Reflecting on Black Friday

Black packages with red ribbons

Halloween was not over before I began receiving advertisements for “Black Friday” sales. They arrived daily – in email, social media feeds, and pop-up ads on web pages. Seemingly everyone was trying to get an early start on the biggest shopping day of the year. For some time, our “marketing-industrial” complex has placed a growing emphasis on this single commercial day as a bellwether for our nation’s economic success; but their stretching that day into a month-long buying orgy has surprised even my hard-boiled cynicism.

For years, I have fluctuated from bemusement to horror while reading the annual stories of Black Friday madness: people fighting with each other for a last TV on sale, or frenzied mobs trampling someone to death in the mad rush to get into a store. It is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. And now – apparently – it’s for a month.

There is an aggressive insistence to this ritual that should be a warning. “Act now!” “Buy before it’s too late!” For me, as a contemplative, these words raise a red flag. Anyone pushing with that much insistence has no interest in the process of discernment. It is a naked appeal to our basest instincts of acquisitiveness and greed.

But there is also an opportunity here. This onslaught of urgency – where every message is in bold font, all caps, and followed by exclamation points – is an invitation to mindfully step back and slow down. It is a warning sign, like an engine revving too fast, to take our foot off the gas for a moment. The pinpoint accuracy of the advertising (“How did they know I was interested in that?”) presents us with an opportunity to ask ourselves what weakness or desire does this ad seek to exploit? Why is this attracting me? What do I really need?

The spiritual discipline of detachment involves learning to step back and observe the movements of our intellect. Rather than trying to control our monkey mind and force it into quiet submission, experienced contemplatives will watch their ideas, like clouds floating across an empty sky, noting where the thoughts come from and where they go, paying attention to the fears and anxieties from which they spring.

Likewise, watching experienced advertisers play on our dreams and desires can shed a helpful light on desires of which we may be unaware. They reveal the siren voices that call to us most urgently. They expose the psychological holes in our lives that those voices are trying to get us to fill. Pay attention. Watch without judgment. Know yourself.

It is, of course, a perverse irony that this frenzy of consumption is attached to a holiday that is about gratitude. The actual history of the first Thanksgiving is shrouded in uncertainty and is doubtlessly more complicated than the stories we recount. But the stories are important. They remember a tale of cross-cultural support in a time of great hardship. They remind us of the healing power of generosity: sharing scarce resources and knowledge. They rejoice at unexpected friendships and moments of celebration.

Maybe our stories about Thanksgiving provide us with some helpful counterbalance to the manic consumerism of our month-long “Black Friday”: a reminder of those people around the globe and around the corner who may be fighting for survival in a hostile environment. A reminder that a simple act of friendship and generosity can save a life. A reminder that everything we have is a gift from a God of abundance who invites us to reflect our divine nature through our own acts of generosity.

On this Black Friday, rather than fight the manic crowds for an artificially discounted computer, why not use every advertisement as an opportunity for spiritual reflection. What emptiness am I trying to fill? What inner darkness am I seeking to avoid? What am I truly longing for? My guess is that what you seek cannot be purchased at a store sale. And ironically, that longing may be best satisfied by sharing something of yourself.

November 11, 2023 by Charles Parker 1 Comment
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Scott Landis
Scott Landis
7 months ago

This is an excellent reflection on what has become a crazy emphasis in our culture. Thank you for putting this day and illness into perspective. May we all take time – having just given thanks – to hold that attitude as we discern the way forward individually and collectively.

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