that individual has a belief system which makes death preferable to a life of knowledge that they were not true to that system. So we should not feel uncomfortable about making decisions based on what is in it for us. This is inevitable. If we think that we are placing someone else's welfare above our own then we are fooling ourselves. We may be following the dictates of our conscience, but it is our conscience and the suffering it might inflict on us which we are trying to avoid. The real question is how enlightened our self-interest is. Eating fatty food may give me a sense of comfort, but if I'm on the verge of a heart attack that comfort may be short-lived.
Jesus placed great significance, at the Last Supper, on the bread and wine which was being shared. Clearly what was important was the act of sharing. If we use the term God to describe the universal system of which we are all a part then anything which is healthy and is shared - such as bread or wine - is the flesh and blood of God. Any living system can only continue to live if the stuff of life continues to flow through it.
Of course it is possible to share something which is not good for the system. Lies, gossip, addictive drugs, disease - all of these things can be shared from one person to another and poison the social system. So, when seeking to find our meaning through sharing, it does matter what we are sharing.
Information is one of the things we share. The collective enterprises in which we engage, from playing a board game to running a multi-billion dollar corporation require the sharing of information. Factual information is the blood of the system, while lies are poison and wisdom is medicine. What spreads through the communication networks of the social system, such as the internet, effects the health of that system.
And pleasure is a key to healing. Where pleasure is shared significant healing is taking place in the fabric of the social system. If we want to be a part of a healthy system then our best chance is to find activities which help others while also giving us pleasure.
If materialism is masturbation, then sharing is an orgy!