WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.
Please, please make me stop!
What a piece of work, indeed.
Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.
When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.
What part of “radical” don’t you get?
It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.
Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.
Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?
True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.
The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.
“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”
I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.
The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!
“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca
The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”
The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:
Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”
Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”
Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?
Perhaps, our children?
“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx
As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.
I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.
Today is obviously one of those days.
When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.
Is it the beer you crave, or are you thirsting for the warm camaraderie and belonging hinted at by the affectionate smiles of the actors?
Are you hoping for the one-carat diamond around your finger, or for the true covenant of love that can only be expressed in honest words and meaningful deeds?
Is it the Caribbean cruise, or a yearning to break free from your meaningless job and humdrum life?
Philosopher Theodor Adorno said our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
So is it the gold watch, or more time to spend on what truly matters?
Faster food, or slower pace?
Might the diet program you just signed up for be a desperate cry for attention from your malnourished spirit rather than from your expanding waistline?
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. The tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
The hidden persuaders of capitalism, observed social critic Vance Packard, see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.
How did we end up here and how do we break free from the spell?
During the Great Depression of 1929, worried that the production lines would halt, industrialists turned to the hidden persuaders — the psychologists and marketers — for help. Whereas before, we bought stuff for its utilitarian value, e.g., durable shoes, the drive of the consumer had to be radically shifted to gobble-up the excess merchandise.
Enter human desire.
“We must shift America from a needs-to a desires-culture,” suggested Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker of the time. “People must be trained to desire… to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
So successful were the hidden persuaders that it earned them this gushing praise from President Herbert Hoover: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”
So we went from this…
Desires unsettle the heart, said Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around the 4th Century BC.
His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:
The five colors
blinds our eyes.
The five notes
deafen our ears.
The five flavors
dull our taste.
Racing, chasing, hunting,
drives people crazy.
Trying to get rich
ties people in knots.
So the wise soul
watches with the inner eye
not the outward,
letting that go,
The inner eye is the wise arbiter of your desires. It is the keen sword that cuts through the veil of delusion to reveal what your true needs are, keeping those, and spitting out the snake oil peddled by the hidden persuaders.
“The body’s needs are few,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold and banish hunger with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.” Two thousand years later, in ‘Fight Club,’ actor Brad Pitt echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “We’re working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” You can see why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.
A cruise ship can’t whisk you away from your dull life and inauthentic self.
A diamond’s glitter pales in comparison to the one in your fiancé’s eyes when affirming his commitment.
No amount of food, however fast, will nourish your starved soul.
And no amount of beer will quench your thirst for belonging.
To break the spell, all you must do is step away from screens and ask this simple question: What do I truly need?
After all, as writer Mary Ellen Edmunds once said, “You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”
Shocking, isn’t it? For all our time-saving devices, we just don’t have time.
The fact is, we do. It’s just crammed with new distractions created by the engine of commerce.
What’s ironic is that we work longer and longer hours to make more money to hand over to swindlers to come up with new distractions to stave our boredom. It is a mad chase for jolts of dopamine, and, like any addiction, the doses must be increasingly potent.
The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions. — Erica Jong
We would not be bored had we lived prior the Industrial Revolution. That’s because the word was only first used in 1853 by Charles Dickens, in ‘Bleak House,’ to describe the chronic malady of modern life.
The rapid expansion of factories spewing ‘time-saving’ contraptions inaugurated the concept of “leisure time” quickly crowded by new distractions — circuses, theatrical extravaganzas, tourism, Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram… the Smartphones right next to you and me.
German philosopher Theodor Adorno called Walt Disney the most dangerous man in America. He wasn’t against leisure time; simply questioning what we choose to do with it. It’s not enough to be busy, said Henry David Thoreau, so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?
Adorno realized that our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry, so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires-culture,’ said Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street Banker during the Great Depression. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. Capitalism’s tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
Pay close attention to most advertisements and you’ll discover the ruse.
Checking-out is no easy matter. The hook is deeply wedged in our brains. Rehab is the enemy of the great persuaders; our modern-day snake oil peddlers. They can’t afford us escaping the insane asylum and checking ourselves into a quiet space to restore our sanity; to alleviate our dis-ease. If we did, not only would we discover how enslaved we are but realize that the shackles were forged by our own hands.
A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller
Bill Levitt, father of American suburbia, perversely said no man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do. Keep the herd busy, docile, and entertained to prevent it from discovering the fraud.
A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.
We no longer know what to do in quietude. We fidget, look around for our cell phone, check the clock, fidget and fret some more. Simple things no longer deliver enough dopamine to stimulate our nerve cells. If we take a walk out in nature, our overstimulated brains are no longer reactive to a placid landscape but require more intense colors, harsher sounds, perhaps a flame-throwing squirrel torching aspens to ash. Not nature-as-it-is, but nature as we see on screens. We wish to edit the natural world as we edit our photos to the point where we no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and fantasy ends up being more stimulating because it’s chock-full of dopamine.
You might be familiar with the famous experiment conducted in the 1950s by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner in which they connected electrodes to the brains of rats enabling them to create sensations of excitement (dopamine) simply by pressing a pedal. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly scurry across shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would do this as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.
Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.
Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Is reality all that bad, or have we been made to believe it is?
Confucius found it rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the only way to achieve harmony was through strict adherence to ancient rituals and ceremonies.
Buddha found it bitter and preached the doctrine of detachment as the path to bliss.
Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, rejected labels altogether. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed on existence, he said, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life seem “sour” or “bitter”.
Writer Henry Miller said the word reality should not have a sinister and fatalistic ring. The man who is truly awake and completely alive, he said, is a man for whom reality will always be close to ecstasy.
