Nothing New Under the Sun

Grrrrrrr. Just when I think I’ve staked out a subject claim with potential, got the pieces of philosophical query dug up from the muck, sorted them into sensible piles, and am ready to rinse and show off the true gems, I find someone else has already worked this mine!

Dammit.

I started on a series of posts about the elements of contemporary society which I believe contribute to our increased (and increasing) incidences of mental illness. I prefaced the series with a post about Bruce Springsteen. Interviews with him on his new autobiography got me thinking about the subject again. I got as far as my first post. I was quite proud of coining the term Choice-Based Paralysis. “Clever”, I thought. “Significant!” I applauded myself. “Maybe I’m really going to write something useful and worthwhile”, I thought. Then, two weeks later, WHAMMO! I found myself listening to an audiobook in which the author was merrily setting forth a bunch of the very topics on which I’d planned to write.

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The book. Photo from New York Daily News. There, I’ve cited it.

The author of the book is Mark Manson. His book, The Fine Art of Not Giving a F*ck, was in no way meant to address the correlation between contemporary society’s mores and rising levels of anxiety, depression, isolation and addiction. Really, he’s writing to get a few laughs and convey strategies for living a less stressful, generally more pleasant life. But after chuckling my way through the introduction, I was surprised to find myself nodding my head in response to the points made. Manson’s writing is irreverent, yes. But he’s also quite thorough in his examination of the things that contribute to unhappiness. Every chapter examines core beliefs and mores of the modern world that make things harder for us, rather than easier. I would laugh for a moment and then find myself thinking “Hey! That’s something I was going to address in my blog!”

Here’s an example:

The third chapter is called “You Are Not Special”. Manson writes about the pervasive cultural imperative to be extraordinary. Sure, we all know that you don’t have to be extraordinary to be loved, to live a good life, to be happy, right? Hmmmm. We say that. But do we really believe it? Think about it. What kind of people are movies made about? Extraordinary people. Books written about? Extraordinary lives and events. Report on the evening news? More extraordinary lives and events. Who is valued? Held up as an example? Honored? Revered? Used to inspire and motivate? The extraordinary.

Say “Civil Rights Movement” and everyone’s first thought is Martin Luther King. He was an extraordinary man, certainly. But alongside him there were thousands of ordinary citizens making brave choices to stand up for their rights. Thousands. Even millions. But what we hear is Martin Luther King. Our cultural myth is that he WAS the civil rights movement. If you didn’t know better, you might think he single-handedly broke down the rigid segregation of post WWII America. Can you give me the name of anyone else involved in the Civil Rights Movement? Can you name twelve individuals who sat at lunch counters, walked up to a registration table to try to vote or participated in the Million Man March years later? Activists, presidents, pundits, celebrities, inventors, artists, musicians, writers. The extraordinary life is what gets presented to us over and over, until we start to think two things:

  1. an extraordinary life is the only kind of life that is valuable
  2. everyone should be extraordinary

Nevermind that if everyone were extraordinary, then the extraordinary would become, well… ordinary! Extraordinary is what you are supposed to be if you want to even be in the running. If you want to count at all. Because extraordinary is our set point. What does that mean? Well, let’s say you received a bonus of $500. (I’m paraphrasing Manson here.) Your coworker gets a bonus of $100. You are pumped! You feel great! You must be a superstar!!!! But what if your coworker gets a bonus of $1,000? Not so pumped now, are you? In fact, you feel pretty deflated and wonder what you did to deserve such a small bonus. You also go on to think about how much you completely suck, are a loser, and can never do anything right. Same $500. It’s the surrounding atmosphere, the “set point”, that gives you the context in which to judge how well you’ve done. Our collective set point is outrageously high. Have you noticed that it’s assumed — generally by adults and certainly by teenagers — that every kid needs cell phone and a tablet or computer? Wait a minute… WHAT? Do you know how much money that is?!?!?!  That’s a thousand dollars in tech equipment per child, just so they can meet the minimum acceptable standard of “stuff” they should have. What about that working-class family, barely making it on two full-time incomes? What does it mean for those children if their parents can’t shell out thousands of dollars for status toys? The set point in contemporary society just seems to go up. I can’t imagine asking my parents for the kind of tech toys kids “require” today. But even in the 1980s, the set point was pretty high. Picture from then of typical America? Take a look at Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Recall the homes, the car, the kids, the setting. Every parent lives in a great big house, right? Every family buys their kid a car or a computer on their 16th birthday, right? And every parent has a fancy red sportster parked in the garage, just as a hobby, not even for driving. Teenagers are good-looking and confident. That’s pretty much average America. The media bombards us with these images. We begin to believe this is how everyone lives. Those images become our societal set point. Say it (or show) it enough times and it must be true, right?  I believe we saw this recently in the political strategy of our president-elect. Say something enough times and people will accept it as true — as their new set point. Yes, repugnant. But very clever.

