If I were a real and devoted blogger, I could probably expect some backlash from this post. As I am just a sometimes blogger with a small following of people, 90% of whom won’t read this, I’m not too concerned about that. I also think that even if I had a big-time, popular blog, I would still need to say this, but I might word it more carefully.
I really can’t stand the term “retail therapy.”
There. I said it. Now, I have really good friends who use this cutesy term, and I smile while I cringe because I understand how they feel and can imagine them with an oh-so-adorable new pair of shoes or a lovely scarf that I might admire in the near future. And I recognize that not everyone takes every word they hear, say, and read so literally. In fact and of course, I am also guilty of flippantly using words and phrases without thinking about what they truly mean or how they sound to others. This is not meant to come across as judgmental, because in all honesty I have judged others who used this term exactly zero times. I live in the same consumerist society they do, but for some reason I have cringed at these words used together.
Let me also just confess right now that I participate in the act which “retail therapy” implies very regularly. Last Christmas with my mother-in-law in Texas and just last week while she was visiting, I had the rare experience to go clothes shopping at one particular store that has some great sale racks but isn’t so large to be overwhelming. I really enjoy getting new clothes, and even more so when everything is on sale and I have a gift card to spend. I don’t think a one-hour clothes-shopping trip every 6 months or so to freshen up my closet and give me some alone time apart from my three kids is so terrible. Last week, as I was leaving the store feeling happy about my new items and also having a sense of victory because I had spent so little per item and had therefore obtained several new pieces, I thought to myself, “I guess I do understand the term.” Yet it still didn’t set well with me.
So about a month ago an old friend from Oklahoma posted that she was going to start a little Facebook book club. The group would be reading a Jen Hatmaker book together. I knew just enough about Jen Hatmaker to think this would be a fun, entertaining, challenging, and thought-provoking way to spend some time. I like Jen’s Facebook posts because they either make me laugh or make me think, two things I enjoy doing. I knew a little about her adoption journey and got excited to hear that my childhood BFF (who has been on a 16-month journey to adopt three girls from the DRC) got to hear her speak at an adoption retreat last year. I read the description of her book Interrupted and thought it sounded so much like Cre8, our faith community, that I copied and pasted it for my friend Ami to read and put the book on my mental “Ought to Read That Someday” list. Then, about a year later, I saw my friend post about her book club and on a whim said, “Sure! Include me.” I’ve been meaning to read more of her stuff anyway. Why not now?
The book club would be reading 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. The title sounds dangerous, but it’s just a book. I thought we would just be reading it and having deep discussions about it and maybe get convicted to do some stuff differently in the future. Then I found out we were actually supposed to participate by doing some radical experiments like going 7 days eating only 7 items of food and then the next 7 days only wearing 7 items of clothing. Jen Hatmaker actually did each of these experiments for a month, but my friend decided 7 days was a good amount of time to experience each topic, plus the book is a quick read so there would be no need to spend more than a week in each chapter. There’s no doubt in my mind that a book club lasting 8 weeks has a much better chance of survival than one lasting 8 months.
Well, I bought the book and didn’t start it. Life was pretty crazy at that exact time. Then I started reading about what the participants were doing and got a little nervous. I was getting ready to go on a trip to Salt Lake City, and I don’t travel much anymore. I was having a hard time imagining myself being able to eat only 7 foods on that trip, so I decided to start a week late. Then I got back and had crazy jet lag from taking a red-eye flight along with skipping a couple time zones. (This reminded me that I’m not 20 anymore, thank you very much. I didn’t have jet lag traveling to or from the Philippines or Africa, but now I get it traveling two time zones.) So, it took me a couple of weeks to get into it, and by now the rest of the book club is almost on week 3. I decided it was better to be late than never to show up, so I started the book this weekend, which was made easier by the fact that I had a rare weekend without a lot of activities lined up.
After the introduction, I told a few of my closest friends that I got the very real sense that God was about to mess up my life. Again.
