I’ve been reading Oliver James’ Affluenza. Like Oliver’s They F**k You Up, I’ve found myself in the now-getting-familiar position of agreeing with most of what he says, while thinking that most of what he says is very dubious indeed.
In Affluenza it’s been a bit clearer why I’m feeling this paradoxical division. Quite bluntly, Oliver just throws shit in, based entirely on personal experience. Not years of personal experience, mind you, more of an, “Ooh, I thought this while shaving. Sounds good to me. Let’s run with it.” An excellent starting place for a new theory of social economics, but not a great foundation for rigorous scientific thought – or for winning arguments.
Still, he’s been good for me. His book is all about how, basically, competition will break your heart.
‘Competition’ covers everything from looking ‘better’, to your earnings, your house, even what you eat.
It’s a modern sickness, of course; getting worse all the time. But mine isn’t. In fact, mine’s is a very old sickness, that I’ve suffered from for years and years and am only now, at crisis point, asking myself questions that I should have asked years ago.
I used to have a recurring dream. I dreamt that I had to go ‘back’ to school, to hand books in, I think. I was in the deserted school corridor and realised suddenly that I didn’t have to go there, I had the power to leave. The feeling of liberation was enormous. Sounds like a very elementary, unedifying dream, but still to this day I can remember the exact sensation, like someone had lifted a huge weight off my shoulders, like the universe had possibilities. Like I was – whisper it – free.
I have never felt free. I can think about my life and trace the last time I felt free back to being around eight. When you consider that I have no house, no car, no mortgage, no job, no dependents – not even any pets – don’t you think it odd that I am unable to feel free?
The truth is I am shackled to the inside of my head. There’s no freedom in me. I don’t understand the concept. This modern sickness that keeps us all chained to pursuing impossible goals is beyond being ‘understood’ by me – I invented it.
Of course, I didn’t. But I suspect I am in the first generation of this era of malaise. There’s probably a slightly earlier generation in the States – they call themselves the baby boomers there – who have Oliver’s (rather annoyingly named) Affluenza Virus, but now, of course, it’s spread all over the world and is growing apace.
It makes us all depressed and neurotic, joyless and unhappy. Nothing is ever good enough for us, because we’re not good enough.
But, in proof of the inherent weakness of some of Oliver’s arguments, my parents failed in many ways to be classic Affluenza victims, and much of their behaviour simply shouldn’t have produced someone like me.
Oliver reckons if your mum and dad placed a high value on material goods, keeping up appearances, competing with the joneses, and so forth, and were “cold” in their upbringing of you then you will be “infected”. The trouble is, Andy & Mary, my dynamic duo of Child-rearing for Dummies, were not really a lot of those things.
My mum never bought new, unless it was dirt cheap out the Bargain Centre. They were never influenced by car advertising or consumer goods advertising. “If you’re no’ needin’ it, it’s no’ a bargain” – an old Scottish saying which both my parents rigorously upheld. Neither did they pine for said consumer goods. My parents didn’t have a phone. My parents didn’t have a fridge. In fact, their first fridge arrived somewhere around 1976 and belonged to my Uncle Bobby who gave them it when he emigrated to Australia.
They did not own their own home and, although they looked at buying one at least once, they didn’t because the mortgage would be too high and would restrict their lifestyle. When you consider this was around 1974 and the mortgages were dirt cheap by today’s standards, and they were well-heeled and had money to spare, this seems all the more remarkable. They just didn’t care, and were not remotely influenced by what imaginary “other people” had. Or did.
My mother never owned precious jewellery – one very worn, completely plain, gold wedding band was it. We had the same Wilton carpet throughout my entire life at home. We didn’t buy a colour TV till the old black & white one broke down, and they never bought full-price LPs. We never bought furniture, ornaments or electronic or electrical goods. We never went out as a family to anything that cost money. We didn’t eat in restaurants and nobody bought presents.
I could go on all day, but you’re getting the point. They didn’t spend, they didn’t covet and they didn’t give a damn what other people had. So how the hell did they produce such a competitive neurotic child as me?
Why does my status and wealth, or lack of it, matter so much? I don’t mean in Wall Street terms, because by all appearances – no car, no mortgage, no jewellery etc, etc – I’m just my parents all over again, and many people looking at my lifestyle would consider it to be very anti-consumerist and ‘green’, which it paradoxically is, but I, me, the person, is well-emmeshed in Affluenza sickness.
In me it is a subtle, destructive, insidious disease, making me miserable at other people’s whims, making me evaluate everything I think, produce and do. Or don’t do. Why?
The secret lies, as it often does, in that old recurring dream. One I haven’t dreamt for many, many, years. Which, in itself, tells you something. Nowadays I dream the collection dreams, where I find hoards of fabulous stuff in thrift shops: jewellery, antique purses, scarves, fabulous beaded things. I gather them all up, frantically, hoping no-one else has spotted how valuable they are. Eventually I have to cross that line to owning them. I take them to the till and it’s there that my wonderful dream of discovery goes horribly wrong. At the till I discover the goods shouldn’t have been put out, they’re wrongly priced, Doris hasn’t authorised them to go on sale yet, they can’t be sold. The reasons are endless but, in short, I CAN’T HAVE THEM.
Ah, so close and yet so far. These dreams – so common as to occasionally be nightly – turn from dreams of excitement and discovery into nightmares of frustration and loss. Dreams that wake me up with sore teeth, marks in my palms from where my fingernails have been digging in; sometimes, a throat choked with tears and a blue mood so dark it’s like having a little black cloud following you around all day.
This is the kind of dream that has replaced the leaving school dream, the kissing the milk boy dream, my sunny home above a station dream. That’s them, the three golden dreams I’ve had in my life, and every one of them about freedom, letting go, liberation.
