Consume This!

stuffWe live in a messed up world.  No, let me rephrase that, we live in a messed up society.  No, let me be even more specific.  We are messed up because we live in a consumer society which throws the natural balance so out of true that we actually think that this is the way things are supposed to be.

Do you know what a consumer society is?  It is a society that has been designed to (drumroll please) CONSUME.  Everything about the way that society works is tied to the purchasing of more stuff.

That’s right, our entire society is based on the concept of consumption.

Now don’t get me wrong, consumption is a necessary part of life.  I mean, everyone has to eat, so food needs to be grown or purchased.  Everyone needs shelter so houses are built and bought or apartments are rented out.  We have to keep warm.  We have to keep the lights on.  We have to keep the water running.  We have to keep ourselves clothed.  But these are necessities.

What I am talking about when I say a consumer society is a society where the purchase of unnecessary surplus stuff is the end game.  It is why buy a car we can’t afford to drive to a job we hate to be able to afford to buy stuff we don’t need in order to impress people who couldn’t care less about us.

We are bombarded daily with advertisements and marketing ploys that try to coerce us into buying yet more stuff.  We are encouraged to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous and are subtly (and not so subtly) exposed to the notion that the latest fashion, the newest upgrade, the coolest gadgets or the largest big screen TV will  somehow, magically, bring us happiness.

Thanks to our continual cultural immersion in the concept of “buying” happiness most people’s first instinct when they are feeling down is to go out and buy something.  For those who find themselves consistently unsatisfied in their work or in their relationships, this can translate into a serious problem with binge shopping taking the place of getting right down to the heart of the underlying issues.

I was once just as hooked into the idea of buying happiness as anyone else.  I was stuck in a loveless marriage and working a dead end job.  Shopping gave me a temporary boost that always drained away as soon as I got home and unpacked my bags.  And then, 18 months ago, I was given a gift; a chance to start over again; a chance to re-create my life from the ground up.

I found myself with a single car load of clothes books and personal items 600 miles from where I had lived for the previous 12 years, signing a lease for a totally unfurnished apartment.  My first night spent on an air mattress and eating standing up at the counter made me feel a bit like a college student in her first apartment.  But as I looked around at the gorgeously bare rooms I knew that, at the age of 46, I was being handed a once in a lifetime opportunity; the opportunity to create for myself exactly the kind of life that I had always wanted.

The first order of business, of course, was to furnish my apartment.  I needed everything, from  furniture and linens to kitchen items, lamps, rugs and everything in between.  And it was then that I made my first rule I wasn’t going to have anything in my apartment that I didn’t absolutely love.  In fact, I was in the middle of making a list of things I needed for my apartment when it dawned on me that I needed to be using this same rule of thumb for everything in my life whether it was things or people.

I began weighing everything – and everyone in my lift by one those two simple guidelines; did I absolutely love them?  And, did they make me smile?

You’d be surprised, or maybe not, to see just what a difference these guidelines made in my life. Instead  of just letting everyone in; instead of spreading myself too thin doing things for people who were only concerned with how much I could do for them, I had surrounded myself with those who truly cared, not just for what I could do for them, but for who I was, as a person.

When it came to things I also found that when you are dealing with things you absolutely love you find that there is a natural limit in the amount of things you can have in your life before you reach your saturation point.  And so, because I didn’t need more than I had, instead of just buying to make myself feel better, I had to find a new way of dealing with unhappiness in my life.  And you know what I found?  I found that experiences trump things every time.

Doing thing with, going on adventures with the people who mattered most made for a far more satisfying life than just accumulating more things because the “getting” of them felt so good.  Taking long walks, having long talks, playing games, making memories, that was what life was all about.

Who knows, maybe in some small way I am, by choosing not to engage in unfettered consumption, contributing to the downfall of our economy, perhaps even our society.  But I’ll take that risk.  The satisfaction I get from accumulating experiences and smiles and laughter and love far outweigh the temporary satisfaction to be had from stuffing myself and my home with non-necessities.

