This year, at my daughter’s suburban, mostly upper-income middle school, a certain kind of water bottle has become au courant. It is expensive and unwieldy, but there’s a sense that one can’t do without it.
I found out today that another, nearby middle school (no surprise) is aflutter about the same bottle. To be deprived of this thing is to face ostracization. As one tween opined, “If I don’t get one, they will hate me.”
Why must the tweens have these water bottles? Do the teachers discourage the water bottle cult? And are the parents, in fact, enabling it? I have been stunned by the helplessness of parents in the face of consumer trends like these. And sometimes the trends are more pernicious than mere water bottle cults, involving products that are legitimately harmful. The whole thing smacks of capitulation and bondage. As one parent put it to me, “We don’t feel freedom to buck the trend.”
By the time they’ve reached college, my own students have achieved (slightly) more awareness of such bondage. And their study of art history helps them gain even more clarity. When we analyze certain outlandish, body-harming fashions in earlier portraiture, exploitative markets for exotic luxury objects, and wily ancient propaganda strategies, our eyes open to our own vanity. We see unworthy motivations and harmful outcomes and recognize them as our own. Human weaknesses hidden today beneath befogging peer pressure stand out when clothed in unfamiliar packaging. The past holds us accountable in a way the present can’t.
Art historians often argue that all this signaling and consumerism is about status and belonging – and I think that’s true, at least in part. But my discipline’s long-time focus on merely social causes is, I think, inadequate to the real human condition. If we adopt a spiritually honest anthropology, one that acknowledges the claims of a transcendent order, maybe we’ll see that social status was never really the main thing.
In fact, I think today’s water bottle craze (along with other types of consumerism) is more akin to some kinds of binge eating, or Victorian immersion in opium dens. It’s a way to run from hard truths that relentlessly encroach.
In a way, we really do hope the water bottle will save us. We really do hope it’s massive volume, sleek sides, and unusual colors will be the answer to something we need. It represents a kind of wholesome, technocratic enlightenment that we really wish would just be adequate (dammit!) to all the desires of our soul. It promises easy, non-controversial nourishing and cleansing. It’s a lowest-common-denominator “Holy Grail.” And most conveniently, it’s a stand-in for things that are too hard to think about.
Because the fact is, many of us are afraid to think about things bigger than water bottles, at least here in my neck of the woods. We don’t ask about our desires – for water bottles, belonging, or anything else – because we don’t want to know the answers. It would be too socially inconvenient and psychologically destabilizing. It might set friend against friend, mother against daughter, father against son.
That is, it might lead too directly to scary, foundation-shaking God-talk – or at least uncomfortable, nerve-wracking conscience-talk.
As the credibility of institutions and individual leaders wanes, it seems that we are each personally driven back to ultimate questions of good and evil. The searching is palpable and painful in certain young people’s eyes. Is there right and wrong, and if so, how do we figure it out? Are we ourselves falling afoul of it? And is it, in the end, worth sacrificing for? Question the water bottle and you open a whole can of existential worms. Social “certainties” fall like dominoes.
Though statistically, we profess less religiosity today than at any time in recent memory, I think at the same time we feel the scrutinizing eyes of heaven looming suffocatingly close. Institutional “buffers” no longer offer their comforts and half-measures. We’ve lost faith in the placating rituals that ratified regimes of “cheap grace.” Yet this has not led to unashamed libertinism – quite the opposite. Rather, the moral pressure in the air today is immense, and it comes down, unyielding, on each head, with the weight of inverted holy mountains.
I think something is about to explode. And it will mean death to ordinary desires, coupled with the rise of a new Desire: to put on post-apocalyptic spiritual armor and venture into haunted wastes in search of monsters to slay (both inside and out). This, in fact, is what a few of our thoughtful young people are doing when they choose against college. They are leaving castle, court, and ivory tower in search not of water bottles, but a true, latter-day Holy Grail. They have passed through the charges to solipsistically “follow your heart” and have come out with a desire, instead, to submit to a Quest. Their desire against desire will launch a new age. Will we meet them there?