Tuesday, December 6, 2011


We’d do well to ask why obesity is so rampant. I mentioned yesterday that healthcare costs resulting from it exceed those associated with both smoking and drinking. Funny: all these pathogenic behaviors involve the mouth.

Hardly anyone would dispute that we’re a nation of consumers. We were once a nation of creators, inventors, initiators, but now we just sit ourselves down and ingest. The trope’s even pervaded healthcare: during the last thirty or forty years, as our model of healthcare shifted from a service to a commercial transaction, patients and doctors became “consumers” and “providers.” When I hear myself referred to as a provider, I’d like to provide the speaker with a sound drubbing. And the term “consumer” conjures for me the image of those train-sized omnivorous worms in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Why are we such obligate consumers?

I suspect we aim to fill a void we sense in our core, a feeling that we’re existentially empty. I’ve quoted eating-disorder guru Geneen Roth here more than once: “You can’t get enough of what you don’t need.” The emptiness we feel isn’t material. It’s spiritual, a currency in which our society is painfully poor. Oh, yeah, there’s plenty of religion around, but much of that, it seems to me, is plain old creed, pious language betrayed by actual behavior. As a popular country/western song goes,

I’ve driven my whole life on empty
Still, I think I done pretty good
I got two SUVs and a Hummer,
And a home in a walled neighborhood
Got a boat with a thousand-horse outboard
My TV screen takes up a whole wall
I got lots of stuff, but it’s never enough
‘Cause no one sells love at the mall

I bought me an RV to travel
And seek what might comfort my soul
I yearned to be more than a food tube,
An unfillable, bottomless hole
I parked in the lot of a Wal-Mart
And in high hopes I entered the store
Bought an iPod and a drill and a George Foreman grill
But left as empty as I was before.
‘Cause no one sells love at the mall
They don’t deal with affection at all
True love, you can’t get it for cash, check or credit
‘Cause no one sells love at the mall

Consumerism presumes that nothing of much value exists inherently within us. Maybe this is an extension of the western notion of original sin. Until we sit and get quiet and finally see the wondrous beings that we are, we’ll continue consuming without satisfaction.


  1. So true and so sad. Much of radio religion is also "made for consumption", I think, also attempting to provide satisfaction to the self-righteous. That song lyric is so sadly clever.
    Thanks, Jeff!

  2. You haven't seen consumerism until you've been behind The Orange Curtain. Orange County, where Newport Beach boasts the HIGHEST median housing price in the nation ($1.5 million) is consumerism run rampant. Watching the bleached, botoxed, big-boobed women grab armfulls of $100 Christmas gifts is a sight to behold. No one even looks at the price of anything! And, you don't need to walk "all the way" to the cash register to spend your money -- the Newport Beach Housewives-In-Training who wait on you will ring you up anywhere with their smart phone! But there is a lot of free beauty here, if you know where to look!

  3. This really is a cultural epidemic we are facing. No one talks about building up this country anymore. No one is looking for the next big innovation, just the next iphone. My grandparents scrimped and saved. They built a very good business yet lived in a modest house and had an average lifestyle. Those types of people aren't around anymore.

  4. Would that the medical community take your comment seriously, and see this as a public health emergency. We're sinking ever more deeply into overt materialism.

    God forbid that my parting, deathbed words are, "What a good life I had, with my wide-screen TV and advanced iPad."

    If we really want to reform healthcare, we'll take a day off (today, MLK Day, might be a good choice), sit, and review the quality in our lives.

  5. Jeff, I've returned to this post frequently because it rings so true. The emptiness at the core of our lives is truly frightening. Everytime I think I am not one of those consumers I take a good look at my life. The question is, how can we avoid it in this culture? In my spiritual tradition we talk of "being in the world, yet not of it". I would like to use this post to share with my theological discussion group, if I may.

  6. Anne, please feel free to share it. As I explore what healthcare actually is and what meaningful reform would be, I keep coming back to the necessity of spiritual reawakening on the part of a large number of Americans. By "spiritual," I mean people developing a wider sense of self, a process that has nothing at all to do with religion.

    "Wider sense of self"? Well, to begin with, I'm more than a consumer, and more even than this body that's getting treated. You get the drift.