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Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

Attitude

To the extent that I’ve ever succeeded at anything, one thing that’s been of invaluable assistance has been my attitude that I can change things for the better if I really try.

Now, that’s a more Ayn Rand-y sentence than I’ve started a blog with in a while (note to self: “Ayn Randy” = erotic fanfiction character, terrifying Hallowe’en costume), but it’s honestly not meant to be smug and self-aggrandising. I’m not claiming any innate virtue which makes me an inherently superior being. It’s not that I’m doing something better than anyone else. It’s actually just another way I got lucky.

Certain things about my life recently have been irritating, and many are deeply sub-optimal. But I’ve been working to improve them, and making a lot of progress in establishing a life I’m pretty happy with. Not universally, but often enough, these kinds of problems feel like they’re within my power to fix, and I feel empowered to do something about them. Or when I don’t, I know myself well enough to recognise what kind of self-care I need to indulge in, before having another shot at tackling my problems later.

The reason I call myself lucky isn’t to do with the fixable nature of my problems (although I’ve had my share and then some of good fortune from that direction too) – it’s because of the way I’m wired to see these problems as fixable, and to be stirred to action by them, rather than beaten down into depression and apathy. The lessons that have been drilled into my brain over the past few decades, and shaped the way I see the world, have led me to this point, where challenges are things that can generally be overcome if I knuckle down and apply myself to them.

It’s not been a flawless and uninterrupted lesson; I can’t claim I never do the depression and apathy thing sometimes too. But I’ve had a pretty good deal, in terms of what my life experience has taught some unconscious part of my brain about how the world works. It’s been more empowering for me than not.

And being aware of this makes it all the more noticeable that some people haven’t been taught the same lessons. Life hasn’t told them that their circumstances can be improved, or that hard work pays off. For a lot of them, it’s taught them that you’ll just get shit on whatever you do so why fucking bother.

I’ve gone kinda from one extreme to the other there – obviously most people are somewhere in the middle, and I’m definitely not the unambiguously go-getting powerhouse of productivity and proactivity I’ve kinda painted myself as. I just noticed that my worldview in many regards is more positive and empowering than that of other people. And then I realised what a crapshoot that is and how I’ve really been lucky in this point, as well as in so many others.

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Cracked posted an article recently (and you know how much I love to use that phrase as a basis for a blog post, over and above any efforts at research or serious journalism), about movies in need of an epilogue. Top of the list is The Breakfast Club, the whole point of whose story is undermined without knowing what happens the next day.

To needlessly recap, The Breakfast Club is an ’80s film about a bunch of angsty teens who get stuck in detention together. They each very obviously fit into a different high school demographic – there’s a nerd, a jock, and so on – and would never be friends or find anything in common while living their usual cliquey lives. But being trapped in a room together all day with nothing to do prompts them to, like, talk about their feelings and stuff (with conversation being helped along by smoking some pot), and they actually find things around which to empathise with each other. They start growing close, and forming some meaningful relationships.

The point is, without knowing what happens to them once they’re back to their regular school routine, there’s no way to know what moral we’re supposed to draw from any of this. One clear possibility is the idea that they’ve formed some lifelong friendships, and those cheesy stereotypes will be broken down the moment the bell rings for class the next day. The popular athlete will carry on being friends with the skinny dork, even if this means the other popular athletes call him a loser, because friendship means something, man, and is totally more important than just being cool.

I’m with Dan O’Brien that this completely fucks over all the honesty that’s been central to the film up to that point:

The right ending would have the kids all going back to their own cliques, because that’s how you survive high school.

I think that unlikely bonding experiences such as occur in The Breakfast Club are possible in the real world, and I also think that a much more likely outcome is that the status quo will be more or less restored once everyone resumes their usual place in the mangled teenage hierarchy. Where I disagree with Dan is in his labelling this outcome as the “tragically ever after” ending. Even avoiding schmaltzy bullshit, there’s still a lot of hope in a film which ends that way.

What really would be tragic is if the tribal, in-group/out-group, them-and-us thinking which prevents us from appreciating or understanding each other could never be conquered. It would be tragic if the human tendency to stay within our safe, familiar spaces full of like-minded, similar folk, and to be suspicious of outsiders and mock those who fall into our mental category of “other”, was destined unfailingly to overwhelm our efforts toward empathy and universal compassion.

And it might seem like an ending where the Breakfast Club kids go back to their cliques is about exactly that tragedy, but that’s not what’s going on at all.

Like Dan says, that’s just how you survive high school. In that competitive, emotional, hormonally charged context, the incentives are really strong for adolescents still finding their way in the world to avoid risking the castigation of their peers with whom they’ve found some tenuous acceptance. An American high school (perhaps even more so in the ’80s than today) is one of the hardest places imaginable to start trying to break down these barriers between groups. You’d barely have more luck persuading people to reach out and make a connection beyond the socially imposed limits on what’s acceptable in South Africa under apartheid.

And yet the whole movie is about those barriers giving way entirely to a few hours’ conversation.

Even when a divisive, unfair, destructive caste structure is held in place by the power of high school cliques – one of the most indomitable social forces known to mankind – it’s still just a fa├žade. It crumbles to the touch. Shift the conditions a little, and love and compassion can be unearthed almost instantly.

The obstacles preventing people from connecting with each other are entirely artificial, and have nothing to do with the humanity underneath. The restrictive social structures are all that hold us back, and once those are done away with, our capacity to get along and support each other shines through.

Of course, in this case, it doesn’t last. High school is still what it is, and its very nature discourages certain types of human connection. But social structures are a malleable part of our world, and can always be replaced if enough of us decide that we deserve better. Our ability to make unlikely friends is what’s left in us, when all the surrounding bullshit is stripped away.

The Breakfast Club with a realistic ending isn’t a tragic story; it’s one of hope. It just reminds us how much work is still to be done.

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