Live Now, Consume

My goodness, don’t you remember when you went first to school? And you went to kindergarten.
And in kindergarten, the idea was to push along so that you could get into first grade,
and then push along so that you could get into second grade, third grade, and so on,
going up and up and then you went to high school and this was a great transition in life.
And now the pressure is being put on, you must get ahead, you must go up the grades and finally be good enough to get to college.
And then when you get to college, you’re still going step by step, step by step, up to the great moment in which you’re ready to go out into the world.

And then when you get out into this famous world, comes the struggle for success in profession or business.
And again, there seems to be a ladder before you, something for which you’re reaching for all the time.
And then, suddenly, when you’re about 40 or 45 years old, in the middle of life, you wake up one day and say “Huh? I’ve arrived. And, by Jove, I feel pretty much the same as I’ve always felt. In fact I’m not so sure that I don’t feel a little bit cheated.”

Because, you see, you were fooled.
You were always living for somewhere where you aren’t.
And while, as I said, it is of tremendous use for us to be able to look ahead in this way and to plan, there is no use planning for a future, which, when you get to it and it becomes the present you won’t be there – you’ll be living in some other future which hasn’t yet arrived.

And so in this way, one is never able actually to inherit and enjoy the fruits of one’s actions.
You can’t live it all unless you can live fully now.

If you’ve been using the Internet for some time, there’s a chance you’ve heard these words. Possibly, they were presented to you in spoken form by an eloquent and confident-sounding narrator, whose voice had a hint of a British accent to it. There was some vaguely-uplifting music playing in the background and the visuals were various pieces of stock footage.

Now, am I describing:

  1. A modified excerpt from a talk by an American philosophy popularizer, Alan Watts, or
  2. A Volvo commercial?

I’m sure that even if you’re bad at tests and, in fact, you have never heard these words, you can get it right, because the answer is both.


There is a certain level of irony involved in human life, and all our endeavours seem to be constantly in danger of producing the opposite results. Before I say more about this, I want to make a note about history.

Having seen their parents live out a preplanned life of the 50s, with the promise that theirs will be the same – so long as they keep the US economy going by continued consumption – the new generation became increasingly rebellious. Out of the disappointments of the previous decade, came the United States of the 60s – a chaotic and energized place.  In the age in which student protest movements, Vietnam War, cold war, hippie culture, drug use and a host of other things were mixing together, the climate could probably be best summed up as “radical” or, more accurately, “deliberately antagonistic” – counter-cultural and aware of it. There was a feeling of decay of the Western world, strengthened by the use of science for military purposes and the increased chance of a nuclear conflict. University administrations were being castigated for taking part in weapons research programs, and protests were taking place at meetings where scientists taking part in such research showed up. As an example of the level the negativity could reach, during a 1970 meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Edward Teller, one of the creators of the hydrogen bomb, was labelled a war criminal. The scientists were definitely aware of the light they as a whole were viewed in: Albert Szent-Györgyi, a physiologist and winner of a Nobel prize in medicine, summed the situation up as follows:

Because science is used for war, we have lost the respect for the people and there is a revulsion against scientists.

[1]

In summary, the feeling of the period was born out of an overlap of various polarizing social changes.[2] It gave rise to discontent, and a desire, particularly among younger people, to escape from the reality of the time and find a new set of values to attach themselves to. It was this attitude of openness to new ideas that would prove to be a fertile ground for various philosophies (and interpretations thereof) imported from the Far East. Many immigrant monks and practitioners have been residing in Western countries for years, prompting slow but steady growth of interest in the subject by mainstream and academic audiences. Western travellers to India and beyond brought with them various impressions of the cultures they witnessed. Adding to this, the Beat Generation’s fascination with Buddhism helped make eastern thought hip by association. A certain image of the East was formed. The mystique of an exotic belief system was coupled with the allure of a peaceful ethical message and a unifying worldview, made for the perfect counter-cultural package, and it didn’t matter how distorted some of the depictions of the Orient were. As with all new things that caught the public eye, there was a need for introductory and beginner-level materials that multiple authors would oblige over the years.

If one believes in fortune, Watts could be called fortunate for having been born at the time he was born. Although he was an Episcopal priest from 1945 to 1950, his interest in Buddhism went all the way back to the 30s. It was thanks to a book on Buddhism, The Way of Zen, published in 1957, that Watts became widely known – first among the counter-culture milieu fascinated with Eastern philosophy, then in wider mainstream circles as the book became a bestseller. Undoubtedly, Watts’s popularity had led to him being a guest lecturer at the Esalen Institute. Esalen, a retreat center which has over the years presented lectures on non-traditional topics by speakers ranging from Bob Dylan to Buckminster Fuller, is also one of the key destinations connected with the Human Potential Movement. It helped originate ideas that feed into what would nowadays be considered a “New-Agey” worldview. In particular, it propagated the idea that human beings should realize and cherish their uniqueness – that they would become better by realizing their potential. This view fit well into the framework of the counter-culture at the time.


