When I think about trying not to buy so much, I find myself having to think more about the reasons why we buy things in the first place. There are so many. Sometimes, we create a need (or an advertisement creates it for us). Sometimes we want to see ourselves differently, play a role that takes us out of the doldrums of being ourselves. Sometimes we want a reward, a jolt of dopamine. And sometimes I think we just want to see progress in our lives.
Whether it's an item of clothing, a house, or a car, stuff is a conspicuous suggestion of progress, but it isn't progress itself. It's possible we buy things to represent a milestone for something that's happened to us in the same way that we share our lives on social media. We want external validation for the things we do. If you can't see it, and if others can't see it, is it real? If we didn't document it in an Instagram photo, did it happen?
I walked past the coffee shop next to my building the other night, thinking how well I knew that space, its smells, its menu, its regulars, the unchanging quality and taste of its espresso. I thought, if I moved apartments, an idea I entertain every now and then, as most of us do, I would also be moving coffee shops, upending an entire tradition that I've kept up for four years.
If I moved, what would I really be doing? I'd be telling myself that I had somehow evolved, progressed, and was ready for something bigger, better, nicer. The coffee shop in that theoretical upgraded world would surely have better music, better food, better coffee, I found myself saying. But wait, what is 'better'? When I move, where exactly am I going?
The visible things we sometimes call progress are containers for our lives. You have to put something in those containers, otherwise you just keep wanting to buy more containers. When you put a purpose, or something like it, in those containers, you suddenly start caring less about everyone else's progress, and about the superficial indicators of your own. What is the progress that can't be measured, or which exists on some sticky note, or in a notebook that no one sees? And why does the invisibility, the silence, of that progress make you so uncomfortable?
Image by Claire Z