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Americans' dysfunctional relationship with shopping malls

Shopping for its own sake, not to buy anything necessary, is a kind of wealth destruction. Sam McKeen wrote:

...most Americans would consider potlatch feasts, in which Northwest Indian tribes systematically destroy their wealth, to be irrational and mythic but would consider the habit of browsing malls and buying expensive things we do not need (conspicuous consumption) to be a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

There is an economic contradiction embedded in it. The economy needs people to spend. Yet, when consumers overspend, they burden themselves with debt and can spend no more, and the economic system falls to threads. In this way, shopping may destroy not only the individual's own wealth, but the entire nation's. David Segal wrote:

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street – or on mortgage-related financial insanity – can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.

So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.

Like any other troubled marriage, this one needs counseling. And pronto, because even a trial separation at a moment as precarious as this could get really ugly.

Sometimes this wealth destruction ritual is carefree and contented, but other times it is driven by peer pressure and other external compulsions, or even worse, by an internal void. Jim Wallis wrote:

The poverty of middle-class life is a sign of the crisis. Our shopping mall culture keeps consumers busy in an age of hitherto-unknown materialism fraught with emptiness, loneliness, anxiety, and a fundamental loss of meaning. A most revealing sign of the crisis is the blank, sad, or angry looks in the eyes of the young who congregate both on thee wasting corners of urban streets and in the wasteful corridors of suburban shopping centers. But a moral focus on consumerism makes both liberals and conservatives uncomfortable, perhaps because both sides are so deeply caught up in it.

Malls present a facade of having everything under control. To sell brands, they must sell the double-edged idea of contentment: the consumer must be discontent and must buy the product to attain contentment. The mall is a place where this situation is clearly organized and the ansewr is easily achievable. Amy Fisher wrote:

Within these weatherless bubbles of artificial ease – the clothing shops, photo shops, shoe stores, bookstores, music shops, movie theaters, drugstores, and fast-food restaurants all lined up, open and welcoming, side by side – teenagers spent their weekends, spent their allowances, met and mated, got their first jobs. As malls organized suburban landscapes during the very same years that galloping recession, unemployment, and drug use were disorganizing suburban homes, it would strike more than a few social scientists as ironic that the more controlled and sheltered teenagers' public environments grew, the more challenged and chaotic their personal ones became.

Some people reach a point of inner peace where recreational shopping becomes irrelevant. Ann Brenoff wrote:

In any case, it [shopping] just stopped being fun and she just stopped doing it. I realized this past weekend that, at age 64, I may have reached this milestone myself. Truth is, the Great Recession stole the wind from my shopping sails and I never fully recovered it anyway. Walking around a crowded mall is far less appealing to me than walking down a hiking trail. And spending hard-earned money on things I don't really need and may not ever use is something I don't ever do anymore.
* * *
But it did get me thinking how shopping may indeed be something that we just grow out of – and that can occur at any age. When we leave it behind, we move ourselves to a healthier place. After all, why does anyone need to spend money on themselves for affirmation of their worth and value? And that's pretty much what sport shopping is. Out-growing your need to shop has less to do with no longer being able to find age-appropriate clothes and more to do with simply becoming comfortable with who you are, satisfied with yourself and what you already have.

Sources

Sam McKeen's Preface to Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989. p. xii. (This is a revised version of Telling Your Story, originally published 1973.)
"Our Love Affair with Malls Is on the Rocks." David Segal. New York Times. Jan. 31, 2009.
Jim Wallis. The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left". New York: Harvest, 1995. p. 9.
Amy Fisher, with Sheila Weller. Amy Fisher: My Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. p. 106.
Do We Ever Outgrow Shopping? Ann Brenoff. Huffington Post. March 20, 2014.

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