Negativity is easy, and we’ve made it a national pastime.
It’s Christmas morning. The presents have been open, and we’re wandering around in our chocolate-induced post-carb fog of vague mellowness. One present, a book on the fabulous art festival Burning Man. Leafing through it, we come across a discussion of a playground of stuffed animals, teddy bears, etc. that was doused with gasoline and reduced to ashes in a complex art project. Reading it, I was sad. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for stuffed animals (as long as they aren’t shaped like politicians or lawyers).
Jeff tried to encourage me to explore other ways of looking at the piece: perhaps the simple juxtaposition of the comforting with the disturbing–turning the teddy bear into an instrument of destruction–was intended to get us thinking. Ultimately, the discussion it provoked would be much richer and more complex than the original simple theme. So let’s start discussing.
Perhaps the Society for Teddy Bear Immolation feels differently, but my reaction is basic and strong. Yes, a teddy bear in flames makes me sad. But the larger issue makes me much sadder: we’ve become a culture that motivates with fear. We’re addicted to turning the safe into the dangerous for fun, manipulation, and profit. Have you watched TV news lately? Our local affiliate scares us nightly, showing us how even the safety of our homes conceals lurking danger. Our drinking water is killing us. Strangers are all sex offenders waiting to rape and kill. Our TV may be damaging our unborn children’s brains. Our jobs may be sapping our will to live. PCBs are building up in our bloodstream. Fish, the only really healthy meat, now comes with fatal levels of mercury. Sunlight will kill you. Your drinking water contains dangerous levels of carcinogens. … Need I go on?
Most of our ads are built around making us feel pain, guilt, lack, and need where none existed before. Are you financially successful, with a family who loves you? Feeling happy? Guess again. Five minutes of TV ads will show you you’re not a real man without a gas-guzzling, top-heavy, unsafe SUV. (As if anyone who has the kind of job that can afford an SUV can actually aspire to embody the brand of masculinity so glorified in the commercials.)
So guess what? Creating pain where there was once comfort doesn’t impress me. Teddy Bear as Instrument of Destruction seems almost commonplace. Destruction–indeed, all violence–fundamentally, is easy. Just destroy. It takes little skill or finesse. The basic options are smashing it, burning it, or soaking it. If you’re a chemist, you can probably also dissolve it. There may be some creativity in the fuse and detonation mechanism, but destruction is easy. Construction isn’t.
That teddy bear that was so easily doused with gasoline had to be painstakingly made piece by piece. If it was made on an assembly line, the factory had to be designed, built, and organized. The toy had to be conceived, patterned, and made. Hundreds of people coordinated so that teddy bear could exist. Putting a lit match to it isn’t impressive. Teddy is one example among many. More and more we seem to be concentrating on the killing and smashing. We hit. We’re strong. *grunt* We’re surrounded by images of negativity. One of the most advanced pieces of simulation software ever built, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, lets you simulate … gang warfare, drug deals, prostitution, theft, and crime. Yes, it’s fun, seductively so (I’ll likely buy it the instant it’s available for PC). But as with virtually all of our entertainment, it immerses us in the “fun” of negativity. I’m sure there are situations in life that are just plain bad. There are, indeed, unresolvable conflicts. There are people who want to engage in genocide (I was talking with one just last week, who wants adherents of the Islamic faith “reduced to ashes, each and every one” … and, of course, we’ve seen others who want the same thing for Americans).
So given that there are some real, genuinely hard negative situations to deal with, why do we insist on creating even more? Have you ever notice the total dearth of role models for functional relationships and communities? When was the last time you actually saw someone on the media begin an argument and resolve it in a way that demonstrated how real, mature people can deal with complex differences? Never. But boy, you can find a dozen daily role models for dysfunction.
Sometimes during an argument, I can even hear an echo of the TV show that programmed me with the abysmal crap I find myself saying. So darn it, I want to be impressed by something impressive: Someone who can bring a little peace to conflict. Someone who can be in a horrific situation and still find and share what beauty there is to be found. Someone who can find fun in connecting with other human begins and building enriching relationships, rather than just shooting them. And maybe–just maybe–someone who can live out some role models about how to have a healthy, successful, happy family life, work life, and community life. More and more, I want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to make teddy bears violent; I want to find ways of resolving violence and conflict. I want to help people find common meeting grounds. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to be an agent of happiness, a spreader of grand dreams and good will. I want to walk away leaving people happier, freer, more optimistic, and more upbeat about their lives. Won’t you join me? Merry Christmas, whatever your faith.