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On failure in our retail aspirations

I hope it’s not too much of a clanger to say that this post is prompted by a chat I had with George Monbiot this morning when he stopped by my stall. We were talking about how the phrase ‘retail therapy’, originally coined as a disparaging comment, gained currency and added empathy in our emotionally cluttered social environment. That’s terrible, opined George. Not at all, I said. And here’s why.

When you shop, you’re taking a punt that the thing you are buying is going to prove to be an addition to your life, a solution to a challenge, nourishment, a bringer of opportunity… any or all of those things. We come at these circumstances as the uncertain and unclear persons we all are, engaging sometimes with genuinely courageous endeavour. We might be having a truly horrendous day, but we go on. We buy that tool, and we hope we can get the thing to work. It’s a tiny moment of heroism.

And then it goes wrong. Your lover was not impressed by the love token you were hoping would resolve a petty squabble. The sleeves are too short on your jacket and you threw the receipt away too soon in a premature expression of victory. You look like Grotbags in green nail varnish and the fascinator makes you look like you’ve escaped from a 50s asylum. It’s gone way, way wrong.

Shopping as part of an internal conversation is a bad thing, is it? Not at all. That conversation may have been the best part. It could even be the silver lining on an act that was, OK, so maybe it was a bit stupid. That conversation, where we engaged at our best with our doubt and uncertainty, hopeful to our last tenner, was the moment when the Thing really did have worth. We should be benign with ourselves in the face of this.

And now my declutterer’s role comes into play. My client is in front of me, ashamed that a fluffy 6 foot monstrosity is kicking around, getting in the way, and they feel they can’t get rid of it. When Halloween comes, they can’t find the green nail varnish, but you can be sure they trod on the bottle and hurt their arch at some point. They’re going to fix the fascinator. One day. And the jacket’s fine in the dark when you stoop a bit. Really. And it cost a fair bit!

Let us return to that moment when you stood with your heart in your hand and gave the vendor the tenner, and took ownership of the fluffy thing. With your earnestness absolutely embroidered on its tummy, you rocked! Actually, Richard Curtis couldn’t have done better. And as all the movers and shakers of the world know, doing something you’ve never done before carries with it an unavoidable risk of failure. Failure comes with the turf, when you’re doing anything worthwhile.

So here’s my pitch.

Have that courageous conversation with yourself. Call it ‘retail therapy’ if you must. Flash the cash. Fail, if indeed you have. And if so, say to yourself:

“I give myself permission to try and fail.”

Then… donate the bear. And the fascinator, and the varnish, and the incredibly expensive jacket, to a charity shop of your choosing. You’ve taken the emotional hit, borne the bad ethical karma and lost out on a fair bit of cash. That’s bad enough. What you don’t need is to have any truck with is the shame of failure. Cut your losses, and concede that was a bad idea. Don’t spend any more any energy feeling bad about it. When you shop next time, fail better.

The stuff is now living its ‘life after you’. Today, someone with slightly shorter arms than you, is feeling very good about their reflection in the mirror, because they paid a fraction of what you did and they’re now oozing with good karma. A nine year old (okay, so, ahem…) is ecstatic about the latest addition to their colossal varnish collection. Every woman between the age of 20 and 75 who went into the charity shop that day tried on the fascinator and had a chuckle, because it’s true it does belong in a 50s asylum. One day a theatrical entrepreneur will buy it on a whim. And… message to the world, noone wants one of those bears, OK? It’ll look great in a charity shop window display. Where it should stay.

So – declutter and donate. Embrace the heroic entrepreneur who took a punt and lost out. There is life to come. Let go of the idea that keeping the thing will somehow stop it being a disaster, and give new life to yourself and your waste.

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