Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh presented an interesting perspective on our consumer culture and how Christians relate to it. The part that stood out to me was the chapter on attachment and detachment. In my work with clients in my counseling practice, I deal with the issue of attachment quite often. Attachment is a healthy process all humans are designed to experience with their primary caregivers. When we do not have a safe or consistent caregiver in our early years in life, we become detached individuals and experience anxiety and difficulty attaching to others later in life. This is a sad reality that has crept into our culture, not just in our significant relationships, but Cavanaugh points out that it reveals itself in how we operate as consumers. He states, “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.” He talks about the fact the greed is not the problem, it is the fact that people are not happy with what they have.
This constant sense of dissatisfaction is what plagues most Americans today. Those same clients are in my office complaining about how miserable and dissatisfied with life they are, yet they have more stuff than most people in the entire world. Our culture has convinced us that “whoever dies with the most toys wins”, as the bumper sticker reads. People are chasing that “thing” that will fill the empty void inside, which is actually a desire placed in each one of us by our creator to be attached to Him (Ecc. 3:11). Most of us have always considered consumerism to be the greed we all have to acquire more and more, but the author points out that “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.” People just keep shopping because the “thing” they have is not filling the void and they are hoping the next thing they find will. It is sad to observe this deep dissatisfaction with life on a daily basis. People are chasing the American dream, only to realize how empty and unsatisfying it is.
This process of shopping for the next great thing that will make me happy can become much like a religion itself. Since people are trying to fill that God-shaped hole inside without even knowing it, this process becomes much like a spiritual pursuit. Cavanaugh adds that “Consumerism is not simply people rejecting spirituality for materialism. For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if they do not recognize it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.” It is interesting that as people pursue meaning in life through consumerism, they are in fact inadvertently connecting with other people who they come into contact with during this pursuit. This need to attach to other humans is also hardwired in us and will be the only thing on this planet that fills this need for connection. In this relentless pursuit of meaning, many Americans would do well to heed Cavanaugh’s statement, “The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, “It is enough. I am happy with what I have.”
Freedom was another concept in the book that got turned on its head. In fact, Lake Lambert thought it was one of the greatest strengths of the book. “The great strength of Being Consumed is its willingness to question basic assumptions of free market capitalism, and this includes the definition of freedom itself. Economists seldom consider the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline.” I appreciated Cavanaugh’s approach to the free market by defining freedom as follows: “true freedom requires an account of the end (telos) of human life and the destination of creation.” If we don’t look at the true meaning of life, then any sense of freedom on this planet is short-sighted and empty in the end. Like I said earlier, and the author states, “economic freedom can only be a good if it fulfills some need in our nature.” Human nature needs to connect in order to fulfill that ultimate human desire of attachment. This happens when we get vulnerable with each other and take risks in taking our deepest needs to each other.
As I help people on a daily basis find true freedom in their lives, it almost always has to start with them gaining freedom from their negative beliefs about life and themselves and finding a higher meaning in their life. It is exciting when I see people find the scripture, 2 Cor. 3:17, to be true for them for the very first time. When they realize there is more to this life than the empty pursuit of the American dream, they become alive for the first time in their lives and start to realize why God put them on this planet. This is also when they realize their desires start to change when they “delight themselves in the Lord” I love the way Cavanaugh brings this idea of freedom back to relationships with other people and to God. I will close with this final quote that sums this up beautifully: “In Augustine’s view, others are in fact crucial to one’s freedom. A slave or an addict, by definition, cannot free himself or herself. Others from outside the self – the ultimate Other being God – are necessary to break through the bonds that enclose the self in itself. Humans need a community of virtue in which to learn to desire rightly.”