Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our Society Shapes Us All, And We Shape It

The baby boomer generation - often derided as the most greedy, narcissistic group of individuals this country has ever seen - didn't arise in a vacuum, and it didn't raise itself. Those of us born between 1947 and 1966 arrived on the scene into a preexisting social system which taught us from early childhood that materialism was exceptionally good.

We were inundated with TV ads - the first generation to experience commercials commingled with Saturday morning cartoons - that urged us to acquire the latest and greatest toys. Cereals and fast foods were packaged with our films and TV shows, which in turn bombarded us with images of the "good" life. We were raised on Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Lassie and Dick Van Dyke. People on those programs lived in single family homes with nice yards in mainly peaceful suburbia. The nicest families had two cars in every driveway, a couple of kids and amazingly well trained pets - and it was all fenced in with white picket. The "bad" life was represented as an inevitable descent into drugs and crime, inner city poverty, homelessness, joblessness and an endless cycle of welfare - all of which stemmed from laziness and/or the lack of moral fiber.

Our religions taught us that we were inherently sinful, and that the path to salvation was to obey authority. To question the Church's teachings meant you'd been seduced by Satan. Hell - eternal suffering and torment - was the punishment that awaited us if we failed to practice blind faith.

In our factory style schools we responded like robots to the commands of bells. Our success was determined by how much better we performed on tests than our peers. The sports we were encouraged to play required us to "beat" others. Losing was labeled as failure, and we learned our worth was determined by how well we measured up against others. Our schools taught us America was the best nation in the world, and that other nations either wanted to be just like us or were so jealous they hated us for our freedom.

Sexuality became the weapon advertisers directed at us when we entered our adolescent and young adult years. If we wanted to get laid we needed a Porsche, or at the very least a BMW. Meanwhile, the fashion magazines urged us to replace our wardrobes every year or risk being labeled frumpy; or worse - unable to afford to keep pace with the ever-changing standards of feminine beauty. The health industry sprang up and targeted us as we hit our early thirties, selling us beauty products, exercise equipment, gym memberships and fad diets, shaming us if we failed to conform to their impossible standards of beauty. For men, that meant packing washboard abs even after sitting eight hours behind a desk. For women it meant being heroin chic thin while trying to hold down a job, care for the children and manage to run a home.

When we entered the workforce we were discouraged from choosing careers that spoke to our artistic and heartfelt passions because we weren't likely to become financially successful, which we learned was the most important factor when selecting a career. We were taught to sell our time and energy to the highest bidder. Our companies then taught us it didn't matter if we offered the world the best product or service; what mattered was that it generated a profit. We discovered quickly that people were expendable (and exploitable) in the corporate quest for profits, as was good service, product quality, the environment, our time with our families and our sense of personal accomplishment.

We were taught by our government to fear the alien other, and to battle any resistance to the global spread of capitalism by using our superior military might. Those who didn't like our way of life were labeled ignorant heathens or godless doers of evil, and we were taught to perceive them as mortal enemies. We learned we needed to "duck and cover" against the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.

Now that we baby boomers are collectively aging, we're being informed that aging is no longer a process but a disease. It's incurable, but we're being urged to do all we can to treat the symptoms. We're supposed to diet and dye, lift and lyposuck, nip and tuck, take hormones and do yoga to hide the embarrassing truth of our aging from the world.

We are the first generational output of the late industrial information age. We were guinea pigs for the "great consumer society" that began in the 1950's, when money from our post WWII reconstruction of the ruined rest of the world flooded our culture and funded a huge middle class that grew temporarily fat and happy on all that global rebuilding. Our sheer numbers made us the perfect target for corporate consumer enterprise. Frankly, it's a miracle any of us still value and practice compassion, generosity, love, kindness and peacefulness; that we do only proves that the human spirit can rise above societal programming.

The American middle class is dying as the rest of the world resurrects. We're observing the reassertion of humanity's ancient have/have-not division around the world. We've been playing this win/lose social game for many thousands of years, and it requires many more losers than winners for it to continue to work. The American dream we were promised as children has become a nightmare of over-consumption, excessive growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation and personal stress to the point most people need medication (or alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs) to stagger through their days. Because we've been taught we should be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that any personal failure to thrive is purely our own fault, we've been cowed into surrender to our own fates. Like a herd of cattle being driven to its own slaughter, we've blindly accepted that we're here to serve the for-profit motives of our corporations - even if it kills us all. It doesn't occur to us to notice that in reality we are those corporations, and that perhaps the solution to our many ills is to insist they serve the needs of all the life forms on Earth instead.

It's a painful process to consciously examine and purposefully eliminate the countless hours of toxic programming each of us has received. Human consciousness is like a vast, shared river out of which we all must drink. We've fouled that river the way we've fouled our oceans, air and lands. Before we can even begin to clean it up we must first stop dumping pollution into those waters. Knowing that, as the first generation of adults to have arisen under the grand consumer social experiment, it's now incumbent upon each of us to ask ourselves what toxins we're still pouring into the river. What are we contributing to the collective consciousness, and what might its impact be on unformed minds? What behaviors and ideologies are we passing along to our children, our neighbors, our world? Nobody grows up in a vacuum, as the tragic events of last week have so painfully reminded us. We are our brother's keeper - and teacher, and friend and role model - and we each bear partial responsibility for all events that occur in our shared world. It's time we stopped pretending that what we do individually doesn't matter.

Let's stop telling ourselves that one person can't possibly make a difference in this world. The time is now for each of us to peer deeply inside of ourselves and dredge up the best of what we're capable of becoming. To then gift that to the rest of the world in gratitude for the precious gift of life that we've received is why we're here.

The future of life itself may depend on it.


  1. Eileen, you just keep doing it over and over again -- writing great articles -- that is. And the world certainly needs you and your wisdom.

    You really know how to lay truth on the line and do it in a very gentle way.

    And, if Huffington Post doesn't recognize this then just move on until you find the publisher that does.

  2. Thank you! I appreciate the compliment, and am profoundly grateful that you found something of value in this inspired writing from the events of the past week. My good continue to rise from that which often seems so negative on the surface, until we all grasp the truth of what we are, and why we're here.