When I was a junior in college, I took part in a 10-day relief trip to Gulfport, Mississippi, with a dozen other Wheaton students. We spent our days shoveling dried mud and debris from houses that had been devastated by the floods following Hurricane Katrina. My team was surrounded , day in and day out, by horrific loss; yet, for a good number of us, it was one of the best weeks of our college experience. We actually felt guilty for laughing so much in the midst of such destruction. Those extremes of desolation and enjoyment of one another knit our group into a spontaneous and genuine community. These same people kidnapped me for a birthday bowling party 4 months later. We signed up for a business class just because one of our leaders taught it, and for the simple reason that we wanted to be together. It was a beautiful group of friends, borne of shared experiences and laughter and love.
In his book The Diving Commodity, Skye Jethani reprints an interview economist and author James Gilmore with several writers from Leadership Journal. Gilmore asserts that commerce has gone through three phases and is now in its fourth phase. The Agrarian Economy was followed by the Industrial Economy, which eventually gave way to the Service Economy. The newest economic era, according to Gilmore, is the Experience Economy. Think about it: what is Starbucks, exactly? I think it’s less about the product (coffee) than it is about the entire experience: jazz, comfy chairs, baristas who remember your name, conversations with friends, a place to play Scrabble and go on dates. I’m willing to shell out $4 for coffee because of the multi-sensory experiences there. (For the record: I’m a Caribou girl.)
I fully recognize that I am an active participant in this Experience Economy. I can’t tell you how many times someone from my group of friends in college would say to the rest, “Come on, guys. Let’s do something.” We all want to do, to see, to feel, to remember, to be humored and entertained and fed. We consume the experience of the coffee shop in a way that is perhaps more real than the physical consumption of the coffee itself.
My last couple of posts have had to do with community; it’s been on my mind, particularly because I’ve felt a lack of community in my life lately. And as I process the above thoughts on being a consumer of experiences, I have to wonder: does my hunger for experiences influence my desire for community? And if so, how? Is this lifestyle so completely ingrained in my behavior that I have become a consumer of community? Am I a consumer of relationships?
I still thank God for those ten wonderful days shoveling debris and gutting houses in Gulfport. As human beings, we are experiential people who are shaped by our circumstances and relationships and memories, and it felt like God spoke that language of shared experience when he gave us those unforgettable days together. But I think that the line between being experiential and being consumeristic can be very easily crossed. It’s the difference between enjoying something because it is good and demanding something because it meets your needs. I think. I can’t say I’ve thought through it all very well. I welcome your thoughts.