[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.’”
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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.
About Jordan Bates
Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.
thanks for having the balls to press publish on this one, so incredibly needed (goosebumps).
man, you are most welcome. truly, truly, thanks for dropping this comment. unspeakably good to know i’m not the only one who feels these things.
Yeah man, real good. I have been trying to articulate the weird negative thing in the air here in America. I wasn’t able to get perspective of it until I left the states for a while and having been out multiple times now, it’s almost proven to me that there is something up. We Americans are more unhappy and insecure than people from other countries. Still not able to put my finger on what about our culture is collectively making everyone second guess themselves and feel shitty about being in their own skin but it’s not like that in other… Read more »
man, chris, that is an amazing comment. you should post it on my site too in the comments section. if not, i can post it there, but i really think it would help people to read that comment. i think you managed to say some things i wasn’t able to say too, or to say other things in a slightly different, helpful way. i thought of you and a few others while writing that piece. creative people tend to be more sensitive to all sorts of things, and i think it’s the artists/creatives that seem to be crushed most totally… Read more »
I can second this. There’s been a resonance which seems to permeate the very fabic of the air. A sickness of sorts. Hard to describe but I can only speculate that people are becoming more attuned to the vibration of their fellow man and we are witnessing how this inauthentic world of materialism is no longer distracting people. The new generation has so much perspective available to them and with the financial crisis(es), tremendous debt burdens, and the crumbling cultural cohesion, we are less enticed by the paltry little carrots this system offered our parents. I’ve lived outside he US… Read more »
damn, man, i really dig this comment. whereas you say resonance, i’ve come to call it a “suchness-flavor” . . . maybe more of a clunky term but i think that, for me, it’s a better description of what it is i feel in every place i visit. every place is somewhat marvelous just by virtue of its *really existing*, and when you get there and actually experience that suchness, you begin to recognize that each suchness has a different flavor, a different feeling it imparts, a different mood that’s been realized via the culture that built it/functions in it.… Read more »
One very well written assessment of our culture
man, thank you. truly means a lot to hear from others that they liked this piece. i was nervous to share it because there’s a lot of raw emotion tied up in it
good stuff, hit the nail on the head in a lot of ways, though in my particular corner of awareness this all seems a little dated, like it would resonate better in the mid/late 00s than now. This is a good thing as it means that at least in some places and in some respects, things are getting better. Notable in this regard are protestantism and consumerism–I haven’t found either to be so oppressive or inescapable recently, and have had success in finding large, well organized and supportive communities that exist totally separately from the culture you describe (not dedicated… Read more »
this is a great comment, thank you. i wondered about the extent to which my perspective is inherently Midwest-centric and small-town-centric, as the only places I’ve lived in the US are Spencer, Iowa (12,000 people) for 18 years and Lincoln, Nebraska (250,000 people) for 4 years. i’ve traveled a lot of the US, though, and have met Americans from every corner while abroad. i think the thing with protestantism (or any religious fundamentalism into which one was indoctrinated) and consumerism is that they don’t ever really feel directly oppressive. a lot of people probably don’t even notice that the “little… Read more »
Jordan, really nice post. You know this part of your posting…” they don’t ever really feel directly oppressive. a lot of people probably don’t even notice that the “little voice in their head” is the voice of the church, and most of us are so..” reminds me so much of an idea by Nikolas Rose; the idea of “governmentality”, which basically says that these things are subterranean and not so explicit. Check him out, you’ll find some food for thought.
thanks so much. will check out rose. peace
spaceman, could you be a bit more specific about this large community that you seemed to have found in India. I live in India and was wondering!
great article. i think the problems outlined above affect Asians as well. it is universal.
