The Utopia complex
To many people in the West, this feels like a Golden Age. And why not? Extraordinary advances in medical science; the explosion of information and communication technology that stimulates, informs and entertains us like never before; swift and cheap international travel; efficient, reliable, affordable cars; promising talk of a clean-energy revolution; online shopping; a plentiful year-round fresh food supply that defies the four seasons; ever-smarter manufacturing and distribution processes that whisk tulips from Amsterdam to florists in Melbourne, and European fashion labels from their Chinese factories to warehouses all over the world; to say nothing of the sophistication of modern marketing techniques that stroke our egos with seductive skill. If ever we were going to be able to live the good life, surely this would be the time.
That impression of a Golden Age might not be so easy to sustain if you were to peep beyond the borders of affluent, peaceful Western societies into the teeming squalor of the world’s refugee camps, the ravages of continuing wars (driven, as usual, by religious rivalries or territorial greed, or both), the eternal tensions of the Middle East, the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, or the looming problem of global food security. In fact, even in the West’s comfortable and relatively secure cities and suburbs, our dreamy blue skies are sometimes clouded by the frightening possibility of global warming wreaking ecological and geopolitical havoc on our planet. But in the busy round of daily life, most of us manage to put such thoughts out of our minds. We have a more appealing, more immediate agenda: the pursuit of perfection – woo-hoo! Being twenty-first-century Westerners living with unprecedented material prosperity, mobility, convenience and comfort, who would dare say we’re not entitled to the best of everything? Far from fearing that a deep malaise may have us in its grip, we are inclined to feel lucky to be alive in such a place and at such a time in history.
And yet, the more you examine our Utopian fantasies and our energetic attempts to turn them into reality, the more you wonder if the very things we’re so desperate to acquire as symbols of this imagined good life may be insulating us from deeper and more enduring satisfactions, fuelling our dreams while limiting our vision, encouraging us to settle for the most trivial and fleeting meanings of ‘good’. Our teeth should remain perfectly bright, white and, of course, straight, regardless of their age. If we are female, we ought to have perfectly formed or re-formed breasts that resist the sagging once thought to be a natural consequence of breastfeeding and the passage of time. We should be able to track down the perfect latte, the perfect investment vehicle (perfectly safe but astonishingly lucrative) and the perfect movie (uplifting, funny, sexy and memorable). Even a storm can now qualify as a perfect storm.
It’s no longer enough to have a couple of days off at the weekend to sleep in, catch up on chores, do a bit of reading or internetworking, and perhaps take the kids to a park or catch a movie. No, Have a great weekend! has become the standard Friday-evening send-off, and How was your weekend? the standard Monday-morning greeting. (You’d better have your awesome weekend story ready. )
Holidays should be havens of happiness: islands of perfection in a choppy sea of imperfection. We should plan them carefully and execute them in ways that allow us to come as close as possible to our ideal selves. (Slight problem here: in 2012, The Psychologist quoted UK research suggesting that the inevitable post-vacation let-down is greater and more rapid for perfectionists than for those with more modest expectations. )
Work should be fun, or, if not fun, then at least stimulating and satisfying. So should marriage, and if it isn’t, then we should strive for a perfect divorce in which we and our former partner will behave in the civilised and responsible way we couldn’t quite manage during the marriage. And our divorce should have zero impact on the kids.
The kids themselves should be gifted in ways that make them worthy of special attention by perfect teachers who are perfectly attuned to the peculiar talents and circumstances of each child (especially ours) and to the expectations of its parents (especially us).
I went to the school and I said, ‘Look, if I have a rattle in my Mercedes, I expect the service people to fix it. I paid a lot of money for that car. Well, I’m paying thirty thousand dollars a year to this place, and there’s a serious rattle in my son’s maths. So you’d better fix it’. They seemed offended. What planet are they living on? I’m the fee-paying parent, for God’s sake.
In the future, such rattles might be bred out of our children as biotechnology edges us ever closer to perfect embryos. (Here’s a recent innovation from the frontier of biotechnology likely to set a true Utopian’s heart racing: the three-parent baby, conceived in vitro after defects in a cell taken from the mother’s egg have been corrected and purified through the use of a cell from another woman’s egg. ) In the meantime, we must deal with our children’s messy imperfections, and our own, as best we can.
