Today is the day before Thanksgiving and I have been inundated with ads and news of Black Friday, the day we release all our pent-up demand for goods. The biggest shopping day of the year. The make or break day for retailers. There is something terribly incongruous about the rush to the stores on the heels of a day where we gather with friends and family and give thanks for the life we have enjoyed. Black Friday is slowly creeping into Thanksgiving Day as stores are opening earlier and earlier.
The news tonight showed shots of shoppers camping outside of the big box stores ready to join the rush to fill shopping baskets with everything within reach. Some have been out in the cold and wet for days. Maybe they are unemployed and have no better place to go. But if they are unemployed where does the money to cram the baskets with bargains come from. The scenes portrayed are horrendous. I remember a couple of years ago that someone was trampled to death in the surge just as the doors were opened.
I am not a natural shopper. If I do go into a store, I usually know exactly what I want to buy and walk around the aisles as if I wore blinders. A bit compulsive maybe, but the opposite compulsion exhibited by the behavior on Black Friday. That’s why I get a bit blue and depressed every year at this time. Given the decision to make a purchase, it makes sense to seek the lowest available price, but that’s not what happens on Friday. People are frenzied, grabbing at every bargain box they can reach while holding off others in the crowd. The picture that comes to mind for me is the complete transformation of our species from Being to Having. Erich Fromm’s observations, written down in his wonderful, small book, To Have or To Be, have been an inspiration to me and are central to my definition of sustainability as the possibility of flourishing.
Writing some 30 years ago, Fromm argues that we, humans, have lost out uniqueness as a species, the experience or sense of Being. Modern humans have come to define themselves through their possessions–what they have. And as a consequence, life becomes an incessant pursuit of material objects. We wait expectantly for news that demand has shown an uptick. Black Friday certainly fits this picture. The pursuit is never-ending as the acquisition of goods can produce only ephemeral satisfaction. Worse, we look to the market for almost all the goods we acquire, and because we live within its structure we acquire its beliefs and norms, and shape our values accordingly. The classical notion of consumer sovereignty, what gets produced follows demand, has been inverted. Our preferences are shaped by the producers. The being to having transformation is almost complete.
It is a sad state, hence the blue mood I am in. Erik Erikson wrote that as one reached about the age of 65 (a dimming memory for me), a new stage opened up in which one could discover a sense of completeness or integrity that was missing in the earlier stages of human development. This positive sense was not guaranteed. Each one of Erikson’s stages has two opposing characteristics sort of like yin and yang. The positive ones of each pair aligns with the sense of being Fromm discusses. Materialistic pursuits leave one in the bad karma side of his dichotomous scheme.
As I have written, Being is essential to flourishing. When is it missing, we are only moving aimlessly through life. Its absence has deleterious negative effects on us and on the world. We miss the emergent qualities of joy, love and others that add new dimensions to the ordinary 3-D world of objects. In the incessant chase after more and more, we stress the earth from which life flows. Each of us has only a fleeting moment to Be. Days like Black Friday do not let us live in that moment. If the “market” had its way, everyday would be Black Friday, and the strain of the Planet would reach a breaking point even earlier than it appears to be coming today.