Posted on January 17, 2012


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Something about shopping turns grown men and women into two year-olds.

This is what I’ve learned during my retail career at a sports department store chain.** If you want to see a fully developed human person shed their maturity like a shirt on fire, put them in a retail shopping situation and watch as toddlerhood takes control.

** rhymes with Mick’s Snorting Foods.

It doesn’t matter who a person is in real life, either. Forget having a Master’s degree, forget being a grandparent, forget being the CEO of something. Department stores are like Las Vegas. People go in with self-respect and dignity, and leave having done at least three things they’re ashamed of.

We’re in the Christmas season right now, which affords me a front row seat to view this phenomenon. I’m like one of those undercover videographers for National Geographic. Crouched by the foosball tables and lacrosse shorts, here’s what my camera picks up: as customers approach the merchandise, my microphone registers the audible ‘click’ of their pupils dilating at the speed of light, and I witness the moment when they become Abu in the Cave of Wonders. A preschool impulse has hijacked the wheel of their brain: touch everything right now.

Did you buy that product? You didn’t? Then why is it torn out of the packaging and thrown on the floor? And what is it doing twenty eight feet away from the aisle it came from? Also: legally, I’m not allowed to accuse you of stealing. But I can say that your backpack was flat when you entered the store, and now it looks like it could ride in the back of Santa’s sleigh. We noticed that.

This would make sense if we weren’t talking about adults, but about the Youth Of America, whose still-developing tween brains are not yet capable of processing complex inputs like ‘Don’t touch that.’ I personally blame their music, which, in having more beeps than Dennis Miller doing stand-up on The 700 Club, sounds like R2-D2 being electrocuted.

Still, the majority of retail customers are nice people, especially when they’re distracting you while their friends steal batting gloves. These talks are 90% of my customer interaction, but they’re my favorites. I love being freed from the usual ‘shopper-employee’ dynamic, the one characterized by their demands to know why a 50% off coupon from Hobby Lobby won’t also work in our store, as well as my flirtation with the line between ‘excellent customer service’ and ‘kind of lying’. Instead, we’re just two people shooting the breeze and getting to know each other until the theft is complete. Usually, they just want to talk about why we don’t have any Reggie Bush jerseys.

A lot of people have noticed this, that there’s nothing but Green Bay apparel in our store. No Reggie Bush jerseys, true, but if you want eight different varieties of Aaron Rodgers gear**, including authentic, game-worn pajamas, you’re in luck. The reason for this, of course, is that we’re in Wisconsin- and not just ‘in Wisconsin’, but ‘in Wisconsin during a time when the last time the Packers lost was over a calendar year ago’.

**- As a Bears fan, it tortures me that the last time Green Bay had something less than an elite quarterback, I was 10 years old, and the next time I will be at least 40. I think I gave myself a bleeding ulcer just thinking about it.

The downside of this lack of product diversity is that we have to occasionally turn away customers looking for non-Packer merchandise while also having whole aisles stocked with Clay Matthews pillow dolls. But the upside is that, by preventing people from buying the jersey of whichever other teams are successful at the moment, we’re discouraging bandwagon fans.

Bandwagon fans infuriate us. The normal course of fandom is to choose one team, then to live and die with that team until, well, you die yourself. But a bandwagon fan ignores that unspoken rule- they float from successful team to successful team, always arriving just in time for a championship to happen, then disembarking just as that original team’s run is losing steam.

Diehard fans can say that they hate bandwagon fans because they’re always around for the good times, but never for the bad. That strikes at our basic sense of justice. It feels unfair for someone who just showed up to get the same joy from a winning season as someone who suffered with a team for years. They didn’t pay their dues, we think, so why should they be allowed to enjoy the spoils of victory?

But there is a deeper reason why bandwagon fans make us angry: they mock the choice that diehard fans have made. That “one team/one life” thing may be a rule, but it’s not an enforceable one. Nobody has to abide by it if they don’t want to. Diehards choose to follow it, for better and worse. But if someone does decide to be a bandwagon fan, guess what they get? They get to enjoy the ecstasies of the sports-following life and never feel the miseries of losing. And it’s a life that diehards, by virtue of their choice to be one-team fans, will never experience.

