Saturday, November 26, 2005

'Tis the Season to Be Folly

As we enter another season of the great retail grab, I thought it may be helpful to remind you of the dangers that lurk in the cult of consumption. In my recent book, I described the problem this way:

Life on the treadmill is so deeply agonizing because it is an imprisonment of every aspect of our nature. The body is trapped in the perpetual, claustrophobia-inducing commute, followed by the repetitive drill of tasks performed amid that soul-crushing sameness of environmental and psychological desolation. The mind is benumbed with the Sisyphean infinity of drudgery and submission that stretches before it; while Spirit’s naturally rounded contours wither amid fluorescent confinement. Most people will readily admit to the truth, the reality, of this agony; yet just as many will scoff at the notion of undertaking to free themselves from the Cult of Hard Work through insight practices—even as they run off to the Lotto agent downstairs to play their money and place all their hopes for transformation into the lap of The Random Drawing.

The most noteworthy, though hardly surprising, factor in the idolatry of The Random Drawing is that even when the card comes up a winner, the danger has only just begun. Consider this story from today's L.A. Times, which is really quite stereotypical of the fate of many such "winners":

A woman who won a $65.4 million Powerball jackpot with her husband five years ago was found dead at her home overlooking the Ohio River, where she had apparently been for days before anyone found her, police said...Neighbors said Merida stayed out of public view until last December, when a body was found in her 5,000-square foot, custom-built geodesic dome house. Campbell County Deputy Coroner Al Garnick confirmed that the man died of a drug overdose. Official records of the case were unavailable because of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Merida used part of her winnings to buy a second home, but when she tried to evict the resident, the renter sued. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

This phenomenon has actually been well studied by psychologists, and there is an abundant literature on the stresses encountered by Lotto winners that often break apart families and endanger life itself. Back in the '70's, a team led by Dr. T.H. Holmes created and tested a rating scale of life events according to their relative potential for overwhelming both psyche and body. They found that, among their top ten risky life events, marriage, retirement, new family member, and marital reconciliation were roughly on a par with death in the family, divorce, and imprisonment. "Change in financial state" (either positive or negative) also ranked highly among anxiety-inducing and health-threatening life events.*

Christmas, by the way, rated 12 impact points on this scale--but that was 35 years ago, before Wal-Mart and the Warehouse Shopping Obsession became features of our collective psyche. Today, filling up the back of an SUV is considered de rigeur—the sine qua non of the shopping experience.

Curiously, it was around the same time as the development of Holmes' LCU Scale that Ernest Becker wrote his classic The Denial of Death, in which he made the following assessment of our culture:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness call for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.

In this season of war, terror, governmental deceit, recurring natural disaster, global poverty and illness, we cannot afford to allow a government or any other societal institution to allow us to forget. The stakes for our planet and our nation are way too high, and no act of denial or habit of indulgence—be it at the mall or in the tavern—can remove or even conceal the dangers that we all face. This holiday season, let your awareness be a light to action, and let each action be another step on the path of freedom and healing.


*You can try taking the LCU Scale for yourself: just go here and follow the instructions. Score yourself for any of the events on the list that have occurred for you over the past two years; and if your total is near or over 300, you may wish to think about seeking help, here or through my private practice.

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