Life: not always improving for everybody.
Sometimes, life gets worse.
You wouldn’t think that would be such a controversial statement. You might think, off-handedly, that it’s kind of trivial or obvious. People go from better situations to worse situations all the time. They lose jobs, relationships, marriages, loved ones. People get sick. They get really sick. They lose their house. They squander something and can never get it back. They get addicted to something and can never wrest free of their struggle.
There are so many clear and obvious examples of people going from a situation that’s better to one that’s worse that it seems like we should have a whole architecture around thinking about this scenario. That we should have a series of narratives for facing hardships and see inevitable setbacks as a critical part of life. A part of life to prepare for and recognize and make peace with. Children might be raised to tell themselves, aloud maybe, “Sometimes, in the future, my life will get worse. Maybe much worse. Maybe irreparably worse.”
But these are not the hopes and dreams with which good young American capitalists are raised. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone is raised this way. The closest I can think of are those who are told that life is going to be a series of tough disappointments – all too often, these are also parents who take it upon themselves to be the worst enemy of their child so that nothing in the future will pose a bigger threat or challenge. Some of these parents honestly might mean well, but I don’t think any of them do much of a service to their offspring.
But borderline-abuse (or, y’know, just actual abuse) is not what I’m talking about. There’s a difference between despair and hopelessness and getting comfortable with the idea that life is not a linear upward progression no matter what. But I think the two are usually conflated and this leads to no one getting the narrative about ups and downs, instead favoring up up up up up. Parents desperately want their children to have better lives than themselves and they put all the hopes and dreams unfulfilled from their own existence into their children. It is almost mathematically guaranteed from these two premises that they will raise those hopes and dreams to believe that each day will be better than the last, that their life will be an upward trajectory in terms of wealth, knowledge, understanding, and comfort.
Don’t get me wrong – there are things about growing up that tend to give one an advantage. Certainly knowledge and experience have a tendency to give one more mental and emotional resources from which to draw. Wealth is easier to accumulate over time for those who are lucky enough to have opportunities in the American economic system to begin with and happen to be raised with frugal sensibilities and to avoid debt (this is actually probably very few people these days). And, biggest of all, one gets a certain sense of perspective with age, mostly in accepting that things which seem insurmountable are not fatal. At least, that seems to be the largest sense of perspective I’ve gained over time. I’ve lost everything that I seemed to care about at least four times in my life (one temporarily) and that has given me a great sense of endurance and durability that I wouldn’t have if I’d never lost much of anything. Even if pretty much all of those situations brought me to the absolute brink each time.
But here’s the thing – I haven’t always improved. In any sense of the word. I have learned, in a sense, but I have also acquired deeply damaging and detrimental habits. My financial history has fluttered about like a yo-yo. So too my emotional history. I have figured out how to survive emotional calamities and great losses, but have done so by compromising values that were (and still are) dear to me, while becoming an angrier, more bitter, more caustic and difficult person. I am less capable, less flexible, and probably less vital than I was at 23 or 30. I weigh more. I do less with my time. I may be stronger in some grand sense and have had more cumulative experiences, but many of those experiences have served only to scar me, leaving me damaged and less able than before.
And don’t even get me started about comparing me to my 10-year-old self. Or 11- or even 17-. Granted that some of my fascination with these prior selves is wrapped up in grade-skipping and being told I was a prodigy and a whole mess of expectations and hopes that not only were not realized but, frankly, were probably impossible to realize by the time I was enrolled in community college classes at 11 or writing a regular newspaper column at 12. I guess I was due for a crash. And that may lead you, mistakenly I think, to believe that I am a grand exception in rejecting linear upward growth as a myth and that most lives that are not mine conform to this path.
But examine yourself. Are you the happiest you’ve ever been and has every year been better than the last? Are you the smartest you’ve been and have you always known more and made better decisions than the year before? Are you the richest, the most active, the most moral, the most whatever-it-is-that-you-value? Be honest.
I’m a little afraid of the fallout of asking that question since most people get through each day by not stepping back and asking these grand questions and sweeping questions can lead to sweeping change, which is often traumatic. My point in this post is not to make you unhappier or more dissatisfied, I promise. Really, it’s not. Because I think the Myth of Linearity is actually making us more unhappy than anything.
Here’s the problem. The Myth of Linearity gets tied up with hope, but it is not hope. Hope is the conviction that things can get better, that there are ways of improving things in the future and that one is capable of finding and utilizing those ways. Hope is awesome. I love hope. I am the pro-hope candidate here. Without hope, life would be, well, hopeless. It may seem like a sleight of phrase, what I just did there, but I think it’s just true. Go watch Shawshank Redemption if you need further convincing on the importance of hope. Or remember your darkest hour, and take away the hope that probably pulled you out.
But the Myth of Linearity is not the hope that things will get better, it is the expectation that things always get better. And this is a devastating distinction.
