While the following has always been true to varying degrees, it has taken on new heights in the age we are now in: you cannot consume or experience everything. Or, realistically, even infinitesimally small fractions of everything.
There is an infinite quantity to life’s pleasures and experiences. That is part of what makes being alive so rich and so worthwhile. Our modern desire to consume all of the things is misguided and unhealthy and is clearly as impossible as counting every grain of sand on the ocean floor.
The desire to consume is a very human one. At its simplest it reflects our boundless curiosity. Wanting to read all of the books is just the same as wanting (or even, needing) to know what is over the next hill on the horizon. Yet just because a desire may be a human one, does not mean we should allow it to dominate our lives. Any desire that is unchecked becomes dangerous to a considered sense of self and stands in the way of the sort of mindful existence that I imagine most of us want. We must recognise that our desires can easily become more orientated around acquisitiveness than is desirable. And at times the desire to complete and finish can trump considering a question of ‘is continuing to engage with this thing still meaningful for me?’
In our modern world, we consume—media, books, wine, holiday destinations, partners und so weiter—as a way of communicating our identity and social status. The choices we make broadcast our identity to the world; one may sniff at Marvel films with disdain but salivate over slow Japanese cinema, by way of example. If consumption, then, is part of the ever-evolving story we tell about who we are, in some ways it makes sense that we are driven to consume more and more and more. Certainly, the unavoidable commercial forces that impinge on our lives very much want to foster rapacious modes of consumption within us.
So we make lists of things we think we must consume; we set goals on reading arbitrary amounts of books; we put pins in countries we have visited; we take seriously absurd oracular pronouncements on the best things to consume. And in doing so we act as if there is somehow any inherent merit in consumption for its own sake, when on even casual reflection it is patently obvious that this simply is not the case.
The only consumption that is ever worthwhile is consumption that is meaningful to us—meaningful because it teaches us something, because it challenges us, because it entertains or makes us laugh. And yet when we pursue consumption qua consumption we lose sight of the reasons we are consuming in the first place, and we also lose sight of the fact that there is always more to consume. Every single moment of every single day, there exists more. Millions of photos are made every hour. Hundreds of hours of content are upload to various video sites every single second. Each day sees an impossible flood of words released in the form of books and articles and tweets and essays and poems and graffiti. Cities are changing, people are changing, the world is changing. There will always be more. We simply cannot see it all.
And the sad truth is that within the infinite more lies infinite potential for reward. Perhaps the book that will become a life-changing favourite of yours has just been released. Or an artist has just completed a canvas that so perfectly sums up the human condition as to inspire you to dedicate your life to bringing about the pax mundi.
We must, nonetheless, accept that to be alive is to be doomed to a specific immutable point of time, and that the result of this is that so much of everything will naturally be beyond our grasp, no matter how greedy that grasp may be. We must find our way to becoming comfortable with this truth.
If we fail to curtail our natural avariciousness, here’s what happens: We consume only for the sake of more consumption. Instead of enjoying the process we become singularly focussed only on the objective of completing the current act of consumption so as to be able to start consuming the next thing. We track our output with the unspoken acknowledgement that we should always be consuming more. We want that line to go up. And so our habits and the way we think about things becomes rather corrupted and twisted.
We need to develop better consumption habits. Once we accept that our desire to consume can—and will—never be satisfied, then we can start forming a better relationship with consumption. We can shift our criteria from outputs-focussed to outcomes-focussed: that is, did our consumption help us grow? Or did we consume merely to appease our desire to consume? This new mindset, perhaps ironically, actually accords greater respect to our sense of curiosity, in that we are free to take the time with a book or with our travels in a place. We can then discover and grow and expand ourselves in a way that would never be possible under a mindset of consumption that is ignorant of the infinite.
Another thought experiment helps here, I think: if an act of consumption was going to be your last in this life, would you still want to do it? I suspect many of us would make rather different decisions in the face of that finality. I suspect the otherwise irresistible lustre of the new might tarnish a bit. Maybe, instead, we would want to revisit something that was meaningful to us as a child.
We are told to stop and smell the roses. Crucially, that statement does not continue and order us to smell every rose on the rest of the street, and then the next street and the next after that. When we appreciate that there is an infinite amount of things out there, we must also then realise that there is very little merit of consumption alone. And once that realisation sets in we are free, gloriously free, to perhaps reread an old book, or revisit a once-familiar city as opposed to sacrificing our time and attention at the altar of the infinite and unconquerable new.
Although I have implicitly focussed on what we might call cultural consumption, there are broader, more urgent drivers for why we need to reorient how we consume: Our habit of over-consumption is destroying the only planet we have. Developing healthier habits of consumption may not only make us better individuals, but, indeed, may be necessary if we wish to have a future as a species with a home.