First in a series of articles on Media and The American Psyche.
A while back a friend told me about a graffiti artist in New York City who’d been covering subway and building walls with a simple declarative statement: Stop shopping and start thinking! This is particularly interesting since we are now approaching the season to shop and shop and shop and shop. It also made me wonder what he was suggesting we actually think about. And perhaps more importantly, what we were doing instead of thinking.
So, more than half-way across the country, I went into town and I spent a day watching people. I observed them on the street, in stores, in restaurants, on television, at gas stations. A typical group of young people (anywhere from approximately 10 years of age to 20) walked in much the same way a school of herring swim, in a huddle, somehow sensing one another’s movements, veering left, then right without much in the way of verbal communication because every one of them was either wearing an iPod or had a cell phone planted on one ear.
For the rest of the article, go to: Huffington Post.
The comments from readers were some of the most thoughtful I’ve received yet.
THE NEXT OSAMA
Review and interview by Donna Olmstead, freelance writer and reporter for The Albuquerque Journal (October 2010)
Placitas psychotherapist and writer Judith Acosta recently talked about her new novel, The Next Osama (2010). Judith says she wrote the psychological thriller to explore what happens to individuals in a culture dominated by fear. The book is set after Osama bin Laden has been eliminated, in the muck of a media-induced fear frenzy that still courses through major cities and rural towns.
“This is the story of what we think we see, faith in what we don’t see, and all the gray spaces between. It is the story of the media’s calculated use of terror–what it does to one small American family and what it can finally do to us all,” she says of the book.
Although Judith has been writing all of her adult life, this is her first published novel.
Why did you turn to fiction to write this story?
I don’t know whether I turned to fiction or it turned to me. I don’t think anyone in their right mind actually decides to become a creative writer. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the origin of it was in my office where I see fear every day. And it occurred to me as I watched one woman struggling with a relentless and pervasive anxiety after 9/11 that the media actively perpetuated her anxiety. I started calling it viral fear a few years later because of how much of it I was seeing. It’s not the same as a proper and good fear. It’s a useless fear. Good fear is what motivates us to jump out of the way of an oncoming train or defend our homes when there is a real attack. Useless fear paralyzes us and in fact makes us more vulnerable.
Telling the story of viral fear and what it does to one small group of people in New York hopefully gives people a more intimate and emotional view of it.
Besides, stories are always the best way of communicating any message.
Why do you think it’s important?
It’s vital to our survival on so many levels—emotional, spiritual, physical. When fear grips us the way it does the people in The Next Osama, it makes us irrational. This isn’t to say that there aren’t real things to be afraid of. There are. And we should deal with them courageously and firmly. Viral fear is not real. It’s insidious and it puts us in a negative trance.
Y’know the color code they use at airports and government buildings since 9/11? How often do you even pay attention to it anymore? Do you know whether we’re at yellow or orange or red right now?
When you put pressure on your arm long enough it goes numb. It’s the same with fear. And it’s utilized by the media to garner ratings, not inform or prepare us.
How does the book relate to your therapy practice?
In some ways, it reflects it. Trauma and anxiety are what I know best. What happens in my office is only one part of treatment. Helping people to a new level of awareness so they know when they are being “infected” by viral fear and knowing how to resist it is the other part.
I come from an advertising background. I know what media does and how it’s used. I did it. Perhaps this is my penance. And that would be fine by me. But it’s desperately important for my patients—for everyone—to know how and when they are being manipulated.
Test it yourself. Do some calculated channel surfing. Make mental notes of how often advertisers are using fear (of aging, of illness, of catastrophe, of weight gain) to get you to buy something you really don’t need. It’s really astonishing. I remember doing it for an article I wrote and finally lost count. It was up in the hundreds. And that was just within the time I was able to sit there and stomach it.
What’s your favorite passage?
I’d have to say the last paragraph in the next to last chapter. It was very hard to write because of how poignant the character is who’s mistaken for the next Osama and how his greatest longing became the source of his deepest wound. We’re so fallen. All of us.
What was your writing process for The Next Osama?
Painful, beautiful, relentless, compulsive and very, very disciplined. I got up every day and I wrote whether I felt like it or not. I ate a lot of dark chocolate. I walked a lot, even when I was sitting down. My feet didn’t stop moving. I couldn’t stop thinking of the characters even when I was sleeping. I came to love them all—the good and the miserable.
One of the saddest things for me was writing the last line and knowing that in order for you to open the book, I had to close it on people I’d spent a couple of years with.
