Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Last year, as 2016 drew to a close, a rough election year left the Catholic writer Ann Patchett “mindlessly scrolling through two particular shopping websites, numbing my fears with pictures of shoes, clothes, purses and jewelry.”
Finally, Patchett stepped back and took a close look at her shopping habits. She didn’t much like what she found.
“I was trying to distract myself, but the distraction left me feeling worse, the way a late night in a bar smoking Winstons and drinking gin leaves you feeling worse. The unspoken question of shopping is ‘What do I need?’ What I needed was less.”
The novelist described her moment of truth in a recent column for The New York Times.
Her experience pointed to a common problem in an age of consumerism. Our shopping habits are applauded as a boon for the economy. In the process, we have purchased things we need, and things we could easily do without.
This national practice, courtesy of the internet, has also become our default strategy for filling time, and for distracting ourselves from other more pressing issues in our lives. Every week, precious hours are consumed on our favorite websites. We click the items we covet, and then we may buy them or perhaps we just move on to read the news — only to have the images stalk our path across the internet. (Talk about the near occasion of sin!)
As Patchett made her own examination of conscience, the writer thought about a friend that had given up online clothes and shoe shopping for a year, and did not regret it.
Patchett decided to follow her friend’s example, and came up with her own “arbitrary set of rules for cutting back on her shopping habits.”
She wanted a realistic plan: tough, but not so difficult that she “would bail out in February. Shoes, clothes and technology were off limits. Grocery store and pharmaceutical items, along with books and gifts, were allowed. All purchases must be based on need. She had to run out before she brought something new — even lip balm.
Most importantly, no shopping also meant no online trawling, especially on favorite fashion websites where Patchett often passed “idle moments.” It also meant no shopping catalogues from J. Crew, Macy’s or Bloomingdales.
Why did Patchett defy the consumer-driven routines of modern America?
“I was raised Catholic and spent 12 years in a Catholic girls’ school. In the same way a child who grows up going to the symphony is more likely to enjoy classical music, and a child raised in a bilingual household is probably going to speak two languages, many children raised Catholic have a talent for self-denial.
“Even now my sister and I plan for Lent the way other people plan family vacations.”
Here is what she learned from her year of no shopping.
1. Cravings to possess the latest pair of shoes or cool gadget will subside.
“I remember my parents trying to teach me this lesson when I was a child: If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass.”
2. “Not shopping saves an astonishing amount of time.”
Instead of buying a new outfit for an important event, she made do with something hanging in her closet. With online trawling a thing of the past, Patchett had more time for other activities.
3. Constant shopping dulls our sense of gratitude.
“Once I stopped looking for things to buy, I became tremendously grateful for the things I received. “
4. You are more content with what you have.
“Once I could see what I already had, and what actually mattered, I was left with a feeling that was somewhere between sickened and humbled.”
5. Renewed focus on the needs of others.
“If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what other people don’t have,” said Patchett. “There’s a reason that just about every religion regards material belongings as an impediment to peace. …This is why Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ It’s why my friend Sister Nena, an 85-year-old Catholic nun, took a vow of poverty when she entered the convent at 18.”
Sister Nena was Patchett’s first-grade reading teacher. “When I ask her if there’s anything she needs me to get for her, she shakes her head. ‘It’s all just stuff,’ she says, meaning all of the things that aren’t God.”
6. Consumerism clouds our vision of the world.
“The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: We can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss life’s details.
“It’s not as if I kept a ledger and took the money I didn’t spend on perfume and gave that money to the poor, but I came to a better understanding of money as something we earn and spend and save for the things we want and need,” said Patchett.
“Once I was able to get past the want and be honest about the need, it was easier to give more of my money to people who could really use it.”
After considering Patchett's argument, I would add another observation, based on my own experience: No shopping will improve your faith life.
Too much online shpping gives us less time for prayer. It also crowds out the voice of God. During the middle of Mass, I have found my thoughts veering off course to consider a dress I want to buy while a sale continues. As the priest raises the Host for the concecration, I am making a mental note to purchase the dress after I get back to my computer.
Patchett, for her part, also makes clear that she has not taken a vow of poverty, like Sister Nena.And she understands that consumerism helps drive our economy.
Still, she echoes the conclusion of her friend, who has opted to begin another year liberated from the seductive power of shopping and securing things we think we need.
"Not shopping," she concluded, "frees up a lot of space in your brain.”