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THE SELF-ESTEEM GENERATION - Arindam Mukherjee

I

From 1914 till 1945 – about 40 years (let’s make it 50 because Europe was messed up since the beginning of that century) – Europe’s devastation of lives and land saw, among a lot of other things, a shift in the focus of self-development. The earlier stress on elemental, silent aspects of character like mental discipline, fidelity or integrity quickly got discarded to make way for a new school of self-esteem preachers. The assumption was that a generation of fatherless, penny-less, traumatized kids that were born amidst this chaos needed a break; they needed something that could pull their psyche out from those rubbles and make them slightly happy about being alive.

It was a noble intention. However, it lacked sufficient depth, and so ideally should have been a short-lived arrangement. But it turned out to be quite a catch and people – from thought leaders to motivators, schools to workplaces, and even pastors and preachers latched on to it so hot that ‘you are God’s gift to mankind, and the next best thing after sliced bread’, came to rule the world. I don’t know why this persisted. Could be because no one tires of ‘how great my idea is’ logic, so the ones to think this up remained indifferent. Could be because of the cash-flow; the self-esteem movement made billions for many people. Could be because no one had the wisdom to realize that ‘dosh chokrey Bhogoban ee Bhoot’ (the nectar is the poison; it is only a matter of time).  

This took a few decades, and by the 70s most man and woman of every age group and walk of life (mostly in the West) was to gradually get saturated with the idea that he/she was ‘someone’, because God didn’t create ‘anyone’. Thus, the self-esteem generation: people who felt ‘great’ about themselves for no apparent reason, came to being. The social scientists said reason wasn’t important – he who felt ‘great’, ‘successful’, ‘brilliant’ etc about himself would be a natural ‘tool for good’.  

It is a small wonder that no country or community began mass producing Warren Buffets or Cristiano Ronaldos by the millions even half a century after the institutionalization of ‘desire, and the universe conspires to deliver at your doorstep’ school of thought, and a few of us know the reason why. What’s quite funny is that it pulled the collective behaviour of late entrants like India too – laggards to latch on to globalization and its fallouts – due to an inane urge to copy anything that the West had to offer.

II

While Europe was being ravaged by the WWs, the USA was trying to recover from the Depression and a part of the War. And when WWII ended and their country mounted to the top of the economic food pyramid, the propaganda industry – one that was aimed to be used as a tool for McCarthyism – doubled up to promote consumption in its free time. And people that wanted to put the horrors of the War and Holocaust behind them rushed to buy. There were millions of them.

Consumption needed buoyancy of the heart and the mind. Old school measures of building character – the ones that had their focus on long hours of thanklessness and zero spectator, were to get quickly replaced by any message that were more upbeat and easier in their philosophy. “In 1946, Rabbi Joshua Liebman published a book titled Peace of Mind that urged people to engrave a new morality on their hearts, one based on setting aside the idea that you should repress any part of yourself.” He believed in the infinite potential of the human mind. And that found a foothold. Then came Benjamin Spock’s baby book. In which he argued that if your baby steals something, you should gift him something similar to what he stole, so that he could have his heart’s desire. Then came Harry Overstreet with his The Mature Mind who went even to the extent of criticizing St Augustine saying that his messages “denied to our species the healthy blessing of self-respect”. And of course, Normal Vincent Peale in 1952 published his mega-runner The Power of Positive Thinking, arguing that pep-talk is all one needs to excel in life. Talk positive stuff to yourself and you can achieve greatness!

Soon enough humanistic psychology took over. This was quickly proving to be an enormous market opportunity across both sides of the Atlantic, so why the hell not. Carl Rogers kicked the likes of Freud and began talking about self-love. His idea – the one that found traction – was that human beings are extremely positive creatures… essentially trustworthy… etc etc… I hope you get the drift. And soon there were IALAC (I am lovable and capable) posters anywhere that you could care to notice – from school and college walls to offices and community houses.

