Tag Archives: utopia

My 8-Year-Old Daughter Defines “Utopia”

LostHorizon1937_thumb2For the most part, I make a big effort not to tell “cute things my daughter said” stories to anyone but the grandparents. I have a list of topics that are often boring to other people, and this subject definitely has a place there.

But I simply can’t resist telling these two connected stories.

Every Sunday night, we have “Movie Night,” when we watch a family movie. A few weeks ago, I chose the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon” (a great movie if you haven’t seen it).

My eight-year-old daughter was so delighted with the movie and the idea of Shangri-La that she was inspired to write  a sequel, about what happens when Robert Conway returns to that magical land. “I’m going to call it ‘Lost Horizon: Everyday Life in Utopia,’” she told me. Everyday life in Utopia! I love that phrase so much. It’s my new motto for my happiness projects.

I’d told her about the word “utopia” and what it meant. Some days later, I was reading aloud to her from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I explained that Camazotz, in the book,  was a “dystopia,” and gave a little lecture about how that was the opposite of a utopia. My daughter listened patiently.

About a week later, as we continued with A Wrinkle in Time, I asked in a teacherly voice, “Now do you remember the word for the opposite of utopia?”

“Metopia,” she said, without missing a beat. It took me a moment to get the joke.

Everyday life in Utopia and Metopia!

* * *

Are you reading Happier at Home or The Happiness Project in a book group? Email me if you’d like the one-page discussion guide. Or if you’re reading it in a spirituality book club, a Bible study group, or the like, email me for the spirituality one-page discussion guide.

Facebook and the Dream of Nirvana

How A Fetish Evolves Into A Virtual World

When I got my first smartphone I was hooked. It grabbed me with the full-force of mania. Previous to that, I had never been a social media addict. The difference was I now had instant anywhere/anytime access not only to all human knowledge (Wikipedia, online libraries, newspapers and blogs) but also instantaneous validation from my peers. I felt my self-worth meter rise with each ‘like’ my status updates, or one of my snarky comments, received. The gratification was more immediate than the pace of actual human-to-human contact. And it was (is) addictive. While I’ve moved on from tenderly clutching my smartphone to my chest while I sleep, I still begin every morning in bed perusing Facebook. My day doesn’t feel right unless I, even for just a few minutes, begin with a small dose of escapism. This is how the virtual world I access through my phone became a fetish. And it is a fetish, because Facebook can’t love me back, no matter how much I love it.

fetish is never about a real thing. It’s about an idea that is self-sustaining, self-referential. Advertising promises such an ideal world. After drinking a soda we never say, “Wow. The people at the Coke plant did a really good job with this batch of soda pop.” We respond to Coke as a metaphysical ideal, detached from the world of perishable things. It’s Coca Cola. It’s a symbol that signifies something bigger and more important than the actual ingredients that make it up (or the factory workers who produce it). And that’s why we can worship it—it is an idea that transcends the real world. Similarly, the ‘likes’ on my ‘status’ have no real world value, but they mean something on Facebook. And that in itself is comforting.

It is this blurring of fantasy gratification and reality that I’d like to explore.

One of social media’s appeals is how it can replace a world indifferent to us—one of tsunamis and earthquakes and frustrating resistance—with a world almost totally responsive to our every wish, as if reality were a mere extension of the self.

But there is another, even more chilling, revelation tucked conveniently out of sight. Social media is inspired by the same Utopian ideals of Nirvana. The search for Nirvana, like Utopia, is ultimately futile. It is chasing the unrealizable, the non-existent. False promises like these are what advertising is made of: the promise of a better you, which is achievable if you simply buy this product or do that thing. Yet the difficult truth, as Christopher Hitchens said, is that “there is no escape from anxiety and struggle.” The world of techno-consumerism, of course, would have it otherwise. The iPhone and its social media apps bathe us in the glow of instant responsiveness, a world that caters to our needs in exactly the way our most wishful thinking can aspire.

We witness this same form of advertising when perusing the self-help section of any bookstore: there is a better you waiting to be actualized if you just do this ten-step program or recite these affirmations. Even more telling is the surge of media touting the manifesting powers of wishful thinking. This particular brand of ‘New Ageism’ demands that reality be instantly responsive to our most narcissistic desires. Like the consumer technology that enables instant gratification, the entire universe conspires to get us exactly what we want, if we really want it. At its core narcissism like this is corrosive to the conditions necessary for love and human connection. It is a way of insulating ourselves from the vulnerability of being human.

Here is another layer in which social media shares in the idealism of the ‘New Age’: through social media we can create a persona, one that can be ‘liked,’ to protect ourselves from the pain of real relationships, where real things are at stake, where we are flawed and there is little chance of escape through choreographed performance. Likewise, wishful thinking that we can ‘manifest’ what we want at any moment hobbles our capacity to truly love, which requires, at times, sacrifice and the ability to accept what cannot be changed. In the end, the promise of the New Age is the same as the promise of social media: there is some way out of being our flawed broken selves.

