The fact that we as adults all too often define ourselves by our work and worldly possessions has not been lost on our kids. In today’s world, that message is powerfully and consistently reinforced by the pervasive presence of a marketing machine that sells worldly possessions on the false premise that they are ultimately redemptive, offering us satisfaction, purpose, meaning, and personal peace. Not only are our kids swimming and marinating in the soup of that marketing message from birth, but they are swimming with millions of their peers who have bought into and believed that same message. And now, materialism, entitlement, and conspicuous consumption are marks of both youth culture and our culture at large.
While hunting down spending trends here in the U.S., I ran across this real time counter from Retale that tracks our retail habits in real time. This is worth a look! Go ahead. Open this link in another window. And then let it run while you keep reading. We sure do eat a lot of McDonald’s fries while we drink our Starbucks coffees, don’t we?!?
What are we really looking for when we spend our money? Are we looking for a durable, high-quality product that will serve a utilitarian purpose and meet a real need? Or, are we looking to satisfy our wants in an effort to fill a hole in our soul? If it’s the latter, welcome to a lifetime of endless spending and buying.
John Mayer sang about exercise in futility a few years ago. Remember his song “Something’s Missing?” (see below). He sings, “I’m dizzy from the shopping malls/I searched for joy, but I bought it all/It doesn’t help the hunger pains/And a thirst I’d have to drown first to satiate. . . Something’s missing/And I don’t know how to fix it/Something’s missing/And I don’t know what it is at all.”
Over the last few days, I’ve been digging in to the late Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. In his chapter entitled “The Self as Nought: Why Most Women and Some Men, are Subject to Fashion,” Percy dissects our love of stuff. Granted, he wrote the book over 30 years ago, so his ascription of fashion to women more than man is out-of-date. . . a reality that makes his commentary even more timely and true!
Percy wrote, “There is no fashion so absurd, even grotesque, that it cannot be adopted, given two things: the authority of the fashion-setter (Percy mentions Dior and Jackie-O here. In today’s world, there’s an infinite number of examples of people who are jockeying for the lead in fashion-setting) and vacuity or noughtness of the consumer.” Insightful and accurate for sure.
The self, Percy writes, actually morphs as we indulge ourselves in a lifestyle of trying to stay up-to-date and fashionable, a scary thought when you think about how so many now label themselves as a “fashionista.” These devoted followers of fashion trends (whether conscious and deliberate, or unconsciously striving to keep in step), Percy says, go through “the stages of consumption.”
Here’s how Percy describes this never-ending cycle in which we can momentarily gain the world (over and over and over again), but lose ourselves. . .
First stage: You see an article or a style worn by a person with a certain authority. At first glance it seems outlandish, even absurd. Or ugly, like the long skirt of the New Look of the 1950s.
Second stage: You see more people wearing it. It is still outlandish, but it is an outlandish something and you are fading.
Third stage: You try it on. The saleslady says it is you. You laugh, shrug, shake your head, but secretly the possibility is born that it can be you.
Fourth stage: You but it and wear it. For a while, it is you and you are it. That is, you perceive it as informing you and you as informed, either as a new you or the old real you which has never come to light before.
Fifth stage: Gradually the new style becomes everyday, quotidian, rendered neutral. No matter how exotic it is, like a morsel to which an amoeba is attracted and which it surrounds and takes into itself, it is devoured and becomes part of the transparent flowing substance of the amoeba.
Sixth stage: After a sufficient lapse of time, the husk or residue of the new style is excreted and becomes an oddity, a slightly shameful thing but still attached, like the waste in the excretory vacuole of the amoeba.
Percy continues, “If you don’t believe this, take a look at an old snapshot of yourself. . . You will laugh or frown and put it away. It looks queer. It is no only not you. It is a not-you.”
We’re so easily swayed, aren’t we? So easily fooled. It doesn’t matter our age. We groan and cry out to be healed, and we keep slopping on expensive and time-dated salves that never make us any better. In fact, the habit-forming nature of those salves only render our wounds more deadly, making us want to go back in search of the next-best-fashionable-thing.
Augustine got it right. He wrote, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”