I’ve never been a shopper; it’s simply not in my dna. There is a story that was told often in my family, about a day when my great aunt took me shopping to a Woolworths, the old five and dime chain store, and told me to buy anything I wanted – it was my 5th birthday. I protested over and over, saying I didn’t want anything, didn’t need anything, that I was uncomfortable looking around and feeling pressure that I had to buy something. But my aunt persisted. I eventually, because she kept insisting, wandered around the store and picked out a little Santa Claus mug, because my birthday was about a month before Christmas, and some of the merchandise was already out in the store. My great aunt was horrified that this was the only thing I wanted, urging me to pick something else. I refused — and I didn’t even want the mug. End result: we left the store with my little Santa mug, and my aunt was not satisfied. The story continues that on my younger sister’s birthday, the same aunt took my sister to the same store, and said the same thing, “Pick anything you want.”
My sister asked, “Can I get a wagon?”
“Of course!” our aunt answered.
So my sister got the wagon and proceeded to go up and down all the aisles filling it, until it was piled so high that nothing more would fit. The sense in my family, as they repeated this story, was that my sister knew how to do it right. No matter how many times I heard this story, and was the butt of their jokes, I never felt that I was wrong. This story is not only good at illustrating the difference between two sisters — but it is a story illustrative of my consumerist family, and of the culture in which we live. The fact that this sort of mad ecstatic shopping lunacy is what is considered normal in the U.S. is something that has always baffled me – the decades we’ve spent traveling to the mall as if we’re going on pilgrimmage – there is nothing about that which has ever made sense to me.
I hate shopping. I don’t like malls. I don’t like buying things that aren’t absolutely necessary. I don’t understand why people find it so hard to break the shopping habit. Maybe to another’s mind, I live too simply – many of my clothes are 30 years old – big old sweatshirts, sweaters, etc. Why do I need more? When they wear thin, if I can mend them, I do. If not, then I simply thank the clothing for the many years of service — and find a way to turn it into a cleaning rag, or something else useful.
I own furniture that is really good — solid wood furniture that will last many lifetimes beyond my own. So why buy new furniture? Why redecorate? The same thing is true with kitchenware, with cars, etc. I have cookware that I have owned since I set up my own apartment when I was 17. I have a car that is over 15 years old. I don’t see any reason not to keep it.
I just don’t understand how, as a culture, we run ourselves into this ridiculous situation where credit cards are holding us captive – we are struggling against debt, yet keep incurring it. We just passed another Black Friday and, as usual, people were acting like animals, lining up at doors of stores that opened at 6 am, trampling each other to shop. What does this add to the quality of life?
If you have to buy essentials, fine. I buy lightbulbs. Batteries. Pens. Paper. Food, of course. I buy what is absolutely necessary by way of toiletries — if I need to buy anything else, I will buy from a thrift store, I’ll look for used stuff. Or I’ll repair things – I just spent a few hundred dollars repairing four pairs of very good boots – I took them to a local business – a local shoe repair person – and I was happy to write the check to him, and to pick up those boots and wear them again.
So, yes, I guess that my way of looking at the world is very different, but I think it is a way that people should consider. One thing I discovered because of courses I teach, is the history of a man named Edward Bernays - the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the father of PR in America. He used his uncle’s understanding of the subconscious desires that fuel some of our base human behavior – and he tapped into those so that he could create desire that would overcome our sense of need. Madison Avenue loved him and hired him to do just that. The Pentagon loved him, too. This is because, on one hand, he used manipulation of desires to cause people to buy, on the other side he was able to tap into primitive levels of fear to allow the Pentagon to create consent for wars we didn’t have to fight, to create fear in people so that they would believe they were in danger, to allow the government to do whatever it wanted.
But here is the thing: tapping into our unconscious emotions for purposes of manipulating them is something you can only get away until society is aware. Once you know what is being triggered, even if you feel those emotions getting stirred, the higher parts of the mind could resist. Of course, that is why, in my opinion, our public educational system is in terrible shape because those who manipulate the public don’t WANT people to use higher parts of their mind, but to be manipulated through base levels of emotions. People have been turned into animals and to reverse this is crucial. It all boils down to not falling victim to this kind of wickedness – so when I wear my 30 year old sweatshirt, or my ten year old rag socks, I feel good — I feel as though I’ve freed myself from this emotional manipulation.
The truth is that we don’t have to be in debt, we don’t have to be addicted to this cycle of buying, and that we can break free of the kind of mental and emotional manipulation that drives this rabid consumerist behavior. One of the most troubling things about Bernays using this method is that, for all we want to say about Freud, his goal was to make people less victimized by primitive desires, to make them aware of those urges in a way that allowed more control over such behavior. Bernays used his uncle’s research and writing to do the opposite – to create a society where people were victims of those who knew how to manipulate their primitive emotions.
A really wonderful video by Annie Leonard, called The Story of Stuff, sets out other reasons to be concerned about this consumerist system that fuels our economy and drives people into debt. In addition to what it does to individual fiscal insecurity, there are signs all along the cycle, from extraction, through production, distribution and ultimately to disposal, that prove it is terrible for our environment, and absolutely unsustainable.
I propose that, when you get the urge for a Shopping Spree, try a Stopping Spree instead. What does that mean? It means that you don’t shop. You stop yourself. Instead, take a trip to your own closet, and spend some time going through what is already hanging there. Pretend it is a shopping rack. Try on clothes you already have. Think of ways you can update the clothes already in your wardrobe. If you have things that you no longer wear for whatever reason, make a donation bundle and take that to a local thrift shop for donation. If you want to shop while you are there – fine. That money goes into charities, not to a clothing industry that uses the exploited labor of 12-year-old Cambodian girls in sweat shops.
If you must go out and wander stores — go local. Stay away from the mall, with its chain stores and underpaid employees, and travel to stores that are locally owned. When you buy from local businesses, a full 70% of the money you spend stays in your neighborhood. When you buy at a chain store, 70% leaves the neighborhood and heads to the HQ, where the profits are held by a very small number of people at the top of the labor chain.
Another thing: Carry NO credit cards, and only a small amount of cash. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted, because of that piece of plastic in your pocket, to buy things you don’t need and that you can probably ill-afford.
If you MUST shop because you are an addict, shift your shopping to other kinds of things as you work to wean yourself: buy a great bottle of wine, for instance, or go to a local grocer and buy some truly wonderful ingredients for a delicious dinner. Buy a great cookbook, and go home and have fun experimenting.
If you MUST take part in Black Friday — and this baffles me entirely, but I know I’m a strange duck in America – then buy for children who have nothing. Get in touch with local charities, and see what you can do to help families in desperate need. Most religious organizations – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples – have partnered with shelters and other organizations and would welcome your purchases and your assistance. And here is a thought — instead of a trip to the mall, make a trip to one of those shelters in order to lend a hand, and to meet the people who live there. You will be horrified to learn how many of them are veterans. How many are battered women, with their children, who had nowhere to go in order to get away from abuse. How many are suffering from mental conditions, who have no support.
If you must shop, if you must spend, shift what you do away from consuming on your own behalf, and consider spending some of your capital and your effort in areas of want and desperate need. More than anything, try out this Stopping Spree idea. You will be astonished at how you can spend your time when you are not in a mall. I’ll talk about more of those ideas on the next part of this blog – Stopping Spree, Part Two.
What are some of YOUR non-shopping past-times? How have you stopped your own shopping addiction? I welcome hearing from people, and will include your stories and suggestions in the second part of this blog.