Jesus Is Out -- Anthony Robbins Is In
I have seen the American messiah, and he has teeth like a horse. Giant, picket-fence teeth. His hair is combed in the shape of a shining helmet. No strand is out of place. He wears a dark suit and starched white shirt. When he preaches, people scream and are lifted up; they leap from their seats and shake their fists in the air. In this way, the messiah's disciples demonstrate one of the top virtues of American spirituality: exuberance.The messiah is Anthony Robbins, the late-night infomercial king. Until I saw Robbins perform live late last year, I considered him an opportunistic geek who foisted tapes, books, and his hucksterish ideology upon an insomniac public. Now, I think he, like Jesus, is a genius. With a Bible of his own, Robbins pushes super-positive slogans to help modern spiritual pilgrims thrive. I didn't bargain on being so affected by Robbins' charisma, nor did I expect, as a result of watching his performance, that I would feel compelled to reconnect with my aggressively happy family or to re-examine my intense cynicism toward positive thinking.I mean, I had come to believe that we as a culture were bastardizing and slanting our language, and thus our world view, into ever-exaggerated and simplistic models. We were establishing cliched formulas for living -- eating super meals, watching "the funniest, most entertaining movies of the year," traveling to "new worlds," and driving "pieces of heaven." And that was my problem. See, in a super-positive world, there is no time to dwell on issues like homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, or anything else that might get a person down. The effect is similar to putting vinyl siding over a house that's structurally falling apart -- the flaws are hidden. And who am I to say? Though I can't keep myself from seeing the decrepit framework of the house, perhaps it's simply a belief in the integrity of the structure (even if it's false) that holds the house up.What I'm saying is that spiritual exuberance is a fundamental ... no, an essential American trait that includes, and fiercely protects, the will to ignore or demonize anything distasteful or unexplainable. And anyone who wants to be a success in this country -- and by that I mean a full participant in the stubborn, noxious, and irresistible dream of American stardom and prosperity -- must adhere to, or at least pretend at, exuberance. Even if you never rise above a mediocre job, turning the same burger on the only grill in the two-tavern town of your nightmare, you are still expected to smile.Exuberance is more central to modern American spirituality than the morose and suffering specter of a dying savior, whom no one hell-bent on success could ever follow. Those who follow Jesus do so because he is the one place in the raised, high-roof-beamed church of the heart where the unspeakable darkness takes a body, a body to hang on the wall, to turn away from. He's the keeper of our shadows -- but otherwise a loser as a role model. No messiah today would let himself be strung up on a cross to save the world. He would say, "You're the life raft. Why don't you save yourself?" He would speak our common language, which is at this point an amalgamation of advertising, psycho-technology, and business terms. A new savior would preach money, megabytes, investment, efficiency.That's why I think Robbins is such an appropriate choice. Robbins would give a beggar a buck and one of his souped-up affirmations (which he calls "incantations"), like "I can have whatever I ask for." He wouldn't try to heal a broken man, because that would be crossing the line, a depletion of Robbins' exponential self. Robbins is, as is proper, a cheerleader.It was when Robbins beckoned the audience members to show him their highest level of enthusiasm that I had the epiphany. People were screaming at the top of their lungs, pumped up into a kind of muscular ecstasy. But for me, it was all wrong. I was out of whack within the context of this mass spiritual rally. I felt like a misfit. The sensation took me back. Years.I felt the same rift when I was a kid, living in sunny coastal California. My parents were both salespeople who believed in patriotism and positivity. They pushed Dale Carnegie books, Good Morning America, and Reader's Digest on their kids. Although my parents' professed religion was Catholicism, they never coached us to follow Him, fasting into deserts of parched compassion. They wanted us to model our lives on Ronald Reagan's. Reagan was a handsome rising star in the political sky then. He had a radio commentary show that came on every morning. At breakfast, my dad would turn up the volume and announce, "Listen. This guy is going to change the world."My high-strung, chain-smoking dad had other spiritual lessons to impart. One evening, he walked into my bedroom, where I was holed up reading Lives of the Saints. He grabbed it out of my hands, threw it in the trash, and demanded that I follow him to the backyard. It was early October. My sister, Sue, and her squadron of seven cheerleader friends were practicing a routine to the Hawaii Five-O theme song. "Sit here and learn something," my father said, pointing to a lawn chair. "You need to watch your sister. She's cute. She's bubbly. Girls are meant to be bubbly. See how much fun they're having?"Of course they were all smiling, full of purpose and charisma. But I also knew that Sue threw up hours before every sporting event, and that her basketball-star boyfriend was a controlling asshole, so I wasn't convinced that smiling and happiness were intimately connected. My father went into the house, grabbed a triple gin and tonic prepared by my ever-perky mother, and came back out to sit beside me.He tapped the metal leg of his chair with his U.S. Army ring, humming along with the Hawaii Five-O song. He also seemed to be intently watching the cheerleaders' breasts, studying their long legs. "Aren't they great?" He leaned over and put his big hand over mine. What I learned, and refused, that afternoon, was the secret to success: You have to try to look hyper-positive on the surface, regardless of what you might be feeling.Back in my bedroom, a sanguine Christ was hanging above the door, promoting... what? Seemingly the opposite of high kicks, splits, and tiger yells. I got lost between the polarized symbols -- Christ and pom-poms, loincloths and bumble-bee-colored miniskirts. I rejected exuberance as stupid, impossible, even hateful.Now I see my error. If I had only accepted at that early age that success, spirituality, and exuberance were all compatible, I wouldn't have had to struggle with the conflict. Christ could carry pom-poms. My sister could be strung-out in her short skirt, and my dad would continue humming. I also understand now that Sue played a vital cultural role. She was a priestess who, through routines and rituals, served to protect the shining objects and dreams of the middle class. Out on the football field, guys threw the sphere of the future, the economy ball, wrapped in leather and hand-sewn, while Sue cheered "V" for virility, vitality, and victory. She didn't have a clue what was going on in the game. That wasn't her job.At Tony Robbins' performance, I saw my sister's face, the faces of all of my family, repeated in the faces that surrounded me. There were teachers, secretaries, RV-driving retirees with permanent tans, salespeople, and divorcees. Hard workers whose dreams had never quite turned out as envisioned. People who wanted what America had promised them: a Cadillac, a facelift. Something to show for the monotony and pain.Robbins' audience mirrors the kind of crowd you might see in Las Vegas. It makes sense. Vegas is the American mecca for the practice of exuberance. It's the falling-down house with the palace facade, a city of fragile hope swirling through prisms of neon tubes, encircled by insatiable darkness. People go to Vegas hoping to transcend boredom and daily hardship, to feel the vibrancy of dreams, to rub up against glamour, hoping it will stick like magic sand to their skin. Vegas was built in the same spirit in which cathedrals were once constructed: to make physical the spiritual urges and ambitions of a culture. Most of us lose more than we win in Vegas. But that truth is veiled under the sequined dress of exuberance. And we are seduced again and again. We yell out when we win, yell out when someone like Anthony Robbins beckons -- just to keep the cold snakes, bankruptcy, and pestilence from creeping too close.