American politics, and culture in general, present numerous "vanity traps" to us today. Is there a deeper sense of self that we have lost, due to our absorption in the instant gratification of technology and culture?
The Vanity Trap: American Culture, Politics, and Regaining Our Mysticism
It’s been an odd period for me these last few months, finding myself here in the throes of an election year, and being a political commentator, which comprises merely one portion of my publicly known work.
Of that, to briefly summarize my political views this year, I see one really bad candidate, and one that’s much worse. I would call myself a centrist, and if I were to “vote my conscience” this year, that would constitute either a write-in, or a refusal to vote at all… neither of which I’ll likely do, since unfortunately, “I know better.”
Well beyond the scope of the “public” side of my work, there is something deeper I’m pursuing; as time passes, more and more I find myself pursuing a deeply mystical place in life. Sadly, it is not something that many modern minds seem to wish to understand, or can seem to accept, in the largely secular-minded society of the Western World today.
This is, admittedly, a strange juxtaposition: the “public” side of my life, and the inner search I’ve come upon, in an effort to find truth, meaning in life, and to learn to accept and love others in more complete ways.
To come back to politics for a moment, like many, I am often jabbed, berated, and lashed verbally, both by friends, and detractors, who view my ideas or general ideology as appearing “different” from theirs. Conservatives bemoan what they perceive as my “liberal bias,” and liberal friends admit they can’t stand my apparent reverence for conservative ideals. In every instance, I try to explain that the few points they disagree with me about have colored their entire perception of me; often, I simply refrain from argument beyond a certain point, and allow people to have their say… even when the breakdown they give, in which they appear to believe they know more about my beliefs and values than I do, is unequivocally incorrect.
Why do I refrain from correcting them? People wish to be right… so on occasion, I choose to let them be, knowing that an otherwise fruitless debate will continue on, ad infinitum, should I reiterate my positions in defense of my personal truths. There are some cases where only an argument is ensured, in the stead of any true communication; this is because, in order for peace to occur, listening must ensue.
Sometimes, people just don’t wish to hear what others have to say, no matter how many times they try to say it.
To me, political centrism, which rests at the heart of this discussion, isn’t about just “getting along”, and certainly isn’t about having “no firm stances on issues.” It is about not allowing the important issues to be selected and sold to us, the public, in ideological “boxed sets”… another name for what some of us call political parties.
I choose the issues that matter to me, and what I believe are the right and wrong positions on these; seldom have I found that my political views fit neatly into a single preformed political ideology; this is the case even among the so-called “third parties”.
When one of our major political candidates is bad, many thus look to that candidate’s opponent as a sort of savior, by virtue of representing the only threat to the “worse” candidate’s electoral win. Perhaps this phenomenon isn’t entirely unwarranted, especially if the worse of the two is indeed really *that bad*. I would argue that this is the case in the current election, and I am happy to state here that, in my view, that “bad” candidate right now is Donald Trump. The latest in a long list of unsavory statements the man has made (yes, I’m referring here to his recently revealed comments about women from 2005) do, I feel, reflect the danger that America faces today, and more clearly than at any time before.
The “other” problem for me, however, has been that despite Trump’s seemingly endless faults, as a political commentator attempting to present an unbiased view of world affairs and timely news, I have had to pay equal attention, and give due diligence toward also highlighting the shortcomings of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Needless to say, having taken great pains to be honest with myself, and not allow myself to be lulled into that convenient, and highly emotive election year ideal that “there is a battle to be won,” and hence willful ignorance be damned… “I stand with (insert demagogue here)”, I resolve that I’m not terribly impressed with either candidate.
Still, I appear to have failed in my attempts to convey this to others, and that, while I may take issue with either of our potential leaders at a given time, the act of highlighting the faults of one is not an endorsement of the other.
“Yes it is,” my detractors say. Such is the American political system: you are either a cheerleader for one, or the other… and if you abstain from going all-in for either, we will make up your mind for you, and then hold you accountable for it. Traitor. Racist. Liberal. Conservative. Millennial. Misogynist. Conspiracy Theorist… or whatever label you can add to pepper the portion you plan to serve. This is the way of people today, though particularly the way of social media… and frankly, just media in general.
Outside of politics, we find the meaningless preoccupation that most individuals have with the mundane in their daily lives. So much thought and energy becomes wasted on whether an individual said something that offended them; or that they are depressed because of this, or that; or because they aren’t getting enough attention… so on, and so on. Everyday communications begin to resemble minuscule little power struggles; endless vanity traps, where people try to assure one another that they, by virtue of appearance, or pure unabashed neediness, are the ones who are most important.
My daily interactions with people seem to generally be a blend of A) those who care not to pay me any attention, and B) those who are convinced they are the only ones who should be recipients of mine. Which, in turn, results in me retreating into the role of the “A” type, and abstaining from interactions, if possible, knowing that they may further lead down the slippery sides of the everyday vanity trap.
So how, in a “mystical” or spiritual sense, can one make observations like these, and say that they strive to know others more fully, and to love them more deeply… while largely feeling a need to avoid interactions at all?
My own preoccupation with deep thought leads me to a personal awareness of the superficial attitudes most of us carry. I doubt that people mean to do this… but the ease of having a camera carried around in every pocket, and the ability to reach millions and millions of people through social networking apps where photos taken with those cameras appear for all to see, have removed the deeply contemplative elements of life. Instant gratification has replaced them… and rather than looking inward, we use portable multifunction devices (i.e. Smartphones) to point the lens at ourselves instead. Our inner selves, and our deeper values are becoming increasingly dimmed by the bright lights of instant gratification that technology, and modern culture, afford us at every turn.
Tell me that so much of this, coming back to politics, doesn’t inform the way we’ve seen the current American Election unfold in 2016… two candidates that are equally entrenched in this sort of “vanity culture,” rather than a true sense or ability to lead, putting aside ego and the endless, almighty quest for ultimate power.
It’s a vanity trap… all of it. And just perhaps, you may have been one of the individuals out there who had been too busy pointing the finger at others to realize you were sliding right into it yourself.
To be fair, maybe we ALL were guilty, to some extent, this time around.
It isn’t too late to see the pieces of the emerging puzzle, I feel. And this, as I’ve alluded, is bringing me more and more into the state of mind that we must get back to a fundamental sense of “self” that exists apart from the “selfie.” We have to learn to hear others, and respect them. We have to learn to listen again when others are speaking, and not pre-judge them based on what we think we already know about them. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions, and be willing to stand before the mirror when it comes time to ask whether what we think we know is actually as things are.
A Mystic can be defined as “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.” The word “spiritual,” often confused with “religious”, can be defined as “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
Thus, if by “Mystic” we mean those who, through contemplation and self-surrender, seek to attain truths about the human spirit, and our soul or inner-selves, as opposed to focusing solely on material things, then I am comfortable saying I am becoming a Mystic… or at very least, that I aspire to be more mystical in my thought and action.
In the Western world, we shun such things, which many of us wrongly view as “hokey ancient religions”, to borrow from the late Han Solo. But what we shun is often based upon a failure to understand, rather than a clear and defined difference we have with something.
Right now, I feel that a deepening of our self-knowledge, and a concerted effort toward less materialism, would be beneficial for us… if we’ll have it. If we are brave enough to stop and consider, for a moment, that somewhere along the way on this path to modernity, we have begun to lose some fundamental essence of ourselves, which allows more meaningful relationships with others, and a better sense for what “being human” is really about.
This mystical element, or whatever else one may wish to call it, is not lost entirely… but we must recognize what ails us, if we are to correct the ailment.