Many years ago, there was a Simpsons episode — the “Poochie” one — in which the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon makers did a focus group among kids to see what they could do to revitalize the cartoon, which was flagging in the ratings. Here’s how the scene played out:
Focus Group Guy: [after showing the kids some Itchy & Scratchy cartoons] Okay, how many of the kids would like Itchy & Scratchy to deal with real life problems like the ones you face every day?
[the kids cheer]
Focus Group Guy: And who would like to see them do just the opposite, getting into far-out situations involving robots and magic powers?
[the kid kids cheer again]
Focus Group Guy: So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?
[the kids all chat at once about it being a great idea]
Milhous: And, also, you should win things by watching.
Focus Group Guy: [sighs]
Roger Myers Jr.[I&S show executive]: [turns off the mirror disguise in the window] You kids don’t know what you want. That’s why you’re still kids, ’cause you’re stupid. Just tell me what’s wrong with the freakin’ show!
I thought about that scene this morning after finishing David Brooks’s column on “The Age of Possibility.” Brooks writes about how the world of choice and plenty in which we now live has occasioned the rapid decline of the traditional family. Excerpt:
These are all stunningly fast cultural and demographic shifts. The world is moving in the same basic direction, from societies oriented around the two-parent family to cafeteria societies with many options.
This global phenomenon has been expertly analyzed in a report called “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” written by a team of scholars including Joel Kotkin, Anuradha Shroff, Ali Modarres and Wendell Cox.
Why is this happening? The report offers many explanations. People are less religious. People in many parts of the world are more pessimistic and feeling greater economic stress. Global capitalism also seems to be playing a role, especially, it seems, in Asia.
Many people are committed to their professional development and fear that if they don’t put in many hours at work they will fall behind or close off lifestyle options.
Brooks — who, recall, has written a popular book about what science tells us about the social and psychological conditions under which humans thrive (so his opinion is highly informed) — calls this an “Age of Possibility,” and says it’s based on a false premise:
People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.
He goes on:
The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like.
The problem is not necessarily a changing family structure. It’s people who go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open.
In other words, it’s that many of us want to be like the kids in the Itchy & Scratchy focus group. This is how you get anguished essays like the much-commented-on piece by Ann-Marie Slaughter, complaining that women can’t have a satisfying, high-achieving career and also a satisfying home life — and saying that society has to change to accommodate the desire to have a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots it all.
To some degree, we’re all implicated in this mindset — in this idea that life should be a buffet of choices, and that we shouldn’t be bound too tightly to any particular choice, because that limits our freedom to act to maximize our own happiness. It is a well-known paradox that the happiest people are the ones who don’t pursue happiness for its own sake. This is what Brooks is getting at by saying that people are better off when they are embedded in a structure of commitments that limit their freedom. By closing off their ability to move laterally, they have the capacity to dig deeper.
As longtime readers will remember, it was the death of my sister Ruthie that caused me to rethink the way I was living in this regard. Ruthie stayed in our hometown, and in fact built a house with her husband right across the yard from where she had grown up. I left, in pursuit of a career and happiness. To be clear, I don’t think there was anything wrong with leaving, per se, and in fact if I had made Ruthie’s choice when she made it, I would have been miserable, given the kind of person I am. But watching her die put the commitments she made in this community, and nurtured over the course of her life, in a certain light. She bound herself early on by informal commitments to this place and these people, and they were present for her and her family when she got sick in a way that somebody like me, who chose instead to move around a lot, could not expect if he woke up one morning to find he had terminal cancer. This all ended up with my family and me moving back to my hometown, a story I tell in my forthcoming book. The thing is, it’s not like I only recognized my problem in this regard when Ruthie died; I’d been thinking about it and writing about it for almost a decade, but lacked the courage to accept the implications of my own thinking about place and commitment.
The thing is, there’s no escape from struggling with commitments, no matter where you are. It’s simply the social and psychological landscape all of us live in. Have people ever lived under conditions in which so many people had so much freedom of choice, where the direction of their lives was in profound ways contingent on the exercise of their own free will? This is what we all think we want, because many goods come with that freedom. But we know, or ought to know, that it won’t make us happy, not permanently so.
This is one reason why lottery winners are often so miserable. They don’t know how to deal with the freedom all that money buys them, and it ruins them. People who don’t have much money love to imagine that if only their financial problems were taken care of, they would be happy. More often than not, they just exchange one set of anxieties for another. Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.
Research by leading social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found that the act of choosing depletes our brain’s ability to exercise self-control. We become less discerning and less disciplined when our brains are tired from having to make a large number of choices. This implies that when we embed ourselves within a context of binding commitments — that is to say, commitments we don’t have to think about honoring — that may free our minds to focus on other things. When we experience everything, or nearly everything, as contingent on choice, it exhausts us mentally, and makes us more undisciplined — and, in turn, makes our lives more chaotic. Chaos, in this sense, breeds chaos.
Freedom is a blessing, but freedom cannot be an end, only a means to an end. It is, in a way, our curse to live in a society in which nearly all the focus is on choice, and not on what is chosen, and how we may know what to choose. We must have liberty if our choices are to have meaning. But we must also have order if we are going to sustain the conditions under which we may have liberty.
What’s wrong with the freakin’ show? We are kids who don’t know what we want, and who want perpetually to keep our options open. With me, this is perhaps the greatest challenge of my spiritual life. It’s part of the “everydayness” challenge. The way through the world really is more difficult to find than the way beyond it — and we are trying to make our way through this disorienting territory, having ceased to believe in the reliability of maps we have not drawn ourselves.