Life Lessons in the Real World

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Are You an American Zombie?

zombie.jpgMillions of Americans spend their lives semi-conscious, unable to awaken from the darker version of the American Dream – an endless parade of office buildings, meetings, shopping malls, and television commercials.

Instead of pursuing purpose, we pursue material things: plasma televisions, new cars, and granite countertops. We work at jobs we hate so we can buy things we do not need. We exchange our souls for empty production and consumption.

When I think of popular American culture, I am reminded of two quotes from George Romero’s 1978 zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead:

  • Dr. Millard Rousch, Scientist: “These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct.”
  • Flyboy: “They don’t know [why the zombies keep coming to the mall]… All they know is that it used to be a very important part of their lives.”

Romero’s classic horror movie was a social commentary on American consumerism. Personally, I find it impossible to watch a zombie movie without relating to the zombies. There we are, still wearing our Sunday suits, shambling toward the shopping mall, shuffling toward office buildings, a massive army of the undead, casting a million shadows at sundown as we head home from work. We can neither understand nor articulate the longing inside us, so we moan, and perhaps we find comfort in the fact that so many others moan with us. The tragic irony is that zombies do not know they are zombies.

Master of the Zombies

According to Haitian tradition, a bokor, or Voodoo sorcerer can resurrect a zombie. The sorcerer controls the zombie, since the zombie has no will of his own.

The media controls the modern American zombie. We come home to our nice warm houses and plop down on our comfortable sofas, where the single eye of the television flickers in the darkness. Our electronic sorceress orders us out into the world to bring back more of everything: cosmetic surgery, shiny appliances, expensive meals, weight-loss pills, hardwood floors. The messages sent are simple and menacing:

  • You are not pretty enough.
  • You are not good enough.
  • You do not own enough.

We slowly rise from our comfortable sofas and leave the flickering darkness, stumbling into the streets to satiate our hunger. We shamble through the isles of Home Depot and Lowes because our 3-bedroom homes (quite large by global standards) just aren’t nice enough. In the harsh lighting of the Gap and Aeropostale, we search for clothing to make us feel better. We shuffle mindlessly through car lots searching for a vehicle to reflect our identity. Are we Ford tough? Are we Lexus smooth? But the zombie has no identity, for the zombie is a shell, identical to all the other shells in Sunday suits with wallets thrust forward, mouths hanging open.

When my grandfather was in his prime, consumption was an unpleasant word associated with disease. Every person throughout history has had to consume to survive, but to consume more than we need has traditionally been considered vulgar. We have forgotten what our grandparents knew: Beyond a certain point, possessions do not increase happiness. Of course, it is better that we should live in a land of plenty than in a hovel; abundance is good. Excess (not abundance) is the true evil, since excess eschews purpose.

Zombie University

At campuses everywhere, we can easily imagine two long lines of students — the inbound line is scattered and disorganized, the outbound line, single file. Kids in the inbound line wear loud colored shirts and messy haircuts, adults in the outbound line wear identical blue suits and matching black briefcases. You can see the beginning stages of the disease in the graduates – dark eyes, shaking hands. Their first few years on the job will destroy what little soul they have left.

College can be wonderful, enlightening. It can help us find satisfying jobs. But all too often, college is a means to an unfulfilling end. This is not because college is bad (it is not), but rather because we are focused on material wealth at the expense of deeper meaning. If you let it, college will process you to death (or undeath), and a million corporations will eat what’s left of you.

The Working Dead

We work in tiny, climate controlled cubicles, sacrificing human contact in exchange for electronic communication, real smiles for emoticons, humility for rudeness. Our only purpose in the belly of the beast is maximizing profit, increasing GDP. Forty, fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week, we work. Working in such antagonistic environments removes our soul, leaving us to fill the void with possessions. Because the zombie has no soul, he cannot comprehend any fulfillment beyond his own terrible hunger.

The Zombie might say, “I don’t need to buy a Lexus, but I want one. That’s why I work so hard.” But he has not fully considered the meaning of his words. He spends the vast majority of his waking life doing work that does not fulfill him so he can afford things previous generations would have considered extravagant.

