lifestyles


I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

I recently began a series of posts reflecting on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I noted in the first post, I’m particularly interested in Wallace’s perspective on the difficulty modern-day Americans have in living meaningful and genuine lives. The first post looked at the tendency of many of IJ‘s characters to be driven by powerful desires that can’t be adequately satisfied. This post is about another feature common to many of the characters, namely that they live inauthentic lives. One of the few characters who is open and authentic, Mario Incandenza, notices how difficult it is for others at the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the two main settings in the novel) to be real with each other:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” (p. 592)

Mario, who is developmentally disabled, disfigured, and quite unsophisticated, experiences life richly. His honesty and straightforwardness contrasts dramatically with his brothers. [I should note that some of what I write here could be a spoiler for those who are reading IJ and prefer not to know what happens.] Orin, the oldest, devotes most of his efforts to seducing women. He has developed a wide variety of facades that he thinks the “Subject” of his efforts will find convincing. He’s successful at getting women into bed, but, since he hasn’t been honest or vulnerable with them, there’s no prospect of intimacy. Thus, the aftereffects are disappointing at best:

“Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward–just an abrupt loss of hope. Plus there is the contempt he belies so well with gentleness and caring during the post-coital period of small sounds and adjustments.” p. 596

Mario’s younger brother, Hal, one of E.T.A.’s top tennis players, is highly intelligent and is literally a walking encyclopedia, having read and memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet his inner self is impoverished:

“Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being–but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne [a tennis player who is mechanically efficient]…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.” (p. 694)

Hal has progressively more difficulty functioning as the novel progresses, to the point that, when he attempts to speak in what is chronologically the last scene (but is placed at the beginning of the novel), all that others can hear are shrieks. What has happened to him? The DFW Wiki reports readers have theorized that Hal is suffering the delayed effects of mold he ate as a child or had a hallucinogenic drug put on his toothbrush. I’m inclined to a more psychological interpretation: Hal is a hollow shell, someone who has avoided having an interior life for so long that has lost touch with himself. His humanity is attenuated, and his speech is correspondingly compromised.

Gately and the Wraith. From http://www.brickjest.com, a site that retells Infinite Jest in Legos.

Don Gately, a staff member at drug rehab facility Ennet House, is visited by a “wraith” who is apparently the ghost of James Incandenza, Hal’s father. The wraith describes actors in TV shows like Cheers who fill out the bar’s crowd. These characters, called “figurants,” sit at tables with each other, their lips moving but “always having utterly silent conversations.” Only the stars could speak audibly. The wraith laments that he, “when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end.” (p. 837)  So years earlier, when he was alive, James Incandenza had already seen Hal, his youngest child, as a peripheral figure, appearing to interact like other humans but really a figurant, someone without a voice. It’s no surprise that Hal’s lack of an authentic voice eventually became evident to those around him.

Over at Ennet House, there is a corresponding lack of authenticity. Residents enter claiming that they will do whatever it takes to get better, but usually act contrary to this professed goal, all the while denying the inconsistency. For example, here’s new resident Geoffrey Day:

“Day is scanning the room for somebody else to engage and piss off so he can prove to himself he doesn’t fit in there and stay separated off isolated inside himself and maybe get them so pissed off there’s a beef and he gets bounced out, Day, and it won’t be his fault. You can almost hear his Disease chewing away inside his head, feeding.” (p. 275)

Residents regularly lie to one another or to staff. They also are quick to make excuses. They often see themselves as victims, blaming others for their substance use and terrible life choices rather than taking responsibility. In contrast, authenticity requires radical honesty, as with a speaker at one of the AA meetings who tells her story of  freebasing cocaine throughout her pregnancy, having a stillborn infant, then denying the child was dead and carrying around the rotting corpse as if it were a living baby:

“When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away.”  (p. 378)

Persons attaining such total honesty have achieved authenticity. This is where healing can start. But so few of the characters either at Ennet House or E.T.A. reach this place of vulnerability and openness, and thus they remain captive to their desires. They, like Hal, are figurants, people hollowed out by their persistent avoidance of their true natures. Their mouths may move, but nothing real comes out.

