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Shopping for Selflessness

One man's dread of all things retail said a lot more about his character than he liked to admit.

My legs are rubber, knees about to buckle, calves cramping. In my delirium I grope for a resting place but find nothing. I can’t feel my toes. I see mirages — chairs, benches; they flicker invitingly, only to vanish as I approach. I teeter on the verge of fainting.

Suddenly a voice rings out from the blinding light: “Oh stop acting like a baby! We’ve only been shopping for an hour.”

It’s a familiar voice, a cruel voice — the voice of my wife, whose endurance far exceeds mine on such days. For her the “Accessories” section at Nordstrom is paradise. For me it’s somewhere between the Sahara desert and Dante’s Seventh Circle of hell.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. Truthfully I don’t mind shopping if it’s done the right way. My way — with the drive and celerity of a military operation. Alas I may never set the agenda when my wife and I hit the mall, but I find coddling daydreams very cathartic. So please excuse me while I switch to fantasy mode. Click.

First, the shopping trip would have a clear objective. If you go to the mall before determining what you need, something odd happens. When you arrive you find out that you “need” all sorts of things, stuff that you didn’t know was invented, or needed to be! An hour of mall trudging rubberizes your legs. Two hours and your torso slouches. Around the three-hour mark the fatigue flashes up the spine and seizes your brain. Suddenly the line between needs and wants begins to blur. You begin to ponder strange questions. How did I ever sleep without a bed that realigns my body’s energy with the earth’s magnetic field? Or, how will I summon rodents without this rodent whistle?

If it were up to me, we wouldn’t stick around long enough for this to happen. We’d hit the ground running. Secure the items. March them to the counter. Dispatch the plastic. Vacate the premises and make it home in time for the ball game. The perfect shopping trip!

Click. Back to reality. Such trips are a fading memory from my bachelor days. The real scene is somewhat different. It plays something like this:

Walking. Looking at clothes. Looking at clothes. More walking. Arguing. Silence. Apologizing. More arguing. Trying clothes on. Leaving store. Coming back to store. Putting clothes on hold. Walking. Weeping (me). Gnashing of teeth (mine). More walking.

Well, you get the picture. Shopping causes a little consternation in my marriage. This took me by surprise. Just two years ago we were giddy and engaged, with not even a hint of conflict on the horizon — a perfectly compatible couple. We both liked cuddling, kissing and a guy named Drew. Then we got married and started shopping together.

But recently I discovered that something else was causing problems in our marriage, something much worse than shopping — my selfishness. The descriptions above make my wife look like the bad guy. Some serious qualifiers are due.

For starters, though my wife likes to shop, she rarely buys anything. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. Why put in all that time just to walk away empty handed? It’s one of those mysteries, like Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle. But the point is I’m lucky. I’ve witnessed many full- grown men weep over their wive’s spending habits. When my wife actually purchases something, it’s usually after a good deal of prodding from me.

Secondly she accompanies me on many activities that she does not enjoy. And she does it without producing the low, haunting moans of a humped back whale that characterize my trips to the mall. She doesn’t like Basketball. But she watches Basketball games with me. Though she enjoys reading, my habit of camping out for entire evenings at the local bookstore stretches her resolve. Still she rarely complains.

Most of the time I was too selfish to notice her sacrifices. Now looking back I can see the signs: weak smiles when I announced that date night was going to be Ta-Da! a live NBA game! I remember her eyes glazing over after hours of perusing the stacks of tomes in the Theology Section. Trips to the movie store featured another expose of my selfishness. She wanted Emma. We got Arnold.

I’m tempted to blame my “single years” for lulling me into a state of oblivion to others’ feelings, but the truth is more sinister. I just want my own way. Like a toddler clutching a toy and screaming MINE! I was letting my will run roughshod over our relationship. My wife was doing her part, making concessions and sacrifices. But I was failing to respect her wishes. With the exception of the odd shopping trip, which I ruined by whining, we did what I wanted, my way.

The Bible comes down pretty hard on selfishness. Of course I’ve always been well aware of this. Somehow since it didn’t specifically address selfishness in the context of a shopping mall, I missed the application. But the Bible’s teaching on the subject is hard to miss. “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24). “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3).

Those verses nailed the problem on the head. I had a habit of putting myself before others. I could disguise this vice while I was single. Being married brought it into sharp focus. I had to change.

I tried a few avenues to recovery. First I employed what I now call the “martyr method.” I agreed to my wife’s plans. I would even encourage her to make choices customarily made by me. Then during the activity I would revel in self-pity. It’s all about dying to self, was my self- righteous motto. We went shopping. I suffered, but in silence. We watched romances. Both our faces were wet with tears. Although the misery was delicious I wasn’t fooling anyone. We both knew my “selflessness” was disingenuous. The only sacrifice I made was to appease my overgrown ego. I was still putting myself first, just in a different way.

Then I switched to a second tactic: score keeping. Okay I would think, tonight we’ll do your thing. Tomorrow we’ll do mine. 50/50. Sure it was a tad legalistic, but it was fair. Keeping everything even was the only way to ensure my selfishness remained in check, I thought. But that didn’t work either. It was only another way of looking out for myself, making sure I could still got my way when I wanted it. Besides even when we did my things, I couldn’t enjoy myself. I was using up valuable points!

Finally I broke down and tried God’s way. This meant more than adjusting my behavior; it meant overhauling my attitude. I endeavored to truly put my wife’s interests before my own, viewing the world from her perspective and asking myself what would make her happy.

I still don’t have this mastered. I keep slipping back into my old selfish persona. Old habits die hard, if they ever die at all. But something interesting started happening as I fought this inclination. I actually started enjoying things I never thought I could enjoy. Even shopping trips weren’t all that bad.

I’m realizing that God doesn’t give us commands to make us miserable. He extends instruction because he loves us. His rules are not arbitrary; they constitute a code of love. Abandoning my selfishness not only benefited those around me, it gave me more joy as well. I’m learning that God’s peace can fill my heart no matter what I’m doing — even if it’s shopping.

Copyright 2005 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Drew Dyck

Drew Dyck is the editor of Building Church Leaders , a Christianity Today publication. He lives with his wife, Grace, in Carol Stream, Ill. , a publication. He lives with his wife, Grace, in Carol Stream, Ill.


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