When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.
Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.
Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.
To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.
‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.
For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.
The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.
As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.
If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.
Now you won’t find me in Selfridges very often but occasionally the misfortune befalls me. It’s a funny old place. Full of people with cash to burn—or at least a credit card or some space in the overdraft—it’s a consumer’s dreamland, a temple to fashion, style, class, status and the superficial sense of self our world exalts; a church to the predominating values that more than ever define our times.
You can easily tell the Selfridges congregation apart from the rest of society’s rabble: As the hare krishna crew are conspicuous in their orange robes, the Selfridges devotees are instantly recognisable by the auspicious shiny yellow bags they proudly sport as they walk the streets of central London. ‘Ah!’, you might exclaim, ‘They have been to worship in the temple of Selfridges. They have been to pray at the feet of the god of money’.
Well as I found myself in this very temple the other week, I noticed some rather strange things as I walked the sacred aisles.
First came the seduction, my eyes feasting on the gorgeous array of shiny and loud digital goods, stylish tailored garments crafted by poor people in crappy countries with expensive cloth, and attractive over-groomed staff who spoke to me as if I was actually important. Like a kid in a candy shop who’d just stolen some money from mum’s purse, I desired all I saw.
Then came the sense of inadequacy as my false sense of self took over and I realised that if only I bought some of this shit I would somehow be a better person—more attractive to girls, envied by my friends, and admired by all who spot my shiny yellow bag. ‘Ah!’, they might exclaim, ‘This man has made it, for he has been to worship in the temple of Selfridges’.
Then came the reprieve as some sense finally kicked in and I somehow revived myself from this wild and crazy stupor. That false sense of self will always be lurking somewhere, I realised—my sense of inadequacy will not be vanquished by a new cardigan. It will take more than a fancy new pair of boxer shorts to displace the feeling that I hate myself and I’m just not good enough.
And this is the crux of our modern problem. While it’s great to dress well and look good, in a world saturated with adverts and pop culture that glorifies the superficial and unattainable, it’s all too easy to get swept away in waves of inadequacy. For those of us with a shaky sense of self, temptations lie in wait that serve only to further estrange us from the essence of who we really are.
What Selfridges appeals to is that part of us that wants to be whole, liked, and comfortable in our own skin. While clothes, gadgets and stuff can provide the temporary perception of such comforts for a while, in the end they only serve to distance us from the part of us that is always complete.
Dress well, look good, but beware the traps that lie all around. Your real friends don’t care what you look like.