Content warning: reference to child abuse; guns; death
As an elder Millennial, I admit that the rhetoric of the whole Millennials (et al.) vs. Boomers (et al.) feud can feel irrelevant and reductive at times.
As much as I love the utility of an all-encompassing catchphrase, and respect parody in the service of iconoclastic comedy, “Okay, Boomer” is sometimes used in ways that force much more complicated issues into the framework of a simple generation gap.
So, I acknowledge that simple inter-generational snark has its limits.
Still, I’m going to paint with broad strokes today, because this macro has handed me an enticingly broad brush.
I’d almost like to believe that this was created by a 30-something with more qualifications and fewer prospects than most financially-secure 65+-year olds ever had to face, but ultimately I think it reads like a genuine artifact by and for “the Old Folks.”
Most of the bulleted items are clearly dog whistles, but I’m really hung up the “garden hose” one.
“Respect for parents” covers all manner of “kids these days” sins: majoring in English, not having kids when it sure seems to be the right time, enforcing healthy boundaries, being gay… the list goes on.
In “stood for the flag,” we have a defense of all kinds of thoughtless patriotism, including implicit support for police brutality and the willingness (some might say obligation) to attempt to conceal the hardwood foundations of American racism beneath the questionable beige carpeting of respectability politics.
“Played outside” feels like general pearl-clutching about the Video Games, the Computers, and/or All Those Electronic Devices turning everyone into screen-obsessed couch potatoes (who also know how to set up All Your Electronic Devices).
“Had toy guns” could be an enormous and depressing post of its own, but we’ll just settle here for a general preference to minimize the scope and sociopolitical clout of the NRA.
That spanking bullet is good old Normalization of Child Abuse*.
And then what’s left is… non-traditional drinking apparatus.
Am I missing the dog whistle?
My best guess is that it’s somehow meant to be sissy (read: feminine-adjacent; read: weak; read: inferior) to NOT be willing to drink out of the garden hose, but I also have to admit that still feels like a stretch.
Just, has drinking out of a hose vs. a faucet really ever been a point of contention? It’s so oddly specific.
BOOMER: You look like someone who used a KITCHEN tap your whole life! Go ahead. Drink from this sun-hot rubber hose.
MILLENNIAL: I mean, I CAN, I’m not technically opposed to it, I just don’t see why…
B: DRINK IT!
M: …if I do, will you stop telling me to hit my kids?…
B: *shakes head slowly*
*maintains eye contact*
Also, the whole “Share if you survived!” thing feels unnecessarily cruel (but then again, I’m one of those Easily Offended Millennials, so what do I know?).
I think the intended meaning of “I survived” is just an effort to minimize the validity of all of these other debates.
Like, “Geez, no one DIED.”
Except… some people did.
Because of institutionalized racism.
Because of child abuse.
Because of both real and toy guns.
The dead ones just aren’t out there posting Minion memes.
Animated gif of Ted Danson on the show “The Good Place,” holding up a plush Minion doll in amazement
I knew there had to be a trick to substantive, lasting, soul-fulfilling happiness!
And it seems so right that a white dude named Justin should be the one to reveal those tricks to me.
After spending just a few weeks taking an course created by an elite institution.
You see, hacking happiness works like flying with pixie dust (an equally actual thing).
It’s just as simple as changing your habits.
I wonder which bad habit Justin started with first.
The “too much melanin” habit? Perhaps the “too much estrogen” habit? Maybe the “not enough money” habit, or the “neurodivergence” habit?
“Again, the point here is that these positive habits have been tested and proven to work, based on psychological science.”
The creator of the class he’s taking has “collected all the psychological science out there,” so I’m glad that’s been taken care of.
Mmmm. Delicious, objective science. Home of the placebo effect.
Which is totally irrelevant here.
The science is in, because science is about finding absolute answers and shutting down further inquiry, and the history of psychology research is also free from bias, caveats, or limitations.
Unrelated, maybe don’t look up “replication crisis.”
Anyway, it’s comforting to know that it only takes five weeks to get the gist of this happierness thing. That’s way faster results than I got from that cult I joined last year.
The four “tips and tricks” Justin has chosen to feature in this piece of substantive journalism for Business Insider, a publication with no investment in maintaining a docile and uncritical workforce, are:
Focus on Your Strengths
Invest in Experiences
Learn to Savor More
Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness
So simple. So practical. So efficient.
I’m sure some asshole could find a lovely sunset to superimpose this list onto, and then we’d really be in business.
