Serving the Task

Facebook — OK, now you know where this started.

This article, “In Defense of Being Average, showed up on my timeline a couple of times in the last week. My first thought, “Average needs no defense.” Ha ha. I read it the first time and thought, “What? Seriously?” Then it was posted by someone I’m close to, and I responded.

I got a Facebook Lashing and an Unleashing of Patronizing Misunderstanding.

I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and a conversation with a friend last night opened my eyes to an interesting phenomenon I’d like to test.

The power of television. The idiocy of comparing oneself to others.

First of all, I’ve learned since then that people really ARE influenced by the media and people really do compare themselves to others as a way to evaluate their own personal worth. I know, I know, everybody knows that but I didn’t.

A family member had an epiphany one day a few years back that he’s just like other people. He’s not “special.” He’s a Gen-X’r and I remember from friends of that era and students during that time that “special” was an attribute inculcated by their parents (it got worse). In his case, he’s a brilliant, talented, handsome, shy, socially insecure person who responded to being an outsider with “I’m better than you, anyway.” A comparison. When he realized he’d be happier if he accepted that he WASN’T better than anyone else, he made the choice to be happy. (Pretty amazing, to choose to be happy, and it was an INDIVIDUAL choice.)

I had some problems with the philosophical underpinnings of his decision not to be a rock star, but I could definitely see how he’d made his world larger by “deciding” to be “normal.” I figured that sooner or later he’d see that we all live in a world of other people and must do what we can to hold our lives together and we all fight with our individual demons (and angels) and that being or not being a rock star had more to do with luck than with skill. He doesn’t see that. He still evaluates himself against other people. I’ve realized, too, that he’s far more affected by early life exposure to television than I am or could possibly be. A comparison but enlightening. I believe it’s both a generational and a family culture difference. I know that when he and his brother were staying with me and my ex, they weren’t allowed TV and that was hard on them.

TV wasn’t as pervasive in my growing up world. Not even as pervasive as it was in my little brother’s growing up world. On top of that, we were restricted from watching more than an hour a week and THAT we watched with our parents. Sitcoms were “verboten.” My parents’ take on sitcoms was that they were time wasters with canned laughter. “If it were really funny, they wouldn’t need that canned laughter,” my dad insisted. “They’re shows about families. You have a real family.” True. I did. What I COULD watch with my dad was The Outer Limits and Rocky and Bullwinkle. 

Those restrictions loosened up as I got older, but by then TV didn’t interest me, and I still missed most of the shows my peers talked about. I know that Betty and Bud were the teenage kids in Father Knows Best but that’s it. My dad thought sitcoms were propaganda devised to brainwash people into a certain kind of behavior, mainly to make people dissatisfied so they’d go to stores and buy things. Maybe my dad was right. Now I know shows affected peoples perspectives on themselves or on their lives.

Same with peer pressure and fashion. If I came home wanting something the other girls had, the immediate parental response was, “You’re not other girls. You’re you.” End of story. Not that I was better or worse. I was simply NOT them.

Another friend recently confided that she wished her family had been like the families she saw on TV. What if she hadn’t had TV? What would she have thought? Would she have seen her family differently? Would she have chosen different action in response to her family if she hadn’t seen the “perfect” families on television?

I can’t say this kind of dissatisfaction was new with TV; of course not. The Bush gave Moses a list and on that list was something about envy. I imagine back in the day people looked at the family next door and saw what they had, imagined an idyllic back-story, and made themselves miserable by comparing themselves to their neighbors. But, as a friend once said to me, “No one knows anothers pain.” That is true. It’s entirely possible that Hebrew farmer with the beautiful wife and ox was dying of lung cancer and didn’t know it.

As Kerouac said, “Comparisons are odious.”

I would like to be a conventionally published writer and get money from writing. Being “famous” seems like a kind of trap, though. Fame takes a private person free to live her own life and write her own stories and transforms her into a public person who belongs to other people — her stories, too. The moment comes when some voice of the public says, “This isn’t like your other books and I’m disappointed.”

There is also the fact that I might be the world’s best writer (in an absolute sense) but that does not mean that my work will ever be published conventionally or that I will become famous. There is no cause and effect relationship. That does not mean I should not write, but I’ve been told many times by so-called friends that my chances of being published are slim so it’s stupid even to try. For them, too, the whole POINT of doing something depends on being recognized for it.

Back to the article — my (strong) objection to the whole thing is that it never says, “Be yourself.” It just says, “Accept that you’re no better than anyone else.” When the focus of our attention is on comparing ourselves to others — real or fictional — how can we ever be happy? Ultimately the writer of this article makes the point that living our lives well is what makes us happy. Where he and I never meet is in WHY do something (like write novels about the Reformation or the middle ages that no one wants to publish and few people want to read). The reason he never mentions is love for the work itself, “simple” joy in doing it for its own sake.

7 thoughts on “Serving the Task

  1. Martha, this is excellent, insightful and, thought provoking. I enjoyed reading this and I wish that many more folks could read this post. It is very true that most individuals base their self worth on perception- what is seen on TV, the internet, magazines and, in schools.

    I’ve seen some of the ugliest and ridiculous clothes being worn by kids as well as adults. Baggy pants that are barely touching the buttocks of young men and clothes that leave nothing to the imagination on women. That is just naming a few observations.

    I have watched very little TV in my day and I still do not miss it. There are many things that are available for entertainment and it’s all just about free.

    • Thank you! Thinking about this made me realize there is a crevasse that I can’t bridge between what amount to different cultures. It’s a psychological phenomenon that I truly cannot understand. I didn’t understand that I DID NOT UNDERSTAND my stepson. His motivations and mine are very dissimilar and neither of us is equipped to see the other person’s perspective, even if we think we do. Crazy.

      • Exactly. My son and my daughter who are in their late forties have many ideas and perspectives that are different from my way of seeing things. Perhaps it’s a generation gap and maybe not.

      • There’s certainly that. I think in my case it’s a TV gap. I was at a party several years ago — it was colleagues and the students and young people who tutored in the tutoring center. When Friends came on, the hostess (older than I) and some of my colleagues went inside to watch it leaving the party and leaving me to grill the food. I was so disgusted and pissed off by that. The Mexican kids had been raised to pay attention to living, breathing people (as was I) so it ended up a pretty interesting party with the older, white women watching a sitcom and me and some students and tutors outside grilling chicken and talking about life.

  2. I don’t know what any of this means. I keep reading and it keeps escaping me. I’m sure there are plenty of slaves to pop culture among my acquaintances. I just don’t seem to know them personally.

  3. In the UK we live under a cult of personality heavily promoted by the media including television. And as many people still give up thinking for themselves and instead hang on every media word without questioning truth or relevance, we do have a population in which many sadly aspire to be like the latest media find, whether pop star, model, footballer’s wife or someone who claims to have been the butt of a nasty social media attack.

    When an election is in the offing, media attention is focussed on whether someone can eat a ham sandwich, whether he or she looks leadership material, derisory comments about hairstyle and clothes (if women are in the frame) and other nonsensical trivia. Policies and what these people will do when in government gets forgotten.

    We need to get back to being ourselves, dismissing poseurs and attention-seekers, and concentrating on the things that actually matter to living in this world.

    Apologies for rant. Media here has become impossible recently.

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