Published January 27, 2005
It’s that time of year again: the January clearance sales, and I am prowling around at the mall, when I spot a rack of cotton sweaters in every shade of the rainbow.
I have come to the department store to exchange a pair of jeans, but now find myself lusting over the sweaters, and when I see a tag proclaiming “55 percent off,” I feel a huge splurge coming on.
After all, the sweaters are being marked down an incredible amount. And they are cotton, which I love.
But there is just one little sniggle of a problem: I have plenty of sweaters in my closet already, and winter in Georgia isn’t that harsh a season anyway.
Reason tells me to exchange the jeans and go home, but another voice urges me to take advantage of this great sale. Really, what are two more sweaters?
Moments later, I have purchased a white and a red sweater, and am feeling smug because they were a real “steal.”
To celebrate this incredible savings, I swing by the shoe department, where a pair of black shoes calls out my name. Even though I have plenty of shoes at home, the price is irresistible, so I add them to my bounty.
It is only when I am back home that I realize I have once again fallen prey to my shopping addiction, which I have been trying to conquer for years.
Fortunately, there have been long stretches of time when the addiction lies dormant in my soul. During these times, I am reasonably at peace with the way I spend money. I avoid the malls and throw out mail-order catalogs before reading them.
Then, suddenly, without warning, the shopping demon rears its head, and I am off and running again. The thing that will set me off might be a coupon in the newspaper entitling me to an additional 20 percent off.
Soon I find myself heading to the mall with the gleeful anticipation of a gambler entering a casino.
People joke that shopping is good therapy for times when they are depressed, but for me it is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm.
It is true, however, that when I am shopping, I become completely engrossed in the present moment, which means my worries are silenced and my ordinary concerns dissolve.
As I shop, hours melt away, and somehow I lose track of time because I am totally absorbed in matching sweaters and skirts, hats and scarves.
By the time I emerge from the store, blinking against the harsh reality of the outside world, I feel slightly dazed, the way I imagine a deep-sea diver might feel upon surfacing.
It is only when I get home and start unpacking the bags that depression seizes me big time. Yes, it’s true that I did get the pajamas I needed, but the robe, the sweaters and the shoes were all extras.
It would be easy to conclude that my problem has to do with money, and that if I were a wealthy woman, I could just buy whatever suited my fancy, and there would be no guilt.
But this is only partly a problem about money. It is really about being out of control, something that any addict knows is a very scary thing.
I am convinced that addictions serve to distract us, at least temporarily, from our everyday concerns.
As a child, I saw my father and uncles heading off to spend hours at the racetrack, where the lure of choosing the right horse—and perhaps hitting the jackpot—blotted out the day-to-day struggles of making ends meet.
Shopping also provides an exciting diversion from everyday life. When I try on the pink silk sweater, I imagine that I am no longer a placid writer and librarian, but instead, a fanciful and beautiful woman.
When I try on the black dress with the delicate fringe at the waist, I picture myself at various nightclubs, laughing among a crowd of people and sipping a flute of champagne.
Fortunately, when I read the Gospels, I come back to Planet Earth. After all, I suspect the whole shopping habit is antithetical to Christ’s message.
You may remember that in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, after everyone had eaten their fill, there was plenty left over—and Jesus instructed the disciples to gather up the crumbs “so that nothing would be wasted.”
Although we are not told what happens next, I have always imagined that the extra food was shared with the poor.
All these years later, I realize that it is obviously wasteful to have more clothing than we really need. And to squander money on ourselves when we might use it to help others less fortunate.
Although Christ never talked about shopping, he did talk about clothing: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear” (Mt 6:25).
And he had more to say about clothing: “Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them” (Mt 6:28-29).
The problem with the “shop until you drop” mentality is that it is based on an obsession with taking care of the body. Trendy outfits become the be-all and end-all of our existence, and the mall often becomes a substitute for the chapel.
We want to hoard more and more stuff in our closets, and turn a deaf ear to the words of Christ, who warned us against storing up treasures on earth, “where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.”
But what’s a shopaholic to do?
When I was a child, the nuns warned us about “the occasions of sin,” which were the people, places and objects that tempted us to fall off the path of goodness.
For alcoholics, parties can be occasions of sin, while for gamblers, the temptation may be a friend who invites them to a casino.
The mall is a huge occasion of sin for people like me, since soft music and the absence of clocks on the wall create a false sense of security and comfort. There also are fashion magazines, on-line shopping venues—and don’t forget television shows, where even the poorest person wears designer clothing.
I know myself well enough to know that I am not going to stop shopping entirely, but the notion of recreational shopping, those aimless strolls through department stores “just for fun,” will have to go.
For right now, as I sit here at the computer, gazing into the yard where a squirrel is gnawing on a bagel remnant, I remind myself that I am fine. For this moment, temptation is silenced and the urge to splurge lies dormant in my soul.
I can’t say for sure about tomorrow, but right now, I hear the voice of Jesus assuring me, “Your heavenly Father knows what you need—and He will provide it.” Amen!
Lorraine Murray is the author of “Why Me? Why Now?” (Ave Maria Press), a book for women with cancer, and “Grace Notes” (Resurrection Press), a collection of stories about her faith journey. She lives with her husband, Jef, in Decatur. She may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.