Regardless of circumstance, happiness is equally available to anyone who follows these easy steps.
It doesn’t matter whether they were born already owning a yacht or if they’ve lived their entire lifetime without access to professional health care. It’s still true that both of those hypothetical people have strengths and things to be grateful for!
A cynical person might suggest that “happiness” as an end goal could be seen as a convenient diversion for rich people by rich people to avoid engaging with the real reasons that unhappiness is so persistent in the world in the first place, and maybe even as an excuse to blame unhappy people for their own failures rather than accepting at least partial complicity in perpetuating oppressive and exploitative systems.
But that’s just not backed by the entirely unflawed, objective, and apolitical science of psychology.
I wasn’t sure if there was any way I could savor this listicle masquerading as an article any more than I already did, but then I read the advice in the voice of the Hedonismbot from Futurama, and added the words “in bed” to the end of every sentence, as per fortune cookie tradition.
Focus on Your Strengths … in bed
Invest in Experiences … in bed
Learn to Savor More … in bed
Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness … in bed
There is plenty of trustworthy research that supports some aspects of positive psychology.
And the goal of understanding how to help humans feel less bad about living their lives certainly has value.
And I grant that the kinds of suggestions provided in the article are purposefully framed to be as generalizable as possible, in order to be applicable across more circumstances and contexts, so that they aren’t as easily dismissed by a jerk like me saying, “That’s not actually practical for most people.”
Still, I can’t get over how it’s decontextualized to the point where the reasons why we need to study and practice something as fundamental as “experiencing good feelings” are secondary to the goal of “experiencing good feelings.”
The fact that positive psychology is so widely embraced and promoted by rich white people definitely gives me pause, when it is also largely a framework that blames disenfranchised individuals for not having felt or thought right.
On this blog I’ll frequently reference Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. In this excerpt, she describes some encounters she had with Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.” She writes, “When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology ‘applied behavioral economics,’ because ‘it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,’ nobody laughed.” The popularity of positivity psychology and its disdain for ‘learned helplessness’ reminds me too much of social Darwinism as a means of justifying beliefs that disproportionately harm members of already marginalized populations.
I’m not here to question whether there’s merit in recognizing strengths, having experiences, savoring things, and expressing gratitude.
I advocate for all of these things.
Just, maybe feeling happy after understanding and practicing these habits isn’t as much a “trick” as it is a normal consequence of not ceding control of your good feelings to a ubiquitous conglomeration of rapacious systems that benefit from your misery.
It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.
The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!
We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?
People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.
The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions. If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.
Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.
Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.
Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!
At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?
Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.
Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.
While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.
This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”
Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy.
It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.
His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive. Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment.
My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probablydidn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.
The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.
We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.
The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.
It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic.
The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.
It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate.
(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)
I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).
The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.
But that’s not the end.
Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O.
It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.
It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.
This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.
Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.
The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.
The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.
Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.
Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior.
So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?
Expectations, communication, and complexity.
Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree.
Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.
The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.
What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold.
At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.
As always, context matters.
The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.”
She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.
The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.
And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.
But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.
It happens, and then you need to move on.
The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.
And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.
Reading this macro made me think of the character Sir Didymus from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
You know, the aggressively confident guardian of unspecified values that he’d die to defend?
The chivalrous gentleman who overcompensates for his diminutive stature by constantly asserting his dominance?
The scrappy li’l fella with no qualms about starting any beef with anyone at any time?
Yep, that’s the one.
This post is for that hairy little Muppet.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Labyrinth, it’s not entirely unlike The Wizard of Oz.
A plucky young lady goes on a magical journey of self-discovery, along the way gathering various supportive companions who are actually personifications of her inner struggles and desires.
In Oz, Dorothy’s motley trio perceive themselves as cowardly, foolish, and heartless, but later reveal themselves to be respectively brave, clever, and compassionate.
Henson’s then-contemporary fairy tale is a bit darker and a bit more introspective.
Whether it was intentional or not, heroine Sarah’s companions appear to be a trio of maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Even at their worst, Sarah treats her neurotic friends with empathy and understanding, and she stays patient with them when they lean on problematic behaviors under pressure.
Before it’s all said and done, our teenage protagonist needs a one-on-one sexually-charged power struggle with David Bowie*, but we’ll keep the focus on her little band of misfits. Each of them is able to achieve some kind of closure in the prelude to the big dance party at the end.
