February 08, 2013
Desire and the Culture of Instant Gratification
Nature has blessed North America with enormous bounties, and human effort and ingenuity have turned it into a cornucopia overflowing with all that human desire could dream of. There is, however, no limit to the cravings of human desire. The eminent Urdu poet, Ghalib, has beautifully described it in the following couplet:
Hazaron khahisin icy ke her khahish pay dam niklay
Buhat niklay mere arman laikin phir bhi kam niklay
While almost all religions, Buddhism in particular, and numerous sages have advised mankind to suppress desire as it lies at the root of many evils, achievements in this world have often been prompted by intense desires. And, intense desire leads to intense determination. Genius is marked by intensity, and gumption combined with dogged determination has brought success to many a man. No less a person than Michelangelo prayed: “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”
Everything we have in America is the result of desire. Indeed desire is the motivating force of life itself.
The Qur’an, the Bible and all holy scriptures uphold the virtue of contentment. The Qur’an says: Hold on to patience; patience of beautiful contentment.
The Bible advises: Having food and clothing, let us therewith be content.
Socrates upheld contentment as the “natural wealth”
A Chinese sage, probably a Buddhist, thought that happiness lay in the ability “to lose all desire for things beyond your reach.”
All religions, sages, thinkers and philosophers have encouraged human effort but in the right and moral direction. Only such desires have been castigated as transgress moralities and hurt other human beings: only such fanatics and bigots have preached and practiced asceticism as were drop-outs of societies for a variety of reasons.
The American society and its astonishing attainments have been built mainly upon the burning desires of individuals to achieve their dreams and the freedoms afforded by the society to realize those dreams. The immigrants who reached the shores of America with dreams to labor and live well were not fettered with negative ideologies or concepts but were egged on by a forceful “can-do culture”. To the entrepreneurs pursuing their dreams no river was deep enough, no mountain high enough to thwart their march in pursuit of their dreams.
By any standard, the landing of man on the moon, the Internet, the satellite communication and a host of other technological advances are no less than miracles of the modern age with America contributing the most to these miracles.
While the innovations are all laudable, as they have made life easier and longer, they have also wrought certain malevolent changes. The sequence of desire-effort-patience-fulfillment has been overtaken by a culture of instant gratification that has dropped the element of patience from the natural process, giving rise to distortions, harmful side effects and a set of debatable values.
The most widely mentioned is the change in family values. The discovery of the contraceptive pill in mid-sixties has caused a virtual revolution in gender relations. The premium on virginity and the postponement of sexual intimacy till after wedlock has yielded to instant gratification and the acceptance of sexual experiences as a normal feature in a subsequent commitment to marriage. Even the aura of romance attached to love has taken a back seat. The concepts of family, fidelity and stability in marriage have all changed. They have been sacrificed at the alter of instant gratification.
A new scale of values has taken over. It includes: living together, live-in boy or girl friend, single mother, single father, gay couples, instant availability of porno material on Internet, and so on.
Technology has sparked a very fast tempo of life. Every thing and every one seems to be on the run. Time has shrunk despite an increase in life expectancy. This has led to fast food chains, telephonic orders, Internet shopping, Fed-Ex and UPS services of overnight deliveries, buy-now-pay-later schemes, the facility of returning a merchandise you decide not to keep, pay in easy installments and a host of similar schemes tempting customers to indulge in instant gratification.
Half a century back when I purchased my first Ford car on installments, I discovered how difficult were the “easy payments” and how much more I had to pay by way of interest. I have not bought any thing since then on “easy” installments. An “easy” installment is an oxymoron.
The fast tempo of life may have afforded man new conveniences and the ability to accomplish a lot in half the time, but it has also brought in its wake new problems. Take the fast food chains, for instance. They serve such fattening items that if you eat there regularly you can see yourself gaining weight at all the wrong places.
Statistics tell us that 61 per cent of all Americans are overweight, and obesity is now the major cause of death. Half a century back, fair, fat and forty were the ideals. A fat person was thought to be substantial and well to do. Now only the poor and the careless are fat. The wealthy and successful regularly jog and work out to keep sinewy and slim. If you are 30 pounds overweight, you are middle class; if more, then you are poor. It shows that the person lacks self-control. Etiquette demands all rich persons, particularly women, be slim.
The culture of instant gratification is rooted in the abundance created by technological capitalism. The system stands on the questionable premise that both human beings and nature are there to be exploited, no matter what the cost. Nature is being ransacked. Jobs have been transferred to the cheap labor markets of India and China to widen the margin of profit. Economic capital, particularly of the corporate sector, has been no doubt rising, but the moral capital of the people at large is depleting. That is a social consequence of the new economy.
Instant gratification has been made possible by the easy access to credit. The facility (or virus) of credit card is found in the pocket books of all. Interest rates on these go as high as 25%. Yet, it affords the holder the temptation of getting his/her desires fulfilled without wait. It all starts with a small debt; but a small debt is like a small pregnancy, it keeps growing. Let me add quickly that I do regard credit as inevitable for economic activities such as trade, commerce and investment. What I am talking about here is the trap of credit card debts that are largely acquired for instant gratification. The high rates of interest charged on them may be regarded as usury.
In America, the lowest twenty percent of the people remain stuck in that category because they are unable to reconcile their net income with their gross habits. They can’t resist temptation. An income for them is what they can’t live without or within. Many among them live so far beyond their income that they may be living apart. Their credit cards land them eventually in bankruptcy courts.
“You can’t survive in this society without a credit card”, an acquaintance assured me ten years back. I took a bet with him that I could. Last week marked the completion of the decade. That has prompted me to write this piece. I have won the bet, but I lost him to a heart attack within two years of the bet. I have kept my resolve to do without a credit card not because of the bet but because of my belief that to enter into a credit debt for the instant gratification of an avoidable desire, is an unmitigated folly. Fortunately, all members of the South Asian community that I am acquainted with are fully cognizant of the fact that a cavalier use of the facility of credit cards for instant gratification of avoidable desires gets stuck into the craw like a fish bone. No wonder, few qualify to be called obese.