Thanksgiving (When Capitalism Lets You Down)
November 25, 2019
With Thanksgiving this week, and the Christmas season around the corner, let’s take a moment to get ready. At its best, the holiday season can be a time for gratitude, wonder, joy, and connection. But to welcome something good, we need to make room for it. So let’s first take a moment to notice the stress, the shame, and the violence that can choke out our joy, wonder, gratitude, and connection..
I spend a lot of time around fellow working parents, people who when I ask how they’re doing, they start by sighing. There’s probably nothing that new to this – midlife has always been a time when responsibilities and burdens tend to pile up. What’s new these days is how many kids feel the same. Ask your nearest teenager if they’re stressed out and see what they have to say. Many of us are stressed out a lot these days.
Before we think about solutions, it helps me to remember that the system we’re living in is getting results for which it was designed. If you didn’t listen to the New York Times podcast 1619 this year, I highly recommend it. Remembering 500 years since the start of slavery in this country, the podcast explores some of the legacy this part of our country’s history. In the second episode, “The Economy That Slavery Built”, we learn how America’s burgeoning cotton industry rocketed the American economy toward wealth in the early 1800s. The three keys to this story of American wealth: technological innovation, stolen land, and enslaved workers. By 1850, three million African descendants are toiling in this country – without pay, without rights, living under brutally violent conditions. They’re working on land taken from displaced Native Americans. And this land and labor is enriching a relatively small number of wealthy American descendants of European colonizers. It was in this context that American capitalism found its legs.
I’m not an economist. So I have no argument to make for or against capitalism. But in our 21st century American economy, in which the richest three Americans hold more wealth than half of this country’s residents, I find it relevant that American methods of producing and growing wealth involved began with practices like slave-backed mortgages, stolen capital, and unpaid labor. Relentless, poorly paid, and unpaid work as a source of wealth and convenience for others wasn’t invented by Amazon or Walmart. And an economy that produces wealth and ease for people at the top and center, while pushing violence and costs out to its edges and bottom is nothing new.
It’s as participants in this economic system that most of us have more debt and less savings than we want, that most of us are busier and lonelier than we want to be, and that most of us hit the holiday season tired and stressed out. We absorb constant messages that we do not have enough, and that buying more will bring us joy. And we are constantly told that we are not enough, and that if we work harder, we might become worthy. These messages are saturated in idolatry – false promises of security – and packed with lies.
The systems we live in are bigger than all of us. I don’t have a plan to change all this. But as a pastor in the good news of Jesus tradition, I do want to invite us toward freedom. I want to invite you to walk away from some of this crushing stress so you can make room for joy, gratitude, wonder, and connection.
So can I suggest three practices to consider through Thanksgiving and Christmas? These are three practices that might open up some space and perspective, that might give us more freedom, that might open up space for the gratitude and joy we would like to experience more?
Play “What’s Not My Fault”
It’s healthy to take responsibility for our lives. But it is also liberating to name the problems we think we have that aren’t really problems, and the other problems we have that aren’t our fault. Our economy, our culture, and our inner critics shame us when we have problems, even when they’re not our fault. And shame chokes out joy and wonder.;
You can play this by yourself, but it’s even better with a friend. The way it works is you write down five problems you have that stress you out – ten if they come quickly! And then next to each problem, you write down if it’s mainly your fault or mainly not your fault. Half and half is not a choice; make a call one way or another. For instance, with three teenagers, I might write down: probably can’t afford their college education. And with Thanksgiving around the corner, I might add: relative or two I don’t know how to talk to anymore. In each case, I contribute to the issue somewhat, but in both cases, it turns out these are mainly not my fault! College educations have become ridiculously expensive, and I don’t control my relatives or how we’ve all changed over the years.
Discovering many of our problems are not our fault doesn’t take them away, but it does lift shame and make some room to not take it personally, to pray, or to just let it go for today. And there’s freedom in that.
This Holiday, Tell Stories of Thanks and Tell Stories of Resilience
Secondly, during the Thanksgiving weekend, take an opportunity to share stories. Though the American myth of Thanksgiving has a troubled and violent backstory, at its best, this weekend gives us the opportunity to eat a big meal and to be thankful.
For years, I’ve been in the habit of sharing something I’m thankful for over the past year, both with family and with friends. I think this is a great habit; share a story of gratitude this weekend. And suggest to your friends or family that you share a second story. Share a story of resilience – a time when things were hard, but you got through. You overcame, or even just survived. These stories of resilience remind us that with the help of God and friends, we are strong. There is enough. Telling and hearing these stories encourage us and strengthen us.
Participate in Buy Nothing Day (or Week, or Month!)
And thirdly, participate in the phenomenon of Buy Nothing Day. On Black Friday this year, don’t spend a single dollar. Or see if you can go a week or even longer without making a single purchase, even online. To survive and flourish these days, almost all of us need to make and spend money. But to fast from spending money for a bit – when our culture is going crazy spending – is to say the life and joy are not to be found in the accumulation of possessions or costly experiences. The greatest gifts we can give to others involve our time and attention. Making, and spending, and having more tend to make us far less happy than we think it will. If we take Jesus’ teaching seriously, we’ll need to consider that all of this may just make us more anxious.
By opting out of this consumer culture, even just temporarily, we make space to consider what satisfies us most deeply. We open up time and space to consider what a more joyful life might look like. We may even open up attention to wonder how we can participate in the creation of a more just and peaceful world. At the very least, it will help us end the month with less debt and more peace – two pretty good things on their own terms.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends! May joy, wonder, gratitude, and connection be yours abundantly in this season!