Life in contemporary America is full of “should.”
And how can it not be? We are forever “shoulding” all over each other.
Modern American life is, at times, almost suffocating in self-righteousness and legalism. We may be the most judgmental people in history. And I’m not just talking about church folks, though I think this is one of the ways that the church in the U.S. is “worldly” in the bad kind of way. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press may be wonderful gifts in the big picture, but on the ground the liberty we have to share our ideas and feelings without constraint often leads us to voice relentless opinions that those around us fall short and would be better off if they would just embrace our particular quest for continuous improvement. Usually for a price.
I was reminded of this when I read Ruth Whippman’s eloquently commonsensical opinion piece in the New York Times over the weekend, “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment.”
I’m making a failed attempt at “mindful dishwashing,” the subject of a how-to article an acquaintance recently shared on Facebook. According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully “in” the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg. Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.
Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present. The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments. Corporate America offers its employees mindfulness training to “streamline their productivity,” and the United States military offers it to the Marine Corps. Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on “mindfulness products.” “Living in the Moment” has monetized its folksy charm into a multibillion-dollar spiritual industrial complex.
Circles of self-improvement hell. An apt description of life in today’s America, exemplified by this ostensibly “helpful” counsel to be always mindful. Here, by special offer, is another one of those “keys” or “secrets” or “steps” or “paths” that are being urged on us constantly so that we can climb another rung or two up the ladder to a life of righteousness and self-fulfillment.
Along with Ms. Whippman, I find it increasingly annoying that I am always being preached at by people like this.
But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class. The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.” Now mindfulness has taken its place as the focus of our appetite for inner self-improvement. Where once problems ranging from bad marriages and work stress to poverty and race discrimination were routinely dismissed as a failure to “think positive,” now our preferred solution to life’s complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful.
This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.
But maybe we haven’t really advanced beyond “positive thinking,” whose converts still evangelize us relentlessly. Barbara Ehrenreich leveled a devastating critique against this form of thought-policing in her 2009 book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, and soon encountered a world she didn’t know existed. She became part of the “pink-ribbon culture.” There she discovered, “Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world, to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.” Any talk of being a “victim” is proscribed in favor of always describing those with breast cancer as “brave” or “fierce” individuals who are “battling” or “fighting” their disease. Those who beat it, or who appear to do so, are crowned as “survivors,” though strangely there seems to be little acclaim for “martyrs.”
Indeed, she writes,
The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease. As “Mary” reports, on the Bosom Buds message board: “I really believe I am a much more sensitive and thoughtful person now. It might sound funny but I was a real worrier before. Now I don’t want to waste my energy on worrying. I enjoy life so much more now and in a lot of aspects I am much happier now.” Or this from “Andee”: “This was the hardest year of my life but also in many ways the most rewarding. I got rid of the baggage, made peace with my family, met many amazing people, learned to take very good care of my body so it will take care of me, and reprioritized my life.” Cindy Cherry, quoted in the Washington Post, goes further: “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not. Money doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve met the most phenomenal people in my life through this. Your friends and family are what matter now.”
One author went so far as to give her book the title, The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening, in which she claimed, “Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine.”
In the seamless world of breast cancer culture, where one Web site links to another— from personal narratives and grassroots endeavors to the glitzy level of corporate sponsors and celebrity spokespeople— cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason. Within this tightly knit world, attitudes are subtly adjusted, doubters gently brought back to the fold.
Barbara Ehrenreich valiantly dissents against this “tyranny of positive thinking.”
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before— one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.
In the recent election, cries from the right against “political correctness” rose to a fever pitch. What those people failed to see when they labeled one form of political advocacy the way they did is that all America is and has always been the land of innumerable political correctnesses.
In the world of psychology, spirituality, and self-help there is the “mindfulness” political correctness and “positive thinking” political correctness we’ve discussed today. But there’s a lot more. Right and left-wing politics political correctnesses. Pro-life and pro-choice anyone? The political correctnesses of the elite and the hoi polloi. Various types of Christian political correctness as well as atheistic political correctness. And a multitude of other varieties, and tribes within tribes, all with their own thought-police and many with their own stores and merchandise.
Anywhere you have people who think they are right and that others would be better off by just following them — thinking “correctly,” speaking the right code words, staying within the designated boundaries that mark a person as acceptable, you have “political correctness” — the moralistic, legalistic enforcement of endorsed speech and behavior.
America, the land of the free? Hah! We are the land of a thousand different tribes, each proclaiming its own righteousness and doing its best to sell its vision of how each one of us ought to think and behave.
I have only one thing to say: Stop “shoulding” on me.