Lent invites us to relinquish certain comforts. Ideally, as we peel away the layers of comfort with which we surround ourselves — such as meat, alcohol, gossip, or television — we learn how to abide in Christ and gain insight from the stillness of Gethsemane, the sorrow of Golgotha, and the redemption of the cross.
For the past month, I struggled to decide what to “fast” from. Quiet contemplation bore rich insights for Christian monastics, so I turned to silence and tried to listen to God. But no sooner did I seek out a moment of quiet, than I heard the unmistakable ping of my inbox coaxing me to “Act now!” “Check out these deals!” “Hurry!” and “Buy, buy, buy, buy!” Regardless of the brand, these retail messages are constant, pervasive, and often persuasive.
And I’ll confess: Though I know the “stuff” promised by these brands is part of a hyper-consumptive din, the disruptions these messages bring aren’t entirely unwelcome. The promise of a bargain or the thought of a shiny new thing brings me inexplicable comfort during a stressful work week or interpersonal turmoil. It dulls the existential dread that has followed me since the start of the pandemic.
Which is how I settled on my Lenten practice: This year, I’m fasting from the noise of retail frenzy.
Lost in the noise
Pope Francis is keenly attuned to the problems wrought by overconsumption. “We need to free ourselves from the clutches of consumerism and the snares of selfishness, from always wanting more, from never being satisfied, and from a heart closed to the needs of the poor,” he said in his 2019 Ash Wednesday homily.
But these snares are sneaky. As we contend with family obligations, work stress, and social baggage, some brands have tapped into our distress, offering respite in the form of “retail therapy.” Target, for example, cultivates a therapeutic brand image through self-care merchandise and branding tactics, so consumers can indulge in what one Target vice president called “affordable joy.” Other brands manipulate consumers’ existential concerns, insisting that their products can do good for people and the planet, even if their claims fall flat. Companies further hijack our neurology through marketing tactics to fuel our infatuation with consumptive pursuits, while incentivizing influencers and other public figures to coax us towards “more.”
Every retail e-mail bears the promise of respite, happiness, or peace. After all, a new purchase will cheer me up, right? So I “add to cart” and while I wait for its delivery, I buy another. But peace never really arrives. What greets me, instead, is a reminder of my restlessness, compounded by my entrapment in endless cycles of consumption. The noise numbs me to this entrapment, so all I can think about is the thrill of a new purchase.
My concern lies not with occasional purchases, but with their contribution to — and thus my participation in — broader systems that do their best to amplify the retail frenzy. This noise artfully distracts us from the systemic injustices that have crept into our lives.
Consider my bursting inbox: Behind the clever slogans and stylish clothes are overworked and underpaid garment workers, whose cries are drowned out by branded demands for “more.” These cute retail e-mails distract us from labor exploitation, environmental degradation, and other rotten fruits of hyper-consumption. If that’s not enough, our insatiable appetite for consumption also conceals our collective disconnection from our larger sense of meaning. The hydra heads of consumer culture — individualism, materialism, greed, hurriedness, and more — all beget social fragmentation, isolation, and rot. “I buy, therefore I am,” only goes so far, before we struggle to make sense of our human purpose and become demoralized.
In pursuit of restful silence
I’m tired of relying on retail therapy to find stable ground. I’m tired of how its allure contributes to my participation in systems that harm people and the planet. Mostly, I’m tired of the ways it twists and numbs how we relate to each other.
Confronting hyper-consumption ultimately requires a reckoning with what lies at the heart of my bursting inbox: a restlessness that no corporation can resolve. Here I take direction from St. Augustine’s insistence that “our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” When I succeed in stealing silence amidst retail ruckus, God brings me to my wounds — those same wounds I try to numb with endless purchases. Though brands would rather convince us otherwise, the wounds that we all bring to the Lenten season cannot be healed through constant consumption. By sitting in silence and thereby resting in God, we banish the noise and draw closer to the healing rest that God provides.
Resting in the silence of God clarifies the falsehoods embedded in our systems of production and consumption. God helps us see this capitalist system for what it is: one fueling demoralizing cycles of hyper-consumption that distracts us from deeper encounters with ourselves, our neighbors, and God — the beloved community. Here we recognize the need to “fast” from retail frenzy.
How can we pursue this “fast”? For me, it begins with my cluttered inbox. Every message I delete and brand list I unsubscribe from frees me from the snares of constant consumption. I have also decided to abstain from clothes shopping — my personal escape — for the duration of Lent. Distance from the din reorients me towards more meaningful ways of being in the world.
Instead of spending my time, energy, passion, and money caught up in retail frenzy, I’ll be directing these resources towards worthwhile actions, and ones that can rectify the damage done. Here I’ve set my sights on supporting funds that assist vulnerable garment workers, and amplifying the work of advocacy groups reckoning with the world’s clothing waste.
Ultimately, my “fast” requires a continual spiritual journey toward the clarifying silence of God. The pull of hyper-consumption will always prove to be challenging to resist. I invite you to undertake this challenging “fast” alongside me and tune out the noise with a simple, fervent prayer: Deliver us from retail frenzy, O Lord.