Symbol versus Reality

                                          Love is the Key ~ Philip Brent Harris


Two score and seven years ago, I understood that money was only a symbol. I knew each transaction brought value to my door. I traded pieces of paper and bits of metal to bring home food, clothing, medicine and ornament. Young, not yet twenty, I got it. I understood that the system was rigged to make us think the symbol was the value. I kept that knowledge and still got sucked in by the hype all around me, Giant ads on the side of the roads I drove daily, told me what I should want, what I must want. These still-frame images plastered on billboards were stories of how I should look, how I should live, and offered me the rewards I would receive for following such dictates. These stories, larger than life, like money, held no real value. These glorious visions would not feed me, shelter me or keep me healthy.

Illusions of the good life are more insidious than money. They not only tell you who and what you must become, but also that you are worthless if you don’t pursue these goals. Note, this is not achieving these goals, merely the pursuit. Therefore, using any means necessary is not just acceptable, it’s imperative. The flickering gods of our television and movie screens, as well as media of all types, reinforce and validate these actions and skew our view of the so-called good life. Enough is no longer sufficient, an oxymoron which is almost hard to spot. We are shown people living fuller lives because they have done what it took to get the bling and things that show their success, People achieve this lofty plateau, but most of us do not have the tools, the abilities necessary. This is not meant to insult myself or anyone else. Reaching such a level is stressful. We pursue it regardless, the symbol, and hype are ubiquitous, and we suffer physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. In order to look and act as if we have this level of success. We mortgage ourselves and our future for castles in the air and, all too often, crash and burn.

Illusions of the good life are more insidious than money.

Every day in every way, we fail moire and more. Even if we don’t strive to live the lives we are shown, we dream about such lives. If we are poor, or even middle class, we work a job or jobs, which leaves us tired to the point of exhaustion, in order to have shelter, food and medicine (most two-partner families have both working one job or more). Sometimes, people living at this level must decide which of their needs they will sacrifice in order to survive. Spending more than they can earn, parents still try to find a way to give their children a better life than they are living. Unfortunately, that better life, despite the best intentions, is usually driven by the goals, the images we are told symbolize value, not actual value.

If we attain wealth (symbol), we will be able to use it in trade for more nutritious food, more consistent and stable shelter and more healthy lives.  While no one can avoid becoming ill simply by having more money, cancer, heart disease and the like; those who have money will usually have clean water, a better chance of avoiding heat-related illnesses, wild or rabid animals and insect-born diseases. If we feel heathier, we look and perform better. The nebulous golden ring (symbol), a brass ring will no longer serve, will not accomplish this. The reality it represents will eliminate the need to either pay your rent or mortgage or go to the doctor, eating or buying medicine, but it will not make us better people, nor will it help most people to live better lives. Since what the world is trying to sell us will not make us better human beings, we are constantly reminded that if we wear designer clothes, drive a luxury car, own a mansion and the trappings that come along with that, we’ll be happy. They tell us, if we appear to have this, we will be happy, as well. I, mean, look at the people in ads., they’re always smiling, laughing, going somewhere, always having fun. This also supports our dominant ideology to the point that advertisers, doyens of our propaganda culture, have been so successful, people living below the poverty line, paycheck to paycheck, their credit extended to maximum and beyond strive to appear the successful people they are told they should be.

We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.

The reason for this is something deep-seated in the human psyche. We want feel like we matter. How sad that we have convinced ourselves or been convinced that looking like we matter is the same thing as mattering.  To paraphrase Robert Quillen’s 1928 observation, we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know. Thinking that pretense is equal to reality is like telling everyone you are ten-feet-tall and then expecting them to look up to you. There are people who achieve such lifestyles, holding out hope, through hard work, perseverance and talent. They include professional athletes, actors, musicians, writers, visionaries, as examples, who have new ideas, or skills, and the awareness and acuity that allows them to try again and again until they find themselves in right place at the right time. However, they must be prepared when the chance is presented. If all of these come together, it speaks to the old saying: luck is when opportunity meets preparation.

