Friday, October 9, 2015

Designer Images

"A Vast Expanse"

The presidential campaign in this country has hardly even begun and I am already weary of it – I guess the thing that upsets me most is how fake and phony everything and everyone running for office seems to be.

Last night as I watched the news and listened to the reports on the antics of various candidates, all vying for TV coverage, I thought to myself that I actually have no idea as to who these people really are, what they really believe or stand for. After all, regardless of their political affiliation, each one of these “presidential hopefuls, has already spent millions of dollars on various public relations firms hired to create “designer images” -images that will appeal to the pubic, win their approval, get their vote.  Many of the candidates rather consistently change their positions based on the latest polls, they dress according to what their “handlers” tell them audiences want to see them wear, in public they even eat stuff like unhealthy fast-food as if by doing so they will appeal to the voters they are trying to attract.

As I reflect on it, although most of us don’t spend millions on public relations firms, an awful lot of us consistently create a variety of our own “designer self-images,”  fashioned to win the approval of others. We say the things and do the things and look and dress so that others will think highly of us- the esteem of others is very highly prized in popular culture – this can be a serious impediment on a road to greater peace and deeper wisdom.

When I walk away from my living room TV screen, walk out my front door and look out into the vast expanse of wilderness outside my house, I am always reminded of the lives of my “spiritual ancestors:”  The Desert Mothers and Fathers,  4th century Christian monks who left behind the conventions of cities, church and society and moved out to a desert (much like the one outside my house) to live in community with one another and follow the simple teachings of Jesus who pointed a way to compassion.  

I suppose one might imagine that some ancient monks who lived over a thousand years ago would have little to offer contemporary American culture (especially if you aren’t a Christian or a believer); but I think these old monks still have a lot to say to all of us, regardless of whatever life path we may be on.

Living in the midst of a desert, every day those monks understood how small they were and how big and vast was the wilderness in which they lived. In fact, they often talked about the “gift of indifference” the desert offered them – a vast expanse of boundless space, towering mountains, the brilliant skies of an endless night-time cosmos that paid little attention to each tiny individual; and this lesson of desert indifference was perhaps their greatest spiritual treasure.

It was said of these ancient monastics:

The desert monks were hardly naïve despisers of culture.
What they fled by moving out to the wilderness was not the external world
but the world they carried around within themselves:
an ego-centeredness needing constant approval,
frantic in its effort to attend to a self image.

The world renounced by the desert monks
was the tendency they found within themselves to constantly seek the praise of others.

Yesterday, after watching the various political candidates on the evening news, I thought to myself that like those ancient desert monks, I also want to renounce that ego-centered world that keeps pushing me into a “designer image” so that I may win the approval of others.

Like my spiritual ancestors, I am also grateful for this wilderness where we live. I always feel like I “belong” to it all, but it pays me very little attention. But then again that’s probably true in most of everyday life. We may always be tailoring “designer images,” but for the most part, only the most serious narcissists actually believe that other people are constantly paying attention to them.

I am very fond of something the Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello, once said:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about the impressions I made
and how other people were evaluating me.
It was only after I turned 50 that I realized that other people
hardly even thought of me at all.
So often people presume themselves to be the center of everyone else’s attention
and perform for an audience that isn’t even there.

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