Tag Archive: Consumerism


Facebook & Status Anxiety

AMDG

This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments when I finish (14th)

Thumbs down.It was reported last week that Facebook spreads unhappiness (examples here and here).  Research in Michigan, US,  suggested using the site makes people less satisfied with their lives. This resonates with other research that claims Facebook usage increases feelings of isolation, jealousy and depression. It is not clear whether this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation… i.e. it is not facebook that causes isolation but rather those who feel isolated who are more likely to spend more time on facebook. However let’s remember the genesis of facebook, dreamed up in the dorms of Harvard, a high-pressure tank of adolescent insecurity, competitiveness and astronomical expectations. This was portrayed warts and all in the film The Social Network – and perhaps explains why  the architecture of Facebook Pages are often carefully designed to suggest a great and exciting life and therefore can be misleading.

status anxietyCould it be that Facebook is hyper-charging ‘status anxiety’. This idea came from a fascinating book of the same title by (atheist) philosopher Alain de Botton. Most unhappiness comes from this status anxiety and explains why the rich are often unhappier than those with much more modest lifestyles. Because we are always comparing ourselves to those who are one step above us on the wealth ladder. Rather than being satisfied with what we have, we become anxious because we don’t have as nice a car, as big a house etc as this or that friend. You can see how that works on facebook – X’s status updates/ photos indicate they are having a more exciting life than me. Look at his photo in a club surrounded by those beautiful girls whilst I am stuck at home (probably doing something much more interesting or fulfilling). Why has she got twice as many friends as me. So if you want to be happy – don’t fall into the trap of Facebook Status Anxiety!

By the way if you have read this through my facebook link and think it’s a bit hypocritical – my blog posts go onto facebook and twitter automatically. My policy with facebook is to ‘raid’ every week – get in and get out as quickly as I can – and do my business before I get sucked in…(honest) !!

Foodbanks – Hope & Scandal

AMDG

This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments at the end of next week 

 1376142163Here in Manchester – we are about to open the first student-run foodbank in the country.  We have been working with the Trussel Trust (TTT), a Christian charity who currently support the biggest network of foodbanks in the country.  The alarming rate of growth of foodbanks is a direct response to two conflicting trends in British life.  The growth of ‘food poverty’ : as globally food prices rise, energy prices rise, but locally wages stay still or decrease, those with a basic income are finding it harder and harder to put food on the table.  The second trend is the cutting of benefits, and the dismantling of a bloated welfare state.  With pressure on local agencies to withhold benefits for the slightest misdemeanour, those accustomed to relying on this are finding themselves in emergency situations, where they may have to wait a few weeks before any income resumes.   So foodbanks are popping up all over the place, often but not exclusively in churches – to provide short-term emergency assistance. 
Picture1The TT model that we are following,  provides a referral service, where those in crisis can be referred to us for food parcels by a variety of front-line agencies.  People don’t just walk-in off the streets, it is not a drop-in centre they must be referred with vouchers.  These are also limited to three per six months, so it is not creating dependency but rather providing an emergency – short term crisis service.  The vouchers also ensure that a sophisticated monitoring process can go on to find out the causes of these crises, and spot any patterns emerging.  It was interesting to see that TTT was able to identify a spike in demand during the summer holidays as free-school-dinners were not available to struggling families.  Present at yesterdays training day – here at the chaplaincy – were representatives from the council, the huge local hospital, schools, churches, sure-start centres,  job-centers, charities etc.  It was a an impressive kaleidoscope of civil society,  the ill-fated ‘Big-Society’.

download (2)The scandal of food-poverty in such a wealthy society – for me points more towards the breakdown of the extended family rather than free-market politics.  Like many post-industrial societies we are in a much-needed reform of the welfare state, but when the family is not there to pick up the pieces – more strain is put on civil-society as big-government withdraws.  However dirty politics also reared its head yesterday.  It turns out that the job-centres, who are enthusiastic referrers to food banks, at times verging on the irresponsible, using us an excuse to meet quotas, cut corners.  The job centres refuse to use the voucher scheme as sanctioned by TTT.  Why – because much of this food poverty is hidden – but the monitoring system TTT uses allows for the identification of the cause of the crisis and this is an embarrassment for the Dept of Work and Pensions (DWP).  On the voucher it is indicated why someone is in crisis, e.g sickness, benefit delays, domestic violence, debt etc.   It seems that although there was an agreement with TTT and DWP back in 2011, DWP have acted unilaterally and changed it – refusing to use TTT’s vouchers.  It may be that the TTT network is so extensive and successful now, but also they are so good at data gathering that this is embarrassing the government.  They are happy to dump people on the TTT, but not happy for statistics to get out about how the changes are effecting people – now that is Scandalous!

