The American philosopher Thomas Nagel defined the absurd as a situation that has a conspicuous discrepancy between aspirations and reality. Our lives are absurd because we live amidst extraordinary narratives woven into our cultural fabric, yet few of us can escape the “ordinariness” of our own lives.
We are bombarded by token stories of college dropouts turned billionaires, C students turned Presidents, reporters turned superheroes. We have inserted ourselves into these narratives, and thought, “so can I!”—indoctrinated, or cultured to believe that we are extraordinary characters, protagonists of our own blockbusters.
Yet most of us are destined to be “ordinary”, one of seven billion people, a drop in the bucket, unknowns outside our closest communities, forgotten when we pass on.
This absurdity did not always exist. Carlo Strenger, in his book The Fear of Insignificance, argues that the paradigmatic leaps in global connectivity have resulted in the deflation of individual self-esteem.
Our self-esteems are heavily influenced by comparisons with others. In other words, they do not form in a vacuum—they are embedded in our cultural frameworks, buttressed by our relationships with others.
Strenger points out the globalization of information has resulted in the exponential expansion of our circles of comparisons. Instead of comparing our lives with the Jones next door, we are now comparing ourselves with the Gates, the Obamas, and the Cruises. With the bar set so high, once worthy goals, such as having a good career and living a meaningful life, become pedestrian and ordinary. Looking at their comparatively drab lives, the global class becomes increasingly dissatisfied, unfulfilled, anxious and frustrated.
The absurdity of the ordinary life is caused by the discrepancy between impossible dreams forged by stories of miraculous achievement, and the realities of our own limitations. To cure the absurdity, we must close this gap. If the expansion of our circles of comparison has resulted in the deflation of self-worth, we must rethink and redraw these circles.
Carlos Strenger writes:
“A realistic relationship to our Sosein [our true and fundamental selves] requires that we gradually achieve self-knowledge, which can be very painful, and parting with cherished fantasies that we have entertained about whom we are or whom we can be. […] it means to accept our limitations.”
According to Strenger, we need to dismantle the frameworks of values and goals that are based on the global infotainment system. In their place, we should turn inward, constructing our frameworks from deep self-knowledge and our immediate communities.
Instead of measuring our achievements against other people’s achievements, we should measure them against our own potential. Instead of letting the narrow global yardsticks of money and popularity limit our goals, we should open the way to our own diverse strengths and potentials.
Accumulating understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, circumstances and limitations, and accepting them, allows us to move forward. As long as we struggle helplessly against who we are, aiming for impossible goals, we will not notice or learn to use the tools that were given to us.
Ultimately, discarding the global narratives of success is freeing. It reverses the commodification, quantification and simplification of values into money (number of dollars) and popularity (number of ‘likes’), and restores the multiplicity of values. Instead of being restricted to moving along a track, we now have an endless field to play in. Instead of being stuck on a train moving in a direction decided for us, we can now move in directions decided by ourselves.
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