 

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Isn’t it Just Ducky

duck“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

This, my friends, is called “the duck test” and it is one of the biggest pieces of crap advice in existence.

The duck test implies that anyone – you, me, that guy on the bench over there, that any of us can identify a heretofore unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics; that by perceiving its form we can make an educated guess as to what it is; what it is for or (and this is the part that really ticks me off) its motives and thought process.

Now mind you, I won’t argue that a quacking, paddling, feather wrapped avian with a bill and webbed feet is probably a member of the Anatidae family, but I have just enough common sense to realize that it might be something else entirely, perhaps a species of bird I have never seen before, or even something totally non-duck, like a decoy, an animatronic creation or even a holographic image.  And I am certainly not going to assume that just because it registers with my brain as a “duck” that I know the first thing about WHY it is doing what it is doing, or what it plans on doing next.

It all comes down to the fact that when it comes to perception and understanding, most of us are lazy.  We would rather glance at the object, register it as a duck, then quickly tuck it into the pigeon hole in our brain labeled “ducks and duck-like behavior” and simply forget about it.  Not important.  We are now free to move along to more important things.  Like what we’re going to have for supper and the most recent celebrity drama.

While the duck test may be useful when it comes to sorting through not so important things, thus freeing up the brain for more important matters, it is far too often used by those of little understanding to explain why it is that an individual has chosen a particular course of action.

Instead of stopping to consider all of the possible reasons and giving the individual the benefit of the doubt, the duck test allows the one sitting in judgement of the person’s actions to make broad, sweeping assumptions based on that person’s past behavior or even assumptions of their past behaviors.  They use these assumptions to give their world definition; to make certain that everything inside of it is neat and tidy and precisely categorized.  The end result being that the person whose actions are being judged gets labeled a duck when really they are a wolf, or a dolphin, or even a lion.

Of course when the individual passing judgement is presented with the truth of the person or thing their preconceived ideas tend to get in the way and prevent them from seeing it (or them) as anything other than what they have convinced themselves it is.

Far far better to take the time initially to see a thing – an idea – a belief or even a person for exactly who and what they really are than to be rudely awakened latter on.  It will of course when you’ve convinced yourself that the lion penned up in your barnyard is really a duck it comes as a great shock when it suddenly shakes out its mane, lets out a roar and eats your ducks for lunch.

 

UPSIDE IN

There are days
And times.
There are words
And signs.
There are tears
And smiles
To make it worth
Your while.

There are hopes
And dreams
And nothing’s as
It seems.
What you lost
Is found
In perfect silence
Sound.

In the darkness
Light
In your blindness
Sight
In your joy
Is pain
In every loss
there’s gain.

In freedom you
Are bound
Subtracting you
Compound
What you don’t release
Won’t stay
And from the night
Comes day

So when you read this
Know
That what you reap
you sow
In chaos is
The plan
And in the child
Man
~ sshenry

The Curse of the Zombies

American-Gothic-zombies[1]Have you seen them?  Have you seen the soulless ones that go about their daily routines with focused footsteps and empty eyes?  For all that they walk and talk and eat and sleep and take their young to little league games, they are, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than functional zombies.  Reverse zombies actually, for instead of feasting on brains they crave the type of activities and entertainment that drain the brain from any sort of normal functionability.

Have you seen their single-minded determination to glorify war and the ease with which they dismiss violence, whether it is the killing people or animals, as just a natural part of life?  They are of course, egged on by the governments that maintain their economies by dreaming up more wars and then sending off young men and women to die in the name of capitalistic patriotism.

Have you listened to the mindless blithering of their news pundits?  Oh they make it sound important; they gloss their words with self-importance and urgency.  But when you sit down and take the time to decipher what it is they’re saying you discover that they really aren’t saying anything at all.

