Back in February, when I was mulling over my own stress levels and what I wanted my future to look like, Eric Rittenberry’s essay The American Life is Killing You landed in my lap like a call to action.
“The reason you don’t feel alive is because you aren’t alive. You’re merely going through the motions in a fast-paced, consumer-centered culture that has transformed our once beautiful land into an asphalt wasteland strewed with digital billboards, fast food joints, soulless malls, and complete carnage… Your constant craving for objects and status (the American way) has robbed your life of its freedom and creative zest. You live routine and stressed and you’re chained to a sluggish and predictable way of living.”
“Yes!” I thought. This is me. 100 times this. Somehow I had begun throwing money at problems trying to make life more bearable, rather than making any fundamental changes to fix what was making it unbearable. Why hadn’t I seen this before? It seemed so obvious! Was it too obvious?
“You have to unplug from the machine and take back your life and learn to live with less and sit under trees and read the great minds and create art and listen to music and sound your ‘barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.’ Quit doing things you hate to impress the faceless people among us. Decondition yourself from culture, quit suppressing your uniqueness, travel to places that frighten you a bit, learn to embrace silence and solitude a few times a week. And most importantly — you must awaken from your culturally-induced slumber and try to find simple joy among the sacred.”
I was curious this week, though, after 7 months of a pandemic and a racial inequality crisis, how this essay has held up to where we have landed. Looking back at Rittenberry’s advice now, I realize what was irking me under the surface was the inherent privilege of his message. A mandate to learn to live with less and sit under trees is very easy to throw out there, and very, very difficult for the majority of people in this country to even contemplate. I’m not sure the millions of unemployed out there right now are choosing to live with less so much as they are being forced to, and I also don’t think they have much mental bandwidth for the kind of barbaric yawp-ing he suggests. Are a lot of people blindly trying to keep up with the Joneses? Sure! But are a lot more people struggling to keep a roof overhead and meals on the table? Absolutely.
In my case, I left my job this week and have never felt freer. But I realize this is an incredibly privileged position to be in — and it was certainly not without a lot of planning, buckling down, and streamlining our finances down to just what matters. And for me, what matters is my capacity to live in a way that allows me compassion, clarity, and bandwidth to help others. Maybe we can find a way to turn inward and decondition ourselves from endless consumption, so as to free ourselves to be more kind? And maybe instead of admonishing people for their consumerism, we can look at the system that is driving that consumerism, and dismantle it. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and we are all in this together. Self-actualization, to me, is not the end point, but rather a jumping-off point towards giving others the same opportunity. And I really hope we can try.
Stumped on where to start? May I suggest an hour to yourself to decompress, and maybe a donation to the Loveland Foundation? As someone who believes strongly in therapy and mental health, their commitment to opportunity and healing to communities of color, and especially to Black women and girls, is a cause close to my heart.