Sunday, March 20, 2011

Materialism, Spirituality, and Jane Goodall

The other day at work, I wrote:

I’ve been thinking about money lately. How our lives, in a way, revolve around it. How it can either trap us or free us. How it seems we can’t do anything without it. We need money to eat, travel, buy the things we want. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so dependent on money. I wish I could be like Jane Goodall and live among animals in the forest…

I think everyone feels like that from time to time. We want to escape this chaotic structure that doesn’t always seem to make sense. But even Jane had to leave the haven of her forest in Gombe, Africa to go back to England or to teach at Harvard, or as she did in her later years, face the harrowing long weeks where she traveled the world to advocate for animal rights.

If you couldn’t tell, I am nearly finished reading Jane Goodall’s memoir, A Reason for Hope, where she describes her early life, her passion for animals, and how she came to study chimpanzees in Africa, which became her life’s work. It is a good book, very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and in one of the last chapters, in almost perfect timing with my own thoughts, I thought I found an answer (or something close to it) to the Western materialism that invades our lives and, at times, seems to box us in.

Jane aims at where such materialism began. Growing up in England during World War II and witnessing the horrors of Nazi regime, she reflects that the luxuries we now take for granted, were simply unavailable back then. At that time, however, she learned the true value of food, clothing, shelter, and life itself. Often, they did not feel it was their right to own a bicycle, television, dishwasher or other amenities that so many people find necessary for daily life.

She writes, “Of course, I understood why those who had lived through war or economic disasters, and who had built for themselves a good life and a high standard of living, were rightly proud to be able to provide for their children those things which they themselves had not had. And why their children, inevitably, took those things for granted. It meant that new values and new expectations had crept into our societies along with new standards of living. Hence the materialistic and often greedy and selfish lifestyle of so many young people in the Western world, especially in the United States.”

She continues by wondering if such young people were content with such a lifestyle? This is where I fall in sometimes. I have so much, especially compared to many others in less developed countries, but sometimes I find myself wanting more and feeling unsatisfied. When this happens, when I get caught up in money worries, I find myself wishing I could disconnect from all of it, all the concerns for money and jobs and material things I think I need.

Jane says, “Often their behavior suggested that they felt something was missing from their world. Was it, perhaps, a craving for meaning in life which had led to the emergence of the hippies, the flower children of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Was that why so many young people of wealthy parents had left their families to seek new experiences? They had tried living in communes…experimented with drugs, traveled to India in search of gurus. Desperately, or so it seemed to me, they had sought to escape from the soul-numbing materialistic hedonism of their time.”

She also speaks of the newfound or growing interest in Native American cultures and their reverence for the Great Spirit, the Creator, which I have always admired. Sometimes, I find myself wondering what life would be like, what this world would be like, if we had stayed closer to the earth, not defiled nature and instead lived in harmony with it. Of course, I think these thoughts as I am sitting in a small office, facing a computer screen.

So what is the answer? How can we forego the materialistic tendencies of our culture and become in tune with the Great Spirit that is flowing through all life, through all animals, waters, trees, and even humans?

Jane transitions to focusing on our spirits to fill the void. Her insight makes sense and is a new way of understanding “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Afterall, how can we love ourselves and live up to the standards we set for ourselves? She says, “Suddenly it seemed clearer and I thought I understood. The “self” that we had to love was not our ego, not the everyday person who went around behaving thoughtlessly, selfishly, sometimes unkindly, but the flame of pure spirit that is in each and every one of us, that is part of the Creator…That which is loved, I realized, can grow. We had to learn to understand and love this Spirit within in order to find peace within. And only then could we reach out beyond the narrow prison of our own lives, seeking reunion with the Spiritual Power that we call God, or Allah, the Tao, Brahma, the Creator, or whatever our personal belief prescribes. Once we had attained that goal, our power to connect with others so that together we could create a better world, would be immeasurably greater.”

I know that is a lot to quote, but somehow, in the midst of all my worries and musings, those words encouraged me. It put my focus, not on money or materialism, but on the Creator and what money can do to help other people. There are so many good things I could discuss from Jane’s book, (which I may get to later) but for now, I’m going to stop right here.

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