For many of my presentations on happiness I show a photograph of an impressively fit and tanned young man, dressed in sparkling white pants and tank top, shot from beneath, leaping into a clear blue sky, arms outstretched and with a gleaming smile on his face.
Then I point out the truth.
Most of us will never be this age again, we will never be quite this fit, if we have any awareness of skin cancer we will never be this tanned, and we may never be able to pull off this outfit. We certainly won’t be spending our lives leaping into the sky like this. Sooner or later we’d turn an ankle and wouldn’t look nearly so sexy.
I invite the participants to imagine what this young model did next. Went back to his book or video game, waiting for them to set up the next shot? Had his hair and makeup retouched? Got into his car and drove home? Ate a sandwich, trying not to get food on the tank top? Went to have a poop?
The truth is, none of us will ever live up to the standards of our culture. There will always be someone younger, thinner, richer, more fit, more intelligent, more spontaneous, more fashionable, more immune to fashion, more ambitious, more spontaneous, more focused on the future, more focused on the present.
The values of our culture are inherently contradictory and cannot be fully embodied by any of us.
So no matter how hard we try to live up to those standards, we will fail. And by trying, we make ourselves failures. We create failure not by being who we are, but by judging it as not good enough and by striving to be something else: a mythical beast. The man in the photo. The man who could embody the image for the split second of a still picture.
A friend of mine works for a fading industry plagued by cutbacks, declining revenues, and, in his company's case, bad management. Rather than treat the staff like human beings, they have taken to putting up “inspirational” posters around the office on topics like Leadership, Teamwork, and Success. Predictably, the staff snigger at these, and many of the posters have been defaced.
These visions of success have been beautifully parodied by www.despair.com, a website that offers beautifully rendered photographs accompanied by jarring and somewhat pessimistic slogans ("No single raindrop believes that it is to blame for the flood"). If Erik Erikson is right and humour is truly the most adaptive of defense mechanisms, then these are a beautiful corrective to the silly and alienating “inspirationalism” of the workplace. Take a look. Laugh. And see if you don’t feel better than you do when looking at the bland aphorisms of the inspiration industry.
Not that we should put these posters up in our own clinics, mind you.
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