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, Californ...

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, California. Photographed on August 5, 2006 by user Coolcaesar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was fascinated to read that Ebay has recently banned the selling of spells, curses, hexes, magic, prayers, potions and healing sessions from its website.  Ebay – the virtual marketplace – is a capitalists dream.  Never has there been a market place with so many dimensions, with millions of items for sale worldwide.  The range of ‘ items are’grouped into more than 40,000 main and sub-categories, and cover everything for instance, a finger painting in real chocolate pudding by two-year-old Corbin, who is hoping to raise enough pocket money to visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom or a nifty black Ferrari 360 (starting at $150,000). Never before has there been a market with such abundant dimensions.  But it seems that even the free market has limits!

I think it is foolish to dismiss the paranormal, but also wise to protect the vulnerable from crass exploitation. There is a fine line between this type of exploitation and that of more reputable mainstream religions.  A slightly alarming development in Christianity over recent years has been the rise of the ‘Gospel of Prosperity’ mainly in Pentecostalist circles.  Something that impresses me about Pentecostalism is its ability to help people who are struggling ‘sort their lives out’ particularly in a poor urban context, and the creative ways many Pentecostalists put their faith into practical action and help transform communities and add to the common good. However what is a distortion of the Gospel is this idea that God will bless you financially if you donate generously to the pastor. Apart from obviously being open to corruption, it is this fusion of personal empowerment / self help which I think ultimately leads to a consumerist narcissism as opposed to the radical self-giving which is at the climax of the Gospels, and Jesus’s stress on servant leadership.  This distortion of Christianity is proving very popular in Asia, especially in South Korea which now has the biggest ‘church’ in the world in Seoul.

Interestingly eBay’s simple online system relies to an extent on the fact that most people are basically honest. But as the market grows in value, it inevitably attracts more rogues.  The first line of defence in online trading is eBay’s feedback profile, which is in effect the online reputation of both buyers and sellers. When any transaction is completed, both buyers and sellers are invited to rate how successful it has been, and leave a review. These reviews can be read by all users.  Many of the traders on eBay have come to value their reputations greatly, and those with enough positive-feedback scores are allowed to participate in buyer-protection schemes, which offer refunds. As far as religion goes – reputations are forged or destroyed at a much slower rate, over thousands of years.

Stay Fresh for Freshers Week

AMDG

Greetings from Manchester!  We are in the middle of a hectic freshers week and it is impressive just to see the sheer volume of students arriving here in Manchester.  I count myself blessed to have inherited a very impressive core group of young men and women here at the chaplaincy who commitment and passion for the place is striking.  Freshers seem broadly to fall into two camps, at least at first glance, those who are arriving here from the immediate locality, or surrounding towns and cities, often accompanied by a cohort of friends from sixth form or other schools, and so have an immediate support group to rely on.  Then there are the many freshers who have come from far, often arriving on their own, excited and nervous.  I must admit, this group concerns me more, because they are more vulnerable.  There is a lot of pressure on them to make friends quickly and just a quick glance at the promotions and posters of Freshers Week events – there is a relentless mantra of alcohol, parties etc….. There is a certain peer pressure, with a new-found freedom that is being quite cynically exploited by bars, clubs and the booze industry.  As I said to the students at mass on Sunday night – be prudent, wise, carefully select your friends and don’t do anything that you’re not comfortable with.

I was wondering if I sound like a grumpy old priest, but this analysis was confirmed yesterday in three random conversations.  Firstly a young man came up from Azerbaijan came up to me looking for the Muslim chaplain, after a good chat as he was leaving he said, ‘Pray for me Father that I can stay true to my faith this week.’  I assured him I would, and was very impressed by his words.  A little later I was on the phone to a local printers getting a banner organised, I wanted to know if he could deliver it within 24 hours, and when he asked where I was, he tone changed suddenly and was delighted when I said Catholic Chaplaincy – he then confided to me his concerns about Freshers Week, and that they had considered a campaign which would say ‘Stay Fresh for Freshers Week’.  He wrapped up the conversation saying that we would get the banner for cost price – i.e. straight from the suppliers and they wouldn’t charge us!  His name – Omer and here’s a link to his company (clicky clicky).   Thirdly, later on in the day, I happened to be in the Church showing two students how to operate the disabled lift when two young architecture students came in.  They were saying how beautiful the church was, and told me it was a great space to come and sit amidst the hurly burly of Freshers Fairs etc.  The conversation went in the same direction as the previous ones – about their concerns etc.  And yes – they too were Muslims.  So these three random conversations with Muslim students and a Muslim businessman made me realise – maybe I am not a grumpy old priest after all !

