Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Superlative-loving Culture and our Life Stories

Some people have amazing lives filled with battles and difficulties that they overcame. When you listen to their life stories you think “Wow! What a fighter! What a survivor!” You almost never say
“Wow” followed by “What an amazingly normal person she was!”There is no excitement, respect, appreciation, or wow factor for someone who lived a normal life. You almost feel embarrassed to have lived one. Imagine an average person who went through the normal ups and downs of know, things like peer pressure at school, pains of adolescence, money issues, unrequited love, career challenges, family problems, an illness here and there, losing a loved one, etc... They tried hard (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding) to build a career, form a family, gather some wisdom, and contribute to the society in one form or another. Would their life story make you go, “Wow”? Is anyone going to publish their biography?

We are told that we are all magnificent beings and unique in our own ways and are encouraged to celebrate our uniqueness. Our social norms and our culture, however, do anything but support us in that celebration. In the end, we as a society really admire the ones who were more unique than the others! We are mesmerized by the ones who carry some kind of superlative adjective next to their names, such as the smartest, the best, the biggest, the wisest, etc. We live in a world where you have to be the leader, the maverick, the trail blazer, the innovator, the first, the gold medal winner, etc. to be recognized and appreciated. What about the unique dumb person? Or the unique follower? Or the unique average member of the team? (Is unique average an oxymoron by the way?)

Now think of yourself. Imagine you are dead and someone comes up to give your obituary. What are they going to say? What is your life story? What would you like it to be? Is your life one of a super-hero? If not, are you proud of it?

I was thinking about my obituary and I thought, “What if I never end up becoming anything of any significance? Is my story less interesting, important, or celebrate-able than others?” Clearly I am not the next Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa, Van Gogh, or Einstein. I am not going to win the Pulitzer prize, the Noble prize, the Oscars, a gold medal, or anything like that either. Gush, I am a failure! An undeniable loser!

The fact that I do not feel that way is not because I have read a lot of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer books. It is because I see a fundamental flaw in our superlative-worshiping culture: Everyone ends up being a loser. The thing is that the gold medal winner ends up losing eventually and will start feeling bad that he did not break the record of winning gold in X consecutive Olympic games. The smartest kid in the classroom will go to college and find people smarter than himself. The most famous pop singer is only the most famous until another one shows up... You get the point...If being the best, the first, the only, the highest, the richest, the kindest, the bravest, etc. is what you strive for and you measure the value of your life story with, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Not surprisingly, there are many disappointed people in this world. Accomplished or not, people want to matter, to be appreciated, and ultimately to be loved, and since the only way to attain significance in our culture is to stand out, most people want to be the best in something (sometimes even in stupid ways. Have you seen the woman who is trying to be the heaviest woman on Earth?), which as I said earlier is a never-ending battle and fundamentally flawed.

So, what are we supposed to gauge the value of our lives by? What should make us proud of our lives? In an ideal world where there are no judgments, rankings or separation, could every single person dumb or smart, winner or loser, the best or the worst feel proud of their life story, appreciated by the society, and valued by their peers? Will people write biographies of average human beings one day? Could we have a society where people do things just because they love to do them? Or because they gain tremendous joy out of them?

Competition and comparison are so engrained in every aspect of our society that I for one cannot even imagine what a society without them would look like. Imagine a classroom where the teacher takes a test and then gives everyone As for their effort! Or maybe it would be a classroom with no tests at all. Hmm.. I for one only studied the night before my tests, so I would not learn anything in that class for sure! Our entire economy is based on competition. What is more, the entire human race is based on survival of the fittest. How are we going to go from here to Eckhart Tolle's “A New Earth” where there is no ego, separating one person from the others? If it is not a value to be the best at something, would people still work hard at their craft just because they love it? I can imagine a scientist or an artist working as hard, just because they love what they do, but a toll booth operator? An assembly line factory worker?

I tried hard but I couldn't really picture this utopia where everyone was connected, appreciate, and loved equally. Then I realized maybe I didn't really need to. Superlative loving culture or not, maybe all I needed to do was to think of my own deathbed and figure out a life strategy that would make me proud on my last day.

