With Black Friday and Cyber Monday upon us, the plague of instant gratification squarely confronts us once more. What will we do? The triumph of consumerism in our individual lives and the life of the country has left many Americans feeling they’ve lost control of things. They wonder how we can pursue a different path. Here’s how we can get started.
Over the past year I traveled across the country listening to Americans talk about the country and their lives, and they told me repeatedly about the many ways we have turned inward, concerned only about ourselves, seeking to accumulate what we can. We are now a land of instant gratifiers – from endless shopping sprees, to text messaging with the expectation of an immediate response, to insisting our long-term economic woes should be “fixed” overnight.
The culture of instant gratification tells us that we can get what we want, when we want it, for the price or effort we want – and when we don’t like something, we can return it with no questions asked. Remind you of anything in community life nowadays? How about, for instance, the ways in which we talk about our public schools.
Our instant gratification impulse has led us to turn away from making long-term investments in our communities, even engaging in conversations about long-term matters. I fear we have fallen prey to the belief nowadays that our common problems can be solved simply by making a quick donation online, signing a petition, or volunteering for an hour here and there. Moreover, when we insist on asking, “What’s in it for me?” we lose the possibility of being part of something larger than ourselves.
And yet before we believe we must succumb to the plague of instant gratification, let us celebrate that Americans are calling for a change. People are yearning to come back into the public square, to re-engage and reconnect with one another. They say their inward focus has left a void in our individual and collective lives, something they have sought to fill through instant gratification. But it’s not working.
One key alternative: get back to basics. For instance, people want more compassion in their lives – the need for people once again to see and hear each other, reach out to the other, and support each other; more openness and humility – the room to engage with others, listen attentively, discern what may be truly important, and thus act with care; and greater concern for the common good – to believe, at a time when people are implored daily to think solely about their own survival, their own good, that we hold shared interests. These are things that cannot be bought, but rather only built – together.
So, during this holiday season, let’s start building a new path forward for ourselves, and our communities. I urge you to ask yourself and others the following questions:
- How can I act with greater openness and humility during conversations with other this holiday season?
- When topics arise, how can I think about the common good and not just my own good or the narrow good of one group or another?
- What small acts of compassion can I engage in – now, today?
- What it would mean for me to think of myself as a consumer vs. as a citizen – and what are the implications for how I can begin to turn toward others?
What’s important this holiday season is not that we seek large, bold steps weighed down by the false expectation that somehow consumerism will end; that simply would be another impulse for instant gratification! Such expectations would leave us feeling defeated and even less in control of our lives. Instead, let’s pry open space for us to take small, meaningful steps that will help us to restore our sense of belief in ourselves, and in one another, that a new, more hopeful path is possible.
Then, we go from there.