Do you ever get the feeling that you’re living like a caged animal, chafing at your bonds? That life is a little too boring, safe and sanitized? And that, worst of all, you feel kind of useless? Outdated? With no real purpose?
Congratulations. You’re probably an American male.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about Japan.
Go To Your Room, Young Man!
Have you heard about the phenomenon called hikikomori? It’s where young Japanese people, primarily men, stay in their bedrooms and refuse to come out. For years. There are many explanations for this, as well as for some of the other societal problems Japan is facing. Problems like men who refuse to get married, men who refuse to be involved in long-term romantic relationships, and men who refuse to have sex.
Really smart people who have collected more fancy pieces of paper than me speculate that hikikomori may result from the toxic mixture of high societal expectations and overbearing mothers. I’m not Japanese, so I don’t understand the ins and outs of Japanese culture, and my mother is a wonderful lady and nothing like the overbearing creature depicted in that Pink Floyd song, but I can see the relation between these factors and my own life as well as in American society as a whole.
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Three of my grandparents were born in the United States to dirt-poor Greek immigrants a few years before The Great Depression. My fourth grandparent didn’t come to these shores until he was 17, but by then he had already survived the Nazi occupation of his island AND a goddamn civil war. So these people knew privation, hardship, and the meaning and value of work. And while three out of my four grandparents had college degrees, they were the very first ones in their families to do so. If you don’t think there was pressure on their children to succeed, then you probably also think wrestling is real.
So my parents, being Boomers, grew up in that heady post-war era where America seemed invincible, money grew on trees, and the key to a guaranteed secure future and a high standard of living meant going to college and getting a good job.
And it was.
So like so many millions of Americans of my generation, we were pushed to go to college, even if we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do with our lives or didn’t think that our future could be achieved with an expensive college degree.
This is not to blame the Boomers. They had no reason to believe that the good times would ever come to an end. College was the way to go. Degrees were the things to get. And white-collar careers were the keys to happiness.
There is a problem with this though: Everything was designed to make our lives as easy and painless as possible. With nothing to work for and everything provided–even if by loving, well-meaning parents–entire swaths of us grew without any real sense of achievement. Didn’t do well in school? It was the teacher’s fault. Your sports team lost? Let’s abolish keeping score. The “helicopter parent” and “participation trophy” tropes have been pretty worn out, but they’ve become cliches for a reason.
But there was something more sinister lurking underneath. This sense of adventure, this desire to blaze trails and test yourself, this general desire to raise hell, is unabashedly male. And it’s being bred out of us, not by our parents, who are usually unwitting pawns in this game, but by the American education system.
I remember being in grade school in the early and mid-1990s. This was right when the ritalin boom was taking off. Dozens of boys–always boys–in my class had to take their medication at regular intervals. Some of these boys clearly had behavioral problems, likely from terrible home lives, but others who took their “medicine” seemed fine to me.
And even more–always boys–were told that they had “learning disabilities,” whatever that means, and taken to special classes. You have to be a special kind of dumb not to realize the effect this could have on children.
Think about life now. Bravery and valor are openly mocked. Safety and cowardice have become virtues. The state will handle everything, right? This is what leads to people ignoring those in need or migrants sexually assaulting and raping women in Germany and no men stepping up to stop it.
How are we supposed to feel, then? Constrained, defective, risk-averse, and worthless. When you blame one group for all of society’s problems, how can you be surprised when that group starts to believe all of it?
In my own life I haven’t felt anything quite so drastic compelling me to join what Milo Yiannopoulos calls “the sexodous,” but I can sympathize with some of the points. In my life, this cage of safety has certainly been something I’ve had to fight my way out of. It’s difficult to be a “man” when all of your natural instincts have been denigrated and even legislated into obsolescence.
What Is the Cage of Safety?
The cage of safety is a gentle tyranny. It’s a combination of financial and material security—one could say an overabundance of it—and what other scholars call “ambition inflation,” that pesky millennial belief that we’re all really hot stuff despite evidence to the contrary. It’s designed to provide you with comfort in the mistaken belief that this lack of conflict will make you happy.
Haven’t these people ever read The Time Machine?
What if… the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? The Traveller’s concerns about future humanity prove to be well-grounded. His fears anticipate his discovery that humanity has split into two races, the Eloi and the Morlock; and the relationship between the two can indeed be characterized as “inhuman,” for they exist in an unhealthy, parasitic state. The Eloi exist in an idyllic, “above ground” life at the expense of the subterranean Morlocks, who are now beginning to revolt against their condition. Even the Traveller, we will see, is not immune to thinking of the Morlock as sub-human.
