Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 3: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Quick!  Summon Bruce Willis!
Maybe around the age of twelve, I started to notice that adults really like to talk about the apocalypse a lot.  That was when I first started watching a lot of adult TV (though my relationship with 90s Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network would continue for some time), and whether it was science documentaries, the news, or network dramas, everyone seemed to agree: the jig was up, the party was over, and the world as we knew it was clearly and unequivocally about to end.  Well, in a way, we're getting our wish.  But why is that?  Were we really right, and our predictions came true?  Or did this fear itself somehow cause it?  I'm going to explain why I believe the latter case is true, and how.

Mind you, the end of the world is not a concept I am necessarily hostile to.  As I struggled with my illness and inner demons over the years, it became in a way a comforting belief to keep around.  If I've learned one thing about human suffering during that time, it's that suffering is relativistic, and so while mine is probably a more dramatic example, I can't help but think that the principle is the same for a lot of people.  Explaining why is not simple, and will require a a few more pieces of evidence before I can show exactly how.  So bear with me, and I'll take you through it.  Hopefully you've read my two earlier related posts, on Classism and what I call Taking Reality For Granted.  If not, here's a brief recap: segregated as we are by class and race and cloistered away in communities populated nearly exclusively by like-minded individuals (real or online), Americans, particularly my parents' generation the Baby Boomers, suffer from errors in perception and judgment that effect how they perceive others.  In particular, material wealth is seen as the primary scale of value to society.  This principle extends outwards to errors in perception and communication that lead to social hypocrisy and an ironic lack of self-awareness in which one's beliefs effectively become the opposite of one's actions and history and the world are rewritten to fit the beliefs.  For more details feel free to peruse the individual posts, but this is what matters to my point.

Americans have been convinced they were in decline and the end is just around the corner for a long time now.  Anxiety about status and financial insecurity is largely what drives it.  Just a little while studying basic economic data can show you how income has been declining relative to the cost of living and how wealth disparity has affected it for several decades (this is a nice summary of American economic issues over the past several decades, for reference).  This combined with skyrocketing personal debt and the costs of medical care has given many people a legitimate grievance that things are not as good as they once were.  Combine this with the culture shocks of the 60s and 70s if you happen to be conservatively-minded, and you have a recipe for discontent with the way things are.  Call it deep unhappiness, even.  You can even fairly call it hopelessness.  The rationally-minded who read this are probably right about now saying "Now how can that be?  People go about their days and they seem perfectly fine."  To make that assumption is to again assume that man has no inherent nature, one of the fundamental misconceptions I've mentioned again and again as behind Baby Boomers' dysfunction.  Whether cultural, familial, or vocational, people have a lot of obligations and responsibilities in life.  We're conditioned to put these above our own happiness.  The result is that we have a lot of really unhappy, irrational people who hide their unhappiness from their conscious minds day-to-day in order to get through it.  You don't have to be an ardent Christian or an office drone to feel that way: nearly everyone does it to some degree.

But of course, that will warp your thinking and your perceptions of the world.  Now the idea of the apocalypse, whether the Evangelical Dispensationalist vision of the Rapture or the peak oil/climate change collapse conspiracy theory so popular with liberals, it's all the same.  If the world ends, or at least so permanently alters itself to be unrecognizable, BAM!--you're released from your responsibility.  Either you're up in heaven kicking it with Jesus, you're one of the smart ones living in a Utopian, if humble post-oil community, or best of all you're really and actually dead.  Thus the death wish plays itself out right under our own noses.

Oil...need sweet, delicious oil...
The media, being interested in profits above all (including public service), reflects that sentiment, as that's what the market demands.  Pundits, authors, and producers alike give us what we want, which is a narrative of a world on the brink, about to slide off into oblivion.  This process feeds back on itself, and so what you get is a feedback loop of ever-escalating anxiety and pessimism.  Liberals like to blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for causing problems in life, just as they in turn blame liberals.  The truth is that Hannity and Rush are effects, not causes.  Nobody wakes up one day and says "hey, I don't like [insert group or label here]!  Let's get rid of them!"  It unfolds organically as a reaction to experience.  Beliefs shape experiences and experiences shape beliefs.  Neither exists in a vacuum.  Baby Boomers' widespread ignorance of this is in part what drives their irrational beliefs about Millennials and the world, and greatly contributes to the social and political dysfunction in this country.

