By Charles Redfern
I wonder: Is it time we emulate Middle Eastern demonstrators and clamor against the tyrants of our souls? Our autocrats are oddly typical despite their invisibility: They pass themselves off as friends, veritable freedom lovers, bulwarks of law and order; they’re indispensible for the economy and the American way – and yet they sweep us into a mind-numbing cultural undercurrent and sap us dry. We’re their playthings until we see their thievery and declare our freedom.
I see them in three composite characters, the first of whom is Larry, a married man strolling through a shopping mall with the background purr of Muzak. Suddenly, he’s brainwashed. He actually believes the preposterous. An image of a beautiful woman entices him to buy the latest thing in toothpaste and no other. Maybe she will leap off the poster board and strike up a conversation. Yeah, that’s it: a talk, a respectable powwow, a little chitchat … and this gorgeous beauty with a husky voice is all Larry’s. And then there are all those smiling sales people beckoning him to buy the toothpaste because they care: they want him to have those white teeth that will make her come to life … Oh. Well, yes. We are paid on commission – but never mind. Ignore that tidbit. Our salary does not nullify our altruism. We’re here to serve you and it’s our privilege to get paid for this fabulous job. Now, think of her. And think of the toothpaste … Need we say more?
Larry actually buys something he didn’t want and didn’t need: the macho toothpaste. Meanwhile, his inner voice shrieks: “You fell for it again! You bought the toothpaste and she remains on the poster and you must drive home and face your wife. Remember her? The one to whom you made a solemn vow? The mother of your children? Okay, she doesn’t look like her – but that’s because your wife is actually healthy while she battles anorexia.”
Behold the shopping mall tyrant: Illusion reigns; image is everything; fads are all-important; elusive, expensive style governs. And we can never obtain what it offers. We’re never as beautiful as the beaming photographs. All we have is our unwanted toothpaste and the sense that we have been had. We’ve been Hefnerized. We’re dancing with a bimbo-encircled octogenarian. The whole force of the market place has seduced us, conned us, and withered all existence to loins and libido. Sex is no longer the most pleasurable and most responsible human act (remember the children?); it is a conniving dictator.
Suddenly, Jesus’ supposedly onerous words make sense: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27). Tough stuff, to be sure, but maybe Christ is inviting us into lives in which we govern our urges, not vice versa.
Then there’s Patricia …
Not only can Pat sell ice cubes to an Eskimo, she can sell sand to a Saudi, trees to a beaver, gold to gold mine owners and oil to a Kuwaiti. She eats the Larry’s of this world alive. And who can blame her for her pride? Few would guess that she’s past 40: She works out in the gym and has the figure to prove it, and her sales ability has pushed her commissions into the six digit figures.
But … there’s this “but” ruthlessly barging into her sense of accomplishment: But … But … But what? She doesn’t know. She can’t place it. Mounds of cash are pouring into her life and she looks great, but there’s this … hollowness … Don’t tell anyone she’s thinking this – let alone herself. Push those thoughts away. It’s all about attitude, Patty, and you have the best attitude on the sales force …
… But …
… The stuff she sells is just … stuff. And her company now takes it for granted that she’ll be working 50, 60, maybe 70 hours a week selling … stuff: Stuff that will last two years at the most. What’s more, this month is almost over and the cycle will begin again. She’ll need to make her quota, which, of course, has increased. Oh, she’ll achieve it. She’ll sweet-talk the corporate buyers and smile through all her sales pitches, objection handling, and closing techniques again … and again … and again. Perform, Pat. Perform. You’ll pummel that quota and exceed your goals. Paste on those smiles. Flirt with those customers. Do it, Pat. Do it for us and yourself.
Uh, a minute please – just one minute. That nagging “but” leers again: But … how much is all this money costing? Somewhere, in the deep dark past – before she learned how to flirt and charm and wrestle with the objections and close – she was an art major. She painted. She sculpted. Some of her paintings still hang on her walls and two of her sculptures stand in the living room. Pat almost forgot she did them. All she now sees are quotas and polite but slightly panicky e-mails from managers begging her to take up the slack because all the other “sales professionals” are falling behind.
Is this the sum total of my existence? Am I just a conduit for cash? Was I put on the Earth just to ship stuff to companies who either make stuff or offer “solutions” to other companies who make stuff?
Patricia collapses on her couch as she limps home at 11 p.m. Her husband (remember him?) is already asleep. Another night at the office — and Pat is too tired to see the ruling tyrant whom Jesus anticipated: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13).
Ann has been the stunning star of her own show for most of her twenty-odd years. And why not? Her dad always called her “my princess” and the boys cater to her every need. So let’s celebrate Ann. She keeps up with all the fashions, including the appropriate number of tattoos and the necessary rings through the navel, ear lobes, and tongue. Oh, Ann is the nicest person in the world. She’s funny; she counsels all her girlfriends who complain about their boyfriends (“… Yes, I know, but listen: You can’t expect much from guys. You just can’t …”); and all the boys who complain about their girlfriends (“… Yes, I know, but listen: You can’t expect much from girls. You just can’t …”); and she smiles a becoming smile. It’s just that the entire world revolves around Ann – and as far as she knows, everyone thinks that way. So why not go with the flow?
Suddenly, the corniest of all scenes captivates her. She’s at the shopping mall and hears a baby crying. Ann hates that noise because it’s the sound of slavery: mothers abdicate their independence at the birth. No more evenings out. No more single friends. Their nights are bleary scenes of 3 a.m. feedings. She turns and sees the mother hugging the child, whispering “shhhhhh”, softly singing a lullaby, and – this is the devastating part – smiling. The mother is … happy. She is totally devoted to this infant, this frail baby who gives nothing in return. At that moment, she is entirely other-oriented. There is no self-interest here. None.
Ann is ruined. An immense hammer falls on the great god Me. The statue smashes, with clay bits blanketing the floor. Admit it, Ann, this me-oriented life is shallow at best. You will only be on this Earth for three score and ten, perhaps a few more if you are “lucky.” Does devoting yourself solely to “me” make any sense whatever? Dad’s little princess doesn’t feel so royal now. She sees her own vanity for what it is – and it’s ugly.
The Despot Behind It All
Voila: The malevolent trinity bolstering the other dictators: Me, Myself, and I. Thank you, universe, for serving me and catering to my desires and playing my music. I’ll dance at the black light party beside the silly octogenarian with his blondes. Spouses, friends, and acquaintances hop to my beat and gratify my whims. It’s all about “my needs” … Except “my needs” never seem satisfied. The music sours and the hangover begins before the first shot of Tequila. We can’t make it to the bar through the debris trail of broken vows, relationships, and promises.
Our long-neglected sacred texts drop a clue: We’re made in God’s “image.” The original word for image is the same rendered “idol” in other passages. Idols were earthly representatives of divine beings. A self-centered idol is like an arrogant mirror. Idols and mirrors point away from themselves. They are other-oriented at their core – which means that we, as God’s idols, will never be satisfied as long as we live to be satisfied. Jesus reminded us of our essential nature when he said this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:37-40).
“I” never belonged on that throne. “I” tried to overthrow God in our primal past and keeps making the attempt. “I” masks itself as a friend, a freedom lover, a bulwark of international stability (we do everything for our own interests); “I” shouts that it’s indispensible for the economy and the American way – but it has proven to be a lousy dictator.
Many in the Middle East have are declaring an end to the dictator era. It’s time we do the same.