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COVID-19, consumerism, and acedia

Even as we move toward a post-COVID-19 world, the dilemmas raised by a culture with an addictive curiosity for novelty and distraction remain.

(Image: engin akyur | Unsplash.com)

Stuff — whether material possessions or fleeting entertainment experiences — can’t make us happy. We all know this. Yet many responses to COVID-19, despite its convergence with Lent, proved the depth of our consumerist proclivities. Americans are binge-watching streaming video and indulging in endless hours of video games. Pornography consumption has also skyrocketed. Other Americans continue to hoard various necessities, ensuring some will be able to make sourdough peasant loaf and macaroons ad infinitum. With Lent over, and stimulus checks in the mail, we may be tempted to jettison all restraint. To resist such urges, we require a more robust indictment of avarice than a Marie Kondo checklist or a “life-hacking” regimen.

Someone who deeply understood the relationship between consumerism and acedia was Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, writer, and theologian who spurned a prestigious academic career that included posts at Yale and Harvard in favor of pastoring a Canadian community for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Nouwen argues in his classic book The Return of the Prodigal Son that greed reinforces tendencies towards self-hatred. He writes:

Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing. It is a very fierce battle because the world and its demons conspire to make me think about myself as worthless, useless, and negligible. Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept “small,” I can easily be seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about. But every time I allow myself to be thus manipulated or seduced, I will have still more reasons for putting myself down and seeing myself as… unwanted.

Certainly consumerism is shallow, as a quick review of commercials for Sandals all-inclusive resorts makes clear. Yet it’s subversive power has far deeper effects, by aggravating our feelings of self-contempt and low self-worth. It does this by persuading us to believe the lie, albeit only for a short time, that this thing will satisfy us. By the time we’ve experienced that thing and found it lacking, we’ve already been coaxed into the next shiny object. And off we go.

Our social media-driven culture aggravates this by encouraging a constant need for validation. We craft carefully-curated images of ourselves that cover-up or keep silent what we really think of ourselves, in favor of what we hope others will approve of. These promote superficial, transient means of answering the question “does anyone really love me, does anyone really care?” As if enough “likes” or “views” could ever satisfy our soul’s deep yearnings.

Indulging consumerism also makes us into cynics, because deep-down we know that we are being targeted and “valued” not for who we truly are as men and women created in the image of God, but for our pocket books. Cynicism promises a comfort that reveals itself to be not only ephemeral, but furthers our habitual navel-gazing. Nouwen explains:

Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escaping emotions.”

We are cynics because we know we are being manipulated, but we feel powerless to stop it. So we hate not only ourselves, but others, whom we distrust out of fears of being played.

This avarice retards our growth as those created for a transcendent purpose. We are infantilized by an impulse for escapism, rather than pursuing authentic relationships. Nouwen writes:

Isn’t there a subtle pressure in… society to remain a dependent child?… Hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self-gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults?

This has become all the more apparent among parents forced by COVID-19 to take greater responsibility for our children’s education and seemingly endless free time. Rapaciously defending our own time, we abdicate parenting to TV, computers, and smart-phones. As a father trying to work from home with three little ones, I’m well familiar with the temptation.

In an hour of national crisis whose economic consequences will be felt for years, we must restrain such impulses, instead lovingly and sacrificially investing in family, friends, and neighbors. Nouwen soberly asserts: “I have to know that, indeed, my youth is over and that playing youthful games in nothing but a ridiculous attempt to cover up the truth that I am old and close to death.” While some Americans (health professionals, grocery employees, delivery workers) shoulder the heavy costs of COVID-19, will our consciences sit well knowing we wasted our shelter-in-place on Netflix, YouTube, video games, or pornography consumption?

Far better to find meaning and comfort in realities that orient us towards greater truths, and ultimately, the Truth, Christ. In appreciating the Easter gift of Christ, and being spiritually restored, gifting our very selves to others that we find the antidote to the self-contempt, cynicism, and infantilization fostered by consumerism. Nouwen cites St. Paul, whose words seem profoundly relevant: “When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.”

For Christians, Lent is over. For the world, the “lent” of the coronavirus crisis will slowly abate. In the post-Lent, post-COVID-19 world, the dilemmas raised by a culture with an addictive curiosity for novelty and distraction remain. Henri Nouwen helps us recognize that consumerism isn’t just fleeting in its promises — it inculcates self-hatred, a distrust of our fellow man, and retards our growth as mature citizens. We must resist this distraction and elevation of the self, and instead refocus — through prayer, fasting, and brotherly sacrifice — to restore our nation and our souls.


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About Casey Chalk 8 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

8 Comments

  1. OKFine. We are responsible for our own souls and we must pray to overcome discouragement and look to the Light.
    As for the Catholic Church, the bishops are responsible. Especially the Bishop of Rome. The Church is imploding because its leadership has almost zero interest in bringing souls to Christ. The Pope rarely uses the word “Catholic”. Need I say more.

    • WE are the Catholic Church!! WE must also be responsible to bring souls to Christ!!! WE are His hands and feet. There is PLENTY of Catholic leadership. You must look for it.

  2. Tell that to the priests and bishops who have been spending huge sums of the laity’s donated money buying finery in vestments, vessels, decorations and buildings. Tell them that stuff can’t make them happy.

    • Ron Orman ,
      Actually, sacred spaces, beautiful liturgical vestments, & art do make us happy. For the most part they belong to everyone & can be seen & enjoyed by everyone for free, unlike private homes or personal collections of art.

      If priests or bishops are spending large amounts of our donations on private yachts or mansions in the Maldives then we have something to talk to them about.

    • It is your responsibility to donate your money to institutions who will help to the social need of our community. The problems with the Catholic Church are endemic of the institution and very hard to change. Pope Francis is trying but the monolithic curia is opposed to such changes.

  3. “Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults?”
    ****
    I think our children do a pretty good job of that.
    🙂

    • Many times your friends and other people who really knows you do fraternal correction with you. The problem is that we are not open to their constructive criticism. Even more, remember that we need to open our heats to listen to the grace of God. Grace is a gift that many times we are not able to hear as we are busy in other things who we deem important to us. Prayers and examination of our conscience will open us to listen,

  4. Most people ignore the true definition of a virus. I invite them to consult such definition in serious biological textbooks. We tend to believe what social media, economic and medical institutions tell us about the existence of a virus and the devastating socio-cultural consequences resulting from such “phantom entities”. At this juncture we don’t have a clear understanding of Corona Virus 19. Consequently, the signs and symptoms are based in a medical diagnosis rather than a laboratory diagnosis. Recently 6 more symptoms have been added to the already confusing list of causes and symptoms of the virus. The irony and reality of this situation is that more and more people are dying for unknown causes and conditions that are deemed resulting from the virus infection.
    Here is were the cynic and consumeristic behaviors take place. A multitude of real or fake needs are created. The social institutions in charge of supervising the well being of the citizens neglect their responsibilities and jump into the wagon of economic opportunity created by the economic consumeristic institutions

    This wanton behaviors result in anxious, fearful, hysteric, disgruntled individuals who will consume more and more the items offered to them to overcome their sense of dispair and insecurity.
    We need institutions and individuals with common sense and social sensitivity who are willing to put and end to this social chaos.

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