Taking Back Our Lives in the Age of Corporate Dominance

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Never before have so many people felt the American Dream crashing down around them. The corporate framework-which values competition and the bottom line above all else-keeps many of us running after an elusive goal and impinges on our personal lives. Advertising-driven culture causes material desires to grow with no corresponding increase in personal time or energy to pursue them. These artificially amped-up needs cause a pressure-cooker lifestyle that threatens health and happiness. Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard show the links between our own everyday struggles and the global corporate economy, image-driven media, and the relentless pace which consumes us all-and they tell us what we can do to change things. Detailing 75 action steps for retaking control of our lives, they teach us how to find balance by simplifying, paring down on material possessions, and reevaluating corporate careers. Their provocative questions will shock, prod, and jump-start you into thinking about what matters most to you.

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Chapter 1 A Time of Turbulence

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

when too much information
keeps us from knowing the truth

If families just let the culture happen to them,
they end up fat, addicted, broke, with a house
full of junk and no time.

—Mary Pipher

You can never get enough of what
you don’t really want.

—Eric Hoffer

We must do the things we think we cannot do.

—Eleanor Roosevelt

 

WE ARE OVERSTIMULATED AND DISCONNECTED FROM OURSELVES AND NATURE. Image, not substance, is the stuff of our lives: how we look, what we wear, the car we drive. Even our democracy is driven by appearance. Candidates are packaged and rehearsed to speak in nine-second sound bites.

We live in the Information Age. Translation: too much information, too little meaning, and too little wisdom. When Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese monk nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, came to America, he said “Here I am in the land of the Information Superhighway. But do you know what one of your greatest problems is? Communication between each other!”

Not only is communication a problem, but rudeness and disrespect are rampant. Political exchanges are shouted. Talk-show hosts like Jerry Springer and Howard Stern bring new meaning to the word offensive. Verbal abuse abounds in movies and television shows that pass themselves off as entertainment. Comedy shows regularly descend to put-downs underscored by a laugh track. Teachers are noticing that many children don’t know how to develop friendships; insults don’t foster trust.

 

Chapter 2 The Gift That Keeps On Taking

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

how the bottom-line mentality is
bottoming out our lives and the planet

Economic globalization is shifting power away from governments
responsible for the public good and toward a handful of corporations and
financial institutions driven by a single imperative—the quest for short-term
financial gain. This has concentrated massive economic and political
power in the hands of an elite few… Faced with pressures to produce
greater short-term returns, the world’s largest corporations are downsizing
to shed people and functions.… It is becoming increasingly difficult for
corporate managers to manage in the public interest, no matter how
strong their moral values and commitment.

—David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World

Growth for the sake of growth is
the ideology of the cancer cell.

—Edward Abbey

There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.

—Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

There is enough for everybody’s need,
but not for anybody’s greed.

—Mahatma Gandhi

 

A HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE TODAY MIGHT WELL POSE THE QUESTION: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a disparager of corporations and consumerism?”

 

Chapter 3 The Hidden Costs of Competition

ePub

Suzanne Stoddard

the heavy price we pay to win

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

—Vince Lombardi

You’re not winning the silver, you’re losing the gold.

—Nike Corporation

To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.

—Buddha

The joy is in the doing.

—unknown

If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.

—Benjamin Franklin

 

COMPETITION IS AS AMERICAN AS HOT DOGS AND FOOTBALL. It weaves itself subtly into nearly every aspect of life in the United States, structuring not only work and sports, but also our social lives, our family time, and often our recreation and vacation hours. Competition is so sacred to our way of life that, most of the time, we don’t even think to question it. Instead, we submit to the punishing stress it creates. Of course, we all know that Little League can get ugly—we’ve seen coaches and parents yelling with frightening ferocity at kids and umpires. We’ve all, no doubt, been critical of moms and dads who seem to be living their lives through their children, hoping to make up for their own unrealized dreams. But we shrug these off as extreme cases, as the price we have to pay for our biology and for living in the kind of world we do.

