I always find it funny when an actor’s performance is described as ‘brave.’ Roger Ebert does this in his review of Black Swan, for example, saying, “It centers on a performance by Natalie Portman that is nothing short of heroic.”
Which, of course, is insane, because we’re talking about acting, and that doesn’t require bravery. Talent, drive, patience, mastery of craft… acting requires all those things, certainly. But not bravery. And I’m not one of those people who says things like, “Forget about the football players we worship on Sundays, or the musicians we pay to see in concert… you know who the real heroes are? The firemen. The police. Our armed forces. Those are the real heroes.” But it is fairly ridiculous to attribute heroism to an actor in a movie. Similarly, it’s ridiculous to call a writer brave for taking an unpopular or controversial stance, especially when most controversial stances do nothing other than lead to more exposure.
BUT HAVING SAID THAT, I want to point out something a writer did recently that I feel was—at least maybe a little tiny bit—brave.
Drew Magary—the funniest writer on the planet right now—wrote a piece for Deadspin about a month ago that I can’t stop thinking about. In “The Loneliness of the American College Transfer Student,” Magary describes the rampant depression and misery he experienced while in college. His details are both touching and uncomfortable, especially when he describes a phone conversation with his mother:
“I remember being on the floor of my room in South Quad, bawling my eyes out on the phone. I couldn’t stop crying. Real, hard crying. The kind where your jaw unhinges and long, cathartic wails just come pouring right out of you. My mom was on the other end of the line, and for a very long time, she didn’t say anything. She just listened to me cry…
ME: (whispering) I’m so lonely.
HER: You’re so lonely.
ME: (crying) I’m so lonely.”
Intense. I mean… you just don’t see this level of candor, ever. Not in the world of sports journalism, at least, with its jockocracy ethos. That detail can’t be minimized, either—this is a sports story, by a sportswriter confessing to crying on the phone with his mother because of his intense loneliness. And even worse for the writer, this took place during college.
If you watch ESPN or consume a lot of sports media, you know that one of the underlying themes of almost everybody involved is the shared narrative of the college experience. If you are to believe guys like Bill Simmons and Scott Van Pelt, college is a mythical four-year party wherein every attendee swims in a sea of alcohol, drugs, sex, and general excessive debauchery. It is unequivocally the greatest time in a person’s life and comes to define a life as the absolute peak of happiness.
But here’s the thing: We only hear from the people who loved college. I actually think there’s a huge number of people out there who hated it just as much as I did (And I’ve written and bitched about it hundreds of times… I hated my college experience, and I have doubts about the system of higher education as a whole, wherein a college degree is worth only the piece of paper it’s printed on.). That these people are like me who watch a movie like The Social Network, see depictions of stylized rave-like parties in the dorm rooms that look like that unbearable Zion scene from The Matrix Reloaded, and they’re as confused as me—This is supposed to be college? Did I miss something?
Now, I tend to believe that institutions don’t fail people, people fail themselves. I was miserable in college, and it was my own fault. But that doesn’t make it any less sad that somebody can zip through their four years, graduate, move on, and think, “Well shit. That was supposed to be the best time of my life, so how terrible is the rest of my life going to be?” Because, to the vulnerable, the narrative of the well-lived life can be extremely poisonous.
College is just one part of that narrative though. For every other stage of our lives we now have a device that makes it possible to document our happiness and show it off: It’s called Facebook, and it’s poisonous in its own way [That’s right, I’m writing about Facebook. Again.]. It’s a world in which we’re constantly connected and in tune with where everybody else is (In life, and in the literal sense, as in, “OMG i just got to Jamba Juice lol!”)… and for some reason I keep thinking of the cigarette companies who in the 1950’s and 60’s commissioned their own studies on the dangers of smoking. The studies—shockingly—found little connection between cigarette smoking and cancer. And, even then, people thought, “Well, yeah. Of course they’d say that, they’re controlling the information.”
There was an abundance of information about the dangers of smoking at the time, so a discerning public was able to reach its own conclusion. But to the person for whom cigarettes were an addiction, any sign that his behavior wasn’t unhealthy was something he could grab onto; and to the person addicted to self-pity, any sign that her life doesn’t measure up to the lives of her peers is irresistible. And now those signs are everywhere. The amount of information available to us now about our own lives is something we’ve never seen before in the history of mankind. It’s a communication revolution, and in light of so much information that so few people totally understand, the facts can be… manipulated. Not surprising when everyone controls their own information.
As such, it’s possible to paint whatever picture of yourself you want, and the default picture people choose to paint is of a happy, successful, and (most importantly) popular person.
Look at all the friends I’m constantly going out with… That’s us at a bar! And there’s me! I’m so beloved! Look at these 29 pictures of me with my adorable puppy. How bout my new boyfriend? He makes me so much happier than you ever did, asshole! HAHAHA.
This point was addressed in The Social Network, and emphasized by Mark Zuckerberg as the key reason for Facebook’s appeal: “Relationship status, ‘Interest in’… This is what drives life in college: Are you having sex or aren’t you?” As the movie goes on and Facebook grows into the juggernaut it is today, the micro world of college expands into the macro world at large, and we can expand that question—’are you having sex or aren’t you?’—into a whole series of questions to figure out who we should be jealous of.
It’s a game. Or, more accurately, it’s a job interview: You present the best you that you possibly can. Thus all the going-out pictures; My life is an endless party. It’s like I’m still in college! [See? Tying it all together now.]
And… I think everybody realizes this. I think—to an extent—we all browse around on Facebook (or whatever network you use), looking at our friends and co-workers past and present, exes, family members, etc., and have two simultaneous thoughts: 1) That the person looks much happier and more successful life than me, but, 2) There’s a chance what I’m seeing is about as authentic as those magazine covers they sell at Disney World, where they superimpose your nine-year old face onto Tom Brady’s body and display in giant, bold print: ATHLETE OF THE YEAR.
Happiness, it’s been said, is your reality divided by your expectations. And the more I read about the research that links excessive Facebook use and depression, the more I think our expectations keep getting artificially heightened.
I thought college would be the greatest time of my life; it wasn’t. And, to be honest, I still feel a tiny sting when other people talk about how much fun they had in college, all the crazy antics they got into. But I’m usually able to say, “Eh. Who gives a shit?” That’s me, though; it’s actually the one thing I’m good at—I have the ability to sometimes say, “Fuck it.” It’s not always easy though, and there’s a lot of noise out there telling us how unhappy we should be. And I’m not sure what the answer is—it’s all well and good to tell yourself not to let things bother you, but that doesn’t mean it automatically happens.
But I do know this: We usually pay attention to the ones who scream the loudest. And that needn’t be so; being louder than everybody else doesn’t make a person right. Sometimes the smartest people in the room never say a word.