At my last visit to my hair stylist, I happened to pick up a recent copy of a glamour magazine and haphazardly flipped through the pages, mostly out of boredom.
Although I know I did not exactly have a Eureka moment, I was struck by the fact that in image after image, as I perused the pages, I saw only smiling faces. These looked like people who were having the time of their life and who had discovered the closest thing to the bliss the Buddha was talking about.
For some reason my eyes were drawn to an article about Joan Collins, the famous Dynasty actress, who apparently has a quite enthralling estate in France. She showed it all to the reader with her smiling “hubby” by her side.
It struck me how alluring this depiction of life is. These are people who have it all. They have become the image of what so many people strive for: happiness, success, beauty, wealth, everlasting love.
And yet as I began to look closer, I noticed sudden cracks in the image of perfection. Joan Collins is aging and reminding me that the Joan Collins of Dynasty is a mortal. You could notice the faint contours of liver spots on her skin and none of the make-up could conceal her many wrinkles. I was particularly attuned to her signs of aging, because I myself recently had to come to terms with the inevitable loss of youth. Noticing my first gray hairs and the beginning signs of balding have recently forced me reckon with the fact that I am middle-aged, not everlastingly young.
The Illusory Pursuit of the Image:
Why is the idea of the image such an important source of allure and suffering in human existence?
The allure of the image is in some sense the allure of something eternal and unchanging; some kind of end state that we can arrive at or merge with.
An image, like a photograph, is immutable, just like a concept or an idea. It is in the realm of images that we can imagine things like true love, everlasting beauty, success, and so on. In the realm of the image, these are attainable states, or qualities people can possess, and we often aspire to merge with these attributes, to become them, or acquire them.
And yet life as the Buddha reminded us is not static, but always changing. Nothing ever stays the same. We never stay the same. And so the image in human existence is really an illusion. It is an aspiration Sigmund Freud might talk about as a death instinct: the desire to return to a non-human form, which is really antithetical to life.
The Image and Jaques Lacan:
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan talked a lot about the problems that come from identifying ourselves with an image. He pointed out that our internal experience is really quite shifting and fragmented, but that we learn to identify ourselves as a thing in the world through having our image reflected back to us in the mirror or by other people. He identified a specific developmental stage around 6 months of age when the child first begins to think of him or herself as that person in the mirror.
The problem with this identification is that it betrays a truth about us, which is that we are never really a unitary whole, never really fixed in our nature like the image would convey. The pursuit of becoming a static image therefore is at odds with life and a source of great suffering.
Lacan pointed out that what distinguishes us as human beings is that we live in a symbolic reality, or a reality of meaning, and this fact is both what makes images possible, and robs us of ever becoming one with them.
Words, like mathematical symbols, are never fixed in what they refer to: 1 + 1 can apply to apples as well as people, and the word “successful” can be attached to multiple different images, and can even mean different things at different times for different people. This slippery nature of symbols means that we never quite arrive at the final destination that we can dream about or aspire to: The idea of something, and the experience of that idea never quite merge. Because the symbol offers us a meaning rather than an “edible”, there is never really anything at the end of the rainbow. We can never really sink our teeth into the image.
Learning from Celebrities:
This is probably also why there are no shortage of examples of people who seemed to have it all but who ultimately ended up self-destructing. Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Eazy-E, or even Brittany Spears all ended up discontent and unfulfilled. Perhaps what is different about them and the average Joe is that they were forced to confront the fact that the image always alludes us.
Many people find solace and hope in the dream about the image. How often don’t we hear people say things like: When I win the lottery I will quit my job and move to the Caribbean. They have the comfort of a different life as a possibility: the life they read about or dream about.
But people who have actually lived the dream, and still find the image eluding them are in a different quandary. Either they have to up the ante (such as perhaps run for president once they have already proven that they are successful in business) (wink wink), or confront the truth that images are illusions, and that life will always rob us of the satisfaction that would come from merging with our dream.
Perhaps that is why Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson turned to drugs. They had to find a way to escape the realization that they couldn’t run from themselves. That at the end of the day they are mortal, they age, and they don’t get more than simple and temporary enjoyments from the images they so want to be.
A life in pursuit of an image is in this sense a wasted life, because it is the pursuit of something that can never satisfy, or that is always elusive.
The Take Away:
As people we are ever changing, and we are different from the still perfection of the images we see around us on TV, hear about from others on Facebook, or attribute to others based on their appearance or our own projections.
I will not say that I have attained the wisdom to live my life in accordance with this truth, but life teaches us this lesson sooner or later, as my own confrontation with aging has made it apparent.
The only question left for us to wrestle with is whether we can accept this fact, or want to spend our life fighting it.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people find ways to be more authentically themselves. Visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com to learn more.