November 25, 2011

Buddha Buzz: Black Friday, Gray Mice, and White Wives

Black Friday is upon us. And as we've come to expect with the arrival of our favorite American holiday, there have been huge sales, massive crowds, and the trampling of workers and pregnant women. Actually, those tramplings occurred three years ago. This year, the American public has moved on to a more popular method of violence: pepper spray. An unidentified woman at a Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch, California, pepper sprayed other customers in an attempt to keep them away from the merchandise she wanted. One wonders if she had been inspired by the UC Davis cop.

Stories like these make me want to throw my hands up in despair. I mean, is a widescreen TV really worth more than the upholding of basic humanity? Come on, guys. Can't we do better than this? And how did it get so bad in the first place?

Nathan Thompson from Dangerous Harvests has some further thoughts:   

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first.

Perhaps I'm romanticizing the findings, but I've never seen a better example of wise and loving giving than this: an article in Discover magazine called "Helpful Mouse Fetuses Naturally Send Stem Cells to Mom to Fix Her Damaged Heart." Apparently, when a mother mouse has a heart attack, her mouse fetus naturally and spontaneously sends her some of its cells to help rebuild her damaged heart. The findings seem to hold true for humans as well; stem cells frequently appear in a pregnant woman's damaged organs. What do you think this means? Do we have a natural capacity for generosity and compassion that weakens the more we are exposed to consumerist culture?

This band, for one, thinks our culture is a "destitute hell" (from their lyrics). White Wives, a Pittsburgh-based band that I found out about via Worst Horse, just released a music video for their song "Hungry Ghosts." Their album, "Happeners," is named for a mid-60s Provo movement that championed nonviolence. I'm not sure if these guys are Buddhist—does anyone know?—but they're certainly familiar with Hungry Ghost Syndrome. Text like "I'll do anything to get what I want" and "I want this, I need this, I have to have this," runs over their video. Watch it below. 

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism recognizes such behavior as stemming from the three poisons innate in life itself: greed, belligerence and ignorance. Certainly impetus to be even more mindful of the Law, eh?

mehlinger333's picture

Maybe the fetus sending stem cells is, in fact, just an instinct for survival, but then again, maybe so is compassion. I don't think this cheapens compassion as long as you look at the whole picture-- that compassion is the best way to help others, and helping others is the best way to survive. One of our species' peculiarities is that we have such powerful empathy, and as I've often read HH The Dalai Lama point out, this is an advantage, not a weakness. Realizing our place as parts of the greater human organism helped us thrive and cover the Earth, and hopefully the next step is using that very same empathy to know when to tone it down and find something between gladiatorial combat and Black Friday. Compassion is perhaps a tool for survival, and the dhamma is the practice of re-purposing it for something greater than biological success.

Thanks for the article, and the band. I'd never heard of them, but I'm enjoying them greatly!

fishman.ellen's picture

Compassion is volitional, no? By its very action it is creating the space for another versus self cherising behavior. Survival is self cherishing and has had its place in "helping us thrive", no doubt but it has also gotten us in
this mess.Although this may samantical by placing our self as the agent for change versus "others" and using insight to view our intentions, compassion is cleaner in my view.

sharmila2's picture

yes, one woman on Black Friday pepper sprayed her competitors. But the other 100,000 (or whatever the exact number is) shoppers did not, and were mostly well behaved despite their greed. Despite what many would have you believe, this is not a sign of declining civilization. Frankly, I think it is quite extraordinary that a orchestrated mass mob fixated on obtaining a few select objects (orchestrated scarcity) in a very limited time does not result in widespread chaos and injuries to many more than there were. Had this happened 1000 years ago, machete and spear injuries would have featured quite heavily. A mere 100 years ago in this country, a lynch mob of about the same size would watch a man strung up for entertainment and bring their kids along for the fun. So it hasn't "gotten this bad", it's actually gotten so good that we focus on one person's bad behavior (and relatively mild bad behavior at that) in a country of over 300 million. The simple fact that orderliness, decency and respect have become the default setting in society is a great achievement, and not something that we should take for granted.

I am not supporting the concept of BF any more than I would gladiatoral combat at the Coliseum;I considre both to be horrible events designed to bring out the very worst in human nature. But we should take heart in the fact that most people show respect for their fellows, even under less than optimal conditions.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Sharmila, thanks for your thoughts. I think it's worth considering, though, what would have resulted in machete and spear injuries 1000 years ago versus what results in injuries today. In other words, I'm not sure if the Romans or any other ancient civilization would have been spearing each other over the ancient-day equivalent of video games (pots? gift certificate to the bath-houses? who knows..). Or maybe they would be, I'm not exactly sure.
Anyway, I think that's really the sad point of Black Friday for me—that there had to be any violence at all. As you pointed out, it is wonderful that for the most part orderliness was upheld, but the mere fact that there is such a blatant lust for non-essentials like TVs and other things points to a very discouraging fact about our society and what it values most.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Ellen, thanks for commenting. Like I said in the post, perhaps I was romanticizing the article, but I'd like to think that the fetus sending stem cells to help the mother heal may go beyond a mere instinct for survival. But perhaps not!

fishman.ellen's picture

"Apparently, when a mother mouse has a heart attack, her mouse fetus naturally and spontaneously sends her some of its cells to help rebuild her damaged heart. The findings seem to hold true for humans as well; stem cells frequently appear in a pregnant woman's damaged organs. What do you think this means? Do we have a natural capacity for generosity and compassion that weakens the more we are exposed to consumerist culture?"

I'm not quite sure how the above coorelates, genorosity and compassion are in myho not to be confused with survival.
Yes, consumerism is a quest for something, and your thoughts do bring up the very aspect of humanity that is so transparent in American culture, greed. May we have compassion for all those Hungry Ghosts.