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Time To Say Good Buy?

Ken Nesmith

The shopping season is upon us, or perhaps more accurately, is on top of us, doing its best to squeeze any last bit of meaning out of the Christmas holiday. This year, November 23 marked the infamous Black Friday, named so because it is on this day that most retailers move from red ink to black on the strength of post-Thanksgiving sales. Americans everywhere, after an exhausting day of giving thanks, awaken bright and early -- or for the professionals, predawn and early -- to go shopping after a trying, multiple-hour withdrawal from the mall. It is revolting in a way, this month-long episode of exceptionally gluttonous consumption. A large percentage of annual retail sales occur during this short period, making it the economic engine of the retail industry, fueled by a potent blend of materialism and greed and supercharged by billions of advertising dollars designed solely to shift our states of mind towards further purchasing.

This brief period is an economic and business phenomenon; it is discussed and forecast with the same attention to technical detail as world financial markets. We, the consumers, in turn feel it is all but our duty to support this perverted stilt that supports the American retail economy. The slew of growth forecasts, consumer confidence measurements, and retail sales predictions indicate more than their names suggest: they tell us in no uncertain terms that the simple act of giving a gift to those who are important in our lives is now only another cog in the surging mechanistic behemoth that is unchecked global capitalism.

There is nothing inherently unethical about consumption, although problems born of the inconvenient restraints imposed by earth’s finite resources are developing concerning conventional patterns of linear, unsustainable consumption, whereby raw materials are inefficiently converted to unrecycled waste and rapidly discarded products. There are further problems to be found in analyses of the skewed global supply chain that through a brutal combination of market forces and selectively promoted market distortions brings us a glut of products fabricated in hellish conditions akin to indentured servitude. However, during this season, investigating the psychology of our role as consumers is more relevant, or at least more manageable, than these global issues.

Consumption becomes poisonously problematic when it is treated as an end rather than a means. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happens during the modern Christmas season, and for some, the non-Christmas season as well. Consumption is now treated as an end in itself, as a set of purchase quotas we’re obligated to fill. For some, it is a hobby, and a form of relief and relaxation. This season brings the entire population, or at least the entire moneyed population, into the shopping game. The focus of these thirty days, lumped between Thanksgiving (a holiday dedicated to giving thanks for our innumerable blessings) and any of several winter celebrations, be it Hanukkah if you’re Jewish, Winter Solstice if you’re bitterly secular, Kwanzaa if you’re creative, and Christmas if you’re Christian, or just live here, has been undeniably twisted away from the foundations of either of the holidays that mark its endpoints. Jesus, whose nominal birthday remains the primary cause for the holiday judging by the prevalence of proclamations of “Merry Christmas,” versus any other competing proclamation, declared the poor to be blessed, and asked his followers to abandon their possessions and follow him. The sentiment is not limited to Christianity. The world’s major religions, the paths by which humans have historically sought meaning and happiness in life, not only emphasize that happiness is not to be found in material goods, but suggest that it is actually desirable to abandon the destructive pursuit of material gain. Such a pursuit is irrevocably tied to an unhealthy state of being entailing greed, envy, and mental unrest. The hollow thrill of consumption so familiar to us right now cannot lead to any meaningful contentedness.

That is the lie of unhealthy consumption: that it brings happiness. Without resorting to an analysis of world religions and the meaning of life, this is nonetheless apparent in examining even the most half-hearted inventory of what’s “really important in life.” Such an exercise reveals for us where our true values lie in family, friends, service, religion, or other pursuits centered around personal growth and maturation within our communities, families, and selves.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the forceful hand of pain or tragic loss to open our eyes to what we should have learned from the guides of both social history and personal experience. It is telling that, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, consumption fell to a standstill as Americans everywhere were shaken from the shallow cesspools of consumer culture and bloodily reminded to take stock of the important parts of their lives. Such tragedies tend to remind us wholeheartedly of what we consider important, and somehow, useless gadgetry from Best Buy, generic style from J.Crew, and assorted crap from Walk-Mart do not manage to top our lists.

Those days saw a brief return to simplicity; even the Wall Street Journal, the vanguard of modern capitalism, made similar note on its front page following the attacks.

Perhaps in the interest of making steps towards a stronger society, we could set for ourselves the goal of focusing very strongly on the people and relationships we celebrate at this time of year as we find gifts to give to one another.

Deliberately turning our minds away from products and towards people would be a strong start in building a global economy more respectful of its human participants worldwide. More immediately, for a nation recently awakened to the reality of pain and loss, it would keep in our minds the importance of friends, family, and loved ones, and would certainly make for quite a merrier Christmas.