Of distant mirrors and the melancholy of what we’ll never be.
Why do we weep at the end of movies filled with emotion, or books that captivate us? Is it because we are emotional at what has happened in them? Or is it, perhaps, because we mourn the stories we have never experienced and never will? Is it a sense of loss bursting forth from the notion that the stories we are told by our culture are distilled, condensed, Photoshopped versions of being human — and that what we have, what we actually live, can never live up to the fiction?
We look at screen and page and advertisement and we see mirrors of ourselves. But often they are mirrors of selves that never were and never will be. We are told that love lasts forever and is epic; that childhood friendships can never fade away; that adventure will always take us to transcendent places and transform us. We are handed orange-juice-concentrate versions of human existence, and behind them are whispers: “This is what life is. This is what you should be expecting. And if this is not your life, there’s something wrong — something deficient.”
And so we benchmark ourselves, not against our next-door neighbors or our classmates or our colleagues, but against smoothed-out selfies, carefully curated social feeds and a billion-dollar narrative-industrial complex whose job it is to keep selling us stories forever — and to use our natural aspirational instincts to create a desire for something that will never be fulfilled. We look at the screen and the page and the advertisement and we weep for those selves we can never be, and in this way we are taught dissatisfaction and melancholy and continuous consumer desire.
That is who we have become, and the highway we’re hurtling down goes in only one direction.
Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York who recently moved back from four years living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song and is working on a book on the history of storytelling in America. He tweets here and Instagrams here. Find more of his writing here.