[Epistemic status: This piece serves as a vivid look at the dark underbelly of America. In functioning as such, it should be noted that the piece doesn’t address the ways in which modern America is also a techno-wonderland of astounding possibility and opportunity, for those who are wise/skillful enough to transcend its traps. The modern world is simultaneously a dystopia and utopia, depending on your reality-tunnel. This piece illuminates its dystopian aspects.]
When “first world problems” are actually symptoms of a deeply dysfunctional culture and society.
Today a person informed me that a good friend of mine is feeling suicidal. The same person told me that said suicidal friend should “grow up and quit feeling sorry for herself.”
Textbook American answer, eh? “Be an adult.” “Grow the hell up.” “Make something of yourself.” “You need to work harder.”
These are the sorts of things that American culture tells you during your totally disorienting and probably depressing formative years (from maybe 17-23). Or, more aptly, these are the sorts of excuses American culture makes in order to not have to care about those it has oppressed, dehumanized, and forgotten. America simply blames individuals—for not being “mature” enough, or being too “lazy” to “get their shit together”—for the condition in which they find themselves. “It’s your own dumb fault,” we like to say.
This way of thinking is so deeply embedded in our culture that few people stop to consider where it comes from or to consider the ways in which it might not actually be a person’s fault that they are “failing” within a system that is in many ways best-suited to destroy them or turn them into an anxious, guilt-ridden, over-worked “go-getter” who will stop at nothing for a buck, a bit of prestige, and a sense that others approve of them.
I literally cannot think of a single young, sensitive, intelligent person in the US who isn’t carrying around a significant amount of psychological baggage from trying to navigate our sociocultural labyrinth of contradictory and insidious messages/structures. As Josh Ellis of Zenarchery memorably put it: “Everyone I know is brokenhearted.”
Young Americans (Gen-Y-ers or thereabouts) were born into a culture that is paradoxically trying to cling to the moral tenets of yesteryear (sin-obsessed Judeo-Christian values) while showering its citizenry in media that glamorizes and fetishizes imprudent sex, party culture, “gangster” culture, and gun violence.
Most of us were raised to believe that we are inherently sinful creatures who must apologize profusely to a God that is always watching us, lest we be cast for eternity into an inferno of hideous torture and pain. We must obey God’s “commandments” precisely, or we are loathsome sinners who are going to rot for eternity in Hades. In other words, one strain of American culture teaches us, whether through religious or secular belief structures, to constantly monitor and restrict our own behavior in order to be “good” people.
Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus is on TV having sex with a wrecking ball; and on the next channel a shiny American movie glorifies guns and violent, greedy men; and blasting from the background speakers is some pop artist contracted for big bucks to sing about rampant and irresponsible drug use, violence, and the objectification of women. These sorts of media are representative of an entirely different strain of American culture—one which seems incessantly to urge: “Yes, do it. Do whatever you want. Seek as much pleasure as possible, indulge your every impulse.” See the inherent contradiction here?
And then when people inevitably do indulge impulses and experiment with unsafe sex, hard drugs, and violence (as the media implicitly encouraged them to, and/or as they observed others doing) and make mistakes, we don’t offer sincere understanding or rehabilitation or admit that their unseemly behavior is inseparable from an insane culture. No, we call them “bad” kids or “bad” people. We say they haven’t “worked hard enough,” or worse, we lock them up in prisons (even for trivial, victimless crimes like drug possession) that aggravate/dehumanize rather than heal. This insistence on total individual responsibility is also a remnant of America’s Judeo-Christian foundations—it comforts people to believe that “bad things happen to bad people” or that “everyone is responsible for their own actions” (maybe true in a sense, but far too simplistic) because that gives said people the opportunity to believe that they are “good” people who “deserve” their spot in heaven or their place in society. But this ideology is little more than a flimsy justification for judging and condemning people endlessly for indulging the sorts of activities that are quite obviously portrayed in American pop culture as The Best Shit Ever.