III

When I was in my high school, my English teacher had gifted me The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Books were the tradition back in the 80s and 90s. Loads of them. And though I was the kind to latch on to Captain Haddock or Felu Mitter, and Ben Fanklin made me sleepy, yet a part of the message that he wanted to pass wasn’t lost on me (after repeated trials over a span of several years). It talked about the design flaw of human beings and the necessity of humility. I had zero idea about Moral Realism then; I still have a very faint idea even today. I was to realize later that Uncle Ben wanted to share moral realism in thoughts and action. I also came to realize later that Isiah Berlin, and even Dante, were out and out about moral realism. It is incredibly hard to know ourselves. It is an incredibly long road to virtue. Success is a sacrificial idea; chances of your bumping onto it is close to zero, so your toning-up can only happen through sacrificing the excess baggage. We are capable of deeds incredibly good and bad, and always a step away from a moment of weakness or laziness that makes way for selfishness and pride. Reason is weak and the world is complex. We cannot grasp the enormity of this complexity because of our limitations. The moment Adam knew he was vulnerable, he realized the vulnerability of his fellow beings. That what could harm him could harm others; could be used to harm others.  

The focus was on inner weakness, shortcomings. Standing at 2020, it appears an approach of a weird kind. But back in those days, “Perkins grew up with the vocabulary of vocation, the need to supress parts of yourself so you can be an instrument in a larger cause. Eisenhower grew up with the vocabulary of self-defeat. Day learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity, poverty, and surrender. Marshall learnt institutional thinking… Randolph and Rustin learnt reticence and the logic of self-discipline… this ethos was just in the air they breathed”.

When I joined a US multinational in their Learning & Development Department sometimes during late 90s, I was buried under a truckload of success literature in no time! Right from the peers, the distributors, and their captive education system, to the senior colleagues – everyone had at least 5 “PMA” (positive mental attitude!) /self-help books that they wanted a greenhorn like me to comprehend to “experience a paradigm shift” (exact expression was used by ALL of them). Someone preached the magic of ‘thinking big’, while some wanted me to ‘power dress’ and ‘power speak’ to success, and yet they were better than the Indian gurus who had gradually begun discovering the financial miracle of churning out summaries subtly plagiarised from international bestsellers. It was a horrific experience in shallowness. And that was the time when the difference between pre-WW and post-WW success literature dawned on me. While the Ben Franklin types focussed on more fundamental, deeper aspects of character integrity, the modern thought leaders were all about ‘appearing’ a particular way, something Stephen Covey has explained brilliantly in his book 7 Habits.    

And why did this happen? Across the two continents where things were being decided, it so happened that Moral Romanticism had taken over Moral Realism. This was first put across by someone named Jean Jacques Rousseau a couple of centuries ago but had not found much success then. Obviously. And 1970s and 80s was the time when it finally found its footing as the core, solemn, vocabularies that held “Character, above all” to be the one truth, got replaced by the souls that had suffered enough through the larger part of the 20th century.

IV

I try not to be the one to criticize the onslaught of moral romanticism into the success literature. I have worked closely with professionals and entrepreneurs, who I have had a chance to observe; they are some of the most ruthless characters around. Hands down. When you gloat on their highlighting this or that line that you consider noble or virtuous, most of the time they are just playing to the gallery. Warren Buffett did not become what he is today sitting home on a yoga mat and meditating for an empire, and Jeff Bezos did not build his Juggernaut through the philosophy of Live and Let Live. I suspect that for a long time now, he has been actively following one that is quite the opposite. Nonetheless I go on and be neutral about this shift to the best of my ability primarily because a little hope is a good thing. We may have crossed the time of WWs, but the world is still pretty messed up for millions of people.