 

Chapter 4 This Is Entertainment?

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

TV as purveyor of a culture of disrespect
and promoter of a passive populace

All television is educational.
The question is, what does it teach?

—Nicholas Johnson, former
Federal Communications Commissioner

Violence grabs the headlines, but violence itself
is the result of a society that promotes
selfishness, greed, and instant gratification.

—David Walsh, Selling Out America’s Children

 

TELEVISION IS THE MOST PERVASIVE ELEMENT IN OUR LIVES as we near the end of the second millenium. Rich or poor, we all love our TVs. Sixty-six percent of homes have three or more televisions. As Americans, we feel it is our birthright to be able to enjoy the “free” entertainment of television. But what is presented as entertainment is overwhelmingly graphic violence, flagrant disrespect, casual sex, and unending messages to buy, buy, buy. The price may be free, but the cost is high.

Television has changed enormously in the past three decades. Any flip of the remote control will serve up countless images of violence. It used to be that you could tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Now the good guys use violence almost as frequently as the bad to achieve their ends. By the time our children have graduated from high school, they’ve seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV.37 What makes this situation all the more dangerous is that over 70% of the violence is shown with no negative outcomes.38 Kids do not see the realistic consequences of debilitating injuries, shattered lives, and broken homes and families. Even the substance of comedy shows is put-downs. Kids don’t watch TV and think, “This isn’t how you talk in real life. This isn’t how you should treat people.” They just absorb: This is the way the world is. This is normal.

 

Chapter 5 Media, Girls, and Body Image

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

how impossible images
of physical perfection
are making our girls sick

The tyranny of the ideal image makes almost all of
us feel inferior … We are taught to hate our bodies,
and thus learn to hate ourselves. This obsession
with thinness is not a trivial issue; it cuts to the
very heart of women’s energy, power, and
self-esteem. This is a major health problem.

—Jean Kilbourne, in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders

The anorexic is weak, voiceless, and can only with
difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate.

—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

Many of our girls have “the look of sickness,
the look of poverty, and the look
of nervous exhaustion.”

—Ann Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes

 

A PLAGUE IS ABROAD IN THE LAND. It has not been caused by rats or mosquitoes, but by profit-driven industries relentlessly marketing an ideal body image impossible to attain. The victims of this epidemic? Our young women and girls.

The onslaught starts with a seemingly innocuous toy. While Barbie is presented as fun and wholesome, her image sets the tone for what girls come to expect of themselves in real life. Her unnaturally thin body makes even little girls with normal bodies unhappy with their appearance.

 

Chapter 6 The Best Government Big Money Can Buy

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

Can a corporate-sponsored democracy
serve the people?

We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our
moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge
our government, and bid defiance to the laws
of our country.

—Thomas Jefferson

If not now, when? If not us, who?

—Robert Kennedy

 

BEFORE I RAN FOR CONGRESS IN 1994, I THOUGHT I WAS POLITICALLY SAVVY. But what I learned about our political system from the inside made me grieve for this country. The glitzy campaign appearances and glib pundits lull us into thinking that we have a functioning democracy, but we do not. It is not only Third World countries that have sham democracies. I would love to share with you the amazing journey I was privileged to take as I came to this view of how our democracy really works.

As the daughter of a carpenter and a department store salesperson, I never wrote essays in high school about how I planned to be President someday. Though I was interested in both domestic and foreign affairs, the idea of holding political office was so far out of my ken as to seem unreal.

 

Chapter 7 What Do World Trade Agreements Have to Do with Me?

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

globalization means equalizing
down to the lowest
common denominator

Under GATT, the race to the bottom is not only in
standard of living, environmental and health
safeguards, but in democracy itself. Enactment of
the free trade deal virtually guarantees that democratic
efforts to make corporations pay their fair
share of taxes, provide their employees a decent
standard of living, or limit their pollution of the air,
water, and land will be met with the refrain,
“You can’t burden us like that. If you do,
we won’t be able to compete. We’ll have
to close down and move to a country
that offers us a more hospitable climate.”