Sadly, there are other ways this success is achieved. Some inherit wealth, others acquire it in less savory fashion. Drug dealers, arms dealers, war profiteers, hedge-fund managers, mobsters, extortionists, con artists and anyone who makes money in any nefarious fashion, through any endeavor or enterprise which targets or endangers others. Some inherit wealth from such endeavors. As with racism and misogyny, we may say we’re sorry for what are forebears did, but the only way we show this is true, is through the way we act now.

Our current situation results from rich and powerful people doing whatever it takes to stay that way. Send lawyers, guns and money. Whether secular or religious, those at the top live well and believe they deserve to continue living well. I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. Religions have tenets of love, kindness, generosity and charity. Many, perhaps most religious leaders and practitioners believe these precepts and live accordingly. The same holds true for many secular leaders as well. Unfortunately, this isn’t true for all of them, in either case. Such people, found in both secular and religious leadership, are charlatans, mountebank, snake-oil sellers, anyone who lies and makes false claims in order to enrich themselves with no concern for others. Worse, many con artists express concern for others as their motivation and justification. Such scammers play on the victim’s vanity and sense of self. The carney’s spiel, the easy patter of the three-card-Monte dealer designed to convince the mark that the game is easy and will benefit them.

…anything must be good for others if it is good for them.

The problems the world is facing and that we are facing in the United States have grown worse under our current mountebank-in-chief and those in either party working to maintain their power, despite any damage they cause in this pursuit. I believe most people who enter politics, here and abroad, start with high ideals. Perhaps, they even believe they still have them today. They are also convinced that they deserve to be where they are, doing what they are doing. Many have also been co-opted and corrupted along the way, whether by outside influences, lobbyists, special interest groups and others. And, since this is about ideology, driven by money and power, dictators and mobsters believe that anything they do must be good for others if it is good for them.

Such is the megalomaniac whose hubris, narcissism, paranoia and self-centric worldview convince him that anything must be good for others if it is good for him. It is still justified, even if it is harmful to others but good for him. Those who act this way because they are corrupted, weak-willed or willingly blind are worse This is the pathological liar who leads this country and the willing toadies in other branches of government who aid and abet him. Sadly, as dangerous and frightening as this is, it’s a symptom supported by people around the world who have chosen the symbol over the value. Locked in our desires and fears, we are mesmerized by the rhetoric of hatred, bigotry, slick patter and the promises of change instead of choosing based on actions. Unfortunately, the longer we remain distracted, the less time we will have to deal with real problems which threaten Earth and are detrimental to our continued existence.

Recently I read, we are the first species who can damage the Earth beyond the point of livability. We are also the first and only species who might be able to rehabilitate Earth. I don’t know. Our planet has already experienced five mass extinctions; a sixth is inevitable and ongoing. Is it inevitable that we are one of the species who will disappear? Climate change is real. It happens with or without humanity, whether global cooling or global warming. Unfortunately, it’s happening much more quickly with our contribution. Everything humans do, in some cases just living our lives, increases global warming (the cycle we’re in) and accelerates the collapse of Earth’s climate regulation and our disappearance from the planet. Even here, we are bamboozled by symbol over reality. When we are told to want the beautiful picture long enough, we have difficulty seeing the reality behind it, good or bad. It doesn’t matter whether we live in a democracy, socialistic state, theocracy or under a dictator. As long as we accept the dominant ideologies, economically driven by capitalistic corporatism, the easier it is to succumb to a world-view where a small handful of people controlling the world is no big deal.

… it is cooperation which holds us together.