Economists call this phenomenon ‘opportunity cost’. Opportunity cost is a concept that describes the relationship between valuable resources and choice. With an opportunity, choosing one thing necessarily excludes something else, or multiple somethings. For example, if a person chooses to become an economist over a TV weatherman, that person’s opportunity cost is ‘actually having to make an accurate prediction sometimes.’

Another good example is my current home of Madison, WI.** Madison enjoys a somewhat- well deserved reputation for being anti-big business and pro-granola baking Communism. I say ‘well deserved’ because, when Starbucks opened a franchise in the local hipster-chic shopping enclave, Madisonites revolted by launching bricks through its front window for eight consecutive days. I say ‘somewhat’ because those bricks were not fair-trade.

**- Here’s why Madison is adorable, aside from the fact that, on the third day I lived here, the local news led with a story about a dog getting caught in a bear trap. My hometown of Louisville, KY has both a population of roughly a million people and a raging, raging inferiority complex. By contrast, Madison-at one fifth that size- has a massive God complex. No town in America has such a disproportionate understanding of their place on the national radar. Example- Time magazine recently wrote a cover story about protesting, didn’t mention Madison once- and Madison was pissed. Coming here from Louisville was like breaking up with Jan Brady and then buying season tickets to Notre Dame football.

But my point is that Madison’s reaction to Starbucks perfectly illustrates, albeit with organic crayons and rainforest-free pencils, the way that opportunity cost works. Madison reacted in anger because they know that buying a latte from Starbucks is mutually exclusive to buying from a local vendor. That transaction ain’t coming back. It’s lost, gone, down the memory hole. One more steal for corporate America.

On a purely economic level, opportunity cost may not fire our imagination. But philosophically, this idea of mutual exclusivity has relevance for us. In our lives, we’re very aware that, in choosing to do Option X over Option Y, we lose the opportunity to pursue Option Y. Sometimes we can make peace with this dynamic. We’re ok with the choices we’ve made and the life paths they’ve left behind. The worst we can say is that maybe we chose the wrong sports team, or, in the city of Cleveland’s case, the wrong teams chose them.

But sometimes that peace evaporates. In those moments, the lostness of those left-behind lives weighs on us. The career we wanted and lost touch with. That relationship we should have chased. The big move that we never took. The conversation that never happened. In those moments, we feel the rumbling of opportunity cost in our heart, like a train barreling past our station, headed for the opposite direction our ticket is stamped for.

Our go-to Bible story for opportunity cost is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. It’s not the easiest text to understand- after finishing his book Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard actually invented Existentialism just to think about something less confusing. And it’s a favorite of preachers everywhere looking to score some easy guilt points (“Do you love anything more than the Lord? ANYTHING?” etc.)

In the story, God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to make Isaac, Abraham’s son, a burnt offering to Him. Abraham obliges and takes Isaac on the three day journey to Mount Moriah. It begins this way:

…“Abraham!” God called.

“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”

“Take your son, your only son- yes, Isaac, whom you love so much- and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.” (Gen 22:2, italics mine)

Right from the top of the story, it’s clear that God wants Abraham thinking about opportunity cost. He doesn’t reassure Abraham by saying, “Take your son- remember, the one through whom I promised to give you many descendents, and whose birth happened against incredible odds, just like I said it would.”

Instead, he tells Abraham this: “Take your son… your only son- yes, Isaac, who you love so much.”

It’s a loaded sentence. God emphasizes both Isaac’s economic scarcity (“only”son) and his identity (“Yes, Isaac…”, using his name to reinforce for Abraham the stakes of the decision- Abraham will lose his joy, his ‘laughter’, as Isaac’s name means).

He says those words not to Abraham the mega-saint, but Abraham the man- the man who once impregnated his servant and twice pretended that his wife was his sister, in both cases because he didn’t believe God would keep His promise to give Abraham a son and prosper that son’s offspring.

