On returning from a trip back to the US, I have several observations about the country and myself. I was struck by the sheer material abundance of the place and the feeling of dissatisfaction and lack in the people and myself. The solutions for this problem of dissatisfaction are generally material. Yet these material solutions do not fulfill the need or satisfy the dissatisfaction.
What is the American dream? Maybe that gives a clue to the dissatisfaction. It seems that that dream is of acquisition and/or improvement. The desire to “make things better” seems to be very American, and yet I am beginning to wonder if the impulse to make things better comes from an inability or difficulty in accepting what is. One often hears of “American ingenuity” as a source of innovation. At what point does change become a trap rather than an ongoing adaptation to the environment? I used to be perfectly happy with a razor that had two blades, but then it became harder to get refills for it, so I moved up to the new triple blade, and then it became more difficult to get refills for that, so I tried the quadruple blade, it seemed absurd, but I could no longer find refills for the triple blade. Now I just bought a quintuple blade razor and I feel manipulated by the razor blade companies.
It is instructive to look at the dissatisfaction as the flip side of the dream. This is one principle I feel that I have gained from living abroad for a year, that every culture creates itself according to its values and that the drawbacks or blind-spots of a culture are the shadow of its strengths. In this way it is not so unusual to examine strengths and weaknesses in relation to each other. The United States values efficiency, innovation, and the pursuit of happiness. These facets have made the US a very productive, powerful, and creative force in the world, but is there a point where these strengths are over-developed and we have an impersonal society in which people are processed in a quick and efficient manner (I am writing this after having just got through the check-in and security at O’Hare airport where I had to take off anything metal, take everything out of my pockets and go through a “backscatter x-ray” machine for my “safety”). We have bewildering choices for everything from razors, to toothpaste, to blue jeans, and yet are we, as a people, happy or fulfilled?
The dream is for more; the dissatisfaction is that what we have is never enough and that things could always be “better.” On my last day in the US, Borders bookstore was closing. It was very sad to step inside and see the giant signs, “EVERYTHING 40% OFF,” the long lines, and the sense of good deals to be had. We left almost immediately. To me, this felt like the end of an era. While it is true that Borders was a business and it was about acquisition, it was also a place that created a social place that people could meet, that you could check out new books and ideas. Borders wasn’t my favorite place to go for coffee, community, and new ideas, but when I lived in Champaign, I did go there fairly regularly, maybe every few weeks. It was a place to go before or after a movie to talk and browse, or a place to go and read a book, but to also be in a public space that contained the possibility for socialization if I ran into a friend.
The space shuttle also landed for the last time on my last day in the US. This also seems like an end of an era of creativity, dreams, exploration, and innovation. This collective work led to many new scientific discoveries and a common purpose and focus for the country and the world. As the movie, “In The Shadow of the Moon,” showed, it also led to a change in the way that we, as human beings, see and experience the Earth. It was a chance to have an awareness that we are all part of something larger than ourselves and that what happens to one person has the potential to affect everyone.
In the development of ideas, there is often a point where the fullness of the idea is reached and nothing much new is discovered or created (although there can be endless variations on this, like the many new psychiatric medications that are not significantly different than the medications already in use). The idea becomes sterile, the work technical and tedious, and the benefits and results more meager and less gratifying. It seems possible that the United States is at that point. Are we using our creativity, our ingenuity, and our ability to design efficient systems in such a way that the pursuit of our dreams only leads to dissatisfaction? If that is the case, the more energy we put into the pursuit of our dreams, the more unfulfilled and dissatisfied we become. We buy food that does not nourish or gratify, but it is efficiently made, conveniently packaged, and it looks good. We buy bigger and bigger TVs and home theater systems, to give us a more convenient and efficient way to watch movies in isolation from other people. We can download anything we can imagine, and yet our imaginations are unfulfilled.
I have had a couple of recent conversations with people about the Buddhist concept of “the hungry ghost.” What I can remember about these creatures is that they have tiny throats and insatiable appetites; they eat and eat, but are never satisfied or fulfilled. The restless consumption of US society does seem reminiscent of these creatures who only dream of consumption, yet they are never nourished.
Much of the efficiency of American culture seems to neglect nurturance, which is an aspect of fulfillment. For all their conspicuous consumption and discharge of the acquisitive drive, there is an emptiness, dissatisfaction, and persistent hunger in American society. Coming from abroad, the US seems filled with busy people, impatient, in a hurry, irritable, restless, self-absorbed and a little bit like locusts consuming mass quantities of goods and food in a way that is not only not fulfilling, but is also not sustainable.