man, thank you. i agree—i think a lot of these problems are problems native to mass, post-industrial, capitalist societies. the (arguably) religious guilt of people in the states might be more unique, though in south korea i saw major parallels, except it’s more that people feel shame at failing to meet social expectations rather than an internal, guilty “voice of God” in their head asking why they’ve gone astray. anyway, yes, there’s a distinct sense of coldness and artificiality and everyone just “going through the motions” in pretty much every major city in the world i’ve been to, and that’s… Read more »
Great to hear this stuff! Its the kind of talk I have on late nights with my closest friends, but I think this is the discourse that needs to be brought to the surface! As a young church boy, growing up was easy, but once you hit that “think for yourself stage” and start making your own decisions, there is a hell of a lot of built up shit to shake off. A big part of it for me is the suffer-less lives of Americans. I haven’t done a lot of traveling, but went to Ethiopia recently and saw so… Read more »
absolutely, man. until the private, before-you-fall-asleep-at-night thoughts that we all have become public, we will continue to censor ourselves and feel that certain things about ourselves are somehow wrong or not okay. i hate to think of all of the young kids walking around in america feeling rejected and somehow broken or inadequate. i was a church boy as well, and i agree that there were many “dark nights of the soul” when i reached a stage of disillusionment and had to find my own understanding. i totally agree about the manufactured lifestyle that most americans enjoy—ironically they’re only manufacturing… Read more »
Really enjoyed both of your perspectives here. I agree wholeheartedly. Have yet to check out this piece Jordan but my inbox keeps blowing up with comment threads.
“until the private, before-you-fall-asleep-at-night thoughts that we all have become public, we will continue to censor ourselves and feel that certain things about ourselves are somehow wrong or not okay.”
Hit the nail with utmost force upon it’s dome.
thanks much, man. moved to hear that you felt what i said was on-point. i just think the judgments/taboos in our culture are insanely restrictive and oppressive. reminds me of a quote from allen ginsberg:
“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”
― Allen Ginsberg
Beautiful. I like that – Allen Ginsberg. Time to check out more of that individual. I resonate with that quote immensely, as a poet I see how that is in a way what I am doing.
great to hear from another poet, and i hope you stick around, man. add me on other networks and bullshit too if you want. my sister showed me this kind of quirky allen ginsberg video a few days ago that you might like: http://www.refinethemind.com/videos/allen-ginsberg-with-paul-mccartney-ballad-of-the-skeletons/
Keep up the inspiring work Jordan. I love the direct and earnest delivery of your ideas. It’s a shame some members of American society are so closed off to such frank words and ideas.
thanks, adam. this is a really nice comment and gives me energy to keep thinking critically and spreading ideas. some people might be closed off to this portrait of our culture, but for some (i hope), this is precisely what they need to read this moment to get them moving away from all of the bullshit. hopefully i reached some of those people
That opened my eyes a bit more
really great to hear that, jeffrahhh. regards
On Facebook, Allie Rochelle made the following penetrating and in-depth comment that highlighted a number of shortcomings in this essay and led to several edits: “You bring up several good points that do need to be discussed, and I enjoyed the read. However, I believe that you misdiagnose some parts of the American dilemma as well as focus too heavily on others. Additionally, I think it is necessary to say that many of the issues you discussed are not solely American, and although I can see that you addressed this in a previous comment, I don’t think it is fair… Read more »
My response on Facebook was as follows. You can see where I made edits based on her comments. (I should note that I’ve made numerous other edits to this piece based on feedback and it would be difficult to trace all of it. Thank you to anyone who commented on this piece. It’s truly a collaborative effort.) — “Allie, of course it’s okay to discuss! yes! thank you so much for bringing up so many incredible points and nuances that I overlooked in my essay. I knew I was eschewing a tremendous amount of further analysis/consideration, but the topic was… Read more »
As I said in another comment, this piece is truly a collaborative effort at this point. Based on a great outpouring of feedback/conversation and re-reading, I’ve made numerous edits. Here are three reddit threads in which the discussions contributed somewhat to a re-thinking of certain parts of this essay:
A lot of people have also addressed the point that many of these issues are pervasive worldwide, not just in the United States. My hope was that that would be clear from what I wrote, but it seems to be a hang-up for people. So I’m writing a follow-up to this piece to elaborate on the ways in which ‘American culture,’ in 2014, is inseparable from global culture. In the globalized world in which we find ourselves, unprecedented cultural permeability is the norm. And of course the military/political/cultural powerhouse of the US has an inestimable amount of influence on cultures/societies… Read more »
I think a big problem is our obsession with traditional, quantifiable success. To say I fall very flat in that department is an understatement, and for a time, culturally imposed values led me to believe that that was a big, terrible deal. That I had somehow failed at something, and was a terrible specimen of a human being. I see this a lot in young people who aren’t motivated by money, hungry for fame/power/popularity, or future oriented. Originally present-minded people get peer-pressured into feeling guilty for not conforming to the goals and values of the society around them.
