Excess and Ashes

When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself. 

And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).

I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:

In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.

In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.

I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.

In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?

What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?

So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.

I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3531241630/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

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