Our Heart’s Content: Anti-Consumerism as Spiritual Discipline

One early December weekend, I conducted an experiment. I had just led a group at the church I was serving at the time in a program called “Unplugging the Christmas Machine.” We had examined the bloated, overfed nature of this holiday, and sought together ways of celebrating December holidays that nurtured our souls. And that didn’t depend on the giving and receiving of things. I had also just marked the occasion of Buy Nothing Day. This is a campaign founded by Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine for a one-day consumer strike on the busiest shopping day in the United States—the day after Thanksgiving. A number of us passed out leaflets on Newbury Street, and sang ribald, anti-consumerist versions of Christmas carols.

In my personal spiritual discipline of Sabbath-keeping, I was considering adding the traditional Jewish injunction against spending money on the Sabbath. And so I was asking, What does it mean to me to spend money? Why do I buy the things I buy?

My experiment was to walk through downtown Boston in the midst of the Christmas frenzy, without a wallet, without any cash, without my credit card. As I was jostled along the crowded streets, moving among throngs of shoppers in the department stores and malls, I developed an odd sense of displacement. It was almost as if I was an alien from another planet, a visitor from another culture. The brilliantly lit world of things, the shiny realm of objects that unfolded around me seemed foreign. What was going on here? The pull of attraction toward this world of things, the tug toward buying them, the desire to be part of this crazy Christmas marketplace fantasy all began to unravel.

My intent was to observe, observe what I saw around me, and observe what I saw within me. For despite my Buy Nothing posturing, I was as susceptible as anybody else to the wiles of compulsive giving and getting. I was as prone as anybody to impulsive purchases and spending beyond my means. Like many other North Americans, I often used shopping as a comfort, a recreation, a sport. Like many North Americans, I often found myself buying things I didn’t need, buying things on credit, and buying things I didn’t need on credit. And so here I was, without a wallet in the busy world of Saturday Christmas shopping, asking, What does it mean to me to spend money? What is the impetus, the impulse behind such behaviors, I wondered, in myself and others. How did it come about that habits of spending and getting came to define us, how did it come to mean so much, come to resemble the frenetic mass hysteria I was observing around me?

A monumental shift took place in our culture in the 1920s. Economic forces precipitated this cultural shift. Business was recreating North American society. Advertising was a relatively new phenomenon, as a whole slew of new goods were being made available in the late nineteenth century.  Use electric light bulbs instead of oil lamps! These ads said. Use the telephone instead of mail! Ads convinced people of the efficiency and utility of their products, for the most part merely announcing a product’s availability, and describing its merits. The shift that took place in the 1920s was that advertising no longer focused on the product, but rather on the customer. Advertising alluded to the customer’s inadequacies, and foretold terrible consequences of lost jobs, lost loves, or loss of friends for those not buying the advertised toothbrush, skin cream, mouthwash, manicure aids or labor saving appliances.

And it was a technique that took off. From 1918 to 1929, the amount spent on magazine advertising alone tripled, and that’s not counting the amount spent on newspaper, billboard, and streetcar ads.

What’s more, retailers in the 1920s introduced something called the “installment plan,” buying their goods on credit. The attitudes surrounding debt changed at this time. Previously, North Americans valued frugality and modesty. Debt had been a sign of irresponsibility and was a source of shame. Well, no longer. What was now needed, people were told, to keep the economy going was spending. Thrifty people, the new wisdom dictated, would ruin the economy. The market was flooded in the 1920s with all sorts of things: cigarette lighters, wristwatches, electric appliances, and most of all, automobiles. Things that weren’t always necessities but were talismans of a Modern style of life. If you couldn’t afford these items (and the pressure from advertising told you that you couldn’t afford not to have them) you could buy them on the installment plan. In the United States, sales of radios jumped from $60 million a year in 1922 to $852 million in 1929. In the year 1900 the automobile industry manufactured 4000 cars; in 1929 production was at 4 800 000. Not surprisingly, ¾ of radios and three out of every five automobiles were bought on credit.

The new economic paradigm saw ever expanding markets, more and more goods and services. And at the heart of this economy, the engine driving it all, a new sort of person: the never satisfied consumer.

Gone were the days of saving, reusing, and the frugal expenditure of personal resources. The new personality demanded by the new economic paradigm was one who despised work—but loves to be entertained; one who shouldn’t bother learning—it’s easy to buy ready-made products and services; one who could be careless and wasteful—you could always buy another one; one who couldn’t stand to have something old or outmoded; one who thought first and foremost of their own satisfaction, delight, and fulfillment—before all else.

One’s sense of one’s self, one’s purpose and meaning were associated with the consumption of goods. One’s sense of purpose and meaning were no longer associated with any transcendent values offered by religion. Consuming was the new religion in this respect. Successful businessmen such as Henry Ford were referred to in the press as the new spiritual leaders. President Calvin Coolidge was quoted as saying that the factory was the new temple and the worker the new devotee who worshipped there. Legendary ad man Bruce Barton was the son of a preacher and sought to fill his ads with uplifting messages. In 1923, Barton noted that the role of advertising was to help corporations find their soul.

