Last weekend, a bit bored and looking for something to do on a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, J and I went walking at the Natick Collection, the first time we’d ever gone to a mall together.
It had been some three years, J figured, since he’d been to a mall: J’s consumer tastes are simple, and when he needs things, he tends to shop online. I go to malls rarely and typically only to window-shop, shopping malls offering a conspicuous projection of our society and the things it holds dear. Malls, like stores of all kinds, are great places to go image-shopping for signs of abundance, so both J and I arrived at the Natick with point-and-shoot cameras discreetly hidden, photography being forbidden there.
It’s important to remember that J and I went to the Natick not because we were in the market to buy anything but because we were bored. Walking around a bustling mall after we’d weathered the usual parking lot traffic jams, I remembered why so many of my high school peers in Ohio frequented the malls there: on a humdrum Friday night or weekend afternoon, there wasn’t much else to do. Boston, of course, offers more social stimulus than Columbus ever did, but the suburbs around Boston aren’t necessarily any more exciting than those in the flatlands. On a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, we all were hanging out at the Natick, it seemed, for lack of anything better to do.
I mention this because as J and I strolled without purpose, shooting surreptitious shots here and there, it occurred to me that malls are designed around the concept of consumer boredom. The goal of a mall, after all, is to display goods in an alluring fashion for people passing by; the goal of a mall is to sell you something you didn’t even know you needed. As I’ve noted before, “a well-designed shopping mall encourages consumers to see, desire, and ultimately possess an ever-alluring array of goods. How many times have you gone ‘window shopping’ and ended up buying something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it?” Entering a mall with the goal of buying a belt, you might leave with a belt, sweater, designer handbag, and pair of shoes. You weren’t aware, entering the place, that you needed or even wanted such things, but seeing them displayed in a bright and beckoning way in a setting that caters to consumer boredom, you bought them because they offered a momentary sensation of excitement and novelty: something different to brighten the predictable sameness you’d strode in with.
Is it sheer coincidence that both economies and persons suffer “depression,” and is it pure accident that shopping is seen by some as being a cure for both? I know full well the impulse toward retail therapy and have, on occasion, indulged in it myself. But unlike at least some of the folks we saw hanging out at the Natick Collection last weekend, I don’t carry credit card balances, my occasional bursts of “therapy” remaining within the bounds of what I can pay for without incurring debt. Considering buying as one way of escaping boredom, it occurred to me last weekend that the “economic stimulus” checks the IRS is currently sending to some American consumers have an intriguing double meaning. The financial pay-outs that were designed to provide stimulus to the American economy might also provide bored consumers with stimulation from the economy, the temporary thrill of indulging in several hundred dollars’ worth of government-financed retail therapy being an interesting way for some American consumers to spend an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon.
It’s suggestive that time and money are two things we spend: both time and money are precious, and both can be either wasted if poorly spent or invested toward future gain if spent well. On a boring Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to be prodigal with both money and time, spending without thinking that which you’d saved for a rainy day. Isn’t it interesting, then, that “interest” bears both emotional and economic meanings, referring simultaneously to the financial pay-off you receive for saving rather than spending and the novel allure that leads a bored consumer to buy things she doesn’t need? On an otherwise humdrum Sunday, a new sweater might seem “interesting,” and so on a humdrum Sunday, it might be difficult to save (with interest) rather than spend. But if you have enough interest in the things you already own, there’s little need for something new.
I’m long accustomed to the spirit of saving that gets me through my summer paucity of paychecks, and one secret I’ve discovered is the cultivation of an intentional interest in the things I already possess. During the fall, winter, and first half of spring, full-time teaching provides a regular income; in the summer, I cobble together the dribs and drabs of a living by teaching part-time here and there. Summer is when I notice others’ consumer habits because I, for the most part, am not one of their number; summer is when I make due with what I already have rather than shopping for something new, going to libraries instead of bookstores, for instance, or walking outside where the sights are free. I’ve written before about the spiritual benefits of boredom and the conscious cultivation of simple pleasures; it occurs to me that the intentional practice of “growing interest” in the same old things you consider precious has a financial benefit as well. Isn’t this “growing of interest,” after all, the essence of ordinary hoarding in both its literal and figurative sense?
When I first started teaching, I felt deprived and poor during these lean and hungry summer months, but more recently, I’ve come to appreciate the thrift they inspire. There’s a difference, I think, between starving and fasting, the latter implying an intentionality of purpose that makes doing without seem dignified and even ennobling: its own kind of spiritual sustenance. One theory of weight loss argues that mindful eating is more helpful than deprivation-based dieting: once a person cultivates a mindset of appreciating every well-savored bite rather than dividing the edible world into healthful foods that “should” be eaten and guilty pleasures that “should” be shunned, that person will eat less and better food with greater and more lasting satisfaction. I suggest a parallel practice of “mindful ownership” might lead to a greater yield of high-interest living, the act of intentionally cherishing one’s possessions resulting in a robust reservoir of material satisfaction: a personal economy that doesn’t need the “stimulus” of retail novelty.
Thoreau, who wasn’t much of a spender, talked a great deal about economy, seeing it as the heart of intentional living. Economy, after all, is nothing more than the keeping of one’s material household, and what in the world is there that’s more holy than housekeeping? The counting and care of things one holds dear is the essence of responsible stewardship, and careless living bears a fiscal as well as spiritual cost. When asked by newer practitioners how they might tell whether their meditation is “working,” I’m sometimes tempted to ask, “Are your financial affairs in order?” Although enlightenment bears no price tag, living carelessly or beyond one’s means is a surefire sign of spiritual malaise, for if you can’t manage your fiscal affairs right now, how will you manage the precious gift of ecstasy when it comes?
Last weekend, J and I spent nothing during time we spent strolling at the Natick Collection, taking with us nothing but the surreptitious pictures we’d shot. And yesterday, when my economic stimulus check arrived, I immediately endorsed it to deposit in the bank, where it will remain for a truly rainy day. Saving is what hoarders do, and in the personal accounting of what I hold dear, there is no need for economic stimulation.
Click here for the full photo set of illicit images I pilfered from the photography-free Natick Collection. Enjoy!