About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

Site of the Temples to Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

Site of the Temples of Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Israel was Banias, site of the ancient town Caesarea Philippi, formerly called Paneus and dedicated to the worship of Pan. Philip the Tetrarch built Caesarea Philippi as an administrative center early in the first century and named it after Augustus Caesar, his patron.  In Jesus’ time there were large temples to Pan, Zeus, and Augustus. According to Tim, our guide, the Romans called it the “rock of the gods” but the Jews called it “the gates of hell.” It was here that Jesus asked his disciples who others said that he was, and who they said he was. The city was not near where most of Jesus’ ministry took place, and he probably went out of his way just so that he could ask these questions in a site associated with the gods of the empire. Peter of course replied “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”. (Matt. 16:16). The ‘living’ part contrasted to the Romans’ gods of stone.

Jesus went on to say that he would build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). Presumably he was referring to the “gates of hell” designation that the Jews gave this place. Thus, he was saying that his followers would eventually prevail over the religious system of the empire, to which everyone in that world except a few holdouts in the backwaters of the Levant had given their allegiance. Who would make such an audacious claim?

And yet. Within 300 years Christianity was the religion of Rome. Tradition has it that Christians had come to Caesarea Philippi much earlier that this; there certainly was a flourishing Christian community there by the fourth century A.D.

This wasn’t the only place we visited that was formerly a pagan stronghold but eventually became Christian. There were Christians in Sythopolis, a city of the Decapolis, even before the persecution of believers by the Roman Empire stopped. One early martyr from there was Procopius, later venerated as a saint. The Sythopolian church was important until the conquest of the city by Muslims in 634 A.D. There was also an early church in Caesarea Maritima, a seaport built by Herod the Great that was later the regional Roman capital. According to Acts, Phillip brought Christianity there in the years after Christ’s death, and the Apostle Peter went there to baptize a Roman military officer, Cornelius the Centurion. A few centuries later, Origen, one of the church fathers, founded a school there.

Sythopolis

Sythopolis

I have probably had too much of a top-down view of early church history, giving too much credit to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine for the success of Christianity. Visiting these sites and others made me realize that the cause of Christ wouldn’t have spread without the countless believers who lived out their faith in relative obscurity, in some particular place, like as not some backwater. When, during our final night in Israel, we were all invited to talk about what had most impressed us during the trip, my son Elliot said that he was particularly struck the activity of countless Christians whose names are hidden in history but who made an impact during the first century and beyond. I had been impressed by this as well.

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” In his book Joyful Exiles, James Houston elaborates on this passage as follows:

“…the apostle urged believers to remember that they had died with Christ, that they must now seek a selfless way of living. This is what ‘hiding’ is all about–denying the world’s ways, making choices that are incomprehensible to anyone seeking self-fulfillment. Indeed, it is refusing to accept Satan’s cosmic suggestion that ‘you will be like God'” (p. 35)

That’s the temptation–to want to be something more than what we are. In our current media-obsessed culture, where branding and self-promotion is ubiquitous, I need to be reminded from time to time that being hidden with Christ is immeasurably more important than satisfying what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Drum Major Instinct. The Christians of Caesarea Philippi, Scythopolis, Caesarea Maritima, and hundreds of other places may be forgotten, but their lives are a reminder to remain content with a life that is anonymous except to a very few, a life whose significance doesn’t lie in who praises me now or who remembers me when I’m gone.

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At Masada

I recently traveled to Israel. I went with a church group on a tour designed to enhance our faith by learning more about the history, geography, and culture of Biblical times. This was intended to be a pilgrimage and I tried to approach the trip with that mindset. In other words, I tried to be something other than a tourist.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a tourist is “a person who travels to a place for pleasure.” In contrast, the term ‘pilgrim’ can refer to any traveler, but more specifically it is “one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee.” I am a devotee of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and saw this trip as an opportunity to visit the places where God shaped his chosen people, especially those places where Christ walked and taught. As with most pilgrims, I hoped the movement that occurred would not merely be external but also internal, a journey closer to the heart of God.