At the very least, corporations needed to have personalities. And so we have the old fashioned Quaker and his oats. We have Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, like members of our family. Trusted. Related to us. As factory production became more and more universal, it became important to distinguish your product from the manufactured sameness of everybody else’s. And so branding become more important, establishing positive associations with your brand name. Meaning and value needed to be wedded to your brand name. And what’s more a hunger for meaning and value instilled in the people you would then sell it to.

Which leads into the next great economic shift in our culture, one that took place in the 1980s when the production of things gave way to the production of images of things. Corporations unloaded their manufacturing to contractors. Due to liberalized trade laws, these contractors were mostly overseas, where more lax environmental and labor laws kept costs even lower. Many North American corporations are now no longer in the business of manufacturing, but of marketing. When Philip Morris, the tobacco company, purchased Kraft in 1988, they paid six times what the company was worth on paper. The name Kraft was worth something, and this buyout is seen as a watershed. This was the first time a premium dollar value was associated with a brand name.

Branding and advertising have become more and more important, as companies vie for our loyalty. Advertising, including corporate sponsorships, is now ubiquitous as companies try their best to associate their brand name with the things that we value.

More than ever before, the heart of this way of life is the never satisfied consumer. Never satisfied, always needing something. Never satisfied, always lacking. Never satisfied, always buying. The need for personal meaning and personal power (being “cool”) supplied through acquiring consumer goods.

And so I walk through downtown Boston in the early winter, jostled along the crowded streets, moving among throngs of shoppers in the department stores and malls. The brilliantly lit world of things, the shiny realm of objects that unfolds around me, begins to seem grotesque, exaggerated, funny. I have bought things in these stores, things I needed even. I have come to these places time and again, to participate in a world of fantasy. All around me is the tug of things and the images of things and the meanings of the images and of the things themselves. Happiness. Joy. Satisfaction. Love. Togetherness. Desirability. Worthiness. Are these the things that we are all shopping for?

For those of us who, like myself, see the dangers of the ever-expanding market, we need to come back to its heart, the never-satisfied consumer, and to the heart of the never satisfied consumer. What are the sources of your dissatisfaction? What are the sources of your happiness? This is essential work in developing an economy of sustainability. This is the essential work of resisting the manipulations of advertising. This is essentially spiritual work.

An American reporter once asked Gandhi to summarize his life philosophy in three words. Gandhi replied: “Renounce and enjoy!”

Renounce and enjoy. I think we have all heard the “renounce” message. I personally like many of the things I own. I’m not quite ready to give everything up. But there are limits, and limit setting can actually be a very liberating thing. I personally have adopted something from the book The Circle of Simplicity by Cecile Andrews. It is a shopping list of sorts, only it’s a list of questions or what a Quaker might call queries: Do I really need this? Can I buy it used? Can I rent or borrow it? Why do I want to own this? There are other things to consider: Can it be easily repaired or recycled? How were the people who made it treated? Is it over-packaged? But the essential query is, “Why do I want to own this?”

I have learned about setting limits, and sometimes renouncing things, from my practice of Sabbath keeping, of keeping a time set apart for not working, for not thinking or worrying about work. After my walk through the December malls of Boston, I added a time set apart for not spending any money.  I have found from that experience and from my keeping a Sabbath, I have come to the question, “Why do I want to own this?” with much more honesty, curiosity, and integrity. Why do I want to own this? What do I think this thing will give me? Can I give that to myself some other way?

Renounce and enjoy. Enjoying your things becomes a lot easier when you have considered them carefully. You own things because there is some need or want for it that you have identified. This frees you to enjoy your things. One of the feelings that the never satisfied consumer thrives on is deprivation. If you feel like you are being deprived, how long is any new behavior going to last? Limiting your acquisitions, your purchases, your things, to what you really want or need to own by necessity means looking within. It is an act of discernment. You will find yourself surrounded by what you truly need and want. And that is what Gandhi meant by enjoy. Renounce what you don’t truly need or really want and enjoy what you do have.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches,” says the Book of Proverbs, “but only enough.”  Deciding to want what we have is a move toward having enough. Deciding to enjoy what we have is a move toward having enough.  Sometimes, of course, some of us may not have enough. We may not have enough money to pay the rent, enough food to feed our families, enough self-esteem to act in our own best interest. These are real, legitimate needs. But the dissatisfied heart cries out impulsively and we need to learn to discern between what we need and what we want. When the dissatisfied heart cries out for more, we need to know when we have enough. That we are enough.

The voice inside that says, “I’m not thin enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not hip enough. I’m not young enough. I’m not good enough” is not the voice of your best interest. When your wisest and truest self speaks, the voice says, You are enough.

