Gobble Gobble


The title of this post is the conventional sound made by turkeys before they are processed and served up on Thanksgiving tables. But this odd sound seems to be drowned out by the metaphorical gobbling up of merchandise taking place on and immediately after Thanksgiving Day. It has been serious enough in recent times but promises to get even louder this year, says the NYTimes.

There was an outcry last year when some retailers opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, with workers and shoppers saying the holiday should be reserved for family, not spent lining up for the start of the Christmas shopping season. This year, retailers are responding to the criticism by opening even earlier on Thanksgiving evening — and a handful are even planning to be open all day. The lesson of 2011 was clear: earlier shopping hours were good for the top line.

I can picture some stores offering turkey sandwiches when they open early on Thanksgiving Day so that the customers can gobble up the goods while “celebrating” the day. Even those gathering at home with families are gobbling down dinner, while squirming in their seats thinking only about when the stores will open this year.

Once again, our paeans to the God of consumption trumps other values. Caring comes only at a price these days. Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, is subtitled, “The Moral Limits of Markets.” I am not talking here about moral limits, but about humanity, itself. The historical meaning of Thanksgiving is clear in its name, giving thanks. But thanks for what? Thanks for the bounty of the fields; thanks for the love of family; thanks for the support of neighbors; thanks to all that contributed to whatever flourishing still lingered in one’s memory on that day. Thanks is simply an acknowledgement of the care provided by others. If you place a bubble around all involved at the table, the care expressed there is (and has to be) reciprocal; as much must be given as received.

Our humanity is measured, not by the goods we own, but about the quality and completeness of our caring. Flourishing, the medium of sustainability, comes to human beings only when they live a life of caring. I speak of this not in some moralistic sense, but in an existential sense; we are not fully human beings unless we exercise in our daily lives care for the world we inhabit. I know I sound like a broken record whenever I write this way, but the quote from the NYTimes above reminds me (and I hope my readers) how far away we are from this realization. The being of other entities in the world is different from that of our species. They simply exist. We also exist, but have a unique consciousness of the world that allows us to act intentionally in all of our interactions with that world. We “think” about what we do, beyond simply reacting via some sort of instinctual mechanism.

When we act out of love, or I say care, we are consciously or unconsciously accepting and respecting the right of the object of our intentions to exist on its own terms. The source of my understanding of love is Humberto Maturana. For him, love is fundamentally a verb, referring to actions taking place in a domain of interactions when each actor consensually recognizes the legitimacy of (right to) the other to exist as they are in the world. He generally refers to human beings who live in language, but this definition also works for non-human entities that we also must care for in order to become fully human and to flourish. These non-human entities cannot speak to us in our own languages but reciprocate in other ways. The awe and beauty of the world needs no words to express its care for us.

Maturana’s love is an emotion as well as a way of action, but not the kind of affective feeling we normally attribute to love or to other emotions. Emotions, for him, are more like the everyday sense of moods, general dispositions that create the internal context for and guide the actions we take. If we are grumpy, our actions signal how we are feeling. If we are in an assertive mood, our actions tend to be dominating. When our mood is that of love, our actions reflect our acceptance of the existential legitimacy of the object/person at the other end of our interaction. Since the mood precedes the action, love in Maturana’s sense is always “at first sight.” For him, we do not fall in love; falling is a way of speaking that implies that love is something that happens after an event, like gazing upon something beautiful.

Maturana argues, from his biological roots, that love is the most fundamental human emotion. It is the emotion that accompanies wholeness and other properties that I bundle into “flourishing.” I generally use the word care instead of love, but they are very close in meaning. I am always a little uncomfortable to speak of love because of its usual romantic connotations. There is nothing romantic about love in this sense. Where Maturana claims love is what makes us human, I argue it is care that serves this purpose. In either case, flourishing rests on living one’s life out of love or care; love, if one is a biologist of Maturana’s persuasion; care, if one is, like me, persuaded by Heidegger and other philosophers. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is only if we love or care.

Caring in a crass, materialistic world takes tremendous effort. Our bodies incorporate many different emotions that determine our general behavior. We know that these get triggered by our circumstances. The emotion we call anger arises in circumstances where someone’s actions have triggered a memory of a former situation that we had assessed as uncalled for and as some sort of assault on our “space.” We respond in a certain way and then explain, if asked, that we were angry. When we have lived our whole life in a culture where “caring” is measured either by things or transactions, the basic emotion of love gets squelched. Maturana argues that we we stop coming from love, we become ill. Perhaps this can partially explain the dramatic increase in mental illness found in the US.

Transactions are actions taking place in the market. They are momentary, relative to caring acts. Acquiring goods in a store happens in an instant, although having to stand in long lines at a checkout stations might make this appear otherwise. There are no permanent connections between the actors. Even if I recognize the cashier, I am not really connected. Caring is very and importantly different. I am or become connected to the object of my attention/intention. Otherwise I would not bother to concern myself with the issue of legitimacy at all.

So now with this diversion into what care is all about, let’s get back to Thanksgiving. The typical setting is a group of family members gathered around a dinner table with a turkey in the center. Family is the place, Maturana claims, where love arose. Our evolution in a social setting accounts for the primacy of the emotion of love. Family is the most natural place for love to present itself. It’s much more difficult to talk about love in the workplace or out in the woods, but it is just as important to flourishing.

So what does the quote from the NYTimes suggest. Transactions trump caring actions. Rituals become just that—plays enacted without connections among the actors mouthing the words. Flourishing has little possibility of showing up under these circumstances, repeated in similar forms everywhere and most of the time. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy or Scrooge, that’s not my point. There is an important place for shopping in our lives. We go to the market to buy the goods that enable us to act out our care. It’s only when shopping inundates the arena of care or love that I become greatly concerned. Is it more important to rush out and get a bargain on some toy to give a month later that to spend the time around the Thanksgiving table caring for all present? I don’t think so.