These ideas also become self-reinforcing.  If you believe the end of the world is going to happen in the near future, you're going to be looking for signs of it in order to prepare yourself.  Whether or not the world is actually going to end or not is largely irrelevant.  The logic itself is perfectly rational, it's the belief that's misguided.  You're also going to be acting as if the world is going to soon end, and that will change your behavior, which will in turn affect your experience.  So the whole thing feeds back on itself.

Now we're getting somewhere.  The Baby Boomer doomsday prophecy has become largely self-fulfilling.  If you're convinced everything is going to come crashing down around you, chances are you're going to find a way to make it happen.  Now take that principle and apply it en masse.  We've created a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy society, one in which the future isn't valued, the past is rewritten to fit the ideal of a lost golden age, and the truth--whatever that may be--is completely obscured by the belief.

This is the world our parents have handed my generation.  They have blamed everyone but themselves for it, including us.  And why would they blame themselves?  They believe they're the victims in all this. I don't know what the future holds for them, or for us.  I like to think it'll be better than the way things are now, but I'm an optimist and that's my nature.  One thing is for certain, though.  This generation gap, this irrational delusion, and this self-fulfilling prophecy did not come about by any malicious intent.  It arose as a natural response to the environment and situation in which it was created, and continued reacting to the world as it evolved.  To call Baby Boomers evil is not just wrong, it completely misses the point.  Selfish?  Maybe.  Probably.  But you have to put that selfishness in some sort of context.  It's ironic for sure, given how this played out between them and their parents back in the 60s and 70s.  But it's also unfair to blame them entirely.  This mess we're in is everybody's fault, not just theirs, and was started a long time before they contributed their little piece of it.  Likewise, it will take everyone working cooperatively to solve it.  When and how that happens, I don't know.  But in order to start, we ought to at least recognize the problem.  It's my hope that these past three posts have contributed in some way to that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 2: Taking Reality For Granted.

Our oldest and most dangerous assumption.  Now
in coffee mug form.
My last post in this series caused something of a stir on Facebook, and hopefully this one will too.  I was debating whether to work on it today or tomorrow, but then I read this article, which contained a lovely quote from a legislator in my home state openly stating that young people weren't worth minimum wage, and it seemed to me that the timing was good.

America, particularly you older Americans, you have a problem.  You think you're a lot smarter and wiser than you actually are.  I'm going to lay out exactly why and how this is.

I first became aware that my generation and our parents weren't speaking the same language through my fiancee's family.  Kari has been involved in a number of conflicts with her parents in the past few years, each stemming from a basic breakdown in communication.  It's a matter of perspective.  Neither of her parents, but her mother in particular, are very self-aware, and both have difficulty seeing past their own lives and experiences and putting themselves in someone else's shoes.  This is a difficulty I've had with my own parents, as have countless others close to my own age with their own parents.  If our grandparents were naive, our parents are something worse: overconfident.  It comes back to the spirit of the 60s and the Vietnam War, really.  Think about that dynamic.  Postwar America was a place of strong fear, which was mitigated and countered with very strong beliefs.  Think Eisenhower in the 50s.  Those beliefs were countered with other beliefs, each of them promoted as exclusive to the other and in many ways a reaction to the other.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and Watergate produced one of two belief responses, each deep and all-encompassing.  Either things had to radically change, or they had to radically change back.  This has helped to form the basis of our partisan divide over the last 40 years (in my previous post I talked about how conspicuous consumption formed another part).

The important thing here isn't the content of the ideology itself but rather how it works.  I have never known a more uncompromising group of people than the Baby Boomers.  Particularly the movement conservatives, but also the liberals, though it manifests itself in a different way.  The spirit of zero compromise is rooted in self-righteousness, which if you're even remotely familiar with the 60s and 70s and the debate over the Vietnam War, should be self-explanatory.  As with conspicuous consumption, there is nothing unnatural or illegitimate about this: it was the most effective weapon at the time.  However, like with many things over time, what was once the previous solution has now become the problem.  Let's break this down.

