My Turn: ‘Wanting’ versus ‘being’ in the age of celebrity

  • Jean Stimmell’s son, Ian, meditates on the winter solstice in 1983 on Northwood’s Jenness Pond. Jean Stimmell / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Wednesday, August 02, 2017

I know I’m older than dirt. but when I was growing up seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II, good character and honesty were important. Someone could be a person of modest means, holding a humble station in life, yet be looked up to by the entire community because of her or his exemplary values. We praised such people knowing their word was their bond.

This respect was a fundamental element in what it meant to be an American. We looked up to those role models who had high moral values, like the legendary account of Abraham Lincoln walking six miles to return a 3-cent overcharge to a customer.

But, sadly, over time we have lost sight of those perennial virtues and forgotten the people who represented them.

We’ve regressed from a state of being where we were able to rest on our own laurels, feeling worthwhile and secure, knowing we were honest and capable of doing the right thing, to a state of wanting: wanting to be slim, beautiful and have a trophy mate; wanting a big house, three cars, two boats and an ATV; wanting to have an advanced degree and fine clothes, and collect expensive wine; wanting to win the lottery and be the envy of all our friends.

We’ve slid from an authentic state of being based on timeless values to a pathological state of wanting without end. Buddhists would call these insatiable cravings the realm of hungry ghosts.

The more secular, materialistic and instrumental we have become, the more our cravings have increased until we now worship a different kind of god: those favored few who satisfy their larger-than-life cravings by any means necessary, walking roughshod over all who cross their path. We call them celebrities.

In the long run, what we wish for we we’re bound to get. It was only a matter of time before one of these celebrities would claw himself to the top, eviscerating all rivals with taunts, threats and bald-faced lies, to become our president.

Congratulations, Donald Trump! You are the first celebrity ruthless enough and immoral enough to successfully render our democratic traditions null and void.

Funny thing, though. Now that Trump has become president, rather than fulfilling his campaign promises, he is acting like an escaped balloon pumped too full of air, chaotically spinning out of control, without purpose or direction, losing air and altitude as he goes.

How could it be otherwise? He has no inner compass to guide him, no empathy, values or spirituality to help him distinguish right from wrong. He isn’t governing a spreadsheet of widgets to maximize profits but real, flesh-and-blood human beings who need his help.

He is an addict to his cravings like a heroin addict willing to steal from his mother. But don’t think we are all that different.

We are all addicts to our cravings and that is why we can’t muster the gumption to reform ourselves or our government. That’s not just my opinion.

It coincides with the view of Canadian physician Gabor Mate. In the current issue of Psychotherapy Networker, Mate takes issue with the widespread view that an addiction is either an individual choice or an inherited disease.

Mate makes the case that “addictive patterns of behavior are rooted in the alienation and emotional suffering that are inseparable from Western capitalist cultures, which, by favoring striving and acquiring over noticing and caring for one another, end up short-changing – and too often traumatizing – children and families.”

I think Mate makes a legitimate argument. Rather than government being the enemy, it is time for government to step up, as it did with the New Deal during the 1930s, to nurture the connections between members of every family, especially those in need, understanding that family and community are the glue that holds our society together.

I’m not advocating the overthrow of capitalism. That would be impossible right now. But I am advocating a return to civility and honoring the values that did make us great, along with a larger role for government in reducing the historically high, yet still rising, level of income inequality between the rich and the rest of us.

We can start work to begin leveling the playing field by providing all Americans with universal health care, a livable wage, a dignified retirement, and affordable but excellent education for all.

If we don’t nurture the connective tissue that unites us, our remarkable American experiment in democracy and self-government will slip away, and we will find ourselves hostages in a living, collective nightmare, eaten alive by hungry ghosts.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)