Ragnar, it’s been too long, great to hear from you. I think you’re absolutely right, and I kind of overlooked that in the analysis. I mentioned that it’s “socially calamitous” to deviate from the norm of chasing the American dream, but I didn’t mention the internal guilt/sense of failure one feels when one does deviate. I just added this parenthetical comment in the essay based on this point: “(and guilt-producing; once one deviates, there’s a palpable sense that one has let someone down)” this essay is truly a collaborative effort at this point. i think i’ve made changes based on… Read more »
If anything that just proves how awesome a community you have cultivated over here! ^^
you know, i go through periods where very few people comment/email and it feels like i’m just talking to myself. it’s nice to have something strike a nerve and realize that people are listening. many heads are better than one.
this essay might have been depressing to some, but generally i’m an optimist. i think 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… Read more »
Chau Truong, on Facebook, offered this nice constructive comment about the essay: “This part hit me especially, as I’ve seen it/experienced it on a consistent basis, “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… Read more »
This comment compelled me to add in the bit about American jingoism and also to add in the part about the strain of American culture/media that seems to say, “Yes, do it. Do whatever you want. Seek as much pleasure as possible, indulge your every impulse.”
Very well written article,thanks for sharing.
you’re welcome, thank you
I’m sorry if this is a little bit long but here goes. There is a way to gradually ease “the voice” until it subsides. It’s difficult though because it is in the realm of the meditative “allowing, letting go, and releasing” which which is most commonly achieved during regular and non-pressured meditation (possible but easier said than done). Unfortunately we are apart of this world and therefore tied to it in one way or another. I think it’s safe to say that many people are feeling the disconnect with the deeply disturbing state of affairs. Police shootings, perpetual war, live… Read more »
wow, jason, i feel like there’s so much extraordinary perspective and understanding in this comment. i tend to shy away from “spiritual” language because i feel such talk has taken on too many connotations of hokeyness or New Age bullshit (truly, i mean no offense). but i connect and relate deeply with what you’re saying. i tend to speak of these things more in philosophical language—trying to push people toward a realization of the impenetrable mystery of existence itself that is ever-present all around us and also within us. my “spirituality” consists in a humble awe before this *living* mystery… Read more »
J Bizzle! What’s happnin’ man? The article was extremely well written – I thoroughly enjoyed it! I found your blog whilst browsing through Alan Watts-related pages (fyi) and am happy I did…You keep it trill as a motherfuck! 😉 Always room for improvement (as you’re aware.) “Where do we go from here?” I believe that only some major life-threatening event (most likely a natural disaster) will wake us up to our interconnectedness with each other, and with our environment. In essence, it will light the fire beneath our bums to really re-examine our current political, economic, social, religious, etc etc.… Read more »
J Lizzle, hey man, hahah, i appreciate your jazzy comment. moved to hear that you dig what’s happening on the site. i’ve also often thought that some kind of global-cataclysmic event (nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, alien invasion, etc.) is the only thing that might give the entire human race a sense of solidarity. i think that last sentence you wrote has something to it—we have a tool (Internet) of unfathomable potential in our hands now, with so much perspective available just a few clicks away. And as another commenter noted, the financial crises and similar political/economic debacles in recent years… Read more »
I think J.D. Salinger already covered this topic…
well, mr. caulfield, i doubt he would object to a contemporary re-telling.
unfortunately i’ve never read salinger—he’s been on the list for some time.