Of course I meant this in a lighthearted, even positive way. They knew what I meant. We want God to “mess up” our lives because the truth is that otherwise would would completely train-wreck them, waste them, and spend them miserably. Yet when He gets our attention and opens our eyes, our flesh groans and fights. No one likes stepping outside of their comfort zones, but doing so is usually preceded by a drastic discovery — a need that can’t be met otherwise, a change that has to happen, or a revelation that can’t be unrevealed. When you are faced with life-changing information that you can’t un-know, you do something or make the just-as-painful decision not to do anything and try to ignore said information.
Two days into reading this blasted book (and I say that with utmost affection), I was feeling stuff — awake, alive, excited, nervous — and saying crazy stuff to a couple of friends who know me well. They know that when I feel and say things like this, I’m going to have to do something about it, and they will encourage me to do something about it even while my husband takes his turn to cringe. Retail therapy is actually a lot cheaper and less painful for him than the experiments and adventures for which he knows I am capable.
For now, I’m just going to write this little blog about my thoughts. The doing and living it will come soon, and I’ll blog again. I want to close by quoting a couple of passages that led to my realization of why the term “retail therapy” has always bothered me.
“In this new epoch in which the needy are without income and the wealthy are without needs, radical inequality is simply assumed. … Inequality leaves capitalism with a dilemma: the over-producing capitalist market must either grow or expire. If the poor cannot be enriched enough to become consumers, then grown-ups in the First World who are currently responsible for 60 percent of the world’s consumption, and with vast disposable income but few needs, will have to be enticed into shopping.” (From Consumed, quoted in 7.)
Ouch. Jen Hatmaker went on to conclude:
“This is why I have 327 items of clothes in my closet. … Every time I buy another shirt I don’t need or a seventh pair of shoes for my daughter, I redirect my powerful dollar to the pockets of consumerism, fueling my own greed and widening the gap. Why? Because I like it. Because those are cute. Because I want that. These thoughts burden me holistically, but the trouble is, I can rationalize them individually. This one pair of shoes? Big deal. This little outfit? It was on sale. …. But all together, we’ve spent enough to irrevocably change the lives of a hundred thousand people. What did I get for that budgeting displacement? Closets full of clothes we barely wear and enough luxuries to outfit twenty families.”
I’m all for capitalism. History has shown that it beats the pants off economic and political systems that are controlled in other ways, and even with its flaws, I can’t imagine not having a free market. Yet I’ve had that gnawing concern that I might not make the wisest choices with the excess we have. (And if you don’t think you are rich, keep in mind that making more than $35,000 per year puts you in the top 4% of people in the entire world. More than $50,000 puts you in the top 1%.) While I felt the discomfort of hearing the term “retail therapy,” I couldn’t put my finger on why and never tried to explore or articulate it. I figured it was because I took my first mission trip to a third-world country when I was 14 years old and have never been able to view the world the same since. That trip was followed by three similar trips to different third-world countries, and a part of my heart forever remains in Tanzania, East Africa. I can’t forget the poverty and need I have witnessed, but I’ve been busy having and raising American babies for more than 8 years. It’s easy to forget the third world whilst caught up living in the first world.
Last night my husband was moaning and groaning about having to clean my hair out of our shower drain with a plumbers’ snake. I flashed him a smile and said, “First-world problem.” He had obviously never heard this term before and looked confused. I walked away, and he called out, “It will be YOUR problem next time!” That’s why I have learned to keep my big mouth shut around him. I can’t wait to see what he thinks when I start eating 7 foods and wearing 7 items of clothing.
The truth is, we have been begging each other and ourselves to get rid of “stuff.” I spent a lot of time this past summer purging, and yet we still trip over clutter everywhere we go. Keeping up with clutter is a part-time job at my house. What if we just didn’t have any? The thought is as scary as it is liberating.
Jen wrote, “We get one shot at living to expand the kingdom, fighting for justice. We’ll stand before Jesus once, and none of our luxuries will accompany us. We’ll have one moment to say, ‘This is how I lived.'”
I don’t know how this adventure is going to turn out, but I know the Lord is tugging on my heart and drawing me to read on. I’m still not going to judge friends who say they need some “retail therapy,” and I would probably jump at the chance to join them, but I have a feeling that’s going to look a lot different for me after reading this book. Bring it on, Jen Hatmaker. I wasn’t meant to be “normal,” either.