a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition.”
Photo: Solveig Larsen
So asserts Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.1 Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has a Ph.D. in plant ecology, and teaches environmental and forest biology. In her book she braids together indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge. The quote above is an obvious conclusion to make from her understanding of the energies and mysteries that pervade the inter-connections of all life on Earth.
When we contemplate this assertion the truth of it becomes apparent.
The words alone are enough to show us the distinction between consuming and being content.
The word consume comes to us via Latin. The Latin verb sumere means to take. A consumer is a taker. A taker takes from somewhere, or from someone else. A taker (consumer) takes something external to themselves, not something intrinsic.
Contentment also derives from Latin. Com(n) meaning with or together, and tenere meaning to hold. Hence, we could define contentment as the ability to hold together all the contents that make up being human. This means being able to hold, lightly, even seemingly contradictory emotions (e.g., sadness and happiness.) Viewed this way, contentment is more a state of mind than it is an emotion or feeling.
Contentment then, accepts things the way they are, but not in a care-less or resigned manner. Contentment has a conscious element and is both active and passive.
The passive aspect of contentment says: “I’m OK with this,” and “I am satisfied the way things are right now.” The active element of contentment asserts that “I have enough,” “I am replete,” and “I do not need to grasp at something, nor do I need to avert myself.”
When we understand contentment this way, then Kimmerer’s statement that ‘…contentment is a radical proposition’ becomes clear.
As a radical proposition, contentment is highly active. It shouts out, “Enough is enough!” and “this is enough!” Assertions such as these are anathema to an economic system wedded to the mantras of perpetual growth and consume-for-consumptions sake.
This is why there can be no such person as a content consumer. A consumer (taker) living under the rubric of perpetual growth can never have enough, can never be content. A consumer is never satisfied. A consumer, attuned to advertising that screams out “Buy more, buy happiness,” attempts to gratify an inner longing or yearning via something external. When that externality no longer satisfies (as it will,) the consumer must purchase more – ever more.
The Hungarian-Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté is informative when trying to understand how our individual psyches are shaped by the environment and culture we live in. Borrowing from Erich Fromm’s understanding of social (versus individual) character, Maté describes three ‘core social character traits common to most members of (our) culture.’ One of these traits he names Consumption Hunger and notes that, ‘Among the great achievements of mass-consumption culture has been to convince us that what we have been conditioned to fervently want is also what we need.’2 This describes addiction.
Contentment, however, radically rejects this consumption hunger. Contentment says “NO” to the corporations, institutions, and infrastructure that train us into believing that we want more and more stuff.
This blog concludes with a poem written by Kurt Vonnegut (author of the highly acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse Five) for his friend Joseph Heller (author of another highly acclaimed novel, Catch-22.) The poem recalls a party, given by a billionaire, at which Vonnegut and Heller were in attendance. It tells of a conversation the two famous authors had:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”3
1. Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Penguin Random House, UK, 2020.
2. Maté, Gabor, with Maté, Daniel, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture, Vermilion, London, 2022.
3. Vonnegut, Kurt, published as an obituary poem for Joe Heller in The New Yorker, May 2005.
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