From the looks of the Facebook feeds, it's the violence that unnerves us. Sure, there are those people who don't like the idea of stores being open at all on Thanksgiving Day and/or the day after - more than a few folks believing that to require employees to show up at all on these particular days is a shameless grab for the almighty dollar played out at the expense of those who can't afford to say "no." The awkwardness of that outrage is that it is often voiced the loudest by those who can afford to say "no," that is, by those who have other jobs, presumably jobs that give paid holidays. The alternative to working Thanksgiving Day for many of those who do so is not a day of joy spent with family but a week of stressors, wondering how bills will get paid with an involuntary day off. Similarly, it can be easy to forget that to be able to afford to sit out the 50% savings and thus spare one's self exposure to the mobs is likewise a privilege of wealth.
Which brings us back to violence. "Sickening," said one poster, capturing in a word the sentiments of countless others. It's hard to disagree. Death tolls ought not, we rightly contend, be a part of the after-turkey shopping experience.
But there is a difficult truth in the reality of Thanksgiving Day melees. The difficult truth is that these days are not aberrations, but are rather visual manifestations of the violence that marks our consumption on all the other days. I don't mean that you and I or others are always pushing people over in the check out lines at grocery stores, but that it is disingenuous to pretend that the price of the consumerist "success" in America is not as violent in terms of global impact and exploitation of the poor as the stories that come out of Black Friday - even the success that allows some of us, yours truly included, to sit at home, from our couches, and bemoan the lack of humanity unfolding before us, from the pedestals of our laptop computers.
What does separate the consumerism of Black Friday from the year's other 364 days is that it takes place, ostensibly, for others; these are gifts we are buying for those whom we love.
Nick Offerman (a.k.a., Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson) recently used a guest platform on the Conan O'Brien show to make the case that every mother everywhere has made a million times before him: to make something for your loved ones, he said, is the best gift of all. Steal a sheet of paper from the copier at work, he said, and make a card. Glue a piece of nature on the card, for extra points.
Offerman's interview was at the same time sincere and crass/contrived, but it got me thinking: how many times has my desire to give a handmade gift been stymied by my lack of ability - real or perceived? I mean, you can only make so many stolen-paper Christmas cards. Maybe Black Friday is as much about the limits of our skills, knowledge, and imaginations as it is about violence and immorality. Maybe violence and immorality, in this instance, names our frustration with ourselves. What if the self-perceived paucity of our capacity for homemade gift-giving is rooted in our inability to see ourselves as worthy of the love and investment necessary to be people capable of giving good gifts?
The challenge and reminder that skills and knowledge are worth cultivating exactly because they are most appropriately used to serve others leaves me with a Black Friday lesson more interesting and engaging than "there but for the grace of God, go I."
“There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.” Bernard of Clairvaux