A few months ago I moved from Chicago, Illinois to sunny Los Angeles. I left the gloom of winter with its perpetually frozen sidewalks for the warm and welcoming air of southern California. It is the home of television, web, and cinema industries – as well as fake breasts, fluffy dogs, and reflective sunglasses. Seven sports cars on every street corner. Bikinis as an appropriate fashion choice while shopping at the mall. Men and women with jewelry on each finger. My senses have been overwhelmed by the garish and the glamorous clashing together – the beautiful and the bizarre playing equally, side by side.
Over these few months, I have noticed myself acclimating to these unusual sights. I remember an instance when I first arrived in LA and went to sign up for a gym membership. The young woman who assisted me had inflated her lips with collagen to such a size that I wanted to ask if I could borrow them for my nephew’s swimming lessons. My grandmother’s pin cushion would have looked more demure on her face than those puffy pink lips. In addition, her fabricated eyelashes extended so far down her face that they brushed the tops of her cheekbones. I was surprised she didn’t require a construction crane to leverage her eyelids apart.
But that was just my first day in Los Angeles. Last week, I came across the same membership advisor, and to my total shock I found her face inline with what I now perceive as “natural.” It no longer seemed exaggerated to me – even though I’m certain the lips and eyelashes were of the same proportions. My perception of what is “normal” has changed by being indoctrinated into a culture where what is excessive elsewhere is merely commonplace. What would be considered a monstrosity in the Midwest seems elegant in LA.
And this change in perception frightens me. Within such a short period of time, my spectrum of what is acceptable has shifted. And while this type of shift has been very positive at other times in my life (such as learning to see my sexuality as a gift and blessing), I am pretty confident that I do not want to adopt the appreciation of excess that is so prevalent here. I do not want to think that “more” and “bigger” is “better,” or that outer façades are the most important attributes of a human being. I want to see a person with facial characteristics blown up past anything nature would have provided as being comical. I don’t want to loose my ability to discern the exaggerated from the sincere.
When I reflect on what attributes I would like my surroundings to encourage, the following come to mind: empathy, simplicity in living, compassion, sincerity, truthfulness, creativity, and seeing the innate perfection already existing in all living beings. And I am not sure that this La La Land culture cares about all these qualities – nay, even some of them. The question then becomes whether I should endure here and fight against the dominant culture, or seek a home elsewhere. If I stay, I realize that it will require cultivating a strong support network of individuals that harmonize with my vision of the world and remind me what is truly important for real happiness and wellbeing. I don’t want the way that the majority of Angelenos see the world to become my prevailing vantage.
“I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.”
Throughout history there have been examples of men and women who have stood against hate, bias, anger, and public disapproval, and endured. They became beacons of hope for people to emulate. But is that the best way to build a life (since it’s certainly not the easiest)? Would those people have chosen to weather those storms had they been able to go elsewhere? Do I want to become a lighthouse, rising above the salty waves and winds that attempt to pull me back into the deep of superficiality? Wouldn’t I be better suited in a culture that cherishes the same values as I?
Several decades ago, a great meditation master named Swami Muktananda talked about this very topic. He called it “paying attention to the company you keep.” In many of his books, he discussed how we will rise or fall to the general level of the individuals surrounding us. For the past seven years of my life, I lived in a yogic ashram. I was surrounded by a community of spiritual aspirants. Every day we meditated, chanted, cooked healthy food, did selfless service. Everyone was interested in growing and cultivating their best selves. The people that surrounded me had qualities I aspired to attain. Furthermore, I had wonderful family, childhood friends, artistic collaborators, and an amazing partner nearby to help raise my level. I yearned to be the mean of the wonderful people surrounding me.
Since coming to LA, I have been entirely on my own. There has been practically no one here with whom I interact with on a regular basis. So does that mean that I am now the average of the few people I see with any regularity – such as the grocery clerk at Whole Foods, or the neighbor that’s bitter and resentful of everyone? Certainly, I am still in regular contact with my loved ones from back home, but they aren’t physically here with me. And that provides a unique challenge for identifying my actual peer group.
A more recent figure that has similarly stressed the importance of our surroundings is Warren Buffett; he calls this practice “Marrying Up.” Mr. Buffett articulates this as choosing a spouse that is more amazing than yourself, and inspires you so completely that you begin to pick up their best qualities. He argues to choose the same for one’s most intimate circle of friends. I do feel tremendously blessed that I have “married up” in terms of my partner and my closest friendships. I have some truly fantastic people in my life. But these fools aren’t here with me. And, frankly, FaceTime isn’t quite the same as a real life interaction.
So what’s a yokel to do? Shall I stay here and “batten down the hatches” for a spell, enduring the toxic waters? Or do I find a more amicable culture in which to reside? If I stay, then I certainly need friends, family, and my partner here with me, as well as finding locals that mesh with my priorities and worldview. I am scared, though, that I will travel further down this abyss of superficiality and decide months from now that such practices as injecting human growth hormone or melatonin II as being acceptable life choices because is so permissible here – and it plays upon my insecurities of being too skinny and pale. I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.
I suppose it comes down to this: our surroundings have a profound effect on us. What matters most is that we become conscious of what those influences are so we can choose to flow with them, or fortify against them. We all have blessed areas of our lives: people or institutions that remind us of our innate worth, beauty, intelligence, and god-like spark. We all also have areas in our lives that encourage our deepest fears and tensions to multiply. As an actor I am in an industry that can sometimes highlight these constricted and dark areas of my psyche; but the art form also has the capacity to bring light, joy, laughter, enlightenment to many individuals. Ultimately, it doesn’t so much matter where we are, so long as we are using our lives to make ourselves better than we were yesterday and make the world a better place. It’s all a journey – and we might as well enjoy the surroundings. For the vistas will change before we even notice them passing.
Namaste (The enlightened part of me bows to the enlightened part of you – inside we are one.)
Art and words by: Kaelan Strouse