And that’s really just the beginning of the story. Making people feel guilty and sub-human for their (culturally encouraged) self-destructive behavior is already messed up, but then there’s the matter of the utterly harmless things that a lot of us do regularly but feel vaguely guilty about—e.g. masturbating, smoking cannabis, having responsible (heterosexual or homosexual) sex, having inappropriate intrusive thoughts, etc.—because we were conditioned to see them as taboo. There are so many harmless things portrayed as “evil” or “taboo” in American culture that it’s no wonder everyone needs a therapist and an SSRI prescription—among other things, we’re all experiencing the neurotic aftermath of being convinced that many totally innocuous aspects of the human experience are the things of “Satan,” and that if we mess around with them, it’s our “own fault” and we’re “bad,” rotten, contemptible sinners.
So we’re given contradictory messages; we invariably hurt ourselves and are told its our fault; we judge each other constantly; and most of us feel guilty for things we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about. “Cool!” “America is awesome!” “But wait! There’s more!” Let’s not forget that the feelings of guilt and inadequacy that result from the taboos of American culture are fueled/layered all the more by the way in which American culture turns everything into a competition, worships its winners, and laughs at its losers. It should be noted that some sort of competition is entailed in a capitalist economic system, but it seems that the competition in the states is exacerbated to ferocious extremes by our public school system, advertisements, consumerist signaling games (“I bought this to show you that I’m better than you!”), pop culture, and everyday language.
From our earliest years, so many of us are taught the importance of “winning,” of “beating the other guy,” of “being the best,” of getting the “top score,” etc. Our principal national pastimes are sporting events over which people go absolutely wacky cheering for someone to “win” and someone to “lose.” Even our schools—our institutions of higher education—proudly display fierce anthropomorphic animals or angry marginalized peoples as mascots—icons of war-like competition that are somehow supposed to positively represent the institution to the international community. This is how deeply embedded competition—and the belief that some people are doomed to be “losers”—is in our culture.
This deeply engrained assumption naturally leads to a mass tendency to treat life itself as a competition. To treat society as one big game of King of the Hill in which some of us are “good” at the game and some of us suck, and the people who are “good” get the big bucks and big respect and throw the shitty people to the bottom of the hill and chuckle mockingly at them from the top. Competition metaphors abound in our culture. What’s your current life “goal”? Is he going to “make the cut”? What’s your next “milestone”? All my life I was conditioned to think perpetually about the next test, the next school year, the next birthday milestone, the next level (middle school, high school, university, employment, retirement, etc.). We’re so utterly conditioned to be thinking constantly about our next accomplishment or next strategy in this bizarre, farcical game that most of us can’t sit still for five minutes and just soak in a sunset.
Even when we all but drop out of society and travel/live in Asia for 16 months (as I’ve just done), we still deal with that distinct American restlessness—that feeling that there’s something we should be doing, some race we should be running, some pursuit we should be furthering (if you know a reliable way out of this feeling, please tell me). Many of us succumb to this feeling and become “workaholics,” (ironic how addiction to work is codified in a way that nods at America’s other age-old addiction: alcoholism) spending our lives chasing desperately after that next job or promotion or paycheck, hardly realizing that all the while we’re living in a state of nebulous desperation and padding somebody else’s pockets. And we never get there. Someone is always “beating” us. We never manage to “keep up with the Joneses.”
This obsession with work for work’s sake, or with work as merely a means to Success and Propriety (as narrowly defined by one’s culture), is also rooted in Judeo-Christian values (read about the “Protestant work ethic“). It has been entrenched all the more by our factory-like, pitcher-cup model of education—a system that dictates that we spend fifteen years disciplining ourselves to memorize the “right answers” (culturally biased “facts” [dispensed by supposedly all-knowing teachers] that end up being mostly useless to us) in pursuit of the next grade or the next achievement (and if kids “can’t focus” on this elaborate series of tasks, we just feed them ADHD meds so they can be more efficient).
