• matt smith

Looking for a Way Off the Hamster Wheel

I am not a fan of convention. I don’t like rules. I don’t very much believe in institutions. And to some extent — and I hesitate to say this for fear of losing you right off the bat, Dear Reader, as I risk sounding like some sort of conspiracy theorist (which I am not) — the more I think about some of our societal norms I wonder seriously whether they were put in place to somehow control us.

Yet, despite my contrarian views, beliefs and proclivities, I am a conventional rule follower bowing to the very institutions which I loathe.

The short answer why, I suppose, is I simply didn’t have the balls to do otherwise.

The long answer, I suppose, is an excuse-laden one (which, mind you, doesn’t exactly mean those excuses are bullshit, but they are excuses, nonetheless).


Our culture.

Family and societal expectations.

All are like an undertow that sweeps us up, pulls us under and before we know it, casts us out to sea, leaving us in water way over our heads.

Another coincidence is that during this time of examining my life, I began reading Henry Miller. Not for any particular reason, mind you. I started to read Miller simply because despite living on this planet for more than a half century, I had never seriously read Miller before and thought to myself maybe it’s time. And as such, I discovered Miller wrote often about not being so willing to swallow the shit that culture tries to force feed you.

“We [Americans] take to dope, the dope which is worse by far than opium or hashish — I mean the newspapers, the radio, the movies. Real dope gives you the freedom to dream your own dreams; the American kind forces you to swallow the perverted dreams of men whose only ambition is to hold their job regardless of what they are bidden to do.”

This shit is easy to romanticize, of course. And I’d argue real dope doesn’t allow anyone to dream, lucidly at least. But I get the gist of what Miller meant. And there is no doubt, Miller had balls. He was willing to live life on the edge, not caring as he traipsed around Paris where his next meal would come from, never worrying that there was no money in his pocket, seemingly never stressing over a goddamn thing.

But what was doable for Miller is not doable for most of us. We blinked and we were married. We had kids. A house. A job so we could pay for the kids and the house, and all the bills that come with that package. And before you know it, the years have passed, and we wonder, to paraphrase David Byrne, ‘What the fuck have we done?’

Personally, I did okay — at least in terms of living up to societal expectations and doing right by other people. I provided my two kids a good home. They had loving parents who supported them, and both turned out wildly successful. I’m not patting myself on the back. I closed my eyes, relied mostly on instinct, hoped for the best, and though there were a hell of a lot of bumps along the way, in the end, it all turned out OK.

But I ask myself, too: While I did right by others, did I do right by myself? I don’t think so — at least not yet. I sure as shit haven’t lived like Henry Miller.

Being in my 50s, I know it’s my job to piss on today’s younger generations. But not only won’t I do that, I have actually found hope in, and motivation to break with convention thanks to, late-stage Millennials born in the 1990s and those of Generation Z born this century.

Many in my generation — (Generation X, 1965-1979) — were raised by Boomers or those from the Silent Generation (1925-1945). Despite the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s — which deserves credit for challenging societal mores — I’d contend the My-Country-Right-or-Wrong attitude of the World War II era has continued to permeate and hold a tight grip on our nation’s culture to this day.

After all, Nixon and Reagan occupied the White House for a combined 19 years afterthe ’69 Summer of Love. And, consider the ratings enjoyed by Fox News now.

My Country Right or Wrong.

Listen, I love America. But let’s face it, it’s often wrong. I don’t need to say how or where. I’m sure you know. But what encourages me is that those in their 20s and teens not only know what’s wrong, their generations have seemed to have made a conscious choice to not repeat those wrongs.

I’m old. If I am being honest, the non-binary-transgender-polyamorous-shared-bathrooms-and-all-that-jazz makes me a little uncomfortable. But I welcome that discomfort.

It’s not unusual today to see two boys, or two girls, holding hands and kissing inside a high school, a boy with makeup on, and a girl with a flattop in a men’s suit. Had that happened when I was a teen, they all would have had their ass kicked — because we were dumb.

I admire young people now living their life they want to live. I admire the attention they pay to social justice. I admire their willingness to lead on issues such as climate change and expand our culture beyond what only serves whites.

A 2019 Pew Research poll found that 62 and 61 percent of Gen Z and Millennial respondents, respectively, believe that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is important. As for Boomer and the Silent generation responders? Well, both came in at less than 50 percent — 48 and 42, respectively.

Meanwhile, when asked whether there were any countries better than the United States, 45 percent of Silent responders and 30 percent of Boomers said ‘no,’ while just 14 and 13 percent of Gen Z and Millennials did.

So much for My Country Right or Wrong.

This is not about hating on America, mind you. Again, I’m a fan. But this is about thinking for yourself as opposed to what America’s culture wants you to think.

I’m sure inside these younger generations there are posers in their midst. And, in and of itself, one’s stance on climate change does not ensure they will live a life true onto themselves. Still, as a whole — (the Generation Z and Millennial populations total roughly 148 million) — the younger generations’ willingness to challenge America’s traditional mores is a sign that our culture, and what it tries to impose upon us, is being challenged too.

There’s no doubt Madison Ave execs are working feverishly right now to head-off this challenge in the name of profit and consumerism. Yet — even in spite of Trump — I can’t help but be encouraged by the shift I’ve seen in recent years toward moving, as Miller said: “backward down the path we have taken.”

At least a little bit.

When it comes to breaking free from the grip this culture has on me, I have a lot of work to do. I constantly find myself struggling between choosing what I want and worrying that what I want will ultimately hurt others. I have no desire to be selfish. Yet, I am tired of living like I was programmed to fill society’s expectations and not my own needs.

It’s tough. It requires balls. The balance is tricky. But you only live once.

Regardless, I know I need to get off the hamster wheel. I’m just not sure, yet, how.

But I do know this, as Henry Miller said:

“Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”

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