This article really resonated with me, especially the part about American restlessness. Funny thing about me is that I work in the American oil field. So 100 hour weeks are common and ‘hard work’ is simply the way of life out here. But I did something uncharacteristic of me right out of college (6 hours after I walked the stage and got my diploma to be exact); I hopped on a plane to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and didn’t come back for 17 months. I grew up in a tiny town in Texas and had never seen the… Read more »
thank you for the incredible comment, john. i think i was sort of lucky, in that my parents at least never forced me to constantly be doing something “productive” when i was younger. they allowed me to play a lot, be with friends, play video games, read, etc., so i don’t think i was quite so work-hungry as some americans. however, i think the busy-work of our school system takes care of most of that conditioning, and i think it was really in college that i began to see how pointless a lot of that work had been. backpacking through… Read more »
I found this post impressive enough to join and post a comment. Certainly a good job of expressing a currently popular philosophy. I don’t think it is an enduring one, though, and personally, I disagree with both facts and logic. Seems to me, Jordan, that if you accept your premise (I don’t), then you leave yourself only two options…hope and change…which really don’t work too well. So, I would say Bravo for getting this on the table. After you’ve had a chance to look at it, poke it and bat it around, check for other paradigms. That’s what Buddha would… Read more »
would love for you to elaborate. i think to call this an expression of a “popular philosophy” is misplaced, as this contains a wide range of worldviews, IMO. to which part are you referring specifically when you say, “i don’t think it is an enduring one,” and which facts/logic do you disagree with? what “other paradigms” are you talking about? your comment struck me as extremely ambiguous, hah, sorry. thanks for deciding to stick around, hope to hear from you more.
as far as “hope and change” go, my perspective is that it’s possible to accept the world as it is and see it as unable to be improved (on a fundamental, sorta-metaphysical level) while also seeing that mankind’s sociocultural mechanisms change in time and can become more human-friendly and sustainable. i don’t think those two viewpoints are incompatible. so “hope and change” are not my only options, by my thinking. i have acceptance.
great, insightful article
thanks much, man. touched to hear that you felt that way
This is pure gibberish. You should frame all the problems plaguing “young Americans” not as result of the Judeo-Christian education (how the hell you link it to consumerism is beyond me), but as a direct result of the so-called Self-Esteem movement. But that you’d have to blame on the Left and its spawn: post-1960s academia.
my first impulse is to suggest that there is no place for ad hominem attacks in a forum that seeks to foster a compassionate, open discussion incorporating many perspectives. it seems you might have missed the point about *not* reducing complexities to dismissive labels. to call this “pure gibberish” is precisely the sort of thing i might identify as a sign of an infantile culture—adults feeling the need to resort to hyperbolic insults. i flat-out disagree that Judeo-Christian values, consumerism, and the numerous other things i discussed “explain none of the problems” of Americans. you didn’t back up that statement… Read more »
Victim mentality much?
this was written from a place of deep frustration and empathy with the situation of my suicidal friend. and yes, i do feel that she is in many ways a victim of an oppressive, divisive, and dehumanizing sociocultural system. i recognize that each of us has agency and a certain amount of free will to change our situation and circumstances. however, in my view it’s undeniable that the systems into which we are indoctrinated have irrevocable impacts (some of which are malignant) on our foundational psyche/worldview and that many people (like my friend) end up having a very difficult time… Read more »
good write. You stirred my brain porridge again. I’m going to have to read it again, slowly.
thanks, Francis. 🙂 glad to stir that porridge anytime. let me know if you have further thoughts after another read. all the best, my friend.
