Consumerism: I’m the problem.
When I told my wife that I was working on a piece about consumerism, I was met with laughter. Not a chuckle. Not a giggle. But the full-on rumbling roar that accompanies a genuine belly laugh.
I wanted to feign pearl-clutching shock, but the only thing I could do is laugh right alongside her.
See, I’ve known my wife since we were both barely teenagers and my unquenchable stuff-lust is something that she’s always struggled to understand. She’s the kind of person that will wear a pair of shoes until I force her to replace them and only replaces her cellphone when she breaks it. On the other hand, I’m the kind of person who pre-orders a new iPhone the moment pre-orders become available every year and owns 20 pairs of the exact same shoe in different colors. We have a million things in common, but our views on spending are not on that list.
Once her laughter died down and she was able to regain her composure, we started to discuss possible reasons why she’s content with the things she has, while I have to buy every single Goonies graphic t-shirt that I come across.
Because I’m a man, a stereotypically simple man at that, I was prepared to offer up the notion that I “just like stuff” and leave it at that. Thankfully, my wife’s IQ is several points higher than mine (don’t tell her), and she was able to provide a much more thought-provoking suggestion. “You get that from your mother,” she said. “She’s the exact same way.” and she was right. Social workers tend to have a deeper understanding of these things.
“People don’t want stuff just because they want stuff,” she said. “People want stuff because our stuff sends signals to everybody about who we are.” In other words, we care about how we look and what we have because people use all of it to make inferences about who we are and whether we belong.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that my mother didn’t just buy nice purses because she liked them. The $100 hairdos and jewelry box full of shiny rings and necklaces served a purpose beyond just making her feel pretty. Having grown up in a household with 5 mouths to feed (6 after the birth of my older brother, when my mother was 16 years old) on one income, my mother never had much. My grandmother made sure that everyone was fed, clothed, and taken care of, but that’s obviously about all that she could afford to do. All of the extras would have to wait until everyone could afford to buy them on their own, and that’s just what mother did.
Even as an adult, my mother was never a rich woman. She worked a manual labor job, until she was forced into retirement due to illness in her early 40s. With an income that put us firmly in the lower middle class and two children in private school, we weren’t the Kardashians, but we had enough to splurge more than my mother ever could as a child. So, when she could, I’d get a new pair of shoes or a video game, my brother might get some fancy art supplies, and she might get her hair done or go to a fancy (to us) dinner. From where I sit, a 35-year-old man with a household income hovering somewhere around twice what my mother made in her best year, these things things are easy to take for granted—but to her, it represented something much bigger. She was giving her children a life like she never had, rewarding herself with the things that she could never afford as a child.
And I think I’m doing the same thing.
I’m not sure about you, but next time I find myself preparing to go on a rant about people lining up for iPhones or buying their children overpriced Batman toys with real fabric capes and spring-loaded karate chop arms, I’ll think twice. Maybe they’re not just spending money because that’s what Americans do. Maybe they work really hard, and once the bills are paid they want to feel like they earned something nice. Or, maybe the Batman toy they had as a child didn’t have a cape at all and they just wanted to give their kids something a tiny bit nicer.
In closing: Who would’ve ever thought that a brief exchange with my wife would’ve lead to me understanding myself so much better? Little does she know, she gave me a well-thought-out excuse for the next time I impulse buy a pair of sneakers.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on consumerism from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.