Black Friday seems to have started early this year. Technically it’s this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, but my inbox seems to have been full of deals all month. But do you know why we shop? The sociologists think it’s because we fear death. Shopping keeps this fear at bay, because it’s distracting. Buying stuff makes our reality feel more substantial, and buying cool stuff wins us approval from our peers, which makes us feel really alive.
I suppose we all really know that the promises of consumerism are illusory. Consumerism only works if we continually and pathologically crave newness, and it’s that newness that by definition makes our very last purchase instantly obsolete. If it’s not new, and someone else has the same thing now, it doesn’t bring us any thrill or joy. And it’s not in the market’s interest for anything to finally satisfy us, lest the wheels of commerce grind to a halt. So we shop ‘til we drop. Good news for the post-pandemic economy, but bad news for our immortal souls.
The religions have always offered an alternative, the so-called Sacred Canopy of meaning-making, that provides a richer narrative about life than the marketing departments at the mega brands ever could. While each religion describes this differently, they agree that all this stuff could never be enough to feed our souls, and it’s only by accepting this truth that we free ourselves from an addiction to acquiring all the right brands and all the very latest things.
I think we might need to borrow some of that wisdom rather urgently. People find homes within brand families that they can’t find in real life, and will keep doing so if society doesn’t offer something better. The sophisticated brands offer membership of a welcoming and aspirational tribe. Could we do more to encourage our beleaguered teenagers? Or to stop the lonely getting lost online? And could we find ways to boost everyone around us by affirming those in our lives every day?
The Black Friday frenzy is our annual reminder that consumerism is a pale substitute for a life full of meaning and purpose. There’s space for everyone under the sacred canopy; not just for those who buy into a religious logic, but for anyone who wants to think more deeply about why they are here.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.