I am pretty crazy for the holiday time of year. There are plenty of traditions I love to return to annually come November and December and, though I’m not a huge TV fan, one of those is indulging myself in cheesy made-for-TV holiday films and Christmas commercials. I recognize how commercialized the holiday season has become, but I love the whole spirit of Christmas and being so completely surrounded by it at the end of the year, so I’m never one to complain.
One thing I have always loved to do every year is watch Oprah’s “My Favorite Things” episode where she bestows upon her audience an unbelievable number of luxury items that she swears by. It’s a generous move on Oprah’s part and an awesome marketing move on that of the companies who put out these products, so I guess it’s a mutually beneficial thing. Plus, a deserving group of people (for instance, a few years ago all members of Oprah’s audience on that day were teachers) are surprised with plenty of new things they probably would never have otherwise treated themselves to. And the Oprah set is decked out in festive colors, twinkling lights, and holiday decorations (which is probably the biggest reason why I’ve watched year after year).
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m more mature with age, or that I take an overly critical eye to things, or it could be my immersion into the real world has me a bit bitter. Whatever the reason, on the show’s last holiday special I found myself more disgusted than jolly while watching Oprah’s giveaway episodes (she actually had two “My Favorite Things” episodes rather than just the usual one). Yeah, it’s great that Oprah is so generous to her most deserving viewers and fans. And I love to give, it’s one of my favorite things about the holiday season, so I can relate to the joy that this scale of gifting can bring to the giver. But the excess of the whole endeavor turns me off. I understand that it’s Oprah’s last year so she wants to go out with a bang, but who really needs a $3500 3D TV or the promise of a 2012 VW Beetle that no one other than VW employees in Germany and Oprah herself have even seen? A panini maker and 4 pairs of Nikes? Sweat pants and jeans that lift your butt, squeeze your thighs, and keep everything in place?
I don’t deny that Oprah is an extremely generous person and I think her intentions are entirely understandable and mostly pure for a person with her wealth and power. To better explain my position, I’ll explain the context in which it became fully realized – in the reactions of her audience. Hysteric screams, tears of joy, jumping in place, wide-eyed disbelief. It’s important to feel, and demonstrate, gratitude when treated with such generosity. But the audience was reacting as though Ty Pennington from ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover just revealed to them their new home, complete with free utilities, all the furnishings, and a lifetime’s worth of food from a major grocery chain. Maybe I’m just a more subtle, less-excitable person than the majority of Oprah fans, or maybe I’m entirely too cynical, but these people were in hysterics over a new brownie pan designed so that each and every brownie was an edge rather than a middle. I couldn’t help thinking of how these products were largely unnecessary and fairly limited in their usefulness. We’re only made to think that they’re the answer to our prayers because skilled advertisers have the know-how to trick us into spending money on things we think we need.
To think of how much money Oprah shelled out to outfit her guests with all of these gifts just makes me despair over how that money could have been so much better spent. Sure, it’s nice to receive a few luxuries every now and then, but this was especially excessive. If these people were so deserving of a generous break, why not help them out with the expenses that make normal, everyday life so stressful? Give them the financial assistance to pay off their homes, send their kids to college, stock their kitchens, and ensure adequate healthcare. Or better yet, divide the money even further to reach more people – the people who are the most destitute, the most in need of a dollar or two every day of the year. I know Oprah does plenty of charity work and has devoted herself to a slew of important causes, but I can’t help thinking that, no matter how small the expense of this show may be in her grand financial scheme of things, every dollar of it could have been put to greater use if directed to someone in true need. I don’t want to downplay the individuals in the audience and their potential need, but I believe that if they were really destitute, they wouldn’t want an expensive TV, body lotion, loungewear, and over-priced exercise shoes so much as the essentials – shelter, clothing, and food.
I’m not here to condemn anyone, because I ultimately view Oprah’s show as merely one example of a trend that I can be traced in plenty of other venues – money is being spent on unnecessary luxuries, oftentimes for people who aren’t in need of much, especially not another expendable gadget, when true and dire need is crippling others nearby. I work two part time jobs and so have to keep my finances under close watch. I worry about money all the time, am as thrifty a shopper as can be, and avoid the mall like the plague to completely remove the temptation to make gratuitous expenses. But I still don’t guard my savings enough that I can’t find a few dollars to donate here and there, or to buy an item or two off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu to give the skin and bones woman begging for change on the street corner. I’m far from perfect and there are innumerable other decisions I could make that would minimize my negative impact on the world at large and maximize my potential to do good. But I still recognize the importance and potential of those small decisions I can make about how to use my limited resources.
My plea isn’t to boycott luxury items, to defile Oprah, or even to save spare change to give to homeless strangers. Rather, I just want to increase awareness and generate a more thoughtful and critical outlook on the way money is spent, as an individual, a family member, all the way up to the corporations. Part of this has been spurred, I think, by what I’m currently reading, a biography of Harry Chapin. Chapin was a singer-songwriter most well-known for his tune “Cat’s in the Cradle” whose most important legacy should be his dedication to eradicating world hunger. Chapin wasn’t always an admirable philanthropist, but once he recognized the scope of need and his potential, even as a mid-level artist, to make widespread change, he never once strayed from his commitment. Unlike the majority of artists, Chapin didn’t do a benefit concert merely once or twice a year when presented with the opportunity, but rather, made those very charitable opportunities out of thin air. A good two-thirds of his shows benefitted various charities, most concerning hunger issues. And all the proceeds from his merchandise went straight to his organization World Hunger Year (WHY). Chapin recognized (and was willing to admit) that, despite the occasional efforts made by big name celebrities to combat hunger, change wasn’t happening. Disenchanted with lackluster charitable efforts and ineffectual strategies, Chapin learned as much as possible about the hunger issue, connected himself with the most well-versed and respected of world hunger experts, and made a plea to his fans, any audience he found himself in front of, and finally then-President Jimmy Carter. Eventually Chapin’s efforts led to a Presidential Commission to fight world hunger on which he served as a board member. It was only through his unparalleled commitment to this issue and his conviction that he had the power to instill change, that a commission on hunger came into being, much less that Chapin found himself a member of it.
But I digress. I want anyone who reads this post to recognize the power of their potential, to be inspired to display generosity to others who truly need it in the course of their daily life, and to rethink their monetary decisions and their definition of need. Don’t feel guilty for treating yourself to a new item of clothing or an indulgent dinner out every now and again. But don’t forget that the very fact that you can sit before a computer, access the internet, read this blog post, and will probably have three (or more) square meals before you go to sleep tonight places you among the most fortunate group of people in the world. And with great fortune comes an increased ability to share that fortune with others.