Being okay with Nothing

We live in a world defined by the things we have. Whether it’s the title of our job, the house we live in, the car we drive, the cell phone we use or even the clothes on our back, our craving for identity thru the material world is like a drug. Apple, Nike, Amazon, Versace, these companies are the pushers and we the people the customers. Every day millions of items are purchased through various channels, propelling forward the capitalist, consumption machine. The craving for joy and meaning is temporarily fulfilled. This system, ushered in during the First Industrial Revolution, has become the stalwart of ‘westernized’ society for the last three hundred years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Where I differ from many of the left leaning, anti-capitalist, quasi-anarchists, is that I don’t view this system as the enemy of humankind. It is merely a part of our natural evolution. Whereas humanity has moved from polytheism to monotheism (and ideally one day to a system beyond the preoccupation of religious fascination) our economic system has traveled a historical road itself. From kinship production, to slavery, to feudalism, to capitalism continuing all the way to the government planned system of socialism to most recent…the government-controlled system of communism, our marketplace trudges forward. As with most things in life the outcome of economic activity produces a small number of winners, a large number of losers and an enormous number of participants.

No one (well almost no one) is exempt from this. Its reach is like the light of the sun, touching almost everything it comes in contact with. I’m not going to ramble on about the need to strive for income equality (nothing in this world is equal, wages are no different) nor am I going to send the reader on a quest to Walden…if you don’t know who Thoreau is you owe it to yourself to read at least ‘Civil Disobedience’. I also am not going to suggest you answer the call of the Wild, though McCandless was definitely on to something. What I am going to do is suggest a simple vacation of sorts – not to the Bahamas, though the island can be relaxing – a vacation from want.

It doesn’t matter if you commit to a day, a week, a month or even a year; some things will require more time than others but ultimately its up to you. The focus here is to switch your life from wants to needs. Air, food, water and basic companionship (not virtual) are good starting points; the last item is not necessary as part of this experiment and in principle may affect the last part. To what extent you can the goal is ultimately nothing. Put the phone away or at least on ‘do not disturb’ accept to the most critical people to keep in contact with – an example would be an elderly, infirmed loved one. Goodbye electronics, limit the noise, travel nowhere, buy nothing, talk to no one. Engross yourself in nothing, you can meditate if that’s your thing but it’s not necessary, and do this for however long you can manage. What you’ll find is that nothing is not really being without, it’s not really anything, and I think you’ll be okay with that.

Farewell Reality

Recently I was talking with a co-worker who had a couple of children and seemed very distraught about the situation she and her husband were experiencing with their youngest. The girl had finished her freshman year of college and returned home for the summer. Within the first week back the woman had noticed something “off” about her daughter. Normally one to engage with her family she’d withdrawn into a new digital world she created for herself. It appeared as her body had become little more than a surrogate to her iPhone. It was like something out of an episode of ‘Black Mirror’.

To my surprise she asked my advice on the topic. She was somehow aware of a book I had written a few years back, which in it had a short section about navigating through the family dynamic. As a social leper I had made what I thought was serious headway managing my relationship with my family and simply documented what worked. The problem though was that it was written from a slightly different generational perspective. I told her I’m not a millennial and I don’t have a strong understanding of their drives. My guess, I told her, was that they weren’t too entirely different from any other group of young adults; the chief aim to define themselves through social groups/orders that would supposedly recognize and celebrate individuality but really were a subconscious call to a singular identity.

She seemed confused by both the verbiage I used as well as the paradoxical nature of the phenomenon. I told her to not worry about the contradiction, that it was very common in most group dynamics. What I said to be concerned about, though not necessarily worried of, was to where the destination of escape from life was. In the past we sought retreat from our daily life in another world, one in which the real, physical presence of other people was still the central component of this new land. Separate from the other ‘planet’ we were temporarily leaving we found refuge in a slightly different group of inhabitants. But the frontier of these recently rendered digital landscapes was worth drawing attention to.

She seemed a spiritual woman so I made an appeal to that nature. Putting it in terms she could understand I said to think of it like this; if wherever we travel to we in fact leave a piece of ourselves, being drawn into a place that only exists as an electronic construct, a binary composition of 0’s and 1’s, is like a one-way street…we can travel into it but there was a danger in trying to escape back out. The deeper she traveled down the rabbit hole the less likely it was that she would come out and if she did she wouldn’t be the same girl she had raised. The only hope I told my colleague she had was to create a new type of reality to embrace and reel in her daughter. Having her undivided attention in this other-worldly dimension she could better dictate the rules of their interaction together.

Suffice to say I worked with her again recently and am glad to report it seems to have worked to some degree. They still aren’t operating as a whole family unit per se but the individual time the two have spent together appears to have brought joy to both parties. This to a greater degree is where I see the majority of the Americans heading. While I can’t understand it (or like it) in the end my opinion counts for little. The influence of a variety of other forces has been pushing apart the nucleus of humankind for decades and as we transcend into the 21st century this gap will only continue to widen. In the end despite how close we seem to become in reality, technology will ensure we are only further apart…who knows, perhaps nature sees that in their best interest?