A good scientist and a good Buddhist know that assumptions are a dangerous thing.  Our beliefs are constructs of our mind, and do not necessarily reflect the outside reality.  That doesn't mean they're never right, only that there is the possibility that they're wrong.  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten into debates or arguments with people over politics and religion that spiraled out of control because one or both of us couldn't see past our own beliefs.  The trouble comes in assuming that you're right.  Of course, if you believe something, it could very well be right.  Or it could be wrong.  But that is only revealed through actions and experience, not words.  I call this principle Taking Reality For Granted (or TRFG, for short).  Kari's mother, for example, doesn't understand that the relative cost of living to income ratio has changed significantly for the worse since the time when she was our age.  She takes that part of reality for granted.  The New Hampshire legislator quoted in the link at the beginning took for granted that low-income workers have the option of seeking better employment should they not be offered a living wage.  They took upward mobility for granted.  There is not necessarily anything malicious about this, it's simply an error in judgment.  I've met very few truly bad people in my life.  Most in fact, had very good intentions.  They were simply either misguided or misinformed.  Yet when you Take Reality For Granted, anyone who disagrees with you instantly becomes a malicious enemy who must either be educated and failing that punished, because how could they be so wrong when the truth is so obvious?

I blame a lot of our current societal and political dysfunction on this lack of self-awareness, both individually and collectively.  When you make those kinds of assumptions and Take Reality For Granted, hypocrisy naturally follows.  Let's explore one way in which this plays out between generations, which is especially pertinent to the case at hand.
Also known as "Alcohol."

Baby Boomers love to criticize the children of others.  Every few weeks, I come across an article in some newspaper or magazine or another written by a Baby Boomer about the Millennial generation, ranting about how lazy and unprofessional they are, about how special they all think they are, how much praise they require, and what terrible workers they are.  It's the fault of their upbringing every time.  They've had an all-out assault waged on their low self-esteem, and it's permanently damaged their ability to work.  Conservatives take this a step further: devaluing us to the point of a commodity.  Liberals are more subtle, but nonetheless make it clear that we're worthless to them.  My response to this is always, well then who the hell do you think is responsible for raising them and coddling them every step in the way?  The retort is always "Not my child."  (I'm paraphrasing here), "My child is perfect in every way.  It's everyone else's child."  Which, after hearing that line from adult after adult makes me wonder, well if all your children to be perfect, then who are these mysterious "other" children I keep hearing about?  The answer, of course, is that to find the culprit they need only take a look in the mirror.  The response, and the retort, betrays the very flawed thinking that produced the prejudice in the first place.  Now, lest we make the wrong counterargument, this is a perfectly logical deduction.  It's the belief the logic is based upon that's flawed.  And not a one of them has any idea about it.  This is what I mean by a lack of self-awareness and an inability to see past one's own worldview.  Once that happens, hypocrisy naturally follows.  The trouble is, of course, when everyone suffers from that same flaw, has it reinforced through a constant  bombardment of propaganda, and only ever associates with people that completely agree, you get exactly the breakdown in discourse that we're witnessing right now in politics and society.

Can anything be done about this?  To be completely honest, I don't know.  There are several lines of evidence that would suggest a potential course of action.  For one thing, I don't know very many young people who are so uncompromising that they demonize those who disagree with them as somehow less than them.  Sure, I know uncompromising people my own age, but I haven't met one with whom I couldn't come to some sort of agreement with in a political debate, even when we're far apart on an issue.  That gives me tremendous hope.  We also seem a lot more social than our parents ever were, and we're far better at making connections than they are as well.  In fact, connecting with people seems to be the paramount priority of my generation, far more than ideological victory, which seems more and more like the highest priority of our parents.  Which is not to say that we are any less hypocrites than they are either; just about different things, and in my opinion, less destructive ways as well.  Seeking experience, with the confidence to not be frightened by it, may in fact be our greatest gift.  It is certainly ironic, as it is that very same quality our parents love to deride in us.

Along another avenue, I think there are Boomers out there (most of them, in fact) who can be nudged into more accepting and compromising positions through personal experience.  Even conservatives who know at least one openly gay person are significantly less homophobic than those who do not.  But getting that lesson to be applied to anyone outside the inner circle of a family may be more difficult.  However, I think trying is well-worth it, as the reward of a healthier and more cooperative society far outstrips the risks and the effort involved.