The Protestant work ethic is no longer ideal (if it ever was), but it does prove people can exist without devoting themselves to material wealth. This is important because material wealth is no more the answer today than it was yesterday. The modern world presents us with a million choices; to maximize personal fulfillment, we must navigate those choices with intention, willfulness, and purpose.

Zombie Medications

Wade Davis, author of the Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), claims that a person can be turned into a zombie by administering two powders (detrototoxin and datura) into the bloodstream.

For the modern American zombie, we have Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and benzodiazepines. We are quick to recognize the benefits of such drugs (benefits which do exist), but seldom speak of the way they perpetuate meaninglessness. Why does it not occur to us that our ever-increasing anxiety and depression might actually be trying to tell us something? Many people have a legitimate need for medication, but many others (myself included at one point) seek medication when they should be balancing their lives.

What better way to embrace American consumer zombification than to detach from our feelings?

Destroying the Zombie Within

The modern American zombie’s greatest victim is himself; therefore, the zombie is responsible for his own awakening. Have you become a zombie? If you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does your job fulfill you?
  2. Do you understand and approve of the reasons you live your life the way you do?
  3. Do you find yourself on a quest for more material things even after achieving a comfortable lifestyle?

If you answered no to the first two questions and yes to the last one, you may have joined the ranks of the undead. The only way to reclaim your humanity is to begin living your life with purpose. You can start by reading my six part series of articles on living a synergistic life. If you disagree with my methodology for finding purpose, pioneer your own. The clock is ticking, my friend. Every day we spend undead brings us one day closer to a real death from which our present form will never awaken.


78 Responses to “Are You an American Zombie?”

  • JessicaLong says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I like horror movies and I can so see my Dad going to work as a Zombie.

  • Kraven says:

    I enjoyed and agree with the viewpoint presented here(found this from the S. Pavlina site). There is a vicious cycle perpetuated from Birth that is difficult to break free from. However as suggested asking tough questions,searching within and even severing ties with family/friends may be necessary to awaken and walk the path toward self fufilment, liberation and anti materialistic motivations.

  • JohnPlace says:

    I welcome you both, Jessica and Kraven, to my humble Web Site.

  • SueMandy says:

    I think I am addicated to shopping. I struggle with it all the time. I buy things to make me feel good, but you’re right, it doesn’t make me feel good. I oneder what I should do.

  • JohnPlace says:

    SueMandy, you are already on the right path because you recognize that happiness does not come from material things. You might find these URLs helpful:
    Control Your Spending
    The #1 Mistake Consumers Make with Credit Cards

  • ChrisR says:

    I enjoyed the read, and can really relate to what you’re saying. I’m 18 and heading into college, and considering Computer Science mostly for the money and the fact that i’m good at it, since music doesn’t really seem like something i could get a reasonable career in even though i love it. The idea of becoming a quote-unquote “zombie” has always terrified me, especially considering this career, but what else am i suppose to do to make a reasonable living? I just don’t know if it will fulfill me, and i’m more than a little confused about where i should go from here at this stage in my life.
    If I could avoid any mistakes at a defining point in my life (going into college), i would really like to do so now. Any advice would be appreciated.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Hi Chris,

    First of all, welcome to my blog. Chris, the position you’re in is a challenging one, and I’ve been there. We often feel like we have to trade our dreams for a prescribed career path, but Chris, I want to tell you emphatically that you have better options.

    I believe there is meaningful, fulfilling work available for anyone willing to work for it.

    Helping people tap into their hidden potential and locate their dream job is really my calling in life — so I’m helping to fulfill my own dream by telling you to chase yours.

    Chris, college is a wonderful place, and someone your age is well-advised to attend it so you can explore new ideas, learn new concepts, and grow academically. So by all means, go to college if you’re motivated to do so. But my advice is to take classes that can advance the career you truly want.

    Chris, I encourage to you start by reading this article: The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) — You may not be unhappy with your job at the moment, but there is valuable information in that article for someone in your position.

    My bottom-line advice? Find a way to make money following your dreams (knowing that these dreams may change over time), or you’ll never be completely fulfilled in your career. I may be one of the few people who tells you to follow your dreams because so many people have sold themselves short that it has become a common misconception that work is unpleasant by nature. The unspoken agreement of the masses is that growing up involves pain, resignation, compliance, and complacency.