I think that you may want to know that there is a term used by some psychologists for what you’re trying to describe here. It’s called “self-compassion”. From Wikipedia: “Research indicates that self-compassionate individuals experience greater psychological health than those who lack self-compassion. For example, self-compassion is positively associated with life-satisfaction, wisdom, happiness, optimism, curiosity, learning goals, social connectedness, personal responsibility, and emotional resilience. At the same time, it is negatively associated with self-criticism, depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression, perfectionism, and disordered eating attitudes” A quick Google search for “self compassion” yields a number of links to interesting sites. Otherwise… Read more »
Thanks much for sharing the term “self-compassion.” I’ve heard plenty about self-love and have been skeptical of that idea since I think those who focus on “self-love” might have a tendency to become self-aggrandizing or vain. There’s a thin line. I like the term “self-compassion” a lot more because, for me, it connotes the ability to see oneself as another human being and always remembering that one is a fallible man/woman, not a god or something. Really a wonderful term that I’m going to keep in mind, use, and probably write about. Thank you. Peace.
I find that as I head towards a non-linear experiential ideology (as opposed to a incremental ‘rite of passage’ Western workforce lifestyle) I am feeling more and more of what you detail in this essay. Increasingly I am able to notice the disconnect that is growing between my old high-school friends who choose to absorb and indoctrinate themselves of the American Despair that you have so eloquently described, and the ones who are becoming skeptics of the mold which they have been jammed in since birth. As a Canadian currently visiting family in America, I am a little surprised to… Read more »
David, Thank you for such high praise and the for the detailed and insightful comment. I think what you said at the end about my prose feeling more conversational than dry is one of the best compliments I’ve received on my writing. Touched to hear that. It’s amazing (in a way) to hear that so many other people are in touch with the “American Despair” (as you put it) that I’m describing in this essay. Truly gives me hope that none of us are alone and that we are in the midst of a kind of renaissance on par with… Read more »
Hey Jordan, this a wonderfully written essay. As a teenager myself, I believe I have been detached from most of these social motifs, so you can ask me if you need to. The first step to end this suffering is to increase awareness, which is what you are doing, but you didn’t mention why we are so affected by it. People identify themselves with their thoughts too much nowadays, the awareness that these thoughts are just the product of the mind making connections between the data it has gathered till now is just lacking in many people. The awareness that… Read more »
Ninad, this is actually an incredible comment. Thank you for dispensing your perspective. You’ve said a couple things that are profound reminders for me at this time. Kind of reminded me of a quote from Nietzsche:
“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings ― always darker, emptier and simpler.”
Also of a quote from Wei Boyang, a Taoist who died a long time ago:
“Worry is preposterous; we don’t know enough to worry.”
YES! I’m older than you and yes, it still applies to me. I spent my teens and 20s depressed about it, my 30s confused by it, and am now working on this part: “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.”
It does my heart good to see your hopefulness and determination.
Good to hear from someone a bit older who’s spent a lot of years dealing with the things I outlined here. Touched to hear that my approach and attitude toward the predicament did your heart some good. That’s really sweet of you to say. Thank you for commenting. 🙂
This resonated with me. I am working on a doctorate and am struck by academia’s culture. There are amazing breakthroughs that have great potential to improve the lives of others that are hidden behind exclusive language and lack of funding. And then there are brilliant minds that will never reach academia because they have been deemed not good enough. In a capitalistic society, everything is a good or service that can be bought, sold, traded or stolen. In academia, we’re selling our ideas to private foundations and corporations who dictate through grant dollars and exposure what we should study. Success… Read more »
Jillian, I’ve completed a Bachelor’s in English lit/philosophy/Spanish and have thought long and hard about pursuing further higher education, so I can relate to everything you’re saying. Academia seems to me to be in many ways a cage. It seems like teaching students directly is the thing professors do that actually allows their intellects/ideas/personalities to impact the outside world, but apart from that, everyone in academia trades abstruse papers among small circles of peers, and many people are just jumping through the hoops that will allow them to climb toward tenure. I do think that many ideas born in the… Read more »
Omg this is the WORST article I think I have ever read! Blaming society or what you choose to watch for your stupid mistakes and placing more blame on how you are incorrectly punished?! I am scared for this generation of selfish and self-centered kids to grow up and the damage they will inevitably do! Take responsibility for yourself and stop blaming the terrible Judeo-Christians or Miley Cyrus’ of the world! I am sorry your parents didn’t pay more attention to who they were raising.
