But even in the much-publicized rebellion of the young against the materialism of the affluent society, the consumer mentality is too often still intact: the standards of behavior are still those of kind and quantity, the security sought is still the security of numbers, and the chief motive is still the consumer’s anxiety that he is missing out on what is “in.”
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Of the many discussions I’ve had with people about comfort addiction, most inevitably land in what Wendell Berry calls the consumer mentality. While comfort in the form of emotional distance (chapter three) or everyday egomania (chapter two) may be easier to hide, comfort in the form of lifestyle choices is rather obvious. Identifying the materialistic among us is easy enough. It’s always someone whose lifestyle is more expansive than our own. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. Which may be why I once fancied myself part of the youthful rebellion Berry speaks of. The standard I had raised to measure materialism placed me well under the judgment bar.
Still, the what am I doing question prodded me over the years, inquiring about actions and motives I had excused in myself. Consumer mentality was alive and well in me, lurking beneath the surface of my life pursuits.
Awareness (and admission) of my consumer mentality was yet another result of The Shredding. The living conditions I saw in India reframed my previous definition of a normal life. I was forced to acknowledge the truth about my normal and the sort of life I was able to live. In light of that truth, I could see materialism as an iceberg of Majority World society: the tip you see is nothing compared to the girth below the surface. Even the rebellious youth who aren’t obviously materialistic are yet driven by an unseen force to seek comfort through consumption and maintaining the illusion of relevancy. None of us is immune.
Why are we so driven to consume and achieve? I think it’s because egomania and emotional numbness cannot provide the sort of lasting comfort we crave. When they don’t satisfy, but comfort addiction encourages us to feast on the opportunities before us to have, be, get, and pursue more. And here in the United States? There is always more to be had. Our society produces new ways to be “in” every day.
The painful truth is that I have been way too consumed by the consuming I do. That sort of addiction busies me with tending to the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. That’s why in this third detox stage we need to put down our self-made measuring sticks. Becoming aware of the motives and values lurking below the surface is necessary if we are to find the true comfort our hearts crave.
THE DREAMER IN ALL OF US
The invitation was a surprise. A couple Mike and I knew only casually invited us over for a visit. Because it was one of the first social invites we had received after getting married, it felt significant. I tried to muster all the maturity I could from my insecure, recently married, twenty-year-old self.
Upon arriving we were welcomed into a cozy family room with overstuffed couches, where a few others were already seated. Greetings were extended. Refreshments were offered. And then a more formal introduction began for a man seated near a paper flip board. That’s when I realized the evening had some sort of agenda. In a flash I concocted a whole theory: Maybe they are Christians! We will get to bond over shared faith! They are going to share the gospel!
Icebreaker-like questions ensued. “What are your favorite things to do, outside of work? If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Do you like to collect things? What do you like to buy when you have extra money to spend? What sort of car do you dream about owning?” It was easy, energetic conversation. It felt a bit like making a Christmas list, something I had not done in years. Sharing these preferences was fun, and to be honest, my heart was all in. I was starting to dream about things and experiences. I figured that after we shared our answers the discussion would transition to finding true meaning and purpose through Jesus Christ.
I cannot explain my disappointment when the discussion leader promised that all our dreams were indeed possible. Not because Jesus had something greater for us, but because this guy was extending an exclusive invitation for us to get in on the ground level of an exciting and fast-growing business opportunity (AKA multilevel marketing). This was not about the gospel.
We did not accept the exclusive invitation that night. Looking back, I’m amused by my naive evangelism theory. But something else has stuck with me that isn’t as amusing: my ability to join the chorus of voices proclaiming all the stuff I want. Wanting things is not inherently wrong. Giving voice to our preferences is not wrong. Dreaming about what could be is not wrong. The bothersome part is how easy it was to conflate worldly based dreams with gospel hope. How could icebreaker questions about hopes and dreams lead to either the best news humanity has ever heard or the opportunity to join an MLM team?
