Some readers may be familiar with Buy Nothing day — a day of protest, usually celebrated on Black Friday, where you’re supposed to buy nothing. One of the things that is kind of surprising is that a lot of people find it really difficult to go for 24 hours without shopping. I don’t mean the people who go really hardcore and shut off their electricity and such so that they are literally buying nothing, but just the normal people who try to go for a full day without stopping in for a coffee or picking up some milk at the grocery store.
Why is it hard to buy nothing? Several reasons. First, we are literally presented with constant temptation. A lot of Catholic writers complain about the fact that it’s impossible for anyone living in this culture to avoid constantly encountering media that tempts us to lust – but to put that in perspective, consider that the vast majority of the media in question is only using lust to tempt us to buy. And there’s still a huge quantity of advertising beyond that which prompts us to covet without involving lust at all. The litany of “buy buy buy” is so continual and so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even think of it as being a form of temptation at all – because if we did conceptualize it as diabolical we would go quite, quite mad.
The second reason it’s difficult is that we’re in the habit of having an absolutely insane array of goods constantly available to us. I remember when I moved from Toronto to the country, one of the things that I found oddly difficult was dealing with the fact that stores here keep reasonable hours. It’s definitely right and just: nobody should have to mess up their quotidian cycles or miss putting their kids to bed just in case I get a late-night craving for lemon meringue pie. But I was used to being able to acquire whatever I wanted when I wanted it, and it took a bit of adjustment to get used to planning ahead and thinking about what I was going to need before I actually needed it. Giving up shopping demands that you make a plan, rather than just purchasing on impulse.
Finally, it’s hard because shopping is in itself rewarding. Several years ago I functionally gave up shopping for several months because I lived in the middle of nowhere, had a new baby, and didn’t have a driver’s license. Even when I went into town with my husband, it was almost never convenient for me to run into the stores. One of the short-term effects of this was that I felt deeply divorced from society, alienated, excluded, abandoned on the margins. I’d never realized how much our engagement with this culture demands the ability to participate in commercial life. Nor did I realize how addicting the chemicals that your brain releases when you shop can be – even if it’s just getting a good deal on some oatmeal and bananas, the body rewards acquisition and if you stop buying things, you’re going to feel that.
Taking these things into account, if you’re going to give up shopping (and I do heartily recommend doing it at least once in your life) you need to come up with a realistic plan. The ideal is not to shop at all, but if that’s impossible (if, for example, you have to pick up your mother’s prescription every week from the drug store) then it’s best to make very clear rules about what you can buy and when.
Mostly, what you’re trying to accomplish is to detach yourself from the habit of constant consumption, and the more rigorously you’re able to do this the more you’re going to get out of it. For example, if you’re only allowed to pick up milk on Saturday and you run out during the week, you might have to borrow from a neighbour, or ask a friend to pick some up for you. That might sound like cheating, but it’s not: learning to depend on other people, and having the humility to ask for help, are both really important in the spiritual life.
It’s also important, as much as possible, to make sure that you’re not developing a system that will functionally allow you to buy one or two things every couple of days. If you do that, you’re never going to break through to the point where you stop feeling alienated and start feeling liberated. Because here’s the thing: consumerism really is a form of slavery. It tells you that who you are, and what you’re worth, are dependent on what you buy – that your place in society is established and secured by the ritual of purchase. Indeed, this identification of the person with their economic utility is so pernicious that John Paul II identified is as one of the fundamental elements of the culture of death.
When you unplug from this, it allows you to reclaim your fundamental worth outside of the consumer system. Not being able to buy encourages you to make different decisions, to solve practical problems either through individual creativity, or through reliance on community. It strengthens both self-reliance and communal interdependance at the expense of impersonal transactions. Instead of throwing money at problems, you have to learn how to solve them yourself or how to ask for help from someone who knows how.
Ultimately, you end up feeling really empowered – and when you go back to shopping you have a lot more freedom over the way that you spend. You’ve become used to thinking long term, so you’re less likely to get suckered by impulse buys. You’ve learned how to be happy without shopping, so you don’t just buy things for the sake of buying them. You’ve disentangled your sense of self from your consumption habits, so you’re a lot less susceptible to advertising that tries to sell you emotional and spiritual goods that cannot be sold.
See also: Buy Nothing
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