AMDG

Many of the Catholic parishes in the Highlands of Scotland were also ‘crofts’ – which allowed the priest to support himself and the parish by living off the land. A croft is a small free-hold of land which allows sustainable living. As communities have got wealthier, the need for the parish to sustain a croft has diminished. However I now in many places the vestiges continue. I have had the joy the last few years to go to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a few weeks supply in the summer at this parish click here.  The priest still has his own flock of sheep, real not metaphorical, and last summer I was presented with my own lamb, butchered and prepared by the parish shepherd!  Here in Arisaig  the priest keeps over 40 chickens, and ably assisted by the wonderful Winnie (left) we have a regular supply of ‘holy eggs’ which parishoners pick up and are enjoyed at breakfast. I have really enjoyed feeding the chickens with Winnie and learning about poultry-care.

Even better of course is enjoying the fruits of their labour. The parish house is equipped with a magnificent double egg-cup – first time I have seen one!  Not only does it allow you to be greedy – but also to compare tastes. Today I tried the light blue shelled egg along side a Polish chickens classic brown colour egg.  The Pole edged it slightly – with one of the richest yolks I have every enjoyed. It is true that free-range tastes much nicer.

There is a serious point – the growing movement of eating locally sourced and in-season products. Not only does it support the local economy, the food is healthier and tastier!  Scotland seems to be leading the way with this and the influential Fife Diet.  Asking local people to sign-up to eating food from the region of Fife, for a year,  and to monitor their progress and share their experience. The project has developed from a voluntary network into a funded body and in its development has changed from a small amount of people dedicated to eating ‘from Fife’ for a year, to a much larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be. It has won awards for ethical consumption.  Seeing the parishioners donate money and pick up their eggs  on Sunday was very inspiring – particularly as the younger contribute a bit more so the older folk can get their eggs very cheaply.  This could be a great idea for other parishes to take up!

Reverse Culture Shock

The clock tower of Big Ben at dusk. The north ...

AMDG

So I am back in London having left India with a heavy heart.  I seem to have stumbled into a weird collective hangover after a the 4-day holiday inspired by the Queens Jubilee. After an unforgettable farewell from the students and the community in Manvi I am mulling over the last few months.  On Sunday there was a nice ‘bridge’ to coming home – I was able to show some of the children the incredible scenes on the Thames of the BBC’s live footage of the Queens flotilla.  These kids from the villages were amazed at the sights and sounds coming from the UK, the colours of the boats, the Queen, the flags and the pageantry, their eyes were popping out of their heads! For me it was two very different worlds colliding, something I am now experiencing, reverse culture shock is an interesting phenomena. Being home again, surrounded by the familiar but slightly disconnected, I am enjoying a certain anonymity as I walk around, after having been stared at in many places in India and Philippines, although all of the attention was very friendly particularly from young women!  I will miss that but on the whole I prefer anonymity!

I hear the grass is greener in Aberystwyth…..

I have been chuckling to myself as today’s news headlines includes a story about the return of  traffic wardens to Aberyswyth after a year of absence. Their return has been welcomed after a year of ‘chaos’ resulting from bad parking!  – Aberyswyth has nothing on Manila or Bangalore!  I haven’t seen a double-yellow line for a long time and at least there are no cows wandering down the middle of the street. The temperature of 12 degrees has come as a bit of a shock after a year of above 30.  Although give me the choice of 45°C and 12°C, I’ll take chilly drizzly Britain any time! Something that always makes a big impact on me whenever I return home is how green the UK is, the plus side of so much rain! Luxuriating in a warm shower for the first time in 9 months is a wonderful feeling to be savoured slowly, but I will soon be taking that for granted.  It is amazing how quickly we take for granted the many luxuries that are not shared by the majority of the world. Broadband, reliable electricity, power showers, indoor carpets, it is amazing how quickly these luxuries become perceived as necessities, as the Pew Foundation recently researched.  Perhaps consumerism relies on that transition, so we need to be tied into buying and replacing or upgrading various bits of tech.