Our counsellors, it goes without saying, should be gurus: people of infinite wisdom capable of coming up with perfect strategies for dealing with the problems we bring them. We should be able to visit only the very best doctor, and our uniquely wonderful doctor should prescribe the proven-perfect treatment for our condition, based on the perfect drug – highly efficacious, with no side effects except perhaps the prolonging of life into a richly rewarding old age.
Sex should be blissful and deeply satisfying, every time. Orgasms should be unfailingly spectacular and available to both sexes on demand.
Sport? It’s all about winning, of course: losing has no place in Utopia. Whatever it takes, from cutting-edge equipment for the Under 10s to performance-enhancing drugs for the professionals. Gamesmanship, sometimes disguised as the pursuit of excellence, replaces sportsmanship in the drive for victory. Sports psychologists abound, not just to motivate us but to help us deal with the shock of — (don’t mention the word).
Our cars should be perfectly safe, and the roads we drive them on should be so brilliantly engineered that the possibility of road trauma is virtually eliminated. We should have access to automotive technology that will protect us from lapses in our concentration, deficiencies in our driving technique or our sheer incompetence. (Surely the perfect car is already on some German designer’s drawing board?)
The state should leave us alone to get on with our lives in peace but should exert tight control over the behaviour of other people who mightn’t be as responsible or competent as we are. And it should of course be ready to support us whenever we think we’re entitled to help.
In our perfect world, blame is easy to affix, revenge is sweet, and outcomes are always positive (for us). Life should proceed from one thrilling gratification to the next, banners triumphantly aflutter, joy unbounded.
All we want is heaven on earth. Is that too much to ask?
I exaggerate, but not by much. Here is an actual statement from Neale Donald Walsch’s The Storm before the Calm (2011): ‘The function of life is to recreate yourself anew in each golden moment of Now, in the next grandest version of the greatest vision you ever held about who you are’. Our language has become inflated by Utopian hyperbole. Fantastic! says the waiter, when I’ve successfully negotiated the challenging task of signing my name on a credit card voucher. ‘Fabulous’has replaced ‘good’, and ‘great’now means ‘okay’. We’re busily establishing centres of excellence everywhere, from primary schools to car showrooms. We’re hooked on the idea of happiness as a natural entitlement, a bit like universal healthcare. We have enshrined towering self-esteem as a cardinal virtue and the greatest gift we can pass on to the rising generation. Utopians are conditioned (and are busily conditioning their children) to assume that perfection in anything should be within their grasp.
Teaching our children to expect too much
The real victims of the Utopia complex are our children. We can learn to swallow our own disappointment; we can cope with the realisation that we’ve made fools of ourselves by our pursuit of an unreachable goal; we can slink off to a therapist in search of a reality check. But the children of parents in the grip of the Utopia complex might not get off so lightly. They might have been so deeply and consistently conditioned to expect the best to be provided for them – admiration and rewards for everything they do and constant support and guidance from parents anxious to remove every obstacle from their path – that their arrival on the threshold of adulthood will actually come as a shock. Children are likely to struggle when confronted by the demands of independence if they have been cosseted in a state of prolonged dependency and fed a rich diet of self-esteem-boosting praise. (Good try! is the response to failure currently favoured by parents, even if the failure was actually the result of zero effort. )
In a 2011 article in The Atlantic provocatively titled ‘How to Land Your Kid in Therapy’, US psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb reported on the growing number of young adults arriving in her consulting room with symptoms suggesting they are anxious and confused about how to handle the independence expected of them. Typically, these are people who report a happy, secure childhood, loving parents, a good education and a highly supportive environment in their formative years. They have often had a good academic record and may be in a loving relationship and holding down a well-paid job. So where did this emerging sense of emptiness and confusion come from? Though she is working with purely anecdotal evidence based on the cases she sees personally, and though a person’s emotional state is bound to be the result of many interacting factors, Gottlieb thinks she may have an answer to that question. Her view, supported by some other therapists, educators and social theorists, is that this is the first crop of adults to have emerged from the self-esteem movement: the first crop of over-parented, over-protected kids to have reached adulthood under the influence of so-called positive psychology. Gottlieb notes that rates of depression among college students have risen along with rates of self-esteem, and she is inclined to see some causal links there.
