You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season
Fresno Bee, December 3, 2011
I watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other day with my children on television. Every fan of the cartoon knows that the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he realizes, “Christmas doesn’t come in a store.”
But this soft Seussian message was drowned out by the ads that interrupted the show. Nearly every commercial was promoting Christmas shopping! Even my kids noted the irony. The network was using Seuss to sell us the idea that Christmas really does come in a store. It is easy to feel Grinchy at times like these.
Consider the odd degeneration of the Thanksgiving weekend. Thanksgiving day is overshadowed by the next several days of shopping. These shopping days now have names that can seem like something from Seuss: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. This silliness got serious this year, when Black Friday frenzy turned bloody, as sleep-deprived shoppers competed for door-buster ads with elbows, fists, and pepper-spray.
Even the President got into the spirit of the shopping season. Obama went shopping with his daughters on “Small Business Saturday,” buying books at a local bookstore. He said, “This is Small Business Saturday. So we’re out here supporting small business.” Holiday family time is now oddly connected to a patriotic duty to go shopping.
Shopping is an American hobby. We shop when we are bored or lonely. And some shoppers treat it as a competitive sport, vying for bargains. Or they try to be the first to buy something, even if that means standing in line in the middle of the night. This is not just confined to Black Fridaybedlam. Shoppers camp out for new video games and the latest iphone.
Our culture appears to be built upon Grinch-like values such as envy, greed, and—to use a good old-fashioned word—covetousness. It used to be a sin to covet things in this way. But now it is built right in to the holiday season. Children are encouraged to give Santa a list of what they desire. Adults write up holiday wish lists. And many of us use the holidays as an excuse to buy ourselves things—even going through the ruse of wrapping these “gifts” and putting them under the tree.
Meanwhile, everyone is trying to get a deal. From the housing bubble to “Antiques Road Show,” it seems that we remain obsessed with finding bargains and turning a profit. We are fascinated by stories of “extreme couponing.” And the Seussian term “shopaholic” has entered our vocabularies.
“Shopaholism” can be a serious problem. A syndrome called “Compulsive Buying Disorder” afflicts about one out of twenty of us. A more technical term for this condition also rings Seussian: “Oniomania,” which literally means “maniacal buying.” This occurs when shopping becomes a primary way to deal with stress, boredom, and anxiety. As with gambling addiction, a downward spiral can result for the shopping maniac: as debt increases, anxiety increases, and the desire to shop grows.
We might think that obsessive shopping and compulsive buying are peculiar to modern capitalist societies. But Biblical writers routinely condemned covetousness. Even a Roman philosopher such as Seneca understood the problem. Seneca thought that the inordinate desire to buy things can leave us unhappy and indebted, especially when hucksters try to make a buck by manipulating our desires. He cautioned that we must “see how much we must pay for that which we crave.”
For Stoics such as Seneca, the cost of owning things is usually more than they are worth. Our craving for new things and the desire to make a good deal can leave us deceived, miserable, and indebted. Seneca concluded, “We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.”
You don’t have to be a Stoic sage or a Christian saint to understand that many of the things we buy end up owning us. Just ask anyone who got swept up in the housing bubble and left underwater. And most kids understand the message of “The Grinch.” The Who’s down in Whoville didn’t mind that the Grinch had just stolen all of their Christmas loot. They knew that Christmas was about the community they shared. And they recognized that Christmas doesn’t come in a store.