My experience over the last ten years of taking adolescents and university students to India and Africa is that reverse culture shock is a significant problem for some of them.  Coupled with the dynamic idealisms of the young and the limited amount of interest shared by their friends and family about ‘their’ incredible experience, it is wise to try and prepare them for the re-entry to their own culture. We always have a ‘debriefing’ session and a day of reflection to prepare for this. A useful resource for them is the novel You Can’t Go Home Again  by Thomas Wolfe published posthumously in 1940. Although the context is different, going back to small town America during the depression, the ideas are useful for getting young people to prepare themselves. The title comes from the denouement of the novel in which Webber realises: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” The phrase “you can’t go home again” has entered American speech to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you can’t return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life and, more generally, attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail. It has been suggested that the phrase is sometimes spoken to mean that you can’t return to your place of origin without being deemed a failure.   

I tell the youngsters You can Go home again, in fact you must go home again, but understand that you  have changed. Be patient, try to understand why and when you get angry, but most importantly put into practice the things you have discovered about yourself and the world.  When you are in your mid thirties the reverse culture shock is not so strong – but it is still there. So I hope my life will become more simple, my patience more robust and my compassion deeper now I am back…… a stupid and dangerous thing to write on a blog, please don’t throw it back in my face when I fail!! 

Cricket and Scandals

AMDG

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings ...

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings and Kolkata Knightriders during the DLF IPL T20 tournament (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Indian Premier League (IPL),  the most lucrative form of domestic cricket in the world, is reaching its climax.  Its stars are ubiquitous on advertising hoardings, its games have been watched every night for the last six weeks, with people crowding round televisions in dusty villages, by the side of the road, in cafes, houses everywhere.  I have become used the incongruous sight of simple shacks with a satellite dish precariously balanced on the roof at the back.  It may be coincidental that the timing of the 6 week long tournament seems to fit nicely with the school holidays.  So India is full of boys trying to emulate their local heroes.  Here in Manvi the hero is the Jamaican Chris Gayle who has hit an incredible 56 ‘super sixes’ during the tournament for the local team, Bangalore Royal Challenges, putting them on the threshold of the semi-finals.

But in a clever marketing strategy the IPL is not just about sport it is also glamour.  Remarkably, around 45% of viewers are women attracted not only to the IPL’s breathless sort of cricket but also to the glamour that attends it.  Teams owned by Bollywood Stars, cheerleaders (mainly caucasian) cheering every boundary,  much of the crowds are dominated by young, middle-class city-dwellers,  India’s most free-spending consumers.As the season is coming to a climax I confess that I am being caught up in the enthusiasm (football has definately taken the back seat after a miserable season….Chelsea who? )  But apart from the cricket I am fascinated by what the IPL reveals about India. The last three nights news has been dominated by off-field scandals.  Five minor players being suspended for match-fixing, a megastar owner being banned from Mumbais Cricket ground after a brawl and the arrest of an Australian Cricketer after an alledged molestation incident in an after-match party.  These scandals have off course sidelined more important news, like the two Italian marines in Indian custody after shooting  Keralan Fisherman, droughts and regular shocking incidents of the infanticide of young girls.  I think the IPL also encapsulates a tension and a fissure that runs right down the middle of India.  The fast growing minority of wealthy middle class, urbane and western, who wield the power and influence. And the majority who are impoverished, rural, but still obsessed by cricket.

The Megastar owner – Mr Shah Rukh Kahn, is the King of Bollywood.  One of the few Indian film stars who has cross-over potential, presenting Golden Globes, , charity campaigner, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders (my favourite team name – Bangalores Royal Challengers are named after a brand of whisky belonging to their owner in a way to get around a strict advertising ban!).  He is also a great actor, in a recent film he played an autistic Muslim in America  and won plaudits from the Autistic Society. He is also guilty of bewildering levels of hubris, which is not surprising when you see how he is deified here.  He was shocked at having been frisked at an American airport, obviously celebrities are above the security concerns of us mere mortals and he is the first celebrity to register a tattoo in his name. It seems that the hubris hit again when he tried to enter the pitch in Mumbai to celebrate a famous victory, he drunkenly brawled with security earning him a five year ban from the stadium. This has had political repercussions already, as he did last year when he asked why no Pakastani Cricketers had been signed up for the IPL.  A soap opera that will no doubt continue as India struggles in a transition to a consumerist and liberal society.  There is a lot of unease in this transition, and so there should be, there are many values that are being pushed aside and being replaced by ….. nothing really, just a soul-destroying celebrity hedonism .  So for celebrity hubris Mr Kahn has suprised even a jaded Englishmen.  It maybe a good time to remind him on the feast of the Ascension that only one man, who really was God, is able to ascend to heaven, and he was drawn up by the love of the Father not ephemeral fame.

AMDG

What did the big firework say to the little firework? 'My pop is bigger than your pop!'