The saddest and strangest part of this postmodern tale is that loneliness drives us to social media and self-help. We are trying to negotiate with our own feelings of isolation. Rather than coming to terms with human loneliness and finding a way to truly connect, we instead seek to transcend it. And that is what advertising ultimately promises: transcendence. It is the dream of a world free of resistance and disappointment. In order to chase this mirage one must forfeit human intimacy. That is the pound of flesh it requires.

Consumerism, in its many manifestations, achieves this isolation of the self by validating our inherent sense that we are the special center of our own world. If we think about it, other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to us, but our own are unquestionably real and important. There is not one experience in which we are not at the center of. Social media decorates and fortifies this solitary kingdom. New Ageism talks about the universe as if it were a castrated manservant waiting on our beck and call. This brand of idealism is an opiate, anesthetizing us to suffering, while insulating us from connecting with others.

The Ecology of Dialogue

The irony is that the first place I will share this article is on Facebook. I’m addicted to the instant gratification it provides. I would mourn Facebook’s end. And yet deep down I know that I should be undermining and tending to my narcissistic tendencies, not entrenching them. Here is where I’d like to make a subtle but important distinction. I’ve been speaking of the ‘promise of social media’ (i.e. the marketing of it). But social media can also be a fertile landscape rich with authentic communication. Through Facebook I have met some of my closest friends. Reading and sharing with them continues to remind me that other people—their turmoil, mirth and loneliness—are every bit as real as myself. As much as Facebook has served to facilitate my own narcissism it has also, remarkably, helped to subvert my natural solipsism, rendering it both ridiculous and tragic by making me feel love and affinity to private worlds that I am not necessarily the center of. This surprising nuance draws nearer to my central argument.

The thesis I’m trying to advance turns upon the role philosophy plays in our lives. If I choose to believe that the world should respond to my every whim, I’ve opted for an isolating (and unrealizable) fantasy that divorces me from human intimacy, while also insulating me from the risk of love. But, just as important, social media without good philosophy carries the potential to validate these very same conceited and self-centered delusions.

In order to unpack the philosophical problems of social media the difference between self-expression and communication must be lucidly defined. The former fulfills the aim of indulging one’s own emotional concerns, which is fine to a point, while the latter seeks to commune with another consciousness. One keeps us locked inside our own heads’ in some masturbatory monologue, forever cut-off from others. The other serves the purpose of philosophy, which is to find shareable-communicable meaning in what is, not simply what is imagined. Otherwise, it is really and truly just another form of masturbation—it holds no meaning or relevance to anyone other than the masturbator. And that is a life of disconnection and loneliness. Philosophy soothes because its very lifeblood is in the act of communication; its habitat is in the ecology of dialogue, where we find connection.

The trouble then is not with social media or self-help. It is wishful thinking. It is the deification of self-expression over authentic communication. It is about the difference between buying into a fantasy of pure narcissistic gratification versus cultivating a philosophy that not only intersects with reality but also aligns with what is real. It is about something deeper than simply trying to ‘love the world,’ which, ironically, is another form of self-indulgence (a way of feeling expansive and significant), and about getting messy and loving someone or something that asks of you to give something of yourself. It is about realizing that the world is independent of your desires.

It is something so simple that I sound obtuse even saying it. But we live in a time in which the simplest most obvious truths need to be stated. If only because we now have the power to erect virtual kingdoms that can delude us into thinking that the world was, in fact, made for us.

Photos: Facebook JunkieWeek 12 SketchFeed Tip for Facebook Status Junkies

Deeper Lessons of the Debt Crisis

The ludicrous circus called the debt crisis reveals very interesting things not only about our political tendencies, our economic system, and the way our mainstream media enjoys holding a rat in its jaws and shaking it until it becomes a rhino, but also the precepts upon which we have been building our country for decades. It brings up at least as much about the rotting foundation of American society as it does about our spending and saving habits, and the state of our finances. More than that, it tells us a great deal about how most of us have lost sight of what’s important.

On the surface, we are a nation incurring an increasingly unsustainable level of debt. This is tantamount to borrowing more than we make in the face of the growing possibility—if not likelihood—that we will not be able to pay it back. Many pundits are out there saying that this behavior is hurting the economy. This is like saying that a person lost his job because he ran up a big credit card bill. As individuals, we’re more likely to borrow to maintain our lifestyle when our income falls, not suffer a falling income because we’re borrowing. Similarly, our national economic doldrums lead to a rise in our debt. Our debt does not flow from a high debt ceiling—most other countries don’t have one at all—but from poor economic fundamentals—irresponsible spending and borrowing. When the economy recovers, if the recovery is lasting and strong enough, we should be able to reduce the debt relative to our GDP.

In addition to not earning enough, we’re spending too much, and our national character mirrors our individual characters in this and many other regards. While our older generations are familiar with delayed gratification, behavioral discipline, financial constraint, and cultivating realistic expectations, our younger generations have not been taught these values. Is this because they are weak or flawed? Not really—it’s more that they’re a product of social forces that have been developing since this country was founded.

