When I was working as a cook in Manhattan, I was young and single and loved to mingle. During that time, I discovered an amazing phenomenon. In social gatherings, people would ask two questions: What is your name? And What do you do? That was actually not as clear cut or as logical as you might think. I could guarantee that five minutes later, they probably wouldn’t remember my name, but they would definitely remember what I did for a living. More important than my name, my job title allowed them to classify me in a way which made them comfortable. They knew, or thought they knew, which economic level I belonged in. One of the greatest sins, reminiscent of tattooing numbers on Jewish forearms, is quantifying people. It is forbidden in the torah, and yet we do it to ourselves.
Materialism would state that a person is what he owns or how much he is worth. However that is not true or accurate, though it does have some basis in truth. A person cannot be entirely defined by what he owns, but he is affected by owning things. Owning things is important because it does define you and change who you are. An automobile owner has certain privileges and freedoms, certain abilities to do things, but he also has responsibilities and liabilities. Right now I am waiting for a cop to try and pull me over while I am driving my electric cart so that I can laugh in his face. I own an electric cart so my status under the law is different than someone who owns a car. I want so much to get a horse, so I can illegally park it and have a meter maid try to put a ticket under its tail. Because of my limitations, I have fewer responsibilities. That is true but it cannot define my worth as a human and it only tells you specific and limited things about me. My father, of blessed memory, was irreplaceable because our relationship was unique in all of human history. He was MY father.
As an aside, one of the major failings of modern education is the need to quantify knowledge in a standardized, homogenous manner. Because the educational system needs to do this in order to achieve its goals, it is doomed to absolute and unavoidable failure.
My rejection of this system was one of the main thoughts behind my novel, The Hope Merchant. I have always loved listening to people’s stories. A description of one of their possessions is boring. Unfortunately, in a world of factories and assembly lines most objects are boring. An artisan can tell a story of a unique piece they created. Even architecture is getting to be stories of monoculture. I have heard stories of great architecture that were spellbinding, like the building of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam. I remember reading that the tiles in Grand Central Station, which give it a special look, were specially designed by the architect to be the perfect size to fit into a bricklayer’s hand comfortably. Stories like that are less common today. A person can be all excited about a new car he bought, how fast it goes, or whatever is the current chic must-have out there, but to me it just means that he has acquired something that rolled off an assembly line and landed in his driveway, along with 50,000 other driveways. The really sad thing is when a person tries to become a certain person by buying something. If I get a certain car, then I will be an exciting or sexy person. I think it accounts for the great success of health clubs. People buy memberships to health clubs thinking it will make them healthy and slim. They just neglect the actual going to the health club and exercise. All they have to do is buy a rope for jumping, a cheap pair of sneakers, and maybe a ball, but acquiring an expensive membership reinforces in their mind the self-definition of being athletic.
The stories that really caught my interest, made me drool in fascination, and told me the most about the storytellers, were not the stories of what they had or even who they were. The real stories were what they didn’t have, what their hearts needed, what they longed for. Advertising wants to convince me to desire something. Modern society has fulfilled all of our needs, or so it would have us think. Do I need mass marketing to tell me what I want and that some massive corporation is already producing thousands of it? I am not a great dad because I spent all of my son’s adolescence working overtime in order to buy him a car. I am a great dad because of the night I sat up watching him cough with the croup, praying for each new breath. Tell me what you don’t have but what you really want, and that tells me so much more about you than what you do have. Tell me what you wish for.