I remember the day they came for runner’s high. Runner’s high, the Times story said, was an illusion. There was no rush of endorphins, no psychedelic reward for all the hard work. Runner’s high was the dopamine rush that comes when the brain checks off a burning need or want. It’s the satisfaction of getting a fix. There was nothing redemptive about the same amoral mechanism that kept addicts feeling something even after their tolerance takes away any actual buzz. It was, the article proclaimed, no better than shopping.
We all have our own reasons for making ill-advised or unnecessary purchases. These stories are as varied as anyone’s path to NA or overly long explanation of how one learned to run half-marathons. I think it’s safe to say, though, to anyone who buys shit for reasons other than need—who are subject to poor judgment, credit cards and fucked up rationalizations about quality of life—shopping is a vice. It’s not always a problem. But like popping pills on the weekend, it’s not long before it’s a Thursday thing, then a before work thing. Shopping is that kind of goon.
At some point last month, you probably resolved to cut down on fancy expenditures. This probably had something to do with New Year’s, which itself has more to do with Christmastime than turning over a new page on the calendar. In December, we’re some combination of mopey, anxious, traveling under the worst conditions possible, surrounded by family, caught on a pendulum ride between mildly drunk and slightly hung over, vitamin D-deprived and cash poor from buying up gifts for everyone in sight. (Being Jewish, I get a pass on that one.) We panic, resolve to be better, then quickly discard the idea when we get back to good enough.
We vow to spend smarter and then, like that, everything’s on sale. The devil’s calling at a discount—get back into the swing of things, remind yourself of what it’s like to splurge on account of nothing or spend days turning a purchase over in your head, then cop. Then the sale’s over, and, hey, you’re right back where you started. New Year’s resolutions about shopping are as doomed to fail as those about weight and diet are set up for success. The holiday parties and boozy workdays come to an end, easing us back into normalcy. Shopping plays the opposite trick on us.
There’s something that feels great about copping. There’s a reason we use the same word for sneakers as we do heroin.
As a culture, we’re really uncomfortable talking about amounts of money. It’s practically taboo. But almost as forbidden are discussions of money issues that go beyond what everyone should do. NPR’s Marketplace taunts me every day with tips about making a budget, managing debt and preparing for retirement. Maybe it’s depressing to confront what we actually do and why, or defeatist label it acceptable. But I really don’t know what else to do with retail, especially when it comes to having relatively expensive taste. By most measures, I don’t even register on the shopping alert scale. The fact remains, though, that I assume a new pair of shoes will cost me $300, a shirt, even on sale, tops $100 and in my other faint hobby, records, it’s nothing to spend $30 on something I’m moderately interest in owning. I’m not claiming to be particularly accomplished in clothes or vinyl—quite the contrary, actually. But, unfortunately, that’s the mindset I’ve fallen into. That’s the shopping dybbuk I’ve got inside of me. That’s the force I’ve got to beat, or make my peace with.
What we never get is a real look at the point-of-purchase relationship we have with money, which is where shopping really lives. It’s what makes these irrational or excessive purchases possible. It’s why I can find myself browsing in a way that—not to get too Catholic about it—does nearly as much psychic damage as pulling the trigger. There’s something that feels great about copping. There’s a reason we use the same word for sneakers as we do heroin.
Again, some people are satisfied with running. I want denim. I don’t think any amount of handwringing will change this.
When I want something, I want it like running. I obsess over it. I try and get friends to talk me out of it or into it. I convince myself that life will get immeasurably better or worse if I buy it. Since I have a family, debt and other people around me who want nice things for themselves, this is all kinds of fucked up and borders on disorder. But I have trouble believing that anyone with even a passing interest in clothes (or any kind of collecting, which is what clothes are) doesn’t learn to want in this particular way. The Bible called it coveting. I like to think it’s knowing you’re totally right about a matter of taste. I know there are people who excel at taste for taste's sake, or curation in the muddled, Tumblr sense of the word. I just can’t imagine it for myself. There’s a difference between being able to point to a thing and being able to incorporate it into your life. Knowing you’ve got the latter coming is the emotional payoff of shopping. You’ve broken down that wall between consumer and consumed. It’s your plaything now.
Here’s where our stories diverge. I am not the target readership of Four Pins. I’m approaching middle age and exude broke down dadness. I get my knowledge in dribs and drabs, like a man living in the Amazon with a busted ham radio who thinks there’s still a war going on between America and Japan. There is nothing pure or reputable about me. In fact, you could say that my entire shopping jones is dedicated to upholding a lie or an illusion that matters only to me. But, even if the stories aren't the same, the moral never changes. Shopping is a way of proving something to oneself by—ahem—making oneself a better, more complete person through retail. New Year’s resolutions have nothing on that charge.
If I stopped right here, I could look in the mirror ashamed and embark on a new, more responsible life. But really, is materialism emptier when there’s too much or too little riding on it? I’d argue that anyone, for whom shopping is an existential problem, should at least embrace his or her tormented relationship with retail. It’s an affirmation that these things matter to you, that they’re part of who you are. I guess folks who define themselves solely according to wholesome things like family, friends and faith should make me want to bury my head in shame, but I can live with the idea that shopping doesn’t reflect misshapen money priorities. No, it reveals that some things in life are, well, irresponsible goals and objects. And we just have to live with that if these things make us happy.
For better or worse, we’re staking some sense of who we are, or who we want to be, on spending. I don’t want to stop making bad, irrational decisions just because they’re bad and irrational. I also don’t want to be making them for this reason alone. Getting what we want completes us. Again, some people are satisfied with running. I want denim. I don’t think any amount of handwringing will change this. Plenty of New Year’s resolutions involve pretending to be someone you’re not—to have deep-seated values or principles that just don’t crop up overnight. All I can do is understand how perfectly ridiculous I am, own up to it and make sure I know exactly what I’m getting into the next time I need my fix. Or maybe I could just take up running.
Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.