And as we navigate this system, we are constantly informed of how we’re falling short—of the answers we got wrong, of the tests we failed, of the classes or colleges we didn’t get into. This gives rise to a culture of perfectionism in which we’re all trying so desperately to “get it right” (or worse, deciding to stop caring about anything because school feels like bullshit) and to avoid mistakes that most of us don’t do a single risky or original or unorthodox or self-expressive thing. We buy into the menial work, go the “safe” route—the secure job, the mortgage, the kids, the wife—that classic, beckoning, idyllic-seeming American dream. (Never mind the fact that if you happen to be born poor [like tens of millions of Americans], even this “dream” is a largely unrealistic aim, due to institutionalized discrimination against the poor; a cycle of poverty, gang/domestic violence, and drug abuse in poor neighborhoods; malnutrition due to eating the unreal, processed foods that constitute 90% of foodstuffs sold stateside; and the vast, ever-expanding income gap.)
It’s hard not to give in and chase this pre-fabricated “dream” because of ideological conditioning, economic pressures, and because, as I’ve said (but this point deserves more attention), we judge the ever-living fuck out of each other, making it socially calamitous (and guilt-producing; once one deviates, there’s a palpable sense that one has let someone down) to deviate from the norm. “You’re not going to believe who Joyce had sex with.” “Guess where Melvin is thinking of moving.” “Did you hear what Elmo said to Shauna?” We gossip ceaselessly. And we make infinite unfair assumptions about people based on surface-level characteristics. We call people “gothic,” “scrody,” “slutty,” “fat,” “old,” “nerdy,” “bitchy,” “douchey,” “weird,” “freak,” and countless other shitty labels that come with a whole set of negative connotations—that the person doesn’t belong, is to be avoided, is somehow inferior in quality, is of a lower socioeconomic class, a different race, a different gender, a different sexual orientation, etc. Why do we do this? Because we’ve got to endlessly prove to ourselves that We—Oh! High and mighty Us!—are most certainly not that loser. We are “winners.” We have to be. We were always told to be. If we’re not better than someone else—if there isn’t some scapegoat to look down upon and blame for the “problems of America”—we lose our sense of identity. For the same reason, we throw on that absurd and totally unfounded American brand of jingoism and make implicitly discriminatory claims about how we are the “greatest country in the world.”
This is what most of our parents did, after all—put America on a pedestal, gossiped about and secretly defamed their family members, “friends,” and neighbors. And this is what inescapably surrounded us in American high schools—those steaming cesspools of cliquiness, exclusion, hate-speech, and alienation—and what bombarded us from the TV screen in the form of shows about some kind of drama or conflict between people who supposedly care for each other. From every direction: judging people and labeling people and fighting with people is the American way! Divisiveness. Deeply embedded divisiveness. And this ends up hurting some people? Uh, yeah. And some of us who’ve seen through this troubling ruse deal with a peculiar type of guilt (on top of those other types of guilt I mentioned earlier!)—the guilt we feel when we auto-label someone based on surface-level characteristics or arbitrary standards of conduct that we were taught to care about. We still carry around these judgmental inner monologues (they’ve been all but programmed into our brain-CPU) even after we’ve rejected them as decidedly at-odds with reality, so we have to be vigilant in quelling our own impulses to reduce others to dehumanizing labels (as we were taught to).
And as if all of this weren’t hellish enough, there’s also the atmosphere of artificiality that results from the whole thing. Because so many aspects of the human experience are filed away as “taboo” and because we know there are so many ways of acting and being that will lead to our being judged mercilessly by our peers, we censor our personalities. We edit and filter ourselves to avoid saying or doing anything that might attract negative attention. We don’t admit our real emotions because it seems like “pussy shit” (note the problematic association of female genitalia with weakness/inferiority) to do so, and we need to be “tough.” We slap on that quintessential American faux-charisma, make sure to deliver a firm handshake, smile, and discuss the same old grocery list of topics that are widely understood (though no one ever really talks about this) as “safe” and uncontroversial. This cycle of vapid, inauthentic social interaction only reinforces our ambiguous sense of something dissonant that we can’t quite place and of something unfulfilled in ourselves.
