Footage of the pepper-spraying incident at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart on Black Friday reminded me of the
Jakarta, Indonesia, soccer stampede, in which two people died and one child was severely injured.
At the Wal-Mart, desperate people were so crowded together, it's surprising a much worse event, a tragedy of grand proportions, wasn't the outcome.
For days, I registered my indignation at the mother who used pepper spray against her fellow shoppers. What have we come to? I asked friends and relatives. They didn't know but thought the incident might be another sign of our declining civilization.
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After a while, I tried to imagine what could have driven the pepper-spray woman to such an extreme, and that was when I finally had to admit that she and I might not be so different from each other. The woman was merely acting on a truth we all understand but aren't often willing to admit: We measure love by how much we are willing to sacrifice, and during the holidays that sacrifice takes a specific and material form.
In those moments of shopping frenzy gone awry, the woman was succumbing to a belief we parents all share to some degree. It's this belief that compels us to stand in line for hours, or even days, at the entrance to a big-box store at a time of year when temperatures dip into the 40s and we could be someplace warm, watching a movie or catching up on our Facebook page. We pitch tents and wrap ourselves in blankets against the cold, even forfeit Thanksgiving Day at home, because we cling to the notion that joy for our children might be found in the ownership of an Xbox.
I imagine that, like me, the pepper-spray woman loves her children so much that she will buy them things she can afford only at the Black Friday price. Like me, she wants her children to believe that the world is a magic place where all of their dreams can come true, if not 364 days a year then at least at Christmas. Like me, she wants to prove to her children that the world really is the place they hope it is, one where everybody who wants an Xbox gets one.
I assume the pepper-spray woman has been raised to believe what I have also been taught: If we don't lavish our children with expensive gifts at Christmastime, we are somehow bad parents. In this context, a mother of three who pepper-sprays her way to the front of the line so that she might walk away with the prize -- the coveted game system her children have talked about for months -- is not really exhibiting behavior I can condemn.
For Christmas 2010, I spent so much on an in-store credit account (one of the things I charged was an Xbox 360) that I am only this month finally paying off the bill. Though I can't imagine using pepper spray to blaze my way to the front of a line, how rational was my choice to run up an account that I knew would result in a year's worth of payments? How sane is a nation that looks forward to the Friday after Thanksgiving not as a time to enjoy an extended holiday, but as a day when we must compete against strangers for electronic gadgets marked at 50 percent off?
On the same day I heard the report about the Wal-Mart incident, I also watched a news anchor look into a camera and say to the nation, "Well, the Christmas season is off to a good start. Black Friday receipts were much higher than expected."
That was when I decided that I will not assume a year's worth of debt to buy presents this year. I will not stand in long lines or jostle my way through crowds. I have told my kids that they can expect one gift on Christmas morning.
I will spend less on them because I want them to understand that happiness does not come wrapped with a bow and that parental love cannot be measured by financial sacrifice.