Continuing with the recent focus on stewardship issues, during the holidays I came across several items in the media about the modern materialism of Christmas. That is a topic I’ve explored in my blogs in past years during the holiday season. As described previously, it is deeply distressing to me that a holiday of deep religious importance is exploited for financial gain. I also just have trouble wrapping my mind around the irony of using the birth of the Prince of Peace in a humble structure for animals to encourage an orgy of retail consumption. To me, these are extremely troubling aspects of our modern American culture.
Last month, I caught a radio program Diane Rehm did on “Shopping Addiction.” The show is accessible at the link below.
Clearly, Ms. Rehm timed this topic when she did because destructive shopping is particularly a problem in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I appreciated the timing because as a Christ-follower I particularly worry that our savior’s birth has become a time of suffering for many due to overindulgence in consumptive spending.
There were several points in the radio program that particularly got my attention.
First, in discussing shopping addiction, the guests described it as “an emotional and even spiritual issue.” One guest talked about going to Debtors Anonymous to “find a spiritual solution” in the 12 step program. (The first step is admitting one’s powerlessness to the addiction, then the second step is belief in a higher power who can restore and give strength.)
I thought recognizing the spiritual aspect of this problem was a good point. Blaise Pascal described the “God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart that we try unsuccessfully to fill with other things. Listening to the stories of people who spend so recklessly and jeopardize their families’ financial health, it is hard for me in some ways to understand. But thinking of this problem as a spiritual issue helps me to understand better. We all have hurts and fears and vulnerabilities. Different people deal with those issues in different ways. A lot of people in our society drink large amounts of alcohol. Others smoke, use narcotics, eat junk food, have lots of sexual partners or gamble. And apparently, some folks shop excessively. I find that so sad because that is not a sustainable solution to our struggles, and will never fill that “God-shaped vacuum.”
Second, one of the guests on Ms. Rehm’s show, Dr. April Benson, described shopping addiction as a “smiled-upon addiction because consumption fuels our economy.” Dr. Benson went on to say that “[t]he only other addiction that I think is condoned by society might be workaholism. However, the same brain chemicals that are stimulated in alcohol and drug addiction we think are stimulated in compulsive buying episodes and some of the same underlying causes create a compulsive shopping behavior.”
I thought these were fascinating statements.
In essence, our modern consumer society is so dependent on copious spending that we turn a blind eye to very destructive behavior. The focus on shopping is not just destructive because people get into debt or spend when they ought to be saving. The overemphasis on consumption, in my opinion, is also spiritually destructive. If our focus is always on accumulation of more stuff, then it is not on spiritual matters. If we use our time shopping, we’re not spending time with our Higher Power, supporting our loved ones, or serving the least of those around us. Recreational shopping may temporarily prop up parts of the economy, but in the long-run it does not help build a healthy society.
It was also fascinating that Dr. Benson describes workaholism as another condoned addiction. To me, that is another manifestation of our consumerist society. We value human beings for their productivity in terms of quantifiable, economic output, e.g., the number of billable hours, the number of widgets manufactured, the volume of sales, etc. Our society approves of those who work excessive hours because that demonstrates a strong work ethic and produces quantifiable, economic output. Due to the familial culture in which I was raised, and the fact that I’m a member of a workaholic profession, I certainly respect a strong work ethic. I’m not advocating that we become a nation of slackers. But when people work excessively at their jobs such that their family and/or community are neglected, that is not a healthy situation for any of us. However, we don’t tend to recognize that much.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”