08 Oct 2012 11:25

By Anna Westin

I live in the age of the consumer.  To a certain extent, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: I watch the adverts, take heed of the Vogue fashion updates and ask the expert salesman for advice before a purchase.  I love the thrill of spending– the ability to get something new so easily with the touch of a plastic card.  Consuming has become a central part of who I am, without really any conscious consent.

But sometimes I wonder about this. Because as I start to tally up my balance for the end of the month, and find storage for the last purchased item that somehow I had to have, I wonder if I don’t begin to feel overwhelmed by it all.  ‘Keeping up with the Jones’ as a way of saying, Here I am– I am a person that is to be taken seriously in the sea of iPhones and Barbours and boots.  Essentially, I am to be taken seriously as a person because I consume seriously.  I am defined by my Brand.  And this is what starts to get my philosophy mind in a knot, because it hammers close to the sacred ground of the categorical imperative.  Treat people as an end and never as a means to an end.  I think Kantian and start to feel uneasy with how I define myself and my own self-worth.  Surely it is I, the person, that am to be taken seriously because I am me, rather than because I consume the ‘right’ things at the right time and stretch my pocketbook obligingly for the demanded purchase.

I am more than what I consume. Looking at this I think- of course I am! But I think that it is a truth that I often lose sight of in the flurry of insecurity and busyness and psychologically customised adverts that flare up like utopian retreats and cashmere sweaters that make the family problems and difficult realities fade away.  In essence, consumption can become my own passive retreat away from the active synthesis of the everyday life and bustle and activity.

And this is what I worry about.  Because I wonder what happens to us when our way of living becomes a sort of ‘passive retreating’–  a kind of relinquishing responsibility of the profound challenges that we face onto the plastic surface of our visa card.  I am concerned how this translates to the philosopher’s dilemma of ontology and understanding our own concept of being.  And I wonder what it means for our health.

If I am ill, then I want to find the best way of making myself well again.  With the incredible advancements in medical technology and pharmaceuticals, we have been given a multitude of options that make the process of ‘getting well’ easier.  But the challenge is that I cannot become well when I just consume.  Because somehow, I am something more than the ‘stuff’, and without somehow entering into and claiming the process of ‘getting well’ for myself, it remains outside of me.  A model of health services that allow those suffering with illness to sit back and relax as the expert feeds them with new pills and techniques is not one that can create health.  The WHO states that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease” (1948, UDHR).  This cannot be achieved without considerable time and effort– I need to be the one who instigates this process. I need to be the one who takes active responsibility for my own health.

This is, of course, so much more easily said than done.  If I am sick, and I am involved in all the busyness of this London life, then oftentimes it is very difficult to actively respond to the physical, social and mental challenges that we are confronted with.  However, I don’t know if we really have an option.  In a society that is propelling itself towards heightened consumption, the passive consumption of health services is a tantalising option. The problem is that it won’t work–  we won’t return to a state of health and stay there, because we haven’t done anything to get us back to that state ourselves.  The challenge of consumerism is one of identity and holding up the human over the Brand.  But more practically in health-services, the challenge is to assert an active responsibility for my own health and start caring and participating in the process of ‘getting well’ again.