The problem with such aspirations is that, regardless of my desire that it were otherwise, my schema for travel is mainly that of the tourist, not of the pilgrim. Our tour leader had prepared an ambitious itinerary of sites to visit, starting with Old Testament sites such as Azekah, Bet Shemesh, Tel Lachish, and En Gedi. Eventually we also went to New Testament sites such as Capernaum, Chorazin, and Caesarea Philippi and relevant extra-Biblical sites like Masada and Gamla. The tour ended in Jerusalem. The leader gave extensive talks explaining what we were seeing and relating it to the larger cultural, historical, and Biblical context. All this was interesting, but I was stuck in a tourist mindset. My thoughts were focused on such touristy matters as getting good photos, chatting with others on the tour, watching people on the street, eating well, and getting back to the air-conditioned bus (the last was understandable in that temperatures were regularly in the 90s and topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit at least once).

Hiking in the Wilderness

Hiking in the Wilderness

I think I managed to eventually think more like a pilgrim and less like a tourist There were a couple of things that prompted the change. First, there was the pure physicality of the trip. We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down. When matters of endurance and survival are foremost, it’s hard to maintain a tourist’s mindset. Too, such exertions fostered reflection on the conditions that the Israelites faced. When God compared his provision for his people with shade or water, that referred to deliverance in life-and-death conditions, not to superficial satisfactions. I have much more sense than I ever did that the story of God’s dealing with his people is bound to the geography and climate of where they lived.

The other thing that helped me think more like a pilgrim was a series of fasts. I got the idea for the fasts after Tim, our tour leader, said that a disciple is one who wants to become like his teacher. That’s something I want, but at the same time I tend to interfere with it happening. I got to thinking about what I was doing to keep from becoming like Jesus. My touristy ways were obviously part of the problem. So, over the course of five days, I fasted one day each from:

  • taking photographs
  • looking at my map
  • taking notes
  • using the internet
  • initiating conversations

Each fast removed something that was taking up too much of my attention. I started noticing and appreciating my environment more–the coloration of plants and stones, the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the trail beneath my feet. My mind had more empty space that started filling with prayer and song. I thought the fasts would be hard, but for the most part I enjoyed the freedom they gave me.

Now I’m back home, no longer a tourist or a pilgrim. Yet I think that the dichotomy between tourist and pilgrim pertains to daily life as well as to traveling. I too often act like a tourist, thinking in terms of my immediate satisfactions and not attending to how I’m being shaped by what I am doing. I need to be more aware that I am always being shaped one way or another–bent towards self-centeredness or towards humility and wholeness. I don’t yet know what I need to do to consistently take a pilgrim’s attitude toward my daily experiences. Whatever it takes, I do hope to become a perpetual pilgrim, always on a journey of spiritual transformation.

On a recent lengthy car trip I decided to get caught up on current pop music trends. I listened to most of the Sirius XM Weekend Countdown and a little of the Billboard Adult Top 40. Yeah, I’m too old for this sort of music. I listen to it because I’m interested in the themes of pop songs–they reveal much about the dreams, fears, and preoccupations a sizable segment of our culture.

As usual, there were plenty of songs about romantic relationships, ranging from lust (Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself) to yearning (Tryon – Somebody To Love Me)  to lovemaking (Zayn Malik – Pillowtalk) to disgust (Selena Gomez – Same Old Love). Justin Bieber apologizes to one mate (Sorry) and walks away from another (Love Yourself). What really interested me, though, was not the relationship songs but the ones that portrayed how the artist perceived him- or herself. Our self-concepts are key to our identity, and culture provides templates for possible selves (my grandchildren can choose to be sullen rebels or competitive achievers, but identities like gentleman of leisure or devotee of the goddess of reason are no longer in the catalogue of potential selves). From this listening, I concluded that contemporary songs contain views of the self ranging all the way from grandiose self-sufficiency to anxious inadequacy.

