In recent weeks I repeatedly found myself shopping for gifts and stocking stuffers. More than once I roamed the aisles of discount stores that specialize in out-of-fashion, out-of-date, not-quite top-shelf merchandise. You know, not the Salvation Army, but definitely not Target. I was not alone.
The stores were crammed with shoppers looking for bedroom slippers, waffle irons, luggage, T-shirts, and whatever else fit the bill at discount prices. The checkout lines were 15 deep. All of us were striving to meet expectations, keep up tradition and consume our way to holiday joy without going broke in the bargain. It struck me, especially in the lower-end stores, that more and more of us are walking that bittersweet tightrope between holiday cheer and bankruptcy.
Those of us with money to burn probably resemble the television commercials that feature stylish homes and sweater-clad grownups quaffing eggnog as they pile packages under the tree. Those without that fiscal cushion do our best with a discount version of holiday achievement. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to pay the bills come January.
The holidays may be particularly perilous, but they simply focus the broader syndrome of a culture that adores having too much. But the gap between those who reach consumer Mecca and the rest trailing behind is both deepening and widening. And by definition, it is unsustainable. As writer Ed Abbey put it, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
What about an alternative way of life, one lived under the banner of abundance? It sounds positive, optimistic, and measuring abundance is refreshingly different than ranking affluence. This isn’t my idea. I came across it in a speech circulated on the Web, given by a minister at an environmental conference. He addressed environmental woes, but consumerism was the heart of his speech. He suggested that buying efficient light bulbs is all well and good, but it won’t get the job done. All it does is tweak the juggernaut. It doesn’t replace the juggernaut of our driving habits, our houses that grow ever plumper, our desire always for more.
Celebrating the abundance we already enjoy responds nicely to that tired argument, the one that asks: “Do you want to go back to the Stone Age?” Abundance doesn’t sound like retreat, or like anything primitive. But how do you measure it? And will it be satisfying the way the new radial arm saw is?
Here’s what you get once you back away from the mall-shopping frenzy: The core elements of meaningful life, including family, friends, good food, gathering in celebration, singing, taking walks, going skiing and skating, enjoying our surroundings.
We exist on a planet full of life, within a system that hums along with remarkable efficiency and grace, so long as we don’t gum up the works. What about just celebrating that? Then, when the holidays are over, we keep it up. It’s interesting to note that when surveys poll the most important ingredients of happiness, nobody says it’s their big house or the latest BMW or diamond rings. Overwhelmingly, the response focuses on family, relationships, health and a clean environment. You might call it an abundant life.
I know, it isn’t easy. The consumer steamroller is inescapable. It overwhelms everything with its din. Our kids clammor for it. We feel the craving for something spiffy and vaguely affirming. The latest and greatest -- we have to have it. Only, as soon as we get it, take it home and hold it, the luster fades away. Almost immediately it’s just another thing to maintain, pay for and store. Then, it’s on to the next mirage-like shimmer on the horizon.
Think about it. Instead of falling deeper into the pit of endless purchase, what about reordering our priorities? What if, instead of enslaving ourselves to the latest phone/music/internet gizmo, for example, we cook something wonderful, plant a garden, hike or ski in the mountains, take up music, spend time with our kids, read a book, or be still. Just be still. Now there’s a concept.
It’s not that we won’t need to work or that we’ll never buy anything again. But if we slow down the buying and consciously change our priorities, maybe the impulse will fade and ownership will become less compulsive. Things might fall into a more sane order. It’s worth a try. It could do us all good and feel, well, abundant. Not to mention that we’ll be able to pay the bills next month.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.