Monday, July 03, 2006

Stop it!

A number of blog and mailing list posts that I stumble upon nowadays have a lot to do with an inordinate amount of angst. People are trying either trying to find themselves or trying to find their purpose in life. As if there weren't enough real problems to worry about.

Following the immortal words of Bob Newhart, I want to shout out: "Stop it!"

It comes from a short skit in which Newhart plays a psychiatrist with a very practical piece of advice to his patients. Sadly, Youtube didn't have a copy of the skit, so here's a brief rundown of how it goes:

Woman: "I have a fear of being buried alive in a box."
Psychologist: "Has anyone ever tried to burry you alive in a box?"
Woman: "No, I just have a fear of it."
Psych.: "Well, I have two words for you."
Woman: "Should I write this down?"
Psych.: "Well, most people don't have a problem remembering it."
Woman: "Okay, what is it?"
Psych.: "Stop it."
Woman: "What?"
Psych.: "Stop it."
Woman: "What do you mean, stop it? I can't just stop being afraid of being buried alive."
Psych.: "Yes you can."
Woman: "How?"
Psych.: "I have 10 more words for you."
Woman: "Should I write this down?"
Psych.: "You can if you'd like."
Woman: "Okay, what are they?"
Psych.: "Stop it or I'll burry you alive in a box."

How much more practical can you get than that?

On the other hand, we might also ask why we seem to have an overabundance of angst among people in their twenties and thirties nowadays. Not a new phenomenon, understandably, but it seems prevalent among people who ought to have least cause for it. These young people are smart, well-off, and have a wealth of opportunities ahead of them. One reason comes to mind: the modern cult of the self.

As it happens, I was also rereading GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy and came upon a telling passage in the second chapter:
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself." And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell." I said to him, "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. "Yes, there are," I retorted, "and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.

Ourselves, we are too small. We need to believe in something outside of ourselves. All this self-belief is just crock. And this is why, contrary to romantic notions, the world moves forward not on hyperinflated sense of self-grandeur of a few dreamers but on the dint of tedium and hard work of ordinary, unimaginative, well-adjusted, self-sacrificing folk.

Here's another enlightening passage, this time from Terry Pratchett:
"If you trust in yourself... and believe in your dreams... and follow your star..."


"... you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.
So there. I realize that in writing this some people might be offended because I'm stepping on their dreams. Some people will be angry because I've insulted their personalities. Some people will feel hurt because I'm not pandering to their egos?

For these people, I've got two words:

Stop it.