Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
— Wordsworth, 1802
OK, now! Let’s be grateful if there’s a little money to spend for Christmas, but if we aren’t careful, our Black Fridays will turn into Blue Mondays. Worse still, Black Fridays plus Cyber Mondays could lead to a Red January.
Are we charging all of this? If we are, then we face a Red January for sure, and we’re behaving more and more like the federal government. As for the demise of Thanksgiving Day — because we’re using it to shop for early bargains — that, too, lets us know what we have become.
To the ancient words, “Man cannot live by bread alone,” modern man has added, “He also needs gadgets, big screens and heirlooms.”
Several Christmases ago, my wife and I were attending a Saturday morning holiday breakfast at the home of some dear, long-time friends. The Christmas cheer was crisp, genuine, and as others-centered as anyone could wish. At mid-morning while guests were leaving, a small child walked past a coffee table and accidentally knocked over a beautiful, exquisite vase. The sight of the broken vase, its shards puddled in the lush carpet, mortified both the child and her parents.
The hostess of the get-together quickly ran to the child, knelt down, embraced her, and spoke to her some words which rang with character and inner peace: “Sweetheart, if only you knew how little we care about all of the things in this house.” Beaming down affirmatively, the hostess’s husband stood near his wife and the child. Significant or not, I was somehow struck by the hostess’s choice of words when she said, “this house,” instead of “our house.”
My wife and I had known this host couple for at least 20 years. Their reaction to the broken vase, even as expensive as it appeared to be, was no surprise to us. Blessed with a sufficient number of the world’s goods, they had always maintained an inner detachment to them. Their joy of living derived from people, not stuff.
Contrast this couple’s view of their belongings to that of the nation as a whole when it comes to acquiring and holding on to tangible things.
Consider the observation of the National Retail Federation that Black Friday has become a free-for-all for both retailers and customers. Surely we are all happy for anyone who has money to spend, and since the wheels of our economy turn on consumption, we understand that businesses need business.
But camp out on a concrete parking lot in order to find a bargain? Or stand in line three hours to buy something made of plastic? Or turn Thanksgiving Day into a shopping spree?
If poet and nature lover William Wordsworth was concerned about materialism in 1802, what would he say today?
This issue is no tempest in a teapot. It is a reflection of Americans. Our habits are our mirrors. Our values are our souls. Neither is it a “religious” issue since several secular columnists around the country (not preachers in this case) have decried the shopping madness of the recent Thanksgiving week-end.
When a friend suggested to me that those who camp out overnight in front of the stores are needy people who are desperate for the next day’s good bargains, I told him that my oceanfront property in Arizona was still available.
When this same friend, who was not playing the Devil’s advocate, suggested that I was being judgmental, I paused and pondered my attitude. Maybe most of the concrete campers really are braving the elements, facing the November cold, in order to purchase something for someone beside themselves or their own families. For a moment I pondered this, but … Nah!
In all seriousness, do you think that the profligate spending of the federal government and its disdain for thrift just might be trickling down to a younger generation that hasn’t yet learned about delayed gratification? Whether or not it’s trickling down, it certainly isn’t a good example for political leaders to set before any of us, regardless of our age. What else is Christmas Creep but a nationwide manifestation of the Fiscal Cliff syndrome that seems to come around every year nowadays? We spend because we have. Let the January bills take care of themselves.
A dose of Benjamin Franklin would do Americans good: “Be frugal. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself. Waste nothing. Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee.”
Since Franklin was America’s first millionaire, perhaps he should be studied in economics as well as in history. And maybe every member of Congress should be required to read him.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.