October 20, 2010
The Great American TranceBy Judith Acosta
A while back, I was talking about Alcoholics Anonymous to someone who'd been mandated to attend a DWI program, and he said with righteous conviction, "I hate A.A. It's all brainwashing."
I looked at his Hummer and then at him. "And you don't think you're brainwashed now?"
He didn't answer. But as we walked down the street, our conversation was forcibly interrupted by bus-stop billboards, flyers stapled to telephone poles, and posters in store windows pushing products that would make us happier, wealthier, and more virile. Nearly everyone was on cell phones, hooked to iPods, or texting. It seized me: We're all in walking trances!
It was not the first time the thought occurred to me, but it was the first time it really concerned me. Americans are in a deep state of trance. And it's not a good one. For the most part, we are benumbed, befuddled, or afraid.
Considering the state of our economy, our bungled and cowering political presence in the world, and the simple fact that we are at war, a trance of this sort is precisely the opposite state of mind we need to cultivate.
This cultural trance is made vivid in my work. I can do only so much with a person who comes to me complaining about poor self-esteem when everything in our culture tells her she's nothing if she's not high-breasted, full-lipped, and simultaneously powerful and oh-so down-homey.
In contemplating my conversation with the fellow who loved his Hummer but hated brainwashing, I came up with several pathologies that have come to characterize American culture and may offer some explanation as to why our economy is failing and our political presence in the world is a joke.
Trance #1: The Next Osama Syndrome
The trance of viral fear is the drive shaft of the American economy. It tells us that the next catastrophe is right around the corner, unless...
It's a simple formula: We buy things (even though it puts us in debt) because we believe we need them. We believe we need them because we're afraid of something terrible happening if we don't have them. We get convinced that not having them puts us at grave risk -- for attack, hemorrhoids, loneliness, heart failure, or social scorn. We pour more pharmaceuticals into our bodies than ever, yet we have more heart disease, autism, panic attacks, isolation, and asthma in this country than ever before. And with all the surveillance, bombs, and barricades we've erected around us, we are still the most frightened we've ever been -- and the most vulnerable. It is an awful irony how little all that fear has done to protect us. It has not even closed our borders. Why?
The problem is this: When we're afraid in that way (chronically, pervasively, and pointlessly), we're needy. And when we're needy like that, we'll buy anything, including bad ideas, such as Chamberlain's idea to carve up Czechoslovakia so Hitler wouldn't be so mad at us. "If we just give him what he wants, he'll leave us alone." That's not diplomacy or statesmanship. And though it was stupid, it wasn't just stupid. It was cowardly. And it led to the deaths of nearly 55 million people, with most of Europe flying the swastika. Fear has an enormous price tag. And if we don't wake up, we're going to make that same mistake again in the Middle East. (Just a little of this city and a little of that peninsula; anything to keep the imams from getting mad.)
Trance #2 - Moreitis
This is the trance of I need more. It is unrestrained consumption and growth. We guzzle without compunction. On the physical level, we are a country overflowing with cancer, psoriasis, and diabetes. Our garages are filled to overflowing, but on the emotional and spiritual level, we are becoming bankrupt.
The origin of it is subtle. You -- me -- we identify with what we have more than we identify with who we are and what we offer to our communities and to God. If we don't have the clothing, the car, or the house that reflects our chosen image to the world, we have nothing. Worse, we are nothing. (It is a unique form of idolatry in the history of humanity. We have come to idolize our own images.)
Because of our need for more, our whole culture is now based on one of the few economic devices the Bible disallows: usury. Yet we can't stop putting things on credit no matter what the interest. We can't stop buying. This is not just greed or gluttony, although greed and gluttony are certainly part of the picture. It is pure delusion.
Trance #3 - The Eruption of Ugly
There has never been a nation of more deliberately sculpted beauty (except perhaps for Rome) or a culture that has spent more money on beauty because it is convinced it is ugly.
Women starve themselves, men fill themselves with toxins, people of all ages spend hours in front of mirrors terrified of being unattractive as if our sexual desirability determined our worth in the world.
The truth is we haven't a clue about what is really attractive or beautiful. And we miss all the real opportunities for love and worthiness, which have far less to do with plumped lips or six-pack abs than with service, humility, and kindness.
Trance #4 - The I'M-1-N-1 Virus or the Self-as-Center.
Finally, we have the deepest expression of all this pathology. Because of all these other pathologies, we're also exceedingly self-centered. We're simultaneously insecure and entitled. And when we don't get what we want -- because we have no center, believe that we need the next it to fill up that empty space, because we're afraid and self-loathing -- we become violent. Rage is the American pastime. One spin of the remote is all the demonstration you need to verify that.
What do we do with this?
First things first: We wake up. We start to pay proper attention to the media in which we are bathing and the suggestions we are swallowing heedlessly. We look and see. We listen and hear. We are touched and we feel. Trance makes us insensate. A firm intra-psychic pinch would be good for us.
Secondly, we return to the Beatitudes. We cultivate a spiritual center; we look up with awe instead of at ourselves in the mirror or at the stuff we've accumulated. We remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. Something else is, and it centers us.
The third is Faith. When we can put our faith in Something beyond ourselves, there is nothing to fear. When we can trust that that God is running the show, we can relax in the moment. We don't have to buy anything. We don't have to run away anymore. And we can be prepared and present instead of paralyzed with panic. The other thing Chamberlain showed besides cowardice when he gave up Europe to a maniac was a profound lack of faith in righteousness.
The fourth and perhaps most difficult thing for Americans is a Correctness of Desire. The medicine for unrestrained want is gratitude. That means we have to do a reality check when we pull out our credit cards and ask ourselves: Do we need this? What is it that we are really longing for?
We are creatures of culture, but the good news is that our culture is created in equal proportion by us. While "as above, so below" is true, it is equally true to say, "As below, so above." We can't blame this on our leaders or lack thereof. This is us. We still have time to wake up America, even if it's one person at a time.
Judith Acosta is the author of The Next Osama (2010). She can be reached at www.thenextosama.com or www.wordsaremedicine.com.