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On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at info@centacs.com) . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:

 

  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (3. Smiles and Liking)

What you see isn’t always what you get

Indeed. As I wrote in two recent posts about solitude (not always loneliness) and fidgeting (not always impatience), common behaviors don’t necessarily originate with common causes. Will Shakespeare would have us think otherwise, as he suggested when he had Julius Caesar say this of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 190–195

The Bard makes two assumptions here: they who are fat are happy, and they who are gaunt are plotting to take your dinner (or throne). All who are fat are not happy, and all gaunt persons are not dangerous.

Take smiling. One might assume that, when someone smiles at you, they like you. Friendly smiles, however, are not always friendly. Body language research has demonstrated that most of us interpret someone’s smile aimed at us as evidence that they like us. But smiling can also be a subterfuge, a stalking horse that masks inner hostility at worst, or boredom at the least. Or it could suggest amusement, but not necessarily liking. Even if a smile does convey truly positive feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is flirting with you. Research shows that the typical heterosexual man tends to interpret a woman’s smile as meant for him in a romantic way, while women do not typically take a man’s smile as a come on.

The 19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne defined a true smile, i.e., one

duchenne smile

Duchenne smile, by RealWann, 2006. CC BY 2.0

that reflects positive affect, as one that entails both a contraction of the muscle that raises the termini of one’s mouth, and also the muscle that raises one’s cheeks with the effect of forming bird feet flanking one’s eyes. Today, psychologists contrast this genuine Duchenne smile with the Pan Am smile, named for the desperate flight attendants who try their best to put on a polite, happy face to their often unpleasant travelers. That Pan Am is caput suggests that fake smiles don’t work.

To ensure that you don’t misinterpret someone’s smile, look for bird feet at the edge of their eyes and cheek creases at the edge of their upturned mouth edges. If these two signs are present, assume that a) the person is feeling positive affect, or that b) they are a fine actor and may be seething with hatred, evaporating from boredom, or maybe deeply amused at something. In a good way, or not.

Like most behaviors, a smile’s motive must be confirmed, or clarified, through dialog.

It turns out that Julius Caesar (via Shakespeare) was right in his interpretation. Luck of the Romans.

But after all is said, it sure is nice to be around smiles, rather than frowns, even if smiles, like flowers, are resting on something rotten and smelly below!

How Do Religion and Politics Mix?

February 24, 2016 1 comment

An Imam, a Rabbi, and a Ronin were sitting on the bimah. Their host asked each to comment on this question: What is the line between religion and politics?

In a country that officially embraces the separation of church and state, the audience of mostly Jews and Christians at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, were eager to hear their views. This was the kickoff session of a six-part series on religion and politics. You judge whether the answers by the Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist had more, or less, in common.

KABUL, 24 June 2015 Ð AfghanÕs future leaders Ð the young men and women of one of KabulÕs college.

Afghan’s future leaders–the young men and women of one of Kabul’s colleges. June 24, 2015; UNAMA/Fardin Waezi.    CC BY-NC 2.0

The Imam strummed a welcome chord when he pronounced that he who says he should have power is not who should be in power. Only those whom others say should be in power should rule. In the current crush of egos courting voters in the 2016 U. S. presidential elections, the Imam’s words are discordant with the rush of “Me, me, me” on screen, stage, and town halls. The Imam would ask: But whom do the people say should serve? Elizabeth Warren? Michael Bloomberg? Nikki Haley? Jesse Jackson? Rupert Murdoch? Joe Biden? Jon Stewart? Mitt Romney? Alec Baldwin? The Imam seemed to suggest that we need a nomination process based on the masses’ identification of who should lead, and then ask the nominees to campaign appropriately. This reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night, II,v) The Imam would seem to urge the latter—that the people should press their desired leaders into service—no more teaching, lawyering, or banking for you: time to lead your country. The role of religion in politics, then, would be to assist the people in identifying right leaders and encouraging them to serve.

The Rabbi took a different approach, addressing not so much who should serve, but how religion should behave towards those who do serve. “Speak truth to power,” she urged. That is the role of religion. Hold leaders accountable, and do not let them obfuscate fact with fiction. Where the people have great need, and their leaders discount those needs, religionists should hold the leaders to their tacit contract: Keep your eyes on what the people need and do not lose your focus. Do not let ego, fame, power, or the desire to be reelected distract you from compassion for the poor and ill-treated and the need of the electorate to be educated and safe.

The Ronin eschewed the issue of who should serve and how they might be identified, but he did expand on the Rabbi’s plea to speak truth to power. However, the Buddhist leader urged a different style for speaking the truth: It was not so much about calling out a leader’s lies, deceptions, and mistakes, but rather holding a mirror to them so that leaders might discover, and own up to, their distractions from what is right. How? Said the Ronin: It is better that I ask more questions than that I give more answers. Thus, the task of religion is to have dialog, Socrates-like, with our political leaders, such that the people may see their leaders’ ability to withstand the scrutiny of thoughtful interaction, or even interrogation.

To me, the three religious leaders focused not on the dividing line between religion and politics, but on the responsibility of religionists towards politicians. Get the right people to serve, guide them through thoughtful questions, and call them to task when gentle dialog is not enough.

Ancient Wisdom Has Legs

Literally. The ancient wisdom to “Know thyself” emblazoned on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and carriedelphid forward by Shakespeare’s Polonius as “To thine own self be true” has carried Misty Copeland to be named (the first African-American) principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Having broken this color barrier on June 30, she shared her most treasured bit of advice with Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes (CBS)—“Be you, because you can’t be anyone else.”

In our youth we try being many different people—athletes, musicians, artists, carpenters, gardeners, entrepreneurs, lovers, teachers, preachers, cooks…. We experiment with many behaviors—socializing, solitude, meditation, creativity, methodicalness, spontaneity, reticence…. We expose ourselves to the cafeteria of life in an unconscious quest for our core self. Wesleyan University emeritus professor of psychology Nathan Brody once described the task of growing up as “becoming more like who we are.” Just as Michelangelo described his creative process in terms of finding the statue within each block of stone, so we as individuals must find the strengths our genes express. Every time a peer comments “Hey, you’re good at that!” a teen’s course is corrected, righted, clarified, confirmed.

In spite of an obstacle course (described in her book Life in Motion) that would have discouraged many from their path, 32-year-old Misty Copeland knew herself and fastened herself to the mast like Ulysses to resist the temptations to abandon her core. She hitched her wagon to a star, and now she is a star with the corps de ballet.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we help people learn to use personality assessments as a way of helping people find their core self, their statue within the misty copelandblock. Perhaps it is not too grandiose to hope that we have helped other Mistys emerge from their fog with greater clarity of vision and sense of self—more rapidly, perhaps, than they would have by employing traditional trial-and-error experimentation over many years.