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The Great American Trance

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A while back I was talking about Alcoholics Anonymous to someone who'd been mandated to attend a DWI program, and he said with righteous conviction, "I hate A.A. It's all brainwashing."

I looked at his Hummer, his expensive, name-brand watch, and then at him. "And you don't think you're brainwashed now?" I asked.

He didn't answer. But as we walked down the street, our conversation was forcibly interrupted by bus-stop billboards, ads stapled to telephone poles, and posters in store windows pushing products that will make us happier, wealthier and more virile. Nearly everyone was on cellphones, hooked to iPods, or texting. It occurred to me that it wasn't just him. We're all walking in trance. We're so inured to being sold that we don't even know it's happening because most of it occurs below the level of consciousness.

It was not the first time the thought occurred to me, but it was the first time it really concerned me. Americans are in a deep state of trance. And it's not a good one. For the most part, we are benumbed, befuddled or afraid.

Considering the state of our economy, our bungled and cowering political presence in the world, and the simple fact that we are at war, a trance of that sort is precisely the opposite state of mind we need to cultivate.

This cultural trance is made vivid in my work. I can only do so much with a person who comes to me complaining about poor self-esteem, when everything in our culture tells her that she truly is nothing if she's not high-breasted, full-lipped and simultaneously powerful and oh-so down-homey.

In contemplating my conversation with the fellow who loved his Hummer but hated brainwashing, I came up with several pathologies that have come to characterize American culture and may offer some explanation as to why our economy is failing and our political presence in the world is a joke.

Trance #1: The Next Osama Syndrome

The trance of viral fear is the drive shaft of the American Economy. It tells us that the next catastrophe is right around the corner, unless...

It's a simple formula: We buy things (even though it puts us in debt) because we believe we need them. We believe we need them because we're afraid of something terrible happening if we don't have them. We get convinced that not having them puts us at grave risk -- for attack, hemorrhoids, loneliness, heart failure or social scorn. We pour more pharmaceuticals into our bodies than ever, yet we have more heart disease, autism, panic attacks, isolation and asthma in this country than ever before. And with all the surveillance, bombs and barricades we've erected around us, we are still the most frightened we've ever been -- and the most vulnerable. It is an awful irony how little all that fear has done to actually protect us.

The problem is this: When we're afraid in that way (chronically, pervasively and pointlessly), we're needy. And when we're needy like that, we'll buy anything, including bad ideas, such as Chamberlain's idea to carve up Czechoslovakia so that Hitler wouldn't be so mad at us: "If we just give him what he wants, he'll leave us alone." That's not diplomacy or statesmanship. And it wasn't just stupid; it was cowardly. And it led to the deaths of nearly 55 million people, with most of Europe flying the swastika. Fear has an enormous price tag spiritually, emotionally and, yes, politically, in real, concrete terms.

Trance #2: Moritis

This is the trance of "I need more." It is unrestrained consumption and growth. We guzzle without compunction. On the physical level, we are a country overflowing with cancer, psoriasis and diabetes. We are collectively more entitled than ever, more comfortable than any other group of people in history. Our garages are filled to overflowing, but on the emotional and spiritual level, we are becoming bankrupt.

The origin of it is subtle. You -- me -- we identify with what we have more than with who we are and what we offer our communities, each other and God. If we don't have the clothing, the car or the house that reflects our chosen image to the world, we have nothing. Worse, we are nothing. (It is a unique form of idolatry in the history of humanity. We have come to idolize our own images.)

Because of our need for more, our whole culture is now based on one of the few economic devices the Bible disallows: usury. Yet, we can't stop putting things on credit no matter what the interest. We can't stop buying. This is not just greed or gluttony, although greed and gluttony are certainly part of the picture. It is pure delusion on a pervasive scale.

Trance #3: The Eruption Of Ugly

There has never been a nation of more deliberately sculpted beauty (except, perhaps, Rome) or a culture that has spent more money on beauty because it is convinced that it is ugly.

Women starve themselves, men fill themselves with toxins, people of all ages spend hours in front of mirrors terrified of being unattractive, as if our sexual desirability determined our worth in the world. So many of my patients, who are in reality quite beautiful, believe themselves to be monstrous, unlovable, deformed. That is a true torture.

The truth is that we haven't a clue about what is really attractive or beautiful. And we miss all the real opportunities for love and worthiness, which has far less to do with plumped lips or six-pack abs than service, humility and kindness. One of the most beautiful people I know has a profound deformity because of scoliosis. But because of her kindness, her open heart and her sense of humor, she shines in a way few others do.

Trance #4: The I'm-1-N-1 Virus, or the Self-As-Center

Finally, we have the deepest expression of all this pathology. Because of all these other pathologies, we're also exceedingly self-centered. We're simultaneously insecure and entitled. And when we don't get what we want -- because we have no center, believe that we need the next it-thing to fill up that empty space and are afraid and self-loathing -- we become violent. Rage is the American pastime. One spin of the remote control is all the demonstration you need to verify that.

What can we do with this?

First things first: We wake up. We start to pay proper attention to the media in which we are bathing and the suggestions we are swallowing heedlessly. We look and see. We listen and hear. We are touched and we feel. Trance makes us insensate. A firm, intrapsychic pinch would be good for us.

Secondly, we return to spiritual basics. We cultivate a stable center; we look up with awe instead of at ourselves in the mirror or at the stuff we've accumulated. We remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. Something else is and that it centers us.

For me, the third is faith. When I can put my faith in something beyond myself, there is nothing to fear. When I can trust that a benevolent Creator is running the show, I can relax in the moment. This includes an understanding that I have a beginning and an end here, that I am mortal, and that one way or another this train will pull into the last station. For me, with faith, that is more than a statement of fact. It is a promise of something better. Other people have other spiritual platforms, but it eventually brings us to the same ground wire. With a bigger context for our existence, we can relax. We are not our stuff. We don't have to buy anything. We don't have to run away anymore. And we can be prepared and present instead of paralyzed with panic. Besides cowardice, the other thing Chamberlain showed when he gave up Europe to a maniac was a profound lack of faith in righteousness.

The fourth and perhaps most difficult for Americans is a correctness of desire. The medicine for unrestrained want is gratitude. That means we have to do a reality check when we pull out our credit cards and ask ourselves: Do we need this? What is it that we are really longing for? When is it enough?

To try to address this, to adjust our perspectives, my husband and I make a point of sitting with each other and the dogs quietly, especially in the warmer weather, where we are outside. We don't have an agenda. We don't wear watches. We just sit. And we are grateful beyond words. (He thinks it is an especially good thing when I am "beyond words.")

We are creatures of culture, but the good news is that our culture is created in equal proportion by us. While "As above, so below" is true, it is equally true to say, "As below, so above." We can't blame this on our leaders or lack thereof. This is us. We still have time to wake up America, even if it's one person at a time.

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