I keep trying to fill the restlessness in my soul with more restlessness, and being surprised when it doesn’t work.
I keep trying to buy my way out of anxiety, or consume my way into joy, or run my way into stillness, or act my way into peace.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” says Lorde, but God knows we keep trying.
The Century of the Self, an older documentary about the hijacking of Freudian psychology to promote consumerism, has been getting under my skin lately. One of the segments [How Advertisers Used Feminism to Sell Women Cigarettes] particularly shook me. The relevant segment is only about 12 minutes, and it’s worth a watch.
The story goes that an ad man in the 1920’s goes to a Freudian psychologist to figure out how to sell cigarettes to women. “What does a cigarette mean to a woman,” he asks. With the information that he gets, he plants one of his female employees on the streets, organizing and then leading an Easter Sunday women’s cigarette march. The campaign was called Torches of Freedom, cleverly playing into the women’s liberation movement. That campaign is credited with doubling the percentage of women smokers in six years.
Women in the 1920’s wanted intangible things – freedom from home life, freedom from the constraint of being “lady like,” and freedom from rigid gender norms. Lucky Strikes exploited that desire, and packaged it up, and sold it to women for a quarter. The women who joined that march had no idea that they were being sold to. They didn’t know that there was a “brand” that they were buying into, that had sneakily made that connection between freedom and cigarette smoking. They wanted freedom, and cigarette companies subtly told them this is where freedom could be bought.
The first step is to convince people that they are miserable. The second step is to convince people that they will be happy if they buy your product, and the third step is to include a half-naked woman in your pitch.” – Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Campaigns like this are still so effective (shoutout to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty!) because they’re not selling bullshit – they’re claiming to have something really valuable (freedom, beauty, self-love, justice), and they’ll sell it to us. They are “making people want things that they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires,” as Adam Curtis puts it in Century of the Self.
You have an ache for freedom? Family? Truth? Love? Spirituality? Jesus? Is there a way we can buy, succeed, win our way into them?
God knows I’ve tried to consume my way into centeredness – even, and especially, spiritual centeredness. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s all the books that I jam into my Amazon wishlist, books that I don’t even read. The ache needs to be filled by More – to do more (yoga) or buy more (spiritual books) or go to more (churches, temples, pilgrimages). And unfortunately, when we add things into our lives – activities, possessions, volunteering or TV shows or hobbies – for one second, we get an endorphin rush that feels a little bit like being full. Just for a minute.
How do you say “no” to that?
Well, we definitely start by being gentle with ourselves. This is a system that has been using tools that we can’t even imagine to convince us to get more and do more (and pay them to do it!), and they’re much smarter than us and we’ve been breathing this air since the moment we were born. We live in a world that is trying to get us to purchase things we don’t need and do things we don’t love to sustain an unsustainable financial system that can only run if we are are perpetually unhappy and perpetually spending money. So don’t be harsh on yourself. It’s bigger than your willpower.
But once we take a step back from beating ourselves up, where do we go next?
I’m reading Richard Rohr’s book about St. Francis’ commitment to non-possession these days. “Look, brothers,” St Francis is recorded as saying, “if we have any possessions, we will need arms to protect them, and then this will cause many disputes and lawsuits. And possessions usually impede the love of God. Therefore let us decide that we do not want to possess anything in this world” (The Art of of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, Richard Rohr). And Francis didn’t just give up possessions. The trust-fund kid gave up a position and successful future, courtesy of his wealthy and powerful family. “He told us forever to change classes,” Rohr says, “to identify not with the climb towards success, power, and money…[and] to find our place not in climbing but in descending” (The Art of Letting Go).
Non-possession is more radical than just not owning things. Non-possession means not getting things. This feels like a pedantic distinction, but I think not-getting is even more important than not-having. Not-getting means that when you have an ache in your soul – a nameless ache to feel hope, or meaning, or freedom – you can no longer quiet that ache by buying something, or doing something, or winning something, or succeeding somewhere.
Non-possession isn’t just giving up “having,” it’s giving up the idea that “having” is an essential part of your search for wholeness.
There are so many deep heart longings that consumerism taps into. The longing to love our bodies. The longing to be free. The contradicting desire to be both rebellious and to belong. The ache to know that we are doing things that make a difference in the world. The need to be loved.
We are walking around with half our hearts, and those half-hearts are being exploited by people who are getting rich by cleverly selling the idea that “if you only did….. then you would feel full. If you only had …. then you would feel complete. If you only knew….. then you would find meaning.”
It feels a little impossible to get out of this system. Probably most of us can’t. Even “living simply” has become a brand. Is it possible to resist this all-consuming system without becoming a hermit, another St. Francis, and checking out completely?
My mom always avoided using cold medicine or even Advil when we were kids, unless it was really necessary. Sickness, she used to say, was our bodies way of telling us that something was wrong. If we mask the symptoms, we wouldn’t discover that we weren’t getting enough sleep, or drinking enough water, or that our bad posture was giving us headaches. Listen to your body, she used to say.
We are living in a very, very sick culture, and we keep taking metaphorical cold medicine to mask the symptoms so that we can keep getting up and going – instead of listening to what the sickness is telling us.
I am always trying “numbing practices,” as Brené Brown calls them in Daring Greatly. Those are the things we call “self-care” but are just avoidances – ways to run from the empty ache in our chest. Most of our numbing practices are additions. Most of our numbing practices involve consuming, or getting. Most of our numbing practices come from a lie that we need more, not less, to find what is true and good and free and hopeful.
I am learning to respond to the ache inside by sitting, instead of moving. By walking in the park, instead of putting on Netflix. By drinking water, not buying food. By believing with Rohr that it is falling down, not climbing up, that will show me the way towards meaning.
It’s easy to feel discouraged. There’s just too much to say No to in a consumer culture that is trying to sell us our own dignity back in plastic wrap. Be gentle with yourself. We aren’t all going to be St Francis. But what can we learn from him, about the real location of meaning? How can we be more aware of our ache for meaning, instead of trying to deaden it with our own version of numbing practices?
Trust the great old saints, who said that the pursuit of more (money, success, fame, stuff, fitness level) will never, ever be enough. That the only way to feel full is to accept the emptiness. That the only way to have enough to be still with what you have.
Trust that our restlessness will not kill us if we sit alone with it for an afternoon.