Alyssa, in the previous chapter, is a classic example of someone who suffers from what I call the Average American Consumerist Lifestyle (AACL).
Everyone has the same twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The question is: how will you spend that time?
There are plenty of people—including not just your family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, but also “news” reporters, politicians and corporations—who will be happy to tell you how. Mostly, they’ll say to:
• Work a grueling job with long hours
• Spend every cent you make on “stuff”
• Spend most of your “non-work” time maintaining that stuff
• Spend whatever money and time you have left over on mindless entertainment
In other words, the AACL. Most people adopt it unthinkingly, having been brainwashed into it practically from birth. Many people aren’t even aware that the AACL is a choice they are making; they think it’s the natural way to live.
Pro-AACL propaganda influences most of our major decisions: to follow a certain educational and career path, get married, have children, buy a home, move to the suburbs, etc. I’m not saying that these choices aren’t right for some people; only that many people, including, unfortunately, many activists, tend to make them unconsciously or semiconsciously, without a clear sense of the alternatives—or even that there are alternatives.
Sometimes, it’s not the materialism of the AACL that controls people, but the psychological and spiritual emptiness it engenders. In her book The Time Bind, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild recalls seeing numerous instances of people working overtime at a company she studied when they had no obvious financial or other need for doing so. Here’s one example:
What worried Joann about her overwork . . . was that she didn’t quite know why she was doing it. None of her explanations satisfied her. “The money’s nice; but it’s not worth it when you live at work,” she concluded. But at the same time, she wasn’t changing her hours. . . .
Examples such as Joann, Hochschild said, caused her to wonder, “ . . . how many other people were driving around their own ‘country roads’ at midnight, asking themselves why their lives are the way they are, never quite grasping the link between their desire for escape and a company’s desire for profit.”
Prevalent as it is, the AACL is, indisputably, the wrong choice for many people. Many people fail at it, while others “succeed,” in the purely financial/materialistic sense, but are nevertheless unhappy.
And there are other problems that afflict even happy AACL people. They tend to be stressed, to eat badly and to get too little exercise and too little sleep. They tend to short-change their personal relationships. And they tend to feel guilty a lot of the time because they don’t feel they are meeting their obligations either at home or at work. To use the clichéd term, their lives lack balance.
The AACL versus Your Activist (and Other) Dreams
The biggest problem with the AACL is that it acts against your Mission. The AACL pretty much demands that you take a high-paying day job; and that job, when combined with the overall busyness and stress of the AACL, will leave you little or no time and energy to do your activism. In fact, people who have bought into the AACL tend to view non-money-making activities such as activism with deep skepticism.
Why would an activist wind up on the AACL treadmill? As mentioned earlier, many people get brainwashed into the AACL from earliest childhood. They grow up not being aware that humans can, and should, create their own journey, and that that journey can take many fabulous and fantastic forms.
Often, people try to live a non-AACL life when they are young but get sucked into the AACL as they get older. Many activists are told that activism is a phase of “youthful idealism” that they are supposed to outgrow. But one can be a devoted and effective activist at any age; and as a middle-aged person myself, I can assure you that activism is a terrific preventative of, and cure for, a midlife crisis.
Another reason people get sucked into the AACL is that it tends to get people into debt, and once you are in debt, you pretty much need to keep living the AACL to pay off that debt—if, indeed, you ever do. Credit card bills, car loans and mortgage payments have probably shut down more activist careers than all the disapproving parents and failed campaigns combined. The lesson here is to avoid spending money and, when you must spend, to avoid taking on unreasonable debt. This is not radical, anti-capitalistic advice; your parents and other financial advisers will tell you the same thing.
Activists should at all costs avoid an unthinking slide into the AACL. Note that I am not saying that you can’t have an “ordinary” lifestyle with kids, a house, etc. What I’m saying is that you should make your choices consciously and in accordance with your own values, not because you’ve unthinkingly caved in to family pressure or consumerist propaganda. You can have your kids, house, etc., but you will probably have a smaller house, with shabbier furnishings, than your siblings or friends who have fully bought into the AACL. That’s OK, because you will own the greatest luxury of all: the ability to spend more of your time on activities that feed your soul.
If you are already living an AACL life, don’t despair; like Chris in the previous chapter you can take steps to undo it. It will be hard if you’re struggling under a mountain of debt, but it is doable, and people do it all the time. Consult a financial mentor or counselor, and the money-related books in the Bibliography.