There is one larger angle to this too. This shift is not a tragedy of decline. People were thought to be deviating from Christian faith in Europe (perhaps sometime during 19th century), when moral discipline came into existence to prevent that erosion. When the devastation of the WWs reigned supreme, the self-indulgent school was brought into existence. Trade-offs happen, and that is the way. You discard some and you embrace some. The post-WW narrative did achieve some great stuffs – to give it due credit. It empowered women who were treated as second-rate, who were made to feel inferior about themselves. It empowered black and brown people who had remained historically overwhelmed by colonial soft-power appeal of ‘higher culture and language’. It made people realize that there was no harm in putting themselves first some of the time, as argued famously by Dr Joyce Brothers. In terms of achievement, these were quite remarkable triumphs of Moral Romanticism’s philosophy of self-indulgence.

The problem (at least I consider it to be so) began when this philosophy started altering human nature. The post-1945 literature stressed so much on ‘your inner goodness’ and ‘the purity of core’ that everyone started believing that their personal feelings were the best, most authentic indicators of right and wrong, good and bad. They latched on to the idea that it is a great thing to just go with what the heart felt good about. Philosopher Charles Taylor complicated it further through his statements like “Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves… I am called to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anybody else’s”… and so on. The result of that was an infinite amount of importance on personal feelings – something that stood isolated amidst this crowed world with no reference points, no framework to benchmark, completely dependant on the person’s severely limited comprehension of the world and the time.  

I am a firm believer in the philosophy of the dual nature of humans. We are faulty creatures; split perhaps right in the middle with equal measures of good and bad. And when a concept completely overlooking the aspect of bad makes inroads in the mind, (borrowing from the gym behaviour, that is like skipping legs day and thus 50% of your body) that is an imperfect concept to say the least. As a result, the majority of the people born in the West and exposed to the ‘inner goodness’ school went out looking for the sins of the society completely clueless about the sins within them. The inner struggle for character got replaced by the outer struggle for convincing others the ‘greatness’ of one’s core. And they were to spread the same behaviour around the rest of the world, in the coming few decades. And mutate.

V

Once while travelling in a shared auto a few years ago, I was with a junkie who had taken the same vehicle. Since I had some distance to cover, and he wasn’t getting off by the look of it, I tried to make some conversation. My target was to ask about the slash marks on his forearms. That razor thin network of slashes that we see mostly on junkies’ forearms? I used to think that those were: (a) failed romance leading to writing letters in blood (many kids did that during the time we grew up), or (b) a way of administering their fix. Turned out that our friend was slicing his skin here and there to ascertain his level of numbness.

I don’t know if injecting heroin, snorting cocaine, or the lack of it makes you numb. But I could guess that the urge to ‘feel’ goes to a level these days that you might have to, on occasions, slice yourself with a blade. Sensationalism. Of the body.

And what about mind?

We all have a few friends who, from time to time, are even willing to spend their evening catching up with anachronous souls like us whose idea of good times is confined to romanticizing about The Great Game or getting lost in Biblical Nazareth, and definitely don’t make it to the top of their list of friends to call for an evening of fun and drink. But we do get contacted once in a while. Wise men say that these callers fear their inner voice. It speaks during life’s moments of separation and stillness when the outer noise is low. So? Mostly fake friends and fake parties dominate, and misfits like us get summoned when those pouts and ‘muuaahhs’ for FB posts run out of steam. Anything to keep the noise levels up.    

The mutation following the How Great I Am has landed many people to a stage where they’ve shut the small voice for the unease of what they might discover. Given a chance and with some practice, the inner voice is a brilliant dashboard of our dual nature – and, for a few billion that remain obsessed with their ‘greatness’, the voice can act as an equaliser. But it doesn’t get that chance. Some of it escapes now and then; a garbled sound that most don’t understand, obviously – never being fit for it. That makes people uneasy. They quickly reach for their smartphone during times like these.

