How We Lose Our Minds To Other People’s Gods


People allow accountants to map the blueprints of their lives.

Not their essential desires, their favorite philosophers, the ideas that induce visceral reactions and become beliefs. These things don’t provide a measure of what it takes to survive, a gauge on the things that have been pressed on us to seem enjoyable, so they are considered secondary.

An accountant can tell you how you can live and where. What opportunities will be open and not. How comfortably you can buy holiday gifts and fund your child’s education. We gauge our quality of life not by what or how much we do, but how we appear and what we earn from that doing.

We’re not quite at fault for this – not foundationally, at least. Present-day monoculture, the governing pattern, the master narrative, the beliefs we accept without ever having consciously accepted them, tells us that if wealth and attractiveness and worldly possessions don’t make us feel high and alive, we just don’t have enough of them.

It makes sense on an initial level, but as anybody can tell you, acquiring another 0 at the end of the balance on your bank statement, or a variety of new things (that really just represent your perceived worth or lack-there-of) only changes how much you have surrounding you, not how deeply or sincerely you can appreciate them, feel them, enjoy them, want them, be happy because of them.

If it takes more than the slightest bit of personal experience to attest to this, pluck from the endless, proverbial pile of research.

External acquisition does not yield internal contentment.

And yet, we trek on. We are still enslaved to the things we are taught are ultimate “goods.” We justify our faith in the system by flawed and influenced logic. We continue to believe that something external can change our internal ability to be aware, to appreciate, to live, to feel.

Once we are initially convinced that not just money, but an idea of morality, education, and yes, general wealth, parlay into contentment, we become rats on a spinning wheel and we’ll spend the rest of our lives there if we aren’t careful.

If you’ve never heard of it before, we all seem to be suffering from a sort of Diderot Effect. Denis Diderot was a philosopher during the Enlightenment, author of the fictional essay “Regrets On Parting With My Old Dressing Gown.” As the story goes, he lived a very simple life, and was happy, until a friend gave him a gift, a gorgeous scarlet dressing gown. The more he wore his gown around his small apartment, the more the simplicity of his life seemed… out of place.

He then desired new furnishings, as one with a dressing gown as beautiful as his shouldn’t be living in a lowly home. He then wanted to replace his other clothes, his wall hangings, and so on. He wound up in debt and toiling his life away trying to maintain the glamour of his surroundings – an elusive, endless task.

Because modern, daily life keeps us consistently dipping our toes and dousing our senses in ads and “success stories” that are born of luxury and married to materialism, it is almost impossible to take a step back and see the system objectively. So most don’t.

I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a god so worshipped and adored as a dollar bill. Never so much faith put into systems designed to maintain power and serve the ego. The most insidiously effective governors are the ones that do not tell you they are controlling you, and they are the ones who have programmed your need to keep running on the wheel, staring at the illusory screen, thinking you’re heading to that end-goal. Behind the cage, what you cannot see, is that the wheel you are running on endlessly powers their monopoly.

And because of this pre-disposed, collective mindset (that is very evidently not serving us) we believe in a variety of “goods.” Be educated. Be a “good person.” Have money. Be attractive. Work out. Have a great job. Buy a house. And onward.

It ignites the interest of our senses, our base instincts, our egoic selves. But how often do we question the “good” that has been imposed on us, how often do we really stop and question how much faith we have in a system that has us convinced our natural state, our simple lives, our inner joys… are not good enough?

The next time you make a choice because you are trying to be a “good person,” I implore you to consider that those who commit suicide terrorism believe they are being “good people” – martyrs for their god.

The next time you equate a degree to an education, consider the state of really any aspect of our society – we are absolutely starved for knowledge, and yet the premium on education these days seems to be limitless. There is no amount of debt, disinterest, or complete disregard for actual learning that will stand in the way of people getting degrees and believing their education is complete for their lifetime.

I often look around at older people and wonder how we’ve confused “respecting your elders” with allowing them to believe it’s okay to stop learning after age 23 and let them sit and fester in the prejudices of the generation of which they were raised.

So we’re handing out empty degrees like candy – degrees that promise success at a steep, suffocating cost – and placating bias and prejudice with a laugh and sigh, because that’s what we’re instructed is “right.”

I’m not saying there’s no value in education, I’m saying it’s the only thing of real value, and we’re falling cripplingly short of actually giving that to the masses. I dream of a day that college grads leave school not believing that their education is only the leg-power to latch themselves on a corporate treadmill for the better parts of their lives, but rather something that has given them the context, the history, the perspective and the opportunity to learn what makes them tick and flow, how to question everything and discuss anything objectively, to choose the life they want, not adhere to the life that was chosen for them.

Hobbes nor Plato nor Spinoza nor Hume nor Locke nor Neitzche nor Jobs nor Wintour nor Descartes nor Beethoven nor Zuckerberg nor Lincoln nor Rockefeller nor Edison nor Disney nor countless other game-changing, culture-shifting, brilliant-minded individuals were academics. The pattern is enough of a trend to make you wonder whether or not a component of their (exceptional) success was that they were never conditioned to believe one thing was “good.” Their ideas were never edited or tailored to the liking of someone else’s. They never had to quell their real opinions in lieu of a grade, and they never compiled other people’s ideas for years and called it “research.”

In Plato’s The Republic, he tells an (oft-cited) allegory of men chained together in a cave, with their backs to a flame, believing that the masterfully crafted shadows that those behind them were holding up were reality. Seeing that light, metaphorically or not, is the truest education, mostly because we need not lay eyes on it to understand it. We need only piece together the illusions we perceive to make sense of what is behind us.

And really, at the end of the day, it is not our own illusions that are dangerous, it’s other people’s – especially when we accept them not only as integral, unmoving parts of our (ultimately dissatisfying) lives, but when we believe them to be good. Unquestioningly. Unfailingly.

Nobody ever gave someone permission to be enlightened. No new line of thinking or creative genius was born of what was already acceptable. We associate “acceptable” with
“good,” when really, “acceptable” is, mostly, “staying within the lines someone else uses to control you by” (for better and for worse).

Our lives are not measured by other people’s gods, not their dollars or illusions or business plans. Not their beauty standards or declarations of what’s right and wrong and good and bad and who we should be on any given day.

It seems the task of the generation (century, maybe) will be radically accepting ourselves in a society that feeds on the opposite. Seeing illusions for what they are, even, and maybe especially, when they are other people’s. Making kindness cool and humility humor. Forgiving the way things are, knowing the only way to reinvent anything is not to destroy what’s present but to create a new, more efficient model, one that renders the other obsolete.

image – Leanne Surfleet