When my uncle was a thin-limbed teenager, he often conned his way into bars where he would shoot pool until 2 a.m. A prototypical hustler, my uncle threw early games when the stakes were low and raised bets as his marks built confidence and cash. It’s a simple formula that profits those who possess two qualities – the billiards skill to wow a room and the charisma to disarm those who seek to strike show-offs with pool cues.
My uncle’s skill and charisma could not save him from every situation though. Thirty years ago, he entered a decrepit Jersey City bar looking to make some cash. It was a biker joint, full of Hell’s Angels types whose heads were equal parts methamphetamines and exhaust fumes. Fearless, my uncle pursued his gambit of swindling these burly men twice his size out of their money. When they refused to pay, my uncle protested until the husky bikers grew agitated. He left the bar cashless and humiliated. I’d say he was desperate for revenge, but I don’t think that description applies to a cheater freshly cheated.
Still, my uncle felt compelled to do something. So he went outside and pushed over a biker’s motorcycle, causing others to domino in cartoon-like fashion. My uncle’s decision, in defiance of good judgment, almost guaranteed his death at the hands of an angry mob. But he did it anyway.
Throughout his career, Freud was fascinated by people’s penchant for risky, self-destructive behavior. This fascination eventually led him to his theory of the death drive. A controversial concept to this day, Freud’s death drive is a bold challenge to the idea that humans behave in rational, pleasure-seeking ways. Instead, Freud argues that people have a hard-wired propensity for actions that cause harm to themselves and others. It’s one explanation why otherwise well-adjusted people often think about how easy it would be to jump from a tall building or step in front of a moving train when the possibility presents itself. It might also explain why my uncle risked getting his head bashed in by a broken tail pipe thirty years ago.
Whether or not you believe in the death drive, it’s hard to deny that people think and behave in strange, irrational, and in the worst situations, destructive ways. We all know that the ability to identify a good choice in a situation does not guarantee its selection. But it’s one thing to make the occasional foolish decision and another to turn self-destruction into a lifestyle. Right now, our culture is structured in a way that encourages our destructive inclinations to become patterned behavior.
Part of the problem stems from media outlets that exploit people’s desire to see others ‘FAIL,’ to quote the meme. The success of tabloids and celebrity blogs depends on this disturbing human desire. These sources give us exactly what we want: glamorous Hollywood stars burning out in the most magnificent ways. Maybe we like to identify with the failings of a flailing actor or actress. Or, more likely, we like to feel superior to them. Either way, there seems to be a public interest that incentivizes the destructive behaviors of celebrities. Amanda Bynes recently demonstrated awareness of this fact on Twitter when she thanked media outlets for their coverage of her sundry meltdowns and declared “You’re only making me more famous!” But sometimes the rewards for those on the path to self-annihilation are even more material. Shortly after she was fired from xoJane, Cat Marnell was given a column at Vice Magazine and a $500,000 book advance to write about her drug-addled life. I doubt these opportunities curbed her drug use.
Rewarding troubled media personalities and celebrities with fame, platforms, and money whenever they behave badly makes it harder to silence that perverse part of us that wants to do the same. Cutting billions in public mental health care spending certainly doesn’t help. But the worst part is that we are now living in an economic system where so much wealth has been captured by people at the top that low and middle-class families can no longer afford to live fulfilling and dignified lives. It’s hard to maintain a sense of self-worth and exercise self-preservation when your society is constantly sending signals that it does not care about you.
I’ve watched close friends follow the advice that they were given early in their lives: “Pursue your passions.” I’ve seen these same friends take out tens of thousands of dollars in student and credit card debt in order to turn these passions into careers. When it became crystal clear to them that “pursue your passions” is terrible career advice, these friends went into even more debt in order to earn marketable college degrees. But even “practical jobs” available to those with the sexiest of majors don’t pay a decent wage to young people anymore. In America, where many workers compete for few jobs, millennials are cheap labor when they are not free interns. As an added cruelty, those of us entering adulthood in the worst economy since the Great Depression were raised in an era dominated by positive psychology. Parents and schoolteachers told us that success can be achieved by anyone with the right attitude and drive. And then the possibility for success was made tremendously difficult when it came time for us to prove our worth. That is a recipe for some serious self-hatred.
Crueler still, struggling young people have to deal with criticisms that they are narcissistic, lazy, and entitled by a generation whose greed and immorality almost destroyed the global economy. It’s enough to make young people cynical, the one epithet wielded by Baby Boomers that seems to possess some accuracy.
My uncle survived the Jersey City ordeal. His older brother threw him in the back of a cab before the bikers could unleash their wrath. That’s the beauty of close family and friends: they save you from yourself. My conman uncle must have quickly internalized this fact because after the biker ballyhoo, he settled down, got married, and had a kid. He now says that his family provides him more joy and purpose than anything he could have imagined in his pool-playing, drug-abusing days.
The moderating forces of a stable family and financial security remain a distant dream for many millennials. Underemployed and overburdened with debt, millions of young adults are being forced to postpone marriage and children, with no guarantees that their economic situations are going to improve in the future. Time, energy, and money are all devoted to figuring out ways to survive in “the new economy,” leaving an ever-decreasing amount of resources for educational and artistic pursuits. The result is a rising generation of people who are disappointed and disgruntled – with few outlets to ease their discontent. That’s a culture where self-destruction almost seems rational.