Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Reflection on The True Meaning of Christmas (Shopping)

Oh wow, Blogger's new layout is CLEAN!

K, now that I've said that, here's the update for which you've been waiting breathlessly: I got a promotion!'s more like a "promotion". My hours are cut but my commission goes up by a whole fat 1%. I'm off the 'flex team' and on as a part-time permanent position in Men's Fragrances. I have a home department! I don't have to worry about picking up hours... mostly because I'm going to be scheduled a paltry 25-28 hours a week (if that!). Hopefully though, it'll pick up a little around Xmas.

And here's some reflection:

For retailers, the next 3.5 months (October through December) are expected to be the busiest of the year. Christmas housewares are already on display; ornaments are being set out and the holiday fragrance gift sets are coming in. We get more every day. And people are already buying them, even if they cost more than they want to spend, because it's a "gift set", and we tell them it's a "good deal". Funny how people will buy something bigger to save a little bit more.

Funny how people will buy a lot of things, really. I've heard hundreds of shoppers declining to use credit cards and paying in cash instead: "I'm dangerous with a credit card". "If I shop with a card, my accountant yells at me". "I closed all my cards". Our credit crisis clearly hit home. The on-again-off-again (if you listened to the 'experts' anyway) recession lowered consumer spending except in the upper-middle-class and upper-class markets. And yet, we all shop! I still go shopping, and I'm on a budget! I have more clothes to wear to work than one person really needs but I'm always looking for another cute, warm sweater - especially if it's on sale!

Why do we buy? Giving gifts is a social contract thing, yadda yadda... but why do we feel compelled to go out and spend thousands of dollars? (and I've SEEN the evidence of that spending. Our store's holiday kickback program nets you 10% back on purchases, and after the holidays, people bring in their gift cards with that 10%, and the gift card totals are $300-$400. Which means they spent $3-4,000 in just our store last retail season.)

As much as I appreciate shoppers (since I get commission on what they buy!) I always have to stop and wonder how many people really need what we're selling. Sure, consumer spending drives the economy, and we've all been told that the economy needs to be healthy (lots of spending!) to make us all healthier and happier. What if that's not true? What if cutting our spending and letting capitalism take a hit is actually better for us? Nothing can grow forever. Even the oldest living things on earth (either single plants or plant colonies, depending who you're asking) have experienced die-offs. Ecosystems sometimes require a forest fire or flood to restore balance. Humans have even taken to doing controlled burns in areas where we can't risk the natural wildfire cycle (eg in areas where residential properties have taken over what used to be wildfire zones). So why is a controlled burn in our man-made systems so difficult?

I think it's because even though we are urged to do it in other parts of our lives (tossing old stuff, "de-cluttering" our address books, our desks, and our calendars, letting go of old emotional hang-ups) to make room for growth, no one has ever told us to let go of our consumerism. "Simplify your life!" shouts a guru. "Buy my book!". "De-stress! De-clutter your mind and open yourself to happiness!" advertises a domestic diva. "Pick up my dvd series!".

It's easy to toss out half your closet. There's plenty more clothing available when you want it. It's a lot harder to toss out your spending habits, especially when you "need" the things you buy - toiletries and brand-name foods, gifts for friends and family, clothing for work. We all justify purchases that way. We "need" it. We can't make it at home - we don't have the skills to support us that way.

That's why I'm a proponent of learning basic skills like cooking and sewing - the stuff our great-grandmothers learned as kids because that's what their parents thought an adult should know. Those skills make good sense. I can cut my spending (even if the economists in Washington, D.C. tell me I shouldn't) by making my own frozen stir-fry mix with fresh garden veggies and rice purchased in bulk instead of buying a pre-made single-serving meal at the grocery store. I can make my own gifts for friends, rather than buying them useless trinkets. And I can bake a cake when I get a craving, and know exactly what goes into it. I think we'd all be healthier and happier with more personal growth rather than more economic growth, and I think we know it, inside, but we aren't sure how to start.

Well, here's my suggestion: Learn a skill you've always wanted to learn, and let your interests guide you into a healthier lifestyle. :) I'm working on my kitchen skills, especially bread-making. What about you?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are you a Christian?

My friend Nicole, who blogs at A Reader's Rumination, once again linked me to a meditation on Boundless that reminded me of something I wanted to share.

