Sunday, November 30, 2008

Casualties of Conspicuous Consumption

As the friends, family and co-workers of Jdimytai Damour mourn his death under a stampede of eager Wal-Mart shoppers on the morning after Thanksgiving, many of us wonder about the state of a country where crazed bargain-hunters can trample a 270-pound man to death and come close to killing a pregnant woman.

For years, my wife and I have made a point of never shopping on Black Friday, a manufactured day of conspicuous consumption that prays on economic fears and people's perceived need for a bargain. Seemingly, the excitement over such potential bargains is enough to foment a mob mentality that can lead to injury, death, and destruction of property, all in the name of commerce.

While some see shopping as a patriotic duty that injects consumer cash back into the economy, I can easily argue the point that not shopping, staying home with family, visiting friends, and volunteering at local soup kitchens and shelters are activities that are exponentially more patriotic and productive than any amount of spending could ever be. Editorials abound about the way that American shoppers have been programmed by Wall Street, coached that abundance is limited, and urged to be the first to lay their hands on goods that are apparently in short supply, available only to the lucky few who are first through the door.

We all know that times are tough. Many Americans are losing jobs in record numbers as the number of uninsured nears 40 million. Putting gifts under the tree is seen as a parental duty and obligation, and no parent wants to see young disappointed faces on Christmas or Hannukah.

In the early years of our marriage, my wife and I received fuel assistance and Medicaid, visited our local food pantry, and often relied on bargain stores for food, clothes, gifts and other items. Despite our political and social beliefs, we also frequently succumbed to our son's wishes, occasionally purchasing mass-produced plastic toys that his young mind believed would make his Christmas complete. We had some lean Christmases in those years, and it was often the gifts mailed by thoughtful grandparents that made the pile under the tree appear more substantial.

Americans are apparently driven by commerce, ownership, and the acquisition of property. The free market has turned us all into miniature fiefdoms wherein we use our purchasing power to outfit our castles with the commodities that we feel will improve our lives, our social standing, or our level of physical or psychological comfort. But at what price?

But please don't get me wrong. I, too, have wants and desires. That new CD? A book hot off the press? Clothes, shoes, furniture, towels, bedding, bicycles and computers? We all want them, and those desires are not necessarily intrinsically wrong. However, when our desires become a wall between ourselves, our families and the humanity of others, then something certainly has gone haywire. When a worker can be trampled to death under the weight of a crowd solely intent on being the first to save a dollar, then the wall between our desires and our humanity has thickened and grown to new heights of Orwellian insanity.

Jdimytai Damour was said to be a gentle and kind man who loved Japanese anime, politics, and movies. He was working at Wal-Mart for the reason that everyone else takes a job: to put food on the table and a roof over his head. Working for low wages and perhaps no appreciable benefits, he was like so many other temporary holiday workers: hard-working and expendable.

At 5 o'clock in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Damour died a painful death under the shoes and boots of shoppers oblivious to the fact that their utterly unnecessary sense of urgency caused a series of events to unfold which would end the life of someone's son, brother, and friend. Nearby the place where Mr. Damour died, a pregnant woman was knocked to the ground, trampled, and came excruciatingly close to losing her baby. It was a tragic scene on many levels.

Perhaps rather than urging Americans to shop, shop, shop, the government and consumer groups should begin to instill the idea that giving comes in many forms. Donations can be made to humanitarian organizations in a family member's name. Endangered species can be sponsored, with a stuffed animal and certificate of adoption mailed to a designated child who will then be educated to see gift-giving in a new light. Homemade gifts and the gift of time can be much more meaningful than most any item purchased at a store. But if an item is indeed purchased, let it be done so thoughtfully, calmly, and with circumspection.

We are not in a race to consume. We are in a race to love, to connect, and to interconnect. In this interdependent world, our choices and actions as consumers have far-reaching effects, and while the hungry mavens of Wall Street want to see us flocking to the cash registers of America like so many automatons, we can make other choices---saner choices---that honor our families and our communities with the embodiment of the holiday spirit we so wish to generate.

Jdimytai Damour was a casualty of the economy and of people's perceived need to consume and his passing is a sad statement about the current state of American culture. In that light, let's take a moment to remember what the holiday season is really all about, and let's remind our friends, families and children (through our words and our actions) that giving has less to do with what is given than with the heart and spirit of the giver.

Rest in peace, Jdimytai Damour.
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