But as I say that, I’m thinking that writers are a bizarre lot. I really do. All that time having conversations with ourselves in our own minds. Yikes.
What do you do to combat the daily dose of fear around all of us?
Pray often and talk to my husband. Besides God, he’s my rock and he always knows how to bring me back to basics without dismissing me. I can be very fearful about a lot of things.
Also, I avoid those shows that do nothing but warn you uselessly about mega-tsunamis and mega-volcanoes or tell you the horsemen of the apocalypse are on the horizon because of Mayan predictions. I hate them. They really do make me afraid. If I watch even a little (masochistic curiosity?), I walk around afraid and useless until I snap out of it or my husband comes home, whichever is first.
When I’m smart I remember that it’s not in my hands, that God’s got it all handled and when it’s time to go Home, I will go. Basically, if you’ve got those things in mind, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. I guess, now that I’m thinking about it, faith is the great antidote to fear.
Are you working on any other books? What’s next?
There are a couple of books in the wings. They’re also about fear. But in vastly different ways. One’s a psychological thriller within NYPD where a cop and a psychiatrist are both “stalked” by the same fears. The other is a modern western romance where the cowboy rides a motorcycle and saves a band of wild horses in Wyoming. That one is pure emotional yahoo.
A Commentary on State of Stuff in America
by Lawson Meadows, Guest Blogger.
The American consumer pattern is to seek the next new thing, not just for the stuff, but for the status.
The “new” next new thing arrives, and the “old” next new thing is now the next old thing: a typical pattern of the American consumer. However, consider that consume means “to destroy”; does that make all the good little consumers good little destroyers? Most marketers count on it, and so it is, in virtually every aspect of product development and delivery: from cell phones morphing into multi-faceted electronic tethers, to more economical, safer, faster cars; from razors with ever-increasing blades and longer-lasting lubricant strips, to the predictably unpredictable changes in fashion… the examples continue seemingly ad infinitum. Better, faster, prettier, sexier, longer lasting, and brimming with status directly transferrable to the consumer… so they say; so we believe.
Almost from birth, external influences push and prod us to use, discard, and replace as required for social acceptance based on the perception of status.
Consumer training begins early; we are driven by the actions we witness, words we hear, pressures we endure, and their accompanying, albeit transient, patina of satisfaction born from the consumption of “stuff”. However, consumption is not merely destroying or “using up” material things; it is the process by which we benefit from burning the log of status. The perception of value is in our minds, and in our lives, and therefore within us; though the value is not real, perception makes it seem so. We want to acquire the next new thing for the perceived status, or more importantly, to avoid its loss… this is clearly seen as important and necessary by many, if not most of the American consumers.
Stuff is OK until the fear of losing it causes anxiety over loss of status.
Let me be clear, I like stuff, and getting stuff is fine when it does not share the stage with the fear of loss: not so much the loss of stuff, but the loss of stuff status. It is not just the product development and marketing departments that understand this; I think most of us understand it too. Yet we trade our knowledge for the armor of ignorance, so we can feel good, feel important, and it helps us avoid the one action considered anathema by consumers… devaluation due to a loss of stuff status.
We fail to act in our best interests when we trade self-definition for definition from others, and that is sort of, well… dumb.
The status in the next new thing acquires its value from those who bow to external judgment. They rely on the observations and opinions of others to find not only definition, but acceptance. They are defined from the outside, by the outside, and for the outside based on the status of their stuff. They fear the thought of defining themselves for themselves and see no future in that anyway, because there is no new status in settling for the real constant and consistent you, without your stuff. Again, most of us understand this, but often reject or ignore it: we fail to make it a priority. We are conditioned to accept that it is the new stuff which is necessary for happiness, and this is where the dumb arrives. It is dumb, and ultimately self-defeating, to know how to behave in the best interest of yourself and those you care for, but choose not to.
Negative lessons learned in childhood, when embraced and perpetuated, can establish behaviors that render adults less than self-confident and self-directed.
I do not believe childhood experience is an excuse for wrong action, yet there are fully-grown, intelligent, seemingly successful adults, who often behave in a manner ill fitting their best interests, denying what should be obvious. Childhood experience can teach not only the fear of being at odds with the opinions of others, but eventually the habit of relying on outside judgment. Decisions are molded to avoid negative returns from others rather than to reflect the integrity of their lives. They believe without the next new thing, others will see them as inferior, and unqualified for acceptance into the status driven social level they are trained to desire. Oddly, much of the fear’s justification is only surface deep, and not supported by the opinions and actions of others: fear can distort reality.
