In the US, particularly in high end retail environments, smiles are hard, eyes are fierce or averted, parking lots are war zones, and people dart around one another with a veneer of politeness that frequently tips into competition or flight. Why are people shopping or driving around? Do they chase identity, importance and meaning? Is this why they are frantic?
In the past years I have had disastrous experiences with large American corporations (Bookings.com and Lenovo). Stockholders, and I am one of those, are far more important to the corporate entity than are the employees and customers. It’s tough to get to talk to a person in some US corporations, but if you do, they are often reading from a script, which prohibits any human connection. It’s also true that in other corporations you get lovely personal service with people who care (like USAA).
However, many are subject to, and enslaved by, legal entities whose sole purpose for lifeless existence is to trawl the globe ruthlessly and amorally harvesting money. In the third world, where I live, most of the time when you spend money, you’re exchanging money with the business owner. If I have an issue, I can usually have a heart-to-heart conversation with the decision maker. I’m Aimee, one of 100 customers, and I’m dealing with Miriam, who owns the fruit stand. Miriam loves fruit, and goes to market every morning to buy exactly the most delicious avocadoes (parachichi in Kiswahili) and mangoes, papayas, and bananas. She’s doing what she loves and I’m buying what I love. But US customers are faceless millions being handled by faceless millions of low-level “customer service” employees.
The US is a retail, corporate environment rather than an organic, humane place. You don’t see trees and hear animals or talk to human beings. You see signs, hear advertising, and converse with machines. It’s no surprise that human beings trapped in such a place would be utterly lost.
I was tempted to photograph one place I saw in northern Maine: an old manufactured home in late stages of decay with discarded objects strewn throughout its lawn. The owner of that place had recently attached a large advertising banner running the entire length and height of their house to make sure all passersby were aware that this home is extremely attached to a specific luxury brand. That place is one of the saddest places I’ve ever seen. In the slums of Tanzania, women sleep outside in the mud, filthy children stand hungry and schooless, and men’s glazed eyes tell you that they believe God has forgotten them. (God loves each one with such passion as to be intimate with every hair on their heads.) At least those people are not enslaving themselves willingly.
Empty-heartedness is not a fiscal or physical condition. Such problems cannot be addressed by consumption or acquisition. If life has little meaning it’s because that life is attached to someone who doesn’t do anything that matters to them. If God made you to love green beans, then your life’s meaning will be hidden inside green beans. Every person treasures specific bits of the world, from language to government to metal to seashells to perfume to I-don’t-know-what-all. Identity and purpose are not decoration; these things are founded and nourished by feeding meaningful activities to your own heart. If your heart is starving, feed it meaning.
What makes your heart sing? What stirs a secret knowing smile for you? Chase whatever that is for the rest of your life to discover exactly who you are and no matter how poorly external events might treat you, you’ll have unshakeable joy because you’ll be attached to what is true and real – your purpose and identity.