At Christmastime, there is the usual flurry of condemnations about commercialism and how it has become such a consumer holiday. I can’t deny it. Without Christmas, most of our retailers would quickly go bankrupt. In my opinion, there is certainly nothing wrong with questioning the values that our culture has superimposed on this Christian holiday.
And yet, it isn’t consumerism that intrigues me. Rather, I am fascinated by our all-powerful urge to consume, that shows up in many less obvious ways. For example, why are we as Americans the most overweight nation on earth? Have we never learned when to get up from the table? What is the psychology that causes one to keep eating even though the stomach has had enough?
I remember when I worked in a regular office. We had vendors who would deposit goodies at our office every week, a less-than-subtle bribe for our business. Wednesday was Krispy Kreme day; unfortunately, these delectables were placed right outside my office. Every time I walked by, I had to make a decision about whether or not to take a donut, before they rapidly disappeared. I always had to fight the urge to consume, even if I had eaten my fill. I remember analyzing my thought process in order to understand this incomprehensible urge. It went something like this: “If I don’t take one now, they’ll all disappear and I might be hungry later.” In essence, I was motivated by fear, fear that I wouldn’t have what I needed when I needed it. Over-consuming was my strategy for trying to take care of myself, a kind of Darwinistic way of attempting to control my environment for my own “survival.”
Perhaps that example doesn’t resonate with you, so let me try another. Most of us have a closet full of junk-perhaps even a garage full-that we never use. Ironically, many of us in southern California don’t even park our cars in our garages because they are so full of stuff. I’m the same way. I have the hardest time getting rid of junk. As I look through my closet, I see an old typewriter from college days shoved to the back. In all likelihood, I will never use it again, given that everything I do is now on a computer keyboard. And yet, I struggle with getting rid of it. In the back of my mind, something says to me, “But what if you need it again? What will you do then?” Again, it is simple fear that drives me to create an environment that will have anything I could possibly need at a given moment in my life. That is why my garage is full.
The question I want to ask is why? Is it just part of our identity? Is it a need to control or manage our own lives? Do we want to insulate ourselves from need? Perhaps control is at the heart of the dilemma. Or perhaps our identities have become a vacuous lie that are only informed by the stuff that we accumulate. Walker Percy, in his incredible book Lost in the Cosmos argues that our identities are these empty vacuums that must suck the life out of everyone and everything around us. He remarks that an outfit in your closet may seem like “you” one year, and yet, no longer “you” the next. Did the outfit change? Or did your identity eviscerate it of all meaning? Sometimes we treat people the same way.
Why is it that we use people and things to inform our identity? On the deepest level, perhaps that is what really lies behind consumerism. Or maybe it is simply a survival of the fittest strategy to over-provide for ourselves. Either way, I want my identity to be informed by values and character, by people and relationships, not by my stuff. I don’t want to make choices about consumption based upon fear or control. I’m not exactly sure how to enact this change in my life, but I know that at Christmastime, the issues become clearer than at any other time. Perhaps that is why at this time we search for words to express a truly deeper need that lurks within us.