I Am Not What I Buy… Or what I wear?

There’s two chapters of Consumer Detox set for reading this week (gosh, but it’s a bit like being an undergraduate again…) – so I’m going to do them in two pieces. 

Also, I’ve not read chapter three yet… 

So – ‘I am not what I buy’.  The task for this week is to make a (private) inventory of what you on – the premise being that you realise how much you have.  Now, I have moved house four times in the last year, so I’m pretty aware of that.  I also have stuff in three houses – the one I own, my parents’, and the one where I live – so making a list is also impractical, as well as painful.  I’m trying not to slide out of it though, so let’s just have a look at some of what’s in the place where I live… 

In the over-technified category I have two laptops, an iPod and an iPhone. There will clearly be MUSIC and CONNECTIVITY.  I have four different ways of making coffee – a large caffetiere, a small caffetiere, a travel mug caffetiere and a stove-top espresso pot.  I also have a kettle and some Starbucks Via instant coffee sachets – so make that five. Now, I like coffee (clearly), but I can’t actually drink it through my eyes and ears as well as through my mouth.  My mother emailed me this week to ask me how to use my bamboo steamer. I don’t even have some of the crazy things I own in the same place as me. How can they be that important?

In the clothing department – since part of what Mark Powley talks about in this chapter involves clothing it seems like we should look at that – I have multitudinous pairs of jeans (bootcut jeans, skinny jeans, holey jeans for weekends), three pairs of winter boots, a drawer full of hoodies, about 45 pairs of (holey) socks…  you get the picture.  There are definitely things I don’t wear very often in there (and it’s not just about it being not-the-season-right-now).  So it’s a bit daft. 

Powley turns to Mark 4, and the Parable of the Sower. You know the one, I know the one, heck, I’ve lead home group discussions on the one… He talks about the weeds and the way they choke us.  I’ve never really thought about all my stuff as the weeds before.  I’ve thought of them as a pain in the arse when I have to box everything up and move house, and I’ve been aware that I’d not really want to leave all of it behind if I ever emigrated – but I never actually thought about them choking me.  

But in a way, they do – they, and the things I do with them become their own little rituals in my world. Saturday mornings are ‘made’ by a pot of coffee, a newspaper and an episode of West Wing. Days when I need to be relatively smart but don’t want to look ‘preppy’ or like an office drone, I wear the nice leather boots and a shorter skirt and in my head I’m Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim. I think I might even have theme music for that day.   

And that’s all fun, and a part of who I am – but do I own that, or does that own me? And does it get in the way of spending time with God (to which the answer is yes – because, when Saturday mornings are about caffeine and media, I don’t do my bible study in the way I would on weekday mornings with my breakfast, and then it just doesn’t happen). 

The rest of this chapter talks about ‘tribes’ that we belong to or identify with – and I’ll confess that I really struggled with this.   A bit of me has always felt like I was on the edge of groups, because I was really really bad at being a cool teenager and it took me a really long time to find communities I felt comfortable with – and communities are GOOD THINGS – and I have found a kind of collection of communities that I don’t feel box me in.  So when Powley lists the different tribes, I get a bit cantakerous about his pigeonholes – why is a ‘sophisticate’ a ‘style tribe’  and not a ‘special interest’, and why does liking newspapers, novels and the theatres make you a ‘sophisticate’ anyway (and note that I have a negative understanding of ‘sophisticate’)? why can’t I be ‘rurual’ and like practical wellies not nonsensical pink things with high heels, and urban and like decent music and communications tecnology (and come to that, why can’t the rural tribe have decent music and communications technology – it’s not all drunken versions of the Wurzels and dial-up internet in Cornwall, thanks).  And how can I be both a ‘sophisticate’ (media, theatre etc) and a ‘drop out’ (occasionally scruffy, into ‘indie’ or ‘arty’ films and novels) – and frankly, which of those two tribes did I join by loving both David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell?  And don’t some of these things that I consume enable me to think about the way that I consume? (David Foster Wallace, I’m looking at you here…)

But Powley goes on – he admits that it’s about mixing and matching, and finding a level of personal comfort, but acknowledges that being a stable, rooted, human is about being someone whose value isn’t completely defined by those things that have a lot of their value from what other people think of them, or that don’t necessarily last long or go out of date.  It’s about being rooted in something deeper than that – beyond your relationship with stuff, and perhaps even than your relationships with other people, and being sure, somewhere deep down, that if you were standing on your own, naked, in the middle of the desert, you’d still have something or be someone that was identifiably you.  For me, that comes from knowing God.  I don’t know what my friends would tell you – especially my friends who don’t share my faith.  But I think that the more I’ve grown in my faith, the more comfortable I’ve got in my own skin – the better I’ve become at owning my choices and being willing to be challenged on them. Although I’ll also freely confess that I’m not there yet (and that my mother will probably be worrying about what the fact that I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer is doing to my immortal soul until the day I die). 

Powley uses a phrase I really like: ‘Freedom isn’t when our possessions mean nothing to us. We are phsyical beings – we will always expres ourselves using physical things. But the way we use our possessions can become something different: less about finding an identity and more about expressing an identity we’ve been given…’ 

So the answer to all my cantankerous noises about tribes isn’t that I’m wrong and I have to give up these things that I like or stop using them as a part of my identity.  I think it’s a bit about working out which bits of my various character and talents (which I think of as being God-given) they express – and how they express it.  And, right now, at this point in my life, what kind of pointers that gives me as to what I do career-wise and the various other life-choices I have to make.  What matters to me and why does it matter – and how do I use those things.  Do I use the fact that I read David Foster Wallace (yes, I’ve picked him as the theme for the day)’s work till I really really want to be able to play Eschaton (see, Infinite Jest) to be smug and superior towards those who find him hard going, or do I use the things he’s provoked me to think about to help shape myself and the world around me in a way that I think is for the better?

Identity is a complex beast – whether you’re a Christian or not. The way that nature and nuture, our choices and the sales pitches of advertising agents all make it really hard to know if our identities are us or something someone else has put on us.  Whether we own them or they own us.  I feel like I’m saying this or being told this all the time right now – but you just have to learn to deal with The Hard, to keep questioning and challenging and learning and changing.  And trusting that you can learn to be comfortable and at peace with that process.  I’ll be honest – for me, the security that makes that possible is my faith in God, or at least, on the good days it is: on the bad days I also flail and doubt  – and then it’s about clinging onto the fact that yes, I do have faith really, I’m just sometimes pretty bad at feeling it. 

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