Sun, 21 Dec 2003

Why more is less, even during Christmas season

I wasn't raised in Christmas' gift-showering tradition so it isn't really a big deal to me. As far as I am concerned, I don't even have a holiday.

As a kid, we got so excited about Chinese New Year instead. It was a big thing back then. But with the government's call for Chinese-Indonesians to make it as low profile a celebration as possible each year, without the fanfare of the lion and dragon dances that were banned in the 1970s (thankfully lifted now), the sense of celebration waned as we grew up. I missed many Chinese New Years because I wasn't home and my family never complained about my absence.

Now I am in New York, a heaven for shoppers, with bargains all-year round but particularly during the holidays. I often have to resist the temptation to buy stuff, especially as this is not my permanent home and the objects become extra baggage.

I remember with a smile how my roommate Brian once told me that I ought not be too attached to the stuff I had left behind when I returned home after an extended visit to the U.S. the first time around.

"As a Buddhist," he said in the patronizing tone he typically adopts with me, "you should know better. You don't need these thing. Even I want to get rid of much of my stuff."

It struck home (once in a great while this man does say something insightful). We do collect stuff we don't need or even look at once we buy it. We do live with too much baggage. We don't travel light throughout life. As we grasp more we are getting deeper into the trap of the worldly illusion that capitalism nurtures: the artificial and superficial sense of insufficiency.

And Christmas is the ultimate celebration of that culture.

I have this "obsession" about getting the best bargain. It's great when I find that what I bought is more expensive in other places, but it's a different story when I have bought something only to find it's cheaper elsewhere.

Even when it's a done deal, and I cannot return the merchandise, I still check the price in another store. I obsess about not being so thorough, thinking of how I could have used that money.

It is a very un-Buddhist side of me, sad to say.

One day, my good friend Tass and I were walking down Elmhurst Ave. in the borough of Queens. We went into a perfume store, and saw my sought-after brand. Tass offered to buy it for me.

Usually I would decline a man offering to buy me stuff (for I know the gift doesn't come free), but I trusted him enough at that point, so I just said, "Are you sure?" It was US$65 and was already discounted 20 percent.

I thanked him (well, I could at least justify it as a Christmas present).

But the next day I was in another store in another part of the city and spied a big sale at the cosmetics counter. There was my brand for the same price, but including perfume, body mist and body lotion.

Could I somehow return the one I have and buy this instead? Or, perhaps, I should just buy it and give the one I have to my mom or my sister. Or just keep both -- I like them anyway.

I weighed the pros and cons of buying it for at least half an hour. Then, somehow, I came to my senses. I didn't even buy the perfume with my own money in the first place! (And I had always justified it that it wasn't about the money.) I was asking myself, is it really sensible to have more things than I need?

Besides, there will always be sales, something else that will catch my interest and make me breathless in excitement. I could come back next year and I bet I wouldn't have used up half the bottle as my cosmetics and fragrance really last for years. So I decided to just leave and give it some more thought instead of succumbing to my impulse to "relieve my sense of loss".

But the episode made me think. Am I really that shallow? What Brian told me kind of stuck in my mind. I am rather embarrassed by it. And I know this has to change.

We want more and more things. We want control. We want things our way. In the process, we become dull. Our consciousness is cluttered with unimportant things that sap so much of our energy.

And we mourn the lost time and energy and other precious things we could have put more focus on.

It is so easy to reflect upon this and point at the absurdities, but changing a habit is as hard as moving a mountain.

-- Rahayu Ratnaningsih