Curb your consumerism

November 29, 2013

This article appeared in the November 29, 2013 issue of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden.

When recently driving northbound on Route 42, I was surprised to see a billboard ahead announcing Midnight Mass. As I approached the billboard, I realized it actually said “Midnight Madness.” The “d” was not clear, so I initially misread the text. I could now read that the billboard announced a shopping event at a local mall. Shoppers who arrived at midnight on Thanksgiving were promised “unbelievable savings.”

On Christmas Eve, Catholics stay up late to anticipate the birth of the Savior. On Black Friday eve, South Jersey residents stayed up late anticipating deals on toys, electronics, and designer handbags. Between the two groups is a world of difference.

This time of year brings almost as many denouncements of consumerism as it does examples of it. Very often people blame the free market. Do they really prefer a command economy, in which bureaucrats arbitrarily set prices and even salaries? How will this remove greed from the human heart? I suspect that the real reason for their criticism is that they know there is nothing they can do about the free market. Since the market mentality is global, they don.t have to bother changing their mentality. But we can all do something about the real problem. We can free ourselves from consumerism.

Consumerism is the philosophy of “buy, buy, buy.” The reason for the second and third buys is that the first leaves us unsatisfied. In fact, every “buy” leaves us unsatisfied by design! If one purchase could fully and permanently satisfy us, producers couldn’t make any more money from us.

Consumerism keeps the middle class from saving and the poor from economic advancement. In order to impress their friends and neighbors, the poor divert money from health and education to smartphones and “bling.” Consumerism has an even more corrosive psychological effect. It tells us that we can express ourselves through purchases. I am amazed by the number of people who tell me they do not believe they have any special talents. “I’m not very creative,” they claim. I know they do not mean it, but they are implicitly offending the honor of the Creator!

God always creates unique individuals with never-before-seen combinations of traits, talents, and interests. By being who we are, we contribute something unique to the world. God created us to be creative. That’s why we have a mind – so we can participate in God’s creative activity.

Unfortunately, there are generations of people who have never bothered to discern their God-given gifts because they have been smothered by consumerism since birth. They have been taught to believe that accessorizing can express their creativity. Advertisements for the iPhone 5c, available in five colors, claim that color “expresses a feeling…reveals your personality.” God created us with more complexity and depth than can be expressed by a light green iPhone!

Many consumerists protest that their holiday shopping is for others, so they are acting generously. I wonder how much they purchase for themselves and whether even their gift buying still scratches their itch to buy. While purchasing a few meaningful gifts for close friends and family is a good tradition, it cannot replace a greater truth. God has already given us what he wants us to give to others. The most meaningful gifts we give others come from the uniqueness of our being.

If you’ve been bitten by the consumerist bug, you can get the antidote. Pray to the Creator, “I know I am your unique creation and that you call me to contribute my uniqueness to the world. Help me discern the gifts that you have given me and to put them to good use. Amen!”