“The gods of capitalism and the gods of Mormonism are nothing but different faces of the same lie. And I would have you serve neither.”
Adapted from a letter written to my fourteen-year-old son.
A few weeks ago, I texted asking for ideas for Christmas gifts for you. You suggested over-the-ear headphones. You may have noticed that I didn’t get you those, and I want to tell you why. As your mother, I felt like this year, it was more important to give you something that you need, rather than something that you want. As someone who has known and loved you since before you were born, I want to share some lessons I have learned in life.
The first and most important lesson is this: the idea that anything or anyone in this world can be separated from anything else is an illusion. Think about it. Everything in the universe was once compacted into a space smaller than the head of a pin. And we are part of that universe, part of that stuff that went flying through space, coalescing, heating, compacting, exploding, spreading, compacting again, evolving, becoming, decaying, renewing, again and again. There are no closed systems in our world. Harm in one part of our world reverberates throughout the entire system.
The illusion of separation, the convenient lie that if I don’t see it, I neither affect nor am affected by it, is the cause of most of our world’s suffering, human and otherwise. There is a prevalent mindset in our society that we have the right to never be inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by someone else. This attitude is particularly prevalent among people who have never experienced poverty and its accompanying inconveniences and discomforts. But it is an illusion, and it is this illusion that you must shatter, because at its extreme, people who believe that they are entitled to never be inconvenienced or uncomfortable grow up to be Donald Trump.
As I’ve gotten older, I have become so much less patient with lies and illusions. I was raised in a religion of lies. My parents believed and taught me these lies. I grew up in a community where almost everyone around me believed in these lies. When I became an adult, I started to question what I’d been taught. I left those beliefs behind and started developing my own beliefs, my own ways of relating to the world. My parents still believe these lies, so much so that they are spending all of what little money they’ve managed to save throughout their lives on continuing the spread of these lies. Some people never wake up.
We live in a country and an economy built upon lies. You are taught these lies in school, and almost everyone around you believes them. These are some of those lies: “People generally get what they earn and deserve. Those who have money worked for it and deserve to have it. We live in a free market economy, and those who don’t have money could easily get some with just a little hard work. They have no one to blame but themselves. Having money is evidence of someone’s merit and goodness. Those who have money have earned it. Those who don’t have money must not have earned it and don’t deserve to be helped. We have a right to acquire and hoard as much as we want, without any obligation to help those who have less. After all, if we have it, that must mean that we earned it and deserve it, and that they didn’t earn it and don’t deserve it. We live in a free country, and that’s what freedom means: the right to accumulate money without limits, the right to look out for myself and only myself, the right to not have to care what happens to others, the right to not share, the right to be left alone.”
We Americans treasure and violently guard our supposed freedom-to-acquire more than any other liberty. The United States has been extracting wealth from the rest of the world with military force since before it was officially a country, beginning with the land theft and genocide of the Native Americans. We currently have 800 military bases outside of our own borders. No other nation even comes close to maintaining that kind of a global military presence. The closest runners up are Russia, Britain, and France, who each have less than ten bases outside their countries. Some historians argue that we are already in the midst of what later generations will look back on as World War III. We have been involved in dozens of global conflicts, continuously, since before you were born. Why are we engaged in this killing and destruction around the world? Are we protecting freedom? If we’re talking about the freedom of corporations to continue profiting, acquiring, and hoarding without limits, then yes. But if we’re talking about the freedom of ordinary people to live lives of dignity, to have available to them the resources of life to which they should be entitled as organisms of this planet, then our military serves the exact opposite purpose. I worry that the wars that have been smoldering mostly unnoticed for years now may soon erupt into a recognized and officially declared war. I worry that the draft may be reinstated. I worry that you and your younger brother may be called up, drafted, sent to the front lines to kill and be killed to protect corporate profits. I will not stand by idle and silent while that happens. That’s why Mom always goes on and on about this stuff. The gods of capitalism and the gods of Mormonism are nothing but different faces of the same lie. And I would have you serve neither.
Greed has become the ruling principle of our society. Me first. The term our culture uses to describe this phenomenon is “individualism.” Individualism is held up as something to be admired, but it is another name for the illusion of separateness. It is another lie. You appear to have succumb to this lie, and this is not surprising, nor is it your fault. It is what you have observed in the behavior of those around you, in your dad’s family and in your culture. It is what you have been taught, both explicitly and implicitly. And it is a difficult illusion to shatter, because it offers so much comfort. How convenient to be able to manipulate the world around you to never encounter anyone or anything unpleasant or inconvenient, and how appealing to believe that it is your right to do so. Most people do not wake from this illusion unless difficult life circumstances force them to confront the world as it really is. My hope is that you can begin to wake up before such a jolt hits you.
The antidote to greed is connection. It’s understanding and empathy. It’s recognizing that despite external appearances of difference, we truly are all part of the same whole. That we are all from the same stuff, All One, is scientific fact, not just some hippie-dippy fantasy. We, the human race, and we, the rest of life, energy, and matter on this planet. We all belong to and are responsible for each other. And so instead of a gadget to fortify your illusion of isolation, I got you a book by a woman from a culture different from your own. I didn’t expect you to be fascinated with it, and that’s alright. I am planting a seed for now.
You are an intelligent and sensitive young man. From the time you were little, you’ve had an open and loving heart. Some of that sweetness seems to have been clouded over recently with some of the distractions of teenagehood, electronic and otherwise. You’re trying out different identities, trying to figure out who you are, and I think some obscuring of your true self is normal. I know that at your core, that open, loving heart is still there. You perhaps haven’t had as many opportunities to develop your heart as your mind and body, but it is just as important; it is all part of the whole, and one part can’t function fully without the others. Practice caring for others. Practice opening and connecting. Practice developing your heart.
I love you. I want the best for you. No matter what, I’m always here for you.
Leah Elliott lives in North Carolina with her partner, children, and stepchildren.