December 23, 2011 § 15 Comments
When I was kid, there was a strange game show on television called Supermarket Sweep. Part of the show was a live-action, timed competitive race through an empty supermarket. Contestants would hurl the most expensive goods they could find into a shopping cart in a given time period. The total value of what was in the cart determined which team won. It did not matter what was in the cart and whether the goods were useful or tasty—what mattered is that you hoarded more expensive goods than others did.
I have found this silly game show is a good metaphor for our modern American life. We spend so much time buying and gathering things that are often entirely unnecessary, and sometimes meaningless. Got a working cell phone—no problem, buy another one just because it is the newest thing. After all, your friends will have one and you need to compare favorably. So you spend money you often do not have, discard the other phone and leave it for the dump, and then move onto the next thing to buy. The television tells you all you need to know—buy, buy buy, and have more than the Jones’ next door. It hardly matters whether you need (or even like) that McMansion or fancy car. You buy it to keep up, only to find that once you have it, you are no happier. Sadly, once you get it, you are soon onto thinking about its replacement—something bigger, fancier, and more expensive. You struggle to get it before the Jones’ do.
It is no surprise we aren’t happy. We are too busy filling the metaphorical shopping cart to pay much attention to anything else. We fail at happiness because we are not focusing on doing those things that bring happiness. There is no time left to do important things because we are so busy running around accumulating and acting competitively with others.
What are the consequences of a Supermarket Sweep life? I’m left to wonder what this way of living has done to our children, to whom we leave a vacuous legacy of mp3 players, video games, and cell phones.
I’m left to ask what this has done to our neighborhoods, where once family helped family, but we are now all to busy to help one another.
I’m left to ponder if in the end, all we are aiming for is a life of shopping carts replete with meaningless things and empty relationships. A life in which we get a winning financial score compared to our fellow citizens, but a losing life score. I’m asking myself if what we are left with are nice houses and beautiful cars that unhappy and unfulfilled people can inhabit.
I’m left to question whether we all see that the end point for all of us is the check-out line, where life’s clock always ticks to a grinding halt, and contestants leave behind items for an estate sale.
I’m left to wonder if there is a better way.
I think there is. I am not suggesting we all live in mud huts or ride in foot-pedaled cars like Fred Flintstone. I am not suggesting we stop eating good food or go on vacation. I am not suggesting we dress in rags. What I am suggesting is that the best life can offer will not be found in the things we meaninglessly own, but in a more balanced approach to life. We can find that way by asking better questions about what we want and why we want it, before mindlessly dropping goods into our shopping carts.
1. Do I really need this? So often the answer is “no,” so the spent cash is money down the drain. Even more often, quiet reflection leads you to conclude that what you were considering as a purchase was baited on a hook by clever advertisers. Most of us listen to ads like they were the advice given by knowledgeable friends with our best interests at heart. Instead, what we are getting are the artificial hunger pangs for things planted in our mind.
2. Will it make me happy? So often the answer is “yes” because we are not thinking about the difference between long-term and short-term happiness. I loved new sport cars. They made me happy for about a week, and then I would forget all about them, though I would be paying for them for 5 years. In a culture that has us conditioned toward purchased, short-term happiness, learning this is not easy. So, be gentle on yourself and start slow, but mindfully. If you have reason to believe that something will make you happy—then perhaps you should get that one thing you want. But then carefully monitor whether it makes you happy. You will learn by trial and error that you were not correct in your assumption, and soon, you will begin to choose differently.
3. What am I hiding from? We are being sold goods that are designed to cover us from reality. The new miraculous makeup, for example, may be hiding the lines on your face, but likely it is hiding something deeper that the make-up cannot fix. It’s hiding the fear of rejection, the inevitability of death, and the desire to be perfect. What is tragically true is that it will fix none of these. You are trying to purchase what cannot be bought.
4. Why do I care what the Jones’ have? The answer is frighteningly simple: you were told to care. You were told to compete with them. You were told that if you had one less item, you were less of a human being, less worthy, and ultimately, less lovable. None of it is true. Accepting that reality will not change the Jones’ competitive mindset, but it will change how you behave. They can compete with someone else. Instead, as William Faulkner noted, your goal is to “Try to be better than yourself.”
5. How can I allocate my resources to help someone else? Once a week, stop focusing on yourself and look outside yourself to help another. The answer is not necessarily to donate more money, but to become a real part of people’s lives. It is not always about feeding the hungry, though this is a good thing to do. So often, we ignore the well-fed souls ripped apart by the hunger for relationships and meaning. Ask yourself if there is a way to spend some of your time (and perhaps some money) for others. Immerse yourself in them Help them. Be there for them. You soon will learn a kind of joy that no fancy car or expensive watch can ever bring.
And there are no doubt other questions. Feel free to suggest them!