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Essay: Heaven's here on earth

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, May 7, 2018  /  11:31 am
Essay: Heaven's here on earth

We are often told that a good life is an extraordinary life where we have to earn fame, money and wealth as status symbols to make our life feel worthy. (Shutterstock/File)

Lead us not into temptation

Matthew 6:13/The Lord’s Prayer

I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people leading ordinary lives / filled with love, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice

Heaven’s Here on Earth,
Tracy Chapman

Could you imagine being married for more than 30 years to a respectful, kind and grounded man, whom you love and who loves you back, only to risk it all because you are being seduced by a flashy, thrill-seeking and narcissistic man to whom your husband seems “boring” in comparison?

While not being the main premise of the novel, this fragment is one I found most interesting in Thrity Umrigar’s The Story Hour, released in 2014, which I read recently. The novel’s storytelling felt so intimate that it seemed as though the characters and I were longtime friends. I finished the book in eight hours, and I was ecstatic. I wanted the whole world to read it.

I identified closely with the two middle-aged characters in the story: an African-American woman named Maggie, a psychologist; and her Indian husband, Sudhir, a university professor. They are grounded and low-profile people, whose mission in life is to help others become better through their jobs.

An antithesis to their simple, yet blissful life comes in the form of Peter Weiss, a war photographer. The problem with Weiss lies in his intention when picking a certain vocation: an inflated ego that has driven him to defy danger to prove his sense of invulnerability and pursue fame through his works, having no regard at all for the suffering of other people, even his photography subjects, whom he uses as mere tools to attain recognition.

Weiss’ love for cheap thrills and adrenaline rush is somehow reflected in his desire to seduce married women. Maggie, unfortunately, becomes a victim to his power of seduction, tricked by his romanticized portrayal of himself as a fearless and boundless adventurer.

We always crave what we do not have, and Maggie starts to adore this “exotic” man more than her “boring” husband.

After becoming aware of Weiss’ disgusting narcissism and need to feel powerful through his career and sexual adventures, Maggie comes to this grounded realization: “We are Earthbound creatures […] no matter how tempting the sky. No matter how beautiful the stars. No matter how deep the dream of flight. We are creatures of the Earth. Born with legs not wings; legs that root us to the Earth, and hands that allow us to build our homes, hands that bind us to our loved ones within those homes”.

Even though she and her husband have never been featured in a newspaper or magazine like Weiss has, their ordinary life epitomizes true bliss, because it fosters deep inter-human connection, instead of Weiss’ detached and egocentric life, which leads to isolation. Still, no matter how disgustingly arrogant Weiss is, we can’t help but sympathize with his vulnerability, which has led him to an addiction to cheap thrills in the first place. He has become a victim to our society’s obsession with status in its many ways, shapes and forms.

We are often told that a good life is an extraordinary life where we have to earn fame, money and wealth as status symbols to make our life feel worthy. The ordinary life — of people who have never made it to television or daily newspapers or glossy magazines — seems unworthy.

Some writers, for example, seem to worship fame and association with powerful people as the epitome of success in these fields. They are highly elitist, associating themselves to only people of high status, while treating disrespectfully those whom they consider to be of lesser status — the good ol’ kiss up, kick down behavior. They would brag and name-drop like birds on diarrhea.

Then I had a strange dream where I observed myself lying unconsciously inside a long tunnel (the kind of vision people get when they go through near-death experience, but God forbid, that was not the case with me at that time). While watching myself lying unconsciously with a facial expression emitting total surrender, I saw these seniors walking over me from both directions, unwilling to notice or help me at all. When I woke up, I realized I had become invisible.

I also sense this feeling of invisibility among some of my peers. I picked up a 2004 book called Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. The book is highly recommended for those who are always insecure with the sense of being not good enough compared to other people.

The author argues that modern capitalism — along with its package of glossy lifestyle magazines and newspapers featuring flashy profiles of the high-profile individuals, among others — has created a deep-seated arrogance among the middle-class society. This means people will love you only if you have high status that can benefit them, whether to bask in your reflected glory or advance their careers.

Therefore, the real reason why people pursue status symbols like wealth and fame, according to de Botton, is not because these things have inherent values within themselves, but because they are instruments to get other people’s love and potent concoctions to buffer us from invisibility, lovelessness and rejection.

Whether they are greedy businessmen who cruelly exploit the Earth and indigenous people to hoard money, insane politicians who do everything they can — including allowing horizontal conflicts to happen — to become presidents or journalists who suck up to powerful people, the root cause for this global insanity remains pretty much the same.

De Botton offers antidotes for our insecurities, but I would like to come up with my own, evoking the spirit of Umrigar’s work: human connection and service. Research studies have shown that, while status symbols give us temporary happiness, they slump rapidly, leaving us insatiable, wanting more and more.

Social researcher Brené Brown has suggested that the small pleasures of everyday life — enjoying a good meal, socializing with our loved ones — will result in a more sustainable happiness than the cheap thrills that the society makes us believe will give us happiness.

Maggie and Sudhir embody this knowledge that in our rootedness and sense of obligation to other people, therein lays our happiness. A 75-year-long longitudinal study from Harvard University has confirmed this: It is our connection to other human beings — not fame and fortune — that will predict our well-being into old age.

Shouldn’t we be ambitious, then? This awareness does not mean we abandon our worldly pursuits. But, as spiritual writers Caroline Myss and Marianne Williamson have said, we should change our intentions in doing our work from an egocentric one of pursuing personal glory to an altruistic one of serving other people to reach their highest potentials through whatever vocations we have.

If you are a chef, you do service by providing delicious and nutritious foods to your customers. If you are a waiter, you do service by providing warmth and attention to diners coming to your restaurant. If you are a teacher, you do service by helping your students think to empower themselves and others. Wonderful things occur through you when you just follow your destiny. Service binds us closer to our fellow human beings, and through our devotion to it, we will naturally become self-actualized and rise to our highest good.

As we integrate this idea into our lives, we will become more immune to our tendencies to worship excess. No need to look further: Heaven’s here in our rootedness to the Earth, in our nurturance of all sentient beings. This will save us from temptation. Amen.

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