There then, could be your mutant. Cyberculture. It has allowed one numerous tools with which one can create his online avatar to his fancy. It has allowed one the liberty to be as unreal there in the virtual world as it has created. It has allowed one to broadcast the same unrealistic image to wherever it reaches. It has allowed self-promotion for every kind of individual like never witnessed in human history before. It is a competition for approval. It is a space for one to treat himself like a celebrity of sorts. And in a world where there is no dearth of high achievers in real life, this yearning to look-feel like one of them has made these avatars build around them a massive bubble of bloated exuberance and falsity and float in it. People from the threshold generation – those that straddle both pre- and post-cyber-era – remain uneasy with that voice in their refusal to recognize it. The millennials, I suspect, don’t know of the existence of one.

VI

The message then to the I-me-and-my-narcissistic-self affected souls could be many. But let’s focus on just four, in a language that I am comfortable:

WE ARE NOT EXCEPTIONAL, AS RHONDA BRYNE OR PAULO COELHO WOULD WANT US TO THINK. This sugar-coat is the result of a last century shift in success literature made to address a particular concern – one that doesn’t exist today. Think logically: there are about, what, 6 billion of us humans? And you seriously think that ALL this mass on earth is special? This is like Modi depositing 15 lakhs in every account. ‘Special’ loses its meaning. No one is special till you are freakishly lucky to be the son of some billionaire dad who owns an airline and a beer brand. And even then, luck has this habit of running out.

Look, it is a pretty crowded planet. And it is getting hotter too. Every place you try to squeeze in to escape this crowd and heat has about a million people already trying to do the same. In other words that means competition. The chances of your randomly stumbling in through that tiny opening is close to zero.

Want to enter? Shed the excess baggage.

SOCIAL MEDIA INFO DUMP MISGUIDES. Too much of info is not good; not to guys who have little idea on how to deal with this deluge (that pretty much means ALL of us). Human tendency is to skip the drab and grab the catchy. That’s why they are called ‘catchy’. But too much of it for too long convinces us that our, fat seeking, salary collecting, rent paying ‘average’ polluted city-lives are no lives. But since Paulo Coelho – who you love to read and quote – says you are special, so there must be a way. A shortcut, then, maybe? Few moments of fame?

Rhonda or Paulo can’t sell their stories, podcasts, or seminars, if they write all of you are worthless till you prove yourself otherwise. Ditto for social media. The more the sensationalism, the higher the number of subscribers. Go back to point (a) This is a crowded planet. In such a situation, the term majority means ‘middle of the spectrum’. That’s us. That’s how this is designed. That’s why parkours and pastry-chefs appeal.

Want to be one? Train like one.

THERE IS NO POINT IN FEELING GOOD ABOUT ONESELF TILL ONE HAS SOLID REASONS TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT. A vague life of entitlement, of obscured moral vocabulary and wanting stuff because one thinks he ‘deserves’ it, is not a smart journey to take. The SOLID reason usually comes from a string of solid achievements – usually along the positive side. That is serious business, requiring serious skills on your part. The only skill Sachin Tendulkar has is he knows how to hit that ball thrown at him with that wooden bat of his. One skill that he has leveraged to change his life, and that of those around him. One that has required hundreds upon thousands of hours to practice, and some more hours to perfect.

Can you?

SUCCESS IS A SACRIFICIAL IDEA; PICK YOUR DAMN SACRIFICE – Says JBP. So what’s it going be? Social life, drinking and partying? Web series or video game hours? Friends, and relatives? There has to be some sacrifices made. You get a limited number of chances to be exceptional at things. Life is short; building routine excellence consumes a lot of time; and we are all just ordinary guys with no special gifts like the X Men. And even they have one true gift. The one with those shiny claws that cut through everything cannot fly. Or disappear. And so it goes. It is quite impossible to hog on pizzas/burgers and maintain a 10% body fat and be a great public speaker and own a multi-crore organization and have a great friend circle and be great in bed and be a Roadies star… all together. We can pick up one. And try to be exceptional. Or, we can just sit there weak and lazy, and marvel at our online aura – whatever our avatar has managed to create. And let the mask be the face.  

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