The Cage of Safety

Hands gripping bars of cage

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, too safe, too sanitized? And that, worst of all, you feel kind of useless? Outdated? With no real purpose?

Congratulations. You’re just like everybody else.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about Japan.

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.

Sound familiar?

Poster explaining Hikikomori

Some researchers speculate that hikikomori may result from the toxic mixture of high societal expectations and overbearing mothers prevalent in Japanese culture. I’m not Japanese, so I don’t understand the minutiae of how things are in the Land of the Rising son, and my mother is a wonderful lady, but I can see the relation between these factors in American society.

I think there is a similar malaise in the United States caused two similar factors:

  1. Expectations set by the unprecedented–and quite frankly, unrealistic–economic boom experienced by the Boomer generation; and
  2. Overweening, helicopter parenting.

Does that bother you? Don’t believe me? Look at how we talk about men, masculinity (“Toxic” masculinity? Ugh . . .), and what it even means to be a man nowadays.

It’s no wonder everybody’s so confused.

Unrealistic Expectations

Three of my grandparents were born in the United States to dirt-poor Greek immigrants a few years before beginning of The Great Depression. My fourth grandparent didn’t come to the U.S. 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 the 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 might 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.

But seriously, Boomers could just roll out of bed and find a good-paying job. And they thought it was all due to their own awesomeness!

So like so many millions of Americans of my generation, I went to college, even though I wasn’t quite sure what we wanted to do with my life.

This is not to blame the Boomers, or to say I regret it. Things have worked out very well, and I am incredibly grateful for that. I just didn’t particularly like the journey, but c’eat la vie as they say in certain parts of Canada.

Boomers 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 life as easy and painless as possible. With nothing to work for and everything provided, entire swaths grew up without any real sense of achievement, any grit. 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 in large part by the American education system.

When Mothering Becomes Smothering

I remember being in grade school in the early and mid-1990s. This was right when the Ritalin boom was taking off. Schools have long been indoctrination factories, but they also became pharmacies. 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 students–usually 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. Don’t worry about it, don’t rock the boat, and don’t ask too many questions.

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 . . . or get angry and resentful? Or give up trying entirely?

What Is the Cage of Safety?

The cage of safety is a prison of 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?

eloi

Dig this:

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)

Sound familiar?

Another literary analogue–that is not Harry Potter, thank God!–is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In it, the population is kept distracted and dumb by a combination of unending state-run educational facilities, sex, immersive entertainment, and a readily available feel-good drug called soma.

Nah, that’ll never happen . . . right?

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. Take your medicine and put something on the TV.

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 experiencing something real.

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 yourself against, life becomes meaningless.

There are so few opportunities to test our mettle these days save joining the military or participating in contact sports, that 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, fast. 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.

Keep the blade sharp, anyway you can. Ignore the noise and break the cage. You owe it to yourself, and to the world.

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