Recently, on my way out of the house, my wife pointed out that we needed to buy a yearbook for our daughter. The form was posted on the fridge, and we could save five dollars if we ordered in the next few weeks.
My daughter is in kindergarten.
I immediately left the kitchen and went to the bedroom to change into my old man pants (you know the kind—some thin polyester material, some shade of brown, hiked to somewhere near your belly button). Appropriately attired, my voice rose two octaves (because that’s how the men in my family get exasperated—it’s very sexy) as I droned on about not having yearbooks until high school—or maybe middle school, but certainly not kindergarten. You got a class picture and discarded it when you were my age, but your mother made sure to put it in a box so she could pull it out sometime around your high school graduation. Before and after that moment, it’s been in a box.
I continued on in my nasally-high voice, explaining how there will be one picture of our daughter in the yearbook, who goes one full day a week to kindergarten and spends the rest homeschooled with my wife. And, I mentioned something about marketing these days (remember, I had my old man pants on): how advertisers are looking for more and more ways to give us things we need or can’t live without.
My wife, seeing the old man pants and doubtlessly perturbed by the nasal voice, agreed and said she’d talk to the other parents. They’d see if there was something they could do on their own, sharing photos and maybe have someone put them into a book—that would be less expensive and feature, you know, our children.
Placated, I left for work. But the exchange continued to badger me. I cannot help but wonder what we’re losing with every inch of our lives covered by advertisers—even selling yearbooks to kindergarteners, for shame! How are we affected when message after message tells us what will make us happier and more content?
If I were to create such a world on paper, the first thing I realize, is that the people who are constantly told they can be happier wouldn’t be very happy or content at all.
If you are not already happy in this age of excess, then more excess is not what you need.
The Romans controlled the masses with bread and circuses.
I tend to think we’re not any different. Recent scandals in the N.F.L. have illuminated this. We’ll pretend to be upset, but if we have our entertainment and our material comforts, there isn’t any action we’ll take. Just talk. We’re happy in this age of excess because its illusive properties and brief chemical highs of buying something are enough to alleviate or mask the haunting that there is something more to life.
We cannot, of course, escape this age. Advertising is what makes the world go ‘round—or, at least, the internet. We can’t avoid it. We can, however, create sacred spaces that are free of advertising, or, more specifically, that stand against this incessant need to have more, and this subtle idea that we don’t have value.
We can think about the endless flow of messages that bombard us every time we drive to work, or check our email, or watch a show (whether online or on television).
We can talk about it. We can realize that it pushes us toward unhappiness. We can realize that it devalues us as humans, reducing our needs to material goods.
But in the end, we need to put on our old man pants and take action.
We can live, at best, with one foot in the age and one searching for a place to stand outside it. We can create spaces of authenticity—communities of like-minded people—to help alleviate the problem. To let off some of the pressure. We can turn off the television—and this is where many of us need to start. We can ask parents to share pictures and create our own yearbook.
We can buy old man pants.
It’s small. Frustratingly small. But change always starts small, and often with a written list of grievances.