10th March 2020, 12:13 GMT
America, they say, is the land of opportunity. To many this means the opportunity to work, raise a family, be free to pursue dreams and ambitions, and to do good to neighbours. It is the idea that anyone can do anything if he or she will only apply themselves. To some, the idea of opportunity equates to little more than the opportunity to buy and sell stuff. How did the American dream, admirable in so many ways, become a shopping frenzy? After the post-War economic boom, modern American was born and marketing the lifestyle aspirations of the Boomer generation dramatically increased its reach, in particular through tv, and of course today, through social media.
The somewhat bleak idea that life has been reduced to shopping in the modern West is only part of the picture, and there are many other things going on. But something important changed as a result of the rise of the middle classes in America and consequently across the world, something to do with the loss of meaning. But all is not lost.
As far as I can tell, the consumerist acquisitional trend is experiencing a backlash. Have you noticed how much interest there is today in buying local produce? Buying artisan breads and home-made jams? The waiting lists for allotments (you may not have noticed this one, but it’s true!)? The keen interest in environmentalism? A return to doing at least some shopping in local grocery shops despite the premium you pay for the privilege? Where I live there is now, on one street, an independent fruit and vegetable shop, a baker’s, a butcher’s and a fish-mongers. Queues form on a daily basis onto the pavement outside them.
There is a resistance afoot. Part of the resistance comes from a growing sense, especially among the young (as though it was the first time anyone had ever thought of it!), that shopping and accumulation might be controlled and limited to those few, quality items, which add value. This is the idea behind the documentary film Minimalism, which is available on Netflix.
The film follows Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, ‘the minimalists’, on a tour to promote their ideas, and a book (there’s lots of info at their website theminimalists.com). The story goes like this. After years of trying to fill with ‘stuff’ the void he felt inside, Ryan was stressed, lacking meaning and purpose, and over-worked. At the same time, he noticed that his friend Joshua seemed so happy. Ryan took Joshua out for a meal and asked him a question that would change his life: ‘Why the hell are you so happy?!’ Ryan explained that, after being in very much the same situation as his friend, he had learned about something called minimalism. Joshua had a light-bulb moment, and began to apply what he had heard to his life.
Here’s a definition: ‘Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution (from www.theminimalists.com/pitch).’ It’s a thought-provoking film; worth watching and pondering. There are problems with minimalism too of course. The fetishisation of simplicity for one. The privileged position from which it is even possible to think about paring down one’s wardrobe or investing in fewer high-value items for another. The way minimalism seems to take a moralistic outlook for a third. For an interesting critique of minimalism, have a look here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/04/minimalism-conspicuous-consumption-class
Despite all this, as Christians we might ask ourselves about the things we own, not necessarily because it is wrong to own things, but to apply the minimalists’ guiding question: How does this particular possession add value to my life? And then add one of our own: In what ways does owning this item also add value to the lives of others? If it doesn’t, as they’d say, get rid of it! And they might add to that their tag line: ‘Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.’
Alastair Wehbeh is Derby Link Tutor and Interim Director of Studies for Manchester Diocese at All Saints Centre for Mission and Ministry. Alastair has an MA Applied Linguistics, an MA Biblical Interpretation, and is currently working on a PhD on John’s Gospel.