October 30, 2004

That Unbearable Fragility

WE READ with interest this morning some excellent posts about the latest trend in reality television, which has to do with chronicling the "makeovers" of regular people. Such shows basically throw those appearing on them through a ringer of plastic surgery, counseling and other things, and examine how the contestants fare in the end.

Now, both the posts we reference take rather a dim view of the phenomenon, as the writers of each worry about the influence such programming will have on the shows' young and impressionable viewership. We ourselves tend to think such feelings are justified. For instance, on one of the shows referenced, a participant is asked whether she has any advice for teenagers considering elective plastic surgery. That's a bit troubling, and not merely for the message that sends about plastic surgery. Since the human body often doesn't stop development until one is in one's twenties, such surgeries can prove a bit tricky.

But we will leave the discussion of messages to others. What really strikes us about this whole phenomenon is that everyone involved with these shows seem to possess what one might call an unbearable fragility of self. That is, they feel compelled for some reason to insist they are Happy With Themselves and are Strong in Spirit and such. Hugo Schwyzer notes this as well. He writes:

This is the contemporary (and nonsensical) cultural gospel: changing yourself in order to make yourself feel better about yourself is acceptable as long as you already love yourself. The sin lies in admitting that you don't really love yourself; the sin lies in admitting that you aren't autonomous and self-sufficient and all of those other things our culture tells young women they need to be.

Here, Mr Schwyzer stops, but he is certainly on to something, and it is not something limited to young women. There exists in our present culture a syndrome -- made up of envy and pride and avarice and anger -- that propels many people to make a point of proving themselves to others. It explains much about what drives some people to buy expensive automobiles and get plastic surgery and demand really nice appliances and so on -- they do so not merely because these things are inherently good, but also because they want to show the rest of the world that they've made it.

But here's the awful joke -- no one who has made it needs to do that.

We imagine that our readers probably know of at least one person who has made it in this life, under whatever definition one wants to use for that term, yet is very humble about this. We would also submit that many Rant readers are in that position themselves.

For such people are not hard to find. They exist across the social spectrum: the small businessman who owns the corner store; the construction worker who looks at his family and his life, and realizes he's got it good; the rich man who makes a point of being private about his wealth. Not only do these people not particularly give a damn about keeping up with the Joneses, they think the Joneses can go to hell if the Joneses don't agree with how they see things. And in living this way, they have thrown one more trophy onto their own walls of success.

So, given that, why do some of those who have made it feel the need to flaunt it? We can't say we really know. Perhaps it is insecurity which drives them. Perhaps it is vanity or cruelty or anger. We do know, though, that we have always felt saddened when we've met folks in this situation. We've met a lot of good people in our day who are pointlessly making themselves miserable; and at the center of that misery is pride.

Interestingly enough, we would submit one can see an example of this in a work from one of these shows' creators: namely, the preface to some official show companion. This preface is a rather stunning piece of work. It's not really arrogant per se, but it is conceited; it contains paragraph upon paragraph of how accomplished and wonderful the writer is. As such, the writer comes off as the type of person one prays to avoid at a dinner party. Consider this gem of wisdom:

Becoming a Swan requires faith. And I don't mean religion. I mean the faith that you'll be taken care of in the universe if you do your work.

This might have been considered insightful, had people not been saying this for close to three thousand years. But one quickly learns that such examples are not isolated. For instance, the creator told this to The Washington Post:

But I am saying, pick whatever you want. If you want to become a vegan, knock yourself out. If you've had a bunch of kids and your stomach sags, it's not a big deal if you want help with that. Life is really short and really hard for women, and whatever is going to make you feel better about yourself, do it."

We suppose now would be a bad time to mention that this "really short" life is, on average, roughly six years shorter for men. But we digress. Before we close, we do want to return to one of Mr Schwyzer's points, and that has to deal with the fact there are many folks out there who aren't happy with themselves. That, of course, is at the heart of why people agree to appear on these shows. The trouble, though, is this: it gives these folks hope they can run away from their problems, and we fear they will eventually find that an impossibility.

In the end, though, we have to wish them all the best. For they do seem awfully sad, and awfully consumed by that unbearable fragility of self. One can't cast aspersion on someone who has desperately hoped for a way out of his or her present circumstances, and thinks he or she has found the way to do so. We do think it acceptable, though, to wish these reality-show participants would see the inherent goodness which exists inside them -- and always has.

(via Camassia)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at October 30, 2004 05:32 AM | TrackBack