The corrosive misconception that has shaped our brave new world
Does the benefit of pointing out outrageous behavior outweigh the cost of rewarding outrageous behavior by pointing it out? It's hard to know anymore.
Nevertheless, the recent report of a man in Britain who changed his name to Bacon Double Cheeseburger demands brief mention --- not only for its idiocy but for its insidious banality.
Oh, I know what you're thinking: that this kind of no-news-news isn't worth the time it takes to read about it. But trivial symptoms can offer an early warning to life-threatening conditions; and, with our culture already in dire need of life-support, the passive acceptance of every "new normal" may soon lead us into the category of DNR -- Do Not Resuscitate.
So, yes, the obvious question is, "who cares"? People do all kinds of dopey things and, if they aren't violating any laws or committing immoral acts, we might as well just shrug our collective shoulders and get on with our collective lives -- especially when we can't stop them in any case. Compared with multiple body piercings and blanket-tattoos, adopting a silly name seems downright pedestrian.
But it's worth asking ourselves this: why did it never occur to our grandparents to alter their appearances or their appellations? True, actors like "Rock" Hudson and sports stars like "Dizzy" Dean adopted quirky handles, while Elvis Presley and Liberace successfully branded themselves with ostentation. Even so, back then everyone understood that celebrity culture was a world unto itself, and there was a clear line between reality and stardom.
OUTSIDE THE LINES
Cultural boundaries began disintegrating in the 60s with the age of discontent brought on by the hippie revolution. The rejectionism of the flower children found fertile soil in the moral ambivalence spawned by the Vietnam war. But then we threw out the cultural baby with the cultural bathwater: overreaction against all tradition and convention gave way to the inevitable byproduct that became known as the Me Generation.
For almost half a century now, our society has continued to grow increasingly self-absorbed. And as we have, we've simultaneously grown increasingly disconnected from one another.
The corrosive misconception that has shaped our brave new world is that happiness is a product of wealth, fame, freedom, and pleasure. But our grandparents understood what we have forgotten: they knew that happiness comes from being connected to something greater than oneself; that physical pleasure leaves us empty if we don't find pleasure in the value of our lives; that freedom is only worth what we do with it; and the greatest wealth is measured in those things that cannot be measured at all.
As a result, the generations of the past did not seek to stand out in the crowd but looked to find the right crowd to stand together with. They did not try to sever their connection to the past but recognized that knowing where they came from steered them toward a destination worthy of the journey. They were not afraid of change, but they held the reins of progress tightly so that change did not carry them headlong into places they would never want to go.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Tradition dictates that names communicate a sense of purpose by acknowledging lineage, celebrating accomplishment, or inspiring ideals. Names of presidents, heroes, and distinguished forebears instilled in children a sense of responsibility and a standard toward which to aspire. Names like Sky, Echo, and Moon Unit would have been viewed with utter bewilderment, and for good reason. All the more so, what higher purpose does one hope to proclaim by naming himself for ground beef and pig meat?
Earlier generations would have been similarly baffled by the transformation of one's body into an exhibition for no reason other than to attract attention -- which was itself a sign of immaturity and distorted values.
As the boundaries of personal conduct and good taste have dissolved, so to has our ability to feel the sense of joy and fulfillment that comes from committing oneself to a higher purpose. And, since we can't experience genuine happiness, we look for ways to distract ourselves from the pointlessness of our lives and seek validation from others by making spectacles of ourselves in the most demeaning ways.
Indeed, King Solomon said in Proverbs, "Do not remove the boundaries of the world, which were set in place by your fathers." The more we lose sight of where the lines of identity are drawn, the more we find ourselves lost and alone, flailing wildly for someone to notice us.
But even as the cultural tide strives to wash away the boundaries between illusion and reality, every once in awhile the purveyors of fantasy stumble on to the truth, even if it is by accident.
One of the most substantive films of recent years is The Intern, in which Robert DeNiro plays a 70-year-old widower who finds himself working for an edgy, high-tech start-up and turns the business on its head with his old-fashioned work ethic and his traditional, common sense values. Without sermonics or sentimentality, the film gives a nod to follow-your-dream idealism while simultaneously deflating the myth that you can have it all.
It's clever, it's clean, and it carries you along effortlessly, leaving you happy and hopeful that loyalty, self-discipline, personal responsibility, and the wisdom of experience may not be completely forgotten values after all.
It also reminds us that the conventions of the past often provide the best foundation for a successful future.