You can’t take it with you, so why do we make those impulse buys this time of year? The talking unicorn you’ll want to smash within 5 minutes of inserting its batteries. The novelty back scratcher. The wind-up robot and stockings-full of plastic dollar store wares. Are we seeking connection? A moment of shared indulgence? Are we pacifying our fear of being unliked by buying more and more? If you’re like me, the answer is sadly, “Yes.”
In Dr. Phil’s words, “How’s that working for you?” Do you feel connected and loved? Are you living your values? Are you caring for your family and our planet? Are you getting what you really want and need? Likely, not.
During my annual pre-Christmas clean up, I recently took 3 bags of long forgotten toys to the donation bin and 2 more bursting with broken things to the dump. As I tossed the bags down the chute I wondered, how many of these items were meant to show my love on Christmas days past? The cost to the planet became crystal clear as my bags tumbled down, landing on other obsolete demonstrations of "love"; the cost to my relationships: a hollow feeling in my chest.
I know consumerism doesn’t bring connection; you know you can’t buy love. So, why is it so hard to change?
Perhaps it’s because this holiday season and our desire to consume is tightly wrapped in our culture of death denial.
Writer Philip Roth says, “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” And boy, do we humans work hard to quell the petrified voice of that second being.
It makes sense that shopping appears to be the perfect antidote to death. First, you feel that lovely hit of serotonin when you lay out your debit card for something shiny and new. We literally feel “love,” thanks to the hormone surge. A base need seems to be met. Sheldon Solomon, one of the founders of terror management theory, suggests our purchase then becomes a symbol of immortality; something intended to last longer than we do, thereby helping us to conquer death. For a moment, our death anxiety is quieted.
But in our world of planned obsolescence, these material symbols are fragile and their effects fleeting. They break or fall out of favour and are soon cast aside, speeding the destruction of the planet and leaving a void in our relationships. Awareness of our mortality creeps back in to our psyche. To keep our existential anxiety at bay (and to demonstrate our love), we must buy again, and again and again.
Our search for immortality is not inherently a bad thing. We just need to seek it in the right places (and perhaps become more aware of the false promises of consumerism). Being mindful about our desire to be a part of something bigger and longer-lasting than ourselves can move us in a productive direction. One that can enrich our lives now and soften our loved ones’ grief, later.
So, here’s my challenge for you this holiday season:
As you go about your holiday shopping this year, IMAGINE THIS IS YOUR LAST CHRISTMAS, HANUKKAH OR WINTER SOLSTICE.
How do you want your loved ones to remember this time with you? Is there a family heirloom or special object you’d like them to enjoy now? Are there things unsaid? Love to express? Wisdom to pass down? Next year, when they look back on this time, will your loved ones still be cherishing your gifts, or will these gifts have already faded in to the past?
Invest in experiences. Give the present of your presence and undivided attention. Gift a love letter to your beloveds. Don’t turn away from death this season. Let it inspire you and guide you to true immortality through genuine connection and love.