Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.
Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.
I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.
So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.
The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.
Lately I’ve been observing the religious spectacle that is our malls. And as I’ve walked past the stained glass screens of Westfield’s saints I can’t help noticing something. That so much of the happiness these models portray seem associated with what they’re wearing. Of course having a great body helps too. But why are people so fixated on objects?
I think the attachment to objects is something that’s built from infancy. We associate our first blanket with security. And hot Ribenas with a motherly caress. Every time I go back to Malaysia, I eat at a McDonald’s there. The food probably isn’t even that good. But I can’t help associating my childhood with the same place. The connections we have to people spill over into objects. And the stronger the attachment, the harder it is to get rid of it. Hence why it’s easier to throw away a box of food than a box of letters from those you love.
We adorn our rooms with objects that promise wholeness, peace and contentment which we know deep down we need. But what happens when we confuse our toys with the things they symbolize? Rather than having a car as a useful tool, the Audi becomes a symbol of our social value. And when objects become who we are, we’re not far from using people to get the toys rather than using the toys for the people. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable when we try to use objects to fill the hungry void in us. Like ravenous wolves, we consume forests and mines and we still can’t get enough.
The modern person is faced with a never ending struggle of accumulating things. The modern world is so comfortable, tasty and convenient. But maybe the outside of us has changed much faster than the inside can handle. Though your environment has changed, you’re still the same person deep down inside. So like a kid with a bowl of cereal after school, you eat and eat from the discontentment that still ferments in you. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for. We may not even know what that is. The ancient Greeks once said that the most important task was ‘to know yourself’. But our age has forgotten such ancient wisdom in the pursuit of the perfect present. We can never get enough of what we don’t want, treating the symbols for its reality.
Making and consuming products isn’t too different from ancient religion. We just don’t call our things ‘gods’. But they promise all the same things — fertility and wealth, power and success. As the Protestant reformer John Calvin pointed out, the human heart is an idol factory. And in the 21st century, its idols are on a permanent 24/7 clearance sale. They’re on every street corner and every browser tab. They peek from articles and videos and podcasts, beckoning passersby and following them even after they’ve clicked away. But there’s nothing behind its smiles and sheen. These idols are masks that only pretend to give you what you want. And the more we buy, the more they demand. What will we sacrifice for it? People become competitors and tools. Habitats become business opportunities. And we ultimately become just a hat rack for our things, inanimate and devoid of life like Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt.