Black Friday was bad enough.
But now that day has expanded to “shop local” Saturday and (sounding like an out-of-date tech convention) Cyber Monday. It’s bloated into a five-day buying spree that starts as soon as dinner ends on Thanksgiving Day. Our society has turned a holiday of giving thanks, honoring family, home and hearth into an obscene frenzy of acquiring stuff.
For me (ignoring for a moment that the pilgrims took this land from the native Americans), Thanksgiving has always been one of those pure holidays where people came home to have a great meal and share stories with friends and family. For years Thanksgiving was barely a blip on the radar screen of merchants because the only thing people bought was food.
But a few years back, I started noticing Christmas decorations popping up before Thanksgiving and hype growing about “Black Friday.” I can see why. Glittering lights, red poinsettias and jolly men in red suits trump the pilgrims in their drab clothes, black hats and large brown turkeys. This year many major department stores decided to forego Thanksgiving altogether, either staying open all day or opening before leftovers could be taken away from the Thanksgiving table. A few grudgingly allowed their employees time off for dinner.
I think the thing that bothered me the most was a commercial where the lyrics for “Jingle Bells” were replaced with “shop, shop, shop.” I hated, it but the trouble was the new version was kind of catchy and I couldn’t get the song out of my head.
What is our obsession with stuff? Most of us don’t own anything of real value. What we have is stuff. Sure, some has sentimental value; reminding us of places or people we love. Yet in those cases, its not really the item—its the experience or emotion the item evokes. In the United States, most of us have more stuff in our homes than we could ever use. I bet that the closets of most households in the US could clothe an entire village in the developing world. I’m certainly guilty of overstuffing my life. I have books I haven’t read, clothes I haven’t worn and shoes with showroom-clean soles. I have more pans than I can cook with, more food than I can eat and more dishes than I can put on my table.
By contrast, when I visit villages in certain parts of Africa, I can walk into cleanly swept huts and see one battered tin bowl, a wooden spoon, a small stool and few cheap plastic plates. The people are wearing the only clothes they own. I feel like an overly bloated creature, dirtying the ground on which I walk.
Three years ago when my father died, my mother quickly cleaned out his closet putting all his clothing, belts, shoes and coats into large black plastic bags for Goodwill to pick up. My father was a marketer’s nightmare. He hardly ever bought clothing. Actually, he hardly ever bought anything. A child of the depression, he owned pieces of clothing for decades. Most of what he had was cheap, “I got it from Sears on sale” types of clothing. But seeing all those black plastic bags packed with what my father did own, I wondered why we do keep accumulating stuff. At the end, doesn’t most of it just end up in black plastic bags, carted off to Goodwill?
A few years ago I gained a different perspective on the matter of how much stuff matters. I was working on a project about nursing for Emory University. In the course of that I met many heroic women. But one who most impressed me was a nurse who left a comfortable life to work with HIV patients in some of Africa’s worst slums.
Nurse Philomena Omwakw does community outreach in the Kiambiu slums. All of her clients have HIV. She was a hospital nurse who worked for the Kenyan government. But she took early retirement so she could spend her time helping those in greatest need. For them, Philomena is a life raft. Not only does she bring vital medications, but she also makes sure they have food, clean water and that their children attend school. She is often the only person who visits them.
When I’m photographing, I carry gear worth more than what most of Philomena’s clients will see in their lifetime. As I walked with her through one of Kenya’s worst slums, I asked if I should be concerned. Her response was quite confident. “No, you’re with me,” she said. Even those who didn’t directly benefit from her recognized her good work. People lit up when we arrived at their modest huts. She brought medication and sometimes bags of food. Yet I could see that the greatest gift that she brought was her time. People just wanted to talk to her, expressing their fears and concerns. Philomena offered a human connection that validated the existence of those living in a very harsh place. A day with her was truly a day for giving thanks.
That was Philomena’s lesson for me—her gift really. In our frenzied, relentlessly marketed and digitally saturated world, human connections often seem under assault. By contrast, Philomena knew that the way to maintain those connections lay in taking the time to talk and listen—the things that Thanksgiving is supposed to honor.
We could all take a lesson from Philomena. Rather than borrowing money we probably don’t have to buy stuff we probably don’t need, a better choice of spending might be on time with people we care about. We can take the money we would have spent and give it to the charity of our choice. That would be a wonderful way to spend this holiday season.
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