    I have recently written a short eBook described here designed for people in your position. My focus-group is full and already in progress, but I hope to have a completed version available within the next few weeks.

  • Jörn says:

    Thank you very much for this incredibly true article. Rest assured that you can substitute “american” for “european”, since I look at zombies every time I leave the door.


  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks Jorn — I appreciate the European perspective. I expect “1st World Zombie” would have been a more accurate and inclusive title, but somehow not quite as catchy.

  • david says:

    I agree with this Zombie assessment. I was once. Then I had a motocycle accident. Since then I have lost everything material – wife, house, car, dog and even my zombifying corporate job. I can’t work at the moment. I’m 34 and living with my parents where I spend my days in bed healing. I am currently playing the game of applying for disability as I have zero income and have gone through my entire life savings between the divorce and medical bills (from losing health insurance that came along with the zombifying corporate job). While part of me hopes to work again part of me thinks this may be a blessing. Provided I can live off the disability benefit not having to sludge to work everyday is very appealing. I am in constant pain and will be for the rest of my life (broken pelvis, sacrum, coccyx, lower 3 vertebrae, left should and nerve damage – which is the most painful). But given the pain most of the time I’d much rather be at work as I did enjoy what I was doing for a living. Will I go back? Only time will tell. I may end up finding I would enjoy doing something entirely different. This time out of play is certainly giving me perspective. In the end I think it comes down to how you approach your life each day and your ability to keep things fresh and make changes when they become necessary in order to keep your sanity.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your heartfelt comment, David. I am sorry to hear about your motorcycle accident.

    I am also sorry to hear you can no longer perform your job. And most of all, I’m sorry about all the pain you’re in and struggle you’re going through.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that any routine altering set-back has the potential to open us up to new ideas, possibilities, and opportunities.

    Even when I’ve been “out of commission,” I’ve looked for ways to add meaning to my life, usually by finding a way to help other people.

    The position you are in sounds very difficult, and I wish you the best.

    Take care, David.

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  • Ollabelle says:

    I’m with you John. When I became a parent, we made what seemed a difficult decision at the time: to withhold television from our children (i.e. no cable whatsoever), much as to deny them refined sugar whenever possible. The ban isn’t total, and can’t be because we don’t dictate to her friends’ families, but the results have been entirely positive. Our kids read, draw, even cross-stitch for entertainment; they’re thin, play outside a lot, and had all sort of imaginary friends and adventures when they were younger. We give them internet privileges and allow them DVD’s. But because there isn’t the endless “what’s on TV this moment?” syndrome, we’ve escaped much of the problem. Your message is dead-on accurate.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Ollabelle.

    It’s good to know there are people out there working to stop the cycle.

  • Liara Covert says:

    Your zombie post reminds me of the son of the brother of a friend whose family lives in the U.S. His parents don’t know what to do with him. They can’t understand how they raised a zombie? He has developed into a depressed, unmotivated young man who does very little other than loaf about at home, watch tv and sleep. He opted against college and chose to work at a pizza place. His uncle says this 20 something year old apparently ‘wittles his life away’ with no goals or motivation. I honestly hope the guy finds some source of meaning to uplift his spirit. His family just gets angry.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Liara, that’s a good reminder that zombification comes in many forms, cultures, and socio-economic brackets.

    Unlike the Zombies in this article, that poor young man of which you speak has not sold his soul for material things — he’s sold his soul for free.

    I pass no judgment on his desire to live a low-income lifestyle. Rather, the problem is not his income — it’s his depression, the fact that he himself is unhappy with the life he has chosen.

    One might consider the possibility that his condition is medical.

    But even then, he may be able to destroy the zombie within by searching his inner self for the signs of purpose and meaning that I believe we all contain.

  • Brian says:

    I was pleased to read your article, I have been dancing around many of the same concepts. It upsets me that the people around me are continually drawn to new and shiny things… We have at all times and at all places access to a glowing screen with audio/visual media. I hope that people realize this is not a viable path to happiness, because the alternative is continual distraction and never facing our own or society’s real problems.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brian. While I do recognize the therapuetic and artistic uses of visual media (and enjoy partaking in them myself), there is one thing about television in general that’s always bothered me: when we watch TV, we are assimilating the memories and experiences of others instead of developing our own unique memories and experiences. Welcome to the hive mentality, as they say.

