Gratitude and Community–Powerful Antidotes for Materialism

Yes, there is injustice and suffering. Yes, we are called to heal our world. Gratitude does not mean blinding ourselves to what is wrong in our world, nor does gratitude mean we do not strive to heal what is broken. Quite the opposite is true. Gratitude for all that is good in our lives leads us to compassion and generosity of spirit.

One of the most destructive things our consumer culture does is to teach us to want what we do not have. Wanting more becomes an addiction that destroys our souls and our planet. Gratitude, deep gratitude, frees us. Gratitude also links us to others.

               ~Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President

 Throughout the year we are immersed in a culture designed to compel us to spend, acquire, consume, and accumulate, with an implicit message those actions will somehow bring fulfillment and happiness to our lives.   However, the heat is turned up with the onset of the season of religious holidays of light barely glimmering beneath the looming shadow of the Christmas shopping binge.  Very few of us can escape its grasp, particularly those with young children.

I remember when I was a religious educator and mother of two young daughters, living in a quiet suburban community with means, and working very hard to keep the forces of materialism at bay.  Many of my daughters’ friends received an array of the newest toys on the market each Christmas or Hanukkah.  We didn’t have the means to do as much purchasing at the time.

When my oldest daughter Christine was about to enter preschool, the director of the preschool came to interview her, to get to know this prospective student and her family.  The director asked Christine what kinds of things she liked to play.  Christine immediately said, “I like to play house and pretend to cook things.”  The preschool director asked my daughter if she had a play kitchen.  Christine immediately ran out of the room and returned with her “kitchen,” which consisted of a shoe box filled with an odd lot of aluminum pots, plastic cups and plates, and utensils.  Our visitor was surprised (pleasantly, as it turned out).  Christine was thrilled to show her amazing collection and abilities.  I remember feeling a strange mix of embarrassment, inadequacy, and pride in my daughter’s creativity and resourcefulness. I was filled with gratitude when the director quickly affirmed Christine’s “kitchen” as the best kind there is when it comes to using your imagination.

It’s easy to get sucked into thinking our holiday spending is the best thing to help our economic woes.  Some economists challenge that notion, as described in the Atlantic’s December Santanomics series by Derek Thompson(  Referencing a 2010 Wall Street Journal survey, Thompson reports that more than two of three economists opined that if Christmas ceased to exist as a holiday, consumers would either spend more on themselves or spread their gift purchases more evenly across other events such as birthdays. That, in the view of some academics, would put more goods into the hands of people who truly value them and improve social welfare as a result.

Here are some startling statistics about the impact of our consumer culture on young people and their parents:   Did you know?        

  • Young people, newborns through age 22, represent a $1 trillion market to sellers in the American marketplace, through their own direct spending and influence over family purchases.
  • Young people under age 20 spend five times more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than their parents did at the same age.
  • Consumer product companies spend over $230 billion annually ($2,190 per household) on marketing, much of it directed at children and teens.
  • Fifty-three percent of children have their own television in their room.  More than one-fourth of those age two to four have their own television.
  • Children and youth, ages 8 to 21 spend nearly $175 billion a year of their own money.
  • They spend approximately 17 hours a week online and spend $22 billion online.
  • A 1997 study showed children age six to twelve spent more than two and a half hours a week shopping, a full hour more than in 1981.  They spent as much time shopping as reading or going to church, and five times as much as they spend going outside.
  • More children go shopping each week (52%) than read (42%), go to church (26%), play outdoors (17%), or spend time in household conversations (32%).

Parents seeking alternatives to the pressures of excess holiday spending need affirmation and creative ideas for celebrating the holidays in meaningful, affordable ways.  Children and teens can be supported and fortified to withstand the pressure of the marketing machine by attention to relationships–enjoyable time with family and friends–and opportunities for service and sharing with others with greater needs.

Faith communities, school, and play a critical role in providing a counter-balance to the forces of the consumer culture.  We cannot underestimate the role of community in providing a context of satisfying relationships and meaningful activities.  Faith communities and schools offer opportunities for service and generosity that warm the heart and foster empathy in people of all ages.  Whether it be collecting hats, mittens, and jackets to keep people warm through the winter months, serving meals at the soup kitchen, reading to children or visiting house-bound elders, these activities help to connect people and values in positive ways.

Another powerful antidote to materialism and the ill effects of the consumer culture is GRATITUDE, simply appreciating what we have and realizing the blessing of sufficiency.  One practice is to take time each day to think of at least one thing for which we are grateful, and to write it down or share it with another person.  For nurturing gratitude in children, we can tell stories and engage them in activities that illustrate aspects of life that precipitate feelings of gratitude.

Sometimes circumstances create obstacles to gratitude:  unemployment, unanticipated car or home repairs, medical crises, depression, substance abuse, and financial hardships.  These are the times when we must go deeper, to search our souls for hope, courage, and the people in life that compel us to stay connected, be resourceful, and survive.  As isolating as life’s challenges can be, we are never truly alone.

For those of us who are active in faith communities, we have the privilege and responsibility to open our hearts and our hands to offer the gift of community to all those who seek it.  We can practice true hospitality by inviting and welcoming newcomers.  We  can focus our energy on giving of ourselves and our resources, inspired by hope that springs from awareness of our abundance, and fortified by the gratitude that comes from being held in the caring arms of community.

Gratitude Circle:  Beliefnet Community:

Books for nurturing gratitude among all ages:

You’ll Thank Me Later – A Guide to Nurturing Gratitude in Our Children (And Why That Matters)  by Annie M Zirkel

Gratitude Soup: Create Your Own by Olivia Rosewood

The first installment of the Atlantic’s Santanomics series by Derek Thompson:

“The Heart of Our Faith” by Galen Guengerich.