The dominance of our digital world with all its amazing benefits, has also given rise to an increasingly fake and narcissistic culture, that commodifies every-thing and every-body and instead of focusing its energies on producing more quality, it celebrates improved packaging. It’s not a new trend, the sociologist Erich Fromm wrote about it in the 1950s already, but with the explosion of digital technology, it’s an accelerating one.
We see it in many businesses and in politics. And more disconcerting, with the rise of social media and its growing virtualisation of human contact, we see this constant mise-en-scène of self in our personal lives too. We become our own avatar – god forbid someone saw my real makeup-free self!
Attention itself has become more important than what it is given to. Every day we bathe in a sea of pre-packaged, rehearsed, curated, hyped and stylised content, warping our senses. At work and socially we are at risk of being drowned out by this noise, unless we too join the choir of exhibitionist self-promotion. We seek to become like everyone else, but more successful.
Two years ago I sat on a plane to Brazil and happened to sit next to a Brazilian gentleman who practices Tibetan Buddhism. We got talking and at some point the conversation moved towards the concept of the Hungry Ghost.
Hungry ghosts are mystical Buddhist figures – fat, ugly monsters that are always hungry and always eating. Because their necks are so thin and their mouths are so small, they can never get enough food, so they keep looking for more and more.
They represent an important part of our human condition, a generalised sense of dissatisfaction. Buddhism teaches, that when we try to fill this existential void with stimulation, such as prestige, power, money, pleasure and so forth, we grow increasingly hungry, as these temporary satisfactions act like anaesthetics, failing to address the root cause of our dissatisfaction. They never seem to be enough.
The Buddhist gentleman mentioned different versions of these hungry ghosts. Particularly one version stood out to me. Some of these hungry fellows have extremely long arms, in fact so long, that their hands can’t reach their mouths and again it leaves them starving, and scavenging.
However, what they never realise is that they could use their long arms to feed each other.
Perhaps with our digital me and iculture we are in a similar boat, where the more we virtualise our lives, the more replaceable everyone becomes and the more we instrumentalise relationships for our narcissistic pursuits of short term gratification, attention and validation, leading us into an existential dead-end.
Having said that, Christmas is just around the corner and it struck me, that perhaps Christmas is a Christian response to this universal experience of the hungry ghost. Granted, Christmas has become overly commercialised itself, and yet in its essence it serves as a yearly ritual, where being there for each other, relationships, sharing and giving are being celebrated.
It’s an annual reminder, that we do belong somewhere, however imperfect that somewhere may be, and that we cannot just be replaced by someone else. We can’t get ourselves new parents or swap our sons for someone else. However conflicted and difficult these relationships can sometimes be, they are real and uniquely ours and remind us of our roots. Without the filters, the image projection and all the rest. We are seen warts and all, and we see others warts and all.
Christmas is a time of the year that allows us to take a breather from the hungry ghost business (though it makes for great Insta posts I’m sure), and we are reminded that perhaps what we don’t necessarily need more of is money, prestige or pleasure but more compassion, honest kindness and genuine human contact.
In this spirit I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a connected and fulfilled 2020!