Sometimes a small thing, unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, can provide an insight into an assumption that people ignore or overlook. Yet that unrecognized assumption can be a motivator of the manifestations in the overall picture. Such a small event was recently in the news.
Some called it a scam; others labelled it a practical joke. As no one got hurt, except perhaps in the ego, it was apparently harmless. It attracted both judgment and admiration and seemed appropriate to this season of massive expenditures and consumption. And, even if it was not intended as that, it served as free media advertisement for the jokesters.
It seems that the well-known discount shoe store, Payless, wished to emphasize the quality of its shoes, as well as pointing out the credulity of those who pay exorbitant prices for designer items. The company created a new outlet, which it named Paylessi. Paylessi was billed as the ultimate in fashionable exclusivity. Its opening was attended by the elite, and shoes sold for as much as $600 a pair. Those who could afford the prices flocked to the new outlet, while those in fashion marketing gave positive reviews to the shoes sold in the new store. It was the latest “thing” to buy fashionable shoes at Paylessi. The designs and the construction of the shoes was lauded by those in fashionable circles.
Eventually, it was revealed that the shoes sold in Paylessi, which had received such excessive praise and for which people had paid excessive prices, were the exact same shoes sold for discount in Payless. The revelation brought dismay to those who had paid to own the seemingly exclusive shoes, and the deception made the major local news outlets. Paylessi was closed, and all those who had paid money were refunded what they had paid and were given to keep the shoes after their money was refunded. The intention had not been to defraud people of their money. Yet a light had been shown, for a moment at least, on a weakness in the human psyche.
Why had people been fooled by the merchandise in Paylessi, billed as exclusive fashion? Or, perhaps more accurately, what is the attraction of paying exorbitant prices for items which do not necessarily have exorbitant quality but which only a few can afford to buy? Is there a real value to such exclusivity? Is it simply greed to pay to amass items the fashion value of which exceeds the practical value, when such money could also be applied to relieving some of the suffering in the world? Or, is there an even deeper motivator? Perhaps the answer lies in the constructs people have learned to use to perceive their own human value in shared society.
It is not unusual to observe among small children a desire not only to not share, to want to keep one’s own things to oneself, but also a desire to have someone else’s thing as well. A child may want to have not only his or her own box of crayons, but also all the colors he or she likes from someone else’s box as well. No child can color with that many crayons at once. The desire is not a greedy impulse to collect crayons. What the child perceives is that if he has all, or more of the crayons, he is better or more powerful than the child who has less. He has proved his worth to himself. The concept is reinforced as the child grows, through the use of competition as a motivator. Who can get the best grade? the biggest prize? The child’s worth in his or her own mind becomes firmly linked to that. There are few to teach that someone else does not have to be less, or bad, in order for the child to be enough or good. Everyone can succeed, albeit in different ways. No one needs be better than someone else. The concept of being better than grows with the child into adulthood.
Too many of us – most, I would think – believe deeply as adults that we are less, or unsuccessful, or not good enough unless we are better than someone else. There is an unconscious urge to perceive that someone else is less. This perception in the extreme devolves into the assumption that some people are less human than us. This is the underpinning of wars and racism. It also causes suffering to ourselves as it generates the fear that we could at any moment become less – less wealthy, less successful, less powerful, less magnanimous, less skillful, even less human. We value our worth in what makes us superior in our own eyes. And we fall prey to such manipulations as Paylessi.
That is not to say that it is wrong to have money, or that it is wrong to be successful, or that it is wrong to gain fame or develop a talent. Striving for excellence or achievement is a way we grow. These things in themselves do not constitute a problem. It is when we attach our self-worth or our humanity to them that we generate difficulties for ourselves. The truth is that we are all intrinsically worthy, all composed of the same Source, and we do not need to be better than someone else in order to have value. We are not diminished in value if we are not the same as someone else who appears to us to be more successful. We simply need to open our eyes to see our worth and the worth of others.
In this season of approaching winter, let us stop for a moment to understand what our unobserved assumptions are doing to us as humans and to our planet. Whether we celebrate the holidays with gifts and presents and parties, or whether we choose to spend more time with family and friends, or whether we withdraw to notice the solstice and the lengthening days, or in whatever other way we celebrate, let a part of our celebrations be developing an awareness of those assumptions. If we can do this, we may indeed be able to arrive at a gentler, fairer and happier world.