There’s been a lot of research done and a lot of literature written about how expectations are actually the #1 predictor of unhappiness. A surprising number of people born into poverty, abject misery, and devastation grow up to be happy, largely or entirely because they were raised with no expectations. As a result, everything they do get that’s better than their beginnings fills them with unbridled, grateful joy. This is not really an argument for raising children in refugee camps (nutrition alone is a good counter-argument here), but it is a pretty good lesson about the nature of expectations. The United States is often described as the unhappiest country on the planet, spinning endless numbers of us into therapist’s offices, drug addictions, drug rehabilitation programs, all manner of other addictions, and so forth. The paradox of us being so wealthy and connected and yet so unhappy has been the subject of endless self-help books, multi-step programs, inspirational speakers, great American novels… you get the idea. And have been getting it much of your life in this country, I reckon.
Many of these things, especially those that work for people, come down to expectations. Breathe deep. Appreciate what you have. Live in the moment, live in the hour, live with less, embrace each day as though it were your last, etc. These things have become platitudinous and make it challenging to write about sincerely, as I sometimes strive to do in this space. A huge part of what makes Glide special (and other places like it) is the ability to convey this message to those who society has largely forgotten. And some folks are able to reset their expectations and turn things around.
High expectations make us sad. I think pretty much everyone recognizes this at this point. Nothing disappoints us like the movie that was maximally hyped, the meal that we paid a lot for and everyone said would be fantastic, the event we looked forward to forever. Think about Christmas afternoons, let alone the horrors of December 26th. Letdowns are miserable and it’s our over-thinking and over-expecting that makes it so.
But the Myth of Linearity works more insidiously along the same lines. Because it gives us this notion that the pressure of future expectations must always be ratcheting up. That our life must feel like a perpetual escalator, that with time comes ease, happiness, understanding, love, and that all of these things just improve and improve, even if only by a little bit. That we will be able to look back and explain at any time how we have made improvements in all the areas that matter to us, or at least big enough ones in big enough places to make up for any shortfall.
Look, there’s something reassuring and self-justifying about being able to explain one’s life this way. I get it. It’s very liberating and reassuring to actually feel at the top of one’s lifetime game. It is instant justification for all the heartache, setbacks, and challenges of the past. All of those can pale a little bit if they brought you here and here is the best place you’ve ever been. This narrative is ingrained in our psyche and reinforced in our culture, the mantra of better better better, that time is always improving us somehow. It is tempting to give in to the Myth of Linearity because it makes every other story we tell about ourselves more comfortable.
Trouble is, it’s a lie. Look at what our bodies go through over time. Could we possibly have an easier, more accessible metaphor to counter the Myth of Linearity than our aging physical selves? Sure, we can undergo self-improvement rituals, and the first few years are actually building, but the nature of the body is to decay over time. And no matter how much energy we put into denying it, it’s inevitable. Our bodies are not a treadmill or an escalator, they are an arc, and the arc of the physical bends towards death.
Which is not as depressing as it sounds! It is the fact that we obsess through the Myth of Linearity that makes talk of death and decay and disaster so depressing, so scary. If we were more comfortable with these topics, more at home with the idea that life sometimes gets worse, then we would have more architecture around keeping hope alive through these things. The problem is that so many people facing a friend or loved one who has just undergone a trauma or a setback is trained to tell them that they will “be better for it.” This voice is poppycock most of the time, it’s absurd and insulting. Someone who has just been raped or assaulted will almost never be better for it. Someone who has just lost something dear to them will probably be worse off. They will probably be traumatized and injured and spend much of their life trying to recover that part of themselves. And yet so many sincere, genuine, wonderful caring people insist on saying that somehow it will all be for the best.
And when they can’t say that, they have nothing else. They are totally lost about what to say and how to help. Even the most helpful, except perhaps for the people who have done the most work with this, the best trauma counselors and those with the most perspective, are speechless when they can’t funnel someone back into the Myth of Linearity.
But this is destructive. The Myth of Linearity, when relayed to someone who knows it can’t be true, often inspires extreme reactions. I’m not saying that people who only hear this narrative turn around and kill themselves, but it is at least more tempting for those who feel there’s something wrong with them if they aren’t always improving, even after a personally cataclysmic event. If the message you’re getting from all sides is that every event in life must make you better somehow, no matter how bad it is, then you feel like you’re just broken or not a real person if you can’t make yourself feel that way.
But the truth is, this is all just a fairy tale we’re telling ourselves. It’s closely related to the growth myth and other capitalist mantras about always moving up. Life doesn’t always get better. Life is mixed. It gets better and worse and better again. It does different things for different people. Sometimes we get better in some ways and worse in more important ways. Life just is and stubbornly refuses to conform to any pre-set narrative.
This does not mean we shouldn’t hope. Hope is great. But hope is far from expectation. Hope gives us the opportunity to be surprised when it comes through, or glad, or even relieved. It denies us the need to feel only barely satisfied when our expectations are fulfilled and gravely upset when they are not. The Myth of Linearity is doing that to you, subtly, every day, making you less pleased with your progress and successes than you would be otherwise. Let it go. Accept that you may fall, that things may get much much worse, maybe permanently. Trust me, it makes getting back up again infinitely easier. Or honestly, just possible.