Tranquilization by the trivial
October 24, 2010 by Bill
My title is a perfect phrase, borrowed from Kierkegaard, for the frenzy of this frantic and frenetic holiday shopping season coming up. Tranquilizing drugs are used today to relieve tension and anxiety. The frenzy of the Thanksgiving-Christmas period acts on our behavior as a drug. Trivia easily becomes the most accurate word to define the drug, meaning, according to Webster, “of little worth or importance…a trifle.”
The entrance and lobby of the shopping malls and stores will look like a chaotic human zoo. As a culture we are being tranquilized by “Holiday” catalogs, the noise pollution of archaic Christmas carols blaring out over loud speakers in shopping centers or being played around the clock from radio stations, big fat obese Santa Clauses will be everywhere along with the baby in hay with animals. Have you ever wondered why western religion is so obsessed with a baby? This neurotic habit is not present in any other religious tradition. Buddhists do not drag out baby Buddha once a year, nor Hindus baby Krishna, nor Taoists baby Lao Tzu, nor the American Indian baby Sitting Bull, or Black Elk, or Crazy Horse, nor Jews baby Moses.”
“Tranquilization by the trivial” seems to border on epidemic proportions during these Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Drugged by the trivial. One of my heroes and one of the giant Federal Judges of our history often addressed this problem in essays and lectures. Learned Hand wrote, ” Since our ancestors rose upon their hind legs to become Homo sapiens, there have never been so many people who ate alike…slept alike…hated alike…loved alike…wore the same clothes…used the same furniture…saw the same plays…read the same magazines…the same papers…the same books…went to the same churches…believed in the same God…and yet were all confidently assured that they were ‘individuals’ and ‘independent.’ Our dangers in this country are from the conforming masses and not from those who shock us with unaccustomed conduct.”
This is the season for consumption hysteria. It is a spiritual disease. I recently read a moving story about Clive Lythgoe, the piano virtuoso, who was living the frantic life of one concert after another and as a result was coming unglued mentally and emotionally. Leonard Bernstein had a frank talk with him one day and said, “son, you need to recover your soul.” You see, frantic, frenetic and frenzied activity never has “soul.” Nervousness, which is a substitute for calm and deep energy, never has “soul.” Accordingly, “the frantic, frenetic and frenzied life is a life of nervousness marked by anxiety-driven activity combined with intense compulsive and obsessive activity.” A perfect definition for the absence of “soul.” A life with “soul” is ordered…calm…tranquil…centered…authentic…and not trivial, shallow or superficial. There is an aura that radiates out from people who have “soul” energy. Carl Jung wrote, “The world today is a madhouse of mechanical devices, motion pictures, and cocktail parties. None of these enrich our daily lives with meaning. Nor are they substitutes for what we have lost.”
There are two words from Zen Buddhism and Taoism that can point a direction in the recovery of “soul.” The words are “Wabi-Sabi.” The Chinese characters used to write these two words originated more than three thousand years ago. The character for “Wabi” represents the inner and spiritual experiences of our lives. “Sabi” represents the outer and material aspects of life. It encourages balance throughout every aspect of life. I almost put a title on this column “Wabi-Sabi vs. Neiman-Marcus.” Wabi-Sabi celebrates the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional. It celebrates authenticity. It celebrates the marks of time and loving use, even your liver spots and creases in your skin as well as gray hair. It would find face lifts and other cosmetic surgery ludicrous in trying to fool yourself you are not aging.
In our culture today, in America, where we are bombarded daily with how we can have the whitest teeth…dyed hair…ageless skin, we say, my gawd, this thinking is un-American. But, is it? Is there not some longing for something deeper and more authentic and significant than whiter teeth, shiny furniture and 12 cylinders? What if we could learn to be content with what we have, as we are. What if we could remove the huge weight of material concerns and stress from our lives and thinking. With a new mindset. A line from the movie “Shadowlands” comes to me. “We all live in the Shadowlands, thinking the sun is brighter somewhere else.” Wabi-Sabi is flea markets and not warehouse stores. It is aged wood and leather. It is a celebration of an old favorite pair of house slippers and other things that carry the burden of years with dignity and grace. It says appreciate this moment in your life no matter how imperfect, for if you reject this moment you reject your life.
Understanding the mindset of Wabi-Sabi is a guide to the recovery of “soul” in your life. A good friend of mine, a distinguished artist who lives in Santa Fe, was with me last summer when we went into a famous Indian jewelry store. He walked right past all of the new and shiny, polished jewelry and asked for the “pawn” jewelry that been turned in by some older Navajo or Hopi. The jewelry that had “soul” is a perfect example of Wabi-Sabi. Jewelry that had been worn for years by someone herding sheep year after year in the sun and rain and snow, and chopping wood…cooking…weaving and building fires…and feeling sweat and tears and joy and pain. Jewelry that had “soul” due to years of loving use.
In this season of frenetic activity, if you get the feeling you are being “tranquilized by trivia,” you might find relief by exploring some of the truths that are found in a mind set that celebrates the beauty of imperfection and simplicity.