Sunday, 23 February 2014

Enslaved by Capitalism: The Economy of Desire (Daniel M. Bell Jr.)

Love this book: The Economy of Desire - Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell Jr. 

It articulates most precisely what bothers me about the society in which we live in... and against which I too am struggling. 

"... Deleuze and Foucault (Philosophers) develop an account for how we could be enslaved to the capitalist market in a way that we actually want or desire that captivity, all the while calling it and claiming ourselves to be 'free'... (C)apitalism is an economy of desire... (that) disciplines desire for market ends."

Like it or not, we have all, to different extents, been shaped in our desires by capitalism. Just notice the women who feel the need to own a branded bag, at times, even if it means to sacrifice more than half their monthly salary. And how those without one because they cannot afford it feels somewhat incomplete. Notice the black markets, the imitations that sell so well. Notice how men would change their cars to a more prestigious one when the opportunity arises, not necessarily because their current cars have reached its 10 year mark or to minimise financial loss. Notice the increase in number of slimming centres in Singapore in the last decade. How many people do not own a smartphone these days? 

I need to colour my hair because black is dull and boring. The different colour streaks make me look fresher and younger. Whoever determined that black is dull and boring? And even if it is, why do I need to change the original colour? There must be no life on my face, no sparkle in my eyes, no smile to brighten up my face that I need to rely on my hair colour to add 'life' to my expression. I need to wear high-heels because it adds a touch of professionalism and makes me look nicer, more confident. And whoever fixed this? Isn't my toes, heels, back, knees and blood circulation more important? 

We are taught that life equates having this and that, looking slim and good, etc. We are taught, precisely by the people who are marketing these products, saying we need all these. Why are they marketing it? Because they are really essentials in life? Because we really need it? Isn't it for their own profit sake? 

We have misunderstood freedom to be the breaking free from that voice within that says, "Actually, I don't need these." We want to break free from this voice that tells us 'no need'. We don't want to be dictated to do this and that, to not do this and that. But in actual fact, instead of becoming free, we are becoming slaves and puppets, manipulated, disciplined by advertisements to become obedient monkeys to do the stunts that would gain the audience's applause, to buy the things that these advertisements tell us would make us happy, satisfied, more confident and truly living. We are being dictated without even realising it. We are being controlled so that we will hand over our money to some other people.

True freedom is the total opposite. True freedom is to be without need, that our happiness is not controlled by another party or worse still, by dead, non-living material things. True freedom is to be uncontrolled by external factors, that in any given circumstance, at any time, I am able to choose what gives me life in its true sense. 

The sad truth in Singapore is that even education has become, not entirely but increasingly, tainted by capitalism. If I were really profit-driven, I would set up a tuition centre or similar. It will fetch me a much higher income than I would get as a full-time teacher or even a private one-to-one tutor. How many who sit in the upper management levels of schools are not more concerned about keeping their rice bowls intact than truly imparting the right values to students?

But above all, I find the saddest message that all these are sending is that I don't matter, that I am not more important than your money, that I am not more precious than these goods and appearances. It just disfigures the face of a human person, lowers one's dignity. And each time we succumb to being disciplined in our desires by capitalism, we are reaffirming ourselves that we are unimportant. Instead of growing into the image of Christ, we are becoming subconsciously convinced that we are worthless. And this brings about a whole range of consequent behaviours to try to prove our worth in all the wrong ways... in a vicious cycle that never ends.  

The good and hopeful thing is that Foucault wrote too that "resistance is always possible". It is possible to live against this control, this slavery. But I agree that it is difficult to stand firm on this resistance. But it is highly possible. The book progresses on later to a different economy - an upside down economy. "... a divine economy of desire - one that redeems desire from the postmodern capitalist economy that would distort desire in ways that hinder humanity's communion with God, one another, and the rest of creation." Which I will share about later (when I get to that part of the book =P )...

Thanks to the ongoing 10 Monday prayer sessions based on this book facilitated by Fr. Chris Soh, SJ @ Kingsmead Centre

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Angel of Light - Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

"Knowing stubbornness, one can let it go. Knowing what one wants, one can release it." ~ Movie: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

This is the power of awareness. 
I can only change what I am aware of. 
I can only know where to find true happiness when awareness differentiates what is life-giving and life-draining to me. 
I can only empty myself of what I am aware is within me.
But awareness is not all.

Awareness is the first step to conquering the demons and perhaps, in our lives, the most dangerous demons aren't those that possess a person, causing him to foam in the mouth or be thrown about in convulsions. Rather, they are those hidden behind disguises, especially the disguise of holy dreams and good intentions. Those, as what St. Ignatius calls the angel of light, come in the form of good but they are actually leading us away from God. Deep awareness helps us to recognise the guise. 

In the movie, a young monk denies human love between man and woman, denies his own attraction to a girl, because he saw this, which he called the "lesser love", as a distraction in his search for the "greater" love - Buddhahood. And because of this, he is always lacking a little something that prevents him from becoming a powerful demon-hunter despite his very compassionate heart. He goes around with a handbook of 300 nursery rhymes, given him by his master. He naively tries to convert demons he meets by trying to elicit the good out of them as he reads to them the rhymes. Needless to say, he always fails and finds many lives lost because he is unable to subdue the demons. He had no power in him. Finally, it was only when he held in his arms the woman he loved as she was dying that he admitted to his true feelings for her. That was his moment of transformation.

