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.

 

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.

 

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.

Toothpaste and Mud Puddles

puddles_380x220_1436058a[1]

Have you ever had a moment of such incredible happiness that you found yourself wondering “what did I do to deserve this?”  I have.  And that one question my friends, is a clear cut example of what a twisted culture we live in. You see, happiness is not something that you deserve.  It is not something that you can earn or that you acquire either by earning enough brownie points with a qualified deity or by collecting the appropriate number of box tops.  Happiness is something we are.  In fact, it is our default state.

Don’t believe me?  Spend some time around small children some time.  I’m not talking about school aged kids who are already knee deep in learning how to envy those around them for the things that they don’t have or for getting the ‘good’ seat on the bus.  I mean small children; babies and toddlers.

The average toddler has a better grasp on happiness than most adults on this planet.  Of course they haven’t yet developed reasoning or social skills and have more energy than the average power plant on a high production day and sometimes still have to wear diapers, but if you spend any length of time around them you will notice that when it comes to happiness, they’ve got it nailed down.  Their whole being radiates with happiness because they are entirely focused on whatever it is that they are doing; watching a caterpillar balance on a twig, jumping into mud puddles, watching a kitten play, squeezing all of the toothpaste out of the tube.

We have forgotten how to do this.  We have forgotten how to be happy.  We have forgotten how to radiate happiness with every particle of our being.  We have forgotten the joy of watching all that toothpaste curl out onto the counter.

We go along, day after day, year after year focused on our education, on our work, on providing for our families and on juggling bills.  And while that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, when we begin putting aside our own happiness in order to better focus on these “more important” things we lose the knowledge of what it means to be completely and blissfully happy.

Humans are social animals.  They want to fit in.  They want to belong.  For millennia like-minded individuals have created villages and towns and cities and religions. They have created clubs and teams and organizations so that they could come together and socialize; interact; share their experiences as humans.

In a world that is marked by suburban sprawl and almost wholly bereft of any sort of social or cultural opportunities that you used to find regularly wherever there were large groups of people. This is why the concept of social media is so very addictive; it allows individuals all over the world to “belong” and to interact with other individuals.

While the concepts of “belonging” and “fitting in” are natural and part of the nature of things, it comes at a price.  The price can be steep, for many times a group or religion or organization has strict rules and regulations, things that you have to or cannot do in order to belong.  And so, in order to be accepted we give up pieces of ourselves; our individuality; pieces of who and what we truly are in order to conform to the acceptable standards of the group or organization.  Many times we give up the things that made us happy in order to be accepted by others.  We then have to spend years – sometimes entire lifetimes attempting to understand why it is that we are so unhappy and attempting to find happiness again, albeit within the structures of our adopted social group, which of course means that many people have and will continue to die unhappy and unfulfilled.

So how can we be happy again?  How can we possibly regain that selfless joy, that innate wonder of the world around us; the supreme happiness of jumping in the mud puddles; the sheer bliss of watching that toothpaste curl out onto the bathroom counter?

The first order of business is to accept that happiness is not an “earned” condition.  You are happiness.1

The second order is to remember what it is that makes you happy and do it.  Have you always loved the color and texture of paintings?  Pick up some small canvases and paints at a craft shop and try your hand at putting images on paper.  Playing in the dirt?  Try digging up a small square of yard for a garden, or plant flowers or vegetables in a pot if you live in an apartment.  Playing in tidal pools?  Try setting up a small aquarium.  Rainbows?  Hang prisms in any window that gets direct sunlight.

Thirdly; don’t apologize for being yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up if others laugh at you for going out in the rain without an umbrella, for blowing bubbles on the bridge during rush hour, for dancing madly to your favorite song when it comes on the radio, or laying out on the hillside to see the shapes in the clouds.

And finally, if you find someone with whom you can be completely and totally yourself, who not only enjoys your myriad facets but is aware of their own and who is not afraid to be themselves, cherish them, they are a rare gift, and believe me, the happiness that you will take in seeing each other’s total authenticity will be so incandescent that whenever you are tempted to think “what did I do to deserve this” you will instead find yourself thinking “what on earth took me so long to realize the truth?”

How to Heal a Broken Heart

broken heart“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” ~Alexander Graham Bell

My heart was broken long ago.  The details don’t matter.  What matters is that instead of admitting that my heart was broken; instead of admitting that I was in pain and dealing with the trauma right then and there, I made a series of decisions that threw my world into chaos and that impacted my life for a very long time.

Mind you, the decisions that I made (one in particular) in response to the heartbreak were a way of protecting my heart from further injury; of insulating it against the pain that I had incurred.  But what I didn’t realize is that by denying the pain; by choosing to delude myself into thinking that I was all right, I was ignoring an injury which, when left untreated, never healed.  In fact, it began to fester, poisoning everything else I did.

