In the mid-1980s, during an experiential therapy workshop, I participated in an activity in which I was assigned the task of doing whatever it took (short of outright violence) to get out of a doorway being blocked by six strong men. Several times during the struggle which lasted well over an hour, I paused to reflect on what was happening, what I could do to meet the goal, and what reserves of strength or energy I could find deep within myself. For an hour I screamed, yelled, cajoled, demanded, pleaded, and shoved.
In the end I made it. I got out the door and found myself soaked with sweat in the reception area outside the meeting room I had just left. I was alone and confused in the midst of my sense of personal power and pride. I did what I thought was impossible, even though it meant I had gotten something I didn’t even take the time to assess if it was what I actually wanted. I attained the inaccessible. I just didn’t want it.
Debriefing on the experience minutes later with the whole group, I was full of emotions, all rushing to be shown and understood. But my dominant feeling on my accomplishment that afternoon 30 years ago still perplexes me. I had pushed through six men who represented for me resignation and discouragement. In the end, I got what I set out to get. I was in no way disappointed about actually getting it. I just didn’t want it.
I was assured by facilitators that the point of the exercise was not the lesson it taught me in the end, but that lesson was my biggest take away. I realized how much many of us are waiting to engage fully in a struggle. Our latent desire to do so gets kicked up when it becomes painfully obvious that we cannot access what is accessible to others. This desire fuels sales of Rolex watches, Mercedes autos, and Gucci bags. It makes special things that are ordinary like first in line, choice of seats, so-called elite schools, and $1,000 high-top athletic shoes. We stand in line, maybe even willing to push out of our way six strong men, to find ourselves alone with a set of computing features on a smart phone in our hands, a phone that still drops calls regularly.
Each year we see evidence of this phenomenon in videos of Black Friday when shoppers duke it out over sale-priced flat screens. To hell with safety, dignity, personal pride, or human values — I want what I have been told I want. Literally millions of (fill in the blank with TV, phones, Bluetooth speakers) are available, but access to (fill in the blank with TV, phones, Bluetooth speakers) is limited, so I must have it. Though powerful other biological factors contribute to our behavioral patterns, I believe lack of access also fuels early substance use, teen sexuality, and theft, whether through snatch and run tactics in public parking structures or in carefully crafted investment vehicles in Wall Street board rooms.
A decade after this learning experience, I had a chance to notice it operating in my life again. I was in a great job at a great organization doing important things. To get there I had to fight my way past six internal and external “strong men” of my own making. Elsewhere I have described it as a time when I learned to scale a mountain, reaching heights I had never imagined I could. The problem was this: from that vantage point of success at the mountain top, I recognized that in the process of learning to scale mountains, I had made my way to a peak I didn’t really want or like.
For those who comfort themselves with the aphorism that the journey is the thing, my experiences in corporate mountain climbing would be a resounding success. I take no such comfort, however. Maybe I am being fussy in my desire for the journey and the destination, but I don’t think so. Having just devoted more than a decade in caring for my late husband with severe physical impairments related to MS, I am proud of the journey and am profoundly appreciative of the destination — our love for one another — but I would be lying if I suggested that the journey didn’t also suck. True: what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. False: not being killed is the bar for which we should strive.
Today I am wondering if celebrity in the US is also based on our desire for the inaccessible. There is limited room at the top, so celebrities represent the one-tenth of one percent. We cannot be them, so we work to dress like them, talk like them, and go where they go. We don’t actually know them, but we track their behaviors and purchases to get a peek at what is inside their highly commodified packaging. There are websites devoted to Justin Bieber’s feet, Kim Kardashian’s butt, and Ashton Kutcher’s pronouncements. We can google Madonna’s breast fashions and Lady Gaga’s attire made of meat. In the end, however, while some of these celebrities are actually talented, it is their inaccessibility that makes us want them. It is their fame that makes us want to be them.
In the end, I don’t believe that we want too much. I think we don’t risk wanting enough. Like any prime-time cable TV program on hoarding will attest, in acquiring stuff we seek to fill a void that cannot be filled with stuff. We try to fill the void of what we cannot access with stuff that is accessible, but no matter how hard we squint, it is somehow not the same. Like any self-respecting obsession, our reach for things both addresses the urge and fails to satisfy it.
Back in that training classroom in the 1980s, I wanted to meet the goal assigned to me. I did meet it, too, by getting out the door. But in the end, it was not my goal, but rather the goal made available to me. I did not think to say, “But I want to stay with these six strong men.” That goal would have made me reach even more deeply into my strength and personal power. After all, who doesn’t know how to push people away.
[Under the rubric of crap you cannot make up because you don’t need to, the photos in my post today were the result of doing a search on “picture of six men” and “picture of six men in a group.” The former produced the shirtless guys and the latter produced a huge array of odd things such as the shot of nine Ken dolls.]