And just when you think that’s all, people are constantly trying to sell us things, to the point where we begin to construct our identities and the identities of others primarily based on what products we/they purchase (this is great for the people trying to sell us trivial garbage). Advertisements are everywhere (yes, even on this website, I need to eat too!), and many of them function by showing us unreal, perpetually happy, eerily perky people and implying that we too can find “happiness” (equated with constant and eternal bliss rather than an approach to inevitable vicissitudes) like these people if we just trade hours of our lives for some “amazing” (insert hyperbolic adjective here) new product. They implicitly let us know how unhip, unsexy, overweight, ugly, and shitty we are and how, “for just 19.95!,” their product just so happens to contain the perfect, magical solution for all of our unhip-ness, unsexy-ness, shittiness, etc. But then the products don’t contain that, and we’re trapped in a cycle of being made to feel inadequate, buying things that don’t help, still feeling inadequate, ad infinitum. And the ubiquity of these manipulative signals only furthers a sense of something totally cold and simulated that lurks all around.
“It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
David Foster Wallace
That was ranti-ish, but hopefully I’ve at least sketched the problem—or rather, the network of problems that lead to cyclic feelings of guilt and inadequacy (if not death, disease, or imprisonment) for many Americans (on top of the periodic vicissitudes and heartbreaks that life already entails).
A lot of us manage to get through this shitstorm (many don’t), though rarely without our fair share of scars. Really, do all of us have some kind of anxiety, or depression, or neurosis, or eating disorder, or insomnia, or addiction, or insecurity, or other emotional scarring? I’m starting to think so. Hell, I definitely do. I feel tremendous doubt and fear and insecurity and anxiety and inadequacy sometimes (though I’m getting better than ever at seeing through it).
But many of us make it through. Maybe we leave the country for a while, or read some anarchist or Eastern texts, or declare ourselves artists, or follow our favorite band around the country, or spray paint a train, or do some other vaguely anti-American thing to cope with and compensate for our growing realization that our culture woefully misled us and we don’t really know who we are or what the hell we need to do. But we press on, perhaps with the help of a psychotherapist or a prescription (which some folks certainly actually need; I’m far from anti-treatment), and try to gather up some semblance of a life from our shattered vision of “America the Beautiful.” And I think it can be done. I think I’ve seen folks who have managed it.
But I think a non-negligible number of people are like my friend—the sensitive, intelligent, fragile, funny, complex, suicidal one—who isn’t managing it. She’s struggling, and I’ve seen her screaming on the inside for years. I’ve offered her every feasible piece of help and advice—told her she’s amazing just as she is, that she doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, that she has so much love to give, that she’s talented, that investing in some kind of hobby might do her some good, etc. About a week before hearing that she’s feeling suicidal, I had (presciently) sent her a long letter telling her I would always be there, even if no one else is, and that nothing she could do would make me stop loving her for who she is.
But I’m not sure she’s going to be okay. I’m not sure she’s going to make it through the maze, going to be able to see American culture—the Protestant obsession with work for work’s sake, the Bad People Burn in Hell theory, the non-stop, tooth-and-nail competition, the endless judgment and bigotry, the messages to “win the game” and “be an adult” and “grow up,” the incessant consumerist propaganda, the institutionalized discrimination, the violence and pathological feelings of guilt and inadequacy that result from the aforementioned—as the utterly deleterious and malignant house of mirrors that it is. I fear that it might be too late for her.
This culture convinced her from a young age to feel despicable and insufficient, and she can’t escape those feelings, though she’s tried, through orthodox methods—Christianity, “career” pursuits, therapy, prescriptions, etc.—and less orthodox methods: illegal drugs, travel, reading, etc. There seems to be some fundamental thing with which she cannot come to terms. If I were to pinpoint this thing, I might call it this: living in a culture that, on the most basic level, rejects and demonizes what she really is (human) in an effort to make her into a well-behaved, productive machine.
She has always been different. Whereas some people can become the American Success and do the day-in-day-out thing for fifty years (and find real meaning in that), it seems that has never been “in the cards” for her. But while others in her place find alternatives—ways to escape the grind for modes of existence that seem more meaningful (artists, entrepreneurs, off-grid cabin-dwellers, etc.)—she has tried desperately to fit herself into the structures that were given to her. She is keenly aware of the pressure from all angles to filter out parts of her personality, to just “stop feeling sorry for herself,” and to “make something of herself.” So she keeps trying to do that—to conform and be the social and career-oriented “success” that everyone seems to want. She feels that deep-down artificiality of American culture, but she’s still living by its terms. Measuring herself with someone else’s yardstick. And therein lies her problem. She’s trapped, for now at least, and I don’t know how to help her.
