Perhaps you saw “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” in theaters this summer. Or you’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the best-selling novel. Maybe you’ve seen or read one of the millions of derivations or mash-ups or sequels or post-scripts or pre-scripts to already established works out there in the American culture.
No? This is what it looks like…
It looks like that, a cover like that, but it also looks like the death of a culture. America is a place in particular that has always prided itself on its creativity, its ingenuity, its ability to come up with novel (pun intended) solutions to complicated problems. This is the birthplace of so many innovations and inventions and “outside-the-box” thinking that’s been the precursor to the wealth and riches that we lord over the rest of the world.
But things have changed lately. In their hunger for money and the desire to turn every pursuit into a business model, originality has been sacrificed in favor of a sure bet. After all, originality also brought us credit-default swaps and toxic assets, right? Publishing houses and agents used to seek dynamic, exciting, original writers. Now they want to know what your “comps” are, books that are so alike to yours that they prove there’s a market for what you’re trying to write. A market, not because it’s good writing, but because they’ve already liked a book exactly like yours. I used to shudder in the fear that someone would scoop my unwritten plots and take the limelight of creative inspiration I’d cracked open or been lucky enough to tap into. Now I welcome the realization that the plot of American Dream On has enough thematic similarities to The Hunger Games that someone might believe I was riffing on it when I wrote it before its publication. (To say nothing of the widely reported notion that said book was just a rip-off of an earlier Japanese movie which matches major plot points almost exactly.)
This is perhaps not a surprising trend in a country racked with economic woes after a dream of endless prosperity, nor especially in a land so obsessed with safety and certainty after one terrorist attack that it is willing to attempt to subjugate the rest of the world and its own citizenry just to avoid the possibility that 3,000 people could die at once again. Not surprising, maybe, but remarkably disheartening. The best balm for the recent hardships of the nation, one would think, would be originality and creativity. But as Congress faces a patent inability to compromise and potential Presidents continue to present a rematch of rejected 1980s theories, there’s a vast dearth of variation from an ever-predictable norm. It’s no wonder that nearly every Hollywood movie slated for creation is actually a recreation or a sequel. And we continue to buy and absorb this rehash, just as we accept the two major parties’ offerings every four years. Because we haven’t the money to make a choice and we’re not in the top corporate offices where these decisions are being made.
But the snake is eating its own tail. There’s no evidence that this desert of good new material is insidiously brought about by maniacal corporate officers so much as that the system itself incentivizes them to favor the sure bet over the risky original proposition. And the consumers have only the power to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, reaffirming the apparent wisdom of risklessness. And on the cycle continues.
It wasn’t always like this, however. American writing and movies have circled the globe, gaining recognition for their depth, insight, creative power, and new way of looking at the world and its inhabitants. So what happened? When did we go from making new things to recycling the same animated plot that probably wasn’t enough for a first movie into a fourth?
There are a lot of contributions, some of which I mention above, but I think the biggest and best explanation is a phenomenon I’ve observed in countless manifestations, from people to non-profit organizations to historical nations. It’s something clearly embedded in our human nature, but fighting it may be the last best hope for people to break out of molds that earn their associative names by entrapping us with stale thoughts and decaying thinking. It seems American creative culture and its would-be admirers have crossed over the tipping point from feeling like they have more to gain from the future to feeling like they have more to lose.
This single concept, the idea of whether the future is about potential and benefits (which encourages risk-taking, bold thinking, and dramatic action) or about the possibility of loss (which encourages defensiveness, safeguarding, shoring up, and sitting tight) probably effects more of our daily lives than we would like to think about. This is what makes recessions so deep and can make poverty so liberating with the right mindset (but realistically makes poverty so debilitating). This is what makes people who grew up bungee-jumping and horseback-riding afraid of leaving their house for weeks at a time as they age. This is what turns liberals into conservatives when they become successful. It’s what turns revolutionaries into tyrants. If we could pull a lever and prevent someone from ever tipping over this apex, mandate that they always feel they have more to gain from the future than they do to lose, we would cure uncounted social ills and political pitfalls.
Alas, defensiveness is not so easily cured. Many people have an enormous amount of wealth, power, influence, and comfort stacked up, especially in this country. They chronically fear someone coming to take it away, be it in the form of regulation, taxation, theft, extortion, nationalization, or pure greed. Even if they don’t really like what they have, even if what they have fails to provide them happiness or any other higher good, they will defend it to the death if they think they have more to lose than they do to gain. It’s in our nature to hoard and protect when we are fearful or even cautious about the times ahead. It’s backed by millennia of evolution and reinforced by centuries of history.
Incidentally, this is why banks aren’t loaning money and the rich aren’t hiring people. And why those things will persist for a long time to come, perhaps as long as this country persists. No one has more to lose than the banks and the rich, almost tautologically. And the banks can continue to get free money from the government as long as interest rates stay low, so there’s no incentive to take the risk of a loan. And the rich don’t need to “spend money to make money,” because they already have money. So those tax breaks and cheap loans just go in their back pocket as they hunker down more closely over the piles of coin in the counting house.
