Menlo Park Mall in Edison, New Jersey is one of the last places I wanted to be on a Wednesday night during Advent. And yet, I spent nearly three hours there tonight while our 16-year-old shopped for a winter coat and some clothes for upcoming Christmas parties. I spent most of my time sitting in the food court and contemplating what Monseigneur Luigi Giussani called "the domination of preconception, the tyranny of prejudice."
You see, the mall visit shattered a lot of my preconceptions and consequently brought me gift I did not foresee.
Once upon a time, I was a retail reporter, an odd occupation for a woman with an aversion to shopping. I'm not fond of crowds, especially at malls, which are windowless, airless and feel sealed off from what I consider "real life," things like changing skies, shopkeepers I know by name. So I approached my job as a cultural anthropologist: what drives us to shop? And then I wondered: Why is it usually men sitting outside the mall shops on those benches, waiting for wives or girlfriends to finish spending money? I discovered marketing studies document how men and women shop differently. I shop like a man. I see shopping like a military maneuver; have a target, get in, grab the target and leave. Most women, on the other hand, see shopping as an experience. They like to dawdle, browse and linger.
So that is reason #1 I am not a mall person and didn't want to go to the mall tonight. Reason #2 is it's Advent and I am trying to focus on the religious, not consumer, nature of the season. And I am trying to shop locally, not at chain stores.
But then there is my son, the son who has been asking me for something like a month to take him shopping for a winter coat and for some new clothes, which he does need. He is a patient boy. I kept putting him off. He waited. He did not complain.
Finally, I promised him I would take him tonight and I did, even though what I wanted and felt that I needed most after pulling into our driveway after a long, slightly difficult day teaching, was a nap. I was mistaken. Sometimes, what we think we need is just a way to shut out reality.
I was struck, when we arrived at the mall, at how pretty it was: the Fortunoff store at the entrance had dozens of beautifully lit trees and inside the mall it was clean, and sparkly and shining with lights.
My first stop was for dinner in the food court. I encountered a friend from our former parish with two of her teenaged sons. As my son went off to shop, she and I chatted over dinner about her eldest son and his plans for life after high school. It was wonderful to reconnect.
Later, I felt an unexpected and overwhelming sense of peace as I walked through the mall later and watched families with young children. People looked happy to be there. I was humbled and happy about the disconnect between my preconceptions and the reality in front of me at the mall.
Giussani, who founded the ecclesiastical movement Communion and Liberation, encourages people to take a good look at how they are living day by day.
"Starting with oneself means to observe one's own movements, taken off guard, within his or her daily experience. Hence the 'material' of our starting point will not be any sort of preconception about or artificial image of oneself, or even a definition of oneself, perhaps borrowed from current ideas and the dominant ideology."
I could not have expected at the start of a long day that a trip to the mall would end up feeling like an Advent gift from the One who made us.