Ben Michaelis Ph.D.

The Creative Imperative

Black Friday Violence: Where It Comes From and What We Can Do about It

The violence that we saw last week gave new meaning to the term “Black Friday.”

Posted Dec 01, 2011

Yes, we can certainly blame other people for what happened.  It’s easy to single out the woman who so desperately wanted the deeply discounted X-box that she pepper sprayed those who threatened to come between her and her baby cub, or to attribute the stampede over the $2.00 waffle makers at the Wal-Mart in Little Rock to Arkansans’ well-known fervor for breakfast sweets — Incidentally, if anyone who is reading this happened to have been on top of the stampede, please write in and tell me about how those waffles tasted.  I can only imagine that those things were like little melt-in-your-mouth heaven nuggets.

I do sincerely hope that you survived Black Friday unscathed, avoided bodily harm on Small Business Saturday, and that your carpal tunnel syndrome from Cyber Monday will be better by the time Super Sunday rolls around.  For now though, here you are, reading this article, trying to avoid work on Overdraft Wednesday or Where did I leave my AMEX? Thursday, feeling empty and spent: Literally and figuratively.  

So, what happened at these stores to incite such fervor on Black Friday? I simply can’t, or won’t, believe that a $35 smartphone is the true culprit for gunshot wounds, well, unless it was the iPhone 4S — that thing is awesome.  Mine bakes me chocolate chip cookies, brings me my scotch, and gives the best foot rubs, so maybe it is. The crux of Friday’s hysteria was the toxic combination of Emptiness and the False Promise of Redemption. 

The emptiness that is beneath the violence has its roots in childhood.  Everyone encounters pain and loss in youth; some of us, unfortunately, endure even greater insults, such as abuse, violence or trauma during the early years.  Of course we may have these experiences as adults too, and they can lead to negative feelings, but what happens to us when we are most vulnerable can be particularly intense.  If our feelings about these experiences are not examined, distilled and integrated into our understanding of ourselves, they grow into emptiness, anger and fear.  The emptiness may be dormant for a long while, but there are triggers that can bring it roaring back to life.  For example, when it seems like everyone around you has the new new thing but you don’t, or can’t get it, you may be transported back to times in your youth when you didn’t receive adequate care or love.  This can trigger deep-seated emotions that have the power to overcome you.

Marketers — and, let me be clear, I am not trashing them.  Some of my best friends are marketers, really — whose job it is to sell you things, entice you to buy goods with the vague promise of contentment and completion.  This seems like a relatively easy path to redemption and so many of us try it.   When we are given a time limit to obtain this promise of happiness, as in the case of the “one time only” Doorbuster Deals, we saw on Friday, desperation sets in, and we may resort to violence to acquire the happiness that we so desperately want.

So what can we do?  Are we all potentially slaves to well-timed and scripted promotion?  Does it mean that we need to give up gifts and good deals? No. But consuming can be and should be done with consideration.  It needs to be decoupled from the promise of happiness; separated from the feelings of emptiness that come to all of us from time to time.

Examine your Feelings

The emptiness that many people experience in their day-to-day lives cannot be remedied by a simple three-step solution.  I will not disrespect you, by trying to give you that the impression that it can be.  What I do suggest, however, is that you can address your feelings without retail therapy or violence.  Try to examine your feelings of emptiness, fear and anger and explore them in a safe setting, either with a friend or a trained professional, if possible.  You can also express yourself through your natural creativity. Understanding and expressing your feelings in a safe way is essential if you want to make sense of your experiences in order to feel full and powerful again.

If you come away from reading this article with one message, besides the fact that pepper spray will not solve your problems, it is this: Consuming does not make the feelings go away.  This is so important that I am going to write it again: Consuming does not make the feelings go away.  If this seems strange to you it is because consuming actually does quiet sadness and self-doubt for a brief moment, usually slightly longer than it takes to unwrap a gift, but after the thrill of the consumption fades, the emptiness comes back stronger and deeper.

Make, Don’t Buy

I’m not foolish enough to think that one article can stop, or even stun, the behemoth of capitalism, and nor would I necessarily want it to — I like my $2.00 waffles with Nutella and Magic Shell please — but perhaps we can slow down the consumption just a bit this holiday season.

If every person who is reading this article can consider making a pact with someone you love, like, or that you can tolerate, to make (instead of buy) something for each other, maybe you can start to refocus on expressing your genuine feeling for someone rather than letting good ol’ Visa do the talking for you.  Every single person has the capacity to make something and to share that with someone else, whether it’s baking cookies, writing a poem, building a bookshelf, or knitting a scarf, it is far more meaningful for both the giver and the receiver to exchange items that come from the heart than from a shipping container.  If each of you can do that for just one person, perhaps together we can begin to return the holiday season to its roots as a time of sharing instead of overindulgence.

Taking these suggestions may not necessarily end the Black Friday frenzy, but if we can slow down the mania, perhaps more of us will be able to enjoy the holidays as they were intended to be: a time of connection and sharing that is injury, and pepper-spray free.