Just back from a trip to the vet with our gray cat, whose health seems to deteriorate every time she’s off steroids for awhile. When she couldn’t figure out why our cat’s symptoms kept coming back, our regular vet referred us to a group of veterinary specialists who occupy a large brick building in the rapidly gentrifying Mission District. The building is beautiful–a 1911 warehouse with exposed beams, overhead metal tracks that run the length, wood floors stained by age and use. That a veterinary practice can occupy a multimillion dollar historic building is emblematic of present-day San Francisco.
The amenities include valet parking; separate waiting areas for dogs and cats; a coffee machine that in addition to the usual drinks provides customers with free mochas, lattes, and chai; glossy magazines about dogs and cats on the level of Architectural Digest; soothing music; and happy, helpful employees. The veterinary care is superb. Needless to say, a single trip breaks the average budget for the month. They have a very busy practice.
Walking back to get the car (I wasn’t aware of the valet parking and drove around many blocks looking for a space), I passed a Blue Bottle coffee place where every cup of exquisite drip coffee is prepared individually and an industrial ceramics warehouse displaying graceful vases in earth tones. Then came a “day spa” featuring hot stone massage, organic facials, acupuncture and aromatherapy, private yoga, vegetarian food prepared with produce from local community-supported farms, waxing, and private consultations with an “esthetician.”
What on earth is this about, the desire to have so much beyond our needs, especially while so many people in the world can’t even get the basics? Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician and author, speaks to this in a number of his books. In response to an interview question about In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, his book on addiction, Maté says:
Well, it’s a Buddhist phrase. In the Buddhists’ psychology, there are a number of realms that human beings cycle through, all of us. One is the human realm, which is our ordinary selves. The hell realm is that of unbearable rage, fear, you know, these emotions that are difficult to handle. The animal realm is our instincts and our id and our passions.
Now, the hungry ghost realm, the creatures in it are depicted as people with large empty bellies, small mouths and scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They’re always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. That speaks to a part of us that I have and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we’re empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term, but we can never feel that or fulfill that insatiety from the outside. The addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time. And my point really is, is that there’s no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There’s just a continuum in which we all may be found. They’re on it, because they’ve suffered a lot more than most of us.
This makes a lot of sense to me, the idea that people feeling an emptiness inside try to fill it with something from the outside. But where does the emptiness come from? Maté believes that the stress of social and economic conditions in North America is a driving force for addiction, ADD, and a host of other diseases and conditions. For example, economic stress–having to work long hours–prevents parents from giving children the kind of nurturing they need, leaves them wanting it, an emptiness that follows them through their lives.
I’m oversimplifying, but I think he has something here. Because addicts are not the only ones trying to get internal satisfaction from something outside themselves. In so many places, it’s a national pastime. Think of the lines that form outside the Apple stores whenever a new product is being released. Are their old devices broken? No. Are they obsolete? No. So…how come they are willing to stand in line in the cold and dark for hours at a time, waiting for the store to open? It’s the pot of gold, the holy grail, the thing just out of reach that’s going to make them happy. Except it doesn’t. Consumption, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or electronic devices, just isn’t the answer.
So what is? Pass the chocolate and let’s think about it.