Mark Twain once suggested, “Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” Dude was right.
Maybe Twain held this belief in part because of his humble childhood, but I wouldn’t overlook or underestimate his intellectual prowess as a means for reaching this conclusion. It seems the more we advance our lives, the more goods we take on and deem vital to our existence and status.
But what if we were honest with ourselves? What if we asked our inner person what we needed to live? Yes, the Internet, imported rugs, reclining sofas, iPads, separate sets of dish ware for unique events, cuff links, bagel slicers, 50 piece tool sets, diaper pails, jewelry boxes, and other imaginable items from various periods of modern industrialization are quite nice and make life more convenient. But haven’t you ever stepped full-force into a new stage of life only to look back a few months, years, or even decades later and think, “I really miss the simplicity of an earlier time.” To reminisce is fun, and by no means does it suggest a lack of appreciation for the current moment, yet it can bring to light the extent to which we have developed our lives and how we live in accordance to the material we have accumulated.
Example: My wife and I utilize DirecTV as our cable provider, and one of their most popular add-ons is the NFL Sunday Ticket–a seasonal package that provides a fairly unhealthy dose of football for those with seemingly insatiable appetites for the game–particularly since the rise in popularity of fantasy football. Well, naturally I had to have this package as soon as Tara and I were comfortable enough with our disposable income that it became feasible. And just like that I couldn’t get enough. It was intoxicating–and when games went to commercial, I could flip to the addicting Red Zone channel that would keep me posted on all scoring drives and mega-highlights. I was hooked.
Fast forwarding a few years from the day that I stumbled across the glorious football package, I recently took a step back to consider how we could save money and spend more quality time together. Not so ironically, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Well shit, we have a pretty robust cable package.” When I ventured online and actually viewed our deal, I realized how far down the rabbit hole I had fallen. Not only did we have NFL Sunday Ticket, but we had HBO, Cinemax, and the second highest cable package offered. We also have Netflix and Amazon Prime. We were basically prepared to provide television for toddlers, teenagers, young adults, full-blown adults, the elderly, and whomever else wanted to pop in for a show or two. We could have never viewed everything, and we were paying out the nose for it, too. We had fallen victim, and mostly by my doing, to Twain’s admonishment regarding the lure of civilization.
My point? Keep developing the world. It’s awesome. I love advancement. I desire change. I welcome a good binge-watching of Parenthood or Breaking Bad from time to time, but I am learning much more of what balance looks like and how rewarding it can feel. I am beginning to understand that because I can have something does not mean I need to or should have something. I am furthering my discipline as a man–I am, as Immanuel Kant suggested, seeking enlightenment. I am chasing personal responsibility. And perhaps with the utmost of timing, a college professor that taught me much on life and writing, Dr. John Nordlof, shared an excerpt from Kant’s “What Is Enlightment?” (1784) through his Facebook page today. He referenced Kant’s words that I have turned over in my mind many times:
It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.
While this passage touches more on the notion of personal responsibility outlined above than it does the emergence of civilization and necessity, it poignantly demands the individual be his own advocate–a concession likely resonant with Twain’s call for awareness and mindfulness of what we own and being careful that it does not eventually own us. For isn’t that the fear? Don’t we all catch ourselves staring at our phones far too long? Don’t we all watch one too many episodes of our favorite show? Maybe not–I’d hate to generalize, but I do feel that the temptations of the modern world naturally present themselves with greater intensity for each new generation, and that is simultaneously a gift and challenge.
Advancements can be brutally intoxicating, life-enhancing, empowering, and destructive all at once. The beautiful and frightening component of that truth is that we are at the helm and responsible to navigate wisely and proceed consciously.