The danger, it seems to me, is that we become more isolated, not less.  But that pushes against the tides of long-term demographic trends, so if we do, I doubt it'll last.  It's our silence and our inaction that speak louder than whatever militant zeitgeist happens to be blaring out of Fox News or MSNBC these days.  The most dangerous belief of all is that we are powerless and have no hope.  Resignation is not the same thing as acceptance.  Nor is it true that our beliefs are self-evident.  We have to go looking for the reason why, and accept that sometimes we're wrong.  So long as we fail to account for this, our troubles will continue.  At the very least we can be a little bit more flexible about it.

I won't end this post on a note of fear, because I am neither afraid nor do I believe in using fear to make a point.  I choose instead to issue a reminder that none of us is above our humanity, and thus none of us is above our own flaws.  Nor our families, loved-ones, friends, heroes, politicians, and religious leaders.  The expectation that anyone is perfect and anything is infallible is the very worst way to Take Reality for Granted.  Use this information wisely.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Generation Gap: Part One: Classism and Conspicuous Consumption

More kitchen gadgets!  More clothes!  More DVDs!
Anything to avoid experiencing the scary outside world.
My uncle loves to spend money.  Flatscreen TVs, expensive toys, fancy cars, you name it.  His wife and son (my aunt and cousin) are accessories: items acquired for status.  Conspicuous consumption, it's called.  I recently had a conversation with a political operative wondering why young people weren't more enthused with his party.  More than half of my graduating class still lives at home because the jobs they were able to obtain with college degrees don't pay enough to afford them their own place, and on top of that, almost all of them are drowning in student loan debt.  Right-wing talk radio hosts and liberal pundits alike love to slam the very generation they raised as lazy, incompetent, and self-entitled.  My fiancee has a degree in biology and works at a sandwich shop.

Something is very wrong with this picture to me.  I am going to attempt to explain it.

I am now twenty-seven years old.  I was born in 1984, which places me firmly in the first wave of the so-called Millennial generation.  I left high school before the advent of social media and texting, but only by a hair's breadth.   However, I still feel like I am a part of that whole experience, having otherwise grown up with computers and the internet.  My father was a market executive for a succession of software companies throughout my childhood.  He was always well-versed and literate and with the times, and because of that he had a better grasp on the experience of my generation than most.  But there are many others who don't see it like he did, and it is these particular individuals which I want to write about.  It's not just about technology and privacy.  It's about a cultural attitude, a lack of self-awareness, selfishness, and a need for emotional satisfaction.  The Baby Boomers, who so loudly professed their uniqueness and how special they are, have become their parents, and that will have significant consequences for both my generation and the future of the country.

I want to address three specific issues here, and I'll list them out beforehand.  One is selfishness and self-absorption, which covers the conspicuous consumption angle.  The second is hypocrisy, which covers the relative lack of self-awareness.  The third is more subtle, and has to do with how we view technology and the future.  Call it outlook.  In order to understand our generation gap in this country, we have to understand all three.  In the interests of keeping these posts short, I'll break up each topic into its own post.  I'll address selfishness and self-absorption first.

My generation--a lot of us, at least--grew up in suburbs and exurbs.  We were raised in a kind of outward affluence that not even our parents truly knew.  We had computers from an early age, and grew up on them.  Our lives were managed; nearly every material comfort provided for us with little fuss; we would go to college and become wealthy, and most importantly of all, we were told from day one that we were special, unique, and entitled to the very best in life.  Ours was a world of safety and almost dreary shiny, squeaky-clean monotony.  We came of age in a country increasingly segregated by class and race, where automobile ownership was tantamount to existence itself, and our parents' longing for the lost days of their youth was filled with the ownership of things--stuff, material possessions, anything you could imagine.  I split my childhood between an economically-mixed outer suburb of New York City and a much more uniformly affluent and ethnically homogeneous exurb of Boston.  In the former, I was one of the wealthiest kids in town.  In the latter, if anything I was in the lower-middle tier.  My parents were especially voracious consumers of things.  My father drove luxury cars, my mother bought self-help books and various gadgets to help her relax.  Slowly, they were buying themselves into the upper class.  Spending sprees at various stores in the mall during sales were not unheard-of.  I too had bought into this game.  When the meaning of life to you is wealth and materialism, it's easy to become critical and contemptuous of the less fortunate.  After all, your only value is how much you own.  There are some--the conservatives--who opt for a direct approach to this line of thinking.  But to make this a partisan issue is to largely miss the point.  My parents were liberal, but liberal classism is nonetheless just as prevalent, if subtler.  In fact, I would argue that liberal classism is the far more dangerous of the two.  Here's how it works.

