A Year of UnNew Month 7: July
Earlier this year, one of my favorite modern-culture thinkers published an essay called “The Shopping Cure.” In it, Anne Helen Petersen details her relationship to commerce: “When I was at my most burnt out pre-pandemic, traveling constantly for reporting, working all the time, the muscle under my eye twitching almost constantly, still without the language to describe what I was doing to myself, the one thing that would temporarily calm me down was buying shit.”
It makes sense. “Retail therapy,” right? It feels good to indulge a desire, and shopping brings a sense of instant gratification to many, many people. Last month, I realized I’d been buying more clothes and household items than I had been all year, as I discovered treasure troves of online and social-media-based thrift stores; this month I’ve been thinking about why shopping can feel like such a complex and difficult habit to break, sometimes hard to simply understand. Even though I’m buying secondhand items, I’m still operating within the ecosystem of consumption. A new-to-me article of clothing is just as exciting as one that’s new to the market, and I find myself wanting more, and more, and more. Is this a cycle I want to be operating in?
Photo Janko Ferlic - Unsplash
Petersen goes on to analyze her habit. “None of these purchases were pressing or even, ultimately, necessary,” she admits. But too, she realizes her compulsion to shop is more than just a pursuit for endorphins. She wasn’t shopping for clothes. She was shopping for items like pet-hair removers and lemon squeezers and pillow covers and azalea fertilizer—items that could bring small, yet instantly satisfying resolutions to her daily life. “They were a coping mechanism: a moment of fleeting calm within the larger, barely controlled chaos.”
We crave all sorts of things—food and new clothes, yes, but also solutions to looming world problems like climate change and poverty and injustice. To satisfy some of the smaller-scale cravings can act like a proxy for other, less tangible cravings. It takes off a little pressure, adds a little relief.
All things considered, depending on the circumstance, shopping can be a need, a solution, a coping strategy, a problem, a path to instant and delayed endorphins, and more. It’s a confusing relationship for many people. Petersen dissects how modern economics capitalizes on our complex affairs with shopping (that is: participation in the economy), and she does so by picking apart her experience of building a garden.
“As any lawn dad will tell you, any level of lawn-dadding requires items,” she writes. “Potting soil and fertilizer and Neem oil; a shovel and a spade and a weed whacker; pots and more pots and hanging pots.” For every one-time purchase, she finds another requires constant refreshing. More mulch, more twine, new hoses. “This might sound ridiculous, because a garden, a yard, a home — at least in contemporary capitalism — are eminently desirable, the ultimate bourgeois end goal. But once obtained, they transform into sources of ever-proliferating problems: a wack-a-mole of to-do lists, dark pits into which your money disappears with little to no effect. For so many, they cannot just be. Within the logic of capitalism, they are insufficient in and of themselves. They demand fixing, but they are never truly fixed.”
In sum: the real issue with craving—and really, the issue with feeding the craving by shopping—is that much of our craving leads down a path to more craving. To discovering more “needs.” It’s an uncomfortable cycle, but one that Petersen argues has been solidified in American culture by design. “This craving is the capitalist long-game: continually surface new struggles while also conveniently providing consumerist solutions to them.”
You buy a hammock, for example, then realize you also need a padded cloth to protect the tree trunks, then you see someone with a specialized hammock pillow, then learn about tent flys built for hammocks to keep the sun and rain off you while you nap, and, oh, strings of fairy lights start to sound cool… it can spiral from anywhere.
Access to the internet and social media networks my entire adult life has left me with a profound sense of knowing much about the world—but also a sharp awareness of what I do not know, and what I do not have. Chronically being made aware of what you lack makes feeling fulfilled in life ever-harder. It adds to a false sense of depravity, it adds to craving.
To seek and embrace non-attachment, or to work on not-craving, is a value that has been maintained and taught over thousands of years of cultural and religious evolution. Today, it seems like one of the most anarchistic things you could do in the U.S. Radical gratitude: breaking the capitalistic cycle of buying and wanting and buying and wanting.
The fact of the matter is we must participate in our system of consumption to some extent. Petersen ends her essay by looking to the future, at what being a consumer might look like for her moving forward. “I want to denaturalize the compulsion to soothe myself through consumption — make it strange and ridiculous. I want to continually name the script in my head and, in so doing, chip away at its power over me. I want to do all of this without shaming myself or others, because it takes years to unlearn a learned behavior this invasive, this robust. The problem isn’t buying shit, at least not exactly. It’s misidentifying, again and again, the source and character of our sadness.”
To read more about my Year of UnNew, see the June, May, April, March, February and January installments.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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