Americans are obsessed with being an original—and although history begs to differ, Americans continue to suffer from the illusion that “I saw it first.” We crave to be the first to discover something, to break a record, to have our names credited with being the first. Turn us into a meme, we don’t care! We don’t want to be just any old influencer, but the first influencer re: a new product/idea/gain. We don’t just wanna win. We wanna win from space.
Louise Glück's new book of essays American Originality revolves primarily around poetry, however the titular essay, an earlier version of which can be found here, goes into why Americans want so badly to be considered anything but derivative. It’s an excellent treatise on the mythology of originality, and it has a lot to do with how this country developed re: competitiveness. My concern, however, has more to do with the pathological thought patterns and behaviors that manifest as a result of so much pressure of being the first. I would argue the pendulum is going to swing back the other way and become increasingly collectively minded (earth ships anyone?!), because as the colloquialism about loneliness and being at the top observes, what’s the point of being the first to reach a peak if there’s no one around to share the view?
How 21st century Americans view the extremes of excess and minimalism happens to be very interesting to me at the moment. At the same time we’re seeing an upswing in the trend of minimalism, corporations continue to capitalize off of social attitudes with even more stuff (not unlike the plot to Holy Man) like H&M pairing with the Italian fashion house, Moschino. So you get H&M, renowned worldwide for its simple, yet classic, and affordable clothing, teaming up with a luxury brand founded in the early 80’s, and the result is a collection of “statement” pieces that cost a lot and you want to have because they’re a) nostalgic and b) expensive. In other words, as with any brand, you’re still only actually purchasing the idea of clothes, not the actual garment. You’re buying it to say you can afford to, thus positioning you more closely to being perceived as the elite few who can afford to buy luxurious brands, the presumed reward for originality (regardless of how many people who came into their wealth and notoriety off of other folks’ ideas and kinda tweak ‘em—I think they call that being an opportunist in certain circles). I won’t go into the paradox of this excessive-minimalist mindset here, other than suffice it to say, it kind of looks like the Auryn from The Neverending Story. And even if you an’t afford some of these pricier but super posh brands, enter Afterpay, a site that allows you to make a purchase and then pay in installments. It’s like a reverse layaway, and bonus! No credit checks required.
By the 90’s, visible excess kind of cooled off on the bling (until Puff Daddy and Missy Elliott videos lol) and the country turned more towards the aesthetic of prep vs. grunge—Tommy Hilfiger vs. Doc Martens. Being an alternative misfit clad in chunky boots and a choker wailing along with Alanis Morrissette, however, did not necessarily make folks desire the dream of sustainability any less, ultimately. It just made it more complex as to how to obtain the dream. So, the golden ticket became a college degree. And all through high-school, my friends and I serenaded one another with “If I Had a $1000000 Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies and “I Would Buy You a New Life” by Everclear. Side note: Art Alexakis talking about how looking at wealth from the inside is a lot different from looking at it from the outside (based on at least one song about not having any wealth) is sooooo relatable, particularly for a Pluto-in-Libra generation latchkey kid such as myself who will never really know if she will ever get this work/life balance thing down pat.
But at this point in the 21st century, not a semester goes by where I’m not talking some terrified undergrad out of their tree when they are wheezing into their inhalers over even the thought of how horribly they’re going to disappoint their parents who sacrificed everything to give them opportunities they themselves didn’t have, just for changing their major from Business to English which is the modern-day basket-weaving major. (Ironically, Exercise Science is the go-to degree these days while History and English and Philosophy sort of sift to join the grounds at the bottom of our collective cuppa light blond roast). When I ask my students and colleagues and friends why they do what they do, a lot of them struggle for an answer beyond “Get out of financial debt, so I can be free.” What kind of quality of life is that?
Look no further than this less-than-three min vid with mogul, Gary Vaynerchuk aka Gary Vee who talks with South African DJ, Black Coffee, about why you shouldn’t set goals for yourself. He says owning the New York Jets is going to be a weird day for him, because for him, money is just one way to keep score of achievement. Entrepreneurs like Gary Vee are emblematic of that American originality issue I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s a work ethic he inherited from an immigrant upbringing, his self-discipline and work-ethic are clearly sound, but I would argue that he hasn’t yet escaped poverty consciousness — a mentality of never having enough. Not that he’s not a humanitarian or philanthropic or he’s a bad person…I mean, I don’t know the guy…it’s just that…one day he probably will own the Jets and then what? For him, he admits that it’s the getting that’s the lure. Like so many others of us who are chronic workaholics, I always say that the most motivated people in the world aren’t running towards something, they’re running away. They’re motivated out of a reaction to lack. The problem is, you take you with you wherever you go. And humans make choices out of only one of two places—love or fear. I would argue that too many of us are basing our life choices out of fear of failure without questioning who or what they’re so concerned about letting down. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly oedipal)
So, what’s the alternative?
