The Plight of the New

Posted Friday, Dec 08, 2023

The upcoming Christmas season with its attendant shopping bustle set me to thinking about our drive for giving and receiving gifts. Hopefully, we exchange gifts in the spirit of the magi presenting their gifts to the baby messiah. But I doubt that it rarely enters our minds as we’re shopping. We’re more often driven by a different impetus- the allure of the New. By this, I mean we have the incessant desire to get, or give, the latest, greatest wizbang gadget available. Don’t believe me? Think about the newest Samsung or iPhone. How old are those phones? Yet, their the plight of the newreplacements are right around the corner. So what’s the problem with wanting the newest of anything? It makes us the eternal victim to the plight of the new.

It all hinges on the law of diminishing returns. Continuing with phones, think back to your first smartphone (or cell phone, if you’re old enough). You probably were elated, as you probably were when you received your latest smartphone. But if there were some way to quantify the levels of elation, each reception of a new phone would result in slightly less jocularity. See, with each new phone, you’re getting the same old thing; it’s just the new one does the same ol’ thing a bit better. The only way to reach that same rapturous feeling would be to replace the smartphone with something truly new; sort of like the replacement of the tethered home phone with the portable cell phone. You’d probably be genuinely elated if you received a device that allowed you to telepathically communicate. We’re caught in this cycle, though. If you don’t stay up with technology, you’ll eventually be left with an inoperable device.

We can escape the cycle in a way, however. Maybe not with our technology, but with our actions. Here’s a confession: a number of Christmas traditions, like the whole decorating of the tree, have lost a lot of their allure for me. Maybe you feel the same way. I’m not suggesting we abandon these activities, but let’s try to think of a new tradition to start that would be genuinely new, not just a new way of doing the same thing. For example, instead of having a big shindig at your house on Christmas Day, volunteer to serve a Christmas meal at a children’s home, a battered women’s shelter, or a homeless outreach. But I’ll bet most of us won’t do that because that new thing isn’t trendy. It’s not what most people do. It’s like using a flip-phone today. Wait, the’ve come back…

Anyway, this brings us to the second reason we chase after the New: we want to fit into the crowd all the while having the crowd envious of what we have. In other words, we have a pressing desire to have the devices that are en vogue, but we want the latest version because we know others will want that too. We only value what others desire. This mimetic desire is why children fight over the same item even though they may be wading knee deep in toys.

So, what am I saying in all of this? This yuletide, chase after something totally new: be socially brave. Whether it’s desirous to the masses, go volunteer to ring a Salvation Army bell or eat Christmas dinner with a complete stranger at a retirement home. Deliver some gifts to some unfortunate inner-city children. Pursue what’s really new, but centuries old: be surprisingly generous in novel ways. You’ll be elated.

Photo by Carol Magalhães on Unsplash

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