There are days when I feel like my fragile income as a writer gives me superpowers that see through some of the worst parts of our consumer culture. At the very least it functions like immunity to the frantic “Buy! Buy! Buy!” of commercials. If you don’t have extra cash to spend, the majority of commercials are irrelevant!
For instance, I’m watching a bit more TV this month because hockey season is here. It’s that time of the year where I swap my time in the garden with a bit of time doing housework while watching hockey (especially when my wife has a grad school deadline). The commercials regularly remind me that there’s a whole other world out there.
This alternate reality thrives on sex, booze, and spending money to get the hottest car, the sharpest appliances, and the most exotic vacations.
I don’t mean to play the part of the fundamentalist prude here. I’m talking about commercials that thrive on shameless overindulgence in otherwise good things.
I like being married to my wife quite a lot, but I’m not super interested in watching the Labatt’s Blue bear slip into a tent for a threesome. And I like our reliable Subaru wagon (I also know that I’m guilty of being branded because Subaru most certainly targets people like me), but then there are the luxury car commercials that show people making out in the rain and black cars zipping around unrealistically empty urban centers with nary a red light. The message is unmistakable: INDULGE.
I don’t know, call me crazy, but it all rings quite hollow to me. The fact that I don’t have the money to spend on excessive amounts of cheap beer, fancy liquor, the latest appliances, the most amazing vacations to the tropics, or the sleekest super sex machine luxury car automatically means I’m watching these commercials as an outsider.
I’m not the first person to notice that our consumer culture thrives on creating discontent. I could see that line running through each commercial for sure. However, there was something a bit more sinister at work as well. These commercials took that discontent a step further. They were actively prompting viewers to covet something: more sex, more speed, more booze, etc. That points to an uncomfortable question for Americans:
Where is the line between discovering you have a legitimate need and coveting something from a place of discontent?
This is something where we can’t necessarily point at someone’s station in life or choices and determine whether they’ve crossed from a healthy decision to a discontent spirit of covering. At the risk of sounding like an evangelical preacher: it’s largely a “heart issue.”
For all of the time I’ve worried about not having enough money, it has also been a blessing. I have been slowly peeling back my captivity to the discontent and indulgence of our culture. I can see with tremendous clarity just how enslaved I’d been to “keeping up appearances” when we owned a home. There was always something else to change or add or renovate.
Having less money has mercifully pulled me out of that hamster wheel of keeping up appearances, cultivating discontent, and constantly coveting one… more… thing.
What is driving my desires?
I wonder if we begin with discontent, and then that discontent frees us to begin coveting. It’s a slow movement from one to the other.
So perhaps our commercials try to tap into our discontent and build it. And when that discontent builds enough, we start coveting. And that’s where we start cultivating the really destructive habits of indulgence. If we give in to those desires frequently enough, we become bound to them whether out of routine or because of a deeper spiritual battle that requires deliverance.
At the risk of sounding like my prudish fundamentalist friends again, discontent is a “slippery slope.” Indulgence gives way to more indulgence because it is never grounded in something meaningful or sully satisfying, and it’s terrifying to give yourself over to something so empty and unfulfilling. It’s far easier to keep going than to admit you’ve made a terrible mistake.
Sometimes it takes a little thing like the threat of running out of money to expose the terrible powers of discontent and coveting. As often as we feel trapped by not having enough money, it has advantages. There is freedom that comes from having less. Having less money reminds us that we’re just one financial windfall away from wrecking our lives with empty, endless consumption.