—Ralph Nader and Lori Wallach

Never doubt that a small group of committed people
can change the world. Indeed it is the only
thing that ever has.

—Margaret Mead

 

LIFE AS WE KNOW IT HAS DRAMATICALLY CHANGED, but most of us still drive the kids to school and hurry to work without a clue.

GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, passed the U.S. Congress in the fall of 1994 after a mere twenty hours of debate. With that vote, our ability to protect the environment, our health, and our local economies was signed away. It is now a matter for three trade bureaucrats in Geneva, Switzerland to decide if our fuel efficiency mandates, pesticide residue laws, and statutes for recycled content in newsprint are “nontariff trade barriers and therefore illegal under GATT.” Can’t believe it? As a matter of fact, the dolphin-safe tuna law that so many Americans worked for has already been declared GATT-illegal. We are now importing tuna caught using mile-long nets placed around schools of dolphins. Does this kill your appetite for a tuna sandwich?

 

Chapter 8 Time: A Nonrenewable Resource

ePub

Suzanne Stoddard

why we aren’t finding
time to live

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that sweeps me along,
but I am the river; it is a tiger that rips me apart, but I am the tiger; it is a
fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Let’s not look elsewhere for the basic reasons for a sense of
having too little time: our desires have increased much more
quickly than the available time.

—Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, The Art of Time

Think of many things—do one.

—Portuguese saying

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the
present moment to any work.… Sometimes, in a summer morning …
I sat in my sunny doorstep from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst
the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness,
while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until
by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s
wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.
I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were
far better than any work of the hands would have been.

 

Chapter 9 Change and the Comfort Zone

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

embracing risks that have been
foisted upon us by life

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be
continually fearing you will make one.

—Elbert Hubbard

It is not the mountain and the river
that defeat us, but how we think
about the mountain and the river.

—Vietnamese saying

Change is one of the most
unpopular concepts on the planet.

—Caroline Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit

 

CHANGE IS THE WORD THAT HOLDS THE MOST HOPE AND THE MOST FEAR.

Even when our lives are full of pain, even when we’re aware of a constant low-lying anxiety, it’s still hard to welcome change. Leaving that which we know takes courage.

For good reasons we are afraid of change. For good reasons we are afraid today. We fear losing our job, and then our home. We fear those who live around us; the nightly news shows us graphically what they who are different from us do, how they rob and rape and murder. Perhaps fear is the predominant characteristic of our times. Perhaps history will remember us as the age of relentless technology, frenetic activity, and fear.

 

Chapter 10 What’s an Inner Life and Who Needs It?

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

trading fear for trust and
planting seeds of loving-kindness

Renew thyself completely each day;
do it again, and again,
and forever again.

—H. D. Thoreau

My religion is kindness.

—Dalai Lama

 

RELIGION AND DOGMA DOMINATED MY CHILDHOOD AND EARLY ADULTHOOD. We were Catholics, the “one, true faith.” The other Christian sects were unfortunately misguided, and as for those poor savages in the underdeveloped world, we saved our candy money during Lent to pay for missionaries who would “save the pagan babies.”

In my late teens and early twenties, when I would come home from college for the summer, I took to driving to the cemetery and parking beneath the old sprawling trees during the hour that I was supposed to be at Mass. Usually I wrote in my journal. I did not want to take on the battle with my mother, who followed the letter of the Catholic law.

Something in me led me to look at the beliefs and practices of other peoples and other times. As I wondered how all these other ways could be “wrong” and “condemned,” Pope John XXIII was convening ecumenical talks, respectfully meeting with leaders of other faiths.

 

Chapter 11 Flashpoints

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

how our stresses play out in the family crucible,
damaging those we love most

Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the
most difficult lesson in the world.

—Cervantes

Man is the only animal that blushes—or needs to.

