Sunday, April 27, 2014

Happiness v. Consumption

A few times in recent months, I have watched movies on television, resplendent with commercials. One of the movies has been “The Silence of the Lambs,” and the aggressive messaging of commercials and pop culture were far, far more frightening than the horror movie.

The glorification of stuff and the reduction of humanity's complex variety is beyond me. What I see, beneath all the sales and deals and shiny appliances and beautiful people living fantastical lives in a rotating series of cookie-cutter paradises, is the message that whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you do, it is not enough. Simply, you are not enough without everything they are selling.

I cannot seem to get past the cruelty of this message, and its cultural ubiquity. Who are “they” to imply that my life is unfulfilled without that blender, this engine, or that I have physical flaws to be hidden, or that the correct direction for my life is to become the tiny, long-suffering, wise, eternally hot wife to a schlubby looking man—who has the intelligence of an inbred puppy—and a beatific mother to a few messy children in an unbearably beige home? As a lady, I will also require a very large gaudy diamond ring to get that whole show on the road if my life is going to count as successful. And Dude-man is going to need a spiffy car and a good aftershave and I’m going to need some eyelash implants, a Brazilian wax, and the “right” outfit if we’re even going to get past a first date—we all are inadequate and incompetent without the vast assistance (abetting?) of consumer products to make us lovable. We will also need boring, soul-sucking but well paying jobs to accomplish this life, and expensive educations to get those jobs. (Lesser paying passions and interests be damned!) If I believe commercials, then this is what everyone is doing—worrying about stain removers, if the neighbors’ grass really is greener, which international retailer will give me the best deal on grotesque quantities of the necessities of life, and how much I hate my job, but how worth it all is to have fulfilled The American Dream.

This is absurd. I get by, pretty contentedly most days, without any of this and without agreeing that my life would be better with any of those “solutions.” And I can only hope that most people see all of this as a ridiculous parody of life, not an instruction manual on how to live. I can’t imagine believing the underlying message of personal inadequacy. I am as, if not more, insecure than the next person. I am regularly wracked with doubt, with worry, with fear, with the sense that I am barely holding things together. And, given all that, I still look at commercials, at most television shows, and popular movies with hysterical, horrified disbelief. Simply, I am certain that the life they are selling, the attitudes and mores on display is the antithesis of happy and healthy.

What makes me happy cannot be bought, cannot be sold, or marketed. Happiness isn’t a product. This must drive product development firms crazy. From my experience—which I’m happy to say is frequently emotionally if not physically outside mainstream anything—happiness comes in how you live, how you treat the people around you, how close you can hew to the truth of your heart. Life and logistics and that the people around you are as gloriously irregular and complex as you, are not hollow characters and puzzle pieces in your story, all of this will impact how well your visions of happiness can practically play out. It’s not exactly as if you can make up your mind to be happy, and nothing bad will ever happen to you again. Life is going to hurt, sometimes. Nothing you can buy will stop that. Life is also more beautiful and brilliant and soaring than any of us can imagine or articulate. Nothing you can buy can come close to that. Thank whatever is holy that this remains the stubborn truth.

I am not patient, and not always fully empathetic to people who are still trying to buy their way to happy, who haven’t learned that there are ways of being beyond the banal versions of life on big and little screens, on ads, in magazines and bad novels. It used to be that I just hated them for killing the planet, for buying all that stuff that will not last, will end up in a landfill, or floating out to the plastic island in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve gotten so angry and sad and scared that I’ve burst into tears thinking about all the pollution spewed into the world to make the trinketry, the abuse of people and land and resources that go into a cheap tee-shirt or new cell phone.

I’m not saying I don’t have those moments still.

Lately, though, I’m trying to look at why we live as we do, what are the underlying reasons for it all, what hunger are we trying to assuage? I don’t know. My suspicion, after watching a few hours of television and coming away feeling unclean and tinged with self-loathing, is that many people may have come to believe that they are not good enough, in some way. With so many “solutions” being sold, we must have an equal number of problems.

And, as a culture, I believe we do have problems. Lots. But, as people, as individuals, I believe that we have more solutions than problems. The key is to step away from the molds, the expecteds, the shoulds and supposed-tos, and examine fully where your happiness comes from, and what you truly need to sustain that. Do not let “them” make you fear and doubt and undermine your unique joys and talents. The mainstream cultural bathwater is dirty and stagnant—I feel gross having even dipped my toes in briefly.

My suggestion is to pull the plug, and go skinny-dipping. 

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