Is it just me, or is the world seriously not living up to its potential?
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, NOV 5, 2009
I have decided to start keeping a journal, beginning each new entry, “Dear Cary.” It seems to propel my writing in a focused way. Unfortunately, not so focused that I’m able to solve my own issues.
My problem is that I’m 27 years old and have already become indescribably disgusted and distressed with the state of corporate power in our country. I am seriously considering steps to self-reliant hermitage (is that redundant?) for my family. Or, conversely, I’m considering going to law school despite my lack of interest in practicing law, just so I can protect myself and my family and friends from the crap that goes on. It seems every time we open our wallets or sign a paper, we are walking a tightrope, and waiting underneath are the sharp teeth of another manipulative, greedy, scheming, powerful company.
I should probably just take a chill pill. I have an amazing family, husband, newborn son (and two loving dogs). My husband’s family is also incredible. My husband and I are both employed and enjoy health benefits, which we rarely have to make use of. It’s just that, no sooner am I reminding myself of these positive aspects of my life than something else comes along to slam me back into misanthropy and cynicism. While I’m certainly not going to resort to acts of violence because of this, I would say I’ve crossed the line from empathy to sympathy for those who were deemed to have “gone postal.” I find that mere positive thoughts are no match for the distress brought on by yet another round of calls to some company’s national call center, just to have to bully someone into doing something that should be standard service … or worse yet, to fail to accomplish anything despite hours of stress spent on the phone.
Perhaps instead of a figurative or literal chill pill, I should cultivate schizophrenia so that one personality can remain calm enough to comfort the enraged personality. These are the kind of ridiculous thoughts that enter my mind when I’m at the end of my rope. In case you’re curious, this letter comes on the heels of a protracted insurance company negotiation, which followed a major issue with our former bank a month ago, which followed a rental arrangement gone bad a few months before that … all on top of years of watching my parents fight their way through many similar battles. My aunt was laid off recently for blowing the whistle on a pharmaceutical company she had worked for for years. My uncle was laid off recently from a bank so that the bank could hire fresh blood at a lower cost. I really don’t think I have a persecution complex; or, at least, I don’t think I was born predisposed to developing one. Rather, I feel like a very reasonable person worn down and disenfranchised after only a few years of adulthood and independence. All of this is worsened by a recently resurgent belief that a large percentage of people in this country cast votes and voice opinions according solely to what they perceive to be best for them, skipping past cooperation, generosity and grace and instead taking up a combative, self-protective, greedy and distrustful stance immediately. It’s all adding up to a very bad attitude, when I’ve always considered cheerfulness, energy and enthusiasm intrinsic to my personality.
My questions for you (as someone who has both the power to maintain an objective perspective and the personal experience to have gained a unique wisdom) are: a) Do you understand or have you yourself felt the kind of disgust I’m talking about?, b) If so, how would you recommend I begin to cope with these issues better than I have so far?
I hope you will be able to respond, because, unfortunately, the cathartic benefit of expressing my thoughts and feelings is increasingly drowned out by the frustration of mentally reliving my bad experiences.
Outraged in Ohio
I am glad to hear about your journal. Many good people like yourself are trying to live in the world as though it were a kind, welcoming place despite crushing evidence to the contrary.
So do you mind if I just repeat one of the sentences in your letter? It sums up something many of us experience with alarming frequency: “It seems every time we open our wallets or sign a paper, we are walking a tightrope, and waiting underneath are the sharp teeth of another manipulative, greedy, scheming, powerful company.”
I think that what you sense is real, and that it has a historical foundation, and that you could call it something like a weird, messed-up form of postmodern fascism — an amorphously distributed, decentralized fascism, if you will, if that’s not totally contradictory.
But that would take a really smart person to make clear. Here is my slightly more idiosyncratic view. The human universe is filled with something I like to call Jerk-Weasel matter; and, as Planck’s constant obtains in the world of physicists, a Jerk-Weasel constant obtains in the human moral universe. It is not possible to say whether Jerk-Weasel is indeed matter or a wave phenomenon. But the Jerk-Weasel force is constant and unrelenting.
