Every year I spend Thanksgiving and the weekend after it with my family and friends in the Anza Borrego Desert. On hikes with my seven-year-old son, we are grateful for our chance encounters with roadrunners, jackrabbits, coyotes, beetles, and the occasional lucky sighting of a big horn sheep. We have a friend who is a birder who can tell us what kinds of birds we are near from the sound of their calls. When we go back to eat, we break bread with another friend who beat cancer and whose presence reminds us that life is short and precious.
More than anything else, it is the beautiful stillness of the desert that brings us there—the way the landscape seems to listen. At night you can still see stars and think about the vastness of the universe in a way that reminds you of your smallness and your connection to the largeness of all that is. It is humbling and enlarging at the same time.
Then I head back to the city where you can’t see the stars and where you read of the latest Black Friday horror—not a trampling this year but a woman pepper spraying competitors for a discounted X-Box.
As always, these annual displays of hegemonic stupidity make me want to flee back to the company of the coyotes. As Walt Whitman once wrote:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
And for good measure he adds, “Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago/Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.” Sound thinking indeed.
Surely, it is the desperation of not just the kind of insane misanthropy displayed by our neighbor with the pepper spray but also the manipulative false utopianism of the consumer-driven holidays that makes this time of year so bleak and depressing for many of us.
Over and over again, the “magic system” of advertising, as Raymond Williams once called it, whispers promises of enhanced identity, love, and hope through the shamanic power of the consumer product.
Then the miracle of the mall comes home and the dancing table turns into a piece of wood and the hand-held heaven of our iPads and smart phones turns our every waking moment into a chance for a work email or a banal text message or another few seconds to just not be here.
What drives us is the messianic hope of the commodity-spectacle, the promise of a future of a fuller life brought to you by a fetishized material object. And the fetish never delivers because it is designed not to deliver. The goal is to keep you running on the hamster wheel of work/shop/die, hoping for the pay-off that never comes.
As Buddhists know, however, hope is a kind of obstacle. If you stop hoping, you can be fully present. As long as we keep trying to buy the future, we are doomed. We don’t own what we buy; what we buy owns us. And, more importantly, the planet cannot sustain our current level of overconsumption—overconsumption while others in the world starve. And all of this is done in the service of sustaining an unsustainable path. “The pure products of America—gone crazy,” as William Carlos Williams wrote in the last century, “As if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky.”
But why not just say, “Fuck that”?
Let’s all look forward to Nothing and participate in Buy Nothing Christmas. Better still let’s make every day “Today’s Day.” As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “On this day, Today’s Day, don’t think about yesterday, don’t think about tomorrow, only think about today. Today’s day is when we live happily in the present moment. When we eat, we know that we are eating. When we drink water, we are aware that it is water we are drinking. When we walk, we really enjoy every step. When we play, we are really present in our play. Today is a wonderful day.”
Or we can keep shopping until we drop, literally.