A Modern Drug for Contemporary Life

I love drug commercials on TV — not those idiot Cialis/Viagra jobbers; they’re way too nudge, nudge/wink,wink for my tastes — the real ones.  The ones that put the fear of God into you, then casually mention that they might have a cure, if you happen to be interested.  I see them as a 45 second history on our times.

Just to review.  The drug commercials usually start with an ordinary middle-class/middle-aged scene.  Somebody, sometimes in black and white, isn’t feeling well.  The kindly voice-over explains that this ailment, however small, is nothing to fool with.  It could be a disastrous medical condition.  Unfortunately, only trained professionals can tell the difference.  Therefore, it would be best, just for a little peace of mind, to get your sorry ass to the doctor – NOW – or you’re going to die – horribly, miserably and alone.  They usually don’t gear it up that bad, but the message is clear: there’s a tombstone out there somewhere.  At this point, the drug name is introduced as the only known cure for the disease you don’t have.  It’s repeated a couple of times, with its pedigree or references, as the middle-class/middle-aged scene changes to carefree (in colour) recreation, usually swimming or golf.  (BTW, all prescription drugs are government approved.)  After that, it’s all about, don’t take our word for it “Ask your doctor if Brand X is right for you.”  This naturally assumes that we somehow caught the disease, condition or ailment during the first half of the commercial, and now it’s only a matter of treatment.  Then — and this is the best part — the voice-over goes absolutely monotone and says something like, “Brand X is not right for everyone.  Serious side effects may include excruciating muscle pain, instantaneous diarrhea and incurable eyeball disease.  Talk to your doctor immediately if your tongue falls out.  Do not take Brand X if you’re a woman who’s ever even seen someone who’s pregnant or a man with a healthy liver and kidneys.”  The middle-class/middle-aged scene then changes to sunset or candlelit dining, with the drug name written in bold across the screen.  Fade out and back to reruns of Everybody Loves Friends.  There are a number of variations, but, in general, that’s it.

The reason I love these commercials so much is they really are an unconscious historical record of contemporary life.  For the last two generations (and maybe three) we have been giving ourselves every social, political, spiritual, economic, You-Name-It-We-Got-It disease known to humanity.  We’ve glommed on these malfunctions like an octopus with a fresh clam, giving each one pride of place as we discovered it.  I’m old enough to remember when the War on Poverty slyly slipped its leash to become the War on Drugs.  As the real and imagined maladies piled up, we went looking for a cure — even though nobody had ever realistically diagnosed any of the problems.  Somehow, we just instinctively knew we had them and now it was only a matter of treatment.  Sound familiar?  Suddenly, the world was full of social engineers, who, like drug dealers, (legal and otherwise) eagerly offered us all manner of remedies while conspicuously failing to mention the price.  Their shtick was (and still is) “Don’t take our word for it.  Ask the politicians which government programs are right for you.”  We did, and as a consequence, ever since Lyndon Johnson proclaimed The Great Society we’ve been throwing money around like a crack addict who just won the lottery.

The problem is the scenario has never changed.  We’re stuck on black and white, somebody’s not feeling that well, and we never get to in-colour carefree recreation – forget candlelit dining.  Our social, political, economic etc. problems are not getting better.  We have more homeless people now than ever before, our kids are still stupid and the President of the United States still doesn’t understand economics – to name just a few.  The cure we’ve been prescribed for the disease we may not even have ever had doesn’t work.

However, there are serious side effects to all this social engineering.  No, our tongues didn’t fall out but they might just as well have.  We have become hopelessly dependent on social programs and have abandoned reason in a manic search for them.  In short, we have become junkies.  The drug is government intervention, and we can’t get enough of it.  Like all addicts, our entire focus is now on the dealers to deliver a bigger hit, a larger dose.  Every discordant note sends us back to them, every anxiety, every concern, every doubt.  We excuse our destructive behaviour and gloss over our need.  We lash out in riotous anger and frustration when we don’t get enough.  We beg, borrow or steal the money to support our habit; bankrupting our children in the process.  We don’t care what it costs anymore; we just have to have it.