But it is a big deal. We must face this truth. Even if economics is the driving force of humankind, we need to realize our priorities and distribution of benefit is detrimental. I say distribution of benefit instead of distribution of wealth, because this view forces us to change our focus. It is no longer what can I get for me, but how can we provide a good life for everyone. For some people, this might brand me a dreamer or lunatic, but this change of viewpoint is a difficult one with which to argue. If our first question is, what can we do to give everyone on the planet a good life, the answer must include a livable income, access to healthcare and education without cost, secure shelter and adequate food as a minimum. Rethinking our approach from the beginning is daunting, not because we are incapable of doing so, but because of the entrenched culture of our capitalistic corporatism rooted in and protected by the weapons of war and hatred. War and aggression are powerful drivers of the world’s economy.

Think about it. Why would anyone alive now, not addled by propaganda, choose to kill or be killed in blind obedience to whatever ism holds sway? Tribalism and nationalism may have driven us to this stage of our existence, but it is cooperation which holds us together. The number of people who do their best to keep their communities functioning is far greater than the number who drive us toward the brink, always from behind. The latter are the outdated alphas who have channeled their bluster and aggression away from simply fighting their rivals physically for the right to breed. into campaigns for money, power and dominance. Going to war, in effect, is the battle of alphas and ultimately leads to the same end.

I believe war and the violence we consume in visceral but not physical forms has dark underpinning, at which some may scoff. Since alphas can no longer face a rival or rivals in single combat, he attacks other alphas by sending potential challengers from his own herd to fight and die. Winning is important, but eliminating young challengers trumps winning. This is aided by constant triggers in our environment. The violence in movies and on television keeps us constantly in the fight phase of our fight/flight reflex.   According to an article, updated May 1, 2018, in Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, “Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health.” When the fight/flight response is triggered, “…the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes.   “Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction,” We carry this heightened state into the world, which ratchets up the tension in our daily lives and world.

Physical contact sports and violent video games serve different purposes, though they are aligned. Contact sports create an acceptable venue for the players to act out the battles which would have occurred in nature, providing the group dynamic of cheering fans to share through osmosis. Think of Bighorn Sheep slamming their heads together, if that helps. It allows the participants to channel some of their aggression and release it in a safer way. Video games divert some of the more overt violence we see in random shootings, bombing and the like. I think a majority understands life has become shifted to favor those who have the most of everything. The disparity of the numbers would have us challenging the 1% alphas, under different circumstances. While this sort of rebellion may appear to change how things are done, it doesn’t eliminate the aggression of alphas or channel it into anything constructive. This further perpetuates the destructive Mobius strip we navigate, giving the perception of changing views, but always returning to the same place. So, we cheer our teams and boo their enemies and we play violent games, killing people in job lots. Those who cannot channel enough aggression or reconcile to this reality, may choose to shoot living people for no apparent reason, or for reasons they convince themselves are valid because the culture we share provides continuous examples of this aberrant and abhorrent behavior. Since war and aggressive behavior boost the economy of those on top, it’s easier to see why no substantive gun legislation has been passed, or is likely to be soon.

Most people would not want responsibility for travesties the world has faced because of such ambitious people. But, we want the same wealth and power as those who are culpable. We’ve been taught to want the trappings that come along with this lifestyle. Daily, we are bombarded with ads and media showing us what a wonderful life we’ll have, if only. If we wear the latest high-end fashions, drink the right beer, wine, whisky or other au courant beverage, drive a luxury car and follow the trends we are told to follow, life will be good. Don’t listen to what is said. The images shown are not subtext, they are the message. They show us we will live in a designer house, have a beautiful wife, a handsome husband, wonderful food, lush surroundings and excellent opportunities. In short, a perfect life.

These ads show a moment in time, deliberately ignoring what will follow. The finest cars break down, are involved in accidents and lose their luster. Advertisers ensure the last one. You might end up in a loveless relationship, where you cheat on each other, or worse, grow indifferent. Your children may act out, take drugs, get arrested. They may care more about their nanny or other minder than they will ever care about you. Even if this is merely my doomsday prophesy and you love each other and have wonderful children, life will still be difficult. It may be more difficult. You will feel forced and will force yourself to maintain this propaganda-driven picture of success. You will need to replace your luxury car (read expensive) more often. You may join expensive clubs, take up expensive sports because it is expected of you. Your tailored clothing will cost more, and you will need to have more of it. You should never be seen wearing the same outfit too often. You will send your children to high-priced private schools and take the expected trips and vacations.