You know, for that mountain you don't live near.
Let's say you're an average suburban dweller.  Your life to you is your children, your job, your cars, your house, and the monetary values of each.  I know, I know.  You're saying to me "But Matt, that's not all there is to life.  I love my children for who they are, not what they're worth."  But is that really true?  Let's look at this mathematically.  120 years ago,  before the advent of modern medicine, it was in the best economic interests of parents to have lots of children inside the confines of marriage.  This is because before the advent of social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, the elderly were entirely dependent on their offspring to care for them in their old age.  Before the advent of modern medicine, many children died before reaching adulthood.  In addition, the relative levels of education required to earn a living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not all that high.  Thus, more children meant more income for the household through factory work or, say more help around the farm.  But in the first half of the 20th century this began to change.  Most children were surviving to adulthood.  Automation reduced the need for child labor, and the relative skill level required to earn a living wage increased substantially, to the point where children now required over a decade of schooling or more in order to find suitable work.  This changed everything.  Instead of a net financial gain, having children now became a significant investment in both time and money.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend like pregnancies are usually planned, but in the context of affluent suburban nuclear families, I think having a child means something very different than say for a young working-class mother.  You pay into your child's education through property taxes at a bare minimum, and almost always in a lot more ways than that.  You're living in a community designed to eliminate concerns about safety, access basic amenities, and healthcare.  But to assume that that eliminates human fears and insecurities is to assume that humans have no inherent nature, which would at best be extremely naive.  We're always going to find something to complain and worry about, and compare ourselves to others, and if we're not worried for our safety and basic quality of life, we're going to get crazy competitive about our relative wealth, and the way we engage in this practice is through conspicuous consumption.  Your kid, which already was a significant investment to begin with, naturally becomes a part of this too.  Self-absorption of this sort is not anyone's fault: it's an organic reaction to circumstances, and there's nothing even illegitimate about it.  But it does warp your world view, and this is where it starts to become a problem.  If the conservative position is contemptuous deceit and malice, the liberal position is one of contemptuous ignorance.  I hope the reason is clear by now, but if not, I'll spell it out.  When you're surrounded by people like you, people who aren't like you are no longer concrete and real.  They become abstractions; concepts.  Something imagined and not experienced.  Whenever experience leaves the picture and your conceptualizations are no longer grounded in reality as such, your view becomes warped.

What does this have to do with my generation?  A lot.  As the Baby Boomers age and start to retire, their views of Millennials are changing.  Their views of us, by and large (at least in the way I've just described above), were already deformed by affluence and ideology.  We are increasingly an abstraction to them--an "other" to be feared and viewed with contempt.  It really does seem sometimes as if we were just another form of status to them.  When I talk to people my own age with these kinds of backgrounds, the overwhelming view is one of disgust.  We were taught to pursue our dreams and that money doesn't matter.  And to a certain extent it doesn't, at least in my experience.  To that end we ended up exactly like our parents wanted us to, and for our trouble we are now being told that we are lazy and entitled.  We were all told that we had to go to college, and for our effort most of us have worthless degrees and many tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt in this country.  Yet we are told that it's our own damn fault, and not only that, now especially by conservative Baby Boomers that we are not entitled to the same benefits our parents are (I'm thinking of the Paul Ryan budget in particular).  What kind of message does that send to us?  It is only selfishness that leads to such thinking, selfishness brought about by an environment that encouraged an obsession with oneself for several decades running.  Instead of being valued as future innovators or a workforce, we're a target group for advertising so our parents can make even more money off of us by selling us things we don't need to put us into more debt in order to feed the finance system that pays their retirement plans.