I feel like someone owes her an eternal-yet-still-totally-insufficient apology on behalf of that Labyrinth of Bullshit (i.e. American culture) that I roughly outlined earlier. Because hers is a case in which “first world problems” don’t seem like the trivial, giggle-worthy substance of Internet memes about our banal, comfortable lives. Her “first world problems” seem psychologically torturous, unbearable, urgent. And they’re clearly traceable to what she was taught to expect from life by her culture (though I won’t pretend genetics haven’t played a role; the nature/nurture dynamic is of course always there).
But where do we go from here? I wish I could go back in time, meet all of the American children who will one day feel like my suicidal friend, and simply give them more genuine, non-judgmental love. Yeah, seriously, love? What an original fucking idea!
Really though, I would go back in time to meet all of those children as youngsters and tell them in earnest: you are not inherently sinful, pathetic creatures; you don’t need to do anything to justify or validate your existence; you don’t need to achieve anything beyond yourself; you are here to do the things you enjoy and for which you have natural talent; you are totally and unchangeably human, and nothing about that is “wrong” or “evil”; you are beautiful.
And that might just do the trick. That might be the ticket to way less confusion and suffering. But obviously I’m not Marty McFly or a character in an H.G. Wells novel. If we’re talking about what to do moving forward, we might think about doing away with the life-denying, fear-instilling, divisive aspects of organized religion (that doesn’t mean all religion); and reforming our economic system to be, like, not dehumanizing and rooted in manipulation and enormous inequality; and re-imagining education as something that looks less like corporate bootcamp and more like the pursuit of natural curiosity; and conceiving health care and immigration legislation that empathizes with human beings who are suffering; and realizing the necessity of a pharmaceutical industry not based on profit and knee-jerk prescriptions; and transforming mainstream media into something not entirely vapid, glorifying of violence/self-destruction, and based on deliberate misrepresentation; and re-designing our prison system as a system of rehabilitation rather than demonization; and ceasing to arrest/imprison people for victimless crimes; and stocking grocery store shelves with wholesome, nutritious foods (not to mention food that doesn’t come from environmentally-unfriendly and animal-abusing factory farms) instead of rubbish; and treating addiction/drug abuse as a medical condition rather than evidence of inherent sinfulness; and getting our hundreds of thousands of homeless people some food and shelter; and making it more difficult for Joe Briefcase to purchase insanely dangerous, high-powered killing machines (i.e. guns); and finding ways to deter police brutality against unarmed citizens and hold violators accountable; and weighing the possible benefits of a Universal Basic Income and a shorter work week.
These are huge institutional challenges and will clearly take a ridiculous amount of time to change, but they don’t ever change if people like you and I don’t talk about them and care. I should note that in some ways, things have changed/are changing in a big way (think state-level cannabis legislation, receding stigma surrounding gay/trans people and mental disorders, legislated equality of all races/genders/sexual orientations [not the same as real equality], etc.). In these areas, thanks to the activism of countless dedicated folks, the US is arguably managing to set more tolerant precedents in the global community.
Apart from structural reform, what I think we really need—what this culture and the larger human race (you didn’t think your culture was flawless just because I’m admitting mine sucks, right?) has needed for aeons, but what I’m not sure we’re ready to claim—is a much, much greater sense of solidarity, shared humanity, and mutual understanding. We need to grow up in warm communities in which people nourish rather than disdain one another; in which all aspects of the human experience are recognized and countenanced openly rather than denied and labelled “taboo”; in which individuals have a sense of inherent value that has nothing to do with their “job” or role in the community; in which people are taught to cooperate rather than compete, to be compassionate rather than judgmental; in which people occupy themselves with things that are meaningful or useful rather than high-paying or prestigious; in which the day, the moment, is seen as an end in itself.