i don’t think you actually read the article, so i’ll make this short. even if you ran your eyes over some words and were able to re-type a couple of those words, your comment suggests that any sort of deeper engagement was totally lacking on your end. thanks for yelling and blaming and hating online, no one’s ever done that before!
He’s a trolling narcissist. He fits the description of a flow-blown one and now wants to abuse online?
Replace “culture” and “society” with “parents” and I am in basic agreement with everything written. Bravo!
well, culture is of course inseparable from the people of a given culture. many of our parents were/are still riding the cultural momentum of a couple hundred years of pretty traditional/religious values in America, so let’s try not to blame individuals for things they were taught to consider okay or “right.”
You hit all the main points. This serves as a perfect article to serve on a platter to a friend or family member in need of a wake-up call or just a higher perspective on this system we are all a part of. Well done and keep fighting the good fight.
thanks much, chase. i really hope some people have done just that and that perhaps it’s opened some people up to new ideas, if only a little bit
fascinating, hadn’t heard of “Choice Theory.” appreciate you sharing, my friend. take care.
very interesting article. made me think of some psych theories/therapy modalities from graduate school. specifically “Choice Theory” developed by William Glasser. Would be interesting to incorporate the concepts into the points brought up in this essay. Here is a link if you are curious: http://www.wglasser.com/the-glasser-approach/choice-theory
I loved this article and the honesty and passion of it, Jordan. I’ve already shared it with various others in my circle. And I can affirm, definitely, that some of us in the mid-Sixties “generation X” group understand and resonate deeply with what you’ve shared. Let the conversation (and courage to live the shift) continue …
i used to work as a para in a middle school, and the things you say about education totally resonate with me–i was constantly in the position of stifling the kids’ natural curiosity, because i was required to feed them the prescribed crap–i couldnt stand it anymore, even slinging hash for peanuts is better than being complicit in the destruction of young minds
So eloquently described. This is reality. It’s not good for anybody.
This is by far one of the most powerful pieces I have read in a while. I absolutely loved this, it was of equivalence to reading my own thoughts on American society, and growing up surrounded by it.
Thanks for articulating alls these thoughts and feelings so very well. It’s the kind of stuff I think about a lot, and the anxiety that it all creates can be very isolating and confusing. This piece is really such a resonant mosaic of the different problems our society (speaking of the general highly developed/rich/western societies, i’m from the UK) faces, and the depression and anxiety that one can feel due to the seeming intractability of it all. But you’re right, if we feel it, we should try and rile against it! Thanks again. I think I will read this piece… Read more »
Hello, Thank you for this article. I only read the few paragraphs but I wanted to type this down. “Textbook American answer, eh? “Be an adult.” “Grow the hell up.” “Make something of yourself.” “You need to work harder.” This is called “invalidation” and this is emotional, psychological, and mental abuse. This…comes from narcissists. This nation is run by narcissists/psychopaths that does not want us to proper (specifically the 1% ruling class-Rahm Emanuel is part of this ruling class too). Then breeds mini-thems, more narcissists! Then the bad messages like those are spread around and EVEN USED BY THE PARENTS,… Read more »
Reading this is metaphorically like stepping into a clarity minefield, with every step one is at risk for gaining insight into the BS that is our socially constructed reality!