—Mark Twain

We have committed the Golden Rule to memory;
let us now commit it to life.

—Edwin Markham

 

THE TENSION INHERENT IN KEEPING THE MEGA-ECONOMY RUNNING holds our lives in a tenuous position with those we love most. We try so hard to make everything work, but even so, fear lurks just around the corner—the fear that we could be downsized and “lose it all” tomorrow. Living on the razor’s edge, even small problems can trigger major eruptions.

For a long time I have been trying to learn on a cellular level that the immediate gibe always causes more problems than it solves. The Dalai Lama says “Our first instinct is always to retort, to react, and sometimes to avenge ourselves, which brings on nothing but more suffering.”

Having been married for twenty-three years and been a parent for twenty-two, my life is strewn with experiences of having pounced on people in instant judgment. Even while I was raving, somewhere inside I knew that criticizing and pontificating were having no impact. The problems were just getting bigger, and now I had defensiveness to deal with along with the original difficulty.

 

Chapter 12 Nurturing What Is Precious

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

finding new ways to communicate
and connect with our loved ones

Children have never been very good at
listening to their elders, but they have
never failed to imitate them.

—James Baldwin

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of
Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and
though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may strive to be
like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward
nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your
children as living arrows are sent forth…

—Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

A Mom’s advice: Trust your intuition. Be kind.
Eat good food. Tell the truth.

—Gaye Frisk Lub (artist)

The little kindnesses and courtesies are so important. Small discourtesies,
little unkindnesses, little forms of disrespect make large withdrawals.
In relationships, the little things are the big things.

—Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

 

THERE IS A BUDDHIST TALE about an ascetic monk who lived in the mountains. The King had asked him repeatedly to come down to his palace to teach him and his courtiers. Finally the monk agreed.

 

Chapter 13 Meaningful Work

ePub

Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard

livelihoods both personally satisfying
and earth-friendly

The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every
nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process.

—Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work

Too many organizations ask us to engage in hollow work, to be
enthusiastic about small-minded visions, to commit ourselves to selfish
purposes, to engage our energy in competitive drives. Those who offer us
this petty work hope we won’t notice how lifeless it is.

—Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way

It is not hard work which is dreary; it is superficial work.

—Edith Hamilton

Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions
of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the
fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business.

—Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

In work, do what you enjoy.

—Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Work is love made visible.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

 

TODAY’S YOUNG PEOPLE SEE AND ABSORB MORE ABOUT ADULT LIFE THAN WE THINK. They notice that grownups often have jobs they don’t enjoy or feel proud of. Or they see that, while the work itself may be well-paid or interesting, their parents have to spend more hours at the office than ever because they are doing the extra work of someone who was downsized.

 

Chapter 14 Giving Time, Getting Joy

ePub

Suzanne Stoddard

life as a banquet for the servers

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that
life was service. I acted and beheld that service was joy.

—Tagore

Only those among you will be truly happy who
have sought and found how to serve.

—Albert Schweitzer

If you look closely you will see that almost anything that
really matters to us, anything that embodies our deepest commitments
to the way human life should be lived and cared for, depends on
some form—often many forms—of volunteerism.

—Margaret Mead

Every day I am reminded how much my own outer and inner life
depends upon the labors of my fellow men.
I must exert myself in order to give, in return, as much as I have received.

—Albert Einstein

You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

—Kahlil Gibran

 

EVER SINCE I WAS A CHILD, I’VE FOUND ENORMOUS SATISFACTION IN HELPING OTHER PEOPLE. I began to do volunteer work because I felt better about myself when I was doing it. I became a regular at volunteering, not because I am a selfless ascetic but because I get so much out of it! I am addicted to enjoying life and learning new things, and volunteering has never let me down in these areas. I have developed skills and talents through volunteering, felt needed and useful, and been privileged to meet extraordinary individuals. Several jobs have emerged for me as a direct result of doing volunteer work. Many of my most solid friendships have been formed with people I met in the course of community service. The quality of people who have entered my life as a result of volunteering in peace issues, particularly, has been sublime.

