Shopping, Fasting, and the Middle Way
A check-in on my attempt to buy no new stuff from New Year's until Easter
My fast from shopping has not been a rousing success, as I said in a postscript in my last newsletter,. To be fair, a fifteen-week fast of any kind is hard to keep up. And I’m realizing I’m not the kind of person who does very well with “cold turkey” exercises. My mind is skeptical, even of my own ideas and plans.
My New Year’s goal was to not buy anything new for myself besides groceries and books until Easter. I wanted to try to find what I need in what I already have. I wanted to stop seeking simplicity by throwing things away, because surely the best way to pursue simplicity is to stop buying so much in the first place. (Including to replace the things you purged last time but needed again later.)
It’s not that I think the fun, pleasure, or necessity of shopping is wrong. But I wanted to think seriously about simplicity, about not using online shopping as a way to distract myself or “fix” a problem that might not be a problem, and to see the abundance, beauty, and sufficiency of my life and all life, without having to purchase and own more and more items.
First, a list of failures. It’s Lent, a season for honest confession or coming to terms with what we don’t do well. This is not to punish ourselves, but to find freedom in honesty so we can grow -- instead of to keep pretending we’re perfect, or wasting energy covering up things that aren’t working.
At first, I’d planned to mention my failures more generally, rather than giving you a catalog, because (1) aren’t these kinds of details sort of tedious? (2) this is not unembarrassing for me, and (3) I’ve noticed there is a shady delight we feel when people fail at a challenging spiritual practice, whether because it seems to let us off the hook from ever trying something similar ourselves, or that we say to ourselves that we would do much better than this person managed to do. Not sure it’s helpful.
However, I figure being specific and vulnerable will be more spiritually helpful to you than being vague. Still, I have left a few things off this list for the above three reasons.
- We had company in town and drove forty minutes to visit a Duluth Trading Company, a store we all love. Like a social drinker, it was impossible to resist getting a few (er, more like a dozen) things – “It’s a good price and I need it.”
- We went to IKEA to purchase components for a closet project we’ve been working on and I put a bunch of other items in our big blue bag without even thinking about it.
- I bought a new chef’s knife that I got suckered into from ads in my social media feeds. I may have also thrown in a clever little gadget for grating ginger.
- Last year, my favorite sandals sold out. To keep this from happening again, I ordered another pair in March to beat the summer rush.
But I could also make a list of ways I was able, when I thought I had to buy a new thing, to make do with some things I already have. Still, I am not like Ann Patchett, who was my inspiration and did this for an entire year. Regardless, I have had the chance to remind myself that I am messily and beautifully human. And it has still been worth it, because I’ve learned at least three important things:
1. Shopping around online, meandering around and looking for what you think you need or want or whatever, takes up a substantive chunk of time. I have saved a lot of time, and so used my mind to think about different problems and learn new things, just by avoiding shopping. Also, you probably already own something that could make do for approximately 50% of what you imagine you need to buy new.
2. It’s unreal how much is for sale, all over the internet. Taking a step back, I can feel how I’ve gotten so saturated and overexposed to it all, that a lot of stuff out there - even expensive stuff - just looks like junk anymore.
3. Owning things is not as satisfying as it seems. Seeing a lovely thing is lovely. Owning that thing is not always a necessary response, however. For all the times I slipped up, there have been more times that I wanted to buy something and didn’t, then after waiting a while, that thing did not seem as exciting or necessary. Or it could wait until after Easter. Things that have since sold out? Turns out, this is not a tragedy.
My theory: For the most part, purchasing stuff does not bring us deep joy or satisfaction. Mostly, deep joy and satisfaction come from things that are unpurchasable. But advertising lies to us about this relentlessly.
I’ve been reading some Buddhist thinkers this past year and I’ve been chewing on the teaching that “life is inherently unsatisfying.” Wow – this is not what I learned in Sunday School, summer camp, or at my liberal arts college. And for all that we try to shop, remodel, snack, travel, imagine, or distract ourselves away from that fact, it remains. One of my seminary professors said something similar: “Human beings are terrible at knowing what will make them truly happy.” You could say that the Bible is a tragic scrapbook collection of exactly this reality.
What is truly satisfying and deeply joyful? I’d say love, friendship, beauty, creativity, justice, purpose, and gratitude. I’d say God, Jesus, prayer, contemplation, and grace. You can’t purchase any of those things, but also, none of these things are “free” or without cost. You can’t have them delivered to you with the click of a button. Living into rich experiences like them takes practice, steadfastness, forgiveness, perseverance, and mess ups. And yet, often, they are also the easiest things in the world to find and allow yourself to enjoy.
“You, the richest person in the world, have been going around laboring and begging, when all the while the treasure you seek is within you.” – Huang Po (Kornfield, The Wise Heart, p. 291)
I do have a list of things I’m going to buy on or after Easter Sunday. But I hope I will view ownership and satisfaction differently, going forward, and invest more in things like friendship, creativity, and meditation. There is a middle way between extremes, a middle way between purchasing all the things and purchasing no things, between total flexibility and total rigidity. Life is a gift, God is love, death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, and the rest is extraneous.
Jesus said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25).
Jesus said to [the woman at the well], “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
Have a blessed Holy Week and Easter.
More From Heidi
“This is my blood, donated for you” — The spiritual practice of donating blood.
“It’s hard to avoid blood in church. Once a month on Communion Sunday, my childhood pastor held up a pitcher of grape juice and repeated Jesus’ words: “This is my blood.” Blood comes up in scripture readings, psalms, and hymns. I remember hearing in Sunday school about the blood of Abel crying out from the ground and the Israelites smearing blood on doorposts at Passover.” The Christian Century, April 4, 2022.
Some Books I’m Reading
Feed the Wolf: Befriending Our Fears in the Way of Saint Francis, by Jon Sweeney. Best practices for a life of faith, learned from the impossible-but-wonderful Francis of Assisi.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet. I picked this up in the airport on my way home from a Lenten pilgrimage to New Orleans, since its story begins in a small Louisiana town and then NOLA. Twin sisters, born African American in the mid-twentieth century, until one abandons her family connections to marry and “pass” as White. The portrayal of the inner struggle and constant fear necessary to “pass” was heartbreaking and revealing. I still have so much to learn about Whiteness.
Zen Meditation for Beginners, by Bonnie Myotai Tearce. A great introduction to “sitting” meditation. I read a page at a time. Also love that a woman Zen master wrote it.
The Hidden Palace: A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. Continues the story of Chava, a Jewish golem and Ahmad, an Arab jinni (“genie”) who are friends, trying to live under the radar in 1910s New York City. The folklore surrounding these two magical beings is fun and the plot so gripping that I have a hard time putting this down to go to sleep each night. Start with The Golem and the Jinni to get the full story.
How I Can “Sign” Your Book
If you’d like a specially designed bookplate for your copy of Everyday Connections: Year C, fill out the form on the front page of my website and I’ll sign and mail you one for free. If you’d like a bookplate for another book, I have “Part-time Hermit” bookplates that I’ll mail you if you respond to this newsletter with your address.
The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp, Indianapolis IN