Hoggle represents self-doubt. He doesn’t think he has any real value, so his vulnerable and genuine offer to help if he’s needed – with the implicit understanding that he’s worth being needed, and that he can show up for his friends – demonstrates considerable growth.
Ludo is a people-pleaser. He gets his sense of self-worth from being helpful to others, so it’s important for him to be able to hang back and not take on the burden of Sarah’s conflict. (His character is actually far less problematic than the other two, but I shoehorned him into this analysis for consistency. Also, wouldn’t it make sense for a people-pleaser to fade into the background in the presence of more assertive personalities?)
And Sir Didymus?
He’s pure ego, and he learns to back the fuck off.
Didymus would never hesitate to swoop in to save the day. But in his final scene, he recognizes that he can’t. It’s more heroic for him to stand aside, and he does this admirably (if regretfully).
Again, Didymus, this post is for you.
(Please note that the therapist voice below is used for comedic effect, and so some instances that sound condescending in this ostensibly entertaining parody would not be appropriate in real life.)
I can tell how sincere you are when you say, “Never let a person get comfortable disrespecting you.” You have always upheld this value tenaciously, haven’t you?
I wonder what might happen, though, if we reconsidered some of your language choices.
I’d like to know whether you define “disrespect” as an inner feeling that you have, like a sense of a lack of deference, or if you define “disrespect” as a behavior or action that someone else does, like looking at you the wrong way.
If “disrespecting you” is an action, then I understand how you might feel compelled to reciprocate with action.
One available action is certainly screaming wildly and charging at your antagonists with a lance.
You’ve made a lot of points that way, haven’t you?
I wonder if you might have some concerns about porous boundaries, because those can turn into poor boundaries, and then everyone feels like they can just traipse through your bog willy-nilly.
So let’s agree that it’s reasonable to be protective of your space.
But I’d like to propose another framing. If you never let anyone get comfortable making mistakes around you, they’re never going to get comfortable around you, period. Because everyone makes mistakes.
And if people feel defensive because they’re afraid they might get attacked, their behavior might be more likely to come across as disrespectful to you.
So maybe we can be open to the possibility that everyone isn’t always trying to disrespect you.
I know you’re brave enough to handle that.
If by “disrespecting you,” you simply mean a feeling that someone might have about you (like, say, Ambrosius), maybe we can examine the difference between what you can control and what you can’t.
I’m afraid that you can’t control whether people feel respect for you or not.
That’s hard, fuzzy buddy.
That isn’t because you did anything wrong or didn’t try hard enough. I can see how hard you’re always trying, every day.
Your own behavior does play a role in others’ perception of you, but their reactions to your behavior are affected by a lot of things that you simply can’t fight off.
I want to let you know that you’re so strong for sitting with your discomfort without yelling or barking. I heard a little growl, and that’s okay, too.
Before we finish today, I’d like to consider your idea that offering second chances is a sign of weakness, and that people are bound to disrespect you and take advantage of you if you forgive them.
Can we really examine the implications of that?
“They get comfortable depending on your forgiveness.”
Is comfort really so bad, Didymus?
Should everyone be expected to agonize over the prospect of your displeasure?
I remember how you went after sweet old Ludo just as hard as you went after that horde of goblins. But all Ludo was trying to do was cross a bridge to help his friend, while the goblins were really planning to hurt you.
I’d say that I understand why Ludo and Sarah might have been unhappy with you. And I also think that you appreciated having their forgiveness.
Have you been hurt by someone before, Didymus?
You don’t have to answer that right now. Just think about it when you can.
I know how much you love being a good guy, I really do.
But what’s “good” in some situations isn’t necessarily always “good.”
And what’s toxic in some situations isn’t necessarily always toxic.
I mean, you literally live in a toxic swamp. And you love it, and that’s okay.
I understand how it can be comforting to have control over the definition of whose behavior is really toxic, so you be fully confident in asserting your own authority and telling them that their chances are up.
Sometimes people have ignored your firmly established boundaries. And some people might expect an unreasonable amount of accommodation from you.
But we still have consider another very challenging possibility here, Diddy: your behavior can be toxic, too.
Be honest: do you think you give Ambrosius enough space to express his feelings?
Does he really have to be afraid in order for you to feel secure?
You don’t have answer that out loud, either.
That’s a lot of big questions for one day. You’ve been so patient and so strong.
It’s okay if you need to fight off a few goblins when you get home.
And it might be even more brave to remember to say “thank you” to your friends who gave you a second chance.
*Please let this be what happens to us all when we die