    A little of the “Borg” mentality is fine (at least it gives us something to talk about), but so many of us overdo it, sacrificing our own experiences in exchange for group-think and mindless consumerism.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Brian.

  • […] Are You an American Zombie? […]

  • […] Are You an American Zombie? […]

  • chabuhi says:

    I think this post may actually have changed my life (if I can now manage to act on it).


  • christian says:

    I’m pretty certain this blogs author could be classified an ‘enemy combatant’ for writing this blog.
    The american zombie-population are the blood of the modern economy, they make money -> spend money -> rinse & repeat. Think what would happen if a majority heeded this blog and started thinking for themselves, and realized life is about a lot more than consuming cheap goods from China. It would wreak havoc on Wall Street.
    I’m pretty sure causing this economical havoc would be considered terrorism in todays hysteric political climate.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Welcome to my blog, Christian.

    I certainly hope no one considers me a terrorist for suggesting there’s more to life than granite countertops, flat-panel televisions, and giant SUVS.

    Most studies suggest that beyond a certain subsistence level, additional money and things do not provide additional happiness; it’s not like this is anything new.

    I just wish more people considered it.

  • christian says:

    I hear you brother. A person very close to me used to be chronically depressed – she’d max out all her credit cards (of which she had been given much too many) in the malls. This would always land her in a bad place – always strapped for cash, always stressed and always with more stuff laying around when there was room for.
    I tried to get her to go to a shrink to get help, but she never did – always too busy buying more stuff or borrowing more money from relatives and friends. In short, she was an american zombie if I ever saw one.

    So I started working on her myself. We had long talks about what matters in life, how none of the 200 designer purses or 300 pairs of shoes in her closet actually had made her any happier. How she hadn’t been able to travel anywhere lately because of all her money going to the malls and stores, and as interest to the creditors.

    It took a few years, but she’s now awake. She started paying the cards off, and each time one was paid in full I symbolically shredded it for her. She still goes shopping now and then, but in moderation. And no more credit cards.

    One day I helped her load the car up with purses, and shoeboxes and other miscellaneous stuff, and we went on a take-back tour. The stores were not happy, but we regained thousands of dollars that day.

    She’s not depressed any longer, not stressed, and she can now afford to do the fun things she used to do before she fell into her shopoholism, like traveling and pursuing her other hobbies.

    I have to admit that I’m pretty proud of this conversion.

    Sorry about the long rant here, just felt like sharing my own exploits in the struggle to wake people up from their zombie state of being! :)

  • JohnPlace says:

    Christian, I really enjoyed reading your last comment. It always lights up my day when someone wakes up from the dark consumer dream that has gripped so many of us. I’m all for buying nice things and enjoying our possessions, but a person can so easily lose himself in the quest for material things… so easily lose sight of what’s important. There’s a whole big world of meaning and purpose out there, waiting to be discovered.

    Keep up the good fight, my friend.

  • […] Are You an American Zombie? […]

  • Ross says:

    Nice Fight Club quote,”We work at jobs we hate so we can buy things we do not need.”

  • JohnPlace says:

    I didn’t even realize that was a FC quote, Ross, but it stands to reason. Fight Club is a great movie; it apparently seeped into my subconcious mind.

  • Cisco says:

    I am a ZomBee! Not to be confused with a zombie aformention in your article. We ZomBeez are a Northern California hippie, Rock&Roll band who play for our “Dead” brothers and sisters.
    “We’re the ZomBeez, yeah, and we’re gonna ZomBee into your life, gonna ZomBee into your life!”
    You too can become an honorary ZomBee by euthanizing your cathode ray tube device while playing a musical instrument that may also include your vocal chords. Be a ZomBee. Just remember that there is even an om in a conventional zombee.

  • Kathy W says:

    I agree with the article. We don’t realize it but we do walk around like zombies everyday. I don’t think my life has gotten quite that bad, but maybe a little.

