Well-dressed suburbanites stride purposefully past stores with cute names such as "wicks and Sticks," The "Compleat Cook," "Shirts to Go", "The Gap" and my favorite, the “Sunglass Hut". (Imagine a whole store devoted to sunglasses in a community which doesn't see the sun from October through April.)
Their faces show no emotion, only a strained blankness that you would expect on someone who has just watched his tenth football game over New Year's weekend. Eyes do not meet other eyes but flit from side to side glimpsing the endless shop windows with flashing signs and lights calling attention to costly merchandise which seems to beg, "Buy me, quick!"
It's a buying frenzy! "Hurry before it’s too late." "I have to get mine." It's as if ownership of the latest I-Phone, gadget, sweater or pair of jeans will fill the heart's emptiness. It’s is as if the mall is here to provide meaning to life.
With all the stuff that man creates and all the symbols of affluence displayed so openly, why does everyone look so sad? Something is not working.
Finding a place to sit in a mall is difficult. The management wants you to be up and about running around buying. The air is filled with the sound of a thousand voices all talking at once. Occasionally one single voice could be heard over the din but It was hard to tell if it was a real voice or the Memorex playing through a video store demo. Now and then a shrill voice was heard angrily reprimanding a wide-eyed child who stopped too long at the toy store window. Such is the mall on a Sunday afternoon three weeks before Christmas.
Architecture inside is full of sharp edges, no smooth nor rounded corners. The overall configuration is such that you can not see for more than a hundred feet in any one direction giving the impression of a small group of shops closely located. But then as you walk through you come to another cluster of shops. The exits are somewhat hidden and almost everything is provided so you can spend the entire day here. Restaurants and fast food stands provide varieties of choices from all over the world, and seven movie theaters offer additional reasons not to leave.
Inside the mall, everything is beautiful and clean. But what is real? Sniffing the.air is a dead giveaway. There is no smell of pine branches from the Christmas wreaths and trees. They are all imitation. With all the fast food establishments, there is no smell of burning grease. With all the people, there is no the smell of people, Giant air handling systems clean and purify the air lest it offend. A cleaning woman with her disinfectant bottles comes by and sprays and wipes the trash can before it is even dirty. The entire ambiance is one of sterile luxury.
Then we began to notice that many of the people in the mall had not come to shop, but to escape for a time from their lonely and dreary life and its associated problems. Buying was only an excuse to pretend for a while that the world was exciting and glamorous. A group of mentally challenged adults gathered at the exit, empty-handed, anxiously awaiting their bus to return to their group home.
Sitting and watching people has always been an interesting pastime while waiting for Rita to do her shopping. If you sit quietly and do not look busy you will attract people who just want company. They will come and want to talk.
One year while sitting in this same mall my wife struck up a conversation with a widow who had just lost her husband. She invited her to our house for Christmas dinner. Sure enough, she was the first to come and the last to leave. We were able to share our hospitality and our Lord with her. She had just come to the mall to get out of her house for a little while.
For all their glitter and beauty, malls are filled with lonely people searching for meaning in their lives. Some come looking for stuff that might satisfy the loneliness and make them feel good. Others come to get away from their humdrum lives.
Since that time at SeaTac Mall over twenty years ago, Every Chrismas season, I try to spend some time at a mall, just sitting - not busy with my electronic devices - just looking interested. Invariably someone will come and sit down next to me and want to talk. Mostly I will just listen and nod interestedly. After a while I will go home, feeling the warm of being reinspired by my visit to the crowded, noisy mall.
If you want to give a present to someone you do not know and get a whole new outlook to this Holiday season, spend time in a mall just being available, open and caring. Jesus did not sit in His house or the synagogue all day, he went where the hurting people were. Should we do less?
Give the gift that just keeps giving: Yourself.