The Customized Life
Have you seen the new coke cans customized with your name on it? It’s your coke can now, begging the question, what were you drinking before? Generic Coke? Coca-Cola meant for everyone? Thankfully, you can now have YOUR custom can.
Material abundance is no longer enough. We live in a culture which strives to “customize” material goods and services to us as “individuals.” Our food, homes, our whole lifestyle needs to somehow reflect “us” as individuals. Watch any HGTV show and you will find that every man needs a “man cave” and the women need a living space that reflects “who they are.”
This is increasingly seen as part of the good life. In this good life, I don’t merely buy things to make my life more comfortable, I now by things that are personally designed for “me.” More than the obvious overconsumption problem in buying into this idea, I see two major problems.
The first is the fantasy that my preferences are mine. The constant popup ads on the internet remind me quite frequently that “my” preferences are being generated by what I see, where I live, and my background. It’s a mathematical algorithm. Advertising is working on me 24/7, and the fact is, I’m responding to it. The brilliant joke of marketing is creating my delusion that I like what I like, because it is uniquely “me”.
Having to adapt adds spontaneity and pleasure to our lives, but yes, it is often uncomfortable. In contrast, the customized life seems more comfortable, at first, but ultimately, it is isolating. As I am increasingly defined by my preferences, other people can’t join in. In this tailor-made life, the more I get my way, the more I want things my way. Or should I say I begin to think I need them that way. After the initial shot of comfort, instant irritation arrives when things don’t align for me. Strangely, I see increasing discomfort as my life becomes more customized to my preferences. When I compare my life now in my forties to my life in my twenties, there is a noticeable difference in my mental flexibility and ability to adapt. For example, in my twenties, I regularly stayed with friends and family, frequently visiting people and places. These experiences were most unplanned, and more often than not, I didn’t stay in one of their extra bedrooms specially designed for my visit.
In fact, quite often, I slept on the floor, sometimes in a bedroom, living room or basement. Some of the time, the floor was concrete. No bed, no carpet, no therm-a-rest, just the concrete basement floor. And no, my twenties weren’t some alcohol fueled phase where I passed out on peoples’ floors. It was a time, instead, where I easily adapted. It was a time of going to see and enjoy people and places without specially made circumstances. And I wasn’t alone in this. Most of my friends lived that way when they were young. We simply were able to adapt because we weren’t handcuffed by all of our preferences.
I think this is the freedom people still feel camping or traveling to simple places in the world. It’s the freedom of knowing you are ok without everything planned and personalized. It’s the freedom of adapting to other people and circumstances. With the adaptation, we get the freedom of belonging.
Don’t get me wrong, at this point, I don’t ever want to sleep on the concrete floor again, even with the best of my friends. But the fact that we live in a way were I can’t even share the same mattress with my husband because we have different “sleep numbers” is not helping me be happier.
Can we acknowledge that our desire to make everything “good” for us individually materially, isolates us possibly in direct proportion to the customization?
Our basic activities are now personalized, from food to entertainment to sleep. We can’t even watch TV together anymore, because we all want to watch “our’ individual shows. In fact, there are very few shows that we can watch together, but when we can (World Cup anyone?) it feels exhilarating. However, I find that I can rarely sit through anything now that isn’t one of “my” shows. We all have our own screens, delivering “on demand.” Recently, I was on a plane with my son, and of course, our movies were customized. And as he sat laughing next to me, I suddenly wished I was watching his movie, laughing with him. But then on my demand, Mad Men came on.
Even with food, our great social connector, we are becoming more isolated as our diets are personalized. The humorist David Sedaris recently remarked that because of customized diets, it is impossible to entertain in America anymore. Who can make a vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free dinner?
At a meditation talk last week, the teacher commented on how pleasure and pain have the same ability to constrict our hearts. In the case of pain, we draw away, resist and repulse. But pleasure is trickier, because we are fooled. In the case of pleasure, we constrict by trying to hold tight to our preferences, to not let go of that which we want to keep. In both cases, the attempt to control our experience is hopeless, yet we continue to believe we can avoid pain, and secure our customized pleasure.
Are we really foolishly forever looking for that shot of short term pleasure? Or as we get older are we merely customizing our lives to stave off the reality of death? Is it that the more material goods suited to “me” gives me the illusion that I am solid, here to stay? My customized diet, my specially ordered granite countertops, my custom designed walk-in closet, and my sleep number bed. The illusion of the customized life in the house and landscaping that some how are “me,” and yes, finally a Coke can that was made just for Susan.
But do you remember sleeping on the floor? Do you remember being able to wake up and not need your coffee/creamer/special breakfast? Do you remember listening to all kinds of music with other people? Do you remember the time you didn’t need your personal bathroom, products, and tailor made- routine? Do you remember being ok with what the world presented generically to you?
And did you feel more alive then?