There was a time when I was youngish and shallow, when I sort of lost perspective about the important things in life. I guess I was embarrassed and also so very tired. I was embarrassed about my weight, my strange and difficult children, my parenting skills, my lack of career progression, and most of all, I was embarrassed about the suburb I lived in and my shitty little house that was so untidy even my mother didn’t like to visit me (cue violins playing).
Meanwhile, many of my friends had upgraded their jobs, suburb, homes (all immaculate of course), their cars and their IT equipment. Of course, no need to upgrade the kids. They were already perfect. This all occurred within the context of a national obsession with real estate and private schooling. The bigger, the better; the more expensive, the more exclusive.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect. My friends are all so very lovely and would never judge me based on where I live or where my kids go to school. They can’t help it if I suck at ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Just joking.
In 2001, John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor wrote about affluenza, which they defined as a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” (Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, 2001). In 2005, in the lead-up to the Global Financial Crisis, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss followed with their book, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough. They argued that affluenza causes over-consumption, luxury fever, overwork and waste, and contributes to enormous mental distress and psychological disorders. In his recently published book, Curing Affluenza (2017), Richard Denniss suggests that affluenza is now endemic in Western societies.
Mary Pritchard, Psychology Professor at Boise State University, writing a blog for the Huffington Post in 2015, says the development of mass media has largely been responsible for driving consumerism, or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Pritchard also alludes to deeper psychological issues and refers to the work of Brené Brown. Brown is a respected social researcher, specialising in the study of courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame.
“She [Brené Brown] calls this the “never enough” problem and attributes it, for most of us, to a singular early childhood event that perpetuated our need to be a people-pleaser — at least, until someone tells us we can stop.” Mary Pritchard, 2015
Does this resonate with you? The media and our own vulnerabilities are two very powerful forces. They shape our collective conscience and our understanding of the value of our own self-worth. Let’s face it, how many of us had a utopian childhood and emerged into adulthood with our self-esteem fully intact? I suspect it is the exception rather than the rule, so most of us are vulnerable to the fear that we are not enough. When you grow up with not much, as many baby boomers did, the accumulation of things is a tangible measure of one’s success. And what about the children of the baby boomers? We are told that career and health outcomes are better for those from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and hence there is a mad scramble to retain one’s position in the shrinking middle-class (or perhaps to even reach the pinnacle of society’s elite). At the same time, the bar for achieving career (and financial) success is constantly being raised.
So it is perhaps not surprising that, in my darkest times, I judged myself a bit of a failure, and that my house was the symbol of that failure. Inside me was this restless, unceasing urge, to move house, preferably to a bigger, better (cleaner) one. I was bored with the one I had. If I could buy a new house, my life would be better. I would be better.
When by chance, I fell into, and fell in love with, making mosaics, a very surprising thing happened. Here was the one thing I could do for myself, for which I did not have to go through an extensive approval or vetting process (such was the bureaucracy at work); nor did the product of my labour have to measure up to anyone else’s expectations. The only thing that was important is that I liked my art.
Amazingly, my mosaics turned out okay. I dotted them around my yard. They looked so bright and cheerful; they made me happy. And they were beautiful, possibly even unique. More amazingly, that inner restlessness, that feeling of not being good enough, was stilled. In this way, my art symbolised not a measure of my success, but a measure of my happiness. My husband and I joke now that we are trendsetters as we always wanted to live lightly with a small environmental footprint. And we do so in our little house — same house, just a different attitude. Now, when I get that restless urge to move house — that feeling that I’m not quite good enough — I know it is time to go outside and be creative. It soothes the soul and reminds me of what is important.
I’ll leave you with a photo of one of my cheery mosaics, and a quote from Brené Brown that seems so very apt.
“The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity. Be brave. Create.” Brené Brown
Oh sorry, one more thing. Mum, if you are reading this blog, please give me a little notice of when you intend to visit so that I can clean up beforehand. Love you.