How does a person cultivate prosperity consciousness in the early 21st century? What’s the middle way, or as Alan Watts says, to desire softly? We can’t not have desires since we’re human and we are urged on by our inner, nameless Witness that wishes to experience the world through sensory information. There’s another part of us that craves expansion. I have to admit, I very much admire what I can see of Elon Musk’s approach for this reason. I feel like he’s motivated by a vision for accessibility. I’m not saying he’s not motivated by the credit of being the first to make a breakthrough, and sure when he risks big, sometimes he loses big and publicly, but I like Elon Musk, because he seems to be able to take the occasional chin-check because, one, he assumes there’s more where that came from, and two, he knows that those who risk nothing have nothing, and three, his gains benefit us all.
It’s kind of like the 100th Monkey Effect, right? You give a controlled group of disenfranchised citizens resources, and watch the mushroom cloud over their collective adaptive quotient. Each one reach one. Except the ones you can’t reach because they’re either too old to adapt or too scared, so they stop because someone is constantly showing up to take their resources away. My favorite part about the 100th Monkey story (along with other hopeless tree-hugging type romantics), incidentally, is the idea that somewhere else in the world, without any exposure to adapting to a new resource, someone else gets the same idea and modifies it, enhances it, and shares it.
That’s the true secret to prosperity, right? I mean, not a day goes by that I think about people out there in the world who have more money than they know what to do with, and I have all the ideas but I have to do my best making magic with the financial equivalent of mason jars and shoe strings. I wouldn’t even know how to find those kinds of people to begin to talk to them, honestly. There’s a certain level of wealth out there that won’t even look at you if you don’t have at least ten million because it’s just such a completely different worldview. I worry that too many well-intentioned donors, too, are giving to the disenfranchised while they are still occupying a poverty consciousness, thinking all they need to make it is money. They don’t yet understand that money is just one narrative of abundance. Money can empower people but it’s only one tool of many. Not unlike the thinking mind, money makes a wonderful servant but a lousy master. If the people who need money haven’t yet changed their minds about prosperity, it won’t work. It just won’t work. Education and habitus need to be cultivated first.
Prosperity consciousness takes practice. And giving without education only reinforces a codependent cycle, further enabling pathological behaviors. Prosperity consciousness is making a choice out of love. Love accepts. Love is inclusive. Love is selfless. Love comprehends that what we value may not mean the same to another person but it doesn’t mean it’s worth any less (a la Wendy Darling giving Peter Pan a kiss in the form of a thimble). Love means to protect. Love means to defend. Love is an action word.
And as they say, the benefactor loves to be thanked, right? I can point to at least ten people in the last few years alone, who the only way I would ever be able to say thank you to, is by paying it forward to someone else. Not unlike paying for the coffee in the drive-thru for the person behind you, right? Kinda like catch-and-release. You know what I’d do with a million dollars? After covering all of my immediate debt, lol, I know ten people right now I could also share the rest with and bring up to 21st century prosperity consciousness speed. Y’know. Like that starfish parable (I feel it worth mentioning here that Holy Man is a highly underrated film). Speaking of throwing stars, even Zeus, as dysfunctional as he was, sometimes functioned as a savior (re: Chronus), a creatrix (re: Athena) and doula (re: Leda). My favorite version of “Leda and the Swan,” is that when Leda laid three golden eggs after her courtship with the sky god, he helped her hatch ‘em, and then in the Ancient Greek version of putting a person’s name in lights, hung Cygnus for everyone to admire and enjoy, in honor of the girl-child who broke through first.
Prosperity consciousness means that our resources are best enjoyed when shared. What’s the point of having a house if no one’s there to come home to?
But sharing is tricky, right?
You can give someone a house and they are ever in your debt, or you can show them how to build and maintain a house, then set them free.