The original idea of the United States was, of course, to create a refuge for people seeking freedom from onerous taxation and religious constraint. Our country was a set of ideas very nearly as much as a physical place, and those ideas were idealistic, high-minded, and even utopian. Our founding fathers likely did not have in mind that we should become international policeman or an expansionist empire—although the millions of Native Americans our forefathers exterminated would surely experience it as such—nor did they likely have in mind a land of 52” TVs stretching from sea to shining sea. What they expressed, by contrast, was an American Dream of a place in which liberty and justice would reign—a place where individuals would be free to pursue happiness.

That may have been the original American dream, but today’s consumptive nightmare bears much more on our debt crisis than the self-righteous, self-interested ramblings and bumbling of Republicans and Democrats. The dream was tarnished first by an Industrial Revolution that placed a premium on cheap goods and cheap labor, then by the post-World-War-II economy, which, while it managed a transition from a weapons-of-war manufacturing machine to a domestic-goods manufacturing machine, also subtly linked consumer behavior to happiness and success. The 1950s saw the beginning of the media’s role in representing what everyone should want—rows of identical houses with TV antennae on their roofs, washing machines and dryers under those roofs, and at least one car in the garage. In not-so subtle fashion, the message was that the American Dream had become more about stuff than soul.

The transition from an economic model of material abundance to one of material consumption was catalyzed by the appearance of credit cards. First showing up in the 1940s, reaching wider acceptance in the form of the Diner’s Club card and the American Express card in the 1950s, and then finally becoming the savings-sucking juggernaut we know today in the 1960s. Credit was cheap and buying was easy. Gratification did not need to be delayed, compulsive behavior was rewarded, and people took to it like they would to free booze or street drugs. Freedom had once been the opiate that drew people to our shores, but it was replaced by shopping.

Over the last 235 years we have seen American utopianism and spiritual high-mindedness replaced by a culture of overeating, overspending, and over-wanting. The result is that we have become obese, indebted, and unsatisfied. Our consumer culture benefits corporate fat cats and corporate interests while encouraging the rest of us to work and borrow to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. Convinced that our existential angst will be answered by acquiring more stuff, we have shifted from a material culture that venerates and celebrates human innovation and creativity to one that consumes natural resources and excretes them into landfills in the form of obsolete and discarded products. This behavior stratifies us ever more firmly into socio-economic classes that have less to do with wisdom and knowledge than with money and flashy spending. Only now, and only in certain pockets of society are we learning that a complex, speedy, materially oriented life may seem appealing, but actually commands our time and energy in such a way that it becomes a prison cell for the spirit.

The referendum itself is fine. The free exchange of ideas is what Democracy is about. Even when it’s ugly, it’s better than a totalitarian alternative in which nobody is free to speak his or her mind. Still, wouldn’t it be better to spend this time and energy developing a new paradigm for our nation than sinking ever deeper in this pool of mud we’ve created for ourselves, and then execute the shift in direction carefully in deference to the fragile state in which we find the economy?

What might that direction look like? It might be free of the special interests and strong lobby groups that are stopping us from having a new economic boom based on developing alternative and sustainable sources of energy. It might emphasize biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the development of artificial intelligence, with all the manifest benefits to productivity and lifestyle such breakthroughs would bring. It might reconfigure the tort system in healthcare, limit the profits of insurance companies and HMOs, and streamline redundancies and graft in healthcare delivery and in government. It might tighten political term limits, restore mainstream journalism to its former status as the conscience of the nation rather than a blithering salve it has become, and regulate Wall Street so that shoot-from-the-hip, self-interested gunslingers didn’t rule the place like some kind of economic Wild West. It might limit corporate salaries at the top and institutionally reconfigure compensation to be more equitable at all corporate levels. It would and must deliberately and systematically make these changes so as to avoid economic collapse, protect individual jobs and rights, and maintain American leadership in the world by setting a great example rather than aiming big guns and little, pilotless drones.

It’s time to question our values rather than point fingers at each other, to address the shortcomings of immediate gratification as a path to happiness than to try to figure out ways to keep the current, economically and spiritually bankrupt system in place. It’s time to apply Tea-Party-like zeal not to xenophobia and religious fundamentalism, but to a groundswell of interest in restoring the original high principles on which this country was founded.

Let’s work to help each other find meaning and satisfaction in life by helping each other rather than competing with each other, through compassion rather than fear, through hard work on committed causes rather than overtime applied to the purchase of more personal electronics, bigger houses, fancier cars. Let’s stress our relationships over our salaries and education over consumption. Let’s value contribution over celebrity. Let’s concentrate on improving the way we treat our environment, and assume a sustainable role in the fabric of life on Earth. Let’s assume responsibility for our own actions rather than blaming others. Let’s ask for help when we really need it, and use that help to put ourselves in a better position to help others.

Our real crisis is not just with the national debt, it’s with ourselves and what we think is important, how we spend our time and resources, how we judge each other and measure our accomplishments, character, and quality of life. It’s time to replace our corrupt, self-indulgent, cynical, culture with a modern, informed version of the values on which America was founded, even if at this particular point in time doing so seems hopelessly idealistic and naïve. After all, in setting a new course, it’s better to set our sights high than leave them low.

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