Updated 05 April 2013

We are all losers

Society has turned us all into losers, says Susan Erasmus. Competitive losers, but losers nevertheless. Why have we fallen for this?

The way in which we have structured our society has turned us all into losers, says Susan Erasmus. Competitive losers, but losers nevertheless.

From an early age, the competition is on. Whose baby walks first and talks first? Comparisons are vicious and there can be only one winner, one kid at the top of the Grade 1 class, one kid who is chosen as class leader, one kid who gets to be soccer captain.

The message is brutal: you're in there on your own and there can be only one winner. The rest are losers. There's a pecking order and you need to know where you fit into this picture, otherwise you will be bullied, or worse. I know humans all have a competitive streak and that the world is very competitive, but I think we have taken things much too far down that road.

Whatever happened to co-operation?

Whatever happened to the co-operative spirit and compassion on which early human development must surely have been at least partly based? Joint decisions, a team effort? (Forget about team-building exercises in corporate environments – they almost always try to build up team spirit by pitting two teams against one another.)

In short, I simply don't think that our modern society is structured to fulfil peoples' emotional and social needs. It has become the kind of society in which it is possible for someone to live a completely isolated life in a city of 10 million people, and where a certain moral indifference has become a survival mechanism.

I have no illusions about the "Good Old Days", but in the last century or so our society has become a mass society – one that is geared to the needs of greed and business rather than human needs.

The Empty Self

A book by Parker J. Palmer titled "A Hidden Wholeness" ascribes this indifference to a "fragmented mass society that leaves us isolated and afraid, an economic system that puts the rights of capital before the rights of people, and a political process that makes citizens into ciphers".

He goes on to say that rather than living in a "cult of me" we live in a "community that is torn apart by various political and economic forces, and that more and more people suffer from the empty self syndrome".

The "empty self syndrome" is characterised by a "bottomless pit where their identity should be - an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others".

Self-esteem is not for sale

We live in an age where success and happiness are equated with material things. Put simply, people are trying to buy happiness, status and self-esteem at the nearest shopping centre. And these things are not on sale there. Don't get me wrong – everyone likes nice things and there is something to be said for aesthetics, but the constant desire for more stuff seems unquenchable in many people. They hardly have time to enjoy what they've bought when they're already planning the next purchase.

And here's the thing: there will always be people who are richer, better-looking, more educated and so forth. The quest for material things turns into a game you can never win.

As long as we feel that we are what we have, or that we derive status from putting ourselves above others, we will continue to miss the basic point about humanity and human happiness. We will continue to be manipulated by the world of commerce into thinking that we are worthless without certain possessions and that life is ultimately a competition in which there are a few winners and many, many losers.

This is the world that spawns mall rats, workaholics, over-indebted consumers, millions of depressives, and corporate executives who are completely unable to relax and enjoy the here-and-now even when they are on holiday.

Jumping through hoops

Collectively we have lost our way. We have been duped into thinking that happiness, love and success are just around the corner, but first you need to jump through these hoops. Guys, the hoops never end.

But only you can put a stop to this. Only you can fill the empty self.  I am not saying that you need to let go of all ambition and become a full-time beach bum. All you need to do is to learn to stand still, absorb the here and now, find what you have and what you are enough. Take delight in it. Start seeing life as an adventure, not a competition where the winners end up with the most bling.

Become the despair of marketers worldwide: how will they get you to buy crap you don't need if you find yourself acceptable as you are? Inside yourself you have what T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world".

And it is from that point of quiet self-esteem only that we can construct the kind of society that we all really need to live in. Not from the kind of sick one-upmanship and greed that has pushed our debt-ridden society to the brink of social and economic disaster.





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