And God tells Abraham this, not at the top of the mountain, but at the bottom- before the trip started, even. Hiking is a great pastime, if a bit pricey- budget-conscious hobbyists often choose a pursuit with less expensive gear, like amateur space flight- and it’s so much fun that our Native American friends sometimes hiked for years at a time, often without North Face jackets.

One of hiking’s absolute truths is this: Mountains take awhile to climb. Expertise can’t change that. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done the John Muir Trail from start to finish, or just the Tailgate Trail from cornhole board to beer pong table. Either this is 2480 A.D and you’re teleporting, or you’re walking up there.

I mention all that as a counterweight. Because Abraham is in the Faith Hall of Fame, we sometimes gloss over this part of the story, this three day road. We assume that the trip was some kind of quick jaunt up a stained glass road towards Abraham’s beatification. But we would do well to remember that Abraham was also a man like us, and the climb up the mountain lasted for three days.

And so, as Abraham hiked, God’s words echoed in the amphitheatre of his mind, morning and night sounding against parts of Abraham both faithful and faithless up to the very moment he drew the knife. Perhaps like this:

The next morning Abraham got up early.” (v. 3)

Take Isaac up the mountain, Abraham.

…he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out…” (v. 3)

Isaac, whose name is the laughter in your life.

So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife.” (v. 6)

Isaac, the irreplaceable. The unique.

…the boy said, ‘[W]here is the sheep for the burnt offering?’”(v. 7)

The child you waited your whole life for.

‘God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son’ Abraham answered.” (v. *)

Your greatest treasure, Abraham.

Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood.(v. 9)

The thing you love most in this world, Abraham.

And Abraham picked up the knife…(v. 10)

The only one. Your son.

At the decisive moment, the Lord’s angel steps in and halts the proceedings. Abraham’s attention is drawn to a thicket where a ram is caught in the brambles. God has provided a sacrifice in Isaac’s place. Abraham’s faith is rewarded. Isaac is saved.

Because we feel opportunity cost so deeply, it makes sense that we would want to understand God’s relationship to our choices. That desire goes far beyond the academic tedium of the “sovereignty vs. freedom” debate. It comes from further inside, from the place of knowing that our decisions have sometimes ruled out opportunities we dearly wish they had not, and wanting to know what God does with them.

God redeems Abraham’s choice to kill Isaac by trapping a ram in the thicket on Mt. Moriah- that famous ram which foreshadows Jesus’ future atoning death. It’s interesting to note how God respects Abraham’s freedom in the encounter. He doesn’t rewind time just when Abraham goes to plunge the dagger, saying “I just wanted to make sure you would actually do it! You’re good!” Instead, God enters into the scene as it is playing out, stops it, and then provides the means to change the story.

Improvisational theatre is guided by the principle of ‘Yes, and’. When working together, improv actors never say ‘no’ to another actor’s contribution. Instead, they are trained to say ‘yes’ to the idea (by accepting the new premise into the scene), and to react to it with an idea of their own. With ‘Yes, and’ as a safety net, entire shows can build from the knowledge that, no matter what idea is proposed, fellow performers will always accept it and build on it.

Opportunity cost is the language of our panicked realization that our choices have consequences, sometimes permanent ones. But “Yes, and” is the language of God’s redemptive relationship to those choices. Jesus is God’s greatest redemptive “and”. When sin entered the world through Adam and Eve’s decision, God said both “Yes”- not approving of the choice, but accepting it- then “and”, introducing Jesus to the stage. “Yes, and”. The opportunity cost of saying yes to sin- permanent separation from God- is paid by God’s dramatic addition. We can have two mutually exclusive choices after all. Redemption.

That redemptive stance is part of God’s identity- as applicable to our little lives as it is to the whole world. As with Abraham, God allows our lives to happen as we choose, saying “Yes” to them- but also “and”. Those “and’s” are His redemptive additions to the scenes of our life, rams-in-the-thicket for all of us to shows that our choices are not beyond either His power or interest. “I will repay the years that the locusts have eaten…” (Joel 2:25)

With Abraham and Isaac, God tipped his hand that He is a bandwagon kind of God- so steadfast in his love for us that He would let us have our choices, but also redeem them as well. Unless we choose to follow Cleveland sports, that is. Those guys are screwed.

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