Black Friday Blues

ahhhhh!!!!

Today is black Friday. Already there are reports of Americans behaving like animals. Somehow the promise of an extra 5% off turns people in savages. This day sickens me with its hype, materialism, and sheer gluttony. What’s worse, it follows a great American holiday based on thankfulness and sharing.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s uniquely American and celebrates our abundance and ability to share abundance. Families come together to break bread. Friends swap their best recipes. Thousands of people volunteer their goods and time to make sure those who usually go without, do not go without. It’s a grand example of how good we can be, in the face of poverty, brokenness, and even disaster.

I’m not homeless… I just really want another 60 inch TV!

Then at the stroke of midnight, we forget everything we celebrated the day before. People wait in the cold and rain to make sure they get the $175 HD flatscreen TV. People stampede for $50 smart phones. In total, it’s expected that $586 billion will be spent on material crap. Even though studies show that this crap doesn’t even make us happier!

When my wife and I served in Peace Corps, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Transylvania. A baker’s dozen volunteers descended into a small village with hard to find American confections like pumpkin pie, cheddar cheese, turkey with stuffing, and more. We came together for friendship, solidarity, and homesickness. We invited Romanian (and Hungarian) neighbors to share in our feast. The best part was explaining Thanksgiving.

We told them it wasn’t a religious or nationalist holiday. It was a day we set aside to give thanks for family, friends, and abundance. We celebrate with food and drink, laughter and comradery. None of us in the small house knew each other very well. But we were all far from home and thankful for what we had. Especially after two years living and working in a country that was still developing. Our Romanian and Hungarian counterparts thought this was a fascinating and wonderful idea. I agree with them.

word.

To me, Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday season. We are supposed to channel peace on Earth and goodwill to men. Rooted in Christian thought, it celebrates that the savior has been born. A savior that preached things like “do unto others as you would have done unto you” and “whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Now, I am no longer a Christian, but these are still concepts that I respect and want to perpetuate.

It disturbs me that this season is kicked off with a giant monetary sacrifice to the great god of consumerism. We sacrifice our dignity, civility, and humanity just to save a few extra dollars. Which incidentally allows us spend even more money on more stuff!

I understand how important this day is for a struggling economy. However, I do not believe we (as a nation) should be dependent on constantly escalating consumption. It’s like taking poison in hopes of curing a disease. It perpetuates our debt, increases our waste, and doesn’t benefit anybody but the 1%. Plus, it forces people to work long, odd hours, keeping them from celebrating with their families.

This holiday season, do me a favor and rethink your gifts and spending. Instead of buying the latest and greatest i-product, use that money to help relieve suffering and poverty. Save the money and invest it in a socially responsible organization or mission. My wife and I don’t buy presents anymore. Instead, we make donations to organizations in the names of friends and family. It really is a gift that keeps on giving.  Don’t you think we could always use a little more peace and goodwill and less selfishness and greed? Let’s make it happen!

A case for charity.

Give a little, get a little.

Charity. Noun: The voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need. Help or money given in this way.

My parents did a good job of raising me to be a man of charity; it was through action rather than words. Following their example, I also give out of my excess (time, money, food) to those who need it. I do it without fanfare and not because of some heavenly reward. I just believe generosity is the right thing to do. I want the society I live in to be a “pay it forward” society. I also do it because people do it for me all the time.

to all you charitable people…

Over the last week, no fewer than 4 people have shown me acts of charity. Two gave me car rides home (without me asking), one bought me coffee, and another let me out of work early. These are small, almost insignificant acts. But they were done spontaneously, which is what makes the difference. These were random acts of kindness that made my life a little easier, brighter, and in the case of car rides home, significantly less wet.

However, charity has become a dirty word in society. People on the margins are called “charity cases” and people who give charity “bleeding hearts.” I can understand being disillusioned. A lot of people are selfish, rude and downright ungrateful. It’s always easier to blame people for needing charity, just ask Mitt RomneyI say be charitable to them anyways.

nobody likes being the weakest link…

An action that makes another person’s life easier should be a good thing. Especially if it was done spontaneously with no recompense required. I believe charity’s negative connotation happened when we started to equate charity with weakness. People who need it are weak. People who give it are weak. If I learned anything as an American, it’s that our culture despises all forms of weakness; physical, psychological, and emotional. We have a perspective that says “if you can’t help yourself, why should I help you?” This wasn’t always the case.

why can’t we have posters like this anymore?

