Wealth And Property Require Room In Our Consciousness
What do our possessions do to our minds?
I have long wondered if wealth and property have a tendency to impair our perception of reality. I have seen some evidence that they do. In particular, the pursuit of wealth and possessions tends to trump all other matters of concern. This is particularly true when available resources cannot meet the demand for them. I believe that our concerns with property and possessions can even interfere with our capacity for something that is required for our survival: empathy.
Though I have long wondered about this relationship between possesions and reality, I have not really been able to articulate it — until now. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this article on Medium about Keanu Reeves. I read about how he has given much of his money away to a leukemia research organization. I learned that his movies have made more than $3 billion. I learned that he doesn’t have fancy houses, and is not seriously interested in building up his bank account. He’s not totally ascetic, but he’s rich enough that he can be generous with his time. He lives out of suitcases and hotels and has chosen a minimalist lifestyle. He seems to have made a point not to fill his mind with possessions.
As I read that article for the second time, I kept thinking, “be generous with your time,” and I was thinking of my kids and my wife. Ultimately, our time is the greatest gift we could give to anyone. There is no other resource like time. And money is time. Possessions are time. Money and possessions required time in our brains. And unless we hire a staff of assistants, the more money and possessions we have, the less time we have to think about the people in our lives that really matter.
There is a great movie that touches upon this relationship between possessions and self. I am — The Movie is a wonderful examination of the way life cooperates. The movie was written and directed by Tom Shadyac, who earned some of his wealth by directing a few movies with Jim Carrey as the star. In I Am — The Movie, Shadyac notes that Darwin said that the fittest shall survive, not the strongest. And that Darwin also observed compassion — another word for empathy — and cooperation in the wild. Cooperation and compassion may be a sign of fitness for survival. I’d like to think that natural selection favors cooperation over competition.
There is a scene in that movie that I will never forget. In that scene, Shadyac recalls what it was like to buy a multimillion-dollar mansion in Bel Air, California. As he set foot in the house for the first time, he checked in with himself to see how he felt. Not really very different, and he thought, “That’s it?”
In his movie, Shadyac gave us a clue that Keanu Reeves figured out so long ago. Shadyac and Reeves both know that our lives are more than the pursuit of money and possessions. They both know that when we fill our lives with possessions and bank accounts, we may do so at the expense of our capacity to have empathy for others.
I got a few other clues myself. For example, I’ve noticed how kids are with possessions. I have two kids myself. I have watched for 7 years now, how kids behave around toys. I have seen how they prize their toys and possessions when they first get them. I see how they fight over the toys when they are new and I saw what possessions can do to our ability to be empathetic. I saw how they forget those shiny new toys after a few weeks, even a few days. I saw that kids tend to prioritize people over things.
How kids behave around toys is to me evidence that we evolved this way, we evolved without any concept of property rights. And how kids behave around toys is evidence that when we receive gifts that belong to us, we may do so at the expense of our capacity for empathy. We expend enormous efforts to accumulate and keep track of things that we call “ours” at the expense of other people in our lives.
When we become young adults, we may begin to identify with our possessions. It’s a subtle form of narcissism when our possessions become a part of our identity. We may even develop an existential fear that our possessions might be taken away from us despite the fact that we have evolved to survive without possessions. Yes, if I lose my house, I will still have oxygen, water, and food to live. I might even still have the love of my family to fall back on.
I’m thinking again about that article about Keanu Reeves. The author brought up another interesting observation about humans. We are limited in our capacity to do stuff all day as a result of decision fatigue. Every decision we make requires a discreet amount of energy that must be expended to conceive, plan and execute. A decision to have fun requires energy just like a decision to cry. Throughout the day, we become exhausted from our decisions, and at that point, we must fall asleep.
But there is something else. The more possessions we have, the more decisions we have to make in a day. And because of decision fatigue, there are only so many decisions we can make in a day. It gets worse. Our possessions compete with the people in our lives for time and space in our heads. Our possessions can actually impair our ability to make decisions that could affect our well being.
Consider our use of fossil fuels as a test case. Long ago, somebody came up with the bright idea of using fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our machines. Early in the last century, a scientific journal published an article describing how carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that continued use of coal, gas, and oil could raise the temperature of the planet. We might have made a different decision about how to power civilization, but we were too busy chasing possessions to notice.
Everyone has a cell phone these days. There are a few people who refuse to get one, and some of us might call them Luddites. But those Luddites seem to have noticed something about cell phones. They are taking up an increasing part of our time, our consciousness.
Every time we look at our screens, we are expending energy. We are learning, planning, and making decisions based on the information we see on those screens. And every time we do that, we expend energy that could be used for relating to other people. I do this, you do this, anyone with a cell phone does this. This is just one of the apparent human costs of our technology.
Remember how I said that we tend to identify with our property and possessions? President Trump wants to build a giant wall on our southern border, “to protect our country”. We identify with our land, and our country. We build walls of luxury to keep others out. We build walls when we lack the capacity to have empathy for others. We build walls to protect our property. And our fear is existential when our property is threatened.
Now I’m not arguing for a flower child fantasy world where we cast off all of our belongings and live in a communist world. I’m just simply taking note that we must strike a balance somewhere, and I don’t know where that balance should strike. I am noticing how I behave in relation to others and my property. I am noticing how I am with others around my phone, my computers my home, my car and so on. I am making my own personal inquiry as to how I can still remain empathetic to others and still enjoy the property that I do hold now.
The United States is the richest nation in the world, and it shows. Everything here revolves around money, wealth and status. People are judged by their wealth and status. And when we are all being judged by our “productivity” and our “talents” what is left for us? Where is the empathy in all of that? Why do I need to have more money, houses, cars or a fancy iPhone? When will I have enough? Do I get those things at the expense of other people? If wealth, property and power require space in my brain, will there be enough room left for the people that I love?
I really don’t know where this is all leading to. I just wanted to take note that our pursuit of money, property, and power may very well cost us the time we could spend with the people we hold so dear. If we’re going to survive as a species, we need to decide if people are more important than things. We need to figure out if we require empathy to survive, and I think we do.