Grandiose self-sufficiency is represented by  “Me, Myself, and I” By G-Eazy with Bebe Rexha. Here’s the chorus:

Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
‘Cause I got me for life (yeah)
Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul

The video shows G-Eazy at a party surrounded by adoring fans but miserable about his lack of privacy. He raps about what he needs–privacy, space, to be alone–and what he wants:

A Stella Maxwell right beside of me
A Farrari I’m buyin’ three
A closet of Saint Laurent…

He thinks he is a self-made man, a trendsetter who is reaping the fruits of his efforts, “swimming in money, swimming in liquor.” Yet  success has brought too much attention. There’s a segment in the video when he’s divided into three images, two of which are telling the third that he shouldn’t complain: he wanted success and adulation of the masses comes with the territory. Then, near the end, there is this:

Yeah, lonely nights I laid awake
Pray to lord, my soul to take
My heart’s become too cold to break
Know I’m great but I’m broke as hell
Having dreams that I’m folding cake
All my life I’ve been told to wait
But I’ma get it now, yeah it’s no debate.

The grandiose self is shut off from others, “too cold to break.”  In splendid isolation it knows it’s great–I thought here of Satan isolated in Dante’s deepest level of hell–but, paradoxically, at the same time it’s broken (the “broke as hell” here seems to refer not to lack of money but some sort of inner impairment). Some identity-seekers perusing the catalogue of possible selves might find grandiosity appealing. Wittingly or not, G-Eazy shows that such a self-concept won’t make you happy.

An elevated sense of self is also in evidence in Demi Levato’s “Confident,”; in which she sings again and again (ad nauseum):

(Ah ha) What’s wrong with being, what’s wrong with being
What’s wrong with being confident? (Ah ha)

And being confident is pretty much all the song is about. She’s responding to criticism:

(Oh oh, oh) So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you had me underrated
Rated, rated.

But, like her confidence, the criticism she’s received is amorphous, unlike the comments that Taylor Swift was shaking off a couple years ago. So, should you define yourself via your high level of confidence? Sure, if that confidence reflects particular abilities or knowledge or effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

Another song asserting a strong sense of self (“Take or leave who I am/cause this is me.”) is “Pride” by  American Authors. The self in question is, not surprisingly, defined by a sense of pride:

I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride
I ain’t never letting go, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever gonna sell my soul
I-I-I-I got this feeling
I-I-I got this feeling
I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride.

Why such insistence on holding onto pride? Has the singer done something to be proud of? The lyrics don’t mention anything. Instead, they portray a diminished self, one for whom things aren’t going well:

My home don’t feel the same
Last year flew by; goodbye to the good vibes
What we thought were the best times
Nights out with the people I love
Now I’m lost in the neighborhood

Why has life turned sour? Maybe it’s the booze (“Another drink down the drain/Ten more before I get on the plane”). Maybe it’s rejection by family (“Pushed out of the family tree/Upside down”). Somewhere around the edges there is a suspicion that he’s responsible (“Maybe I’m the one who’s changed or the one to blame,” “wish I was good enough for anyone”). I wonder if holding onto pride of this sort–not justifiable good feelings about one’s accomplishments, but pride in the service of stubborn defiance–is a defense against becoming too aware of our role in our problems. It’s a way of adapting, but not a particularly good one. This sort of self-concept isn’t likely to foster healthy relationships or emotional well-being.

There are other interesting songs that have implications about how to view ourselves–I like Panic at the Disco’s “Victorious,” which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the glories of winning, subtly suggesting that victors aren’t that grand after all. I’m most fascinated with Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Whereas most song lyrics portray the singer expansively or even heroically, these lyrics are about a diminished self who can’t seem to get anything right:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.

What’s the problem? The singer has left childhood behind but hasn’t yet figured out how to handle what comes next. He’s become even more insecure than he was as a child:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

He’s left reminiscing about the joys of childhood play:

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

Returning to the womb of parental protection sounds pretty good:

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

This is the opposite of G-Eazy’s grandiose self–a self diminished, not expanded, by growing up, a self plagued by insecurities and perceived inadequacies. The video shows the members of the group riding tricycles, suggesting they aren’t even mature enough to drive cars. In the catalogue of available selves, this is not a model that anyone would choose. We are in an age of limited prospects for all but a minority of high-achievers, though, and this is a self that many people will be saddled with.

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