 

Chapter 15 Together We Are Whole

ePub

Suzanne Stoddard

new ways to create a support network
while beating the high cost of living

We are faced with having to learn again about
interdependency and the need for rootedness after
several centuries of having systematically—and
proudly—dismantled our roots, ties, and traditions.

—Paul L. Wachtel

We cannot deny our connectedness as we build our
separateness.… When we link up with others, we
open ourselves to yet another paradox. While surrendering
some of our freedom, we open ourselves
to even more creative forms of expression.
This stage of being has been described as
communion, because we are preserved as our selves
but are shorn of our separateness or aloneness.

—Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers,
A Simpler Way

Always expand. Never contract.

—Tarthang Tulku

 

I RECENTLY READ A STORY ABOUT A WOMAN WHO LEARNED SHE WAS SUFFERING FROM TERMINAL CANCER. After the shock, rage, and grief had swept over her, she called her teenage daughter and ten friends and co-workers to a bedside meeting. She told them she had only a short time to live and asked if they would be willing to be her extended family during the next several weeks. Her mother and only sister lived far away and were not able to be closely involved in her care. The woman said she would need a great deal of help, and asked if each person could find a way to play a vital part: giving her medications, handling her personal business, feeding and dressing her if necessary, and helping to make arrangements for her daughter’s future. She gave everyone a chance to either accept or say no.

 

Chapter 16 Paring Down Our Lives

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

how less can be
much more

Our life is frittered away by detail …
simplify, simplify.

—H. D. Thoreau

Simplicity isn’t a sacrifice … it’s a gift. Simplicity
isn’t a moral achievement or a civic virtue …
it’s a gateway into a free country.…

—Mark Burch

Things that matter most must never be
at the mercy of things that matter least.

—Goethe

 

OUR LIVES ARE SO FULL OF THE IMAGES OF THE GOOD LIFE: the big house, the sleek new car, the fabulous annual vacation and frequent weekends away, the feel of new clothes fresh off the rack, the taste of gourmet dishes at trendy new restaurants. What’s not to like about this? Unfortunately, the price tag for such a life is a multidigit income, generally from a corporate job involving long hours.

Some of my friends say “Ellen, how can you be so down on corporations? People need these jobs!” But what is it we really need? Do we need a bigger house? Do we need the pressure that makes our breathing shallow and our chest tight as we preview the day’s agenda at 8 AM? Do we need a new car when the old car still gets us where we want to go with far lower repair costs than a monthly car payment? Is where we are right now so bad that we can only find respite by running up a vacation on Visa rather than delighting in the dewdrops hovering on a leaf’s end, or savoring the smell of a new recipe as it comes together in our kitchen? Do we need new clothes when the ones in our closet have neither jagged holes nor split zippers, and we’re still gaining and losing the same five or ten pounds we’ve been struggling with the past fifteen years?

 

Chapter 17 What Is and What Can Be

ePub

Ellen Schwartz

starting from wherever you are
with a passionate consciousness

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.
The second best time is now.

—Chinese proverb

Whatever you can do—or dream you can—begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Begin it now!

—Goethe

 

WHAT DID WE INTEND TO CONVEY IN WRITING THIS BOOK?

That things are worse than you think. That we are being betrayed by our democracy. That the media with its polished images is stealing our time and energy and filling our children with self-centered and trivial thoughts. That corporate executives and shareholders are making a killing while 80% of Americans are bringing home less pay and working longer hours than twenty-five years ago. That the frenetic pace of our lives and the fierceness of the competitive mode are debilitating us, physically and spiritually. That economic instability is destroying our families, causing increased verbal dissension and domestic abuse. That our political system is attuned to moneyed interests, not the needs of the general populace. That our educational system is gasping for lack of monetary support and adult involvement. That community is missing for too many people.

 

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