So I'm sitting at home, debating about what to make for dinner and watching coverage of the first day of the U.S. Open, when a commercial comes on for a certain product. I like this product, and use it myself--but I'm shaking my head at the content of the commercial. Nor is this commercial the only place I've seen this kind of hyperbole: I regularly get surveys that feature it. And I don't get it--at all.
The line that got me thinking along these lines was "Your [product] completes my life," and was voiced by someone appearing to be a teen-age girl. First off, I rather doubt that's the kind of thing that the average teenager would say without being prompted. More to the point, I also doubt that this product (or any product, really) rates that highly. Yet, as I already noted, I see these kinds of tropes in marketing campaigns all the time. I regularly get asked, about this brand or that product, whether it makes me feel hip, or special, or cultured--and whole lists of other adjectives. Every time I get one of those surveys, I scratch my head and wonder what sort of people have such drab, nothing lives that using a particular product, eating a certain type of food, staying in a certain hotel, or flying on a certain airline, would make them feel other than who they were.
Don't get me wrong: I appreciate nice things, good food, and the like, just as much as the next person. But I don't define my life in terms of what I eat, where I sleep, or how I get to where I'm sleeping. What I want out of my food is that it be safe and nutritious, reasonably priced, and something that I like. Beyond that, I don't give it another thought. Same thing with wine and spirits, juices, teas, sodas, and all the rest of the universe of consumer goods with which we surround ourselves in these United States, and about which we are constantly bombarded with information trying to get us to prefer Brand X over Brand Y.
The things that complete my life, that make me feel special, are not the sorts of things that one can buy in stores. They are the friends and family members who enrich my life, the wonders of the world that I get to enjoy (and occasionally to photograph), the teachers who open up new intellectual horizons for me, that sort of thing. I have a few nice things, materially speaking, and I enjoy and appreciate them. But for most of them, what makes them special and enjoyable are the memories associated with them, the person(s) who gave them to me, the occasion(s) which they were intended to commemorate, or some other immaterial factor. I don't own a Rolex watch, but neither would I think of myself as somehow smarter, hipper, or more sophisticated if I did. It's a watch, for crying out loud--all I really care about is that it tells the time accurately and be readable.
I am reminded, in this context, of something John Shea wrote in his book Starlight. He was quoting someone else, whose name I can't remember, but who mused, as he was sitting at a shopping mall some years ago during the Christmas season, that people weren't shopping for things they wanted (or wanted to get), but rather came to the mall looking for something to want. And that's a problem. Scripture tells us that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, but I'm inclined to think that the love of material things is, if not one and the same root, at least a closely related one.
This problem can only get worse in an economy where fewer and fewer people make things and build things, and more of them try to stay employed by selling people the things that others make. This is at least one of the reasons why our last president urged us, in the aftermath attacks on the World Trade Center and the useless series of wars he started thereafter, to go shopping--because if we don't, the economy gets even worse. Well, I'm sorry, but that's not an idea that works for me. I don't define myself by what I own, and I don't go shopping unless there's something I either need or want. I refuse to feel guilty about that, and I considered it crass (to say the least) when that was the appeal that Bush made to the American people. Not because I think that possessions are evil, or that people working in retail shouldn't make a good living--but because I don't want to live my life around what I own, how I come to own it, where I go to buy it, or anything so essentially trivial.