Having established some historical background, I believe we can now return back to the question of irony which I mentioned in the beginning.

In some ways, everyone knows how the rest played out – the counter-culture movement fizzled out. The radicals of the yesteryear became the establishment. What is interesting is how the existing powerful companies managed to benefit from the social discontent – it wasn’t by opposing the non-conformists, but by catering to them that the corporations managed to profit on what seemed unprofitable. This was partially made possible by research which allowed advertisers to divide their target audience into categories of potential customers (a practice currently known as “market segmentation”) – categories which they could appeal to on a more individual level. [3] Through making a guarantee to the rebels that their individuality could be represented by their buying choices, the companies could channel opposition towards the socioeconomic order which created them into sales that sustain them.

Nowadays, psychological research plays a fundamental part of marketing. And I have very little doubt that the decision to build a marketing campaign around an Alan Watts quote was a very-well researched one. After all, what could you want more in these times of economic and geopolitical turmoil than to live fully? Now, preferably?

This is, therefore, how the irony of life plays out. In joining a counter-culture movement that rejected careerism and consumption, Watts was creating material for future marketing campaigns that aim to channel our search for a meaningful life into a desire for a product. Regardless of any non-materialist intentions he might have had, the sheer accessibility of his words has made them into excellent advertising material. The end result is a prime example of capitalist creativity when it comes to translating every valuable thing and thought into profit.

As a final note, if people were to truly reflect on Watts’s advice, I believe the campaign would have been a complete failure. After all, what is a car that you don’t yet have but another future that you’re now told to live for? If you genuinely wish to stop living for things that are yet to happen, if you want to stop being disappointed with the present, how will another purchase help you? And do you honestly think that it will be the last one you’ll be led to?

If you want to live fully now, then you already have what you need. Forget about the car.

[1] Quotes after Sarah Bridger’s 2011 dissertation “Scientists and the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research”

[2] For a history journal article about the period, see Agar, John, “What happened in the sixties?”, BJHS 41 (4): 567–600, December 2008.

[3] As an example, take Stanford Research Institute’s Values and Lifestyles.

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Misplaced Nostalgia

One of the cliches that seems to be prevalent, at least in the sphere of “Western” thought, is the notion that childhood is somehow a time of purity and bliss. In that often-entertained stereotype, there’s an aura of nostalgic longing that many people seem to assume should be the default way of thinking about one’s earliest years. (Setting aside the issue that this stereotype is of very limited applicability to begin with) While I don’t doubt that some people’s childhoods were genuinely blissful in the sense that there was a lot of simple enjoyment involved, I think that longing for childhood and idealizing the period is a way to deceive oneself.

First of all, the obvious realization should be that childhood is not really a period of such purity as people would like to think. Children are generally uncritical of both their moral and hygienic principles, which makes them metaphorically and literally likely to have dirt under their fingernails. Children can and do bully each other from an early age, as well as hurt animals out of sheer curiosity. And when not all of them grow out of such behaviour, we see and label the adult as deviant, cruel and wicked – pretending that it’s something that only adults take part in.

But one could also think that childhood is a blissful period simply because it’s a time before one gets to taste the full complexity of life. If your life was similar to the optimistic childhood stereotype, then, as a child, you didn’t have to worry about taxes, jobs, corruption in politics, mortgages, war or any other adult topic. You were completely unaware of the notion of cheating in a relationship, and the biggest dilemma might have been which television show to watch. Compare this to your life as an adult, and it seems clear as a day that your childhood was better – no worries, no debts, just playing and resting. Then, teenage years came along and destroyed everything and made you miserable.

This sort of explanation is as alluring as it is shallow. Childhood was better because there were more things that you liked than there are now. What it doesn’t say is why exactly life is that way, and why do people think they had more of the things they liked in childhood. I think the reason the analysis stops here is that most people don’t really like to admit that their childhood doesn’t only feel more free, it genuinely was more free. And not only in the simplistic sense that a parent would pay for something you wanted, but in the deeper sense that what you wanted was closer to how you felt. As children, before we are introduced into the wider world, and before we are acquainted with notions such as fashion, expectations, grades and other problems created by other people, we have no reason to not pursue our genuine interests. We might have no clue, but we surely have conviction. If the process of “growing up” amounts mostly to getting used to the idea that other people are going to force you to do things the way they want – whether they are schoolmates who would ostracize you for not liking what they like, or your boss who will fire you for working too slowly – then it’s no wonder that what came before seems idyllic.

Therefore, I think that people who feel nostalgic towards their early youth are in reality just feeling a misplaced sense of loss. The passing of childhood symbolized replacement of their values with those constructed by other people and a loss of self-direction. Their unwillingness to either stand up to or get used to the situation they are in now is recast as a mythical loss of purity.

Nostalgia about your early years is therefore more like indulging a fantastic vision – it wasn’t like that, but what you do is substitute reflection on your current state with wishful thoughts about the past. It’s not your childhood that is blessed, it’s your life right now that is miserable.