We are all tempted by the lure of the "American Individual". He's American
because he has existed about as long as the United States, and came into being
largely because of the philosophical ideas invented around the same time, upon
which many of the ideas in documents like "The Declaration of Independence" rely. He (and
it's always a he) is American in the same way that the 1900s were the "American
Century". We are all tempted by the "Bruce Willis Moment". Bruce Willis, the
popular actor, has almost nothing to do with the moment I am talking about, but
his action films for which he is mostly famous do. The fact is that the
"American Individual" does not, can not, and will not exist, and "Bruce Willis"
moments come to no one.
The "American Individual" does only one thing, but he's the best goddamn
shoeshine boy the world has ever seen, if you catch my drift. The "American
Individual" knows he could have been president, but he chose to be a primary
school teacher in Maine. The "American Individual" carries destiny in his hands,
shapes the world to his will, never accepts compromises, says "To hell with it!"
flicks his cigarette away and doesn't accept the blindfold.
The "Bruce Willis" moment is that eye-widening moment when you are the only thing separating the world from chaos. Perhaps it's because you're the world's
best taxi driver, and you get the important guy to the airport on time. Perhaps
it's because you're the world's best cop who is still on the beat, and you save
the man who will marry the woman who will have the child... whatever. Perhaps
it's because you know that true love waits pining at home while you take as long
as you like to exorcise your demons, the exorcising of which will leave a lot of
bad people dead and a lot of good people, well, not dead.
Action-movie Bruce Willis is, of course, an American Individual.
Real life is a lot different. In real life you are not as smart, pretty,
clever, witty, rich, decisive, important or valuable as you think you are. In
real life you are nowhere near the "best" at what you do. In real life you work
for a dud company which makes dud things (or better yet makes nothing at all),
live in a dud house trying to understand your dud relationship and your dud
children, who insist that you are the biggest dud they have ever come across in
their short, dudly lives. Not to mention your dud partner (if you have one) who
secretly loathes how dud she or he is, and takes it out on you, because you
seem, well, more dud and that's how things work.
Historically, we always knew this. We (generally) accepted the way of things
and tipped our hat to fame should it ever ride by us in its carriage, spraying
mud liberally upon our worthless selves. We knew it and accepted it. It was the
way things had always been. And for the person inside the carriage it was much
the same, only the mud didn't stink quite so much and the hat tipped at the
bigger fish (there are always bigger fish) had tassels.
But now we have the harder task. We have to reconcile, within ourselves, that
real life and American Individuals are simply truth and recent collective
fantasy in that order. Oh for the simpler world where fantasy was a five-minute
break from a ten-minute life.
And of course the only thing to do with truth is to accept it, suck the juice
from it no matter how dry and woody it seems, throw it over our shoulders in the
hope it falls on fertile ground, and move on. Move on to where? Move on to
acceptance of this mediocrity that is all of our lives and to the full enjoyment
of the incidental happiness it brings.
Can we increase the frequency of the incidental happiness? It seems so. Can
we make our lot better by imagining? I'm afraid not. Can we fight off the waves
of depression that this knowledge of the purposelessness of it all is sure to
bring? I'm not sure. I'll let you know how I go at that, if you promise to tell
me how you're doing.
The Christian (or Moslem or Buddhist or whatever) responds to this by saying,
"See! A world with God is better!" to which I respond, "I do see. A world with
a god is certainly better - but than what and by how much? And what do I give up
of the precious little I have for some of that? My dignity? My belief in myself?
My wonderfully powerful faithlessness? No, thanks, I gave at the office." And
just because a world with a god is better, it certainly does not follow that a
world full of invisible forces trying to make us do what they want (see
Organised Religion) is better. And no one seems to be selling individually sized servings of god, except as a loss-leader to get you into the store.
Personally, since my life is so completely far from having meaning that
having meaning is not even on the map of my life, I relish the incidental
happiness. I relish the small things I can do to make incidental happiness last
longer, come around more often, and happen extra often for others. I relish this
because it's all I have. And when I die then that's the show, thanks for coming,
no repeat performance. There's enormous comfort there, for me.
Want three recent examples? Ok:
- My mum came to visit me recently and we went to a part of the Great Wall I hadn't seen. Since every foot of The Wall is metaphorically wet with the blood of the millions who died making the thing, that was an illustration in meaninglessness all on its own! And yet you stand on this unbelievable structure and the sense of continuity - it's been so shit for so many for so long - is something quite paradoxically wonderful. We endure, and we make lives in the process, and the happiness is always there, in reach, waiting.
- I went out the other night with some friends and a girl I saw for a few months earlier in the year. It looks like I will be able to rescue a real, proper friendship from the ashes of that relationship and that makes me very, very glad and feel all sort of warm and glowing inside, like I have a secret strength that only I know about.
- I looked ahead 5 years recently, in an idle fashion, as one does. What I saw really pleased me. I'll still be around, I'm almost sure of that, and I'll be having a wonderful time. There is so much "interface" left in my life, and a lot of it keeps me happy as a sort of side effect. Side effects are not to be sneezed at. So much of our happiness is simply, at the bottom of it all, a side effect.
And so resist, dear friend, the siren call of Bruce and his platoon of
individuals. They are fiction, going nowhere, and your road leads to that other
I originally wrote this as an email in 1997. I sent it to a very dear friend who appeared to be going down with all hands. Since that time I've called these words into use many times, each time sending them to someone who was drifting into depression. It
seems to help. Either people agree strongly with it and it shows one possible way of thinking yourself out, or people disagree strongly with it, and the energy of proving me wrong
supplies another way out, or more usually some combination of the two. Whatever the reason,
it's been helpful for some and in that spirit I post it here, hoping it may be helpful to others. And, indeed, since posting this, I have received multiple messages which have made it all worthwhile. You know who you are. Thankyou.