Now look around at your place. Feeling poor? Doesn’t measure up to Cameron’s steel and glass showplace in the Illinois woods? How about HGTV’s House Hunters? Lots of really fancy homes being bought and sold? Can’t afford them? You must not be doing so well. What’s wrong with you? A fancy home is the set point. Movie star looks are the set point. Seriously, when was the last time you watched a movie or tv show that had regular-looking humans in it? I just saw the movie Arrival. Great movie. But later, it occurred to me that the PhD level linguist and the theoretical physicist from Los Alamos were AWFULLY GOOD LOOKING. I mean, I’ve been to Los Alamos. People there generally do not look like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. But our set point for physical looks IS Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. That’s all we get, day in and day out, tv, movies, advertising, etc etc etc. And if you don’t look like that, then you will never measure up. Extraordinary. Extraordinary is the set point. And if you are not extraordinary, then you are probably a loser.

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Yep. There’s that uber-handsome theoretical physicist and fine-as-porcelain professor of linguistics. Think they would have cast Forest Whitaker as the physicist? No way.

Hear it enough times and you can feel pretty shitty about yourself. See enough perfectly constructed human beings set before you and you can think that no one would value your appearance.  Hear about Oprah Winfrey enough times, take in the social impact she has, take into account her reach, her personal story of overcoming great obstacles, her book club making and breaking authors and you begin to feel that only someone like that counts in this world.

Be extraordinary. Or be nothing.

Pressure yourself to an achieve an unrealistic standard. Or accept that you are the lowest of the low and unworthy of the life, love and gifts you’ve been given.

Either way, you’re screwed.

Not exactly a healthy social construct. Think it might amplify a person’s anxiety? Can you guess how revisiting this topic over and over and over could tip someone into depression? What must an individual do to make themselves feel comforted to counteract a constant state of “I’ll never measure up”? Heroin, perhaps?

I’m only on chapter four of this book. But I’m guessing it’s more of the same from here to the end. Why should I spend time writing on topics Manson has already covered? I’d rather knit. So, if you’re interested in what I was going to say, you might want to pick up this book. It’s funny, by the way. I’ll warn you: Manson’s writing style is that of an irreverent, hipster millenial. It can be annoying. But overlook that detail and you might find the book insightful. It will challenge your assumptions. It’s well worth a read.

As for this blog? Well, I really don’t know. If I can get over the idea that someone’s already picked over this mine, I might go back with a pick and shovel and search for material miner Manson may have missed. Or, I might just say “Awwww, forget it. On to the next idea.”

I recently read some frickin’ fantastic writing on a Facebook post. It was by someone I hardly know, have no contact with now, and remember vaguely from my days in Bisbee. I remember him as an excellent writer, painter and brother. I doubt most of the world even knows he exists. He will probably never publish a book or sell a painting for more than a thousand dollars. But does that matter? At all? I mean, the guy is amazing. He’s funny, thoughtful, talented and, at least from the outside, seems to be a fiercely loyal sibling and friend. I’m sure he has many other wonderful qualities and brings them to the world every day. Over and over. But he’s not extraordinary. I’m pretty sure no one will ever make a movie about him. Not sure he’s ever won an award. Even so, I would never say this guy’s life is not important. Or worthwhile. I hope he doesn’t say it to himself. But since he’s alive in this time, in this culture, I’m guessing he has and does. Which is a shame.

Thinking of him reminds me to keep a proper perspective and to not just adopt contemporary society’s “set point”. Fuck extraordinary. I’ll take plain ol’ good.

 

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4 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. Love the posts – although don’t always get to the end. If you are looking for a book for inspiration try: the book on the taboo against knowing who you are. (Or similar) by an American/Californian bit of a cult book a few decades ago but still in print. You are right we are not special except to those who love us. But we are individuals and that is important. Maintaining our individuality in the face of overbearing pressure to conform; not just to what is considered normal but also ‘to join my cult and think like me because I am brilliant/New/rebellious etc.)

    Being yourself is not easy. But you seem to be doing good on that front.

    Enjoy 2017 despite everything stacking up in the wider world.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. What?!?! The last line is always the best part! Thanks for the heads up on the book. It sounds vaguely familiar. BTW, one of the things I love about films and tv from the UK is that they generally have normal looking people in them. Such a relief.

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  2. Did you ever see “As good as it gets”? Also, maybe I have what’s bandied around as ADHD, but I can’t be bothered to overthink much,,,,

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  3. Wow, Suz, you nailed it.
    Never thought of it as a “set point” but it makes such sense.
    I have looked around at kids and wondered how it is they can have all that expensive stuff. I had a student in school, a very average guy. He graduated from community college, got a job with the Sheriff’s Department and drove home in a big four-door truck that I could never afford. Never mind the gas it guzzles. I will keep my used Prius, thank you very much!
    Do write more about this. And finish the fucking book!

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