Can travel save us from materialism?

“It is the preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly” –– Bertrand Russell

“Once one is caught up in the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself ” –– F Scott Fitzgerald 

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Definition of ‘materialism’ in English:

materialism

NOUN

1. A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.

2. The theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

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The other day, I left my lunch bag on a train.

It sat in silence, carried alone beyond its intended destination, ending up who-knows-where. Realising that I had inadvertently set the object off on a journey with an unknown destination I became close to distraught, picturing it down in the dust, half-tucked under an old cloth seat having been nudged by the odd foot and no-doubt served a suspicious eye or two.

The distress I was feeling likely arose from the tendency us humans have to inexplicably project a humanness onto our material possessions, even the most humble ones we have. When I picture my lunch bag in all its familiarity and utility abandoned to travel without me, I picture it with a posture of rejection and sadness, almost bearing a facial expression of pain. Why do we give material things this level of emotion, devotion and devastation? And what does it mean for our relationship with materialism and mindless consumerism?

The distress I was feeling likely arose from the tendency us humans have to inexplicably project a humanness onto our material possessions, even the most humble ones we have.

To process our understanding of our own mortality? To deal with our multiple existential crises, perhaps.

Apart from that fact that our ‘stuff’ becomes way too important to us, making us lose an adequate perspective on what is most important to our existence, it means that we’re focusing on the wrong things, to put it simply. We see our things as extensions of ourselves if we’re not careful and, to borrow the words of German philosopher Erich Fromm, “if I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”.

Quite. An inanimate object, however much we project our own humanity onto it, will always be an inanimate object. And when we’re dead and gone, the carbon that used to combine to make us recycled back into the ecosystem for future use, that object will mean nothing to future humans. At best, it will try the minds of those deciding what to do with our possessions after our funeral.

“If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”

It’s been proven time and time again that materialism, defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values”, doesn’t correlate positively with happiness.

“The person who becomes anxious in this system consumes,” writes the aforementioned Fromm. “But also the person who is lured to consumption becomes anxious, because he becomes a passive person, because he always only takes things in, because he does not actively experience anything in the world.”

“The person who is lured to consumption becomes anxious, because he becomes a passive person, because he always only takes things in, because he does not actively experience anything in the world.”

This active experience of the world around us is exactly what we should be striving for. Instead of just buying stuff, we should be doing stuff, and in doing things, really experiencing stuff.

Indeed, many thinkers and writers through time have seen nature as a refuge from the self-perpetuating system of anxiety and panicked participation in overspending on stuff.

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,” writes American essayist Walt Whitman, “–– what remains? Nature remains.”

Whitman doesn’t want us to think of nature as a resource to greedily consume, either. Rather, nature for Whitman is an experience in of itself; an escape from the bonds of material things and Fromm’s “anxious” system.

Travel is our way into nature. When approached in its simplest manifestation – as a journey made for the sake of exploring, experiencing and understanding a new place – travel separates us from the shackles of consumerism.

Don’t buy an expensive plane ticket to a resort in the Maldives and lie on a chair by a pool just to show everyone you can: that’s not true travel. Don’t party in Mykonos and take snap after snap in stunning Santorini, but fail to explore the other few thousand islands Greece has to offer.

Rather, pull a heavy backpack up a crag in the chilly Cambrian Mountains or plunge into the salty Atlantic off Land’s End in Cornwall in order to revel in the bittersweet pain of the cold water contrasted with the hot sun above you. Stand with one foot on one tectonic plate and one foot on another moving slowly away from it in a national park in Iceland; feel the formidable harshness of Australia’s red desert at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to,” writer Alain de Botton reminds us.

With that, we encourage you to go forth and wander, explore and travel for travel’s sake. And if you happen to leave your lunch on a train, we urge you to forget it as quickly as it will forget you.

–– Rosie Pentreath, December 2017.

SOUNDTRACK TO THIS POST: ‘BASHED OUT’ BY THIS IS THE KIT

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Rosie Pentreath

Founder and host of OUTcast Podcast. Rosie is an LGBTQ+ writer, digital producer and musician, often found travelling to some far flung place or other, to take photographs on a 1970s Pentax SLR camera or flick through a good book. Rosie has contributed to Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, Classic FM, BBC Music Magazine, Homes & Antiques, Music Feeds, The Fashion Spot and other arts and lifestyle publications.

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