I once went an entire calendar year without buying anything new. With the exception of consumable goods and food, every purchase that I made for the entire year was second-hand. It was a voluntarily challenge that I set forth for myself because I wondered if I could do it, and because I had a hunch that if I could, I’d be better for it. My friends thought I was crazy.
I was a new mom in a funk about my new mom body. We had downsized to a smaller house after I quit my job to try being a stay-at-home mom, and I was in a funk abut that, too. New clothes seemed to momentarily ease my body image issues. New knick-knacks seemed to momentarily make our tiny house feel more stately. I knew it was a band-aid. I knew I didn’t want to set this example for my kids, this example of attempting to buy happiness. I knew that if I wanted to raise them without a sense of entitlement, that I had to abandon it myself first. So on January 1, 2012, I embarked on The Year of No New Things.
In a word, it was transformative. I know that sounds kind of dramatic, but really, I am transformed. And not in the ways that I would have imagined. I am not particularly disgusted at our consumer culture or at how much money I've spent/wasted on impulse buys along the way or how the best things in life are free. None of that comes as any shock, really.
I am transformed by two simple lessons. The first? I have enough. It sounds so simple, so obvious. Rewind back to the moment that I contemplated making this resolution, though, and you'd find me anxious. Anxious that I would not have access to something I needed. Anxious that prohibiting myself from the shiny, glorious convenience of Target would cause some sort of actual pain in my life; that in depriving myself of new things, I would in some way deprive myself of joy as well.
The reality? The first few special events that came up on the calendar and couldn't be accompanied by a new outfit or new shoes were kind of a bummer. When we re-arranged our furniture and needed to fill in a few gaps, the idea of one-stop-shopping at West Elm seemed like the only solution. Those daily deal e-mails that flooded my inbox? Too tempting—unsubscribe (I’m looking at you, Haute Look and Zulily). It was hard at first. With each temptation that I resisted, though, my resolve was strengthened by the realization that I was not, in fact, deprived of any real joy. By Spring, the idea that life was better or easier with new things just kind of went away. I could suddenly see clearly that there was hardly any correlation at all between my stuff and my joy. I have enough stuff.
It's the practice of saying those words "I have enough" that is the transformative part. The more I say them, the more I am a person who has enough. Not just clothes or bookshelf knick-knacks, but the stuff that matters, too. When I think about my life as being full and complete—not lacking, not half full, not a stepping stone to a bigger, better life—my relationship with the whole world changes. The people that I love are enough. The money that we make is enough. My body is enough. I have enough.
Once I embraced that, a funny thing happened. I was suddenly irrelevant to the conversation that advertisers were trying to have with me. The first 20 pages of most magazines no longer applied to me. Thirty percent of every television show was comprised of commercials for things that I wasn't buying, no matter what. The store windows downtown were studded with posters for the season's latest trends, which I would survive without. Once I made my peace with my departure from commerce, the commercials didn’t matter anymore.
When I viewed the commercials as a third-party observer who stood to gain nothing from their success or failure, I realized just how much influence they had once had over me. And here's the worst part: It was my own fault.
It would be easy to believe that I am powerless against the multi-million dollar marketing machine that powers American commerce, that they have basically brain washed me with their focus groups and their product placement. I know that I have to take responsibility for my buy-in, though, because what I've really bought isn't even what they're selling.
The Gap is trying to sell me their latest cut of jeans, and to do so they want to make them look as appealing as possible. Naturally, they put them on a Giselle look-alike, employ supernatural lighting, and then Photoshop the picture before slapping it into every magazine that appeals to my demographic. These jeans will make you look perfect, the ad whispers.
Do you know what I end up buying, though? Not the jeans, but the idea of the jeans. What I buy is the idea that a tiny waist, just-round-enough butt, legs that go on forever, and mysteriously wind-blown hair will make me perfect. Time and time again, companies showcase their products in circumstances that make them look as appealing as possible, and what I really attempt to buy are the circumstances, generally forgetting about the product entirely.
I don't need the products, because, say it with me: I have enough. The second lesson that my hiatus from shopping taught me is that I don't just have enough, but that I am enough.
I see now how I've bought into the idea that I am lacking—in appearance, in social status, in wealth, in life experiences, in ability—and how this idea has fueled a habit of accumulation.
Dear Advertisers: It's not you, it's me. (Well, it's kind of you, too). I know you're just trying to do your job, but I've been a crazy person about it. I've let myself believe that the snapshots I see in your ads are a life that I can aspire to. I've let myself believe that if I try hard enough, I can be a commercial.
I see it now. I don't want to be a commercial. I am real life. And I am enough.