Disclaimer: While I'm hardly the best example of living a Christ-filled life, I do try to be a good person, and I do think that behavior is the best witness of all if you want to share Christ (or anything else) with someone. Being at peace will draw others who naturally want to know how you manage it. I find my strength in my husband and my friends more than in God directly, but I appreciate His work in others' lives and I wanted to share how my own experience with finding joy fed into someone else's interpretation of me (and made me an inadvertent witness to the gospel):

I had a horrible headache the other day. My sinus headaches come and go, and they're not so much painful as disorienting, making it harder to focus and making my entire head feel stuffy. But I was at work, and work is customer service - focusing on someone else's needs, doing what I can to make them happy. I tried my best to get through the day with a smile for my own sake as well as everyone else's.

It surprised me that I managed it at all, and I was worried that I was coming across as fake, too cheerful or too forced at times because it was all I could do to keep smiling if I stopped to think about my headache. I found two things: first, if I focused on the customer and not on the pounding in my head, the pain wasn't so bad. Second, if I stopped complaining and started focusing on little joys, like making a good connection with someone, finding the perfect shade of lipstick for her to wear at a wedding or successfully teaching a new makeup technique, I didn't seem fake at all. Even if my smile felt forced to me, the women I waited on saw someone genuinely focused on their needs. They smiled more, too. They complimented my customer service. It didn't take away the pain of the headache but it did reinforce that my attitude was more important than my physical presence. Anyone could have helped them pick a lipstick, but not everyone could have done it with a good attitude.

The last compliment I got was from a profusely thankful woman who told me that I was not only a good salesperson but clearly a good person overall, and as I was closing the sale she leaned over the counter and asked conspiratorially: "Are you a Christian?". She took me by surprise. I didn't think I gave off a Christian vibe, with my bright purple nail polish and complete lack of religious jewelry... but I guess it was my attitude that she found Christian-like.

I'm not sure if I lied when I said "yes". I don't read the Bible much and I don't fear God (I do love our creator, whether he/she/it is the ideal of a Christian god or not). I don't attend a Christian church (or any church at all). I have friends who do those things, which might make me a Christian by association if nothing else. But I think in the larger sense of the word - a "follower of Christ", not someone who attends a certain church or reads a certain book - that I am in fact Christian. I try to live by a moral code which includes many of Christ's teachings - love and kindness toward others, appreciation of the many good things I am given, and reflection on the nature of God and the lessons of the Bible. I appreciate Christ's story for what it tells us about Him and about ourselves. And I'm trying to live up to His example not because I'm told to but because it's a good example for everyone, Christian or not. I don't think Christ complained much, and He kept working even if people didn't always show appreciation for His work.

Compliments are rare in the service industries and it's easy to get bitter and gripe and moan about your headache, the poor pay, the long hours on your feet and the seemingly distant attitudes of management. Co-workers often feed into the negativity, supporting complaints with listening ears and complaints of their own. I know a few who are so negative that you can almost see the cloud they've hung over their heads like a warning sign: There's no sunshine in my life! Stay away!. Most of them claim to be Christians. Few of them realize what their poor attitude says about their commitment to Christ. I think my customer was one of the few who understood what an attitude can say.

I probably wouldn't have lost the sale if I had said "No." She might have been surprised, but I don't think it would have caused an uproar. It isn't very Christ-like to lie, even when you're unsure of the answer. I could have said "I'm not sure." I don't think I would have offended her. I don't know why I said "yes". Maybe to feel like I belonged to her group of "good people", maybe because sharing religious beliefs is not something I expected to be doing between sales on a very busy day. It was easier to say yes than explain my complicated stance on religion and religious labels.

Looking back, I think that if she takes away my behavior as a good example of what Christian behavior should be, it won't have done any harm. After all, aren't we supposed to find joy in life? Aren't we supposed to celebrate our being and the little miracles and accomplishments of each day? If Christians are supposed to follow Christ's example, we need to be doing a lot more loving and a lot less declaring of war. Christ never led nor fought in a holy war even against the least of his enemies. Even the money-lenders and vendors in the temple were not hated, only admonished and the animals driven out*. He did not complain about them later to his friends. He did not let his suffering get in the way of his love, his joy, his peace. Neither should we.

Question of the day: Are you a Christian? Or are you Christ-like?

*Here's a good reference with a discussion of the Cleansing of the Temple and its symbolic language, which indicates less violence than readers might originally see in the story: Christian Think Tank