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?”

  • John, I quoted you at
    * You are not pretty enough.
    * You are not good enough.
    * You do not own enough.

    in my revolving quotes sidebar widget. Hope you don’t mind, I included a link back to this page.

  • Doug Rosbury says:

    I am an offspring of our Heavenly father. Any
    judgement imposed on me has no effect but to
    confuse the judge and act as a false image of me.
    I have nothing to do with such a practice.
    ——Doug Rosbury

  • […] This is especially true if your anxiety is being caused by a particular person or situation. Your friend or family member may have had a similar experience or knowledge of the situation and can advice you […]

  • Michael says:

    Greetings John.
    I’ve stumbled over your page by typing in “unhappiness” at – your site, for reasons unknown is listed as a malicious site, but I accessed it by myself.
    Your blogs are pretty interesting.
    If you want to, you can read on, and try to help me. About 20+ people have tried thusfar and noone ever succeeded.
    I am close to 20, living in Germany, doing the last year of school.
    I’ve had a pretty fucked up past, explaining it all would go beyond the scope of this post.
    Let’s just say it was fucked up, and things like divorces and mobbing happened.
    Now, up to around 9th grade, I was just a “normal” lone wolf. Then we moved away, and the stress should have lessened, but the opposite happened.
    Even though I wasn’t mobbed anymore, I developed psychosomatic stomach ache which kept me away from school for many times, which caused my grades to drop from 2s to 4s in most subjects…
    Then the problem with a girlfriend arose, since I started developing interest in girls.
    Of course I never found one, being the introverted and shy person I am.
    All this led me to serious depression and/or dysthymia. I just can’t be happy or satisfied.
    Ever. There are days when I feel more normal, and there are days where I feel completely fucked up and tell myself “why am I still going through this, I must end this, or it will never end by itself”.
    But I can’t remember a single happy day in my life.
    I have seen psychiatrists, been to a clinic, and different people tried to help me, but never with success.
    I am void. Lonely, empty sadness.
    A person of reason and almost only brain-driven. Atheist of course. I am often imprisoned in what you call analysis paralysis.
    Some weeks ago I was even so desperate that I went ahead and ordered AD. But I didn’t take them.
    My brain rejects any thought of foreign substances in my body, that is also why I’m frightened of pointy objects like injection needles. But anyways, the sideeffects are too serious for me, there’s just no way I’ll ever be taking them.

    Coming back to this blog entry: Having nothing to believe in and being filled only with emptiness, I’ve strifed to find any meaning to my life.
    After wracking my brain for quite some time I couldn’t come up with anything else than “become rich and lead a comfortable life till the end”.
    But you are right.
    No happiness comes from that.
    For me, it comes from nothing, I am not able to feel joy, or will of living on.
    My life is boredom every single day and if it wasn’t for my mother and my damn instinct of self preservation I’d not be typing this.

    All I’ve ever gotten were general tips. “Find new hobbies” “Find something you’re good in” “Go out and meet new people” “The happiness must come from yourself”…..nonsense!
    I’ve tried hobbies, none were ever interesting enough to keep me. I’m also a damn jack-of-all-trades, nothing that society today wants, they want people who are good in one region and want them to work in that region. I can’t do anything GOOD, only lots of mediocre or sub-par stuff.
    I feel worthless. I detest man in general.
    And smalltalk. I so so detest it, this meaningless blabber. I’d rather keep my mouth shut a thousand years than smalltalk. Needless to say I don’t have any real friends let alone a girlfriend. Or a sense of self-esteem.
    It’s kind of ambivalent, on the one hand I hate myself, on the other hand I feel superior to a good 80% of humans, because they don’t think. They simply won’t use their brains a lot. But they are also living a less complicated life than me, and probably a happy one.

    Maybe you can come up with some UNIQUE tips for me?
    I can’t pull happiness out of my ass out of nothing. It’s just not possible, and such general bullshit like “Every pot has its lid”(popular german saying to singles..) just drives me mad and doesn’t help me at all.

    Yes it’s a very long post and kind of a soul-striptease, but maybe, just once in my life, a person is able to help me.

