Last night I went to a revival screening of 1990’s “Pump Up The Volume”, starring the timelessly, agelessly cool Christian Slater. He plays a sixteen year-old pirate radio jock spreading a “hey, it’s ok” message to his peers. In response to a listener’s letter he says, “feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up”. I knew I needed to take this line further and explore its meaning with you, cult 90’s movie notwithstanding. In my own life I’ve found this to be true–that internalizing the environment and culture is natural, and can lead us to believe we’re the problem in our own lives, when often we’re simply acting out external influences. Thus we put ourselves in danger of challenging the wrong system.
It reminds me of a facebook chat I had several years ago with a former colleague, which I had initiated after seeing her post a frustrated-with-relationships facebook status. When I checked in with her it turned out she had met a guy she was really excited about, whom she liked enough she wanted to get to know before having sex. I had known her to have a rather cavalier attitude toward men and a cynic’s view of long term relationships. I admired the way she moved through the world with a scrappy, confident, never-settle attitude, rarely seeming vulnerable. Having never heard of her actually liking a guy (she had only ever expressed physical attraction), my curiosity was piqued. Turns out, the guy had made some denigrating comments about her side job at a strip club, accusing her of having no self-respect. She was chafed and extremely hurt by his judgement of her character and seemed to internalize his words, unprecedented behavior from what I knew of her. His words caused her to wonder if something was wrong inside her, or even broken. She was suddenly questioning herself, and coming up with some rather harsh judgments of her own about her choices and personality. While I’m all for introspection and questioning long-held beliefs about oneself, in this case it sounded wrong and I stopped her.
We were smack in the middle of 2009. The economy had collapsed, and well-paying, steady work opportunities were scarce. We were in the same two wars that had been dragging on the entire decade. Lady Gaga and her lyrics exploring an insouciant side of sexuality (I’m bluffin’ with my muffin, I wanna take a ride on your disco stick, I want your ugly/I want your disease, etc.) were playing everywhere. Emaciated, sickly Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart with her black-circled eyes were meeting up in twisted grey woods and never getting off. Tiger Woods was months away from getting beaten up by his wife with a golf club for endlessly cheating. For many, the new black democrat President was a bright spot that didn’t quite ease the tension and uncertainty of the Great Recession. The country was in shambles, and many of us were trying to simply keep our heads above the stress without collapsing. These were desperate times, and the darkness was overwhelming. It was hard not to go flat.
I challenged my friend to look outside of herself at the role our current economic and cultural situation was playing. We were in a moment of extreme financial ruin and senseless sexuality. She was going to school, working full-time in healthcare and dancing on the side to ensure she could pay her bills, and help her mother with her expenses. Where did the guy she liked get off telling her the methods she was using to keep herself from financial ruin were wrong? Where did he get off telling her she needed more self respect, when the culture’s biggest sexual spokeswoman (Gaga) was advocating senseless, drama-filled, chaotic fucking? In that historical moment, good, full-time jobs were scarce and positive role models few. I cautioned her not to see herself as a problematic, disturbed person. We all fit those descriptors in 2009, and for many of us it was a response to our country falling down around our ears, the stress of ambiguity and crisis, and a lack of inspiration from the culture.
While it’s sometimes “easier” to internalize our struggles, and pick ourselves apart as the source of all negativity and problems in our own lives, it’s not always right. Sometimes we’re better off taking a high-level view of the situation, stepping outside ourselves to search for answers. If we’re at a difficult moment in history, with few positive messages and models, how could we expect ourselves to be operating as our best selves? Occasionally, letting go of some of the responsibility for what’s wrong in our lives helps us see the solutions more clearly. Try it.