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Shopping, and the Seduction of “Fixing” Ourselves

I’ve been fantasizing a lot lately.

I get in my car, drive to my closest Target, enter through those big glass doors, and look out over the expanse of stuff. This is my kingdom!

Aisles and aisles of glossy, new things. 

I find women’s clothing and caress the fabrics: fuzzy sweaters, stretchy denim. I marvel at the selection, the colors, the trends. I try things on, finding just the right size and silhouette. I buy multiples of the things I like. Then I head over to shoes and find the perfect pair of boots to match my new outfits. 

“Ahhh,” I sigh. This is what happiness feels like. 

That word, happiness, is what snaps me out of the illusion. I love shopping, but I love happiness more – though she’s always playing hard-to-get. And it’s probably true that the reason I shop is because it satisfies that hunger for a bit of contentment, and a bit of joy.

2017 has been hard. Trump threatening to derail common decency and democracy all in one go. Young immigrants told they’re not welcome here. Women objectified. People of color killed, over and over again, by cities and states without consequence. Neo-nazis. Home grown terrorism. Trans people killed and barely any news coverage. Genocide and an international refugee crisis. American Christians showing, yet again, that oftentimes their true colors are as dark as the blackness of a black hole. Hurricanes, flooding, and earth quakes that threaten to ruin homes and livelihoods.

There’s a lot to be unhappy about and, for me, the events of August 11th and 12th here in Charlottesville all but did me in.

I’ve gained 6 pounds. I have had more bad nights than good nights. I had to give up on a book chapter I was writing for an academic compilation because the part of my mind that is capable of deep diving into research is currently locked up without a key. On the surface, everything looks – even feels – normal, but the deep unhappiness gurgles upward, a tide that rips me back into its currents.

And so, what I really want is to go shopping, the usual way.

Aren’t I entitled to this small morsel of happiness? Yes, I know it’s fleeting, that the happiness I glean is at the expense of sweatshop workers scraping by, and that overconsumption puts further stress on a planet already on the brink of environmental catastrophe. But everyone else is doing it. And look at their faces and look at their clothes. They look nice. Do I look nice, in my too-short, thrifted jeans and old Everlane tshirt? I don’t look nice. I look terrible. I hate my body – those 6 pounds don’t sit right on my hips.

Why does this anxiety always turn inward? Do I think that if I fix myself the world will be fixed, too?

See, this is what muddles everything. Whether I’m shopping or passionately pursuing conscious consumerism, I’m still trying to fix myself in an attempt to fix everything else.  If I can just do that right and shop at that store and educate everyone I know, maybe then I’ll be happy.

But here I am, 5 years into the conscious consumerism experiment, and I still don’t think I’ve fixed much at all. Admitting that is the first relief I’ve felt in weeks, in months. A smile creeps its way across my face, the serious face I keep on to mask weakness.

This is me saying, “Here I am! A human being – creaturely, confused, unfixable – waking myself out of the fetal position to greet the dew-kissed grime of a new morning. 

Maybe happiness is something that settles, like laugh lines and creaky wooden floors. Maybe it’s undiscoverable because it refuses to play that game. Maybe my fantasies of shopping are just the other extreme of my fantasies about changing the world, and the thing about fantasies is that they’re only daydreams. Maybe I don’t even want them to be true.

So I will settle here for awhile, in my old wooden chair, feeling the aches in my anxious body and saying, to God and to the sunlight and to this new day, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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