When I was small enough to ride in a car seat, I used to ogle at every fancy vehicle that passed through my field of vision. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be one of those people who could afford an expensive, exclusive, luxurious car.
During my senior year of high school, I convinced myself the pinnacle of success was owning a 432 Park Ave. penthouse in Manhattan. Despite my noblest aspirations to not be materialistic, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a view of Central Park would signify I’ve arrived.
Last month, I came a hair’s-width-close to impulse-buying an iPad for no other reason than it looked shiny, and I wanted one.
Why, despite all my best efforts to avoid falling prey to consumerism, do I desire bigger, better, grander things to make me feel like I’ve made it?
The Photographer’s Promise
The images on every luxury item’s website are pristine, pressed, and polished. The photographer lulls you into the fantasy that a key to that condo, a fob to that car, or a passcode to that iPad would make you feel like a billion bucks.
The photographer’s promise is the way their pictures whisper, once you get this you will have made it.
But it’s a façade.
Why does it work then?
The explanation is simple: Nice things signal status. A higher status in the tribe predicted greater chances of survival and reproduction. Thus, there’s a strong evolutionary motive for me to acquire more stuff. Advertisers don’t create this desire, but they’re certainly unafraid to evoke it.
How can I curb this motive so I can step off the hedonic treadmill? It hit one day me while cleaning my house.
432 Park Avenue
On 432 Park Avenue’s website, there are photographs of the apartments. Enormous crystal-clear windows glimmer, elegant marble countertops sparkle, and the view of Manhattan looks more like a painting than a picture. But all of it, inevitably, will soon be coated in a thin film of dust.
As I was wiping down my kitchen table, I realized even tables in 432 Park Ave. penthouses get dusty.
In time, all the things that catch my eye with their newness, niceness, and novelty will eventually be coated in the same insidious substance found in janitors’ closets.
A film of humility, dust settles over all of man’s creations no matter how magnificent or decrepit. Its inescapability unifies everything it touches. It’s what connects billionaires to homeless people, Ferraris to Hondas, and skyscrapers to slums.
Not only will they be covered in dust. With enough neglect, all these things will become dust.
Like the Romans
I’m reminded of Ancient Rome. We observe the past as if it were merely a subject to be studied and not a collection of real lives of people who sincerely believed there was no way their all-powerful empire could ever fall. How awed the Ancient Romans must have been by the Colosseum–how magnificently it must have stood against the backdrop of Rome. And now, even with great effort spent to preserve the structure, half of it no longer stands.
To fight the ravages of time, we do things like hire cleaners, preservationists, and historians to maintain the things humanity has built, and we should. We should preserve the history we so desperately need to learn from.
Yet the crumbling of ancient landmarks signifies the futility of our toiling.
Decay is inevitable. Despite our best efforts, everything will crumble in time.
The building’s silhouette that juts grandly out of the New York City skyline; the car’s paint job that glistens in the sunlight; the device’s display that looks realer than real life.
It will all be covered in dust. It will all become dust.
Small particles of lint, dead skin cells, and God knows what else ties every $200,000 home to every $20 million penthouse and every $2,000 beater to every $200,000 sports car.
Of course, the people who can afford these nice things can also afford to pay someone to clean them so the dust never settles, but it’s always there–waiting for a break in the cleaning routine to remind us of the futility of our possessions.
Now, when I find myself slipping back into the lie that things will satisfy me, I repeat a mantra: “Even Ferraris get dusty.”
It leads me to ask, How different would I really feel in a Ferrari than in my Honda? How much happier would I really be on 432 Park Ave. than on 123 Main St.? How much more productive would I be on an iPad vs. my current Windows laptop?–Not very, not very, and not very.
It reminds me of what can and can’t be bought. You can buy an expensive chunk of metal. You can’t buy lasting health, love, family, or fulfillment.
It grounds me in reality. Even those people with the fancy things in the photographs still deal with dust. No matter how high and mighty we get, a particle smaller than a grain of sand will meet us there to remind us reality touches the rich, the poor, and everyone in between.
It all starts pristine. It all gets covered in dust. It all becomes dust.
Just like our bodies, the world as we know it will pass away. From the Earth it came. To the Earth it will return. From dust to dust.