The transition from "soul" to "self" changed contentment from an internal state dependent on one's connection to God into an external state pursued through self-determining choices aimed at satisfying one's desires and dreams. The market plays with our desires. We become convinced that our fantasies and dreams could be satisfied with the products it offers. Transitioning from "self" to "consumer is a natural next step, since it suggests that contentment is achieved primarily through experiences and products that can be purchased and consumed. A capitalist economy depends on keeping people discontented, so that they will keep buying the new and improved products that drive a burgeoning economy. (Lisa Graham McMinn, in The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life)
Lisa McMinn is surely correct when she says that part of why we buy things we do not need is that we are discontent, ill at ease, or bored, and we believe that buying something will make us feel better, or help us belong. I've certainly done this. For example, I've done what might seem absurd to many people: I have bought a particular CD not because I want to listen to the music but because of purely aesthetic reasons -- completing my collection of an artist's recordings, or because it has a couple of bonus tracks, or new liner notes. Part of it too is a niggling sense that I am somehow incomplete by not having it ALL, by not having a complete discography. There is a perfectionist tendency at work here as well. Record companies market to these identifiable discontents (really, defects in character), and I know this, and yet sometimes I still am taken in by them. My life is not better in any way simply because I have the CD.
Because we live in such a consumer-driven society, it's difficult to imagine it otherwise. In fact, what will happen to our economy if we stop buying things? I heard someone say once that they felt guilty if they did not buy things, lots of things, that they needed to do their part to sustain the economic recovery. When I was young (in the Sixties), I remember hearing a great deal about saving money. My parents came from that generation of savers. I don't hear much about that either now or in the recent past. The mantra of our society now is "BUY."
Well, that's really old news, and to think of changing all that is really a bit numbing. I mean, what's a poor consumer to do? Well, it seems to me that there are little steps that can be taken:
Focus on the Giver. I was eating lunch yesterday on my patio with my daughter. It wasn't the lunch I necessarily wanted, and certainly not the quantity I wanted, but I tried to tell myself that I needed to appreciate the half sandwich, cup of yogurt, and pickle that I had, that I need to slow down and appreciate what was given. (I usually concentrate on getting as much in my mouth as possible as quickly as I can.) I need to remember that God is the one who gave me the food, the daughter, the trees and flowers and birds to see and hear, and I need to be thankful. He's the only one who can make me content.
Take pleasure in what you have. Eating my sandwich that day at lunch, I took the time to really enjoy the texture of it, its smell, and it wholesome taste. There is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in what you eat, or something you buy; it becomes deadly to the soul and robs us of contentment when we think that the created thing we eat or otherwise consume will make us happy, or fulfill us. It won't. But it can be enjoyed for what it is, and it should be fully savored -- just like that piece of bread. This is good theology, creational theology.
Question your motives. If you think you need something to be happy, complete, or (fill in the blank), don't buy it or otherwise consume it and see what happens. See if you really are less content. Then ask why. I can give a hundred examples from my own life, but one will do. There was a time when I would get hooked on certain TV series. I had to watch Law and Order, of CSI, or Stargate. Stop watching any TV show, however, and after a couple weeks you realize that you don't really miss it and, if you return to it, it seems inane or at least not nearly as satisfying as you once thought.
If anything, Solomon was the consummate consumer of his day. He had the disposable income, so anything he set eye upon he consumed, he had to have, and he did have. His conclusion? "Everything is meaningless." His prognosis? "Fear God." A God-ward life is one focused around the meaning and contentment that He brings. Only then, when we are centered on the Giver, can we really enjoy and savor the Given. Then we can all be Christian hedonists, enjoying what we have but holding it lightly because we know the pleasure it brings is only a shadow of what we will know.