And so to escape the pain of infection I wrapped myself in layers upon layers of mundane is-ness; sinking into a depression so complete that I was not even aware that I was.  I only knew that there was something wrong; something that continued to eat at me and that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

As crazy as it may seem, six months ago, just as I was ready to give up altogether, it was the very one who inflicted the original injury that pulled me out of my despondency; enabling me to see exactly what I had allowed my life to become due to the choices that I had made and gave me the courage to acknowledge what I had done, accept where I am, and  to face the future without fear of what it might bring.

Knowing what might have been – what I have lost – what I will never have because of the choices that I have made – makes my heart ache as it has never ached before.  It is like peeling off the scab to clean out an infected wound; a throbbing ache that reaches right down to my soul.

Accepting that I will never have what might have been; accepting where I am and who I have become because of the path I chose to follow stings like alcohol poured into a cut; intensifying the pain to the point that it doesn’t feel as if I can take it for even one more second.  But it also kills the bacteria of despair and despondence and is the first step to healing.

Acceptance leads to an understanding of why I made those choices.  And understanding is like a soothing balm; a balm and a soft cotton bandage that covers the cleaned wound, protecting it from further damage.

But knowing and accepting and understanding is not enough.  I must also have wisdom; wisdom and courage to prevent any more trauma to my heart; not by burying it where it cannot be touched, but by leaving it exposed and choosing instead to make those decisions that will strengthen it.

I must have the wisdom to learn from my experiences and the courage to listen to my heart and, from now on, to make each decision based on what feels right to my heart – to my soul –not based on my fears; not as a reaction to pain that threatens to tear me apart, or in response to the pressures and influences of what those around me expect from me.  And once I have made the decision, the courage to move forward without fear, knowing that if I am acting from my heart – and for my heart – that I will be making the decision that is best for me and that will help me to become who and what I was meant to be.

~SSHenry~ March 2, 2014.

All Beginnings Are Hard

butterfly“All Beginnings are hard. . . . Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.” ~Chiam Potok

 

It is not unusual at this time of the year to see dozens of posts touting an individual’s New Year’s Resolutions; posts about losing weight, finding love, getting their dream job.  The list is endless. And while I know plenty of people who scoff at the idea; people who say that making New Year’s Resolutions is pointless and meaningless, the concept behind it is really quite lovely; you are promising yourself a new beginning; choosing the turning of the New Year as a convenient marking point for tracking their progress.

The sad part of course is that most people renege on their promise to themselves fairly quickly.  In fact, the same people who will move heaven and earth to keep a promise to a spouse or a child; a parent, an employer or a friend will dismiss their promise to themselves with no more than a shrug and an amused chuckle.

Do we really have so little respect for ourselves that we can shrug away our chance to finally create the life we have always imagined?  Because when we fail to keep our promises to ourselves that is exactly what we are doing.  We are trading in those things we desire most in the whole world in exchange for convenience, or security or acceptance by those who don’t understand what achieving our goals would mean for our authentic selves.

I have no room to judge the person who gives in to those around them; who gives in to the demands of convention or of society and gives up their dream, for I am guilty of the same thing.  In fact, I am more guilty than most.  I gave up my dream.  I gave up my dreams willingly in the hopes that by doing so I could forget who I was; that I could bury my true self in normality and create a life for myself where I would not only not be hurt any more, but one where I would no longer hurt anyone else.

For a few precious years it seemed to work.  I was happy, or at the very least I was content.  But it didn’t last.

It was inevitable that one day I would wake up to the fact that burying my authentic self was the biggest mistake that I ever made.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the life I lived; it gave me two beautiful daughters and hundreds of lovely memories that I will cherish forever.  What I do regret is that I gave up my true self for the illusion of security and belonging.

It has taken me a quarter of a century to come around to acknowledging my mistake and in taking steps to rectify it; to unearth the true me that has been buried for so very long.  Unfortunately she has been kept under wraps for so long that no one recognizes her.  Well, no one except those who knew me before I buried her alive.  Her resurrection has resulted in any number of problems as I try to explain to those around me that this is who I am.  That the person they thought I was all this time was nothing more than a façade; a mask worn to prevent those around me from see who and what I truly am; a choice I made because I was afraid of hurting or being hurt ever again.

Some have supported me in this excavation.  Others have fought it at every turn, trying their hardest to convince me that going back to the self they always knew is in everyone’s best interest; especially their own since that person was the one they were comfortable with.  But going back to the person I was pretending to be is something I will not do.  And if becoming myself means turning their world upside down, well then, so be it.  I have kept myself buried for far too long.  It is time.

And so it is that I make my own New Year’s Resolution.  This year I make a new beginning for myself – for my true self.  I will take the steps necessary to free myself from those people and situations that would keep me from being who and what I truly am.

Of course this means that there will be some tough decisions to be made over the next 12 months; some very difficult choices and overall upheaval for myself and those closest to me.  But like childbirth, once the process has begun, there really is no turning back.  I have made myself the promise of a new beginning, and it is a promise that I intend to keep.