I can still see the sales rack in my mind. I can hear the hangers clanking as I fingered through the T-shirts. I can even tell you exactly where in the store I stood staring at the bright yellow and blue “3 for $18.99” sales sign.
All my clothes came via my older brother, thrift shops, or family friends. Well, except the clothes my mom made herself. So, maybe I wasn’t the most stylish kid on the block. Obviously, this sales rack meant some desperately needed style in my life. No more handmade clothes and no more hand-me-downs. This was a shot at the real thing. My homeschool co-op was going to think me the hottest kid at the science fair. Yes, I was homeschooled and my mom made my clothes. I know. I know.
This was a shot at the real thing. My homeschool co-op was going to think me the hottest kid at the science fair.
Never mind, that it was a discount retail store where I stood staring at the rack. Mom told me I could pick from that rack any three T-shirts. Three! Can you imagine that. I’d never had three new shirts ever. I could only pick from that one rack, but who cares. They were new and not made by mom. I love you, mom!
Twenty years later, I can still feel the emotional rise and joy of the moment. I touched and examined every one of those shirts. I was there for at least an hour engulfed in decision making. Looney Tunes were cool then. Well, at least I thought they were, but we’ve already discussed my level of style at the time. I got one Tasmanian Devil shirt with some sassy saying, a Daffy Duck shirt, and a Looney Tunes compilation shirt. And I wore those things for years, and I do mean years. Of all my early childhood, those shirts rank top four possessions along with a Styrofoam plane, Mario Brothers, and a Mickey Mouse that read books to me.
I’m now married, have kids, a good job. And I don’t shop at that store anymore. A class thing, I guess. Somehow, it feels below me. I’m embarrassed to even say that. I erased this paragraph like five times trying to decide if I’d even tell you this. But there it is. I think I’m too good to shop at that discount retailer.
What happened? Those shirts brought me years of joy and pride but now I’ve got a brand name shirt on. And the thing is, I’m no happier than I was twenty years ago wearing those Looney Tunes T-shirts.
The problem isn’t that I don’t have a nicer shirt, because I got that. The problem is I think that nicer shirt will make me happy.
There is a name for this. It’s called materialism. Sometimes it’s called the love of money, greed, or discontentment. Whatever we call it, I’ve got it. I find myself leaning on money and stuff for happiness. I haven’t learned to beat it yet. I’d like to be perfectly content with any financial situation. That’d be just plain contentment. I’m not. I find myself at a place I call happy discontentment. I don’t spend crazy or have a house full of stuff I don’t use, but I do carry with me this itch for more. I don’t need more, but something in me wants more. I’m happy with my life, but carry with me this discontented itch. So, I find myself at happy discontentment.
No matter how many shirts I buy or how much money I spend on those shirts, I’ve never been happier than when I got three terribly 90’s Looney Tunes T-shirts. The problem isn’t that I don’t have a nicer shirt, because I got that. The problem is I think that nicer shirt will make me happy.
More from Doug Bender
13 Reasons Why NOT: an Open Letter to My Friend Who Committed Suicide- I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back. I remember calling the next day. Your mom answered and said they couldn’t find you.
Friend or Foe: My Brain Can’t Tell the Difference- That moment sent me on a dizzying journey that eventually led to the discovery that I have a defect. My brain isn’t normal. I lack the mental ability to identify people by their face. It’s an actual thing, face blindness, they call it.
How Ashton Kutcher Saved Me from Growing a Beard- I didn’t have a topic, experience, training, or any actual plan to make this happen. I just thought one day inspiration would strike while I sipped a macchiato at some sidewalk café and out would pop a book and my hairy face would be on the back cover.