How much larger this is than habits of getting and spending! In some ways, it comes down to our basic orientation toward the universe. Do I believe this life is abundant, that there is enough for me and others, that we are blessed with plenty?  Or do I believe that there isn’t enough, and act out of that sense of scarcity?

Renounce and enjoy. If limit setting doesn’t free you to enjoy the abundance of life, but rather makes you feel deprived, there’s no point. Feelings of deprivation only agitate the dissatisfied, hungry heart. Feeling deprived is not enjoyable. There is no point to living a more simple life if it brings you no joy. The good news is, that more and more people like you are discovering that having a house cluttered with unused and unnecessary things is not enjoyable.

Renounce what you don’t truly need or really want and enjoy what you do have.

Renounce the voice that says you are not enough and enjoy the abundance of a gift-giving universe.



My Wish For Your Thanksgiving Meal

We need food to live. This is a basic fact of human existence. To eat is to live. When we share food, when we share a meal, we are in some essential way, sharing life. We offer and receive the very substance of life. And it is not just our own life that food nurtures, but our common, communal life, the life of families, communities, and cultures. When we want to connect with others, we seldom ask them to meet us in a quiet place where we can speak undisturbed, but rather say, “Let’s do lunch!” We connect with others around this basic need. When we want to share our lives with others, we eat together.

A shared meal is a doorway into our common life, as family and friends, as guests and hosts, as a community. We commune with one another and the forces of life that sustain us. The community-forming power of potlucks and collective kitchens, community gardens and farmer’s markets, Thanksgiving dinner and ordinary family suppers, all call us out of isolation and into communion. Food brings us together.

My prayer for our culture is for more of us to restore conviviality to our habits of cooking and eating. Convivial—a word that signifies shared life—does not describe rushed meals eaten alone between work and soccer and errands and school. Nor does it describe any meal that is delivered to you through your car window.  Convenience is huge in our hurried, overscheduled lives. In the name of convenience, food now has more to do with chemistry and mass production than community, relations or even pleasure. Americans have come to think of food only in its component parts—calories and carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fats. But food is not just for the body, a substance made up of nutrients that we ingest for the proper functioning of the mechanism of our body. Food is also for the mind and spirit and forming bonds with others. Convenience in preparing meals has trumped delight and pleasure in cooking and consuming food. In all of this, something has been lost. There is no soul, no enchantment, in such fare.

What has been lost can be restored when couples and families spend time in the kitchen cooking together. Having the children help plan, prepare, cook and serve, meals or parts of meals shows them they are valued, they are valued members of your household. Gardening together, shopping together at the farmers’ market, discovering what to do with all the produce in your CSA share, learning how to can and preserve, indeed, simply learning new culinary skills—all invite us in to a celebratory relationship with food, the laborers who grow and produce it, the Earth, and each other.

Some of us, including those of us without spouses or children, are even experimenting with leisurely meals. Savoring each bite with intention and mindfulness, enjoying the tastes and smells and the company, if there is company, can be a joyful way to eat a meal. The art of dining, eating with style and manners, can create an atmosphere of attention and contemplation to our meals.

With care and imagination, all of our meals can be sacred, convivial occasions. Whether we dine alone or with others, every meal can be an occasion to nurture the spirit. The way we set the table, what plates and napkins we use, lighting candles or placing a vase of fresh cut flowers on the table, all create an ambiance that allows the soul to know that its needs are being addressed along with those of the stomach. A pause, a moment before the meal is served, invites us to simply be mindful, thankful. Whether a grace or a blessing is said aloud, whether the pause is filled with words or expectant silence, recognition that life is being celebrated comes.

Even at the everyday table, where the regular plates and cutlery are used, are those not the times when members of the same household gather and tell the story of their day? Isn’t the common life of our families gathered around the kitchen table, the supper table, the everyday meals, that fills our hunger for belonging as well as filling the hunger of our bodies?  In my household growing up, attendance at dinner nightly was not optional. We had to be at the dinner table at six o’clock no matter what. Among other things, this practice instilled in me a sense of stability, belonging, relationship, and love.

I have often asked my mother for recipes, recipes of things she made when I was growing up that I needed as an adult to comfort me, to call up the memory of who I am.  With the recipes come memories of my origins, stories about the old country, family narratives. Mixed in with the techniques of how to cook these recipes are stories of my grandmothers, their lives and kitchens, their hardships and triumphs. Even when I made those recipes and ate them alone, my home fragrant with the culinary smells of my ancestors, I felt connected, in communion with my family and my ethnic heritage.

My wish for all of us this Thanksgiving and in the days ahead, is for conviviality to grace our meals, for all of our meals to become occasions for giving thanks, for mindful eating, for everyday feasts. May we slow down enough to make each meal an expression of the best of who we are, as individuals, as families and households. May our dining together and alone be a source of comfort, wholeness and peace for ourselves, for our communities, and for our planet. May each meal be a celebration, every mouthful a Eucharistic feast, every bite a taste of the world to come, a world in which hunger and want, injustice and injury are no more.