Herd Mentality

On our way to Niagara this week, we stopped at an ONroute service centre. These are places on the 401 between Montreal and Toronto where you can relieve yourself, eat and fuel up.

Complexes like this which pepper the highways of the world are designed to efficiently and profitably direct large numbers of visitors in and out. They work. As we converged on the entrance we became one of the crowd. Once you’ve been in one you know them all. They’re identical. You could be anywhere. You could be anyone.

Signage was clear. The bathrooms appeared within seconds. Each concession, automat and service was perfectly positioned to be at hand before you even knew you wanted it.

I realized what I hate most about consumer culture. I felt like cattle—part of something larger than me, and not in a good way.

Each visitor is stripped of her or his individuality simply by virtue of being there. Everyone follows the same pattern. We all have the same road-weary look. We all obey the signs. These are awful places.

I mentioned it to Caroline.

She nodded. “And yet,” she remarked, “Every one has a story. We’re all individuals. We all suffer and try not to. Everyone’s wants to be happy.”

Happiness? What’s that? Half the visitors came out clutching oversize soft drinks, munching on fast food wrapped in artificially colored containers.

“Wow,” I said.

“Wow,” said Caroline.

Feeling ashamed, I heard Shylock’s voice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes we’re all the same, but a part of that sameness is the need to express our uniqueness. Here, I don’t feel anything like that.

“Let’s get out of here.” We said it together.

Later that day in Niagara we were met by Caroline’s cousin Peter and his husband Luc. They’d invited us and two friends for dinner, and it was a perfect match. There was no small talk. The conversation was personal, confessional and deep. We each expressed our uniqueness, and then some. I love people who are honest about themselves and know how to share.

Two days later we headed home. After a couple of hours we needed a bathroom. This time we ignored the convenience of ONroute and exited the highway. We found an old gas station. The bathroom was grubby. Toilet paper was strewn on the floor and the porcelain was stained. Without thinking I said, “Eew, gross.”

But I smiled. Although there’s something definitely revolting about a dirty public washroom, it’s nothing compared to the horror of being a herd.

What Do You Expect?

expectation

I’ve heard it said that kids today have an overblown sense of entitlement. I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with today. I grew up in the 1960s and felt very entitled. It comes, I suppose, from being born into a land of plenty, from taking for granted a square meal and a roof over your head. I also anticipated a life of meaningful and profitable prospects. Far from feeling just plain lucky, I considered it my right.

How could anyone in this fabulous country of Canada (there are many others) not grow up like this? Still, it’s not easy to change human nature. We take what we’ve got for granted. In other words, we’re born into expectation: the belief that we will or should achieve something.

Ideas have little power over human nature, but they do have a little. Having an idea doesn’t change a thing, but applying it consistently to the way we approach life does—gradually and profoundly. It’s what sets us apart from other animals. This is meditation—not sitting fashionably crossed-legged but sustaining an idea, massaging it and seeing it from different angles. You don’t need to be weird about it. You might be washing dishes, jogging or staring at passing clouds and still be meditating. Personally, that’s when I do it best.

When our expectations are defeated we feel overwhelmed, oppressed by something beyond our power. It creeps up on us when we’re lost in the gap between what we expect and what actually happens.

The power of meditation lies in exploring the gap between what we expect of life and what it delivers. No one is exempt from the pendulum swings of joy and despair, but we do love to think we are. Wishful thinking is as much in our nature as entitlement.

Entitlement feels good, but when our expectations are defeated we feel overwhelmed, oppressed by something beyond our power. It creeps up on us when we’re lost in the gap between what we expect and what actually happens.

We say life is overwhelming, but there’s no such person as ‘life;’ it’s just a way of speaking. And blaming ‘life’ for feeling overwhelmed is a cop out. Instead, we can see how our expectations set us up for disappointment, and then sustain that thought. That’s how a bit of reflection can seriously change the way we handle things. When the idea is translated into action, things move in new directions.

Caroline and I recently left our home of fourteen years and moved into a rental while our new house is being built. One delay after another has frayed our nerves, especially since the rental’s not at all adapted for Caroline’s MS. We feel overwhelmed every day, and we deal with it every day. On the whole, we balance each other out. When she’s ready to scream, I squeeze a smile out of her. When I’m ready to explode, she reminds me that I can handle it. The fact that we regularly put on our Quiet Mind Workshops helps keep our heads on straight.

This may not look like much, but to fine-tune your human nature you absolutely need a support system. We need people we believe in to remind us to believe in ourselves. We also need strategy and the guidance of an appropriate teacher. That might be a religious figure, a martial arts teacher or a coaching mentor. It all depends on who you relate to. The rest is a matter of practice.