Mirrors and Necklaces

Remember the stories of American natives, giving away their treasures to the conquerers that had arrived to colonize them? Unassuming of what was coming, many Indians were happy to trade their gold, their cities, and ultimately their sovereignty for mirrors and necklaces. And every school kid is astonished to hear about people exchanging their highest treasures for something ultimately worthless.

Of course, the Indians didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know about the value gold and pearls had for their visitors, and they didn’t know about the greed their initial generosity would trigger. Anyway, most school kids assume, weren’t they also stupid? Something like that could never happen to us! We know about the value of the things we own, and we would never give them away carelessly. Or, would we?

I often have to think of the Indians when I see how people can’t wait to buy the newest gadgets or pass hours in shopping malls in order to relax after work: Be it an iPad or a new pair of shoes, we are crazy to get it.

Do people really know how much their shopping is worth? In reality, most of the things we buy are the mirrors and necklaces of our times – and we decide to exchange our lives for them. Instead of making use of the time we are granted on this planet, we rather fill it with meaningless work in order to get the money to buy meaningless stuff, in order to experience meaningless entertainment and forget about our meaningless relationships.

But it’s just a bit of retail therapy, you might say. What’s wrong with having a big and shiny flatscreen TV, a new pair of shoes, a large DVD collection?

Only you can give the answer, and it’s quite easy to tell: When was the last time you took a hike through the forest close to your home, or went for a surf? When was the last time you spent talking to a friend or just a random stranger until dawn, without being interrupted by the sound of a ringing cellphone? When was the last time you cooked delicious food with your family, the last time you spent time playing with your kids without looking at the clock?

All these experiences don’t cost any money. They are right here, you just have to go for them. So, what are they worth to you? Are they inferior to spending the days at your job and the nights watching yet another episode of Lost? In that case, retail therapy wins. If not, shouldn’t you think about resisting mirrors and necklaces and take your life back? No charges will be applied to your credit card. All it takes is to make a decision.

Comments 18

  1. Greg November 16, 2010

    Fabian, This post hit hard as I discovered “must have” gadgets in the recesses of my closet and in storage boxes stacked in the garage during a recent clean-up day. They were now gathering dust, eventually replaced by the next newest thing. Consumable and disposable, that’s how we seem to view products. I wonder if that spills over to other aspects of our lives, especially in how we treat others.

    Natives and newcomers had different frames of reference and value systems and that shaped their interactions. Does it have to be one or the other? Or, are there different ways? I hope you’ll share some of your experiences in relating to the natives of Columbia.

    • Fabian November 17, 2010

      Hey Greg, there is much truth in your words. As for relationships, for example, I’m a bit weary of the common personal development advice to “ignore negative people”. The recommendation goes that if anybody is opposed to what you are doing, you should stop talking to them. While I get the intention of this, it seems to be very much a part of “consume and dispose”. My personal approach is to rather try to listen and learn something from the person. Everybody can teach us a lesson, if only we learn to be good students of life.
      Of course, there are many other faces to “consume and dispose”. Never understood how people were 110% in love today, only to hate each other a month later…

      As for natives versus newcomers, I’m not sure if I get your question right. What I personally have noticed is that while at first look everything appears to be “exotic” here in Colombia, many people think and behave surprisingly similar to most Germans. As far as I can tell, this is the consequence of global media and marketing. It’s only when you scratch the surface that you notice the deeper differences, and of course it gets more extreme once you connect with indigenous people that maintain their tradition or with the “palenqueros”, people from villages that were established by absconded slaves during colonial times.

      • Greg November 17, 2010

        Let me use a Venn diagram to frame a response to your question about my question. Let’s say we can fit your values, presuppositions, and assumptions associated with being/growing up/being acculturated as a German into a circle. That circle may overlap quite a bit with the circle associated with a contemporary, urban Colombian. So, you can use those points of similarity to relate to each other. However, the overlap between your circle and the circle of an indigenous person might be quite small. In that case, would you impose one of the circles upon the other, build from the few points of similarity to expand the overlap, or create a completely different, jointly-constructed circle of values and assumptions? It seems that historically the newcomers have imposed their circles on the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

        • Fabian November 17, 2010

          I admit I had to google the Venn diagram, but despite my ignorance it’s a great illustration to use, Greg! The answer to your question, though, is of course one of debate. As far as I am concerned, I certainly wouldn’t want to impose my circle on the circle of others – as, indeed, it happened during colonial times, and still happens as of today! (This is also the reason why I am a bit sceptical of the whole “empire” metaphor many bloggers currently use: While their writings and intentions may be totally fine, it just reminds me too much of what imperialism really is about.)

          At the same time, I would be very careful when it comes to constructing a circle together. Of course, this is desirable and actually even necessary to some extent if we want to live together in a society. This circle shouldn’t touch all areas of our lives, though; probably not even most of them. Because even if we managed to build it based on real community decisions (instead of just imposing another “cultural revolution” from above, which unfortunately is the model we know from history), this society would probably end up watered down, without edges and movement, being static and boring.

          As a consequence, I would see the ideal community to have one common center of values, and lots and lots of circles that overlap more or less, depending on each and every person and their preferences and life decisions.