But ecstasy, at root, means “standing outside oneself” which would put us back in an imaginary world. Perhaps Miller was referring to a feeling ofjoyful excitement, rooted in the reality of our ordinary world.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell said he didn’t think humans were necessarily seeking a meaning for life as much as an experience of being alive, so that our experiences on the physical plane (the world as it is) resonate with our innermost being and reality making us actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Both Miller and Campbell are pointing at feelings of intense joy.
Campbell went a step further and added “innermost being,” meaning eudaimonia: the process of living in accord with our essence and realizing our unique potential. Work done in accord with our essence and in service to a higher purpose will never feel like work.
We all would love to describe our careers like filmmaker William Herzog:
“A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me, everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”
The slogans of the travel industry — escape, unwind, recharge — have no effect on a man like Herzog.
“It is a melancholy commentary upon the nature of our modern industrial system,” wrote John Cowper Powys, “that in any consideration of happiness we are compelled to leave what is called ‘work’ entirely out of our thoughts. There are few occupations left worthy of the self-respect of the human race. Happiness, [for most], whether manual slaves or mental slaves of the monstrous profit system, must be something snatched at in contemptuous independence of what they call ‘our life’s work.’”
Perhaps, this is why so many eagerly swallow the quack medicine peddled by the great persuaders. To alleviate the tedium and lack of higher purpose of most jobs which burns them out without ever having been on fire. They chase ‘spirits’ in the guise of alcohol, drugs, extreme sports, pornography, consumerism, and non-stop distractions to assuage the pain and ennui of a spiritless life. Or because they feel unworthy, seek specious validation from a crowd of virtual judges through their social media posts.
Dopamine, instead of eudaimonia.
Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. — Doris Mortman
The difference between who you are and what you have was thoroughly explored by social psychologist Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art of Being.’
“The full humanization of man,“ he said, “requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation; from selfishness and egotism, to solidarity and altruism.”
Fromm was not advocating asceticism. Orientation toward “being” is not identical with “not-having.” He was, I suppose, simply echoing what Gandhi said decades before: “You do not have to renounce any of your possessions; you have to renounce the possessor.”
Three years ago, I did precisely that. Actually, went a step further and renounced most of my possessions and checked myself into spiritual rehab agreeing fully with Krishnamurti who said it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
The symptoms of withdrawal, I discovered, were more acutely felt by society than by me. Strange, how little man belongs to himself, said Henry Miller, how much he is yet the community’s property. If one follows one’s own conscience, everybody objects.
The objections are the terrified squeals of the infernal machine that insists that if the gears stop spinning, the world will come to an end. That’s the whole purpose behind its manufactured distractions — to keep us from thinking for ourselves and follow our own drumbeat. It can’t afford to give us a minute to sit in quietude lest we begin to pick the lock of the illusory doors of our prison.
(If you’re still with me and have not once checked your phone, social media, or email, it means I am succeeding in slowly lifting the veil to reveal the fraud perpetrated by the Great Wizards).
Walking away is not the point. A new world is not made by trying to forget the old, said Miller. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values.
The first step I took was examine the script I had been playing. I then edited-out the parts which did not resonate with my innermost being which kept me from feeling the rapture of being alive. I gave myself permission to be myself, so to speak.
Next, I thought hard on what exactly filled me with delight. In this domain, children have it licked, because, as modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton said, they don’t know what they are supposed to like and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value to them. They have to rely instead on their own delight in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with. It is easy to comprehend why Jesus said that theirs was the Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom, mind you, of the here and now.
Having once possessed the wealth many covet, I realized simpler pleasures yielded greater delight. I also discovered that while the quick-pulse intensity of a passionate life sounds alluring, it is short-lived and produces the same burnout than the one I felt working 14-hour days.
So I scratched-off the words “happiness” and “passion” from my script and replaced them with euthymia and ataraxia, Greek words for serenity and to describe a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. I traded dopamine for serotonin, if you will; a glass of bubbly champagne for a cup of warm milk.
I have not lost wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. — Seneca
Once done writing my own code of values, I worked on placing my life in an eudaimonic state; the state of living in accord with my essence to actualize my unique potential. I knew I could write well and felt called to use that talent for a greater purpose than entertainment. I did not want to escape high-up to a mountain and, there, cut-off from society, indulge in navel-gazing, endless self-improvement, or self-righteous pontifications of what it is to live the ‘good life’. I wanted to share the saga of my trials and tribulations to recover the ancient purpose of entertainment, which, in Greek tragicomedy, held the audience together in shared suffering, or joy, or both, leading to catharsis.
I then looked around the world to find a need that could use my talents; something which made me shudder and lit a fire in my belly. That’s when I began writing The Hero in You.
Here’s the thing, though…
I’m either speaking an unintelligible language, or the world doesn’t want to listen to those coming between the distracted and the distractions. The infernal machine appears hell-bent in ostracizing those who rock the boat and will ensure that those who rebel quickly find themselves unable to survive.
Most days, I feel like a baker who has unearthed an ancient recipe for wholesome, nutritious bread, only to find the marketplace crowded with people gorging on Wonder Bread and Twinkies laced with listicles promising instant wellbeing, power, esteem, love, wealth, and approbation. While ancient grains are harder to digest, I promise they are better for you.
Bake Twinkies! many urge, and people will flock to your bread stand.
I admit I’ve been tempted, just like Christ was in the desert; Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.
(If I still have your attention, it means the rebellion stands a chance!)
In every prototypical hero’s journey, this is the moment when the hero faces the greatest test.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. — E.E. Cummings
Because I am writing a book for boys meant to guide them towards a life of authenticity and purpose, I have no choice but to press on, come what may. I’ll keep stealing a minute of everyone’s time to find our way out of the madhouse.