In the past few weeks, America’s biggest purveyor of pink plastic has unveiled their plan for the 2013 holiday season. In the process they probably revealed more than they intended to. What Toys R Us exposed was a cynical willingness to feed the worst in kids and parents if it feeds their corporate bottom line.
The opening move was a Thanksgiving message to American families: Skip the thanks-giving and go straight for the feeding frenzy. At the beginning of November, Toys R Us announced that they would be open Thanksgiving Day. A full 24 hours to savor bounty and express gratefulness in the presence of family and friends?? What a wasted opportunity! Why start the bargains the day after Thanksgiving when you can start them the day of?
The second move was that they hit the airwaves with a TV ad aimed at contrasting the dull boredom of nature’s gifts with the wonder and joy of Disney princess dolls and Transformers. In the ad, listless kids on a science fieldtrip, one where they will be visiting a local forest, are told instead that they get a shopping spree at Toys R Us. The bus full of children erupts! As Stephen Colbert put it, “This commercial shows kids the ‘great outdoors’ is nothing compared to the majesty of a strip mall. And they still get some nature because, remember, that confetti used to be a tree!”
The Toys R Us two-part act, by design, has the effect of reverse alchemy—of turning gratitude and wonder into greed. I feel full, I feel loved, I feel blessed, I feel content and What a cool world we live in get transformed into I want, I want, I want. Must have bargains. Must have toys.
What’s particularly painful about this transformation is that psychologically it also turns wealth into poverty. Beyond the basics of food, clothing, shelter and health, our sense of well-being is relative. We compare what we have now to what we had in the past, what our ancestors had and what our neighbors have. Together, these give us a sense of what we could or should have. The primary goal of advertising is to change that—to make us think that we could and should have more.
Psychologically, advertising works by impoverishing us, by creating want in every sense of the word. Want means desire as in I want you. But it also means lack, as in the old proverb, For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. It also means destitution, as in Nobody should go wanting. The feeling of wanting is a feeling that we are incomplete, inadequate, and unfulfilled. Madison Avenue exist to amplify those feelings; and the Toys R Us ad department exist to amplify them in children and parents.
Thanks-giving, meaning consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude, does the opposite. WisdomCommons.org, a website that I helped to found years ago, showcases attitudes and actions that are valued across the world’s great wisdom traditions, both religious and secular. To echo the Wisdom Commons, “Gratitude is a mindful acknowledgment of all that we have been given. When we focus on the abundance in our lives, we discover a greater capacity for generosity, cheerfulness, and contentment.”
Some of life’s best gifts are hand-me-downs, and the Wisdom Commons holds pages of handed down insights about gratitude. They come from individuals and sacred texts, saints and atheists, all of whom bear witness to the transforming power of giving thanks. None of them, I might add, express gratitude for the transforming power of pink plastic.
Scattered among the nuggets of received wisdom are words for parents who want to help their children feel rich and blessed regardless of their bank account. To my mind, messages like these are antidotes to the sense of insufficiency that Toys R Us seeks to infuse into our homes and families. These messages are simple reminders of things we already know:
Each of us, even in hard times, has something to be grateful for.
Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the time I am being carried on great winds across the sky. —Chippewa Traditional
So much has been given to me; I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied. —Helen Keller
We can say no to purveyors of want. Our kids will be happier in the long run if we help them acquire more wonder and gratitude whether they have many toys or few.
The day I acquired the habit of consciously pronouncing the words “thank you”, I felt I had gained possession of a magic wand capable of transforming everything. —Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov.
Fulfilled life is possible in spite of unfulfilled wishes. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. —Thornton Wilder
There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy. —Ralph Blum
The best things in life don’t come from retail stores.
As i walked down the avenue, the late afternoon sun was turning the lovely and dying sycamore leaves into fragments of brilliant stained glass, and i said to myself, “This alone is worth the price of admission to our broken and glorious world. —Linda Larsson
When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be — I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. —Wendell Berry
The generosity and renewal at the ancient heart of the holiday season have little to do with shopping.
Thanksgiving comes to us out of the prehistoric dimness, universal to all ages and all faiths. At whatever straws we must grasp, there is always a time for gratitude and new beginnings. —J. Robert Moskin
I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter….I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. —Roger Ebert
As we struggle, for ourselves and our children, to resist the contagious frenzy of Black Friday, the hypnotic idea that we can buy happiness on the cheap, it helps to remember what is at stake—and that the gifts that really matter don’t come in boxes.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.