          Does that make any sense? Also, do you have a model you would prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

          • Greg November 18, 2010

            A few weeks ago, I would have been somewhat confident about helping those “poor people” who were “less developed” than the people from my circle by sharing and convincing them of the “wisdom” of our developed thinking and ways. However, to be frank, after reading your “Stay hungry, stay foolish” post, the balloon of that presumed superiority burst. I don’t know. The first step would be to listen, really listen and reflect on my own presuppositions as I tried to make sense of what I experience. I wouldn’t have even thought of examining my own assumptions if I hadn’t read that post. I would have to explore that zone of overlap to begin the process of understanding.

          • Fabian November 18, 2010

            Greg, I’m really happy to read that it was actually one of my posts that led you to reconsider your position. While, as I already wrote, this question doesn’t have a definite answer, listening certainly is a great starting point. It’s an art that is getting lost in these days where nobody has time and everybody wants to get their own message through the noise, without caring about what others are saying.

  2. Jonathan Ziemba November 16, 2010

    Do we really know the value of anything? We trade our souls everyday for another quick-fix, another bobble.
    In Roman times durning a new moon our milky way galaxy was so intense that your shadow would accompany you for that walk in the woods. We have relinquished our very happiness. The truth is we can never numb only the bad. The retail fixes are our attempt at ignoring the pain, this also kills our happiness in the process. This cycle is endless, we end up valuing nothing not even the heavens above.

    Fabian I will catch you later on the stars lit path.

    • Fabian November 17, 2010

      Jonathan, the milky way still shines, it’s just our own electric light that blinds us. Have you seen this beautiful panorama of the darkest night sky? So impressive…
      Of course, I get the metaphysical point you are making. Wandering under a star-lit path can be dangerous and tiring at times, when too many clouds come up; but once we reach the dawn we know it was worth it! :)

      • Jonathan Ziemba November 17, 2010

        That panorama is stunning, Los Cielos de Chile here I come.
        Thanks for putting up with my metaphysical comments. Your site’s harmony is really resonating with my philosophical synapses. And a big thanks for not jumping on the quick solution sale wagon, mirror and necklace stands on every corner do make the world a better place.

        • Fabian November 17, 2010

          Glad to hear that, Jonathan! And even though I’m not too pushy about my sales week, if you ever need a necklace, just let me know… there are some great artisans around here! ;)

  3. supernalsteve November 17, 2010

    Very true – they tell us what “we must have” – that our lives will be incomplete without all these gadgets and ‘stuff’ – this creates a ‘need’ in us. We then fall for it – rack up credit card bills – and end up enslaved – paying for these things on the ‘never never’. Great article – made me think – thanks.

    • Fabian November 17, 2010

      Thank you Steve, I’m glad to hear that! (As trite as it sounds, it’s still true: the best things in life are free! :))

  4. Kane November 17, 2010

    Fabian

    You really get to the heart of it. I wonder what would happen if people really started thinking about what purpose their lives have, beyond those approved by the powers that be, that is work and consumerism, feeding off one another in some unholy cycle.

    All very ‘Brave New World’.

    • Fabian November 17, 2010

      Absolutely, Kane, and the worst thing is, it’s not. I mean: There is no big brother, there is no group of grey men conspiring against us. It’s just human short-sightedness, it’s ourselves forgetting about who we are and buying into the purported quick fix solution industry – and that never works. (Mainly, because they always want to sell us yet another quick fix…)

      Much in the same sense, I have no solution for the world’s problems, no big master-plan; but sometimes I tend to think that the solution would be created as a byproduct once we started to really care about our lives.

      • Kane November 17, 2010

        Fabian I really don’t agree with the idea that there is no big brother per se. I accept that totalitarianism early 20th century style is on the wane. What has replaced it is far more insidious, relying on mass manipulation to bring about conformity not directed at worship for a heroic leader but to ensure that human behaviours (shopping) become the shared experience by which the mass of people are brought to a placated, almost dormant, state. Until of course the hollow ring of false promises is so loud that only aggression and violence can satisfy the anger of the population.

        Advertising is just part of the control that the media exerts over people. The boundaries between governments and corporations have been worn away (in the UK the government has just co-opted KFC and MacDonald’s to advise on diet [!]).

        Market forces are now the dominant lever for power, though heaven help anybody who demonstrates the flaws in the theory and therefore shows the proponents as shallow and mendacious.

        Market theory, consumerism and debt (for houses, vehicles or other purchases) are the modern ‘Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and only the elites benefit (at least in the short term, read ‘The Spirit Level’) as demonstrated by the greatly increased inequality in developed societies.

        The recent financial crisis is ongoing and it is only, in my insignificant view, a matter of time before the elite networks who dominate our societies receive a very rude and belated shock.

        Sustainable living, simplicity, small business and most importantly sound communities show us what life could be like after the breakdown of the current system.

        Lastly keep up the good work. I really enjoy your work and visit regularly to catch up on your most recent musings.

        Kane

        • Fabian November 17, 2010

          Kane, thank you for getting this clear. I pretty much agree with everything you write, and I think it was more a question of semantics. What I meant was that there is – as I see it – no shadow government creating this. Not even the Bilderberger meetings or G8 or whatever count as something like that for me, even though these forums have a big influence of course.

          The joke is that all you need is a big company or lots of money from whatever sources and you can buy your laws, even in “functioning” democracies – but you don’t have to be taking these kind of measures all the time. You only take them when your money or status is threatened, while the rest of the time, other companies take action because their money or status is threatened.

          This is the main reason why I am sceptial of any nation state whatsoever. These things can only be avoided in smaller communities. It’s no wonder the old Greeks were pretty clear about the fact that politics only worked in cities of less than 8.000 people.

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