By Abel Merawi
October 22, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- Let us begin with a question Erich Fromm asks in his book ‘To have and to Be’: Who are you? Are you what you have or something else? If you are what you have, who will you be when you lose your possession? Your reply depends on your personal disposition or character. However, just like the individual, every age has its own character. This character is a mentality we develop in our relation to the world. Modern age is characterized by the ‘having’ mentality. In the individual, this mentality is manifested by the tendency to own things in order to enjoy them. In society, it is represented in capitalism’s special feature of consumerism. Captured in perpetual shopping spree, we have forgotten there is another way of existence. We will explore the various manifestations of the ‘having’ mentality and end with a way out to reach a more fulfilling existence.
Wherever we turn, we find insecure people who lost the boundary between property and self. Look closer and pay attention, it will be easy to detect them. They are the type who always take a picture standing in solidarity with some material; be it a car or a house. These are the very people who ‘share every moment of their lives’ with you on social media. They post a picture every time they buy a new watch, cloth, phone or any accessory that makes them feel worthy. Even going to a fancy hotel or visiting some place becomes fulfilling when they let you know about it. This is a symptom of a deeper problem rooted in the ‘having’ mentality. The point becomes vivid when we compare it with experiencing or being.
Imagine the majestic site of a mountain or the mesmerizing effect of the wilderness, enveloping you in the resonating effect of simply being there. In such moments we become one with nature and may even gain profound experience in just a glimpse. Alas! The ‘having’ orientation has slowly deprived us of even this priceless experience. Now, our phones have become a surrogate sense organ. We look at nature through the camera lens of our phone, but never through our naked eyes. We no longer experience nature; we rather record and possess it in virtual storage. For we the modern ones, enjoyment comes after possession.
The desire to possess is fostered in capitalism, which idolizes money and private property. Karl Marx criticized capitalism by remarking that money has become the definition of virtue in this system. Consequently, my pride and meaning of life is translated into wealth accumulation. Accordingly, I cannot be ugly if I have money, because money is beautiful. I cannot be a deceiver when I am rich, because money is truth. If I am rich, I automatically deserve respect because money is respectable. People must recognize and accept my power and influence when I am rich, because money represent power and influence. This has become a rule in modern day society. Sadly, students prefer the trivial opinion of a rich businessperson than the worthy advice of their teachers. Who can blame them when even the ultimate goal of their teachers is being rich. The same is true of spiritual or religious leaders who pay lip service to altruism and charity while personally leading a lavish lifestyle.
The teachings of most religions shows us the dangers of the ‘having’ mentality. They all tell us the evil that accompanies riches in hoarding or greed. This message is not against satisfaction of our physical needs but against the mentality of greed. This is unquenchable desire to possess which alienates us from the natural world, from fellow humans and finally from ourselves. But we find the ‘having’ mentality manifested not in the doctrine but in the life of the religious leaders. As Erich Fromm explains religion of ‘having’ by arguing, “God, originally a symbol for the highest value that we can experience within us, becomes, in the having mode, an idol.” Thus, God is the ‘having’ orientation becomes something we possess rather than a way of living. He goes on to explain that faith is an ‘inner orientation’ or an ‘attitude’ to life. So the religious leaders and followers who don’t practice the doctrine only possess God as an idol while their true faith is in possession.
Despite the self-alienation that emanates from the ‘having’ mentality, we don’t notice it because marketing strategies of consumerism is so nuanced and undetectable. We are bombarded with dozens of advertisements that promote products serving similar purposes. On the radio, television and even the street we may watch numerous commercials about detergents, and we finally forget that cleaning is not that complicated! Amazingly, there are advertisers who have the audacity to tell us how meaningless our lives are if we don’t own a certain brand of refrigerator or phone. The saddest part is that we believe them. We accept that the meaning of life is derived from possession and that we are nothing without them. Erich Fromm portrays this by remarking, “The attitude inherent in consumerism is that of swallowing the whole world. The consumer is the eternal suckling crying for the bottle.”
In education, we find students with the ‘having’ mentality with teachers fostering this very behavior. True learning requires learning experience, but modern day education is centered on memorization through information possession. Even in our vocabulary, we see this attitude in the expression: ‘I have knowledge’ and ‘I know’. As Fromm explains, “Having knowledge is taking and keeping possession of available knowledge (information); knowing is functional and serves only as a means in the process of productive thinking.” Perhaps, this explains why we are constantly producing specialized experts, who politically and economically exploit the people instead of helping them.
The ‘having’ mentality has prevailed throughout history in the exploitative acts of the noble class in the past and corrupt politicians in the present. It was customary in the past for kings and queen to possess gold and live in a castle. Presently, the corrupt politician is satisfied in stealing money and storing it in the bank. They have the same mentality; they think private property is the ultimate goal of life. Accumulating money that you will never use for the sake of having makes life worthless. Currently, everyone wants this sad life of the powerful for they don’t know it is but futile. Marx expressed in well upon saying, “Private property has made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., in short, utilized in some way.” Surely, it is stupidity that makes us think the meaning of life is measured by the amount of possession.
Despite the alienating effect of the ‘having’ orientation, we don’t seem to recognize it since everyone is doing it. But we should know that there is another way of living, which is found in the ‘being’ mentality. As Erich Fromm explains, “If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me.” These words capture the essence of being. In the end, I want to clearly state that the argument is not against money or possession but with making it the goal of life. Possessions are the means of fulfilling our goal, which is leading a fulfilling life.
Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.
Other articles by Abel Merawi:
Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview
Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia
The Underestimated Human Ignorance
Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)
Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)
Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality
Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance
The System and the 'Criminal'
Trust as an Economic Force
Do You Trust the Government?
Our Online World
Fame Mistaken for Expertise
The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers
A Time to Reflect
The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!
History of Pandemics in Ethiopia
Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective
You Can Make a Difference
Rule of Law for a Free Society
The Origins of Law
Determinants of Market Value: Part II
Determinants of Market Value: Part I
Your life Matters Too
Manifestations of Artistic Expression
Achievements vs Natural Accidents
The Grip of Sacrifice
Injustice is Never Justifiable
Education Demands of the Future
Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future
The Shift From Racism to Culturism
Sacrificing Meaning for Power?
Culture and Market Forces
Seeking Cosmic Justice
National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations
Are We Truly Free?
Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy
Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group
The Value of Work
The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System
Intellectuals and the People
Where Are Our Pathfinders?
The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders
The Truth Behind Humanity
The Seven Virtues
The Seven Deadly Sins
What is the right thing to do?
Building National Identity
Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change
Living the Truth as a Human Being
Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others
The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them
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