Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

9 thoughts on “Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

  1. We seem to both be of the opinion that a time of year that is supposed to bring out the better angels of our nature gets ambushed by the darker images that share space with them. I was captured by the way many mega-stores maltreat their employees as their TV ads create a cheery facade of the Christmas spirit

  2. I loved your use of “mindless materialism” and “Consumerism trumps contemplation.” I was stunned when I became aware of the huge number of people (in my small town of 32,000) who went out shopping on Thanksgiving evening and then AGAIN at 5AM on Friday morning.

    I, too, have “convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December” and the wisdom inherent in that decision has proven to be an intensely spiritual and contemplative inner peace.

    However, since my life experience indicates only a very small, infinitesimal perhaps, minority of people (especially Americans) have learned or ever will learn the wisdom in making such a decision I don’t honestly see much chance of our ever tilting “the balance from the material to the spiritual.”

    P.S. Spectacular post – Well-done!

  3. Materialism is a serious problem but I wonder about the value of placing these two aspects of life in opposition to each other since “prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources” requires the integration of matter and spirit. I’d say the best kind of contemplation is that which moves us to act with compassion in the material world for the sake of others. My slight twist to your thoughtful observations.

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