Experiencing that deep pain, the monk had a moment of enlightenment. He realised that human love IS a part of the greater love, and that love is not greater or lesser. Love is love in its fullest and any "love" that is measured is not love at all. Only when he realised this truth could he mature in his perception of life. He understood that he is not the one who can deliver the people from the demons, which then began his journey to the West to obtain the 22 scriptures from India. Only in not avoiding out of fear of not achieving something apparently holy was he able to grow and be filled in his lacking. His book of 300 nursery rhymes was then transformed into the Buddha sutra, and he was transfigured from a plain and shabby looking monk into a Buddha-like figure shining out with a radiant aura. From a powerless monk to the monk, Tripitaka, who set out on the long journey with the 3 previously evil spirits, who became his disciples.  

The very method and approach this monk had in striving for Buddhahood (the disguise) became the very hindrance in his attaining it (led him away from the final goal instead). And it took him a great deal of pain and trials to bring him to the awareness of this. He then realised that it is only in knowing (awareness) that opens the door to choosing consciously. That the way to Buddhahood is not to escape from being human with its myriad of life experiences but it is the way of embracing, of accepting and then constantly choosing to purify oneself from all that one realises does not benefit oneself towards the ultimate life goal. 

"Knowing stubbornness, one can let it go. Knowing what one wants, one can release it."

In our time, what are the disguises around us? Taking up a better-paying job to better provide financially for the family but significantly reducing the time and energy one has left to spend quality time with the family. Moving into a prestigious development only to forget the face of poverty and suffering, and becoming increasingly out of touch with the realities and essence of life and love. Pressurising children to perfect their examination scores but driving them to resentment and joylessness in the process. There are many.

Coming to the awareness of the many disguises in our lives does not necessarily mean we will then make the right choices in life. We need to know where these events, beliefs and actions are taking us - towards or away from God - and then to make the deliberate choice to follow the right voice and to NOT follow the wrong voice. 

Where is the angel of light hiding in your life?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

God Lends A Hand

There was a little boy of 9 years old, named Peter, who wanted to learn to rollerblade. He had seen his neighbours having so much fun in the park rollerblading and he wanted to join them. He went up to his dad one morning and asked him to buy him a pair of rollerblades but his dad, wanting Peter to learn responsibility, gave him an empty piggy bank instead. He told his son, "Peter, you can join the kids at the park and I will even teach you to rollerblade. But I want you to learn to save up for the things you want to buy. I don't want to spoil you by giving you everything you want. From today, you will start putting in 50 cents from your pocket money into this piggy bank everyday. When you have saved up enough money, we will go to the store to buy the blades that you want."

Peter went away with mixed feelings. He was happy that his dad had allowed him to buy the rollerblades and would even teach him to rollerblade. However, as he flipped his calendar and counted the number of days it would take him to save up $120, he felt discouraged that it would take him about 8 months with 50 cents each day. It was far too long a wait and his dream seemed too distant. But he began saving anyway. 

After school everyday, Peter eagerly dropped his 50 cents into his piggy bank, and he delighted in seeing it fill up more and more. On some days, when he had more pocket money left, he would drop in the extras. But what Peter did not know was that his dad had secretly added 50 cents each day to his piggy bank too. His dad knew that Peter would take a long time to save up for the pair of rollerblades and seeing how committed and responsible his son was, he wanted to lend a hand to make his dream come true earlier. 

Four months later, Peter's dad asked Peter to bring his piggy bank to the table. They emptied it out and counted the coins. Peter's face lit up when they totalled up the money to $134! He could not believe it because he was expecting to take 8 months to arrive at that amount, not 4. Then, Peter's dad confessed that he had topped up another 50 cents each day. Peter was overjoyed. And off they went to the skate shop.

Last month, in my silent retreat, I was contemplating on the holy family's flee to Egypt to escape from Herod who wanted to kill baby Jesus. The most striking realisation was how God did not leave Joseph to fend for his family with his own strength and capabilities. God sent His angel to warn Joseph of the impending danger and directed him to bring his family to safety. If He had not, Joseph would not have known early enough of Herod's plans, given that he had no strings to pull nor money to bribe. The only way that Joseph could fulfil his life mission as Jesus's foster father and the protector of the holy family was in the heavenly Father's divine providence. 

God Himself gives us what we need in order for us to fulfil the mission we have said 'yes' to. God is like and far more than Peter's dad who works behind the scenes, most of the time beyond our knowledge, to help us along the way. He knows fully well how lacking we are and the only result we are capable of is failure. And out of His great love for us, especially when we are carrying out the will He has called us to, He Himself aids us in the completion of that will. He never leaves us on our own. He never puts a task on our shoulders so that He can go on a vacation only to return thereafter to demand our good result. Such is the faithful and loving God we see across the old to the new testament. 

Might there be something you are struggling with right now? Something that you are trying to do out of your love for God but finding that failure is the only constant result?

How might God be, through the stories of Peter and Joseph, inviting you to a deeper trust in His loving providence? 

How is God also sending you His angel to give you directions? 

Lk 22:43
Then an angel appeared to him (Jesus), coming from heaven to give him strength. 
Ro 8:28
We know that by turning everything to their good God cooperates with all those who love him, with all those that he has called according to his purpose.