Magazine article U.S. Catholic

There Is a Lot to Be Said for Less

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

There Is a Lot to Be Said for Less

Article excerpt

The Golden Calf of consumerism demands worship. But, tapping into the wisdom of our faith, noted author Dolores Curran calls us to resist the pull of possessions and the allure of the mall.

Adjacent cars parked outside a supermarket boasted an intriguing pair of bumper stickers. The one on the left proclaimed, "I shop. Therefore, I am." The one on the right responded, "Been there. Done that." These messages sum up the promise and disillusionment of subscribing to a cultural creed that equates happiness and meaning with possessions and pleasures.

Consumerism has been called the religion of capitalism. Even our federal government supports the notion by labeling families "consumer units." From earliest childhood, we are bombarded with messages to buy items we don't need and don't have time to enjoy, messages that promise pleasure, fulfillment, and social acceptance. Children are taught that they should want Furbies, Beanie Babies, Giga Pets, or Tickle Me Elmo dolls for Christmas because they are designated popular toys for a given season, and parents feel obligated to buy them so the child's self-esteem and social standing won't suffer.

Inside the supermarket, alongside the usual bank of shopping carts, we find miniature carts for children bearing poles with the sign "Customer in Training." No surprise that by the time we reach adolescence we are inculturated into believing that the good life is measured more by what we have than by who we are. As we age, we refer to our new cars, computers, and other acquisitions as toys; we buy into the conventional wisdom that we are what we drive, compute, and wear. Then we wait impatiently for the elusive happiness promised.

We are well-programmed to believe in consumerism as the panacea to happiness, the antidote to emptiness, and the entitlement of hard work. It takes a strong person to resist this creed, a counter-cultural person. Those who choose voluntary simplicity as an alternative way of life report that they are regarded as odd, underachieving, and even unpatriotic by friends and family who constantly yearn and work for more goods and pleasures to give meaning to their lives.

In my research on families, I have found that healthy families possess a strong religious core, but it doesn't always mean a strong church affiliation. Rather, it indicates that the family finds its meaning in something other than consumerism: in faith in God, in love for one another, in service to others, in righting injustice, in a cause or movement, or in sharing goods and hospitality.

When a family has no deeper reason for being, pleasure becomes the meaning and purpose of life. When the pleasure in an object or experience wanes, a new object for happiness must be identified. Together, the family saves and works to obtain it, which provides a sense of bonding, but once the new item is acquired and the novelty wears off, the family needs to identify another, and the cycle repeats itself. Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh calls this the "catechetics of capitalism."

It's never enough

We often try to solve our problems by buying. A mother in one of my parenting groups made this startling statement: "We aren't getting along very well in our family so we're thinking of getting a camper van." When questioned, she admitted she had bought into the advertising promise that camping creates happy families, although deep down she knew they would simply take their family problems along with them.

The problem of consumerism as a creed means we must keep upping the ante. Enough is never enough, and soon we are possessed by our possessions. Shopping is the number one cultural activity in America. Accumulation of unnecessary goods has become a habit--even an addiction--as we wring our hands over lack of storage space. What we once considered luxuries we come to regard as necessities, and eventually we become dependent upon the things we acquire. …

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