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The fatal flaw of the “it gets better” campaign finally came alive to me. Now, before you criticize, I understand that bullying of any sort is terrible and that a positive message is good.

It never gets any better for butter.

But here’s the catch. Why do we ask people to wait and be patient for things to get better? Isn’t that the mental trap we all inhabit anyway? If only this thing I am hoping for came to pass, then my life would be perfect. It can be any number of things that are easy to imagine–a new car, a new  job, a new spouse, a new school.

The process devalues the present moment and forestalls the possibilities of being whole now, not in some distant future. No wonder it caught on so quickly.

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It is a vise-like feeling that is not altogether unpleasant. That’s why it is so hard to shake.

The news cycle has mostly moved on from discussing alleged links between violent political rhetoric and the Tucson, Ariz. shooting. And the spectacle of our legislators sitting boy, girl, boy, girl, er, D, R, D, R, will further move us beyond it.

Nonetheless, let’s postulate this as  one of the reasons we react so strongly to the alleged links: If media and messages can make someone do that, what other, smaller things can they make us do? In other words, the discussion beckons us to question the source(s) of our own thoughts and desires, and that’s not something we really want to dwell on. And if we do dwell, we don’t want to stay too long or venture beyond the poles of conventional wisdom.

A clever invention, but it doesn't light up all by itself.

How much of us is really us, and how much comes from outside, whether it’s all those Smurf cartoons we watched as children or that odd tension we recall from our childhood homes?

There’s no easy answer, so it’s inevitable that our national attention will move on to something else. Human motivation is just too complicated. But you don’t have to be crazy to acknowledge that we hear other people’s voices coming from our own mouths sometimes–namely, the voices of our parents. But if we are honest, we can likely name other voices as well.

 

 

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

We are very focused on pinpointing the tiniest flaws in our physical selves, and the fate they may portend. What if we spent half as much energy searching for the signs in our souls and on our planet?

So maybe it’s doom after all for the US economy. At any rate, I was mentally tossing around various causal factors for the mess and I settled on one possible psychological motivation — and it has something to do with Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s probably no accident that financial excess followed the tragedy of 9/11. Imagine traders walking past the visible scar of that day and wondering why some died, some survived. They drowned themselves in a sea of speculative trading. They took risks that make sense only if you’re heedless of the consequences.

It’s the reaction you might have if your best friend died in some senseless, horrible accident that might have claimed you as well. But you went on living anyway. And drank — or gambled or sky-dived or high-speed raced — yourself into oblivion. Either looking for a reason why you survived — or, more aptly, trying to avoid looking. Financial types, known more for speculation than introspection, probably opted for the latter.

What’s also interesting is the flight to Greenwich you (or at least I) read about lately. That is, all the money now is being made by hedge funds in Greenwich. It’s the high-finance version of cocooning with the family in the suburbs.

I may be wrong, or not wholly right. But it makes just as much sense as ascribing it all to greed, pure and simple. Greed has been around for eons, yet it doesn’t cause financial panics every day. And it may not be the thing that drove every last soul on Wall Street. Greed is just the easiest and least controversial straw to grasp.