Did the Great Depression Set the Stage for Today’s Over-Consumption?
I learned about over-consumption and craving things from my parents, no blame or offense to them. They grew up during the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, lasting from 1929 to 1939. As a child, my mom was trained to count how many sheets of toilet paper she used. They didn’t have a lot of anything. For my parents, having material things meant having security and well-being.
For me, a grandchild of the Great Depression, material things are confusing. They are alluring — the acts of acquiring them, owning them, and discarding them when they no longer satisfy. They’re also distasteful, for the same reasons they are alluring. Easy come, easy go. With Christmas around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about material things.
Mom used to collect and hold onto everything throughout the year, including underwear and socks, so that she could present a dramatic, beautifully wrapped bounty under the Christmas tree. Our Christmas stockings were filled to the brim with treats. She did the same thing with our birthdays. We always knew there’d be an enormous stack of colorfully wrapped gifts on our special day. She never disappointed.
It was essential to both my parents that we looked good on the outside, so that meant material things, whether or not we were deeply in debt behind the scenes. We dressed well and had a TV as soon as anyone else in the neighborhood got one. My dad was a gambler, and my mom waited tables. When we left towns in the middle of the night to avoid the bill collectors, mom would pay them back from the next city. I got her work ethic.
Of course, at times I’m driven by the need for this or that thing. I can relate. I see something — a new phone, or a coat, or a home that wows — and I think if I could have that, I’d be entertained, or look great, or feel perpetually happy.
But fulfilling my need seems different that what my parents experienced. Fulfilling my need doesn’t represent safety or well-being. It reflects an idea that if I don’t have everything I crave, something is missing and keeping me from the perfect life I…