Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the Folly of Romanticising Dreams

I finally got around to seeing La La Land, apparently making me about the last person in America to do so. It was quite good, after all. But one thing that stuck out was the ever present Hollywood obsession with the idea of fulfilling one's dreams.

This is a theme that never seems to get tired - don't give up on one's dreams, keep working and eventually you'll achieve your dreams, don't sell out your dreams to mundane practical considerations, et predictable cetera.

There is, in other words, an ongoing preoccupation with the plight of how to disembarrass dreamers of their temporary obstacles.

Let us assume, charitably, that this is meeting a real need in society, for those with concrete ambitions and goals. In the world of cinema, everyone has a purpose that they have aspired to from a young age - opening a successful jazz club, becoming a famous actress.

But every time I see these messages, I always wonder: what fraction of the audience actually has dreams in the first place, at least in the way that Hollywood depicts them?

If the average person were asked, "Quick, what's your dream?" and forced to answer in two seconds, I would guess that a lot of answers would begin with "I don't know,…”, and the honest ones would probably end there as well.

What the average person has instead of fixed childhood dreams, I suspect, is a gnawing sense of ennui that they don’t really know what they want to do with their life, but whatever they’re currently doing isn’t quite it. They’d change, but they’re not sure to what, and even if they had a concrete aim they’re not sure they’d be able to achieve it.

That their hobbies and interests have more of the flavour of enjoyable diversions to pass the time in a rapidly vanishing life, rather than genuine passions.

That their hobbies and interests, when they are honest about it, are nearly all just forms of consumption – sex, movies, gadgets, food, alcohol, porn, weed. And like all consumption, the pleasure is relatively fleeting, and sense of purpose is minimal.

That the only hobby that doesn’t quite fit the previous list is hanging out with their friends, which at least has a social aspect to it. But if they’re older than 25, their most common thoughts regarding their friends are either that i) they don’t manage to see them as often as they’d like, and/or ii) they no longer live in the same city as the people they consider their best friends.

You may note that Hollywood has relatively little to say about how to find dreams if you don’t have them. The very concept almost sounds absurd, since dreams presuppose a fixed and concrete aim, which is the very thing lacking most of the time. And if you tried to push people to come up with some kind of dream, they're going to resort to retrieving some mentally cached entry for "what are the kinds of things people claim to dream of doing?". These usually have one of several predictable forms:

-Mindless Adventurism: I want to travel around the world!
-Fame: I want to be in a rock band or a movie star!
-Getting Paid for My Hobbies: I want to be a gossip columnist (because I like reading social media nonsense), a porn star (because I like banging), own a restaurant (because I like eating) etc.

I ask you, dear reader – do you think that the ennui that so characterises our modern existence is likely to be solved by more trips to Europe, aspiring actors, or failed restauranteurs?

What people are genuinely missing, rather, is a sense of purpose in their lives. And purpose is different from dreams in subtle but important ways.

You can find purpose in religion – in aims higher than egotism, and in understanding the human condition. You can find purpose in family – in raising children, in looking after your elderly parents, in loving and supporting your siblings. You can find purpose in community – in bonds with those around you, in brightening the day of neighbours or strangers. For a talented few, you can find purpose in art – in creating things of great beauty which may outlast you.

With the possible exception of art, the purposes listed above are within the reach of the average person, though finding them is far from straightforward. Religion and community have both been declining a lot in the west over the last few decades. Still, as the Last Psychiatrist puts it, you can always fake it until it becomes real - if your parents are still alive, you can call them, right now, and brighten up their day. 

But no one dreams of finding religion, or having children, or volunteering in their neighourhood. Because dreams are at heart about achievement, about individual ambition, about achieving success at the highest levels. And this is almost by definition not a possibility for the average person. Even where the subject matter coincides, like in employment, the emphasis is radically different. You can find purpose in an honest day’s work, and providing for your family, but you can only find success by being a CEO or an astronaut.

There is an extent to which human ambition makes for better stories, which is probably why Hollywood likes the idea.

But eventually, the subtext of the message gets internalized – to be worthy, you must have ambition, and succeed in it.

The left likes this idea, because the left believes in egalitarianism. We are all as good as each other, therefore we all have the same innate ability to achieve anything, if we just set our minds to it. Set our minds to what, exactly? Um, derp... never mind, let's just go with astronaut. How many of those are there again?

The negative consequences of this message never seem to get much contemplated. It does the left half the distribution no favours whatsoever to tell them that they can do things that they are incapable of, and that they are failures if they don’t aim at something incredibly difficult and succeed

What are they likely to conclude?

Well, if they are part of a designated victim group, they will latch on to another social message floating in the ether – that their lack of success is due to the malign influence of the interfering forces of -isms and -phobias. I am not a failure, you see. I have talent and skill, which a bigoted and hateful world has prevented from being realized! Is it any wonder that people to whom these messages apply find them seductive as a psychological balm for wounded pride and failed ambition?

Or if they’re just some white trash loser, for whom this excuse isn’t available, they drink and drug themselves into an anesthetized stupor and premature death.

Setting people up for inevitable failure is no kindness at all. And the reality is that even having concrete dreams is only feasible for those in the right half of the distribution of ambition and talent.

There is no right half of a distribution without a corresponding left half. Egalitarianism has destroyed most people's ability to think seriously about how to improve the lives of the left half through any mechanisms other than charity. The state of the art thinking is to keep reinforcing the message to the left half that they, too, can be the right half.

How much needless human misery do we create by pretending that the left half doesn’t exist?


  1. Excellent.

    It reminds me of a recent interview with Jordan Peterson (I'm sure you know him), discussing his issues with modern atheists and their lack of appreciation regarding the dire lack of purpose in modernity.

    You touched on the key point I believe in your comment on religion, as anti-egotism is prevalent in all your listed forms of purpose. 'Dreams' have replaced a sense of true purpose due to egotism and our obsession with the individual. Read into it what you will, but self-effacement (giving oneself to God, family, community etc) is more noble than self-indulgence (dreams of fame and personal prosperity).

  2. I should add, traditional forms of purpose apply to even the lowest in society. You may not be the pope or a priest, but you can participate in a religious community 'equally' with anyone else. This minimizes a great social evil: envy. As opposed to modern wealth and celebrity culture, which as you note by definition can only apply to say 5%, excludes most and thus is a recipe for disaster.

    1. That's a great point about the lack of egotism being the common themes of a lot of other senses of purpose. I remember the Last Psychiatrist saying somewhere that he thought narcissism was the disease of the modern age, and I think he was spot on.