The Truth is Out There

So I’m watching a rerun of the X-Files the other night (doesn’t Scully look hilarious in those early episodes) when the dreaded Arby’s commercial comes on.

pilar-gerasimo

It’s one of those ads with the disembodied Barry White voice speaking as your appetite – part of a campaign that urges you to “satisfy your grown-up tastes.” I’m pretty sure these ads are supposed to be seductive, but to me they always come off as vaguely repulsive. Maybe it’s the adult actors quaking in the grip of uncontrollable fast-food urges. Maybe it’s something about the nature of the supposed cravings themselves: Since when, I wonder, did chicken strips become a “grown-up taste”?

By the time the X-Files are over and this same spot has run half a dozen times, I’m wondering, “How can these ads possibly be effective?” And yet, I fear, they must be. Somewhere out there, right this minute, somebody is heading out for a batch of chicken strips that they hope will satisfy (or at least blunt) a deeper craving. Someone else is picking up those accursed “Lunchables” – either because the ad has convinced their kids to beg for them, or worse, convinced the adult that this gift of hermetically sealed cold cuts will make them a terrific parent in their kids’ eyes.

For some reason I don’t fully understand, this disturbing train of thought dominates the rest of my evening. I get so hung up on all the bad ads and implicit promises that I lose track of the X-Files plot altogether. That night, I dream of Barry White in a giant Lunchables costume. Next morning, I wander down to the breakfast table only to discover that even my very basic, all-natural cereal has fallen victim to the hype machine: According to the package, it has now become a “cereal slimming system.” I fantasize about returning the unused portion to the store and saying, “So sorry – I thought I was buying breakfast cereal.”

It occurs to me that every day, most of us unwittingly buy something, or buy into something, because of imagined benefits that will supposedly accrue to us, or simply because the thing is there: novel, new and improved, something we don’t have yet, something we might as well try. Maybe an attractive spokesperson tells us it will make us happy. Maybe a label suggests that it will solve some pressing problem. Maybe a trusted, pedigreed source insists it is good for us. But maybe it only ends up complicating our lives further.

Back in July, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story by Gary Taubes called “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The article blew the lid off a couple decades’ worth of nutritional misinformation by the FDA, USDA and American medical establishment – propaganda that convinced us that all fats were deadly and fattening, and that a steady diet of low-fat, high-carb, high-sugar processed foods would be our salvation.

So much for government and industry-funded research – this stuff makes the X-Files’ diabolical alien-baby-cover-up plots look straightforward. But in the face of so much misinformation, how do we learn the truth? Ultimately, like the intrepid Scully and Mulder, we have to discern it and intuit it and experience it for ourselves.

Believing and buying what we are told is simple, and discovering our own truth is sometimes not. Yet in the end, this is the only way we will ever achieve the deeper “simplicity” that most of us crave. Somehow, it seems, we have to loosen our grasp on dreams and promises we’re sold in order to free our hands for cultivating the dreams seeded inside us.

At some point, as psychologist James Hillman says, “You have to give up the life you have to get the life that’s waiting for you.” That, in essence, is the angle we took for this issue of Experience Life. I know that for the “Simplicity” issue, it may not seem like a very simple message. It means asking tough questions, and digging for answers, unloading old piles of accumulated stuff and nonsense, and sometimes living with a certain amount of fear and doubt. But it sure beats the alternative of getting stuck in someone else’s version of the good life – a version that never sits quite right with your own purpose or ideals.

Whatever your dreams, whatever you choose to believe, here’s to finding your own truth. Maybe it’s out there. More likely, it’s been with you all along.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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