Being a competitive person and having always striven to perfect a skill or trait in my life, I really did need something to get more of, or become better at. Just being present, living in the moment, and being all zen like wasn't quite giving me the sense of accomplishment that I craved. And as discussed earlier the battles for having or being more were only delivering short term satisfactions. So after contemplating it long and hard I have decided to strive for the maximum JOY in my life. When I die, I would like people to say, “She squeezed every single ounce of joy out of her life. She was the most joyful person we knew.” The most? Well, yes! What can I say? I am a part of this superlative-loving culture too! :-)


  1. A few comments:

    One should re-educate him/her self, better to be in his/her 20's. In this reconstruction, one should revisit 'everything', the values induced by parent's and society, definitions, biases, ethics, morality, spirituality, psychological complexes, etc... and as part of it definition of success, and a conscious decision on the path s/he wants to take. You can decide to define it as becoming best of something, or you can defining it as living based on a certain principle. If one goes deep, one can find analogies and connection to eastern vs. western philosophy.

    You mentioned that you are 'competitive', however, the rival has a big impact on one's state of being, happiness, and motivation. In my view as long as the competition is internal the person may find internal peace and happiness, but once the competition becomes external, there is no good end, because you can not stay on the top for ever.

    I also disagree with you with defining 'normal' life. In my view, it is all about the story teller.

    Overall (in my view of course), happiness and self satisfaction is not in becoming something, rather in being something. Getting a PhD, winning a gold medal, climbing Mt Everst, having 9 degrees, and knowing 12 languages, all are achievement, but they are not what a person is, they certainly help one to become something, but as you mentioned they are not the phrases that one uses in the obituary, and that depends how many lives you have touched and in what capacity. -Voids

    1. Thanks for your comment Voids. I can't say I disagree with anything you said. One should consciously evaluate their life and decide what their values are and ultimately what -at their death bed- would make them proud of the life they lived. And yes I was also making the point that winning more does not seem to bring that satisfaction.
      Whether someone's life is normal or not as you said depends on who is looking at it. My description was merely an objection to the way our society seems to view or evaluate a life like mine or yours.

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  3. People are lonely soles. A life story, in terms of experiences gained, is nearly unique to each person. You might think you have some idea of what it's like to have x millions dollars, but you have no idea what it's like to be e.g. bill gates and have x million dollars. what i mean is that the external form of the world is a very weak indicator of how it is actually experienced (by lonely soles) and therefore, how it is enjoyed. all the same, the external form of the world is more or less how it is naturally supposed to be: the best performers will always be remembered more than others. while we might not have much control on whether we will be remembered or not, we might have a choice in what we value, which effects how much we enjoy a life. e.g. at a concert, the fact of the concert would present a single capacity for enjoying life to everyone involved -the performer, the audience, the staff, etc.-, if all these people, for a second, forgot what their personal contributions were to the whole, and were "just happy to be there". such is the concert of life. lol.

  4. My yoga instructors always say, "it is not the depth that matters, it is the correct form that has the most impact. That it is yoga practice, not yoga perfect." These statements really hold true in my life. Every night when I go to bed, I feel really happy and satisfied with my life. I believe that my existence makes a difference in some young soul's life at least once a year. I believe that those someones will forever remember me, and they will speak of me to their future children. So I strive for a life that holds the kind of form that gives me the most satisfaction at the end of my day. I strive to be, (here come the superlatives), the happiest, the most joyful, and the most positive. My cup is always half full, half full of joy (I know I sound cliched, but I am the judge of my own corniness, and I say, "If it makes me happy so be it!); and on the days when my cup seems half empty, I learn what it is that I need to do the next day to change that. After all, as long as I can remember all the wonderful things about myself that define the greatness and the uniqueness in me, I am pretty content. Perhaps it is the narcissist in me, but in so many ways it is the narcissist in me that reminds me of the fact that my cup is half full.

    At the end of the day, I need to be content with myself and my own personal achievements. My life then, is a practice to be as joyful as possible, and be as content with my existence as possible in a positive light. I will not measure my achievements against anyone else's. I think maybe I will write my own obituary so that I don't forget all the little accomplishments, endeavours, and challenges that make me so unique to myself.

    I think the utopia you speak of is really attainable within one's self, irrespective of our cultures' criteria for greatness. If everyone learns to celebrate their own existence, then perhaps they can learn to celebrate the accomplishments of others, however small or big the accomplishments.

  5. So true Arezou my dear. Thanks for sharing.