I spent most of New Years day in Cebu airport waiting for a delayed flight.  The cause for the delay….. Snow? – no,  Erupting Volcanoes? – no.   Believe it or not it was because of smog caused by the clouds of smoke from the NewYear fireworks in Manila !  New Year is celebrated in style here in the Phillipines – but unlike in the UK where a lot of people will go to shared displays organised by local govt, or other bodies here they are all ‘private’ displays ( if you can ever call a firework display private).

After the simple joys of Christmas in the Mountains I enjoyed a few days of wonderful hospitality with fellow Brit Prov Jesuit Stefan Garcia’s family in Cebu.   New Years Eve was marked by a sumptuous meal and celebration with the extended family in the hills outside Cebu.  The fireworks were truly impressive – as different families were trying to outdo each other.  Stefans father, who owns the Visayan Electricity Company, explained to me that you can tell who has had a good year by their firework display – this year it seemed to be the lawyers and doctors with the biggest displays!  Instead of conspicuous consumption – this was a case of  conspicuous combustion!

As always those with less resources join in with their own (less safe) fireworks.  Very popular is the ‘judas belt’ which is are essentialy firecrackers arranged sequentially along a common fuse. . As the fuse burns, it ignites each of the explosives in turn at a rate of up to 1000 rounds per minute. The noise produced is similar to that of a machine gun, but slightly irregular due to the inherent differences between the rounds.  Due to the proximity of the individual rounds, it is possible (and common) for an unexploded round to be thrown some distance by the explosive force of the adjacent one, before exploding itself. This unpredictable nature makes the Judas belt more dangerous than it seems. This year there were only476 victims of firecracker accidents in ‘one of the world’s most raucous and dangerous New Year celebrations’.

Happy New-Year to all – good luck with all those resolutions.

Catholic Consumerism

AMDG

It was a surprise going down to our local mall, Riverbanks in Manila, as they are already playing Christmas songs (and we are not even out of September).  The songs are mostly American, I had to tolerate Mariah Carey screeching All I want for Christmas is you as I patiently waited in line to pay for three lemons. I am sure that the last – ‘you’ that came from the divas mouth lasted at least 2 min’.  Shopping malls are a big part of Phillipino culture – every city has a couple of these huge shopping centres, with seemingly one around every corner in Manila.  People slock thre at the weekends to socialise, eat, drink, browse and occasionaly actually buy things!  The richest guy here, a Chinese immigrant called Henry Sy, started the SM chain of malls from nothing – according to the Phillipino blog People he started off selling smuggled shoes on the pavement, he business is no worth $7 billion.  Going to the shopping mall on Sunday you will be in for a big suprise. In many malls Mass is celebrated before they switch on the escalators and open the shops.

Disclaimer – I am not responsible for the shaky camera work this time !  Clip taken off youtube.

These popular masses in malls were sanctioned by the Archbishop of Manila in 2007.  This could be seen as a visionary and creative attempt to literally bring religion into the marketplace, and these masses are well attended. Mass attendance seems strong to me here, but I have been told that in a population that recently surpassed 100million, only about 15% regularly partipate in the sacraments. The churches seem full because there are relatively few churches for such a large Catholic population.  So maybe it is necessary to bring mass to the people in the form of these mall masses –  but I have reservations.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Eucharist was celebrated only in churches and other places of worship – too restrictive – and starting in the 1950s, Church authorities began allowing Eucharistic celebrations in schools, to get children to participate. Now mass in shopping malls has arrived in the Philippines because on week-ends and statutory holidays these places are literally invaded by hundreds of thousands of people.

Good idea or not? Again I can see both sides of the argument, bringing it to the people versus the banalasation of a sacred and dignified rite. I think a crucial role for the Church is in offering a critical stance on consumerism. In fact this maybe more focused and helpful than just ranting against the evils of secularism.  The recent General Congregation of the Jesuits stated that the consumerist cultures in which people live today do not foster passion, but rather addiction and compulsion. They demand resistance (GC35 decree 2/21).  – and  a compassionate response. My own country – Britain – has a real problem with child well-being and unhappiness, so much so that UNICEF has just released a report  on the affects of consumerism on family life – basically expressing concern over patterns of ‘obsessive consumerism’ and how they affect children :

The Government must now show strong leadership in order to support families to fight back against the ways in which the UK’s materialistic culture embeds inequality in our society, affects family time and relationships, and has a negative impact on children’s well-being.  UNICEF  Child Well Being in the Spain, Uk & Sweden

So Mass in malls? commercialisation of Christmas ?  what do you think……

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,019 other followers

%d bloggers like this: