It’s really all about power, isn’t it? All this stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s about power. The power to make your little part of the world the way you want it. The power to decide what little part of the world is your little part of the world. Call it control. Call it agency. It’s power. It’s the ability to affect — and effect — how things turn out for you, short-term and long-term. And it’s also about frustration. What you do when you realize you don’t have power or agency or control.
This hit me as I was commiserating with a friend on Facebook. I don’t want to say too much out of concern for privacy, but sufficed to say neither of us are having an especially good time right now. I was trying to explain my philosophy of “fuck it.” Basically it boils down to me doing this re-evaluation of the things I like to do and the things other people seem to expect of me. Those things I like I keep. Everything else gets stuck onto the “fuck it” pile. This is still a work in progress and I don’t recommend tossing everything and making it your life plan, but my thinking is that I’m not going to get to the point of
suckering people for money earning an honest day’s wages until I know what the rubes will pay for what I have to offer my fellow passengers on this trip though the cosmos.
I’ve been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. It’s such a good book. It was written in the 1950’s so it’s a nightmare in terms of gender-inclusive language, but it’s clear the guy had it together and he’d have written it differently if he were doing it today. Anyway, it’s about how individuals decide to join new mass movements. His examples come from the rise of Christianity, the Protestant Schism, the Bolshevik Revolution and, because it’s written just after World War II, Hitler and the Nazis. An Andrew Sullivan piece that was otherwise a nightmare reminded me of Hoffer’s book. I’ve been thinking about nucleation points — places where conditions are right for a system to start to change from one thing to another — and it hit me that Hoffer’s book is a taxonomy of how that works. He’s not polluted or distracted by the present day because it hadn’t happened yet. All he had to go off of was a past that was less distant to him than us. And there was that whole “being a freaking genius thing.” He had that going for him.
Anyway, he talks a lot about frustration. He’s careful not to use the term clinically. Hell, he’s careful with all the words he uses, but especially that one. A good chunk of the book is a compendium of how different life circumstances can lead to frustration. He then illustrates how a new mass movement can give people the hope that their frustrations can be relieved. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not all the way through it yet, but one thing that’s becoming clear is that it’s not a good idea for a new mass movement to be too specific with details. People are happy to fill in the blanks.
It reminds of of something I’ve encountered a millions times when sitting down to talk to someone about me writing or making a new thing (video, educational piece, whatever). They generally have a pretty good idea about how they want to feel when the whole thing is done. What’s going to make them feel that way is pretty much a mystery to them. Experience has taught me that whatever they think is the answer is probably wrong (or so hopelessly incomplete it amounts to the same thing). It’s not their fault. If they knew what they needed or wanted they’d have already done it for themselves. They’re not stupid, after all. They spend their days happily doing stuff I can’t — or don’t want to — do. Part of my job is getting them trust me that it’s OK they weren’t born knowing how to do whatever it is that needs to be done. And trusting me to do it. My job is figuring out how to make the thing that’s going to make them feel the way they want at the end. And then get them to pay me that sweet, sweet money for it. People: good at knowing how they want to feel. People: pretty sucky at figuring out how to get there. Me: just like everyone else.
I think I “get” Trump now. And guns. And abortion. And how you can repeat all this crap about Obama that just doesn’t hold up to even cursory examination. The thing itself is not that important. It’s the ability to believe in the thing. You get to control that. You can own it, literally and metaphorically. Sure you’re more likely to shoot yourself or a loved one than you are a crook trying to rob you, but you own that gun. You can have that. You can make that happen. And before you start feeling all that damned superior yourself, you might want to be aware that you’ve got just as many blind spots. Think about that stereotypical person on Facebook that really pisses you off. What are their characteristics? Congratulations. You’ve just listed the things in your life you are frustrated about. You’ve done a chemical analysis of the soil that will list in great detail what will sprout and grow in you. You want to control, those things. You want to affect how those things turn out. And you’ll overlook things and gloss over things and do everything the person you despise does to prop up the hope that you will some day. “If people would only just…” So don’t get too full of yourself, Spanky. You’re just someone else’s garden.
A couple loose ends: None of this is new. Or original. People have been frustrated for as long as there have been people. It’s one of our defining characteristics as things that exist in three-dimensional space and fart. The new twist is we have a much wider assortment of things to be frustrated about because we have such visibility into the lives and thoughts of others. We simultaneously know way to much about other people and way too little about ourselves. That’s not a particularly good recipe for happiness. Then there’s the whole thing where somehow we’ve decided that “stuff” is what it’s all about. Whoever controls our ability to get stuff controls us. That’s kind of weird.
Waiting for the punch line? Waiting for the solution? Sorry. Not going to find any answers here. For my part I’ve been looking around a lot lately saying “What the fuck?” I’ve been seeing a lot of other people doing the same thing. I think I get it now. It’s about power, or the lack thereof. It’s people working out frustrations the only way they can.
I don’t know what to do about any of it (if, indeed, there’s anything to be “done”). But at least I know what I’m looking at.
It’s a start.