03/11/2011 02:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Holy Huddles: The New Power of Uggs

Pharisees, Hiltons, Uggs: There's always a new elite, a new "in-crowd," a new huddle to exclude and set one group apart from (read: above) another. Adults are familiar with it, perhaps even inured to it at some point. Or at least one would hope that they become inured to this elitist effect.

It happens with Hummers, with houses, with degrees of "handsome" and with holiness. People will even huddle around their own humility, if you can wrap your mind around that one. I know one person who not only announces how humble she is, but attests to the humility of all those she associates with. The first time she said it I giggled because I thought she was kidding. She wasn't.

When we "huddle" like that, or use a quality or item as a source of pride and superiority, we are simultaneously shaming others -- whether we intend to or not, whether or not we are even conscious of it.

It goes like this: I have a Hummer. Hummers mean success. Success means I'm favored. Being favored means I'm better. Better than who? Better than you. Why? Because you don't have a Hummer (and if you do, I'll find a way to make my Hummer bigger, better and badder). This can be done alone or in a group. Just take out the "I" and substitute a "we." It's the way most problems are started -- in the world as much as the playground.

Speaking of playgrounds, my colleague came in to the office a while back, shocked and dismayed by what he heard transpire between his young granddaughter and an older, obviously way more sophisticated nine-year-old girl.

"Look at what my grandpa got me," the little one said, happy to be in her soft, fuzz-lined boots.

The nine-year old looked her up and down. (Can nine-year-olds watch "Desperate Housewives"?)

"My grandpa got it for me for Christmas!" Her joy was palpable. There was no pride, just a fuzzy delight. "They're Uggs!"

The nine-year-old pursed her lips in disapproval, and said, "Those aren't real Uggs. I've got real Uggs. Yours are fakes."

Then she pivoted and walked away, leaving a little girl confused and deflated.

Why did the nine-year-old do that? Because someone had shown her how important it was to have the "right" label. Someone had instructed her already -- by the ripe old age of nine --how to have pride in a thing that meant literally nothing. Someone had given her the ability to attach her sense of self to an article of clothing, and make her image more important than her integrity, rightness of being, her compassion or her relationships.

My husband is a musician and he sees a fair cross-section of people when he plays in clubs and public forums. Recently, after a gig in another state, he told me about a group of 20-somethings, men and women, who had paid fairly good money to be seated at a table near the stage. Every single one of them had their face lit up green by their Palm Pilots (or whatever they're calling them this week). Not one of them was listening to the music. Not one of them was in actual communion with anyone else.

I have been a psychotherapist treating trauma and anxiety for more than 25 years. I have been teaching Verbal First Aid and therapeutic communication for almost 20. I have seen many forms of emotional fragmentation. I have seen pained children and lost parents, angry spouses and lonely ones. The world is no stranger to suffering.

But something that is happening now has not happened before. While we are physically closer in proximity than ever before, we are less -- far less -- connected to one another. The trend is a disturbing one: It is as if our own manifest destiny were a version of a microcosmic "big bang." Post-boom, western culture is moving out like a speeding centrifuge, pushing itself further out to the edges, farther away from each part of itself, leaving its center empty.

One dear friend, Elizabeth, also a social worker, recently commented, "With all the cyber-realities, it seems that people are getting ready to leave the planet. They're just disconnecting."

I thought that was incisive and disturbing.

If, as it's said, nature abhors a vacuum, that emptiness has to be filled by something. If we are wise, that emptiness gets filled by a spiritual relationship with a Creator, and we are released back into communion, re-centered and freed. If we are unwise, we buy more and more Uggs so we can lord it over little girls who wear other-than-Uggs, and buy into the delusion that it somehow makes us better. We are then pulled by those forces farther and farther away from the only things that really will make us better.