    Greetings from Germany.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Hi M,

    Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I’ve been taking some time away from the blog, so I didn’t see your post until today.

    This isn’t going to be easy, and I can’t promise you that I can offer you any unique insight that will help you. But I will try.

    The road to happiness is often a long one.

    And keep in mind, I am not qualified to diagnose you (I’m just a blogger with some life experience, after all), and even if I was, I couldn’t do it without meeting you. So take this for what it’s worth.

    But here’s my initial reaction:

    I too hate it when people say things like, “happiness has to come from within you,” and “find a hobby.” It’s not that this is particularly bad advice, it’s just that it’s a gross oversimplification. In reality, happiness comes from two primary areas: from awareness of and influence over your internal moods and perspectives, and a similar awareness and influence relative to your external reality.

    In other words, happiness comes both from inside *and* from outside.

    So let’s talk about an issue that could be effecting both:

    If you have a mental illness (like clinical depression, or one of the many closely related anxiety disorders), then you have to understand that you can’t really trust yourself to figure out a way through this alone.

    Your illness could be steering you away from the things that could help you, and toward the things that will keep you imprisoned. In other words, your “life radar” could be totally screwed up. Is it? Based on your post, it sounds like it is.

    So how do you deal with a broken life radar? For starters, you might want to try finding a therapist who you trust. I know, I know: you’ve tried it, right? But did you really *try* it, or did you dismiss it without following through? Only you can answer that question (meaning I’m not making any assumptions), but I’m asking because some of the comments you made lead me to believe that perhaps a few therapuetic concepts have been dismissed out of hand (like medication, for example).

    I’m not saying that you need to take meds (remember, I don’t know you and can’t diagnose you), but I can safely say that dismissing the idea that meds are for you simply because you can’t stand having any foriegn substance in your body is folly. This is a hang up that people often have because we live in a world that has encouraged in us a general prejudice against mental illness, and medication is often seen as a sign of weakness. Why is it okay to take anti-biotics if we have a bacterial infection, or aspirin if we have an ache, but it’s not okay to take Paxil or Zoloft or Effexor or Wellbutrin if we’re suffering from severere mood disorders?

    Remember, if your life radar truly is messed up, you can’t trust it to lead you out of the woods, can you?

    That’s why I suggested a therapist and an open mind.

    Another point: people need relationships.

    Human beings are not designed to be solitary creatures. We have biological (and therefore cognitive) impulses to mate, love, and interact, to share.

    You don’t have to surround yourself with every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Sally who comes along (I’ve always been a lone wolf myself, so believe me, I get it), but you do need to find one or two meaningful relationships.

    Please do find a way to develop at least one meaningful relationship that you can lean on.

    Remember, a person’s value in life does not come from his intelligence. There are plenty of super-smart couch potatoes contributing nothing of value to the world (or even to themselves), and plenty of simple-minded people who really are making the world a better place for themselves and others. So if your reason for not being able to relate to others truly is that you feel superior to them, you have to let that go.

    As far as finding a girlfriend goes, remember that life is a game of numbers. If you keep trying, eventually you will find what you are looking for. And when rejection comes (and it will), deal with it and move on.

    Speaking from personal experience, my wife is truly the best thing that has ever happened to me, and if I hadn’t had the courage to speak to her, my life would still be miserable and lonely.

    So in the end, what I’m suggesting is the long, hard process of dealing with your happiness issue on two fronts: the inside, and the outside. From the inside, deal with your negativity, pessimism, general disdain for others, and any other issue that could be darkening your mood. From the outside, much of life boils down to the way you spend your waking hours: the people you’re with, the things you’re doing, and the general sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that those things provide to you.

    It’s a process, no doubt about it. And there are no easy answers. But I do believe that you can do it, if you want to.

    Best wishes. Let me know how you’re doing.


  • […] lifestyle. If you want to know my opinion about the hopelessness of modern consumption, read my American Zombie article. If you want to know what the Bible says about it, read these verses: Matthew 6:19 — Do […]

  • chollie says:

    Really? People actually enjoy reading this?

    The real issue is not individual over consumption as much as living in a society that indoctinates citizens into this way of life.