  • Kristy says:

    i agree with this article for the most part, i mean people to just go to work and work themselves to the bone just to make a good living. however, education may play a factor, it is hard to accomplish your dream job without having a decient education these days. also, technology now a days increases and changes at such a quick rate that by the time you do buy one electronic, by the time you actually learn how to use the product there is a new one out. think about it, if you still have a VCR then you pretty much are out of luck if you wanna watch a more recent movie. so i don’t think it is really a want want want, issue, but sometimes its a need need need.\
    but the aritcle does bring about some really good points, and luckly i am in the inward college line with my loud colors and funky hair, and i will try to at least come out in a bright busniss suit. it will take alot for society to change, but to make a little change may inspire others!

  • Chad Conway says:

    I like the reading alright, and I can relate to that. Its hard not to sotimes weve got alot of thigngs going on, and we like to put the work behind us and try to make everything perfect and the way we want it but that isnt how life is not every thing will go your way. SO I will just let God lead me in the right direction

  • Stephen Dunham says:

    I read the article and alot of it makes good sense to me. We are just moving around letting society put us where they want us and not really considering where we want to be. Realizing this as it says is the first task in order to get rid of the zombie we are so I am going to work on getting rid of the zombie in me and start working towards what I want. Good question “Are you an american zombie?”

  • RC says:

    What an interesting article! Not at all what I was going to guess by the title. Ok, yes. I’m an american zombie. Never have I thought of my lvings habits like this before, but when you get right down to it, I do buy alot of things that I don’t need. I have worked for money that I never really needed anyway. I have seen that this amercian zombie syndrome is pretty common. I have seen my family do these things, as well as my friends and thier familes. People do work for many things that they do not need, or have much use for. This has given me some insight. I didn’t even realize I was doing this!

  • JohnPlace says:

    Kathy, Kristy, Chad, Stephen & RC: Thank you all for the thoughtful, intelligent responses. You have contributed to the dialog here, and I appreciate it.

  • Carlie says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, i do though find myself to be an american zombie. Worrying too much what people think, buying things for the simple reason that everyone else has them. Working over at my job because i’m so starved for having more money. After reading this i feel ashamed and it has really made me think, peoples opinions aren’t what i need to worry about, it’s my own personal opinion that matters.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the comment, Carlie.

    According to Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., the author of “Happier” and the instructor of a popular positive psychology course at Harvard, happiness — not money — is the ultimate currency. The question of happiness is the most fundamental of questions, since it is the driving motivation behind so many of our life-consuming activities and obsessions.

    I just thought I’d share that.

  • ina04 says:

    i guess that i would have to say that i once was a bit of an american zombie, i sat on the couch and did nothing. so i decided to make a change for the good i started attending college in order to get that “dream job” and be happier with myself.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for sharing, ina04.

  • tzt says:

    check out Karen Armstrong’s Buddha for an introduction to the insight of Buddhism. All about the futility of trying to finding happiness through fulfilling our desires. i find buddhism very relevant to the anxieties of the modern consumer society.

  • JohnPlace says:

    TZT: thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • JohnPlace says:

    To the poster whose comment I just deleted: With one hand, I can count the number of posts I’ve had to delete on this blog; I welcome opinions of all varieties.

    However, I do treat conversations here very much like conversations in my own home. Rude and obnoxious behavior do not contribute to the dialog, and such posts will be deleted without notice.

    If you’d like to try expressing your opinion a little more thoughtfully, I’m sure the members here would be happy to hear it.

  • Ollabelle says:

    John, Dang, you beat me to it before I could ‘comment’ on that poster’s writing.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Great minds think alike, Ollabelle. :)

    I truly do welcome opinions of all shapes and sizes, but I feel obligated to keep the comments-section on this site civil and considerate because it helps ensure productive exchange. Productive communication is a topic covered extensively on this site, and I like to keep the environment here supportive of that goal. Moderation of comments isn’t something that I take lightly — I don’t like to do it unless I have to. And thankfully, I usually don’t. On the impersonal Internet, moderation is an unfortunate necessity for any forum seeking meaningful dialog.

  • […] Before you make a purchase that seriously impacts your bottom line, stop and ask yourself: Is this improving my life? Is this worth it? It’s a shame how so many of us sell our potential for the empty promise of useless things. […]

  • Dillon says:

    You are right on. 99.9 % of people in America are zombified.

    find out how to un zombify yourself at:

    the foundation of human understanding

    god bless to everyone

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