Friday, November 28, 2008
Pursuing Happiness on Black Friday
I can't say that I wanted to work today, but I can say that I am thankful to have work to do. If, as Wendel Berry put it, "good work done kindly and well" is prayer, then to have work to do is a prerequisite to being able to pray without ceasing, as Paul exhorted.
Black Friday, that grand spasm of American consumerism on the Friday after Thanksgiving, strikes me as a particularly good day to be able to work -- unless you are a retail worker, in which case it must be sheer hell. (Even dangerous, as indicated by the tragic news that a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death today by early-bird shoppers.)
My work today consisted of finishing a few things for Sunday, getting out a couple of e-mail messages, and putting the final touches on a newsletter for next month -- a perfectly relaxed agenda that took less than half a day.
I spent part of that time in the local coffee shop, doing my small part to stimulate the economy and taking a few quiet moments to reflect on the day's great and central contradiction. Black Friday comes the day after the only authentic American religious holiday and kicks off the season of continued debasement of a singular Christian holiday.
I think Henri Nouwen was spot on when he commented that gratitude is the fundamental response to the world that is common to every authentic religious expression. Thanksgiving invites Americans, thus, to authentic religious expression that can be articulated in the language of any of the world's great religious traditions.
Black Friday, on the other hand, gets to the heart of America's triumphant tradition: consumerism.
It is a day that reminds us that we all have the right to pursue happiness. Like every day dedicated to shopping, Black Friday comes without the reminder that we have only the right to pursue happiness, not the right to catch it.
Many of us will spend the next 364 days in the pursuit of a consuming passion -- the belief that we can buy that happiness the pursuit of which is promised us.
Then on the last Thursday of next November, another year older, we can gather with friends and family, and give thanks for all that makes us genuinely happy -- almost none of it having been bought and paid for during the previous year's consumer orgy.