Believing that there’s more to gain than to lose is about more than trite platitudes about happy days or mornings in America or popping anti-depressants. It’s about a belief that one hasn’t attained that much, or enough. And most often, that isn’t measured in material goods so much as notoriety, recognition, or true accomplishment in terms of changing the world. This is precisely why the revolutionaries so consistently flip into oppression as soon as they get into power, or within just a few months. The turnover from having nothing to having everything is so fast that they literally don’t know what to aspire to anymore, while they’re immediately becoming accustomed to having more than 99% have ever dreamed of. Those who have more to lose than to gain are terrible leaders, ever watchful and fearful of being criticized, unseated, disregarded, losing the power and influence they (feel they) worked so hard to gain. It’s the hungry and desperate that provide the ingenuity and spark necessary for true leadership.
So how to we hold the imaginary carrot a few yards out in order to make ourselves run for it? The key is complicated, but I think the most accessible answers to this are in two essential areas. We must first embrace a certain healthy amount of dissatisfaction with our present affairs, whatever they may be, and we must secondly and correspondingly become comfortable with change.
The latter could contain a whole volume of material (and I believe it does, perhaps floor-to-ceiling volumes, as nearly the entire Self-Help section of any bookstore is really just “get comfortable with change” in long-winded and bound format, rephrased over and over in the hopes that someone might listen). Nevertheless, the point bears repeating that change is the only constant and resisting it is as foolish as fighting a gale with saliva. Just the other day, my new boss told a roomful of people, myself included, that he’s looking to produce a line of T-shirts with the slogan Embrace the Uncertainty. It’s a powerful message and one I took to heart, especially as he expounded on the need for not freezing in place with the entire class of 2016 inbound, they not thinking about the pressures that new leadership might exude on a university so much as that their college careers (and by extension, their lives) are about to start.
I’ve always felt more at home with uncertain futures and changing venues than most, but the last three years of this blog alone could well tell you that I’m no guru when it comes to accepting whatever life surprises you with. This is a struggle for all of us by virtue of our humanity, it’s why so much advice for the species is so simple and, dare I say it, derivative. Embracing uncertainty, welcoming change, it’s hard. It’s like waking up young in the dreadful night, envisioning the monster under the bed, then jumping from above to tackle-hug it and give it a sloppy kiss. Or, put another way, it’s like loving your neighbor no matter what they do. It’s one of those really challenging near-impossibilities. Especially when you have stuff or people or circumstances in your life that you like. It takes so much work and energy to find things that you like, be they pastimes or cohorts or jobs or places, that losing them or altering them seems a fate worse than death.
Which brings us to the first part, the somewhat easier bit, the healthy dissatisfaction with the present. This is easy to get carried away on and, despite what you may think, I’m not about to launch into a call to depression for all readers. Rather, it’s important to be a critic and a skeptic of one’s own choices and the path they’ve wended. Not to the point of self-recrimination and -doubt, unless said are truly warranted, but sufficiently so that one is able to craft an aspirational trajectory for the future.
This is extremely counter-intuitive. Almost all of us have the final goalpost being happiness, however we define it. No matter how we define it, happiness consists in feeling full, satisfied, like there’s nothing more one needs or wants or has to strive for. Contentedness, comfort. And yet this feeling is, itself, a form of death. No, really. Because at the point where one is comfortable, one doesn’t want to move. And if one doesn’t move, how can one find anything interesting that one hasn’t already found?
Imagine you’re in a chair. And your chair is uncomfortable, rotting in the seat, prickly in the back, set at the wrong angle. You get up! You’re motivated to find a chair that’s not as painful. You’re ready to look around for a while, maybe leave the house and go to stores or yard sales or junkyards till you find something manageably sittable. Maybe you go through 5, 7, 18 chairs. And then, glorious then! Then you find the chair that’s comfortable, has the cushioning in the right place, well-angled armrests, the whole bit. What happens next?
You fall asleep.
And you don’t go traveling again, because the opportunity cost is time in this chair.
That chair is happiness.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to sit in that chair. I have a real-life chair much like this at home, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m not getting rid of it (though I’m open to a future, or trying to be, in which I don’t have it anymore). I would never tell anyone to just make do with the first cruddy chair or to stop looking for a nice one.
But we also can’t sleep away our time and potential in the comfy chair. Because then life becomes the story of sitting instead of exploring, doing, interacting, being. And that, my friends, is not what life was designed to be.
Life is about the journey. Maybe the rest of the self-help books are about that. You know what else is about that? One of my favorite movies of all-time, “Finding Nemo”. Which they’re re-releasing (now in 3D!) in a month, in theaters. Because they can do that now. Spruce up a movie that’s already had its day in the sun (or I guess, more accurately, the refrigerated shade) and release it to watch while you’re wearing glasses. For more money.
Because it’s derivative.
And I’ll plunk down my fourteen bucks or whatever 3D movies cost these days and recite the lines I know by heart and bob my head with the turtles and shudder at the sharks, along with a bunch of much younger kids who don’t know how old this magic is. Who feel, unlike almost everyone else in the theater, that maybe, just maybe, they have more to gain than to lose from living into the future. Maybe they’ll have the creative solutions.
Or maybe they’ll grow up to write Finding Nemo in Abraham Lincoln’s Vampire Civil War. And oh, what a hit it will be!