Have you felt the fear that they generate whenever they encounter anything that isn’t part of their normal world view?

Have you felt the anger that radiates off of them whenever someone or something doesn’t act the way that they have been taught that they should?

Now, have you ever wondered how it is that they got this way?

I can tell you what happened.

You see, once upon a time these were normal, everyday, ordinary people who loved and laughed and lived.  But one day they stopped listening to their hearts.  They got so wrapped up in building their villages and towns; in creating their societies where everyone had a place and a purpose, that they forgot what it was to truly be alive.

They got so focused on planning  how to make this world  that they had created run better and more efficiently, that they stopped enjoying the moment they were living in.  They became so obsessed with making sure that everyone and everything followed the regulations that they had enacted that they stopped thinking for themselves, becoming instead a mindless horde of zombies; zombies intent on creating the entire world into their image.

And so it is that the the soulless ones grew in numbers until it was simply an accepted part of life that you lived out your days according to the expectations of those who had raised you and the society in which you lived.  And it didn’t matter if you were dead inside, as long as you learned what you were expected to learn and worked at what you were told.

And every now and again you will find that one of the zombies stops shuffling to and fro as directed.  Instead they stop quite still and look around them with the kind of shock and awe you would expect if you found yourself waking up from a Matrix-like dream.

Of course most of those who find themselves being shocked by the true nature of their lives easily succumb to going back to the way things were.  A little fear; the mention that jobs are about to be cut; it doesn’t take much.  The fear of losing what they have is greater than the desire to break free.

And then there are those who, when the attempt is made to heard them back into the fold; back into compliance, simply throw back their heads and laugh.  They wouldn’t go back for the world.  The curse of the zombies is broken.  They have finally re-discovered their souls, and it is time to truly live free.

HALFWAY TO DEAD

“Most peoveilple die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”  -Benjamin Franklin

It was the damndest thing.  I was at the mall, eeling my way through a school of teenagers when I heard a snatch of conversation between two boys that stopped me dead in the water:

“Dude, she’s like 40 years old!  That’s like halfway to dead!”

Mind you, they were talking about a pop singer, but for some reason his words resonated in my brain like John Donne’s proverbial bell.

To be perfectly honest, at first I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and my initial reaction was simply to brush aside the comment.  After all, what did it matter that a fifteen year old punk thought that a singer over forty wasn’t worth listening to because she was “halfway to dead?”

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that this one random piece of overheard conservation is indicative of everything that is wrong with our culture; of the prevailing attitude regarding anyone or anything that doesn’t provide instant satisfaction and gratification; of the tendency to view anyone over the age of forty (or anything that hasn’t been written, produced, published, aired, designed or conceptualized in the last 24 months) to be irrelevant; of the “me first!” mentality that has turned our society into a self-centered, ego-centric parody of itself.

We live in a take-out world of fast food, quick fixes, one minute makeovers; a world where if you either learn to adapt to the rapidly changing social structure or you get left in the dust; a world where old age is seen as a curse, education is seen as a joke and the answer to all of life’s problems lies in drinking from the fountain of youth and being able to fit into our skinny jeans even after we’ve had two children. And it is this youth-obsessed, egocentric culture that has generated the idea of the mid-life crises as joke; as a desperate bid by those past their prime to hold on to the glory of youth and try one last time to make their mark on the world.

Everyone has seen the characterization of the aging middle-aged man combing his hair over his bald spot, buying a sports car, and trading in his wife for a younger, perkier model.  For women this same time frame is portrayed as the 40-something year old woman or “cougar” getting plastic surgery and headed out on the prowl for a younger, virile man, because don’t you know, it’s all about the sex and, in a youth-obsessed culture – it is understandable (if laughable) that older men and women would be so scared of getting old that they would do whatever it takes to make themselves desirable once again.

