One of my mom’s gifts to me this year was The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Wonderful, but dense. So dense, in fact, that I just finished it but am tempted to immediately read it again. I feel like I probably missed a good half of what it had to say.
One thing that caught my eye, though, was on the first page. The narrator refers to the “hubris of desire,” which I thought was a fetching turn of phrase.
In context, she was talking about Marx and quotes “Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression.” So, in the more obvious context, she’s talking about class struggle, owner versus worker, etc.
But I am still fascinated by the idea that desire is somehow arrogant. Because, really, isn’t desire the very absence of humility?
When we want something, we are asserting two things:
1. We are deserving of the object of our desire.
2. What we have currently is not good enough.
Many frugal people get along so well precisely because they find ways around their wants. They make do with what they have, whether that means recognizing that the money isn’t in the budget — “This desire of mine isn’t worth going into debt.” — or that they just don’t need it — “This desire is not worth spending the money that’s better applied elsewhere.”
In fact, I suppose that every time we give in to a specific desire, we are being hubristic. We are saying that what we want is more important than any other plans. Rather than save the money, we spend. Rather than stick to our diet, we dive into the food court. We are trading future benefits for a quick jolt of pleasure now.
That’s not to say that fulfilling desire is always bad. Sometimes it is worth a little sacrifice to get that new gadget or even just a pretzel/Cinnabun/etc at the mall. But if we did that all the time, we’d be broke… and pretty portly.
While I was pondering all this for the post, I discussed some of it with Tim. He was more taken by the quote (harvesting oppression) than the idea of arrogant want.
I had taken it in its Marx context, to refer to oppression of the worker. That, after all, is an awfully large chunk of Marx. But Tim had a far more interesting viewpoint: self-oppression.
As soon as you want something, he said, you are beholden to it.
Kind of true, no? After all, if I want a widget — the latest one on the market, natch — then I have to work to earn the money. I have to use my own labor to fulfill my desire, which means I end up working for the item rather than for myself and my own financial independence.
Or I spend money I already earned — which perverts the point of labor already completed. (To me, that’s worse because I thought I was working so that I could pay bills and save; but instead it turns out I was just working to buy something shiny. Hence I was laboring, as it were, under false pretenses.)
Of course, I can also choose not to get the widget. But I’m still oppressed by my desire for it. Every time I spend money on something else, I wistfully think of how I would prefer to spend it on the widget instead. Every bill or amount saved mocks my want, even when I’m adult enough to choose saving over spending.
Here’s the problem: We live in a capitalist society. It thrives on creating “need” where there is none. We are, in fact, constantly surrounded by items meant to entice us, lure us into buying.
So, we live in a semi-permanent state of desire — from the endless array of new and/or improved gadgets to sex, sex, sex everywhere and used to sell everything.
We are being manipulated at every turn to want things we don’t have. And so there will always be something to desire, something that destroys our humility and makes shout that we’re worth it. (Damn you, L’Oreal!)
And so, those of us who don’t want to spend our whole lives paying down debt, have to balance the arrogance with humility: what we want versus what is actually worth our time/efforts/money.
Assuming that anyone can ever find a good equilibrium there, then I guess you are pretty much living the Tao of frugality.