What If We Didn’t Shop This Holiday Season?—The Rat and The Elephant

Marc Chagall

Last week was exciting, intense and exhausting. I was at the University of Illinois for auditions to cast my first ensemble play (as playwright). Pinch me! The week ended with a 13-hour travel delay. These are the ingredients for psychological wreckdom.

The next morning, to clear the jumble inside my head, my partner and I went to a new coffee shop in our neighborhood, right next to a clothing store I’ve never paid a lot of attention to. In the shop window was a lovely blouse—sheer black with silver pinstripes. Exactly the kind of thing I would buy to reward myself after the kind of thrilling and grueling week I had. Except, I’m not shopping for clothes (or shoes, or bags, or jewelry) for 2018 (I’ve written about the experience on a quarterly basis: first quarter; second quarter; third quarter). It’s been my personal challenge for the year.

So far I’ve succeeded in just looking through the shop window at the object of my desire, trying not to leave a nose print on the glass as I examine the blouse’s wide cuff and peasant-style shape. After all, I’ve only got a little more than a month left in my challenge. I’d hate to give up so close to the finish line.

As I face off against the behemoth of consumerism, the fable that follows caught my attention afresh. The story mirrors my struggles to escape the thrall of consumer marketing; the relentless messages that I will not be enough, unless I buy their product. Is it vain to pit my will against the gargantuan corporate beasts?

To fancy oneself important is common in France. We act as if we are people of consequence, when we are nothing but petty bourgeois. It’s the French disease—our silly vanity belongs to us in particular.

The Spanish are vain, but in a different way. Their pretention seems to me, in short, more crazy, but less stupid.

Let’s find a story for ours, which, no doubt, will resonate for others too.

A rat, among the smallest creatures, saw an elephant, one of the largest. He disdained the huge beast for its slow pace beneath its enormous burden. For on the three-story animal, a renowned sultan’s wife, her dog, her cat and pet monkey, her parakeet, her ancient chaperone and all her household were off on a pilgrimage.

The rat was amazed that so many people were touched to see the heavy beast pass.

The rat said, “As if taking up more or less space makes us more or less important! I mean, really, what on earth do you people admire so much in him? Is it his gargantuan body that scares children? Well, as small as we rats are, we don’t prize ourselves, even a hair less than these elephants.”

He would have said more; but the cat, leaving his cage, made clear in less than an instant, that a rat is not an elephant.

If we try to recuse ourselves from consumerism, the elephantine corporations’ marketing cats will hunt us down. ‘Tis the season for tempting messages to-buy-buy-buy. We dignify Black Friday (the shopping extravaganza day after Thanksgiving in the U.S.) with articles such as this: How To Tell If Those Black Friday Deals Are Actually Worth Buying. Reeling us into the consumer maw. Devaluing our time, because how much time does it take to research the real-deal-ness of any particular Black Friday offer? Hours? How else might we have spent that time?

As I was writing this, a friend texted me that she had just tried on “1 million boots” at DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse). She went on to describe her current anxiety; anxiety that many of us share—fires, floods, shootings, refugees, factory farming (to name a few). She wrote, “So naturally one must shop for boots to keep from melting into a puddle of crippling fear and nihilism.” Indeed.

I’ve been there. I’ll shop as a celebration. I’ll shop as a way of mourning. I’ll shop as a way of consoling myself. I’ll shop as escapism from harsh realities. And I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. As much as we may disdain and criticize our addiction to consumerism, the elephant’s feline emissary is ready to pounce.

Now I’m going to push the animal metaphor further than La Fontaine. One rat is no match for the cat or the elephant, but how about millions of rats? We may be addicted to consumerism, but that many rats can bring their own counter plague. A plague of silence and emptiness on the consumer industry.

This holiday season, I propose: Let’s be vain. Let’s prize ourselves as highly as the corporate elephants. Let’s know that we are enough without buying anything more. Let’s pause every time our finger hovers above the buy button.

What if we turned toward our families and friends, toward those in need and inward to our hearts? What if we invested our time and resources in people and love?



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