    “The zombie is responsible for his own awakening.” Maybe so. Still, once we realize we are in the world, we already are. Choices are both limiting and limited.

    The simple test is just that. In fact, I would say over simplified. What if one answered the three questions as follows:


    Is this not just a more long winded way of saying what Socrates said about the unexamined life, i.e. “The unexamined life is not worth living?”

  • […] recently read an excellent article called ‘Are You an American Zombie?‘. I found it fascinating because it basically describes a huge swathe of the middle classes. […]

  • Clay says:

    This is for Michael. I have a suggestion for you. Go out and spend one day just helping people. I’m not saying vlounteer for anything. Just go out and help an old lady put groceries in her car or help an old man cross the street. Just do it for one day and see if you don’t feel happier. Sounds simple? Yes. but it works (at least for me). It’s all about selflessness. If it doesn’t work at least you can say you helped someone that day.

  • Troy Urbalejo says:

    I love the way you have put this. I cant say it any diffrent. Recently i have been looking at life in a simular way, no longer regreting past mistakes, no longer looking at life in a material sence. I have since then been more happy, nomore depression. I found a great girl, got a awsome job doing MMA, something i always wanted to do. A key thing however i have been doing is like the movie “Yes Man” i have not been saying no to anything, and i know it sound odd but it works. I was not inspired however by this movie i was inspired by looking at life in pretty much the same way you do. I thank you for publishing this it was truelly inspirational.

  • sabes says:

    1986 called, they want their essay back.

    Seriously, that’s a lot of words to say something that has been said half a million times over the passed couple decades. Did it really need to be voiced yet again?

  • Brad says:


    why read the article then and take time to leave a comment? nothing better to do with your life?

    thanks for the post John. i agree with most of your points.

  • sean says:

    I like what your saying here. Wre have it so terrific here that Americans have a very hard time finding balance. It had tyo balance anything sitting down and doing nothing. I also agree with the veiw of the self inflicted or perscribed zombie. I am really starting to think the socially acceptable drug addict is way to overrated by or for their self maurderdom. Your only sacraficing your self to walking around with your mouth open

  • […] Are You an American Zombie? If ye love wealth more than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our country men. — Samuel Adams […]

  • Danny says:

    Here is your Zombie commentary paraphrased. I found you could paraphrase it to rail against whatever it is you wish to rail against.

    “Romero’s classic horror movie was a spiritual commentary on American religiousness. 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 churches, shuffling toward revivals, a massive army of the undead, casting a million shadows at sundown as we head home from bible study. 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.”

  • Paul Matthews says:

    Bottom line Zombies are brain dead . and can’t use simple logic .They have lost their Reason to connect to their inner self. The answer is know thy self then act on it.and you will be enlightened . what you bring forth will free you. & what you Hold Back through Denial will Destroy you !!

  • Leesa Flavin says:

    I miss Jennifer Love Hewitt from her times in Kids Incorporated. Does everyone know of a decent site with all the old episodes?

  • yusuf says:

    it’s great, this article is awakening..

  • […] The Material Myth: Pursuing happiness by acquiring material things (granite countertops, plasma televisions, designer clothing) is like jogging to the grocery store […]

  • unwaken says:

    hey i loved the story…i’m pissed off by the betrayal of our own damn country..from the chemical cramp in our food to the fake meds.. i was choosen to be awaken from the brain-washed living-dead world i once lived in. now it’s good to know that some folks still have brain to think beyond the devils-eye a.k.a television. i feel alone sometimes because the folks around me think life is just fun and games and i need to use my brain from time to time and think…i think the masses is too brain-washed for any change to happen. welcome to the new world order

  • Chuck Palahniuk says:

    “We work at jobs we hate so we can buy things we do not need.”

    “Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need. ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 19”

    Glad more people are finally realizing it.

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  • Drew says:

    You are right on.
    So glad to find a lone voice of Truth and Sanity in the midst of this absurdist consumer tragedy spectacle.

    Don’t get me wrong -I’m grateful for liberty and freedom of choice, but I don’t think this is anywhere near how God intended for us to live…

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    When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

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