Walubengo's Den

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Why are we so drawn to expensive things?

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Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: because expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in psychological one. We need to re-arrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.

Of course, we are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what the philosopher Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasizing instead luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. This prevalence of idle opinion is no coincidence. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one.

Look at examples all around us, pushed on us by advertisers, businesses and the media. I recently watched an advert on TV where a wife was pressuring her husband, nagging him to build a new gate for their compound and buy a Prado, because their neighbours had done the same. The husband relents and actually takes a loan from the bank to buy these ‘necessities’. (It was a bank loan advert by the way, I think.) At the end we see him happy and gloating at his neighbor, because he has a gate just like his, and a Prado just like his. Samsung and Apple periodically without fail come up with a new phone that is allegedly more advanced and more ‘necessary’ than the last, and of course more expensive than the last. The idea implied is that you have to keep buying these things so as not to be left behind. Companies selling strangely expensive houses tell us about the luxuriousness of their offerings, and how modern they are. Some agents will even go further to let you know that many of the houses on sale have already been bought by UN staff, expatriates and foreigners, just to show you how good and necessary these houses are. Yes, having ‘natives’ as your neighbours is not chic enough, apparently.

Our society has embraced this idea wholeheartedly. Our worship of money seems unparalleled. Our zeal for wealth accumulation is fanatical, and people don’t seem to care how this wealth is accumulated. Morals go out the window real quick, and we forget about issues that matter like genuine friendship, good morals, family, respect, fidelity, loyalty and culture. We live as though money is the most important thing in our lives. Interestingly, most of us who exhibit this absurd lust for wealth are Christians; who believe in and worship a deity who specifically preached and taught against this mindless glorifying of money and material things, and lived his life on earth avoiding the same. But the issue of our embarrassing love for money would need a whole other article – another day perhaps.

It is interesting to note that although Kenyans are ranked as the wealthiest in East Africa, surveys show that we are not the happiest – the Tanzanians or the Rwandese are. We are also not the most generous – that accolade goes to the Ugandans. We are also not the most hopeful or optimistic in the region. So where is the benefit of all this wealth? Anyway, I digress.

Back to the issue of why we are drawn to expensive things. How are we enticed even more to buy these items? Through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten needs.

It may be a car we end up buying, but it was freedom and respect we were looking for.

It may be the expensive whisky or cognac we purchase, but it was friendship we were after.

It may be fine bathing accoutrements we acquire, but it was thought that would have brought us calm.

Dear reader, allow me to leave you here. I’ve got to go shopping for some really nice suits I saw the other day. Hehehehe.

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Consolations of Philosophy – Frustration

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Though the terrain of frustration may be vast – from a stubbed toe to an untimely death- at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.

The collisions begin in earliest infancy, with the discovery that the sources of our satisfaction lie beyond our control and that the world does not reliably conform to our desires.

And yet, for a philosopher such as Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.

A single idea recurs throughout his work: that we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and understand, and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom. Philosophy must reconcile us to the true dimensions of reality, and so spare us, if not frustration itself, then at least its panoply of pernicious accompanying emotions.

Her task is to prepare for our wishes the softest landing possible on the adamantine wall of reality.


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Existential Riddles

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A farmer has to transport a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across a river. She can carry only one item at a time. If left together, the fox will eat the chicken, and the chicken will eat the corn. How does the farmer do it?

The farmer begins by carrying the chicken across the river. But, as she does so, she notices her reflection in the water. She can barely recognize the person staring back at her, holding a chicken. “What’s happened to me?” she asks herself. She hasn’t picked up a paintbrush in more than a year. Now she’s carrying farm animals and sacks of grain across rivers. Is this why she spent two years at RISD?

A man sees a boat that is full of people. And yet there isn’t a single person on the boat. How is this possible?

Everyone on the boat is married, so there isn’t one single person on the boat.

The man wonders if it’s legal for a transportation system to discriminate against unmarried people. It doesn’t seem legal, but maybe maritime laws are different? Perhaps if things had ended differently with Heather, the man would be on the boat, too. He laughs sadly to himself. He was always single, even when he was with Heather. Love is an illusion. There are no purely unselfish actions. Heather and Dale deserve each other.

The man blows his nose. He didn’t even realize he’d been crying.

Which is heavier, a ton of feathers or a ton of gold?

Everything is equal in an infinitely expanding, cruelly indifferent universe.

A town has only two barbers. One of the barbers has a neat, tidy haircut, and the other has a shaggy, messy haircut. Which barber should a townsman go to?

The man should go to the barber with the shaggy, messy haircut.

But he goes to the barber closer to his apartment. It’s been years since the man cared about his appearance. He sits down in the barber’s chair. Long hair, short hair, messy hair—it’s just going to keep receding. He can’t stop it from receding.

“Are you sure you want me to cut your hair?” the barber says, with a wink. “After all, how could I have given myself this neat, tidy haircut?”

“I’m going to die someday,” the man whispers.

A woman lives in a yellow one-story house. Everything in the house is yellow. What color are the stairs?

There are no stairs, because the woman lives in a one-story house. The woman wishes she could afford a two-story house. Or at least one with a furnace and more natural light. But a one-story house makes sense. She lives alone. What does she need all the extra space for? Another cat? A family?

She pulls up a blanket, shivering. The yellow walls are starting to drive her insane.

A man is locked in a room with only a piano. How does he escape?

The man uses a piano “key” to escape. Then he uses religion to escape, then drugs, then a relationship that clearly won’t work out in the long term, then unhealthy food, then rage, then the “key” again, because it’s a cycle, it’s an endless cycle, and he can never truly escape until he accepts that she’s really gone.

A woman running a marathon overtakes the person in second place. What place is she in now?

She is now in second place. She’s always in second place. Stephen was right.

A man turned off the light and went to bed. Because of this, several people died. Why?

The man lives in a lighthouse; when he turned off the light, two ships crashed. For months, the man is wracked with guilt—how could he forget to keep the light on? What was he thinking? Years pass. The man moves to a small inland town. He attends group therapy regularly. At one session, he meets a widow of three years. She is beautiful in a quiet way. They get married. She never questions why he refuses to turn off the lights at night. Days become decades. They don’t have children, but they are happy together. One day, the man visits an antique shop and breaks down sobbing when he sees a ship in a bottle. He asks his wife to drive him to the ocean. She does. She knows not to ask why. They arrive. The man forgives himself. He finally forgives himself.

Existential riddle together

~ Ethan Kuperberg