You’re not who you think you are. This, according to movies like The Matrix, Fight Club, the Bourne Identity, The Truman Show, Lost Highway and many others. Not only are you somebody else, but you are actually living “in a world where nothing is as it seems”, to quote one of the most popular movie trailer lines. This theme of alienation reflects our modern disconnectedness with ourselves, each other and especially with the natural world. The stories are popular because they provide an entertaining look at our own delusions, where we confuse our own identities with a diploma, a brand name, a job title or a neighborhood.
Material prosperity is essential to our well-being, but the pursuit of affluence for its own sake impoverishes us and traps us in a world where we become dominated by our possessions. Creativity becomes degraded to consumption and people’s worth subjugated to productivity. There have been studies that show low self-esteem leads to greater materialism, and greater materialism leads to greater dissatisfaction.
At the heart of Materialism is that it has no heart, it exists purely in the superficial: the flash and dazzle of the new, which quickly fades and loses its value once we have acquired it. It churns us up in an exhausting cycle of gain and attain, to the point where we forget why we do things, whose agenda we are following and where it is leading us. We become suffocated by the weight of our own achievements and lose the connection to our values in the process. In this culture of superficiality we don’t have time to form deep bonds and relationships suffer. Money becomes the ultimate arbiter between people, and so our relatedness is reduced to transactions.
Perhaps the biggest consequence of Materialism, is that it confuses who we are with what we do and what we have. We become our jobs. Materialism’s dogma of worldly success dictates that work supersedes the person,and our identity is inextricably wound up in our work role. We also become what we have, as we are measured by the quality and quantity of our possessions. But to again quote Tyler Durden, “You’re not your goddamn khakis.”
I picked up a recent copy Men’s Journal at our retreat’s lending library the other week and noticed in the advertising, two consistent messages: escape and compensation. On the first page is a fold-out ad from Discover Boating.org that has a lawnmower on a dock on one side and a happy family in a boat on the other with the question: “What kind of dad wants a mug that says, ‘world’s greatest grass cutter’?” The message: a father’s worth is not measured by his character, but by his possessions. There’s more from the ad: “Knocking a few chores off your to-do list won’t make you a hero, but taking the family boating will.” In my mind I added, (to make up for all the birthdays, games and other special moments you’ve missed busting your ass trying to buy a boat).
This ad, like most others, is about escape (from the drudgery that we’ve sold ourselves into in order to afford stuff like boats) and to compensate (for the inherent dissatisfaction in this deal). Compensation also ties into the self-esteem issue, where a Rolex somehow but not quite makes up for our various perceived shortcomings. Advertising is the liturgical worship of Materialism, and it keeps us mindful of the need to fulfill our duties as consumers.
At a high point in my career, I left a rewarding role at a company I started and helped build in China, and left the counrty where I was so in demand as a trainer and coach, because I realized that I had lost an important connection to my values. When I finally wrote them down, I realized that first was health and I was living in one of the world’s most polluted cities. The second was family, and I was far away from them. As I went down the list, and saw the this disconnectedness, I realize had sacrificed my quality of life in pursuit of the things and people’s opinions that mattered least. Since I ‘unplugged from the Matrix’, doors have opened, relationships have blossomed and I’m much more in tune with my world. In short, I feel reconnected to the natural world and my own true nature as well. No boat required.