The most ironic thing of all this, of course, is that these are exactly the same complaints the Baby Boomers had of their parents, only to an extra degree.  It is certainly ironic that in the name of wealth and the glorification of oneself, they have created exactly dystopia they imagined they lived under in the 60s.  Now history is being rewritten to suit their needs and justify their excesses.  There was a moral to the financial crisis of 2008, but it was lost in the melange of fear, blame, denial, and resentment that followed, when the bill came due for their feast.  I have tremendous faith in the youth of today that we have learned this critical lesson, if not completely than at least more than our parents.   Whether or not we have much of a world left after the Boomers are done with it remains to be seen.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Outside the Matrix

I started this blog late last year because I was searching for an answer to a very basic question: What is the truth?  Where it's taken me I don't think I could have ever fully predicted, and over the months it has evolved to become a reflection of me and how I see the world.  I think that's good.  When I started blogging, I was deeply afraid to share myself period, let alone broadcast it like this.  I haven't really promoted it, because I've spent most of the past year trying to hone my craft, to the point where reflecting myself in this way became second nature.  I think in a way, I've succeeded, and this post is proof positive.  All of this began with a few Facebook statuses, and over the years since I started that, all this has completely taken on a life of its own.  Everything I've posted here thus far has been completely true, but what I haven't shown is how it's affected all of me.  I think I really stand right now on the threshold between what I'd been working towards and something else, and so I want this post to do two things.  First, I want to fill in all the details of what I haven't shown over the past few months, and hopefully put this all into context.  Second, I want to use this post as a bridge to newer and bigger things I have planned for the blog in the future.  So, with that in mind, here goes.

I had, for most of my life, had a real problem with articulation.  Anyone knows me knows how verbal I am, so this may come as a surprise.  I've written something like eleven novel manuscripts in my life, but really they were all about only one thing.  Every work, whether it was The Academy, or any of my other long-running ideas and series (such as Emma's story, or AK's) were all attempts at articulating the same idea, one that has been with me for as long as I can remember.  They are all about freedom.

The word freedom is bandied about a lot these days, and in the past on this blog I've used the concept of the simulated world in the movie The Matrix as a metaphor for my own particular interpretation of the word.  Searching for it, I believe, is one of the most basic efforts of all life.  By now I hope that my struggles to control and manage my mental illness have been made clear what this means to me, at least on a functional level.  Just like in the movie, freedom to me is the awareness that everything around me--everything I feel, everything I think and do and see and experience is in some way an illusion, and that my craving and my clinging for that which is neither permanent nor in reality what I imagine it to be.  It's not even a state of mind: that would imply that I had somewhere to go, existentially, in order to get it.  The only path to freedom in that sense I ever found was acceptance--acceptance of the way things are right now, without trying to change anything.  Life is suffering, and then we get sick and die in the end for our efforts.  But acceptance doesn't have to and shouldn't be an ending.  That's resignation, and resignation is garbage.  Acceptance--true acceptance--is a beginning.

Two Thursdays ago, I walked out to my secret beach, at an undisclosed location in the greater Portsmouth area, determined that I was going to accept something about myself that I had been striving towards for the better part of a year.  I had a problem with validation.  There were many reasons, some of which I'll eventually touch on on this blog, and some of which are largely irrelevant at this point.  As I've come to understand, the reason why something is the way it is in my head is less important than how it works, at least as far as undoing it is concerned.  I couldn't be happy on my own.  I'm hard on myself--even still now too hard--and I have unrealistic expectations of what I can do and how quickly I can get it done.  I used to imagine an audience--mercurial, always just out of reach of the light--laughing at me, talking about me like I was a giant fraud, rejecting me.  At certain points in my life that audience may have been real, but not anymore.  I think that audience turned out to be as much a reflection in the mirror as anything else.  I feel extremely self-conscious about these things, which is why in the real heat of these moments I always try to make them public--on Twitter, which is linked to my Facebook account, which is a real and powerful tool to seek validation.  It was that self-consciousness that was the problem, and by publicly admitting it, I faced the fear and it no longer held any power over me.  It was a realization as profound as the experience was grueling.  Because of it, I have now come to the following conclusion, which holds larger implications than just my own personal betterment.

We think our problems are external to us.  If only we were rich.  If only we had that new pair of designer jeans.  If only we went on vacation.  If only our boss weren't so mean.  If only other people weren't so rude.  If only we could not be hurt.  If only our loved ones would change.  We crave.  And what we have doesn't last.  Relationships end.  Friends move away.  Elation turns right back to normalcy and habit again.  We cling.  We can't see it for what it is, because we're right down there in the cycle of it all and we don't know anything else.  But the problem is not our bosses or our loved ones, or liberals or conservatives to put this in a political context.  The problem is our craving and our clinging.  It's not the people we're fighting, it's the fighting itself.  This is what I've learned.  Now that I can see it for what it is, I feel to some extent freed from it.  Not totally, mind you.  But closer than I have in a long time.  My imaginary audience went away.  I stopped craving validation because I stopped needing it.  As the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism says: eliminate the craving, eliminate the suffering.  I didn't truly understand it until that night on the beach, but I think I do now.

