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—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 done the right way. My way—with the speed and efficiency of a military operation. Alas, I may never set the agenda when my wife and I hit the mall, but I find daydreaming cathartic. So please excuse me while I switch to fantasy mode. Click.
Shopping à; la Drew
First, the shopping trip would have a clear objective. If you go to the mall before determining what you need, something odd happens. Suddenly you find out that you "need" all sorts of things, even stuff you didn't know existed! One hour of mall trudging rubberizes your legs. Two, and your torso slouches. At the three-hour mark, fatigue flashes up your spine and seizes your brain. Suddenly the line between needs and wants blurs. 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? 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 plays something like this:
Walking. Looking at clothes. Looking at clothes. More walking. Arguing. Silence. Apologizing. More arguing. Trying on clothes. Leaving store. Coming back to store. Putting clothes on hold. Walking. Weeping (me). Gnashing teeth (mine). More walking.
Well, you get the picture. Shopping causes consternation in my marriage. This took me by surprise. Just two years ago we were giddy and engaged, not even a hint of conflict on the horizon. 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. 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 wives' 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 she doesn't enjoy, and without producing the low, haunting moans of a humpback whale that characterize my trips to the mall. She doesn't like basketball, but she watches games with me. Though she enjoys reading, my habit of camping out 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 date night was going to be a live NBA game. Glazed eyes after hours of me perusing tomes in our bookstore's theology section. Trips to the movie store featured more of my selfishness: she wanted Emma; we got Arnold.
Though I'm tempted to blame my single years for my oblivion to others' feelings, the truth is more sinister: I 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.
I've always been aware the Bible comes down hard on selfishness. Perhaps since it didn't specifically address selfishness in the context of a shopping mall, I missed the application. Still, the Bible's teaching on the subject is clear: "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. I had a habit of putting myself before others. While I could disguise this voice while I was single, being married brought it into sharp focus. I had to change.
Returns and exchanges
I tried a few avenues to recovery. First, I employed what I now call the "martyr method." I agreed to my wife's plans, even encouraged her to make choices customarily made by me. Then during the activity I'd wallow in self-pity. 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'd 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 still got my way. 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 required 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 haven't mastered this. I keep slipping back into my selfish persona. Old habits die hard, if they ever die. But something interesting happened as I fought my selfish inclinations. I actually started enjoying things I never thought I could. 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 shopping.
Drew Dyck, a freelance writer, lives in California.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.