Lately I’ve felt that the very condition of mass society makes it nearly impossible to manifest this situation. Being constantly surrounded by hundreds of strangers, as we are in any city, ironically makes us feel cold and alienated. Other humans become mere obstacles because we are simply not wired to care for this many people at once, and neither is everybody else. For most of our existence, we lived in much smaller, tight-knit groups. So maybe what we ultimately need to do—for ourselves and (I should mention) for the planet—is return to small agrarian communities in which it’s really possible for everyone to care for and understand everyone else. And maybe the fierce competition inherent in the current incarnation of capitalism should compel us to devise an economic system that emphasizes cooperation and sharing (not necessarily socialism or communism; some kind of hybrid).
But unless you’re Russell Brand, you probably don’t see that revolution coming anytime soon. Even I—someone seriously interested in living in an intentional community or off-grid structure—still see a lot of things about living in the city that I would be reluctant to leave behind. And instating an entirely new economic system somehow seems like a pipe dream at this point (though reforms seem feasible). So if cities and capitalism are here indefinitely, we’ve got to find ways, in the short term, to bring more compassion and openness to mass society. We’ve got to at least remember that we’re dealing with other human beings and (unless we’re truly in danger or something) maintain a basic respect for human life/dignity. Especially in the age of the Internet, we’ve got to embrace that there are innumerable ways of thinking and living and communicating (like, 7 billion+) on this planet, and that it’s okay for other people to approach things differently than us. We’ve got to stop teaching our young people to obsess over the next moment, test, job, milestone, etc. We’ve got to live in a way that demonstrates to youth that every person has inherent value, that cooperation and tolerance are better for all of us, and that our time is about more than a dollar-figure someone wants to attach to it.
And when and if we have our own kids, we’ve got to help them be better at these things than we were. We’ve got to refuse to indoctrinate them into all-encompassing moral-metaphysical belief systems that will confuse the hell out of them for years. We’ve got to explain to them the cold, oppressive logic of consumerism—that the advertisers and marketers would like very much to play us for fools and trap us in a cycle of inadequate feelings and compulsive purchasing. We’ve got to tell them about the perennial capacity of mankind to loathe/harm its own and demonstrate for them a more compassionate approach. We’ve got to show them that our education system is just one flawed, man-made contraption and that real education is about curiosity and exploration rather than arbitrary benchmarks. We’ve got to teach them to love and empathize. We’ve got to make the gist of this essay something that kids understand by the time they’re 9 or 10 years old.
Or not, you know. These are things we would maybe do if we wanted to rebel against a culture and society that have failed us. These are things we would maybe do if we felt it possible to create a global community in which it doesn’t suck to function. These are things that I do/will do because I can’t imagine doing anything else. These are things that I do/will do because a friend of mine died last year in a drunk-driving accident. Because I’ve seen other young people kill themselves. Because people like you and I and our loved ones are murdered, tortured, and locked in cages constantly in this country. Because I cannot stand by apathetically, watching more peers lose themselves in this poisonous American funhouse.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”
P.S. Much of this undoubtedly applies to older generations of Americans as well, and a lot of this could be applied to people in other modern, mass societies. I focused on “young Americans” because I am a young American and felt most at liberty to speak about my own generation in my own country, but my hope is that this essay points to certain issues which are nearly globally pervasive circa 2014. In a follow-up essay, I will discuss how/why this situation extends far beyond the states.
P.P.S. This essay may have struck some people as terribly depressing, but generally I’m a cynical optimist (paradoxical but true). I think that, in the final analysis, each person alive today is faced with an ultimatum: give up on life (commit suicide or fall into self-destruction), or find a way, via whatever possible means, to cope with one’s cultural baggage and be content in spite of the ways in which one was abandoned/marginalized/screwed. It seems that most all of us have, in some way, been done a disservice by the structures of this outrageous world into which we’ve been born. We can curse those structures and see them as reasons to hate ourselves and everything else, or we can do our best to see through the set of preconceived values and assumptions into which we were indoctrinated to perceive something (arguably) magnificent lurking beneath it all–the opportunity to experience and love and express ourselves and discover our own way of thinking and being in this sprawling, wondrous cosmos.