“It’s only natural”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. This is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a physician in matters relating to his/her health and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

A very handsome, fit and well-dressed young man came in to see me about a nagging, chronic gut problem. This is the sort of thing that medicine doesn’t really have an answer for and the referring family doctor knew this as did the said dashing young man. The reason for her referral was that he had had enough.

I took a very long history filled with exacerbations and remissions going back to when he was a teenager, alleviating and aggravating factors that the tormented young man never really managed to leverage.

All the same, he was ahead of the curve in his career. He travelled extensively, ran a half-marathon and even climbed Kilimanjaro.

We were nearly certain that his condition didn’t have an organic cause we could address, but given the one or two potential pointers for such a cause, the duration and extent of his distress, it was decided that the gentleman should have some specialist investigations. As a sort of an advance measure, we gently suggested that in all likelihood, the tests won’t find anything and if so, there won’t be much we could offer him besides a few tweaks of what has helped him in the past. At this point he covered his face with his hand, then made a tight fist whitening his knuckles, plunging visibly into anger and frustration – not so much at us, it seemed, but at the powerlessness of medicine and his ill fate.

There is no denying that this high-flying man suffered greatly with his imperfect bowel. I was left there wondering two things.

This man is so accomplished, able to climb mountains and run marathons, why does he so firmly believe that his condition is “debilitating”? I can only presume that he has a kind of equation in his head where his potential plus his condition equals his reality. I did wonder if his reality could have been far more impressive had it not been for these bouts of gastrointestinal torture. I have the suspicion that the thought occurred to him. Perhaps it occurred to him many times a day.

Furthermore, if he is determined to eradicate this unidentified fiend sabotaging his gut, why didn’t he do more of what worked and avoid the aggravating factors? It would seem a little maladaptive to refuse to negotiate with the affliction. Or did he write down all his shortfalls to the condition, thus allowing him to sustain a vision of unadulterated, perfect potential trapped by the wretched disease?

I then wondered if that is our perfectionist millennial nature that’s always chasing the latest maximising-optimising lifehack or is that the sort of irreducible self-selection that particular kind of young person to hospital regardless of their generation or culture.

The reason I wonder this is that only last week I was trying to convince a much older man to consider treatment for his chronic pain, but he insisted, “it’s only natural”. Then again, I don’t think it would ever occur to him to climb Kilimanjaro.

“Impatient, immature, all-or-nothing attitude to ambition”

There an interesting psychiatrist and author, Theodore Dalrymple. Not his real name, which he chose because it “sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world”. How accurate.

His writings are a joyous mix of thought crimes and insight porn expressed in an academic, albeit overwhelmingly British, manner.

Following on from our discussion of “specialness” and achievement, here are his musings on class in the context of the Hillbilly Elegy:

It might be said, of course, that not everyone can go to Yale Law School (thank God, one might add). But it is not a question of Yale or jail. Gradations of success are innumerable and every way of earning a living that is of service to others is honorable. Part of the problem, I surmise, is that we have been infected with the idea that only the highest achievement—either in academic status, monetary reward, or public fame—is worthy of respect, and all else counts as failure. From that premise it follows that there is no point in making a vast effort only to be a quiet, respectable, useful, God-fearing failure. It is precisely the absence of this impatient, immature, all-or-nothing attitude to ambition that accounts for the success of Asian immigrants. Whether Hillbilly Elegy will reinforce or counteract this attitude is an open question. Source.


Special like everyone else

“You are unique and special, just like everyone else”…

is a semantic cop out.

If special is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual, it means that most everything is usual – and once in a blue moon, we get to see something special.

So, no, everyone isn’t special. (The semantics are very simple: the fact that one is special in the eyes of another doesn’t mean that they are special full stop.)

Unique – is a different matter. Every piece of sh*t is unique, but they’re not quite so special. (Gastroenterology, look away).

Perhaps, it’s a semantic cop out that was trying to right some even worse wrong in the 1960s, when it was said by Margaret Mead, but today it can only do harm.

While building a brighter future during the Khrushchev era, my mother’s generation was convinced that to indicate that you wish to be something greater, yourself, was practically a crime. No wonder, the likes of Ayn Rand were screaming for a different view.

Reading blogs written in the US today, I feel much more aspiration for individual greatness, whereas in this part of the world, “delusions of grandeur” are strongly discouraged.

I think it is damaging for people to think of themselves as being special. It’s the sort of attitude that has people craving accomplishment and its short term substitute, other people’s attention.

If one comes to terms with the fact that they are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, perhaps they won’t feel the void left by… normalcy. Imagine that.

Maybe they won’t reach for their phone every morning for the dopamine hit of someone’s attention on social media that reminds them that they are special. Or look in the mirror to remind themselves of how their perfect skin/abs/ass makes them special. Or look at a wall full of degrees and ribbons to reassert their specialness.

A desire for specialness is mostly about an external locus of control. I think every person swings in and out of that unhelpful state at times, but I went through a transient, painful time when it really hit me hard. Was it my parents/teachers/friends’ fault? Or maybe that’s just social media? Whatever it is, it’s not an excuse to remain this way, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount to me.

In a previous post, some people said that they used to affirm their students’ specialness to them using this mantra, “You are unique and special, just like everyone else”. I think it’s kind and well intentioned, but perhaps not very helpful today as it feeds into the inescapable narrative rather than correcting for it.

I don’t think any teachers of mine ever told me I was special, it never occurred to me that they should. In fact, it would be weird. I looked for self-actualisation in other, what seemed like real, meaningful ways. I feel that this was a good thing. I think my phase of search for specialness was down to the fact that I got into comparing myself to others beyond all context.

This is by no means asking anyone to regress to the mean, encourage mediocrity or prevent people from doing something special. I just don’t think that special things should be done for the sake of making the doer special. They should be done for a real, less narcissistic reason, which usually involves someone else or something bigger than oneself.

And of course, we can define those special as relating to the general population, or better, to the relevant reference group. What is your cut off for special? 5%? 1%? Less than 5% of the population blog, so are we all special? Hmm. You get the point.

Is this as close to a long read as I am gonna get these days, jeez… For what I didn’t manage to say, here is some Radiohead rather beautifully wallowing in the pain of trying to be special, oscillating between idealising and devaluing. 1993. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Beautiful ordinariness

The word snowflake has filtered down to the teens (or did they invent it?) And they write about not wanting to be snowflakes. Us millennials inspired the term and obviously terrified the rest of the population. These Z people make me excited.

It was coined in Fight Club:

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Would it be a thought crime to say that it’s a good thing to come to terms with the fact that you, and everyone else, is ordinary?

As I see it, people can do things that are special, but the concept of being special is the root of millennial narcissism.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

“In today’s innovative world…”

The teenagers whose essays I read think we live in a phenomenally innovative time. Smartphones. Computers. The internet.

Yes, this all happened in the last 50 years.

In the 50 years before that we landed on the moon, split the atom, came up with the bomb, made cars and film widely available and saved countless lives with penicillin.