When All Else Fails, Shop?

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.

Nothing like a little Target to sooth the soul

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.

The Mall as Heaven

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.

——–

Edited 05/20/2012

I wrote this almost two years ago. Since then I’ve matured as a writer, I guess. So I made minor changes to improve the readability (whatever that means).

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://dianndia.blogspot.com Dianna

    This post made me think of my mother. Because my dad works full time and she’s only a part time adjunct professor, she’s home alone a lot, and therefore gets bored really quickly. So she goes to Target and just walks around looking at stuff. She very frequently buys one or two things at the very least, but always has the cart in case she needs it. It’s…interesting, to say the least. You’ve put words to my unease about this habit – one that I developed on slightly different level when I moved away from home.

    When I go to Barnes and Noble to waste time looking at books, picking up and reading sections of some, often leaving with some new venture in reading, while countless others sit at home, half read, what does that say about me as a consumer? Why do I have to go out for the entertainment when I have a bunch of books already sitting at home waiting to be read?

    Good thoughts raising some good questions. Thanks.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    Good article but I have one critique:

    By making a habit of going to stores in order to hang out with my wife, I am treating the store not as a means to an end–a place to go to get products which I will use to serve some purpose–but as an end to itself.

    Your error here is one of self-contradiction. “I am treating the store as an end to itself” does not fit with “Going to stores in order to hang out with my wife.” You are not treating a visit to the store as an end in itself, because you have already given it a much (dare I say?) nobler goal: spending time with your wife.

    This doesn’t discount the rest of your critique or convictions. It merely points out that you may not need to look for greater justification for your store visits because your wife is justification enough.

  • Alan Noble

    Good point, and I think that contradiction gets to the heart of why my wife and I still occasionally hang out in stores and do not feel that it is wrong. To the extent that we are really spending time together, it is a good activity.

  • Alan Noble

    @Dianna
    Anytime I write a post I want someone to think of their mother. So yay! On a serious note, I’m glad I was able to help formulate these ideas for you.

    @The Dane
    Man, it’s been far too long since I’ve had a Dane comment on one of my posts. I need to write more.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Isn’t that why we do all of this?


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