Category Archives: zombie culture
When I began teaching as a graduate student, publishing in magazines, and generally moving my life forward in visible ways, I learned a difficult lesson that accompanies progress: people don’t like it when you succeed.
They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to know about it. And if they become aware that you are bettering yourself, they will do whatever they can, exert whatever influence they have, to change that. They really would prefer that you sink back into a swamp of stuckness and frustration. And they find it highly offensive if you don’t accommodate them in this.
Somehow you moving forward makes them more aware of their own sense of inadequacy and stasis. And they will not stop trying to convince you, themselves, and anyone willing to listen that you’re really not so special. Your achievements, however modest, can cause friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to behave defensively towards you as they attempt to safeguard their fragile egos. This is especially true if you’re doing something that they wish they could do.
Granted, nobody likes to feel bad about themselves. But it can be shocking when you notice who your detractors are. Uncle Bob? You heard he got drunk at the reunion and offered up a loud unkind opinion about your novel, citing various incidents from your childhood and early adolescence to prove you “aren’t such hot shit.” What did you ever do to him? Juniper, that girl in accounting who wears the big sweaters? You talked to her, what, twice? Why is she spreading rumors about you? You might expect it from a direct competitor (even if there is a modicum of professional courtesy that can dial it down in most cases), but Millie from high school, talking trash about you on Facebook? You haven’t interacted with her since at least 1990. Has she been ruminating about you for 30 years? Maybe so. Or maybe she just looked you up yesterday.
There’s a word for this sort of person: hater, and the first thing you need to know is that haters can be anyone, given that the hate is not really about you. It’s about them. You’re just a convenient projection screen for the hater’s unflattering (and probably distorted) self-image. Unfortunately, the more visible you are, the more you seem to be getting your life together and doing what you want to do, the higher resolution those lousy images will have in the hater’s mind. And it’s far easier to tear someone else down than it is to engage in determined self-work. Some people are born with the efficiency and drive of the domestic land slug.
As much as I agree with Tim Teeman—that “haters gonna hate” is a fundamentally stupid expression “born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized”—there’s a reason it became a viral catchphrase, functioning as an updated version of the old “dog will hunt.” It’s simple. A thing behaves in accordance with its nature. And envy is ubiquitous.
Perform successfully—even in something as minuscule and transitory as getting your creative work published—and someone, somewhere, is bound to suffer as they compare themselves to you. That suffering breeds resentment. And, though it is inherently unwise, resentment often demands a soapbox. Publicly trashing someone can provide a moment of relief, a brief pause in the constant fecal downpour underway in the hater’s inner world. Who wouldn’t seek shelter from that storm, from a grinding sense of inferiority that never lets up?
Still, if you put yourself in front of the public in any way, you’d better be ready for this. Since at least 1880, with the rise of vaudeville, the cheap seats were situated in the top rear sections of theaters. If people up there didn’t like the performance, they heckled the actors and threw peanuts at the stage. It’s where we get the term, “peanut gallery.” And peanut throwing still takes place, only the gallery has now become synonymous with the broad scope of social media. So try not to take one in the eye if you can.
And because flying peanuts are inevitable, perhaps contemplate the enduring wisdom of Father Baltasar Gracián y Morales, Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite Jesuit social philosopher: The envious man dies not only once but as many times as the person he envies lives to hear the voice of praise; the eternity of the latter’s fame is the measure of the former’s punishment: the one is immortal in his glory, the latter in his misery.
The quiet introspective ferret feels he has only been to two kinds of parties: those where people assess each other from behind smokescreens of shallow small talk and those where people get as drunk and as high as possible to avoid being aware of such assessment. Office / department parties tend to be a blend of the two, with clever coworkers staying sober so they can capitalize on the rare opportunity to interrogate / insult the drunkards or make time with someone normally uninterested in them. This is not misanthropy on the part of our gentle introspective ferret. He has simply learned that he likes individuals way more than groups.
Staying home is nearly always a better choice. It keeps our ferret from having to dwell on the loathsome behavior that inevitably comes out in people after a few hours of drinking and frustration. It’s way better not to see it, not to have to recall it, in those the ferret would prefer to otherwise respect. But if he must attend, our ferret prefers to bring his own non-alcoholic beverages and disappear after about 90 minutes of watching people force smiles and reposition themselves feverishly around a room. Also, having a palette-cleansing activity lined up, like a movie or some other distracting event, helps an introspective ferret shake off the bad vibes.
No one cares about what a ferret does at a party anyway. No cares that his drink is non-alcoholic. In fact, they probably don’t even notice. And no one really cares that he left after 90 minutes, unless they came to the party on a mission with the poor ferret in mind, in which case he should definitely scamper out with a quickness after no more than an hour and preferably by the back exit.
In the following days, the drama and innuendo about what happened between various drunkards at the party will become known. But our gentle ferret will be an innocent child of the earth, oblivious and free, a wild polecat in the grass amid the butterflies. For he will be able to tell the simple truth: “I’d already left when X-horrible-thing happened between Bleary Mule and Angry Snake. So I really have no idea.” And people will turn their boredom and obsessiveness on someone more entertaining—Squawking Rooster, perhaps.
There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture. As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business. Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.
It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance. And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.” A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values. But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values. What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.
If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant. In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you. Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives. They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in. And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.
Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual. One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self. “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.
It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities. As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours. And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be. If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else? In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes.
Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality. But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing? Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?
Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort. Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness. You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable. Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt. Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.
You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.