Three things I’ve read this week have really got me thinking: the first is a story, believe it or not, about Madonna; the second is the transcript of a speech about justice; and the third is an article about why we Americans deserve Donald Trump as a candidate in the presidential race. The premise of each is similar; namely, that we tend to substitute the easy thing or the splashy thing for the right thing – and then hail the one as if it were the other.
In a piece published in The New York Times titled “Growing Older with Madonna”, Jancee Dunn reminds us that Madonna is known as the queen of reinvention. Certainly, she has tried many styles and set many trends. In her mid-50s now, she looks great. But her latest video feels somehow not right – she struts around, falling down “drunk” with her skin-tight dress riding up to reveal her underwear, declaring that she’s going to party all night and kiss who she wants and no one is going to stop her. Really? I remember that attitude from when I was 19, but then I grew up. The article asks a probing question about Madonna as an artist: “Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving?”
The next instance of a sort of cultural “mistaken identity” or transposition of concepts comes from Anand Giridharadas’ address to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum. “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” . In it, Giridharadas discusses the difficulties of questioning the status quo when “…This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein…” He goes on to say that as they seek solutions to the great disparities in the world, they never quite manage to address the root causes. He calls it the “Aspen Consensus”, in which “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.” As a result, they are (in his words), trying “to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice.”
The third, a Frank Bruni op-ed from The New York Times, discusses the confusion we’ve created between politics and entertainment, stating “…of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.”
Reinvention instead of evolution; generosity instead of justice; celebrity instead of authority, personality instead of leadership. If these various journalists are correct, we as a culture are routinely replacing values and ethics which require maturity, depth of conviction, and the courage of character with things that have a similar appearance, but which never take us below the surface into the realm of thoughtful and right action.
In some ways, the two photos (below) encapsulate this idea. The first photo is of someone engaging in a belly flop. At the pool, belly flops are an easy way to garner attention. They are loud, splashy; they require that people pay attention – even if only to avoid getting wet. Anyone with the desire to garner attention can pull off a belly flop. When well-executed, onlookers are delighted.
In many respects, the second photo looks much the same as the first. However, the second photo is of a swan dive. The swan dive begins with the same wholehearted, arms-spread-wide posture. However, at the last moment, the swimmer pikes and actually dives into the water. Swan dives result in a clean entry to the water, very little noise, almost no splash. They require practice, skill, an urge toward perfection of form. One can perform a swan dive in a crowded aquatic center with very little notice, especially at first. When well-executed, onlookers need to actually be paying attention to notice. However, when paying attention, onlookers are often wowed.
Another difference between the belly flop and the swan dive is that many of us, witnessing the two, firmly believe that we might be able to pull off the belly flop ourselves. But we don’t think we are capable of the swan dive.
Which brings me back to the ideas discussed in the articles I’ve referenced above. Reinvention is relatively easy. Many of us change things about ourselves, re-order the ephemera of our lives with some regularity. If we stop to think of evolution, of truly and deeply becoming the person we are capable (even meant) to be, we grow immediately wary. Or weary. We don’t really think of ourselves as having the fortitude to work that hard on our own growth and development. Often, we rely on life events to propel us in new directions, rather than being willing to undertake self-improvement or self-empowerment, or our own transformation. Yet we are spiritually called to this, I believe. We feel an inner pull toward evolutionary change, but we are unsure or overwhelmed by the prospect of how to proceed. And we – out of laziness, or fear, or unwillingness to upset the apple cart of our lives – settle for cosmetic change.
Generosity in place of justice is another easy substitution for most of us. And the difficult thing here is that generosity is, in itself, a good thing. I would never argue against it. All too often, though, we stop at generosity when what our communities and our world require is justice. We tell ourselves justice is the province of extraordinary souls – the Ghandis, Mother Theresas, MLKs of this world. We feel this way because justice requires deep change. It requires a willingness to root out the systemic causes of injustice. It calls us to act in ways, and with regard to issues, that are complex and difficult to sort out. We could be wrong. We could be facing much more powerful people and forces than ourselves. Most discomfiting of all, we may need to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and still stand our ground. Generosity feels so good. Justice is often just plain uncomfortable.
Finally, we engage in the fascination of celebrity. It is fun to follow the lives of the rich and famous. But somewhere along the line, we have confused noteworthy with newsworthy when it comes to the well-known. More disturbing is the idea permeating our culture that, somehow, celebrity status serves as shorthand for deserving, smart, accomplished, and admirable. Somehow we allow ourselves to think that those whose personalities loom large in our media are also more knowing and more creative. Have better ideas. Are more thoughtful. Here’s the thing: just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they actually know anything – nor does it mean that they are right-er (smarter, better, or more deserving) than the rest of us. But we’ve been led to believe (and allowed ourselves to accept) otherwise. So Chloe Kardashian’s butt sets our agenda, diverts our attention from the starving butts, the homeless butts, the butts without clean water – the millions of persons suffering from lack, systemic inequalities, racism. We sate our interest in the wider world, the world outside ourselves, with celebrity brand junk food. We fall for the splash and not the depth.
Why am I going on and on about this? Especially when the writers of the articles I’ve cited have made their points more eloquently (and more succinctly) than I? Because each of them touched on a slightly different facet of what I see as endemic in 21st century American culture – the willingness to settle for the big splash because we lack the will, perhaps the self-discipline, to reach for the swan dive. To work toward the fulfillment of our own potential as well as toward the creation of a world in which all people can potentialize. I, personally, need to work at maintaining a focus on right instead of easy, on deep instead of the kind of broad that comes from the “squirrel? squirrel?” distractibility of modern life. I feel that longing for the clean dive that takes me well below the surface, and I believe I am not alone in that.
Yesterday, I heard a quote on the radio as I drove (and because I was driving couldn’t jot down who said it), that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it. It terrifies me to think that we are a generation belly flopping our way to oblivion. More than that, it saddens me to think how we continue to squander the miracle, the absolute gift, of life in this incredible, amazing, generative Universe. So I am going to work hard to evolve, to leaven my generosity with action for justice, and to call forth my own leadership skills instead of letting those with larger personalities hold the field. I’m going to practice diving for depth.