Over the past couple of weeks my students have been reading from a book on the Christian approach to “stuff” by DePaul University philosopher William T. Cavanaugh. In this text with the dual-meaning title - Being Consumed - Cavanaugh hones in on the importance of seeing the difference between various binaries, including attachment-detachment. In the chapter on these two concepts Cavanaugh looks at consumerism from a standpoint that is rather unique as he aligns consumerism not so much with attachment as with detachment.
His claim is that much of what we buy isn’t bought for its own sake, but for the non-material positives that come with the stuff. For one thing, as with any addiction, there is the dopamine rush that accompanies buying things - a feeling that is enhanced by sitting at a computer late at night and clicking on products that are so enticing (and for the present moment free).
But beyond that “buyer’s high” is the sense of self-worth and community that goes along with it. The knowledge that I, by buying something that exudes status, will place myself in a select group of people - important people - lets me know that I am “somebody.”
Even beyond the realization that consumerism leads us to use material things primarily for non-material ends is the recognition of the unquenchable lust to buy the next big thing. We are not so much attached to our particular Apple phone as we are to the brand and would jump at the chance to get an iPhone 13 even if our iPhone 12 is still in great working order.
Not only did my students totally understand what Cavanaugh was saying, but they could recite a litany of times when they and those they know have been caught in that web. The problem of consumerism is that it tries to extinguish the flame of desire with the bacon grease of buying new stuff.
The way to extinguish that conflagration, or at least get it under control, is actually quite simple and was spelled out by another philosopher whose name happened to have been Kavanaugh - Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., of St. Louis University.
In his article “Relish the Banquet” the late Fr. Kavanaugh points to not just giving thanks but to Thanksgiving as the antidote to consumerism.
After half-joking about the future removal of Thanksgiving to make way for more shopping days until Christmas, Fr. Kavanaugh writes,
After all, the spirit of giving thanks is not very good for craving and buying. If you give thanks, you are focused on what is, not what is not, on what you have rather than what you do not have. That is why Thanksgiving may well be the most subversive national holiday. It centers on the present moment, on the ritual of families eating together and especially on the appreciation of life.
Thanksgiving is not about what we want, but what we have; not gifts to come, but gifts received.
At the core of our many gifts are the people whom we see as we look around the table on Thanksgiving. As an exercise in gratitude, how grace-filled would it be to look at each person with whom we share the feast and ask ourselves, “What has this person meant in my life? What gift or gifts would never have been bestowed upon me if this person did not exist?” And to say to God, “Thank you for the presence of this person in my life; what a blessing she or he has been.”
May you and those you love have a blessed Thanksgiving, and may we all be drawn closer to each other, our Lord, and the Eucharist - the Greek word for Thanksgiving - through our celebration of this hallowed autumnal feast.