James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, November 27, 2006

Needed: more gratitude, less greed

By Lydia Howell

Thanksgiving has long been to me, potentially the most real American holiday. Setting aside the Pilgrims and Indians story that covers up the violent colonization of this country, Thanksgiving reaches back as far back as human history goes. After all, celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for survivng another year is ancient and universal.

A more modern connection occurs to me, too, one of the popular solgans used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: Keep an attitude of gratitude. The necessity of such watchwords is applicable to more than simply those struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. Frankly, far more Americans need to adopt such an outlook to grapple with the massive materialism addiction that's relentlessly fostered in the dominant culture.

This is a good moment to consider those words, with 'the biggest shopping day of the year' being the day after Thanksgiving.

Has any culture on Earth devoted more creativity to selling products than the U.S. has?

I'm not an asetic by any stretch of the imagination and don't suggest others take up some sort of grim material deprivation. But, I do think it's overdue for Americans to examine their relationship to "buying stuff".

Consumer goods from designer clothing and sneakers to gas-guzzling vehicles to the latest "must have" gadget from i-pods to x-boxes, we Americans increasingly define ourselves by the objects we own. More and more, who we are is expressed by what we can buy, what we wear, what we drive--rather than what we actually do with our lives, how we think, what we create. Even raising children seems to often come down to providing designer Baby Gap clothes or Air Jordans for 12 year olds or a $400 x-box gaming system for teens---instead of instilling self-confidence based on abilities or values like empathy with others. The obession with having more and more things isn't limited to the wealthy or the middle-class but, goes all the way down to the stuggling poor, too.

Madison Avenue advertising agencies have attained incredible sophistication at how to market our insecurities entwined with our dreams, our real needs wrapped inside products that are fake solutions. Commericals stimulate desire turning almost all of us into shopping-mall rats in a cage pressing the bar--uh, swiping the credit card. While half the U.S. bankruptcies are due to medical bills, there's no doubt that a significant chunck of Americans' debt is due to consumerism run rampant. College students graduate in debt--not only due to the ever-rising costs of tuition and the decline in grants, making student loans inevitable. But, the same students also graduate with several thousand dollars in credit card debt--setting the precedent for a lifetime of over-consumption on the monthly installment plan.

One of the saddest things about all this buying and getting of stuff is how little happiness seems to come from it. The shine wears off fairly quickly and one must go out and shop again for the perfect thing that will make one feel successful, beautiful, confident---until that object also becomes less effective at creating the manufactured Self promised on tv and the cycle starts again.

In the midst of this all-American aqumulation, I see damn little thankfulness. Adults and children alike seem to ahve a sense of entitlement without limit. Adults are embittered about what they can't buy and kids' are ever-ready to whine and accuse of parents of being deficient in love, if the credit card isn't pulled out on demand. The only ones who benefit from such obvious unhappiness are the corporations selling this empty, shopping mall "American Dream" to us.

Such entitlement on a material level also creates one more curtain of denial about many real issues: continued injustices here at home--especially towards Indigenous people and African-Americans; the resentments of other countries who have become American sweatshops or who's resources are plendered by us, as half the world lives on @2 a day or less;environmental degradation and climate change.

Though, again let me say, that those 'on the bottom" of American society are not immune from the obsession with material things and getting them "by any means necessary"(with apologies to Malcom X). When youth will murder another youth to take his NBA starter jacket or Air Jordan sneakers, something has gone deeply wrong. Poverty alone cannot explain such actions.

In short, while American materialism is not new--de Alexis Tocqueville observed it in the 1840s--this attitude does seem to have intensified in ways that stunt the character of Americans of all ages. American culture from the latest car commercial to hip hop music, has substitued being someone for buying something--and thinking the two are the same thing. We've traded accomplishment for aquisition. We've dropped empathy for entitlement and forgotten caring in the pursuit of conumption.

This is the value system driving U.S. foreign policy and gang violence on American streets alike. Yes, there other deeply important issues also propelling the 'war on terror' and 'gang wars'--poverty, racism/white supremacy, widening wealth gaps and a truncated, inequitable eduation system, to name a few. But, a values crisis, which only the rightwing fundamentalists have been willing to (rightly) raise and (wrongly) define is crucial to recognize.

To feel gratitude is to also feel a sense of responsibility: to the ones we love, to those who've given to us, to the society we're part of and to the planet we've been blessed to live on. Gratitude requires something of us. Gratitude demands right-minded actions, not the passivity of purchases. Gratitidue also gives us something: a deeper awareness of what we already have and what it's true worth is. Gratitude reminds us of where we are, reinvigoratng a sense of belonging--to a place, a planet, to a family, to humanity.

So, I'd like to see a revival of gratitude as a starting place for healing the unhealthy (and unhappy) American character. Some much-needed national introspection about who we are, what policies are put into effect in our name and how we relate to the rest of the world, might have a better chance, if we find the humblness to be thankful for what we already have. For individuals from the top of the economic ladder to the bottom, asking who we want to be and what we want our lives to mean--instead of what's for sale and what we want to own--has the power to not only change who we are, but, make us far happier.

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis poet, freelance journalist and host of a public-affairs radio show. This essay also appears on her blog at http://www.blog.myspace.com/lydiahowell