Sunday, November 29, 2009

Of Thanksgiving and the Examined Life

This week, I ran into one of those apparently "simple" quotes that comes across as deeply true: "All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire." Perhaps you can guess who it's from. (Answer at the end of the entry.)

The statement strikes me especially now at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend. It seems that this weekend all of those "causes" or attributes were brought into play under the banner of "BIG SALE from 5 AM until 11 AM only!" The only thing that might have taken its own holiday was reason, since there wasn't much evidence of its presence from everything that I observed.

First we grow mushy on Thanksgiving Day over all the things we have to be grateful for, vowing that they are all so much more important than money, power, fame, or a big-screen LCD TV that we could get for less than $250 if we just ran down to the store right now. We cook everything in sight, eat what we can and wrap up the rest for long-term storage, and then proceed to really do enjoy one another's company and count our blessings.

Then the next day we get up at 4 AM, trudge out to a mile-long line outside of Target, chat amiably with others in line while consulting our store map and plotting our strategy, and upon the opening of the doors proceed to run hell-bent down aisles as if it were a 100-yard dash just so that we can get that one item that we simply cannot live without - or at least not for the normally higher price. Then, triumphant in the glow of ownership, we walk out to our car, drive back home, and go to bed so as to recuperate from our capitalistic ordeal. Welcome to Black Friday.

So what's an alternative? Well, I'm afraid I'm not even on the same map here. When I read the life story of someone like Fr. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap. (1904-1957), a simple priest in Detroit who inspired thousands by his presence and words, it seems as if that's just a whole other world. Right now, I'm nearing the end of a small book about him, and the contrast of his world-view with the busyness of this weekend couldn't be greater.

Of course, his story isn't unique. There are examples galore of individuals who discovered more in simplicity than a thousand do in riches. These are people such as Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, the lady down the street with all the cats and a really nice smile who goes to church every day, and loads of untold individuals who long ago decided that once you look a little more deeply you find simple riches that have nothing to do with what you have, what you buy, what you do, or what floats your boat. (Jesus, of course, is a prime example of this as well.) And there's probably not a lot of reason at work in that world either. But it's clearly a universe away from the "popular" one that's exemplified by Black Friday.

And we still need grace to get from one to the other. That's still pretty obvious to me at least. Hence we pray... probably not enough.

By the way, the quotation in the beginning was from Aristotle. But before you start thinking that I just carry Aristotelian quotations around with me, know that I found it on the back of a GoodEarth teabag tag. I guess I should be glad that we bought that tea.... on sale.

Wasn't Aristotle also the guy who said: "The unexamined life is not worth living"? I think that most Americans would be uncomfortable with that sentiment. Why would we want to waste our time examining our own lives? There are things to buy, schedules to keep, goals to fulfill, people to impress. It's the way things are done, either by chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, or desire.

Somehow I think that we may be looking down the wrong end of that particular telescope.