The knowledge of how little others think about us can be a shock to those who believe they always do.
To paraphrase an old saying: “If you knew how little others think about you, you would not be so concerned about what they think about you.” Yet the fear of judgment from others drives the consumer frenzy for the next new thing. Wearing out-of-fashion Manolo Blahnik’s; a dated pants suit to a business meeting; driving a mid-sized American car to a High School reunion; watching the Super Bowl on a 24” screen; having a flip-phone that is just a phone; and heaven forbid, being “sooo yesterday!” can drive to irrational action those who labor under the illusion that status must be made manifest in that it defines your place in the world.
What is referred to as of late as the “New Normal” might better serve both the individual and the whole of our culture if one of its components was the ability to self-value.
Self-valuing, when done in conjunction with the other “selvess” (confidence, reliance, respect, and even healthy self-love) not only benefits to the individual, but like the ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, the effects spread to family, friends, business acquaintances, casual observers, and others. It is an internal process of evaluation and judgment, observing one’s actions in the context of both circumstance and personal consideration. Ultimately, we must wean ourselves from the next new thing concept, and refocus, so we can exhibit the right kind of example for the next new generation.
This could be the “Next Right Thing”
The ability to gain internal satisfaction, approval, and even status, and then measure oneself against your potentials and capabilities, may not be the next new thing, but it would be the next “Right” thing. When you rely on “your” talents, behaviors, self-evaluation, and judgment, you are be better able to learn from mistakes, heal your wounds, and reach your potentials as you pursue our passions.
What do you think?
What about you? How confident are you about being a self-defined consumer? Have you considered the effect your purchase patterns have on those around you… especially your kids? Do you see this as a problem? Is the next new thing for you a new phone or car… or a new approach?
Lawson Meadows, married for 40 years, is a father, entrepreneur, instructor, writer, and a passionate student of the family. His web site – DaMoKi.com – is dedicated mainly to family dynamics, and preparing kids to become fully functional adults. His passion is to complete and publish his book “DaMoKi Concepts – Raising Great Kids”, and affect as much positive change as possible in the next generation.
Again, Huffington Post brings on a battery of comments and interest in the rampant narcissism in our culture. While most of the comments were tales of personal woe and frustration, many commentators saw the much larger picture–how the narcissistic character is not only prevalent but promoted and nourished in the Age of Celebrity.
This is a small excerpt I’m pleased to share with you.
You’d think that saying “no” would be a simple thing. It has a quick meaning and only two letters. It has a strong survival component, and we literally can’t live without it.
So why does it pose so many problems?
We know we don’t like to hear it; it means that we’re not going to get our way, or that someone is disagreeing with us. But why, even when we want to or desperately need to, is it so hard to say?
Ten or so years ago I helped teach an abuse-awareness program aimed at young children in preschool and kindergarten. The program was called “Good Touch, Bad Touch” and was designed to teach the children how to recognize inappropriate behavior and then help them know what to do about it. We also had a segment on abduction prevention. In it we presented different scenarios in which a child was lured away by a grownup. As I recall, in one scenario the adult utilized a puppy as a lure; in another, he needed the child to help him with something (a sure sign something is wrong, because adults don’t ask little children for help); and in another the adult offered candy.
What we found over time was that the scenarios landed on deaf ears. Even though we repeated the program a few times during the school year, the children always failed the test at the end. In the test they were asked to role-play the child and reject the abductor by pulling away and yelling, “He’s not my daddy/mommy!” In nearly every single case, despite all the encouragement and preparation, the children went quietly with the adult perpetrator.
Even though a few children were good screamers and one little boy with an impishly beautiful face nearly yanked my arm out of its socket, the overwhelming majority of the children would have been lost had they ever had the misfortune of being in that situation for real.
Frankly, it scared us all silly. None of the people involved with the program could understand why the results were so dismal. Variables had been jostled: different teachers, different times of the day, different presentation styles, different emphases and intensities, all to no avail.
One day, instead of having the children role-play at the end, I had them role-play from the very beginning. The enactment would be the teaching tool instead of the test. And, lo and behold, they got it.
What part of “no” didn’t they understand?
This one seems to have created quite a ruckus. Some of the folks got it. Some of the folks demonstrated it. The article is about fear, how it’s marketed, how we are swimming in suggestion, the threat of the mediocracy we live in and what we might be able to do about it. Interestingly, the part that upset so many people was when I mentioned the “G” word (God). Go figure. And that’s on a conservative think tank!
Some people strongly disagreed that we have a few issues with rage and entitlement in this country. I chose this picture for them.