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Why do you sleep? Awake from your beds of negligence. The sun hath arisen from the day spring of pre-existence. Why do you drown yourselves in the sea of materialism? Behold the resplendent light! Listen to the songs of the New Age. A new life is breathed into all existing things. The zephyrs of the divine favour are wafting upon you. – Tahirih, quoted by Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 10, p. 233.
“Why do you drown yourselves in the sea of materialism?” Tahirih asks us.
You’ve heard the phrase “retail therapy,” right? Perhaps you’ve indulged in a bit of it yourself. I know I have.
Retail therapy—shopping with the primary goal of improving your mood through buying and accumulation—can afflict many of us in the developed world. When overindulged, it can also spiral downward into a compulsive shopping disorder or oniomania, that high level of addiction to rash, unnecessary binge consumption. Drowning our sorrows or our depression in retail therapy always indulges the false hope that acquiring things will make us feel better about ourselves. While that temporary high may improve our mood for a short while, it always fades, and back we go to the mall, whether real or virtual.
Some astute observers and commentators have said that the shopping center—or the bazaar, the mall, the online marketplace—has superseded the function, in our modern consumer culture, of the temple:
The myth of unending consumption has taken the place of the belief in life everlasting.
– Ivan Illich
It was the emergence of mass consumption that catalyzed the transference of the sacred from the cathedral to the modern shopping mall. – M. K. Earl
This kind of unhealthy relationship with the material world and its never-ending supply of products, the Baha’i teachings tell us, can have grave consequences:
If a man is successful in his business, art, or profession he is thereby enabled to increase his physical wellbeing and to give his body the amount of ease and comfort in which it delights. All around us today we see how man surrounds himself with every modern convenience and luxury, and denies nothing to the physical and material side of his nature. But, take heed, lest in thinking too earnestly of the things of the body you forget the things of the soul: for material advantages do not elevate the spirit of a man. Perfection in worldly things is a joy to the body of a man but in no wise does it glorify his soul.
It may be that a man who has every material benefit, and who lives surrounded by all the greatest comfort modern civilization can give him, is denied the all-important gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is indeed a good and praiseworthy thing to progress materially, but in so doing, let us not neglect the more important spiritual progress, and close our eyes to the Divine light shining in our midst. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 62.
Of course, faith and religion play a crucial part in bringing about our spiritual progress:
The current global order has often approached the natural world as a reservoir of material resources to be exploited. The grave consequences of this paradigm have become all too apparent, and more balanced relationships among the peoples of the world and the planet are clearly needed…
We all have agency and none of our decisions are without consequence. Establishing sustainable patterns of individual and collective life will therefore require not only new technologies, but also a new consciousness in human beings, including a new conception of ourselves and our place in the world.
From where will this consciousness arise? And where will the volition and self-discipline needed to embody it in countless cities, towns, and villages be found? Qualities such as the capacity to sacrifice for the well-being of the whole, to trust and be trustworthy, to find contentment, to give freely and generously to others derive not from mere pragmatism or political expediency. Rather they arise from the deepest sources of human inspiration and motivation. In this, faith has shown itself to be key, whether in the efficacy of sustainability efforts or the capacity of the human race. – the Baha’i International Community, Shared Vision and Shared Volition—Choosing Our Global Future, Statement to the Paris Climate Conference, December, 2015.
Next: Climate Change: A Fulcrum for a Unified Future