Posted by: Dan | September 9, 2006

The Power of Shopping (and is it really all that bad?)

When the the children grow up, try to keep them busy. Try to see that they become addicted only to legal substances. That's about it.
~ Wendell Berry, “The Joy of Sales Resistance”

I have often wondered about this:

Within social services, shopping is often offered as the way in which one can overcome the power of drug addictions. This may sound odd but it makes a lot of sense and it seems to actually work more than some other approaches. Thus, the addict, who is often coming from a fairly rough and poor environment, is taught the joy of buying and owning nice things — nice clothes, nice music, nice electronics, and so on and so forth. When addicts are first coming out of addiction they are encouraged to quickly spend their money on other things so that they cannot spend it on drugs. Then, whenever the urge to use comes up, the addict is encouraged to go out on a bit of a shopping spree. Now I've seen this approach work quite well (at least for certain periods of time). It seems that shopping is actually more powerful than crack or crystal meth. Odd, Bush tells us to go shopping so that we can win the war on terror… and social workers tell us to go shopping so that we can win the war on drug addiction.

However, I find this a little unsettling (not least because it seems that the Christian gospel is weaker than the power of shopping! Am I totally off base to wonder if shopping is more powerful than drugs simply because it is a bigger idol in our culture?!). Here is my issue: it seems to me that what we have done is simply transition people from a socially unacceptable addiction (consuming crack or meth or whatever) to a socially acceptable addiction (consuming clothes or electronics or whatever). And, while we have perhaps raised their standard of living, we have not addressed the root causes of their addictions. Because, based upon my experiences, I quite emphatically believe that addiction is almost always a symptom that has arisen from a deeper issue — addictions are those things which allow people to survive in states of brokenness even though they then go on to perpetuate that state of brokenness. Thus, by engaging in the movement from drugs to shopping, we are simply teaching people how to hide their brokenness and survive in their brokenness in a more socially acceptable manner — we're not doing much to address the brokenness in and of itself. In then end, moving people in this direction can lead them to simply embrace their brokenness as their natural, or normal, or only possible, way of being.

Now I'm probably going to sound crazy to suggest that this movement is disconcerting — after all isn't being a shopaholic with a nice house, a nice car, and a nice family infinitely better than being a junkie with no home and no clean clothes sharing needles down on the corner of Main and Hastings? Well, to be honest, I'm not sure that one is any better than the other. Certainly one is more socially acceptable than the other but this is precisely what I am challenging. The first addiction is more insidious, and the second is more immediately vicious, but both are overwhelming and trap us in a less than human state. Indeed, it seems to me that the first is actually more difficult to overcome than the second, in part because it is so acceptable and because the harm it causes isn't immediately apparent on our own bodies. If I go on a speed run, I'll end up breaking out in sores. If I go on a run at the GAP, I don't have to see the bodies of the children that were broken when they made my clothes. If I shoot heroin I feel great… but I remember my brokenness when I come down and I can't accept my state as “normal”; but if I go shopping I feel great… and somewhere along the way I tend to normalize my brokenness and just accept my state as “the way things should be.

So, at the end of the day are we doing our addict friends any favours by turning them into shopaholics? Sure, I suppose we are, but it might not be much of a favour. It's sort of like offering somebody a slow death instead of a quick death. It's not really offering any sort of genuine transformation or new life. But isn't it at least a step in the right direction? A stage along the way that we can later discard? Maybe. I don't know… but I suspect not.

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