All of the people I've written about thus far are real, and all have helped me reach this conclusion in their own way.  This is the end of one chapter in my life and the beginning of a new one, and thus the end of one phase of this story and a new beginning.  What I'm going to get into next is both more difficult and more complicated, and I have every intention of giving every nuance and detail its fair dues.  Writing this has been tremendously helpful, and I hope it will continue to do so.  If I understand freedom now, at least what it means to me, all the better.  If I don't--well, at least I know a good way of seeking it out.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Illusion of Cool

Of course, no one is as cool as Snoopy.
First and foremost, apologies for the long wait before this post.  When I began this arc last week, I had a very specific idea in mind with what I wanted to do with it.  It has turned into something very different.  I think I would do best to introduce this post by talking a little bit about why I have this blog.  I was at a meeting of other local writers, and the subject of memoirs came up between me, a friend, and a new woman who had only been to one or two of these gatherings.  The woman wanted to write a memoir about surviving emotional abuse.  She was very focused on the marketability of the book, as if her suffering was a product to be packaged and sold--a commodity like any other.  It made me realize, in the heat of the conversation, that that isn't what this blog means to me at all.  I may appreciate feedback and take comfort in the knowledge that people care what I have to say, but ultimately that isn't why I started blogging about my life.  I blog about my life for myself, to try and put my demons to rest.  What others may think about it is at best secondary, and worst irrelevant.  This is to be key as I go about what was supposed to be a follow-up post.

Talking about Suzie as I did last week was actually very difficult, and it made me realize that talking about Emily the Rock Star was going to be even more difficult.  Both young women were something of a riddle to me-- a Zen koan that seemed to hold the key towards overcoming the latest obstacle in my path.  I'm more convinced than ever this is true, and after several days of intensive meditation on the beach, I feel both like I've put Suzie to rest, and I feel ready to talk a little bit about Emily.

Emily was cool.   Emily was the coolest teenager who ever lived.  Emily is the embodiment of hip: a rock star, someone with their finger on the pulse of the here and now, who knows how to find whatever's happening and be a part of it.  I knew her in high school, and like Suzie, I found myself irresistibly attracted to her.  Like Suzie, that attraction was rejected, and the escalating fallout actually led to me being kicked out of the private school Emily and I both attended.  Emily was everything I was not: confident, self-assured, secure, and most importantly of all, she wore vinyl pants.  I very badly wanted to wear vinyl pants in high school (even today I own two pairs): they were one of the most distilled expressions of who I was in clothing form.  That time period was a time of immense struggling with my identity for me, particularly with my parents over how I wanted to look.  I wanted to dye my hair, I wanted to grow my hair long, I wanted to wear shock rock clothes, makeup, be someone totally unrecognizable.  But my parents wouldn't allow it, I was heavy from the medication I was on, and my image of myself was completely distorted from how it actually was.  (I do regret never wearing black metal corpse paint in public before I grew my beard, but I suppose as far as regrets go, that is a relatively minor one).  Emily was, in that respect, a representation of all I wanted to be but couldn't.  She also professed to be a lesbian, which of course only compounded my fascination and attraction.  It was all I could do just to keep it together day to day back then.  Of course things went south quickly.

Interestingly, however, and unlike Suzie, Emily and I reconnected a year or two ago via Facebook.  Imagine my surprise when we friended each other that not only were there no hard feelings for what happened between us, there was total forgiveness (and in fact, she claims, she had completely forgotten about it).  Talk about history being a matter of perspective.  Except now the relationship was different.  I was in my 20s, independent, and had begun to piece together my own identity.  I was, in some strange way, as cool as her, and she regarded me as such.  I cannot tell you how surreal an experience it was to suddenly have validation from the very object of cool that had previously rejected me.  But something was still wrong.  It was more than that.  Something about me needed her validation.  Now I'd had it once.  I needed it more.  It was as if nothing had changed.

