Friday, November 18, 2011

Homes for Sale

Sometimes I need a few seconds to register. Christy may say something to me, for instance, but rather than replying right away, I'll stare blankly for a few seconds before saying anything. Just the other day, I was going through a complicated skills exercise in the physical diagnosis lab. The instructor told me to do something, and I just stood there, this time for at least seven seconds, before finally taking action. I'm not entirely sure what triggered such a lengthy lapse. I had been doing famously up to that point, and after my little break, continued on as before.

Upon sober reflection, I have ruled out Schizophrenia, Absence Seizures, or any other purely medical diagnosis from my differential. Such possible diagnoses must be taken very seriously, of course, especially if you are a second year medical student, daily discovering that even the most innocuous seeming symptom may actually be a subtle signal of impending pathology. But no, I am reasonably confident that my symptoms actually represent a common polymorphism of the human condition. At times, it is expressed in innocuous, even beneficial ways. At other times, it is becomes malignant and misdirected.

I experienced this diagnosis in a strangely revealing way one day while driving to church with Christy. She was driving and I was deep into a book on the New Testament, periodically surfacing from its pages to explain why I so vehemently disagreed with the author. As we drove into the mountains, however, I put my book down and began to enjoy the scenery. A small billboard flashed by. "Homes for Sale", it read, but I didn't register. At least not for several minutes.

You see, the sign did not read "Houses for Sale", but "Homes for Sale". There is a difference. To paraphrase Robert Frost, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A home is a locus of identity, storehouse of loyalty, and stronghold of love. In stark contrast stands the house: a roofed and walled-in frame, a bare lifeless structure, a thing with a price.

We all understand the difference between a house and a home, but one chilling fact remains: the sign still reads "Homes for Sale". At some point, an advertising consultant in a tall office building made a convincing case that an honest sign would sell fewer houses than a sign claiming to sell homes. He was right, and not the first to try the tactic. Almost all advertising proffers our deepest needs of fulfillment, peace, happiness, and meaning, for a limited offer, a special discounted price. The basic lie is so obvious, so childishly transparent, that nobody takes it seriously. Nobody, that is, but the advertising companies. They have hard data to prove something we are loath to admit: we actually do take those silly advertisement seriously, especially when we fail to register.

When I take a few seconds to register someone's question my problem is not very serious. But imagine taking days to register a question? Obviously, that would be a real problem. Now imagine taking days to recognize and register the massive lie of materialism. Sadly, most of us don't have to imagine. Most of the time we breath a stupefying materialistic mist. Under the influence of this mist, we sleepwalk through life, bumping past priceless moments and simple delights as we grope blindly after the receding mirage of acquisition. In rare moments of clarity, we may suddenly register the idiocy of our meaningless lives, but only to quickly slip back under the influence of the anesthetic mist.

May I register the priceless beauty in each little piece of my existence. May I live my life on purpose not autopilot, awake not asleep, alive not dead.