You take your average concentration of Jerk-Weasel matter suspended in the population, it can be tolerated well. But Jerk-Weasel matter has attractive qualities such that it can nucleate around a dense aggregate, such as a Hitler, say, or a Pol Pot. So you have to try to keep the Jerk-Weasel matter in the universe in suspension, diluted, and not let it concentrate.
What tends to make it concentrate? In our time it seems to attach itself to large institutions of business.
There is its opposite, luckily, which you might call the Trinket-Granola force. The Trinket-Granola force seeks to weaken Jerk-Weasel matter by interpolating laughter and critical reasoning in the permeable membrane between particles of Jerk-Weasel matter. The Trinket-Granola force creates thin barriers that prevent Jerk-Weasel matter from concentrating in the kind of density that can reach critical mass and cause every credit card in the universe to explode.
Complicating all this is the Twinkies-Auschwitz continuum, in which gravely murderous multiples of Jerk-Weasel matter become indistinguishable from trivial and ridiculous particles of short-lived “Twinkie Matter,” and the two live in symbiosis, feeding off each other. This is a dangerous combination, as people who encounter it in the dark don’t know whether to laugh or draw knives.
How do you deal with all this? Well, first you decide not to kill yourself. For many people, that’s easy: Nope, not going to kill myself. Going to go on living for the few morsels of ecstasy and meaning available to me legally or otherwise. For others, it’s harder. In either case, it’s the first step in facing the difficulty ahead.
Having decided to ride it out for the duration, you settle back and get comfortable with your own disgust. You say, There’s nothing wrong with me except I thought the world would be better than it is; I thought that people would be more idealistic and courageous than they are; I thought that institutions would foster more creativity than they do; I thought people would not be as backstabbing as they are.
You admit to yourself: I was wrong. Actually, people do suck. You admit that man is a frightened, weaselly, vicious creature who builds elaborate and powerful institutions in his image.
Reeling from the shock of this recognition — your first up-close glimpse of the horror of Jerk-Weasel matter — you look back over your life and you see, wow, maybe I’ve spent a lot of time in a sort of cocoon. Maybe the cocoon was an elite university in an upper-middle-class town; maybe the cocoon was a family whose members were tolerant and wise; maybe the cocoon was a lifestyle that gave you the time and fresh air and liberty to enjoy your own thoughts, express yourself and be rewarded for being who you are, living out, essentially, the kind of dream espoused long ago by the founders of this country. Whatever it was, it was a lucky and beautiful thing. You were blessed to have a view of life as a nurturing, profound experience.
But now you are coming out of that cocoon and looking around and going, Man, what was I thinking? This place is seriously messed up! Like, even more messed up than I realized, even though I always knew it was messed up. Wow!
Good for you for seeing that this place is sick and messed up. It did not get sick and messed up all on its own with no help from people. We invented the atomic bomb and we came up with methods of mass slaughter and starvation and police states and widespread torture and repression. That was us.
We came up with this stuff because we are tragically ill-equipped to live together in peace, and we are indeed troubled by the incongruity of what we know to be true and our daily failure to act in any meaningful way to change it. We don’t face the limits of our resources, plan realistically, or care for the poor. We hoard, we squander and we plunder. We live in fear. If we did not live in fear — if we lived in a religious bliss or an ecological harmony, well, things would be different.
But we don’t. And they aren’t.
You should have seen what happened a few weeks ago when my wife and I were up at Marconi Conference Center with our new iPhones trying to get AT&T to give us the free Wi-Fi service to which we are entitled with our exorbitant monthly subscription to AT&T. It was a hall of mirrors with which I am sure you are familiar, involving, at one point, the suggestion to my wife that she have me fax my driver’s license to some unseen office in a parade of unseen offices and conflicting information. It took hours.
Something indeed has happened to the way we individuals communicate with business organizations. Something monstrous and ridiculous has indeed happened. Advances in technology have outstripped human capacity for organized behavior; our machines are godlike, but our organizational instincts are still apelike.
So … I hear you. I don’t have the solution. Mainly I keep my head down and feel grateful for the chance to write every day and to be in communication with people who see some of the same monstrously strange and weird things that I see.
My suggestion? Stick close to your loved ones. Invite kindred spirits to dinner. Keep writing in your journal. Care for those around you and keep a cabin in the woods stocked with food and water.