Friday, August 22, 2014

Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings

A few years ago, I lost a bunch of weight, worked out (hard) daily, and, for the first time in my life, looked really good with my shirt off. And yet nothing changed. No one was the least bit nicer to me, women did not throw themselves at me, nothing in my life got detectably better!

Strangers treated me exactly the same; it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them. Crowds didn't gather to gape in astonishment.

"Duh," you say. But if you'll think about it, you'll realize there's something bugging you about yourself that's precisely the same: thinning hair, too short, too old, etc. Whatever your Achilles heel, if you were to rectify it, the world would fail to celebrate. Things would still feel slightly "off". Decks would still seem a bit stacked against you. People wouldn't be quite nice enough, fair enough, caring enough. You might manage to shift yourself to some different inadequacy category, but those categories are surprisingly non-heirarchical. It doesn't get "better". The same vague undercurrent of malice, which we mistakenly take personally, persists.

I wrote last year here on the Slog that:
If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all injustice appears to stem from that....The world is "off", and it has nothing to do with you. Yet, whoever you are, including billionaires and movie stars, things seem stacked against you...and it feels personal. So we (mostly unconsciously) attribute the brunt of it to whichever personal characteristic we happen to focus on.
The ramifications are profound, particularly in how they affect minorities. If you're black or Muslim or old or a woman or short or Jewish or Asian or gay or disabled, you certainly endure some bona fide bigoted headwind. So it's natural that much of the world's non-specific harshness, malice, and injustice would strike you as more of that; as more personally focused than it truly is.  

This explains obsessive feminists who over-frame everything as gender issues, Jews who use the term "anti-semitic" several times per day, etc etc. In each case, there are legitimate fights to be fought, but there is an unrealistic notion of how the other side of the coin experiences the world - how good, exactly, it can get even when one's perceived shackles are removed (or are reclassified as something other than shackles). Watch crowds walk by (in a city, where people are less diligent about composing their public expression), and you'll see almost entirely grim, anxious, stressed, put-upon faces. Including people with plenty of whatever you feel persecuted for lacking.

Money is a great example. When people who've spent their lives fantasizing about riches and resenting the advantages of wealthy people get a windfall of cash, they soon discover an uneasy truth: they shift to become a different "one of them", that's all. Nothing essential changes. We've heard enough tales of lottery winners and child stars to know they don't often live happily ever after, and we falsely assume it's because they've been foolish enough to screw up a good thing. But that's not the problem. It's that the visceral sense of inadequacy and grievance remained; money didn't make it all better. The universe does not recognize your "win".

There is no "win". Whatever cards you've been dealt, you're playing a role, with upsides and downsides. It's possible to flip to a different role, but you never move up. Elevation turns out not to be a thing, because no particular role is better than any other. They're all mixed bags! All of them! Any illusions to the contrary stem from the neurotic human tendency to obsess over what's missing.

Related: my speculation that, in the most private corner of his psyche, Albert Einstein deemed himself a hopeless loser due to his funny-looking hair and disorganized desk.

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