The Beast in the Shadow

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This post is something I wrote for a political blog I (infrequently) write. I am posting it here with only slight edits because of the our recent holiday – Thanksgiving – and the juxtaposition with the consumerism of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the “holiday shopping.” Today in our secular world, holy-days are little more than vacations from work. While family and giving are generally important, there is a huge focus on money and consumerism and other worldly things. Now, this is not necessarily bad but when our main focus becomes money and stuff, we have lost sight of what really is important, even if that money and stuff ostensibly is for our family. And so, here is my post. It is considerably more economic and political than typical posts on this blog but I feel it is am important topic; additionally, I have kept it as neutral politically and economically as possible. This post has influences from Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, in which Nibley is very critical of consumerism.

I have very mixed feelings about Black Friday. On one hand I enjoy finding good deals on things. When I can purchase items for significantly less than their actual retail value, I always have a feeling of satisfaction. While I like to buy frivolous things sometimes, I also enjoy finding deals on everyday items – toothpaste, toilet paper, diapers, and so forth. I’m also a believer in many of the tenets of capitalism and consumerism, although I certainly don’t canonize those beliefs. I save money but I also believe that money is more useful when it is spent. Spending money directly on services or goods benefits both buyer and seller. On a macro level, money has to be spent to grow an economy. The old mantra of business – you have to spend money to make money – is true (generally and within the realm of legitimate business operations; there are those who illegally {or even legally} prey on others and unethically profit with little or no effort on their part).

I enjoy finding deals on Black Friday. I also don’t mind doing my part to help businesses become profitable and to stimulate the economy in my own little way; after all, businesses employ people and provide goods and services. All savings without any spending does not help the broader economy. Saving money for retirement, unexpected expenses, expected expenses, and so forth is necessary but saving all your money and spending only the bare minimum might not be in the best interest of the broader economy. That is, unless you do not make enough money to afford any of your wants beyond your basic needs. The problem is that so many of us have our needs and wants mixed up.

Image by hradcanska: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hradcanska/2361030629/

Then there is the other part of me that dislikes the barely suppressed or outright greed that is rampant on Black Friday. Black Friday is the paragon of consumerism, it is when many people openly and gaudily worship at the altars of Mammon by selling their messes of pottage for trinkets and trivialities. Occasionally in the pursuit of such idle pleasures and worldly possessions, a streak of egocentrism with apathy and violence towards the Other is revealed. How abhorrent that some people are so callous that their desire to consume results in the extinguishment of a human life! Yet, all is not gloomy. I witnessed kindness while shopping – people sharing a deal or helping others. Even those who were not Other-focused were patient and civil. The extremes just capture our attention. While violence that is performed by the hands (or feet) of the worshipers of Mammon is relatively rare, it reveals a dark and vicious beast lurking in the shadows of consumerism.

Another disconcerting aspect of Black Friday and the holiday season in general is the commercialization of it. Everything is about spending money and buying the fanciest toys for children, friends, family, and loved ones. Many people go into significant debt during this time of the year. According to one article, “One survey suggests that while 30% of Americans pay off Christmas debt within three months of Christmas, another 25% carry it for over a year” (Source). 25% are paying off Christmas debt until the following Christmas! And some people wonder why the U.S. government has a spending problem. How can we expect fiscal responsibility from Congress when we are not a fiscally-sound people? This whole holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day has become one big spending spree. Much of the original meanings of those holidays has been lost to the constant stream of consumerism (the recent mortgage crisis is also evidence of this).

With all the focus on consuming, it’s no wonder our country also faces an obesity epidemic. The two – irresponsible spending and eating – go hand in hand. We are a country of extremes and impulsivity. The shadow beast of consumerism is greed. It has claws of irresponsibility and fangs of self-centeredness. It preys upon all who stand in its way; in the end, the beast eventually turns on its owner and consumes him. We need to have moderation and responsibility of our personal habits if we hope to tame or slay this beast. We also have to gain control over our personal lives and habits if we expect to have a more fiscally-responsible government. We cannot afford to live beyond our means.

While it is appropriate to go into debt to purchase a house or a modest (and needed) car or to finance an education, we should not go into debt for other reasons. Elder Wirthlin cautioned against going into debt in the April 2004 General Conference:

“I would like to talk about our heavenly debts and earthly debts. The Gospels record that nearly everywhere the Savior went, He was surrounded by multitudes of people. Some hoped that He would heal them; others came to hear Him speak. Others came for practical advice. Toward the end of His mortal ministry, some came to mock and ridicule Him and to clamor for His crucifixion.

“One day a man approached the Savior and asked Him to intervene in a family dispute. ‘Master, speak to my brother,’ he pleaded, ‘that he divide the inheritance with me.’

“The Savior refused to take sides on this issue, but He did teach an important lesson. ‘Beware of covetousness,’ He told him, ‘for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.’1

“Brothers and sisters, beware of covetousness. It is one of the great afflictions of these latter days. It creates greed and resentment. Often it leads to bondage, heartbreak, and crushing, grinding debt.

“The number of marriages that have been shattered over money issues is staggering. The amount of heartbreak is great. The stress that comes from worry over money has burdened families, caused sickness, depression, and even premature death.”

Elder Wirthlin also quoted Pres. Heber J. Grant: “From my earliest recollections, from the days of Brigham Young until now, I have listened to men standing in the pulpit … urging the people not to run into debt; and I believe that the great majority of all our troubles today is caused through the failure to carry out that counsel.”

Finances strain most people. We shouldn’t allow poor decisions to result in severe strain. To avoid debt, Elder Wirthlin suggested these strategies:

  1. Pay your tithing [I will not discuss this here but this is an absolute must!]
  2. Spend less than you earn
  3. Learn to save
  4. Honor your financial obligations
  5. Teach you children to follow your example

I will not discuss these more right now, Elder Wirthlin covered them well in his talk. I just want to add that we should not only avoid debt but we should also avoid what usually causes debt – greed and pride. I know there are extenuating circumstances – loss of a job, emergencies, and tragedies – but those are more rare than not. When we love money, we worship it instead of God. We should not give home to the shadow beast of greed.

If you are struggling with debt, the Church has many resources available to help you work your way out.

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