Our Selves Drift Away
The other day I was racing around some big-box type store, scrambling to get all the back-to-school stuff for the kids. We had adopted a “divide and conquer” mentality with my two kids going in one direction and I going in another for different things, and agreeing to meet at the front till. As I was standing breathlessly in the line up, having emerged relatively unscathed from my close encounter with the panicked hordes of desperate parents, I noticed one particular item amidst all the pencils and paper and geometry sets that I didn’t recall being on the list.
A bottle of Coke. But not just any bottle of Coke. This one had my name all over it. Literally.
Share a Coke with Ryan.
I stared at the bottle for a while, beginning to do a slow burn. So, Coca Cola thinks that by plastering our names all over their sticky, sugary nectar, that they can more easily part us with our money! How stupid do they think we are?! They must be really desperate to resort to such transparently pathetic methods!
Thankfully this angry diatribe remained a (mostly) interior monologue. My daughter just thought it was kinda cool that she saw her dad’s name on a bottle of pop. She was just probably just trying to get a smile (she’s sweet like that), and so I ground my teeth, dutifully provided the smile, and bought the Coke. I even kept the empty bottle and it has sat in my office for the past week or so. I am staring (less angrily) at it right now, as I write these words.
A personalized Coke is, of course, the perfect artifact for a selfie world where we can never, it seems, get quite enough of ourselves, where we are always gazing adoringly at our own reflections in the mirror that is social media, constantly branding ourselves with the right causes, the right articles and thinkers, the right experiences, the right whatever, constantly refining, curating, shaping the selves that stare back at us. Of course we want a Coke with our name on it. Why wouldn’t we?! What could be better than more, well, me?!
Last week I came across an article in Aeon magazine by Will Storr called “How a Hero Narrative Can Transform the Self.” According to Storr, the human brain has a constant need to be telling a story to ourselves about ourselves:
We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning. Rituals help. We use them to place ourselves at particular plot-points in the story of our lives. They reinforce our tales, making us seem important and our journeys comprehensible. In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. And what heroes we are! A symphony of optimism biases soothe us into believing we’re smarter, better looking, more morally upright than we are. Primitive tribal instincts turn our enemies into ruthless ignorant baddies while our allies are crowned with undeserved haloes. As we push through the minutes of our lives, we’re all Davids fighting our own personal Goliaths.
Yes, it’s all about us. The marketers know this, of course, whether they work for Coke or Facebook or whether they are selling ideology or religion or whatever. Advertising has always been all about the selling of products by selling (a version of) us to ourselves. The marketers have always known that the best way to get our money is to make us the stars of the show! But for some reason this just struck me in a newly pathetic way with the Coke bottle. I could imagine the a bunch of people in some cubicle somewhere coming up with this stupid idea and expecting us all to be pleased… Look, we put your name—your name!—on a bottle of Coke!! Isn’t it pretty? I bet you would like to try some now, right? Right??
Long, long ago, a Hebrew poet wrote these words:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them (Psalm 115:2-8).
Yes, we become like what we worship.
So, when we worship ourselves—and what was the first sin, after all, but the hunger to worship the self, a hunger that has proved insatiable ever since—what do we become? We become like ourselves, yes, but not our truest selves, not our best selves. Not the selves we were created to be. Not the selves that, in our better moments, we long to be. No, we increasingly become, rather, like the smallest, most shallow, trivial, myopic, and hollowed out versions of ourselves that we could be.
We turn the mirror from side to side, we adjust the angles, we snap the picture, we bow down, we stare and we stare and we stare…
And our selves drift away.