For my parents, charity was a religious and civic duty. For my grandparents, it was a way of life. It was American to help your fellow citizen and to make sacrifices for community and country. It seemed that our objective in the past was to raise up those who were weak, so they could be strong. Now I feel that many Americans look with disdain on “weakness.” I believe this happened slowly as consumerism and materialism became more prominent as a judge of success, and success became equal to goodness. Accumulation of wealth became more important than accumulation of relationships; we forgot how important charity was to our cultural ethic. It helped connect us to the rest of our community, reminding us that we are only as good as our weakest friend.

true story

Paying it forward reminds me not to give into selfishness. People in my life are constantly doing good works for me. Instead of paying them back, I pass their kindness on. My hope is that by making another person’s day a little better, I set in motion a chain of events that will make a whole bunch of other people’s day better. It may be a naive belief, but I’ve seen it in action. This is why charity is not weakness; it is a conduit of moving people to become strong.

What choice(s) do I have?

Yes, it sometimes feels like this…

I am an American consumer. I have no little choice in the matter. There are extreme options for living off the grid, but I live in a big city (Seattle).  Therefore, I must do as the Seattlites do. I try to make intelligent, conscientious consumer choices: buying second hand, buying local, buying independent. However, these choices are difficult at best. Many supposedly healthy, organic, responsible brands are owned and operated by large multi-national corporations who have more compassion for the bottom line than for environmental or human health.

It’s like that scene in the Shining… but on everything…

This really frustrates me. Due to my choices (mostly, a car and electronics) I have at least 36 slaves working for me. I fully acknowledge the things I buy are tainted. It’s because I demand cheap goods that will satisfy me immediately. It’s because I don’t grow my own food or make my own clothing. It’s also because tainted goods are the only choices corporations and companies offer me. Or I could remove myself completely from the consumer loop and become a recluse.

Ideas anyone? Bueller… Bueller…?

The thought isn’t so bad, except I really like movies, cheeseburgers, beer, video games, refrigeration, modern medicine, owning a car, and the interwebs. Modern life in the United States can be awesome, amazing, and wonderful!

There has to be a better way.  Few things in life are this black and white. Change has to come from both sides–manufacturer and consumer. I must demand my goods be slave free and ethically sound. I have to accept that these goods will eventually cost more. Corporations must wake up and realize human beings have an inherent dignity and the Earth can’t be raped until there is nothing left. If I can have fair trade coffee and conflict free diamonds, why can’t I have blood free electronics and transparent labeling?

These are your only choices… forever…

Google and some other companies are on the right track. There are alternatives for those of us who can afford them. But I worry about are people who can’t afford (or access) these choices. Millions of people can ONLY shop at WalMart and eat at McDonalds. Economics dictate their food and goods. Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and the little hipster organic shop on the corner don’t exist in their neighborhoods and are too expensive for their budgets. In a country that prides itself on freedom and choice, millions of people have no alternative but depend on goods bound to human slavery and environmental atrocities.

Power to the people!

So what is an American consumer to do?  Start with consumer choices. Nothing will be 100% guilt free, but I have been buying better. Heather and I have scaled back how MUCH we buy in lieu of the QUALITY in what we buy. When we can, we frequent farmers markets. We walk to work. We don’t own a TV. We cook our own food. We buy clothes second hand. We make choices to go without, rather than participate in.

We also gear our investments in portfolios and organizations which work towards just environmental, economic, and employment practices. These investments may not have better returns, but the ethic is more important. Also, I speak up on corporate social media pages and participate in local and national government… I demand policies and laws that take the environment and human rights into account.

Trust this guy.

Gandhi’s words will forever be true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Change is difficult and comes at a sacrifice; it means discomfort, delay of reward, or just saying no. But I believe it’s worth all this and more to achieve as much of a slave free and environmentally sustainable world as we can get. It is happiness and health for the long run.