Unfortunately, if we don’t do something soon we’re going to be permanently chained to our addiction, and no amount of get-well-quick schemes is going to help us.

Self-Help and the Modern World

Have you ever noticed that people who buy Self-Help books never buy just one?  They always have three or four of them kicking around.  Usually they’re all on the same subject, but sometimes — and this is really scary — they’re all over the map.  There are people (we all know them) who could use a little help, self or otherwise.  There are also people who genuinely want to improve themselves; their outlook, their personality, their world, in general.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  In fact, most of us could do with a tuneup every once in a while.  However, this is the basis of the Self-Help industry.  They know, that we know, that there’s something wrong with us.  All they have to do is sell us the cure.  And that’s the reason people buy so many Self-Help books: they are a cure — that doesn’t work.

Self improvement is not a recent innovation.  There is probably something called A Slave’s Guide to Better Cowering written in hieroglyphics on a papyrus scroll, buried in the Nile Delta somewhere.  However, Self-Help is less than a hundred years old.  Its rapid development into a multimillion dollar industry runs exactly parallel with the development of our contemporary society.

There are two reasons Self-Help has become such a lucrative business.  First, we are losing our sense of family, and secondly we have lost our sense of community.

As we head off into the 21st century, our homes are no longer multigenerational.  Our parents and grandparents do not return to the family in old age.  Increasingly, they are warehoused, first in retirement communities, and then in care facilities.  Likewise, as most families consist of one or more working adults, childcare is outsourced, first to Daycare then the public school system.  Although these may be excellent institutions, they simply do not have a personal, vested interest in either education or development (beyond immediate behavioural problems.)  In other words, it’s a lot easier to fly right if you have grandma looking over your shoulder — or Dad — because they have an emotional attachment to you and pretty much everything you do.  You are the centre of their world, and they genuinely want to help you find your way around.  Likewise, as you grow older, your emotional connection to your parents and grandparents is strengthened by, if nothing else, proximity.  Nobody in a multigenerational family is left on their own to fend for themselves.  It isn’t in anybody’s emotional best interest.   Just as an aside, I know there are excellent care facilities everywhere with expertly trained staff, and I cast no aspersions on them.  However, at the end of the day, nobody wants you to succeed at life as much as grandma and grandpa do — and that lasts forever.  As we continue to replace the functioning parts of our multigenerational families with multi-task, care-for-hire personal assistants, we are turning ourselves into individual entities, relying on the kindness of strangers for our well-being.

It works the same for neighbourhoods.  In the old days, for better or for worse, the multigenerational family actually cared what the neighbours thought.  This was simply because they knew who the neighbours were.  They didn’t merely share the back fence; they shared community values and responsibilities.  Neighbours were involved with the comings and goings of the neighbourhood, which included Bob’s diet or Janet’s quit smoking plan.  People were available to help, and they did.  In essence, neighbours were all in it together.  However, as that community disappears, we are not only becoming physically isolated in the world; we are now increasingly psychologically alone.

The mantras of the Self-Help crowd are “Show personal responsibility” and “Take ownership of your problems.”  This is just a sugar-coated way of saying, “Good luck!  You’re on your own!”  Since we no longer believe we can rely on the traditional community to support us, we go looking elsewhere for help.  Invariably, this means throwing money at the problem; either through professional assistance or Self-Help.  And there we are again, back at that one-size-fits-all guide to personal growth, wealth and happiness: the Self-Help book.

Somehow, I find it impossible to believe that somebody sitting in their converted laundry room cranking out 800 words a day, has any connection to my quest to quit procrastinating.  They may have a good plan.  It may have worked wonders for them.   However, unless they know my heavy schedule of avoidance behaviour, I’m afraid they’re going to come up short.  By the same token (and I’m sure this worked for you, too) no three-chapter discussion of “How to Dress for Success” ever trumped my mother telling me to wash my hair and put on a tie.

Sometimes, the best self-help comes with some sharp-tongued maternal assistance.