Sacred Scarcity, Sacred Materiality

I don't value physical things any more. That's not entirely true. I value water, air, land, plants and animals, food, my computer, and my car, but that's about it. Most other physical objects don't feel significant at all. I just have too much stuff already. My room is filled with clothes I don't need, books I don't read, and art that isn't hanging on my walls.


This is even true for gifts from other people: a beautiful tea light candle holder, a ceremonial dagger, a children's book written by a friend's father. These things matter to me more because they symbolize very particular relationships. But even these objects sometimes seem tainted by the feeling that they are more things filling up my space.


There's something sad about this. A part of it, certainly, is that consumerism is a generally shallow, unfulfilling, and destructive habit. But there’s something else too, something particularly grief worthy about losing out on real significance being embodied in matter, rather than where we often place value now: in experiences or in data.


For example, I can imagine a time when someone would have given me a gift, say a knife, candle, or book, and that material object would have been rare or difficult to make. Just as now, it would have had utilitarian value and symbolic emotional value, but in additon in would have the value of its physical rarity. And because of this I would have loved it differently than I love these things now. Specifically I would have loved it with my hands. I would have received it in my fingers and I would have used it with my skin and my body. It would play the same function in my life that these objects do now, but its functionality would have been tied much more to its solidity and concrete presence.


The material abundance that has come out of industrialism is a kind of triumph, but it has made things too easy to come by. Rarity is socially manufactured more often than physically authentic. For example, diamonds aren’t rare at all. DeBeers hoards its diamonds to keep the market artificially scarce and advertises to consumers that diamonds are a symbol of class, wealth, and special moments in order to keep prices high. But strangely, since there's all kinds of subcultures of rarity, even rarity isn't rare. I don’t care about diamonds, but I do care about that historical anarchist zine that there are only a few hundred copies of, but not many other people care about that.


Industrialism makes the wrong things to easy to come by too. When you're out in the woods, you’re surrounded by trees, and grasses, and rocks, but you don't feel like the trees and grasses and rocks are oppressively filling up your space. It more feels like they ARE the space. Part of the reason may be because they have a spatial and psychological significance which is not lessened by their abundance. They fit together well because they grew together well. Another reason may be because they are alive and so feel other than us, like they are their own people. Most of our material things are US though. They are our things. To me, being surrounded by too much of myself just feels boringly familiar. 


The reduction of the sacrality of matter because it’s no longer rare is just the beginning though. The same thing is happening now even with information. There's almost too much of it. Knowledge, insight, stories, reflections, commentary, pictures. There's too much, and it's too US. It's filling our mind space in the same way that industrial products fill our physical space. In the same way that I’m unimpressed by material things, I am also becoming unimpressed by information. It’s worse than that actually, I’m not just unimpressed, but jaded, like the apathy that can come with wealth or privilege.


In the age of abundance, what's sacred? I don't know. Maybe in the future when everything we want is easy to come by things will just be better and we won't miss that sacred feeling of appreciating something deeply because it’s rare.  Maybe play will be sacred, because that’s all that’s left to do. And that will be wonderful. Then, depth will be replaced by lightheartedness and ease. But I don’t know. There still feels like there’s something sad in this. What do you think? Do you miss the material things being special in some way?

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Comments: 2
  • #1

    Ruby (Saturday, 20 August 2016 09:40)

    In asking if we MISS the sacredness of objects, are you implying that each of us has an inherent feeling for sacredness? That we each KNOW sacredness from somewhere? From deep within our humanness, our past, our childhoods in this lifetime? What is sacredness, anyway? Do we not each embue our own life and the objects in it with sacredness, importance, relevance, truth? Or are you speaking about a collective, soceital sense of sacredness...something that has been twisted, morphed, lost to materialism?

    Oh, I remember being a little child, my sticky paw closed around some precicious something. A coin from that rusty grate, a nut off my neighbor's tree, a lemon drop. Small things, yes; abundant, yes; and yet they made my heart tremble. They meant something to me. I knew abunance in many material ways, and yet those objects were precious, sacred even. I say sacred, because their precense made my heart just LEAP. I made little shrines under trees, filled them with the tiny treasures.

    And then there were the infinite treasures- the ones whose sacredness I couldnot, cannot fathom. The ones that didn't fit into my pockets or in the hollows of trees. The rain. The deep, dark, rich soil brimming with life. The ocean. My father's eyes. I did not feel their sacredness because (or inspite) of a lack of abundance...these things surrounded me, made up the rich tapestry of my life. (Or in the case of the rain, made occasional appearance.)

    Dear Zach...has anything really been lost? And if it has, is the reason you are aware of it is because its essence is still here? Is this instinct to know sacredness and to feel its lack of precense a human condition, a cultural dilemma, or a moment in humanity when we are surrounded by inumerable things and we do not know how to bestow them with proper sacredness?
    Who's to say what's sacred, anyway? The rain, the soil, the ocean, love, these speak loudly to most of us. But as for objects that we use and are surrounded by, let us revere them! Life will be the richer for it.

  • #2

    Zach (Friday, 26 August 2016 13:30)


    Your beautiful description of what it is like for something to be sacred and how it has and does and can apply to things physically abundant cuts to the quick. You've given me a powerful reminder that what is sacred is more about how we relate to things than the things themselves. As a child, it may have been easier to be in wonder and awe of the lemon drop, but that does not mean it is not possible or worthwhile to continue to be in awe of the lemon drop even as an adult. Just yesterday in fact, I was enraptured for a moment upon reflecting that my saying the words "the door closes by itself" (to a woman struggling with a sneakily-automatic door) actually and immediately changed her behavior in a semi-predictable way and that then the door closed by itself, just as I thought it would. This was incredible. When I can't even, when it boils down to it, define what the heck a door, or a person, or a predictable behavior, or language, or myself, even is, the fact that still words emerge in response to situations that have predictable results is wonder-full. It may be then that my post is more reflection of a poor justification for banality, than it is a causal mechanism for it.

    What is sacredness? I think it is just your heart leaping. Can everything be sacred? Probably, and probably it will be easier for some with some things than with others. So again, a good challenge. I did not write about, however, what was worth our reverence, instead I was musing on the conditions that make reverence come more or less easily. How do we teach or transmit wonder for all things? How do we build things and treat things with wonder? Thich Nhat Hanh suggest treating the tea cup with reverence as you drink from it and as you put it away. Maybe the question is how do we revel in material things, and our power to create them, without falling into either a shallow throw-it-away attitude or a sacred fundamentalism that only some things are worth our reverence. I think pointing out that this is possible, just as you have done, is the first step. A second step may be to differentiate the cultivation of wonder from our choosing of which objects to create and use and why. Just because we can make millions of plastic children's toys - and revere them - does not mean that we ought to do that or even that we want to do that, if the plastic eventually leeches into the Earth and oceans. We can even have a dark sacred relationship with death and suffering, while not wanting to maximize these.

    You also ask where this lack I'm expressing is coming from. Another pointed question. I think it comes from three places - a sadness that I was not exposed to sacredness and depth in community as a child, a sadness that the lack of sacredness and depth in our culture at large seems to me to contribute to the ways in which we treat our own survival and the well-being of others too lightly, and an unwillingness to let go of my past lack and simply enjoy the world around me now which is full of people who appreciate, love, and cultivate authentic sacredness in their lives. More than anything though I want to live in a world where everyone, or as many as possible, are flourishing. And to do that I think we all need to see ourselves and each other more and more the way that you saw the coin, the lemon drop, the rain, and your dad's eyes.