Part of that answer lies in the very foundation of our society. At the birth of the United States, the founding fathers constructed a framework for our country’s values and pursuits. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The pursuit of happiness is part and parcel to being an American. Comfortable living has been all but promised, since being unhappy is anything but comfortable. For centuries now people have equated the United States with the place where dreams come true. It’s where you are free to work hard, increase your wealth, and enjoy the good life. We call it the American dream.
The phrase “the American dream” was first used in James Truslow Adams’s 1931 book, The Epic of America. Adams says it’s “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Part of what makes the United States unique is the freedom—theoretically open to every individual—to obtain a better, richer, fuller life.
More than eighty years later, talk of the American dream is still going strong (especially during election season). Although definitions vary by person, a core component of the American dream is wealth, as confirmed by a September 2015 article in TheAtlantic titled “Who Still Believes in the American Dream?” A reporter traveled the country asking people to share what the American dream meant to them. When kids were asked, they gushed about future happiness rooted in fame, glory, and fortune. The adults responded with much less enthusiasm. Many were discouraged by the lack of opportunity they had for achieving their dreams; few were hopeful for the life Adams described back in the 1930s.
Since the American dream has always been connected with prosperity, we have tied our happiness to our ability to collect material possessions and immaterial opportunities. It’s no wonder people are disillusioned and discouraged.
ALL IS VANITY
Despite the broken promises of the American dream, our society still runs on that founding premise. We adhere to its values of working hard and striving for more. We do this by participating in the agreed-on system: work, play, eat, sleep. Get a better job. Get a better house. Get better clothes. Get better gadgets. Then repeat. And repeat, and repeat again. The system tells us happiness increases as our creature comforts grow. Pseudo comforts beckon us to seek more of what we already have, because more is always better.
It takes a strong soul to stop the madness and call the futile cycle to the carpet. That’s exactly what Solomon did almost three thousand years ago. As the son of the most accomplished king on record, Solomon had everything—wealth, intelligence, and people. But the book of Ecclesiastes records the comfort his heart longed for:
Smoke, nothing but smoke. . . . There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone? One generation goes its way, the next one arrives, but nothing changes. . . . There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing. . . . Nobody remembers what happened yesterday. And the things that will happen tomorrow? Nobody’ll remember them either. Don’t count on being remembered. (Eccles 1:2-11 The Message)
Every time I read these words my chest tightens a bit. Solomon’s hopelessness is so complete, so brutal. All our attempts to achieve something meaningful result in nothing substantial. We gain no ground. The comfort we seek in life—at least, the kind that’s easy to get—is fleeting at best.
Eugene Peterson’s rendition of Solomon’s lament uses the phrase “Smoke, nothing but smoke” to signify the evanescent nature of life’s pursuits. Traditional Bible versions have, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”—which I prefer, actually. Vanity has a weight of loss connected to it. A note in the ESV Bible explains, “The Hebrew term hebel, translated vanity or vain, refers concretely to a ‘mist,’ ‘vapor,’ or ‘mere breath,’ and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive.” Vanity is what our hearts can sense when everything we are pursuing and consuming in life leaves us empty. Vanity is the fear that pounces when we are bored, unsure of what we should be doing with ourselves. The Question tries to jolt us out of vain pursuits, out of the consumerist cycle that leaves us empty despite all the filling.
Although Solomon wasn’t an American, his lament is fitting for those of us caught in the American dream today. We work hard to gain more. We follow our tired routines every single day. We look for amusement to stave off boredom. We seek power, status, riches, and accomplishments to quiet The Question, for if it lingers, we will face the same despair as Solomon: life is nothing but vanity.
But face this truth we must, if we are to rebel against the false comforts that have been on the prowl for centuries. The ones that Solomon denounced are the same ones we must denounce today.
Erin Straza is a contemplative writer, heartfelt speaker, and redeemed dreamer. She is managing editor of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine and host of the Persuasion podcast. As a freelance communications consultant, Erin helps organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. She lives in Illinois with her husband, Mike.
Taken from Comfort Detox by Erin M. Straza. Copyright (c) 2017 by Erin Straza. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com