There is nothing inherently wrong with driving a nice care, wearing tailored clothing, paying for private schools and good food, if you can afford it. However, since the appearance of success is supplanting actual achievement, you must live beyond your means to maintain it. We try to create the impression we have money and lots of it. In the short-term, there may be value in doing so. You are getting the goods, the benefit. cars, food, shelter and other essentials, reality, while the people you are buying them from are getting the symbols, bits of paper, metal, plastic, or the 1’s and 0’s of electronic transfers.

It’s not an even tradeoff. Initially, you may think you have hood-winked the vendors. You haven’t. The goods you crave come at a usurious rate of return. If you fall behind that rate will grow steeper. So you run as fast as you can to keep ahead of the ghouls who are dogging your heels. Such stress is difficult in the moment and cannot continue unabated. What will you do, self-medicate, lie, cheat, steal, abandon your life outright and hope you can stay ahead of the debt collectors and the law? Will you invest in wild schemes, the huckster’s ideal target, the desperate. Gullibility makes the task easier, but it’s not essential.

When you live one step, one missed payment, one wrong choice away from disaster, it’s too late to simply stop. This addiction is like those drugs from which you must taper off or use a substitute in order to remain stable. You are addicted to a lifestyle prescribed by the doctors of power, finance and advertising, dictated by lobbyists, power brokers and ruled by thorny, heartless men. Cold turkey may be the only way to truly stop, but it may not be the best way. Since we must create a more healthy addiction if we are to survive, we will need to find a viable substitute. Rather than trying to break our addiction, we should channel it.

You are addicted to a lifestyle prescribed by the doctors of power, finance and advertising

We must present an alternative, using the delivery-system already in place, media. I recommend using challenge in place of conflict. I believe we should adapt our media to solve the challenges our world and we, it’s people, are facing. We could create competitions and solicit ideas. Although not every idea offered would work, with so many intelligent people considering options, we would hear suggested solutions we’ve never dreamed about. Because established thinking already has well-worn ruts to follow. Current thinking may push the path further, but it rarely breaks trail, creating something entirely new.

What challenge do you think is worth solving and what would your solution be? Perhaps prizes could be offered, using some of the excess wealth of the top one percent as a minor way to redistribute benefit. I once posited that we, in this case the United States, should choose a goal in order to focus our approach. In Worlds Enough and Time, I argued for investing more heavily into space exploration instead of cutting back. I outlined a proposal to create space ports in cities in economic decline. The consequent upsurge in the space industry, requiring new roads, launch pads, terminals, warehouses, transportation and a host of other work, could revitalize failing areas of our country and eventually the world.   When I shared my idea, someone wrote to tell me why it wouldn’t work. He may have been right, based on the reasons he gave, but I didn’t think he had accounted for changes and advances we have yet to imagine. My idea may be one that doesn’t work as presented, but might with other input. Time may tell.

This is why we need to change our viewpoint, worth versus promise, reality versus symbol. When we consider what provides benefit to all, we would be better served to compete without violence, to find ways to salvage our environment and make life better, not only for humans, but also for everything else on Earth. We are part of this living, changing ecosystem. What benefit will you bring to this, our island home, given time and opportunity? As I wrote at the end of the piece sited above:

“By making a choice, we can turn away from our war machine. As our war-driven economy is replaced, and the lives of young men and women are no longer sacrificed to anyone’s ideas or belief, we can inspire others to join us in a glorious quest. If not this quest, then some other. I’m simply sharing my idea of a way to move forward to a more positive future. I don’t think this will be easy or without conflict, but it could be without war. And for those who think I’m naive or hopelessly out of touch, I say: this is my idea. What’s yours?”

…this is my idea. What’s yours?”


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