This leads me to another one of the paradoxes of writing this blog.  Emily and I are still friends.  I have a great deal of respect for her, but in order for me to continue and explain the solution to her koan, I have to in some way talk about her flaws.  I thought long and hard about how I wanted to do this, because she is both a very kind, loving, intelligent person, and someone whose opinions I still value.  So perhaps rather than necessarily talk about her, it would be best for me to talk about my reactions to her.  After all, this is a post about how I overcame my need for external validation (if you hadn't guessed it already).  I can't very well put her down to bring myself up.  So let me instead talk a little bit about myself, and let me show you how she reacted.

One of the ways in which I seek validation the most is through sharing my music.  I have seldom had someone in my life who shared my musical tastes, and that made me feel very insecure about it.  I did this with a lot of people, but given that Emily herself is a bass player in a rock band, she especially felt like an authority on it.  But one of the things that frustrated me about that whole process with her is that she oddly bluntly rejected my musical inclinations.  I eventually came to understand that that really boiled down to a difference of opinion in vocal styles.  But for someone who takes things to heart, opinions like that are often misunderstood for objective truth.  I was looking for her to praise my prog rock along some sort of objective scale of "goodness," whatever that means.  What I got instead was pretty much all you'll ever get when you compare subjective art forms, which was her opinion.  The two are very different things.  She was always judgmental in an odd way, and it wasn't until I captured the dynamic in action that I began to get a hint of how it worked, and how my perspective was wrong.

I tend to make a natural assumption that there's always two levels to conversation.  The first is the surface, which is the literal content of the topic and discussion.  Bobby Eckstein, my brilliant counseling professor at UNH likes to call the other, deeper part "process."  Process is a lot like the part of the iceberg that's underneath the water: the meaning, the underlying explanation; substance.  By assuming that there is Process to everything I talk about to everyone, I had unwittingly been seeing and reacting to something that wasn't there.  Two clues from Emily led me to figure it out.

Emily occasionally blogs through Facebook's notes system, and one particular one caught my eye. She was complaining about the neighborhood in Philadelphia in which lives, how it hadn't gentrified yet, how she had to travel a long distance to be at anything "happening."  I don't know what in particular about it seemed so off to me.  It only made sense if you assumed she was thinking literally--like her words themselves were the actual meaning, and nothing more.  This is, I believe, the essence of her "coolness."  I'll explain.  A few days later, I had another conversation with her, in which I said something (what exactly I forget), that essentially had two different meanings depending on whether you were listening for surface or process.  I had meant it as the latter, but she misinterpreted it as the former.  A few more minutes of conversation and it became abundantly clear that there was not even an awareness of the process content of that line.  Though it took me a little while, herein lay the answer to the riddle.

There's one of two ways to look at this.  Which of those Emily actually is I don't really know, and it's kind of irrelevant to my point.  "Cool" in the sense that I'm referring to, is a surface feature.  One can obsessively try to find "cool" and seek endless validation for it, and one can even be quite successful at obtaining it (*cough*hipsters*cough*).  But there is another option, and in my opinion it's the better one.  One can simply disregard the need for surface-level validation.  Both techniques produce a superficially similar result, but in reality the two are worlds apart.  One makes you look confident.  The other makes you actually confident.  Once I'd brought myself to that point, it was a relatively straightforward decision: instead of doing what I think people want me to do in order to feel validated, why don't I do things that I like and validate myself instead?

My my, what a deceptively simple proposition.

When I realized that, late one night on the beach, deep in meditation, something incredible happened.  The craving ceased.  I had spent two years trying to resolve a conflict about myself.  The truth is, there was no conflict.  Believing there was a conflict was what created the conflict, and it necessitated taking it this far in order to see it.  That to me, ultimately, is Emily's greatest gift to me.  Then things started to come together.  Big things.  We're all trapped in a prison of our own design.  All we have to do to escape is walk right out the door.

Just like that, release.

Now I understand.  The rest is relatively straightforward.  I really hope others can read this and understand what I mean, because I think the meaning I've found here from this is more essential than all the others.  We all seek emotional satisfaction, but it's the craving itself that's the problem, not what we imagine satisfying our emotions will solve.  So there you have it.  Hopefully you can take away something from this.  I will remember this as one of the greatest things I've ever done.