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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