Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letting it Slide

Yesterday the Facebook interface changed slightly.  If my newsfeed was to be believed, the world had just ended.  My entire social network was up in arms.  This was an outrage!  How dare they?  It was as if a couple of hundred otherwise intelligent and reasonable people had been suddenly and collectively personally affronted and decided to throw a hissy fit.  Oh, there would be hell to pay.  The jig was up.  It was all over now.  Threats were being leveled.

I looked at this yesterday, as I spent the less than a minute it took me to learn the new interface, and I thought to myself, "Something is very wrong with this picture."  Obviously, I'm not going to generalize an entire behavior based upon one specific instance, but part of my thing in life is to look for patterns, and I see how what happened yesterday is a symptom of something larger.  This larger pattern is what I want to talk about.

I was standing in line at the New Hampshire Highland Games waiting for a strawberry shortcake from the bakery tent when the whipped cream machine suddenly broke on the poor woman trying to serve us. After about two minutes of waiting while she fixed it (and did quite a heroic job of it too, I might add), the line began to grumble.  "We're never going to get it," one person said.  "We've been waiting forever!" complained another woman.  Even my own father-in-law said to me "I think you're going to be waiting a while."  The service was atrocious, claimed another.  The glaring and the whining were beginning to get to the poor woman, and when I got my strawberry shortcake after about three minutes of waiting, she apologized profusely to me.  I told her I knew it wasn't her fault, thanked her for the shortcake, paid her, and left.  But that didn't seem to stop the glares and glowering coming at her from the line.  What struck me the most as I exited the line with my shortcake and began walking back to the arena, where the rest of the family was waiting for us was how unnecessary the entire exchange had been.  Minor inconveniences are a daily fact of life.  Yet there are a substantial number of us who seem to treat them as the emotional equivalent of a deep personal crisis.

That's just slightly hyperbolic, of course, but I can't help but wonder what this says about our reactions to stress, and our relative stress levels.  At every large public gathering I've attended in the past year and a half, there has been a noticeable tension in the air.  It isn't loud; it's more of an atmospheric tinge, and very subtle.  Nobody speaks of it out loud, anyway.  But it's there in the little things: having to wait in line, something you wanted being sold out, a change to the Facebook interface.  I can't go a day without seeing a post with the acronym FML ("Fuck my life") attached to what seems to me to be a relatively minor setback.  What could be driving this discrepancy between the severity of our problems and our responses?

The greater part of this seems to be about our expectations, accompanied built-in sense of dread, like any difference in outcome, or really any change at all will inevitably be bad.  The two are closely related.  Let me offer a theory.  Expectations easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  It works one of two ways.  If you expect to be disappointed, chances are you'll find a way to be disappointed in whatever happens.  Whenever human beings have a belief like that, we usually find a way to make it come true.  How could we not?  When you have a belief that you consider absolute, it doesn't matter what you experience.  Your experiences will be shaped to fit the belief and not the other way around.  But that's not the only way in which we can warp our perceptions to fit our beliefs.  Our expectations can also be too high--so unrealistically high that we can never satisfy them.  If that's the case, disappointment is inevitable and becomes self-reinforcing.

To continue the point, if there is anything Americans want more than anything these days, it's instant gratification.  Our entire culture seems to be based around it.  I'm reminded of a story sequence from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in which Calvin mails away for a beanie cap he's convinced will let him fly, but that takes 4-6 weeks to arrive.  He waits and waits and waits and waits and slowly drives himself mad waiting, only to discover when it arrives that his beanie cap won't let him fly.  We want a miracle cure, a quick fix, and we want it now.  Think about that for a second.  Think about how that expectation affects how we view change.  People take changes to the Facebook interface very strangely personally.  I was once told off and unfriended when I commented on a friend's status that his excessive ranting about what was then a relatively minor change was perhaps a bit unreasonable.  He was, essentially, a junkie who couldn't get his fix.  This instant gratification culture is a culture of chronic masturbation.  His form of masturbation had been taken away.  That really pisses people off.  Same when you're waiting in line for a strawberry shortcake and it takes you more than thirty seconds to get it.  Or you wait for a beanie cap that you think will make you fly, and you discover that the wait was all for nothing.

It doesn't have to be this way, however.  We can, if we choose, ignore these feelings and let these inconveniences and irritations slide.  It's easy to say, but not so easy in practice.  By themselves none of these little annoyances amount to much, but they add up to big trouble.  And that is something that people struggle with.  I hadn't planned to write this post until last night, but it dovetails perfectly into what I want to talk about over my next arc.  Let me finish making my case.  Then, hopefully, I can show you how to find a way out from all the negativity I see pervading almost every place and person I encounter.  It's no big thing that put us in this mess we find ourselves in.  It's lots of little things adding up.  We need to recognize it for what it is.  Only then can we fix it.

Until such a time, though, I suppose I'm going to let the public panic over a few minor changes slide, myself.  After all, it's just people being people.  It's not the end of the world.

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