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Desautels: 'Save money. Live Better.'

A highly questionable philosophy for life

If there is a more disturbing comment on our society than Walmart’s advertising slogan or what I call its “theory of living”, I have not heard it yet. 

What the slogan is really saying is that if you buy our inexpensive merchandise then you’ll have more money to buy more cheap crap… which is better because, well, more is better… and, oh yeah, it will also make you feel better. 

On average, Walmart offers the lowest prices of almost any retailer. Why? This is all possible because of Third World manufacturers, many of which are probably sweat shops, aggressive purchasing tactics and a lack of interest in high quality. 

Because the company is so huge and dominant they can afford to come into new markets and low-ball the competition with cut rate pricing… also known as “predatory” pricing…at the same time they manage to destroy small retailers with this strategy and virtually own the market in some small towns. 

This is the face of big business that you don’t want to see. Capitalism at its worst.  I don’t even like driving through their parking lot on my way to another store. If this sounds like a rant, well, that’s because it is one… not only against Walmart, but against a consumer society driven to owning more and more things.

I believe we all instinctively know that material wealth will not help us live an authentic life and achieve lasting contentment and true happiness. Even the Beatles told us that money can’t buy love! 

When you think about it, the most important and enjoyable things and activities in our lives usually involve friends, family, and things like meditating, day dreaming, loving, taking walks in beautiful landscapes, visiting art galleries and museums, having a warm meal on the table when you arrive home, reading profound writings, seeing the sun rising at dawn, listening to bird song, drinking clean water and breathing fresh air…the list could go on and on… and most can be had for next to nothing.

When you take stock of our existence in the First World, with all our freedoms and wealth, there is so much to enjoy in life and a lot to be thankful for. Our consumer society attempts to distract us from this simple truth, so don’t be fooled by the cacophony of advertisers and endless promotions. 

It’s time that we stop craving more and more stuff, then stop shopping and revel in the simple things. We need to stop focussing on what we don’t have and start living richly with what we do have. As Gandhi pointed out, “The earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”

Of course, all of my suggestions for living an authentic, less materialistic existence sound good on paper.  But they will not change anyone’s behaviour. That’s because in North America we’re pre-programmed to be avaricious consumers. 

How so? Contemplate this fact: Children in the United States watch TV for over four hours a day which means in one year they will have seen approximately 40,000 commercials! Is there any doubt that their young minds are influenced? Right out of the gate their values are moulded, and warped, to believe that more is better. 

As we grow older this mentality continues to pervade our lives… at least subconsciously… reinforced by the thousands of ads we have seen in the past and will continue to see. 

Nevertheless, the hollowness of the “American Dream” soon becomes increasingly apparent to most of us because it creates a strange outcome in our pursuit of “things” – on the one hand we’re always wanting and buying more yet we’re never finding lasting satisfaction. Is there a way to break this fruitless cycle of craving and desire (which the Buddha recognized as the main cause of suffering in our world)? 

There must be a way to lower people’s expectations so that they can see life as full and complete rather than always longing for more. The key lies in a profound change in attitude. “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls”, wrote the Greek slave Aesop over 1500 years ago. If they knew that 1500 years ago why do, we have such a hard time recognizing it today?

Tich Nhat Hanh proposed a kind of “thought experiment” to assist those that are unhappy with their lot in life and have lost their sense of wonder and thankfulness.  This sage advice might “transport” people to a new perspective.

“Imagine we are astronauts who have crashed on the moon. We look across the vastness of space and see the beautiful blue Earth. But we can’t get back because our ship is damaged. All we can do is look at that brilliant blue beautiful orb in the black sky and dream of being home. But suppose we managed to fix our ship, and landed back home. 

How would we feel when we first set foot upon the Earth? What would we observe and savour? How intensely would we experience the sights and smells, the flavors, the feeling of a gentle rain. That’s how we should walk on the Earth with each step.”

This story could certainly make a few people think about perspective, and even cause them to alter their buying-ways. Pessimistically I think it may take a lot more than this thought experiment proposed by Tich Nhat Hanh. Maybe, just maybe, an actual trip above the earth might do the trick… seeing earth from afar could help us realize the trivial nature of our materialistic society.

Some astronauts who walked on the moon talk about the profound effect looking at the earth 384,000 kilometers (238,000 miles) in the distance had on them - it was transformational. So, let’s cheer on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX projects in their effort to make space travel a reality. A little trip could engender a more enlightened perspective and happier citizens.

Bob Desautels is a successful restaurateur, author of two books and former professor at the University of Guelph's Bachelor of Commerce program.

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