A two-part series in the Monitor's Work & Money section points out a troubling epidemic facing more and more Americans: mounting credit card debt. ("King Kong debt meets middle-class life," Aug. 16. The second part continues Monday.) Not only have credit card companies become more aggressive in encouraging consumers to buy now and pay later, but carrying a large debt has become socially acceptable.
In some cases, however, compulsive buying becomes "retail therapy." And filling shopping bags with new purchases is an attempt to fill a heart longing for love and acceptance.
Studies have shown that the average consumer is exposed to more than 3,000 marketing messages daily, and products are promoted as substitutes for intimate human connections. Beauty aides, new styles, and fad diets keep our focus on the flaws of our exterior appearance while claiming to fill internal emptiness.
So what is the solution?
One place to start - even while reading this column - is prayer. "Desire is prayer;" wrote Mary Baker Eddy in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," "and no loss can occur from trusting God with our desires ..." (page 1).
Prayer can redirect our desires away from the impulse to purchase material things, which don't really satisfy our deepest longings, to a yearning for spiritual "goods." These goods, such as purpose or happiness or love, are of utmost importance and leave us feeling richly satisfied. What kind of steps help us head in this direction?
• Be alert to the right kind of messages. We may feel helpless against a tide of advertising that suggests we won't be happy until we buy more stuff. But the truth is that God makes a deeper impact on us than product slogans. Our heavenly Father-Mother is sending us tender messages every moment of the day about the wholeness of our being. "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). True thoughts - spiritual thoughts - do not leave us wanting. Accepting these messages of goodness takes careful, conscious work.
• Know God, not things, intimately. For people who live alone, or even for people who fear close connections with others, products can provide a sense of worth. Industry analysis has shown that the type of qualities a product is made to project are what draw in consumers. "Brand communities" can form around these qualities and are reinforced by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, even the food we eat. But the truth is God freely gives us qualities of excellence and beauty in the form of ideas. These ideas in turn bring purpose and meaning to our lives.
Like the golden calf sculpted by the children of Israel as they wandered in the desert, products are inanimate, unaffectionate, and lifeless. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3) may have sounded like a rebuke from Mount Sinai, but it was also a promise that God is the only living, loving God governing each of us.
• Break the cycle. It's important to understand that finding satisfaction may be a reason for prayer, but the answer to that prayer won't come through material consumption. Satisfaction is seeing the goodness in our lives, no matter how small, and being delighted with it. It can be what shapes our day the moment we open our eyes in the morning - before we look in the mirror and start deciding what's wrong with our appearance. "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness," sang the Psalmist (Ps. 17:15). We can sing along, too.
God doesn't leave us stranded in a sea of debt. God is constantly pouring out the abundance of His love for each of His children. There is no lack in a God that is infinite good. Even the willingness to mentally put down our shopping bags and prepare to receive the bounty of God's blessing is a small step in the right direction.
Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children
of men! For he satisfieth
the longing soul, and filleth
the hungry soul with goodness.
Psalms 107:8, 9