The Mid-Life Re-Evaluation

You see, what it really comes down to is the mis-use of the term “crisis” for what happens to so many people at the mid-point of their lives is not so much about fearing death – about trying to regain their youth or proving their virility by taking on younger lovers as it is about the realization that they are at the half-point of their lives and have not yet begun to live.

Most people in western society settle down in their mid-twenties.  They acquire a full-time job, a spouse, and, over the years, children, a mortgage, credit card bills, social standing in the community and even positions of responsibility and respect in their churches.  But while for all intents and purposes they appear to have a “good life” too many are just going through the motions.  Far too many people are dying inside.

For their whole lives they have been living for the weekends, for vacations, intent on getting the next promotion, the bigger house, getting the kids out of school and into the right colleges, for retirement, convinced that eventually they will reach a plateau of happiness where they can finally draw a deep breath and where their lives will finally have meaning, where they can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The only problem is, it never arrives.  There is always another bill, another event, another concern, another upcoming event; a web of responsibilities and obligations that keep them tethered to the soul-less job and the loveless marriage.  And so, many people “break out” of the mold in an act of almost teenage rebellion.  Having been immersed in a consumer society where the acquisition of things is equated with elevated happiness, most of those who hit this crises point do something stereotypical, like quitting their job, taking a younger lover, buying a flashy car thinking that these things will somehow give their lives meaning.

energy2And then there are those who instinctively understand that there is more going on than meets the eye; that this isn’t about things.  This isn’t even about reclaiming their youth.  This is about stripping away all of the layers of veneer and varnish that society insists that they wear in order to be considered acceptable.  This is learning how to reconnect with the authentic self.  This is about moving past what religions and governments and even friends or family expect from them.  This is about remembering who and what they really are while there is still enough time to experience life; while there is still enough time to appreciate the wonder and mystery that surround them.  This is nature’s wake up call.  This isn’t about being “halfway to dead.”  This is a clarion call to those who hear it and who have the wisdom to understand that it is time to stop going through the motions and truly start to live.

The Invisible Man

love1There was once an invisible man.

No one knew that he was invisible.  Not really, for the invisible man kept himself impeccably dressed,  and was always active and while the man himself may have been invisible, the clothes were not, and his actions had just as much of an impact on the world as those of a visible man would have had.  But no matter what he did, no matter what he did, no one ever realized that he was invisible.

And so it was that the man went about having a normal life.  He worked a normal job and had a normal wife and normal children and normal friends.  The years went by and the invisible man went grocery shopping and barbequed with the neighbors and went to church and attended school concerts and went out to eat, it never ceased to amaze the man that so many people could look right at him; that they could interact with him on a daily basis; listen to him talk, accept money from his hand and never actually see that there was nobody there at all.

Each person that interacted with saw who they wanted to see.  They saw the employee with the stellar reputation.  They saw the father who took such good care of his family.  They saw the active church member who always volunteered time with the elderly.  Even his wife saw only the good husband who always remembered her birthday and anniversary and paid the bills on time.  And the man would wonder as they talked to him, as they commended him for a job well done, as they praised his generosity and talent, whether they ever bothered to actually look for him, or if somehow they just projected the image of who they wanted to see on his invisible body.  But every time he looked in the mirror, he was forcibly reminded of the fact that where a man should have been there was only the shell of a man; a shell wrapped in nice clothes and defined by the expectations of those around him.

As the years went by the invisible man became restless.  When people praised him or criticized him he would laugh outright.  Who were they kidding?  Who were they talking about?  They didn’t know him – nobody did.

Finally, one day when he got home from work he stood in front of his mirror and slowly took of all of his clothes.  Piece by piece he let them fall to the floor and he stood there, staring at himself in the mirror, willing himself to become visible.  When nothing happened he took a deep breath, turned on his heel and walked out of his house, down the driveway, and never looked back.

