I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said: "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” I think this is true, and I think the consequences of it being true are as pervasive as they are perverse.
There are wars being waged around the world, but perhaps the most subtle war is the one being fought over people's identity. For the past several decades companies have used sophisticated marketing techniques to encourage people to buy products and services that contribute little to people's wellbeing while robbing them of income they could use to pay down debts or otherwise invest in their communities, their families or themselves. These marketing programs target people's poor body images, low self esteems, fears, anxieties, dreams and aspirations - all in an attempt to convince potential buyers that the festering voids in their life are most easily filled by spending their hard earned cash. Rather than coming to a thoughtful sense of their own identities, most people unknowingly acquiesce having their identities defined for them by someone else, someone they'll never meet, someone who gauges their value to society solely by their purchasing power.
Years ago I practiced in a Zen community, and among the many things that impressed me about the group's guiding teacher was how she crafted for herself a superbly simple life that allowed her to invest her time and effort in the things she cared about most. She was one of relatively few Zen Masters who wasn't a monastic, and worked as a hospice nurse in addition to her duties at the main temple in Rhode Island. I have no doubt her self-imposed simplicity played a huge role in making her such a powerful teacher and mentor, and her example inspired me to investigate a range of writings that focused on the value of simplicity as an act of willful self-determination, among them Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity, Jim Merkel's Radical Simplicity and Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money or Your Life. These investigations helped me realize that the voids in my own life would be filled by personal work on grief, trauma, communication skills and relationships, not by the myriad goods and services advertised on television.
I moved into a new apartment about a month back, and when a friend arrived to help with the move he was stunned to see how little I own. He asked, as people often do, if I feel somehow deprived, even embarrassed, by my comparative 'poverty', and I insisted that the exact opposite was true. I feel incredibly empowered owning so little, because I know that everything I have, every book, every article of clothing, every tool adds substantive value to my life while not detracting from my ability to invest time, effort and cash into activities and relationships that are important to me. I also know that by being so deliberate about my purchasing decisions that I alone define who I am, both in the eyes of those I know and, perhaps most importantly, in the eyes of the guy staring back when I look in the mirror. There's power in this, power that can't come from a house full of 'stuff', or even, dare I say it, from a cabinet full of guns & ammo.
Our identities are our single most valuable asset. They define who we are and who we can become. They define how we relate to others, including how we relate to authority figures as well as those who depend on us to keep them clothed, fed, or otherwise safe. To assert control over our identity is to embody the fullness of our power in the world, while to relinquish this control is to forfeit any meaningful sense of agency in our lives. Over the last several decades millions of people the world over have had their identities stealthily co-opted, turning them into engines of economic growth that, remarkably enough, seems to concentrate the wealth of the land into the hands of a very few. Wouldn't it be amazing to see people reclaim their agency, reclaim their identities? I think it would be. Indeed, I think it would be simply revolutionary.