We live just around the corner from a major shopping mall. Like 100 meters around the corner. Step out the front door and you’re there.
I’m not someone who is given to much shopping, window or otherwise, so the proximity of the mall doesn’t have much effect on my daily routine. I do, however, have countless memories of days on the town with Renata and the girls in years gone by: as they wander from shop to shop I will find a bench somewhere and sit to watch passers by. I can remember my father doing the same thing on family shopping trips.
Every now and again, though, I do go out for a stroll in the mall, just to see what’s new. The other day I found myself in the electronics superstore, working up a lust for large high definition televisions (“they’re so clear!”), laptop computers (“they’re so cheap!”), and electric back-rub seats (“they feel so good!”). I also looked at mobile (cell) phones, but really I have little interest in them other than to see what new features have been added lately (television). Eva, my 15-year-old, likes to ogle these phones regularly, but I’m happy with my 6-year-old model that lets me call people, send messages, and play Snake when I’m just sitting around (train, bus, dentist’s office). I wonder if my bishop plays Snake on his phone during his many travels, as a small personal reward for having finished writing yet another article or book review.
What percentage of commerce would dry up if we were all suddenly satisfied with the number and quality of possessions we presently own? Obviously we need to replenish some things almost daily (food), and some other things regularly, as they wear out (shoes). But for much of what we buy, the reason we do so is because we’re dissatisfied in some way with what we already have. Advertisers are always playing to this weakness and we happily go along. So, what portion of annual growth in GDP is attributable to being malcontents? Is it possible to have a recession caused by an epidemic of contentedness?
Renata doesn’t buy much; she enjoys shopping, but not buying. She’s frugal by character to begin with, a personality trait further bolstered by habits formed being raised in a Mennonite environment. Frugality is to her thinking clearly a virtue, good in and of itself. I, on the other hand, cannot claim to be frugal; my “frugality” is merely an expression of pragmatism, a much brighter star in my puny constellation of virtues. (Like almost every American, I am the unwitting disciple of William James and John Dewey.) I don’t buy primarily because I don’t have the resources to buy. Happily, this motivational difference between Renata and me rarely comes to the fore because we hardly ever have enough money left over at the end of the month to make it an issue. One less thing to worry about.
Last month I read a news story about an investment manager who had allegedly conned a bunch of people, spent their money on the high life, and tried to disappear by sending a may-day call from his airplane before jumping out with a parachute, letting the plane crash in a Florida swamp. The story itself was mildly interesting, but when I saw a photo of the man taken last summer, I thought: “to all appearances this is someone who completely bought into the lie that life consists in the abundance of one’s possessions!” There he is, posing in the peachy glow of sunset on a summer’s day, dark suit, with Barbie-like woman on his arm, his sleek, silver Lexus parked behind him, his doomed Piper Malibu airplane glinting softly in the dusk just beyond. This is no happenstance snapshot; this is a purposefully composed photo of a man who believes he has made it in life.
Honestly, I spent a good five minutes looking at the photo, maybe more. It is so surreal; so sad. Sad to see a woman being treated like an accessory; sad when possessions are believed to “make the man”. How much better to learn to be content, to live in moderation. Or as St. Paul put it: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4: 11 – 13).
You can find a copy of the photo here: http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2009/02/wife_of_pilot_who_bailed_over.html