I am beyond being in a gilded cage – mine is a concrete cell, four feet by four feet.
And, much as I’d like to blame the parents, I can’t. It was a long, long time ago, any control they had over my life is long gone, so all that’s left is me and my own behaviour. I’ve locked me in the cell and don’t know how to get out.
But before, although I knew I was in it, I couldn’t understand why or how I got there. I could see through it out into the wider world but I couldn’t reach out of my confinement or find a way out. Now I know the answer.
Had to. That’s what’s kept me there all these years – all the things I “had” to do. When I had that leaving school dream, when I very first realised I could liberate myself, I realised that “had to” wasn’t real. I could change “had to” if I wanted.
Somehow I lost that tiny moment of satori. I don’t know exactly when, or exactly how. I suspect because realising it in one moment was not strong enough to counteract all those years of “having to”. Maybe it was just too ingrained, or maybe it was too frightening. If I didn’t “have to” do something then maybe there was a whole load of other things that weren’t compulsory. Maybe me, myself, was built on a false foundation. Maybe everything I believed in was false – waaaaaaaaaaay too threatening, better go back to what we know, knuckle down and achieve.
The book (but one; that was Thoreau’s Walden, damn fine) I read before this one was Jerry Stocking’s How to Win by Quitting. A very good book bogged down by a slow slide into abstraction so pernicious I could barely follow it eventually. But his metaphor hell aside, I got a lot out of it, not least that Jerry thinks you should give up everything you care about. Absolutely everything. Jerry, of course, got to the point where he was seeing Jesus and giving up his wife & children, and then deciding he had to give up life itself (i.e. breathing). In short – somewhat scarily when he’s expecting you to take him seriously as a guru – Jerry actually had a nervous breakdown. But, that aside, I felt Jerry had something here. Jerry was convinced until you gave up things you “loved” you could never find yourself. You could not be free. And damn if I didn’t think he had a point.
When I decided recently that I had to quit, needed to give up, I didn’t know what to let go of. As usual, I did all the sensible stuff. Oh, make a list, talk it through, think about what you value.
Horseshit. If you hang onto “what you value” how do you know that it’s actually valuable? What if what you’re hanging onto as “valuable” is actually just safe, rewarding? Believe me, “rewarding” isn’t good if it’s rewarding something in you that’s unhealthy.
Like this blog. My blog gets big readership (got – I lost a load when I just deleted all my other blogs without [much] warning, and that loss filled me with a strange comfort and joy.) Especially if I talk about being molested, or I do character assassinations on people who like to read about themselves. But was that really what I valued? Had I really set out in life to write about the world’s Olly Buxtons, big or small? Maybe I had. But there was only one way to find out. Give it up. See if it cost me anything. See if I genuinely cared or if it just rewarded a part of me I’d be a whole lot better off without.
Likewise, I should have given up DANNY. Especially as it was supposedly the thing I cared about most. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually withdraw the books from sale, although I should have. But I could stop ‘writing’ it, which I did, and still have.
But have I changed?
Not one iota, unless you count a little more self-knowledge perhaps, and yes, one thing, I’m not nearly as anxious about the ‘loss’ of blog readership as I would have – should have? – been in the (recent) past. So something’s made a slight impression.
But I still haven’t told you how I got like this. How did I get infected by parents who were so not the American Dream?
Easy. Thwarted ambition combined with no self-esteem. My parents maybe didn’t pursue having stuff, but being ‘better’ – oh, that was a whole different ball game.
My father had suffered poverty and hardship in his life – although not acutely. My mother had suffered none, although she had been a child during the war and so had suffered the privations of that. But they were offset by her father being a part-time spiv. He always knew a man who could, so they never went without. So why then?
Ambition. The rotten worm in the bud that keeps us all buying brainlessly. That car you want, the bigger house, it’s not out of ‘need’, as you call it – it’s fake, unreal, false. That’s why it’s so unrewarding when you get it. How often have you bought something you really, really wanted, just had to have, and discovered that not only did it not give you quite the thrill you expected but, when the ownership euphoria wore off, you felt worse than you did before you had it? Of course, now you have to work harder and longer to pay for it, so now you’re deeper in the hole. That’s mindless destructive ‘ambition’ in a consumer setting. You do it because you think you will feel better about yourself, whether that’s owning the car or being the revered intellectual ‘giant’.
Well, that was my parents. Their consumption was not the conspicuous one of ‘stuff’, but more the abstract one of status. If little Jane – as I was then – gets to be top of her class it will prove how intelligent I am. If little Jane has an aptitude for reading it will prove how erudite I am. If little Jane is smarter, shinier, more outspoken, more adult then it will prove how just-about-fucking-everything-better I am. I win.
I was a big red sports car, a McMansion, a Prada bag, a degree, a ‘good job’. I was all of that and more. I could be everything they weren’t – within reason. Mustn’t make them too uncomfortable. Mustn’t shine too bright. Be more, but not that much more. Be brilliant, but not that brilliant. Shine, but don’t eclipse me.
That’s not easy, fraught as it is with mixed messages. Achieve, don’t achieve. Attain, don’t attain. And I still do it now.
I don’t ask myself any longer what I want, because I don’t have the first idea what I want. Not one. I have got so detached from my own needs and feelings I couldn’t begin to tell you who I am.
And so, although I have not yet seen Jesus (boooooooo!) or left my partner and willed myself to die, I have quit. I’ve left school. Not all at once, but I’m doing it a bit at a time, chopping off limbs, losing stuff, trying new stuff out.
I’m nowhere near done yet, and I imagine it could be a long while till I manage to peel back enough layers to find the lost Chancery Stone, but I’m hoping she’s still in there somewhere and I may yet reclaim her. Let’s just hope she actually is a writer when I get there.