Giving and getting

Harvest festivals are universal cultural phenomena and to a great degree spontaneous and egalitarian.

But in the United States, observance of a day of thanksgiving separated itself from nature and served a political end. Thanksgiving Day was promulgated by President Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of a civil war the outcome of which was not clear. Lincoln’s proclamation aimed at “healing the wounds of the nation” and restoring it to “God’s purpose,” intending to galvanize the nation into reflecting on an inheritance that might be lost. The character of the holiday was further fortified in another era of war and economic distress in 1941, when President Roosevelt and the Congress fixed the date of Thanksgiving, which was crucial to businesses, which urged an earlier date than the last Thursday of November because Christmas shopping would otherwise be curtailed a week.

The notion of pilgrims and turkeys never entered into the equations of calendars and national unity. And while these mood-setters justify the consumption of myth and meat, the focus has always been on launching the shopping season, a secular Advent running up to the night of gold. The day after, now dubbed Black Friday because the amount of spending puts businesses back into the black, is the official beginning of the month of consumption.

Advice to moderation, and schemes like “Buy Nothing Day” for the day after Thanksgiving, are largely useless when the counterpart to giving (as in “thanks giving”) is getting. The harvest is quickly squandered for getting things, the true confirmation that thanks are warranted to fate or credit-lenders, or to corporations all too happy to service greed and fuel the consumption of items manufactured around the world where there is very little to give or to get. Why should anyone postpone consumption for one day, or exercise moderation, when consumption is not an indulgence or excess but a life-style and moral proof of material ascendancy and cultural superiority? What else can promote the modern life-style except more consumption, gotten from more markets around the world, for more innovations, gadgets, appliances, and collectibles?

Simplicity is not a moderation of greed or even a buy-nothing day. Simplicity is crafting a life around those few material objects that enhance the spirit and promote bodily health, precisely that which traditional harvest festivals celebrated. To give thanks for sufficient clean and healthy food, accouterments, and social conviviality, was the object of such historical fests. But such economies produced only exactly what was needed, and only exactly what uplifted the spirit. That which was gaudy, decadent, or superfluous, was easily identified. Escess and consumption was the providence of the wealthy. Undoubtedly, more modest folk might look upon such excess with envy, but historically it looked upon it as bad. Only today do the modest look upon the wealthy with envy not criticism. Everyone admires them and wants to be like them. Who wants to be simple (it will be argued) when they are too simple as it is? And so the powerful have everyone where they want them.

For the solitary and the spiritually-minded, a constant monitoring of possessions and utilities is an on-going exercise in consciousness. It requires no special day, less an attitude of consumption as a patriotic and mercantile duty to transfer resources from the poor to the rich. That such a duty is prescribed today as economic patriotism, it is because few of us labor at what is important. For that which we need as a minimum for daily life is what we should labor to produce, nothing more. No wonder there arises an alienation assuaged only by consumption.

We should measure our lives by what we can live without, as the Zen saying runs. Modern economics, especially topped by the wealthiest barons of out-sourced industry, offers the opposite dictum. We cannot live contentedly, we will be told, without that vast array of things produced by them. Appealing to the animal instinct for gorging on discovered food, most people are happily led to consume without guilt or reflection, as a new entitlement — manipulated by advertising, media, and corporations. To fill the gaping hole that yawns from the impoverished spirit, we seek to fill it with consuming things, like a starved body willing to take any food or liquid to assuage its pangs of hunger.

In order to get past “getting,” however, one must get past “giving.” Everything is as it is. Our “thanks” for a blue sky or a flower or the patter of rain are nothing more than a projection of our minds outward to embrace that which reflects the moment, reflects a beautiful aspect of existence. Our thanks are irrelevant. Our thanks signify that we are separate from them, that we are in a category that condescends and bestows approval. This giving is a kind of getting in that we are getting pleasure and demanding aesthetic compensation for our gaze, our temperament, our fleeting whim. Hence we get back that satisfaction of a sense of proprietorship, our sense of being both different and better than nature and existence because we have consciousness and can “do” this thanking.

We have set ourselves for the next stage: getting. No wonder Buson, the haiku poet, was even reluctant to cut a flower:

Before the white chrysanthemum
my scissors hesitate
a moment.

If we can question everthing that constitutes “getting,” then we are strengthened to reject the plaudits of consumption, to embrace a simplicity rooted in nature. We cast off the whole cycle of giving and getting, of good and evil, and simply live in harmony with existence as much as possible.