Friday, September 26, 2008

Wanting It

Last week, watching the season premiere of House, “Dying Changes Everything”, I was struck by the patient of the week’s philosophy. Wanting something for her wasn’t attainable, and she single-handedly shot down Thirteen and the popular conception that Americans, but women in particular, have, about wanting something.

Like Thirteen, I was taken aback by this woman’s attitude. She was a minion to a woman who didn’t care a whit about her, but the woman didn’t care how terribly she was treated. Thirteen’s attitude isn’t wrong, per se; it’s a very ingrained notion to the last two generations of women. But the more I think about it, the patient is right in a way. We can aspire—want—whatever we want, but we shouldn’t expect that we will get it. But she fails because she’s given up; she doesn’t even want to try.

Wanting something has become this big catch-all. We are supposed to want more and more, and increasingly, expect to fulfill those wants, whether they are monetary, romantic, consumer, or status-oriented. Aren’t we supposed to teach children that they can’t have everything they want? Yet why do we believe so ardently that we will eventually win the life lotto?

The core of the American dream seems to be boiled down to if you work hard, you will achieve. If you achieve, you get what you want: money, status, the family and kids and great job. Somewhere along the line this idea beefed up; now it’s just the idea of fervently wishing, of praying and working and imagining the success, of putting a plan in motion and believing that it will succeed. There is no realization that it may not work, because it will.

This idea is rampant in books like The Secret, those self-help tomes of visualization, of “positive thinking.” Positive thinking can be delusional, but nobody wants to call it that. We’re conditioned to want more. More ice cream please!

I tend to fall under the very Housian quote, first mentioned in the pilot, to borrow Mick Jagger’s line “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” The problem being that you often don’t realize what you need, and knowing that you won’t get what you want is a very depressing thought. There’s no way to get around this.

Oh, I am always told, things will work out. They always do. It seems a rationalization of the way life unfolds, from one bad or depressing turn to something else, unexpected, a different direction. Maybe it is what was needed, though they didn’t know it. But this is something I’ve only heard from women. It’s not that men don’t ruminate; maybe they aren’t as obsessed as finding the right way, or the best way.

The SNL skit does what the best SNL skits do: boil down an issue to its essence, pointing out the truth while mocking the absurdness of it all. Sarah Palin represents that American notion, as indelible as the frontier spirit, of if you believe it, and you work hard, luck will conspire with you to form great things. Hillary Clinton here is the opposite, the underside of the American dream: what happens when hard work isn’t enough, when forces outside your control conspire against you.

Politics especially seems to have that quality, of “if only”. Al Gore is always served as an example. If only he was president! But look, he completely changed his career! He’s now considered one of the most beloved figures in America, and has had a tremendous amount of influence that he wouldn’t have if he became president. But that is what you do. You adapt; you go in a different direction because you must.

(The only reason this wasn’t posted last week was because FOX makes you wait a week and a day for House episodes to be available online. And while I was waiting, the New York Times published an article relating to the topic.)

1 comment:

John said...

I completely agree, but would like to add another point about the dangers of being ruled by want. One of the only Ally McBeal scenes that I remember (I must have watched a grand total of four episodes of that show) is where two of the women are discussing their idea of the perfect man. They imagine him in all his detail, but then try to imagine his friends, his hobbies, his work/life balance, and all the other things that make a real person real. In the end, they realize that "not only can we never get what we want, we don't even want what we want!" This goes hand-in-hand with the first lesson I ever learned about marketing: Needs can (and must) be fulfilled, but wants are insatiable. Once you've crossed everything off your wish list, it's only a matter of time before you flip the paper over and start again. The trick (and some of those positive thinking books actually teach you this) is to recognize that while you might be able to get anything you want, you'll never have everything you want, and you should learn to be comfortable with that.