The Catholic Consumer

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Reflection by High School Theology Teacher Erik Anderson

As Black Friday deals loom on the horizon, these are days in which I find myself wondering about how I want to frame the upcoming holiday season—what are my expectations, my hopes, and my values?  How can I develop as an individual, maintain some semblance of psychological health, and be a generous family member over Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas?

In a senior level course I teach in Theology, I encourage my students to read a pair of articles with widely disparate viewpoints: one is entitled “Why Buying Things Makes You Happy” (from PBS) and another entitled “Consumerism and its Discontents” (from the APA).

These articles draw attention to an interest of mine—the wide spectrum of ideas and ideologies that exist regarding our emotive relationship with consuming and purchasing.

The first article points to ways in which our purchasing certain brands, labels or types of products does in fact elevate our social esteem (or at least our perceived sense of it), while the latter points out—very reasonably—that materialistic values can lead some to unhealthy patterns and/or goals setting (for example, using wealth or salary as a benchmark by which to measure one’s self worth).

In Wordsworth’s classic romantic poem, he begins by lamenting:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours

A reading of these lines that makes sense to me is as follows: there we are, at the mall on a Saturday or Sunday, and therefore we’re inherently not out in the fields, enjoying a stroll at the Audubon Society, not collecting falling leaves or pinecones—and thus, not drawing more closely to the Revelation that is inherent in nature.   I think it would be fair to extend his critique even to the work-day.  Though he lived more than 200 years ago, he was perceptive enough to wonder if our life-cycle is organized as it should be: in getting (working hard all week in order to make money) and spending (so that we can buy, buy, buy all weekend).

According to Wordsworth, in so doing, we “lay waste our powers” and grow ever-more-distant from nature.  And we needn’t be a romantic poet to see that the inverse of his argument is also true—that is, immersing ourselves in the beauty and inspiration of nature can help us and enrich us in a variety of ways.  For example, time outdoors in the changing seasons can increases our awareness of the seasons of our own lives, increase our awareness of our own mortality, or provide us with much-needed hope and newness after a long Midwestern winter.

All that is to say that, at least for me, there’s no magic solution to this issue.  In the past, I’ve certainly woken up early to get that special deal on Black Friday…but maybe this has more to do with drinking a coffee in a quiet house, well before sunrise with my dad than it does to do with the 99 cent poinsettias he is excited to buy when the store opens!  In experiences like these, commercialism (and even shopping malls) can offer much that may enrich rather than deteriorate our family life.  But if our sole focus, week after week, month after month, becomes “getting and spending,” perhaps it’s best to re-evaluate before we “lay waste our powers.”

Interestingly, this is a theme to which Pope Francis frequently comments devotes attention.  I particularly like his quote that says:

“it is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward having rather than being.”

This is a great reminder, proclaimed by both Wordsworth and Pope Francis, that is worth reflecting on as the holidays draw near this year.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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