–H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, Chapter 3, p. 21
To adorn themselves with flowers, to dance, to sing in the sunlight; so much was left of the artistic spirit, and no more. Even that would fade in the end into a contented inactivity. We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last! The Traveller’s reflections indicate the extent to which Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection influenced Wells’ story. The “grindstone of pain and necessity” refers to the “struggle for existence” posited by Darwin, a struggle inevitably awarded, through the generations, to “the fittest.” In the Eloi, however, the Traveller witnesses the shadow side of that victory: the fit who survive have become unfit through lack of adversity and challenge. This weakness leaves them open to Morlock attack; more important thematically, it reduces the Eloi, too, to something less than truly human (as the Traveller understands the human condition).
–H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, Chapter 4, p. 31 (emphasis added)
Kill Your TV
I came of age in an era where children’s cartoons propagandized and self-esteem was all the rage. And it didn’t take a genius to notice a trend in our entertainment, from movies to cartoons to books: girls rule, boys drool.
While manly virtues are mostly under assault, this attitude cuts across genders. We’re all being neutered, to a degree, to abandon the classic American philosophy of rugged self-reliance and become placid wards of the state. Authority will take care of us. Don’t worry about it. Trust your teachers, your therapists, your senators and your representatives. Don’t stress, relax, and we’ve got a pill for that.
All of this percolates in America, perhaps not quite to the degree as in Japan, but in a way that has turned a lot of people my age (born between 1981 and 2000) into little more than functioning zombies looking for ways to masturbate our bodies, our spirits, and our minds in order to trick ourselves into believing we’re actually living.
My Own Cage
In my life, I wanted for nothing. I don’t even have any student loan debt, thanks to my parents. And I’m grateful for that! Except I can’t shake the feeling that, if I was forced to take out a loan and fight for my education, to really work for it, I’d appreciate it more and ultimately be happier, student loan debt be damned.
The missing piece to this puzzle to this kikikomori-analogy is the “overbearing mother.” This is something I can safely say I didn’t have. My mom is a Greek mother, with all of the (g00d) stereotypes that comes with–a bit overprotective perhaps, but she always let me go my own way and encouraged me to do my thing.
But still, this is how the cage of safety gets built, piece by piece, bar by bar, and it’s difficult to break out of it. I have had an incredibly easy life with a path laid out for me, which makes my situation laughable: There are people in this country dying of things like starvation, drugs, street-crime, and unpronounceable diseases, and here I am bitching and moaning about unemployment when I have a job, a full belly, a roof over my head, and a wonderful family.
So what’s there to be unhappy about?
Breaking the Cage
Life is no fun when you don’t have to struggle for what you want. It’s why you see the children of rich celebrities go off the rails or kill themselves. If you’re a passive Eloi, drifting here and there with no grindstone to sharpen youself against, life becomes useless.
There are so few opportunities to test our mettle these days save joining the military, so we have to invent new forms of deprivation to make ourselves feel alive. Wasn’t that the whole premise of Fight Club?
I’ve had success starting with small risks and ramping them up as I gain confidence. Go to this place? Sure. Do an open mic? Why not. Volunteer to give this presentation? Okay. That has shifted into investing money, challenging colleagues, and even writing.
Physical risks are also helpful: Run a race, wake up early to exercise, cut out the junk food. These stresses have the side-effect of sharpening your mind.
Lastly, intellectual risks are phenomenally helpful. Read a book or watch a show about something you disagree with, consider the arguments, and hop online and jump into the debate. Reexamine your own ideas, whether about politics, culture, or religion, and see where you stand afterwards. Don’t accept what you’ve received. The inner-struggle can be just as exhilarating as the outer.
Some of us might be too old to undo all of the damage, but at least if we’re aware of the cage of safety we can start to dismantle it and make sure that future generations never get caught in its web.
As a father, I’m serious about this: Don’t coddle your kids. Make them work for everything. Instill in the Depression-era mindset that it all could be taken away at any moment, and that you’ve got to hustle for everything. Let them take on debt. Don’t saddle your children with the upper-middle-class Yuppie millennial curse of spirit-crushing safety. They’ll be more likely to work harder, take risks, fight for their goals, and be happier in the long run.
Keep the blade sharp, anyway you can. Ignore the noise and break the cage. You owe it to yourself, and the world.
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