It’s Saturday afternoon. In the morning, my wife and I tidied up the house a bit and did some laundry. I took the dog out. She took a jog. I read a novel for an hour and she crocheted. We ate lunch, did the dishes, and then sat down to check Facebook. All week we had been in and out of the house, running errands, working, going to school. It should have felt nice to have “nothing to do,” to be at home for once with no where to go. But we both felt it. I showed the first signs by snapping at Brittany when she asked me what I was reading and if it was interesting, but I could tell from her question that she felt the same way.
We had to get out. We were going stir crazy. Our apartment was just too small and we had grown too used to socializing to sit around quietly. Staying home all day was making us depressed and cranky. If this was the fall or spring, we could go for a nice stroll or maybe a hike, but summer in Southern California means soul-melting heat. So we considered our options.
–Target? Do we need anything from Target?
–Maybe we could just, you know, walk around and see if there are any little household items we might need to buy. Did you say you needed socks or something?
–Or there’s the Mall. We could always just walk around the mall looking at some of the stores.
And so we get into the car, drive over to Target, and spend the evening walking around the store, talking and shopping.
I wish I could say that we only rarely went window shopping for entertainment, but it’s been a habit of mine for a long time now, one I’ve only just begun to break in the last few years.
There is good reason why I and many others find shopping so entertaining Shopping centers are, after all, designed to make you feel comfortable, safe, enthralled, happy, and discontent. It is in their best interest to make you feel like shopping is fun, a form of entertainment equal to or greater than the pleasure and entertainment you will receive from the things you buy when you shop. But is shopping an edifying way for Christians to spend their time?
Just as we must be thoughtful in the way we watch TV or play video games, we also should be conscientious about other cultural activities we engage in and how they shape our identities. When we view window shopping or hanging out in the mall as a form of entertainment, this can have an affect on how we define ourselves and what we conceive of as the Good Life–the ideal life we strive after.
By making a habit of going to stores in order to hang out with my wife, I treat shopping not as a means to an end–a way to get products which I will use to serve some purpose–but as an end to itself. The experience of shopping (walking the aisles, looking at new and interesting products, imagining the potential pleasure of owning these things) becomes the point of shopping. And this can have several implications.
If I conceive of the experience of shopping as the goal of shopping then I am on the way to accepting consumerism. Certainly you can hate shopping and still think of yourself as a consumer–a materialist who views the stockpiling of products as a way to stave off death, sadness, loneliness, and boredom. But if shopping becomes a regular activity you enjoy to avoid boredom and to have fun, then you have probably begun to think of the acquisition of goods as a central purpose of your life, as a way to feel content and fulfilled, as a fundamental part of your identity.
The critical shift here is that when I view shopping as an end to itself, then it doesn’t really matter what I buy or if I need it or who made it. What gives me pleasure is not the product, but the act of looking at, longing for, and purchasing the product. I’m identifying myself as a consumer by seeing consumption as a form of entertainment.
But as Christians we are not first and foremost shoppers or consumers. It is good to buy and enjoy something well made (he says, editing this on his iPad), but that enjoyment is always tempered by the knowledge that these things are not ultimately permanent or important. Our treasure is not on Earth. If our enjoyment comes from the act of buying and consuming more goods, then we are conceiving of our ultimate peace and security here, rather than in Christ.
I am not saying that you should never enjoy shopping or that if you choose to stroll around the mall some summer afternoon that you will fall into covetousness, greed, and consumerism. Even though I’ve come to the place where I believe that it is not edifying for me or my family to regularly practice window shopping as a form of entertainment or an “activity,” occasionally we still will drop by Target to mull around for a bit. As with nearly everything in our faith, what we do with our family and friends for fun outside the house requires discernment and balance. For our family, what was important was that we stopped making window shopping into a habit. Instead, we’ve tried to make an effort to take walks when it is cool enough, visit the local museum, go to the gym, or invite people to our apartment. It has been our experience that these activities have helped us to grow a greater love for our neighbors and friends and has helped us to stop thinking about buying products as a way to fight boredom.