By Dennis Loo (9/12/13)
In what could be read as the Secret Lament of the Outrageously Successful, a 50-year-old male writes to Salon's advice columnist Cary Tennis ("Mr. Big Feels Empty Inside") about the emptiness he feels despite his possesing every outward sign of grand success:
"What went wrong with my life? I have the outward trappings of success at 50 years old. I live in a mansion, have servants and a chauffeur, travel extensively to nice places and resort areas, and spend much time giving motivational and political speeches around the country. I have three successful adult sons, a beautiful, accomplished and brilliant wife with whom I’ve been married 25 years, and have enough money that I could retire tomorrow (if I were willing to downsize, which I am not). I occasionally write for the national press — indeed, I’ve written a not terribly good book, and have yet to publish it. Interviews with me are eagerly sought in my specialty. My picture graces trade publications, magazines and books. I have done far better than almost all of my peers. I suspect that most of them envy me.
"Yes, I realize that other people looking at me must think I live the charmed life; yet that same life seems completely devoid of interest or charm to me. I have absolutely everything except, say, $20 million; but I live a generous lifestyle that the vast majority of denizens of this planet, including many far richer than I, would eagerly take from me. I am considered good-looking; women are constantly hitting on me, and I have become a master of the polite refusal. (Although I realize that this is a woman thing: They like to test men who seem happily married.) I write these words unable to sleep. I haven’t read a book in a year or two; nor have I taken a vacation. My attention span is zero. While I can turn on whenever I need to do so, most of the time I don’t. I feel like a lost soul. And yet I am not depressed! How could I be?"
Tennis quotes from the Bible about how hard it is for a richman to go to heaven and advises Mr. Big to go into the wilderness and find himself. Others take Mr. Big to task for his conceitedness and read his lament as a complaint that he is not nationally known, only regionally. Some advise him to learn to be creative or contemplative and look inside himself.
My own take - and I'm interested in other readers' thoughts about this, you can read his full comments at Salon - is that the feeling of meaninglessness that Mr. Big describes is a case study of what is wrong with the neoliberal philosophy that honors only money, personal glory, and individual success. It's all about being narcissistic and not at all about recognizing oneself as part of the rest of society and the planet and giving to others. Mr. Big is surrounded by servants, commodities and symbols of individual success, but he is profoundly alienated. None of it has any meaning, even though he confesses that he doesn't have "$20 million" and he isn't willing to downsize - ruling out at this point the path to him being able to find his way out of his predictment. Genuine fulfillment comes from giving to others and being in service to others. Mr. Big's life is all about himself and reflections of himself in others and other things around him.
At least one other Salon reader like me recognized Mr. Big as a close cousin to Mitt Romney's view of the world and sarcastically commented that Romney should run again and he'll feel happy again.
In my own comment on the Salon thread I ended with this: "He is a microcosm of the larger problems that this capitalist society breeds and is despoiling the earth with."
As I wrote in the Preface to Globalization and the Demolition of Society, distilling the themes in the book as a whole:
Humans are not first and foremost individuals. Everyone and everything that exists does so only in relationship to other beings and to other things. Individuals and groups, in particular, are not separate from and opposed to each other but in fact different expressions of a single integrated process. Individuals cannot accomplish what they do without group support and group sustenance; groups, in turn, rely upon individual leaders to organize the group and thereby advance the groups’ interests. We are not fundamentally solitary, autonomous, and exclusively self-interested individuals driven to maximize personal material rewards; we are beings who are primarily shaped by our relationships, especially those generated by our society’s political and economic structures. Individuals do not principally give systems the character that those systems possess; systems and structures principally shape individuals’ behavior.
Genuine freedom does not and cannot come from ignoring one’s obligations to other people and by spurning necessity and material reality. Freedom can only exist on the basis of first recognizing and coping with necessity and then acting to transform it. Moreover, material wealth is not the proper measure of the worth of a person or a society. The pursuit of individual—and corporate—opulence and the downgrading or outright dismissal of the intimate and indispensible connection we have to each other and to the earth are the road to catastrophe for the people and for our planet. (xii)
What Mr. Big is suffering from in other words, is but a microcosm of the disasters that are afflicting the entire planet. And he is, as he says himself, one of the most privileged.
What do you think? Please leave your comments. Thanks.