“In a world that demands conspicuous consumption, high-octane relationships and perpetual youth, we can find ourselves tormented by dissatisfaction and anxiety, fearful that everyone is having a better time than we are.” So says Michael Foley, author of The Age of Absurdity. Is it true? Probably. At least for most people some of the time.
Foley delves into the cultural mores of the modern ‘age of entitlement’, reminding us that having strongly-held beliefs about what you deserve is often a recipe for disaster. Teenagers demand respect – and there is a growing idea that everyone deserves respect regardless of personal merit. People feel they deserve promotions, happiness, love, job satisfaction, good health and good luck, especially if they’ve suffered a run of bad luck.
We are surrounded on all sides by advertising – especially the hard sell of the ‘aspirational lifestyle’ – and Foley argues that people are becoming unshakeably convinced by the idea of their own potential. Children these days are increasingly told, by their parents, by their schools, by pop stars and by the media that they can ‘be anything they want to be’. In the modern age, we are constantly told that everything is within our grasp. One might think that this is a positive thing – it’s good to have expectations, right? Well, not according to Foley. He argues that freedom from expectation is actually the very thing that makes a person happy. We can’t have everything we want, so the idea that we should be able to – that we’re entitled to it – fills us with impotence, rage and misery.
“Seduced from the left by the righteousness of entitlement and from the right by the glamour of potential, it is easy to believe that fulfilment is not only a basic right but thoroughly deserved, and that attaining it requires no more thought, effort or patience than an escalator ride to the next level of the shopping centre.” The idea that fulfilment can be effortless is one that Foley scorns wholeheartedly. He derides self-help gurus peddling ‘ten easy steps to happiness’, insisting that obtaining happiness is difficult and involves lots of reflection and practice.
At first glance, it might not seem appealing to think of happiness as difficult to obtain and it might be hard to swallow the idea that nothing is deserved, but on reflection it seems to me to be profoundly liberating. Those who follow the self-help gurus’ 10 simple steps and find that they don’t produce the desired effect may well despair. But Foley urges us to not give up at the first hurdle, and to make the quest for happiness a long-term goal.
As for feeling entitled, does it really bring us anything except arrogance and petulance? If we get what we want we feel it is no more than we should have and if we don’t get it we are aggrieved. Isn’t it better to feel grateful when things go our way and understand that they won’t always?
As well as dealing with contemporary western culture’s general atmosphere of absurdity, Foley devotes specific chapters to the absurdity of work, age and love. The absurdity of work chapter will no doubt resonate with anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment – particularly the bits about away-days for team-bonding. “On an away day there is only the free lunch to look forward to, but even this is depressingly familiar – the standard corporate cold buffet, with the same tasteless sandwich quarters and Asian finger food for exotic effect, and the same fresh-fruit platter with pineapple and melon slices and the two strawberries no one ever has the nerve to eat.” I’ve eyed those same strawberries myself in days gone by.
But I reserve my greatest recommendation for the chapter on the absurdity of love. Foley points out that “in contemporary cities, the couple relationship may be the only source of connection, structure, meaning and enchantment. In traditional societies there were religions to confer meaning and magic rituals to structure the year, communities to offer strong connections and extended families to provide support. Now the poor groaning ‘relationship’ has to provide all of this, to take upon its weakened back the entire burden of living.”
Maybe your relationship isn’t like this – maybe you’ve mastered the art of looking within for happiness, but I’m willing to bet that you know plenty of relationships that are like this. No doubt you know at least one person who has no concept of personal responsibility, who lurches from one romantic disaster to the next, passionately infatuated one minute and vengeful the next. To Foley, “it is astonishing how those with a string of failed relationships rarely accept that they themselves must be at least part of the problem”, and yet such attitudes are common.
Foley points out the absurdity of the fact that, “as the actual relationships have become more like short-term business transactions, the belief in eternal love as an essential prerequisite has grown stronger.” That really resonated with me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying let’s go back to the forties, when you had to stick a marriage out or live with the stigma forever, but it is bizarre that people often expect romantic relationships to be their everything these days, despite the fact that they commit to them less completely and are prepared to give so much less of themselves to the partnership. As Foley neatly says, “The less tolerant the practice, the more demanding the theory.”
I could go on all day about Foley’s fascinating views on the absurdity of love but I shan’t spoil the book for you, especially as Foley explains them with far greater elegance than I would be able to. The last thing I will say is that, whilst this book could have been a grumpy, nit-picking tome that whinges about modern life, it is not. It gives plenty of good advice about how you can live a bit more happily in the modern world by avoiding some of its most common pitfalls.
If nothing else, it offers food for thought on a subject that’s relevant to anyone living in the developed western world… especially if they’ve ever despaired as they sat in their office cubicle or sought a Disney-style happy ending.