Friday, July 8, 2011

Feeling Special

When I get right down to it, all Mike ever wanted was to feel special.  Special is a very, well, special word in our society these days.  From pop songs to self-help books, individual conversations I've had, and my own introspection, it's a very charged subject, and a very emotional one as well.  This guy certainly seems to think so.  I had originally planned this post to talk about Mike and his relationship with partisan talk shows, but as my week has progressed, I find this post has evolved into something a little bit more.  I had a friend link me that particular video, very excited about its message.  There is nothing illegitimate about it, certainly.  However, if self-esteem is limited to feel-good catchphrases and mix-and-match prepackaged identifiers, it is also missing the point.  Self-acceptance without introspection and self-reflection is ultimately meaningless, and potentially dangerous.  So consider this post to be about two things: a post about self-esteem, and a response to how Mike formed his identity.

I dislike any and all philosophies and intellectual movements that were born out of the 1960s for a very specific reason.  In the 1960s, it was very popular to believe that mankind had no inherent nature: that we were all essentially blank slates that life could mold into whatever we wanted.  I believe that that concept is fundamentally flawed.  As any keen observer would note from the past 30 years of our history, mankind does have a very definite innate nature, and that nature often comes into conflict with the civilization we have built.  Certainly, though, it would also be unfair to dismiss this belief outright without first putting it into context.  The previous model had been the other extreme: biological determinism, which gaves rise to eugenics and such horrors as the Holocaust.  The 1950s and early 60s were also the era of Dr. Spock and Carl Rogers, who emphasized nurture over nature, and it was perfectly reasonable to theorize about the other end of the nature/nurture continuum.  The only mistake was to take it too far.  Reality is very seldom one extreme or the other.  It's almost always somewhere in-between or failing that some combination of the two.  But the idea that man is without an inherent nature is also a very dangerous concept -- equally dangerous to the model that it replaced.  Here's why.  If man has no nature, then fact becomes completely subjective.  No one piece of evidence can ever be considered "truth" to the eye of a believer, because there is no basis of measuring it against anything else.  If that's the case, then evidence and proof themselves become meaningless as concepts: it is simply whatever you believe.  And if we humans are good at anything, we'll believe anything we like so long as it validates us and feels good if we get the chance.

Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.  Despite initially conferring some significant benefits (civil rights, the sexual revolution, women's rights, etc), it also created many of the forms of denialism we now suffer from in our society (science denialism -- specifically climate change denial, vaccine denial, the organic food movement; economic denialism -- modern conservatism's fetishistic obsession with marginal tax rates over all else; and social denialism -- the Evangelical obsession with sexual morality).  And before you accuse me of making this a political argument, this is a problem that cuts across all spheres of political orientation, though I will concede that I believe it is stronger in some than in others.

This makes Mike a fascinating case study.  Mike wore the mantle of "conservative" like a magic cloak: at once a suit of armor and a protective sword with which he could face the world.  Mike however was not a Christian.  Far from it, in fact.  He was an avowed atheist and a self-proclaimed proponent of science.  The science he believed in, however, was completely beholden to the ideology of his conservatism.  Thus, while he blogged on Facebook about Mars rovers and astronomy, homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, and carbon dioxide was not a greenhouse gas.  If humans are good at another thing, it's selectively ignoring the evidence that faces them to support their beliefs.  This is a real problem.  In order to fully explain it, let's turn our attention back to that video at the top of the post.

I am often praised as being "special" or "unique" or "gifted," etc.  However, I try to take all of these labels with a grain of salt.  I did not always, and I wrapped myself up in them just as Mike wore his conservatism.  So let's follow that logic to its conclusion.  I'm special.  All throughout my childhood I was told that I was going to go on and do great things, like cure cancer or invent a quantum computer.  I still might, but sufficed to say, it hasn't happened yet.  But I'm special.  I just have to cure cancer or invent a quantum computer.  I just have to write a book and get it published.  So what happens when I don't?  Mike was very concerned about this, at least as concerned as I have been at various stages in my life.  But what exactly is success?  Can we even quantify it?  Or define it, for that matter?  If it's a subjective measure, one of two things will happen: either we'll meet our goal (however realistic or unrealistic) and then after the initial high wears off we'll go right back to wanting bigger or brighter things.  That is, unless we fail, in which case we feel incredibly disappointed.  Our disappointment either leaves us bitter, or we counter it by coming up with reasons why, all of which seem only to self-validate us and miss the point.  After all, we deserved it.  The logic begins to break down.  The truth of the matter is, there is nothing that dictates something HAS to happen, at least as far as human life is concerned.  We're born, we grow old, we get sick, and we die.  These are the only certainties in life.  We are beholden to a biological body and a brain that was designed to be a hunter-gatherer, and it trips us up.  So you can call yourself special.  What does it get you?  Just a false expectation.

Now you're probably saying to yourself "Oh, now he's being one of those negative 'get over yourselves' cynics."  That would be true if I were then going on to say that that meant we shouldn't have hopes and dreams, and aspire to greatness.  You'll notice I very carefully did not.  I might become world-famous.  I might not.  Disconnecting yourself from the need allows you to want all you desire.  But there's no expectation or subsequent disappointment or letdown.  Things are what they are, for better or worse.  Really whether you're a conservative, a Christian, a hippie, a Buddhist, old, young, one or more or all of these things, the principle is the same.  Self-acceptance is perhaps the most deceptively simple idea mankind ever came up with.  What good is belief if you can't question it?  What good is self-esteem if you don't truly know yourself?  You'll fall right back into those two traps again and again.

I suppose then that this was Mike's truly fatal flaw.  He couldn't question himself.  There is a lot of talk of people being irrational these days.  I don't think that's entirely accurate.  Most people are perfectly rational on a functional level given what they know.  However, many people are either uninformed or worse yet, misinformed.  Logic and reason are only as good as the evidence that supports them.  But neither is the solution to throw logic out the window.  We make the best decisions we can based upon the information available to us.  Humans crave certainty, but there is very little to go around, save for birth, ageing, sickness, and death.  These are not very palatable for most of us.  So we search for deep and concrete meaning everywhere we look.  This produces both tremendous good and tremendous damage.  I can't label it wrong, because the good and the bad are two sides of the same coin.  One could not exist without the other.  So it becomes the central paradox of life: we were meant to search, but the end of the search is the realization and acceptance that there's nothing to search for.  Most people die still desperately searching.  We do great things in the name of this search, and commit terrible crimes.  The search is who we are.  But like with everything, there's an upside and a downside.

So to bring this back to the beginning, are we special?  Well, if we are, so is everyone else.  But if everyone is special, what does special mean, exactly?  We wear our identities as a way of feeling unique, but if everyone is unique, then we're essentially all the same.  I personally prefer to avoid the argument altogether.  I am what I am.  Trying to assign a label or an expectation to myself only hurt me in the end, and hurt a lot of other people too in the process.  You have to search for a very long time to figure that out.  It can't be taught.  So in conclusion, I'd say keep searching.  It's the journey that makes our lives meaningful.  But try to remember how the search ends, and keep it in mind.  Maybe you won't get what you want, but you'll feel better in the end.

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