The Gifts You Can’t Buy

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA Today, December 21, 2009

You would think six pairs of jeans were enough. Yet when I pass through a department store, my eyes are drawn to the racks like paper clips to a magnet. There’s always a better pair to be had. There’s always that urge for another suit, another watch, another track jacket.

Like many Americans, I’m a brand-monger. I’m a new-sneakers junkie, an iPhone wielder, a high-def flat-screen watcher — and one who knows better. I can see more clearly than ever that my buy-buy-buy instincts are not getting me anywhere, that they sabotage my pursuit of real fulfillment. Such are the snares of the consumerism that excites us and fails us — and in starker terms than ever, it seems, in this season of our fiscally blue Christmas.

Given the multitude of presents that we like to shower upon our loved ones at holiday time — and, yes, receive from them — the pain of economic hardship is hitting many Americans in this final month of the decade. Leave it to the Christmas-season TV commercials to remind us of all that great stuff that’s out there to be bought in the spirit of the season — nothing, after all, honors the savior’s birth like a new Lexus! — and that we clearly can’t afford if we’re one of the many who are under- or unemployed.

For those buying less this Christmas season, and not by choice, this might be just the time for righteous sour grapes. Maybe the cold reality can help us refocus on all we possess that cannot be bought: Friends and family, for instance. The roof over our head (which most of us still have, thankfully). The sun that still rises each morning. The truth that we are each worth much, much more than the sum of what we buy.

Maybe the cold reality can shake us from our consumerist dream this Christmas and prompt the questions that the advertisers would prefer we not ask. Such as: What does an Xbox 360 have to do with the arrival of a new vision of the world, of a messiah who modeled selflessness and taught that a materially rich person faces the longest odds getting to heaven?

How we define ourselves

“Consumerism” describes a way of life in which people define themselves — their personalities and worth — by what they buy, consume and flaunt.

How better to show the world the magnitude of your accomplishments and qualities than by living in a grand house and gliding to work in a Mercedes? How better to signify the kind of person you are, and connect with the like-minded, than by the clothes on your back and the watch on your wrist?

Admittedly, consumerism is better than many of the alternatives. A government-run system dictating who gets what is worse by far. The capitalist system from which consumerism springs has proved its usefulness as a facilitator of economic growth and improved standards of living around the globe. The yearning for material well-being — the better life — is a powerful engine for effort and innovation.

But our consumer orientation has downsides that we too seldom contemplate. Consider an aspect of the consumer in all of us that seeks not just the best product, but the one that can be had at the least possible cost. As my Christian activist friend Tony Kriz points out, powering every sweatshop factory is the incessant pressure to minimize labor costs so that our goods come to us at that low-low price that allows us to buy more.

Another Christian thinker troubled by today’s rampant consumerism is Paul Louis Metzger, a professor of theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore., and the author of a book on consumerism in church culture called Consuming Jesus. Despite the clear tension between materialism and Christian teaching, he believes that consumerist values have infected much of the church.

“Many thriving prosperity-gospel churches appear to have thoroughly embraced the American ideal of upward mobility and material well-being,” Metzger says. “It makes one wonder if these churches’ leaders think Jesus was a savvy entrepreneur on the rise, who would have become rich had his career not been cut short.”

Consumerism promises that we can buy our way to fulfillment. But the falseness of the promise lies at the very heart of the system. For consumerism depends on our contentment having a short lifespan. The system requires our continuing to need more, to buy more, in an endless cycle of desire-gratification/desire-gratification/desire-gratification. The cycle cannot abide the modest material desires and pursuit of deep, lasting gratitude promoted by religion.

Even though the recession has forced many of us to become more careful in our spending, there is little to suggest a substantial redefinition of the good life. As Hanna Rosin writes in a recent Atlantic magazine cover story on the prosperity gospel, “It’s hard to imagine Americans reverting to frugality the way, say, the Japanese did during the ‘lost decade’ after their economy crashed. If by stereotype the Japanese are savers, then Americans are consumers.”

Jesus didn’t worry about GDP

It would be a shame if we blew this opportunity. What better time than a deep recession to check and reject consumerism’s worst excesses and most glaring “sins,” such as its ability to make us treat other people merely as means to our acquisitive ends, and only as valuable as their net worth?

Jesus — the reason for the season, as any Christian will tell you — modeled a different way. He showed that all have worth, regardless of how much they buy, or how little they add to the gross domestic product.

Giving presents is good. But I doubt I’m giving all that much to those on my Christmas list if I add more to their pile of over-abundance, and if I’m counting on them adding to mine. I doubt we are giving much of a gift to ourselves and future generations if we make the new decade just like the last one, driven by our never-quenched thirst for material advancement, barely mindful of the unsustainable consequences.

This Christmas, let’s be mindful not of what we might buy, but of the unearned gifts that Unitarian minister Richard Fewkes describes in his poetic words about gratitude. Let’s be thankful, Fewkes writes, “for the sun and the dawn which we did not create … for food which we plant but cannot grow … for all things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves.”

How could another new track jacket possibly compare?

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland, Ore.-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes was released in October.