Monday, June 28, 2010

On Luxury

As I got out of the shower a week or so ago, somewhere between the pleasure of the deliciously warm and wasteful ablution to which I had just been treated, and the comforting experience of the soft and fluffy towel that soothes my skin, I was--as I always am-- for a moment possessed of a profound sense of gratitude. In this state it occurred to me again--as it has many times before--that this experience, the hot shower plus the fluffy towel, is perhaps the greatest luxury known to man.

From this simple thought, born of simple gratitude for a simple experience, much more thought has been given in the ensuring weeks. Many questions have arisen, most of them centered on the notion of luxury but the experience itself provides context for the notion and so demands some examination as well.

Who would have thought that simply taking a hot shower could be so complicated? After all, it is just a routine experience, something I do every day. Further, it is a routine experience for many people--millions even--in so-called 'civilized' societies, especially in my own peer group of aging American 'baby boomers' living in small houses in subdivisions all over the country. So it is such a common experience, how can it be considered to be a luxury?

What is luxury? Is it simply the opposite of need? To be a luxury, must it be something that is unnecessary? Or, is it possible that even a necessity, such as food or water, could be considered a luxury? Is a physical state, or a state of mind? Is it relative, to others, contemporaneous and historically?

These questions are only in the back of my mind to begin with, for as I towel off, it sure does feel luxurious.

But is it? For one thing, I find it limiting to define luxury so narrowly that it becomes merely the opposite of necessity.

Well, it certainly feels luxurious, having just used more fresh water to rinse refined petrochemicals off my skin than many people will see, let alone drink this whole week.

But, there is more to it than that. Part of our internal psyche is tuned to acquiring and using more than we absolutely 'need'. The drive to seek out comforts and pleasure in addition to needs and wants is fundamental. Nowhere is there better evidence for that than in the advertising that shapes our external world so often. We are enticed by luxury homes, cars and lifestyles. We are told that we are entitled to these things, and this way of living.

It certainly feels like I am "in the lap of luxury" as I wrap myself in the cotton picked and woven by virtual wage slaves in third world countries. It certainly feels luxurious to savor the warmth of who-knows-how many kilowatts of energy that were used to wash and dry it after I used it the last time.

And whether manipulated by advertising or not, I certainly feel entitled to these things. After all, I reason, I pay for the water and the towel and the electricity and the home in which they are all collected. Doesn't that mean that these comforts are earned, deserved even?

Historically and contextually, luxury has had many meanings in many places and times. Though I have given it much thought, and subjected too many of my friends and family to too much conversation about it, I can only conclude that luxury is not rigid nor well defined.

It is for me the sum of experience and a state of mind.

1 comment:

d2 said...

In this particular case, is it indeed a luxury? Clean water to bathe in keeps you healthy, after all.

Now, did you need the full 20 gallons of hot water that you probably used in your 10-minute shower? Or was it something intangible that goes beyond mere need?

You could pose a similar set of questions about food, for example. Do you need to eat food that is "haute cuisine"? Wouldn't a ham sandwich on white bread do just as well and provide as much nutrition?

Is it a luxury to eat well or does it provide something more than just the physical needs of existence?