I overheard a conversation between two blue-collar workers that encouraged my soul. In the aftermath of last week’s shopping frenzy (Black Friday, etc.), they were reflecting on the madness. “I had a friend who said he bought his mother-in-law a new TV. He was excited about the bargain.”
The other worker nodded.
“So I asked him, ‘Did she need a new TV?'” He said the man replied, “I never thought of it like that…”
I’m thrilled to have heard such a piercing question being asked…
That conversation made me think that re-posting this article might be worthwhile.
It is unfair that I write this post on the evening of “Black Friday.” This is the day in the American vernacular (always the day after our American Thanksgiving holiday) when the Christmas shopping season officially begins. It is marked by many enticing sales and stores opening at Midnight of Black Friday (and now increasingly earlier – so that Black Friday is beginning to start on late Thanksgiving Day). It is the single busiest day of the retail year and a harbinger of the all-important outcome of the Christmas retail shopping season. The U.S. economy will not do well in the year following a bad shopping season. Much of the economy here is built on consumer spending. If people don’t buy, someone will eventually be unemployed. It’s almost a patriotic duty to shop.
Consumer economies are built on the proposition that people will buy what they want – even more than what they need. This is especially so if wants are experienced as needs. Fortunately for consumer economies, the human soul in its non-spiritual condition, is governed by passions. These are energies of the soul (and the body) that are disordered, such that they generally desire things that are other than the soul and body’s good. We do not want things simply because we need them or because they are good for us. We want them because we want them.
For this reason, the constant, ubiquitous barrage of advertising in which we live and move and have our being, is effective.
The passions are insatiable, by definition. If they were merely natural desires they could be satisfied. We hunger for food. We eat. We are no longer hungry. However, gluttony is a disordered hunger, a passion. By its very character, gluttony is an unnatural hunger. It cannot be satisfied.
The passions of shoppers are more subtle. Shoppers desire beauty, acceptance, self-confidence, power, intelligence, pleasure, excitement, a host of intangible needs. They are not natural needs, but the passions of the spiritually disordered. Our unnatural* existence is centered in the false self -the sense of identity generated within our memory, thoughts and emotions. It is burdened with uncertainty. Comparing, judging, measuring, revising are constant activities of the mind in its role of the false self.
All of these experienced needs are the objects of our consumer culture. Of course, I am describing this experience as though I live outside. But it is our common environment. We do not think of our desires as disordered – even as we occasionally find ourselves frustrated with having yet again been sold.
Even spirituality is marketed. We have a natural hunger for God, but those things that are natural are inevitably swathed in the unnatural voice of the passions. Thus we need God – but we need Him for our passions. Thus we find the God who will underwrite our narrative. The story of conversion becomes our organizing moment (“watch how I follow God”). Religious music is packaged to appeal. The aesthetics of religious experience can thus be more important than the content itself. Nothing is safe from the passions. The highest, most noble pursuits can be as driven by passion as the lowest bestial desires. The consumer shops for his God.
But this is only the account of consumer/man. It is not the human story. The passions, though dominant in the lives of every human being, are only disordered desires – and those desires may be healed. It is possible to live without the passions in ascendance. The goal of the Orthodox fathers was never to be passionless, though they used the word apatheia to describe the proper spiritual condition. They meant only that our passions no longer rule.
The human life was created to be centered in the heart, the spiritual seat of our existence. The heart is not subject to the passions, not driven by desire and necessity. It is not the same thing as the mind. It does not compare or judge, measure or spin tales of its own existence. It simply is. It is in the heart that we know God (truly know). Its aesthetic is true beauty, found within the most ordinary of objects as well as in the greatest efforts of man. The heart is content.
We cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot live as consumers and lovers of God at the same time. Without the disordered passions, subject to the commercial siren song, we fail as consumers. To buy something because it is actually required rather than desired is to reject the very basis of our modern economy. But it is only when we are free of disordered passions that we are free. The cloud of desire that surrounds us prior to that point leaves the truth of things largely opaque. Only the sober man knows anything.
And so, not strangely, Christ has much to say about money. We are told to give it away (or at least lots of it). Riches choke out the good seed. Be anxious for nothing. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it. It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Today, the rich man is the consumer man. The productivity of modern man has left necessity behind. Today we no longer have needs: needs have us.
Can consumers be saved? It is perhaps one of the more appropriate questions of our time. I think consumers can be saved – but not as consumers. Consumption, in the manner in which we know it, is the symptom of a disease, the deep disease of corruption of which the Scripture warns:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Of course, none of this was her own idea – there were commercials in the garden.
*I use the word unnatural to describe our existence because we were not created to be subject to the passions. Our bondage is the result of sin.