Real Heroes vs Imaginary Ones

April 6, 2008   |   5 Comments


I was at the gym this morning, on the treadmill. I was listening to my iPod and not the television in front of me, but every once in awhile I glanced up at it. I saw several images of Martin Luther King, commemorating, I imagine, the 40th anniversary of his death. There were shots of him orating. Walking with Coretta. Marching arm in arm with fellow protesters. And, finally, the heartbreaking photo of those who stood with him when he was assassinated, pointing up at the direction from which the shots came. I felt myself well up with tears. It was not hard to touch in immediately with the tragedy of hate and its grievous consequences. Just then the screen shifted to footage of Reverend Al Sharpton and others walking arm in arm in obvious homage to the spirit of Martin Luther King.

I don’t have anything against Rev Sharpton. But there was something about the staginess of the shot that made my heart sink. It just didn’t seem real. The series of thoughts that then cascaded in my mind had nothing to do with Sharpton, King, or racism. They were about how grossly deceived we are about the difference between authenticity and image. I imagined that Sharpton and his friends had, at least in part, staged their walk for the media and for the message it would send about their viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a marketing-intensive culture. But somehow we’ve collectively forgotten to separate reality from its marketing campaign. The consequences are dire: Not knowing whether you love someone or the idea of them; not knowing how to choose a career that suits you beyond looking successful; not being able to make up your mind on the issues of the day because all you’ve been given to build on are facades and postures.

What I’m trying to say is that the inner connection to self, your very own, very unique inner landscape has been abandoned. Why, I can’t tell you. But I can see evidence of it everywhere: Kids who say that what they want to be when they grow up is famous. Not President. Not an astronaut. Not a doctor or a poet or a father or mother. Famous. For me, music is the most devastating example of the loss of authenticity. Everything I hear sounds posed. I’m not saying there aren’t countless talented, clever people making music today—there are. Pyrotechnics—yes. Technique—yes. Smart, interesting, inventive—yes. But soulful? No. No amount of overwrought emoting or derivative imaging can conjure the soulfulness of listening to a person who is also listening to themselves—as opposed to looking at themselves from the outside in. No matter how many unusual influences you blend together (Cambodian-surf for example), you will never create anything new. The only thing that is new is what arises on the spot.

Another example of this horrible illness that I call image-poisoning (when we believe that the image of a thing is the thing itself) is the idea of a “personal brand.” I actually feel sick to my stomach at when I hear this phrase. I’m not kidding. Actual nausea. But, again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be super conscious and pragmatic about the image we project and the way people perceive us. But the idea that you would brand yourself like a carton of milk or a glossy magazine is just sick. It’s like saying to yourself, who do I want to pretend to be and how can I get others to see me that way? It’s bullshit. If you are yourself instead of trying to project yourself, you will find yourself in possession of personal magnetism and power. My friend Michael says we’re so busy trying to get somewhere that we have forgotten how to be somewhere. We have. We’re so busy trying to brand ourselves that we’ve forgotten how to be ourselves.

Do you know the difference between your image and yourself? Please ask yourself this question. Are you trying to seem like someone or be someone?

Please stop branding yourself, unless you’re very, very clear about the difference between your brand and yourself.

The TV piece on MLK closed with a shot of Obama giving a speech. Although I couldn’t hear it, it was easy to guess that the fact of Obama’s candidacy for President was being touted as an indication of just how far we’ve come. YAY. We have come a ways, although there is a tremendous distance still to go—but this isn’t what made me so sad as I watched the piece wind down. It was that we’re electing a President based not on character, not on values, not on statesmanship, but on the image of these things.

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  • Posted by:  Idara

    I read your post with considerable interest and identified with several of your concerns. However, I am reminded by a quote that I heard several years ago by (of all people) celebrity Chef Mario Batali- he stated that one’s brand was “your own truth expressed consistently.”
    Now while you may not have anything against Al Sharpton (I actually do) but besides this, historically his approach to shedding light to perceived (or imagined injustices) to “call the brothers and sisters” together for a march. There are many people who still are drawn to this mode of public expression regardless of how staged it may appear- this is their truth of how to share their concerns in the forum of public opinion. In this day and age when so many feel so helpless and inept in their ability to effect change or to “force” remembrance of situations that still deeply touch them, some of these “old time” civil rights era approaches still have appeal to many. It’s almost as if it might be necessary to “go beyond the field of right and wrong” per our elder statesman Rumi and have a conversation on how best we can honor those who have gone before us, while maintaining the integrity of their message. I do not think it is an easy task, but I do feel it is worth broaching the topic and resisting the temptation to paint any one approach with a broad brush, for this would essentially put an end to any constructive dialogue that could possibly bring about any potential shifts.

  • Posted by:  riva

    Hooray! So beautifully put, Susan. I hate the idea of people branding themselves — and (don’t hate me for it but,) I’ve worked in advertising most of my life. Branding is a blight. Humanity as commerce. We buy into it at the loss of our souls. Isn’t it enough for us to be who we are authentically?

  • Posted by:  robert birkenes

    Isn’t it amazing that most of the Buddhist teachings are even more relevant today than 2600 years ago? Think about attachment, and how it relates to modern society that is so very self-absorbed and unhappy; with more to consume, we struggle more with attachment than even the wealthiest in ancient India. I find that Trungpa Rinpoche’s writings from 30 years ago are also still fresh and appropriate for today’s world.

    Why is that amazing? Because all of the physical things you’re mentioning are relatively new: iPods, treadmills, TV, living at hyperspeed, multitasking, the internet, blogs, marketing campaigns, and branding (especially personal branding, yech!). But the underlying substance–humans grappling to see what is real beneath the appearances, living in the present rather than hurrying to the future or dwelling on the past–has not changed in thousands of years.

    We are fortunate to live in a time when the afflictions are widespread, but mindfulness and Buddhist teachings are spreading and gaining acceptance among scientists, psychologists, talk-show hosts (yeah Oprah and Tyra!), lawyers, and the public. Thanks largely to the corps of dedicated and talented writers such as you (Susan), Michael, and others. (Not to mention the consumers that buy those books and subscribe to the magazines!)

  • Posted by:  susan

    Hi Robert. It IS amazing how relevant the Buddhist teachings are. Maybe that’s because they’re not about Buddhism per se (or God or beliefs) but about the mind and how it works. It never ceases to astonish me how modern and applicable the teachings are. And we’re very, very lucky to have Trungpa Rinpoche’s work available to us. For me, the Shambhala teachings have more to do with everyday life than anything I’ve ever read. It’s a privilege to try to write about these things within the context of my own life.

    As always, I value your comments tremendously! Susan

  • Posted by:  Daniel

    White noise,
    Black Power;
    opens Heart’s flower.

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