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How We Are Fooling Ourselves Into Failure

The tragic lure of illusion.

07/07/2017 9:36 AM IST | Updated 07/07/2017 9:36 AM IST
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Many chase illusions, the most fundamental of which is seeing ourselves as what we are not. This is not our fault. Indeed, contemporary society, which is largely driven by consumerism, which in turn is driven by television and advertising, draws us into a world of fabrication and deception. Their success lies in their ability to fabricate and deceive.

Am I you or I or someone else?

Chris Hedges, in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle, argues that television has replaced God. He draws attention to the huge appeal that serials like Sex and the City, Baywatch, The Real Housewives of...and many others have. We have been indoctrinated to worship the lure of Western living and glamour, and of celebrity culture. This is not an addiction of the West. Even poor and developing nations succumb.

These shows are sponsored by advertisement of products that purport to make us infinitely more desirable. How and where we dress, travel, eat, stay and even smell is meant to heighten our appeal. Their objective is to shift the way we perceive ourselves. They aim to transform us.

[W]e believe that the concocted world we see on screen is attainable... it is the source of much grief and mental illness. It is also a major cause of failure.

We are led to believe that only a life with status, certain type of physical attributes and affluence is a life worth pursuing. Hedges alludes to the absurdity of popular weight loss programs on television that so many succumb to, whereby middle-aged men and women are suddenly 'transformed' and become eminently desirable physically, even to their spouses!

The objective of the show is to create in us the desire to be somebody else. We now want to have Marilyn Monroe's hairstyle, Monica Bellucci's body, somebody else's husband, Michelle Pfeiffer's smile, Sophia Loren's personality and Paris Hilton's inheritance. Anything short of that makes us feel inadequate, incomplete and undesirable.

Worse, we actually come to believe that the concocted world we see on screen is attainable. Tragically, it is the source of much grief and mental illness. It is also a major cause of failure.

Navigating the lure of consumerism in contemporary society is not easy, especially because we live in an extreme world of advertising, which is constantly selling us a lifestyle. We also live in an increasingly lonely world where depression, mental illness and suicide are rife.

American psychologist Nancy Etcoff found that, as early as 1995, illegal drugs were a $400 billion industry representing 8% of world trade, roughly the same as gas and oil! In the US, which has a high predominance of the consumer culture, there are more suicides than homicides. In Japan, for instance, where consumerism has a strong presence, a deep sense of loneliness and alienation is widely prevalent.

Studies reveal that the temptation of taking drugs is driven by a sense of inadequacy and thus, "escape", where escape is seen as liberation. In other words, it is a mental ailment that needs attention before drugs become a substitute. In contemporary society, several persons suffer from some form of mental ailment that requires medical treatment without which, alienation and even suicide could occur.

Failure lies in our inability to be comfortable with who we are. If we give the external environment control over our life and determine our aspirations, we lose control...

When the popular Indian film actress Deepika Padukone "came out" and spoke about depression, there was a cruel perception that she might have been wanting to gain attention because she couldn't really be depressed if she had everything! Yet, it is a fact that many, far more successful than her, have tragically ended their lives. There are also many others across the globe who are not in the limelight but have been driven to a tragic and desperate end.

Become who you are!

Failure lies in our inability to be comfortable with who we are. If we end up giving the external environment control over our life and determine our aspirations, we lose control and move into autopilot. Over time, there is no turning back.

We can, then, no longer recognise ourselves. In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the protagonist retains his outward beauty while a portrait he keeps under lock and key takes on the ugliness of who he really is. This is the ultimate distancing. The line between who we really are and who we appear to be becomes fuzzy. We now need to choose between deception and reality. Unless we manage this dichotomy, it can lead to extreme tragedy.

This is the big challenge. It is also the cause of failure because deception is tempting. It is also dangerous and only offers illusion.

Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, is working on his new book 'Why We Fail'

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