Monday, September 28, 2009

Consumerism Nears its End--for Me at Least

That might be overstating it a bit, but it is virtually true, if not literally so. My personal consumption is not over yet, although the end is in sight. You see, today I bought the last pair of shoes I will ever wear. I came to this realization as I drove home with them and thought, "How long can I make these shoes last?" The answer I gave myself was that, with prudent care, I guessed I could easily get a good 15 years out of them. That's when I dawned on me that, considering my age--fifty-nine--any actuary worth his sea salt would tell me that these were indeed most likely my very last pair of shoes. Mortality will certainly bring consumerism to an end, if nothing else will.

Look, I know we all have to consume; it is a necessary, and even in a number of respects, a good thing. But we Americans have gone a bit overboard. I think we'd all, if only reluctantly, admit to that. Now admitting something is the same as confessing. I belong to a church tradition (Reformed) which values written and spoken confession of beliefs, sins, commitments and indeed, all kinds of important things. Confession, as it turns out, is good for the soul after all. And when it comes to the issue of consumer sins, perhaps we all have a good deal to confess.

Although my wife and I are both very frugal, she is much more so than I. And although we both subscribe to the motto, "Use it us, wear it out, make it do or do without," I do more of the buying of new things than she does. I like to shop (I confessed to this in an earlier post). Here I have to admit to being absolutely crazy about Walmart. OK, I'll make this a formal confession: I love bargains and I LOVE WALMART! There, I've said it. Yes, I know, I know; everything in the store in made in China. And to think that for years I used to scrupulously boycott anything made in China. Somewhere in the course of my boycott though, I was sucker-punched by reality.

I remember one time needing work boots and calling around to places to ask them if they had any work boots not made in China. I spoke to the manager of BootWorld who assured me that they had shoes which were indeed made in other countries--like Srilanka, Bangladesh or some such place. Anyway, I go to the store and look around awhile. What should I find but a really big sturdy cardboard store display with the word Caterpillar in big bold letters and an all-American manly-looking scene with photos of huge earth-moving equipment and big burly all-American guys in their Caterpillar work boots with their feet propped up on a giant muddy tire about ten feet high. "Man," I think, "this is the work boot for me." I get a pair and, when I get them home I what do I discover when I look at the label way inside on the underside of the tongue? "Made in China." "What?!" Caterpillar work boots--made in China?!! I took them back and the manager agreed to a refund. I made my righteous Ghadian stand, but it was one of my last. In the months following that episode my ever-vigilant label-checking revealed that nearly 97.3% of everything in any store I went to was "made in China." So much for my solidarity with the suffering masses in the Peoples Republic...

Worse than the effect all those unavoidable Chinese-made products had on my self-indulgent consumer habits was the idea my wife ran across not long ago in her reading. In the book by Timothy Keller (Ministries of Mercy, The Call of the Jericho Road) she read where he quoted John Newton to have said, "We are to spend a penny on the poor for every penny we spend on ourselves." This has cursed and haunted me ever since my wife and I discussed it. It's bad enough that we talked about the idea. She had to go and set up a little offering jar where we are to put a little slip of paper with what we have spent on ourselves. Let me tell you, this really makes one think every time one--I!--spend money on myself. I am forced to think, "Did I really need that?" and, "OK, now I have to spend an equal amount on some poor person--who will it be? How will I get them something they need?" As you can imagine, this has really messed with my buying habits.

Well, even as our consumerism must end, so too with this post. Here I sit contemplating my mortality, my comparative neglect of the poor, and to top it all off, how the shoes I now wear will most likely be on my feet as they lay me in my grave... Wait just a cotton-pickin' minute! Why must I have shoes on when I'm buried? Can't these shoes be better used by giving them to a poor person? I can be buried barefoot, thank you!