The invisible man walked for days.  He spoke to no one.  Without his clothes and without the expectations of his friends and co-workers, it was as he wasn’t just invisible, but that he didn’t exist.  The further he walked the more depressed he became, until finally the invisible man collapsed onto stretch a deserted park bench in a small town during the middle of the night.  Wrapping his arms around his chest he sobbed uncontrollably.  Who was he?  What was he?  How come no one could see him?  How come he couldn’t see himself.

“You know” said a quiet voice quite near to him.  “It can’t be that bad.”

The invisible man startled out of his sobs and looked around him, ashamed that someone had caught him crying.

It took him a moment, but after a while his eyes picked out a young woman sitting on the grass under a tree not more than 20 feet away.  She wasn’t looking at him.  She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest and seemed to be in a deep sort of despair herself.

“Are you ok?” asked the man quietly, drying his tears on the back of his hand.

The girl shrugged, a delicate gesture that spoke volumes.  “How about yourself?” she asked quietly, eyes still not meeting his.

“I’ve been better” he said, shrugging himself.

“Want to tell me about it?” she asked.

“Tell you what” said the man, “I’ll tell you about myself if you promise to tell me about yourself in return” he offered.

“You’ve got yourself a deal” said the girl, and she began to talk.

For the next four weeks the invisible man went back to the same park and the same bench every night, and every night the girl was there, and every night they took turns talking about themselves and after a while they moved on from the things that were bothering them to the things that they liked.  They began talking about art and books and movies that they had seen and places that they wished to travel to.  They talked about beliefs and dreams and shared hopes and discussed possibilities.  They began bringing their favorite books to read passages from them to each other and exchange little gifts when the night was through; a pomegranate, a book mark, a small bouquet of wild flowers picked from the fields outside of town.

Before the month was up the man found that he had fallen in love with the sad girl.  Except that she wasn’t so very sad any more.  She smiled far more than she had, and he found himself entranced with how her face lit up when she smiled, and he was more than a little startled the night when she looked up at him, right into his eyes, and smiled as if he was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen.  Except that she couldn’t possibly see him – no one could.  He couldn’t even see himself.

He tried to explain it to her that he was invisible, that she was only seeing what she expected to see, and she laughed at him.

“Don’t be silly” she told him, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.  “I can see you plain as day.  You are handsome and funny and full of life.  You have a big heart and are not afraid to be there for other people when they need you.  Your laugh is contagious, you are highly intelligent, but most of all – you care.  Do you realize what a rare person you are?”

She reached out a hand and traced the outline of his lips with her finger tip.  “I see you” she whispered.  “I SEE YOU”.  And softly she kissed him full on the lips.

In that moment his world collapsed into myriad shards around his feet then reassembled themselves with her at the center of his universe.  And a moment later she had taken his hand and held it up in front of his face.  “Can you see?” she whispered in his ear, and with amazement he realized that he could see his hand.  He jumped to his feet and stumbled to the fountain where the rising sun was casting a thin golden light on the surface of the water.

He looked down and, for the first time in his life, he saw himself looking back,

Collapsing to his knees the man let out a sob of wonder.  “What is this?”  He asked, holding out his hands in front of him and looking at them from every angle.  “How did you do this?

“All you needed” whispered the girl quietly, taking his hand in hers, “all you needed was to be seen.”  She kissed him softly on the forehead then added “consider it my gift to you, for saving my life.”

“I didn’t” began the man

“I was planning on drowning myself in the fountain that night” admitted the girl.  “And then you came and, well, that was that”.

“It’s like magic” murmured the man, turning his face to the rising sun.

“It’s love” smiled the girl taking his hands and pulling him with her to a standing position.  “But you’re right, to be loved unconditionally, to be seen, truly seen for who and what you are, that is true magic” said the girl, smiling, and she began to laugh delightedly, and he found that her laughter was so contagious that he couldn’t help but laugh as well.

And so it was that the visible man and the no longer sad girl stood hand in hand in the sunlight, and greeted their first morning together with love and laughter an they both knew that their worlds would never be the same again.