The people Gottlieb is encountering may be victims of their parents’ Utopia complex. After all, if everything is supposed to be perfect, and your children are lavishly praised and rewarded for doing anything, what is likely to be the long-term effect on them? Gottlieb consulted Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), and explained her concern about this new breed of clients who should have been well prepared for adulthood by such happy childhoods but who now seem dissatisfied and bewildered. Twenge was not surprised. In her view, what begins as a healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself, ‘a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism’. According to Twenge, ‘Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the centre of the universe. Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire . . . constantly telling their children how talented and special they are’.
This sounds to me exactly like parents who are in the grip of the Utopia complex, trying to create a perfect childhood for their children by being perfect parents, possibly imagining that, since they tried so hard, the result will be perfect children. (Perhaps they haven’t heard of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theories about the good enough parent. ) The inevitable implication is that, as they grow older, these over-praised and over-indulged children will discover they are not the centre of the universe. That discovery can be both shocking and painful.
Carla’s separation meltdown
Carla has been raised by loving parents in a comfortable middle-class home in a thriving regional community. All through school she was something of a star, both academically and musically. Her parents praised and encouraged her lavishly, provided extra coaching to address a couple of weak spots in maths and took a keen interest in everything she did. She was the apple of her father’s eye and, according to her mother, ‘more like a friend than a daughter’.
Friends of the family sometimes worried that Carla was being cast as the symbol of her parents’ success, as though her parents were determined Carla should conform to the ideal of a child they could be proud of, a child worthy of all the love and attention they were giving her. From outside the family, it sometimes looked as if the parents were confusing love with praise, support with control.
Though she was clearly destined for university, Carla took a gap year after high school so she could spend one more year at home with her parents before moving to the city. During that year, she fell in love with Hank, a local boy who was studying at TAFE while apprenticed to his father as a plumber. Carla’s mother loved Hank and prided herself on the fact that Carla told her everything about the blossoming relationship. When it became clear that Carla wanted to start a sexual relationship with Hank, her mother organised an appointment with the family doctor to give Carla a prescription for the contraceptive pill. And then, rather to Carla’s surprise (and even more to Hank’s), she booked and paid for a luxurious room in a resort in a nearby town for Carla and Hank to spend their first weekend away together.
A year later, it was time for Carla to enrol at university. By then, she had tired of Hank (her mother, in any case, had decided he wasn’t good enough for Carla), and Hank had found someone new – someone, he confided to his best mate, whose mother wasn’t under the bed. Carla’s parents had found her a place in a university college where the principal seemed to warm to her in the admissions interview. She had assured Carla’s parents, in a separate, private interview they had requested, that she was sympathetic to Carla’s situation, having herself come to a city university from a country background, twenty-five years ago.
At first, Carla phoned her mother every day, often sending chatty text messages as well. She was finding the lectures challenging but engrossing, and she had teamed up with another girl from the country, also living in her college.
Barely a month into the first semester, Carla had what her mother later described as a ‘meltdown’ (a word she preferred to ‘breakdown’). Carla became depressed, anxious and unable to concentrate. She couldn’t sleep. Her parents went to the city for a week, taking a room in a motel near the campus so they could spend time with her. They found her sullen and unresponsive, prone to occasional outbursts of guilty crying over the fact that she had let them down. She simply could not cope, she told them.
Her parents tried to reassure her. She had not let them down, they said (though she didn’t believe them), but they were anxious that she shouldn’t let herself down. They reminded her how precious she was to them and what a special person she was. They quoted from her school reports (having memorised the best bits) and pointed to the music awards they had insisted she bring with her to sit on the desk in her college room.
After a week they returned home, Carla having assured them she’d give it another try. She didn’t call them. She didn’t respond to their calls. Her mother interpreted this as a good sign, hoping it meant that Carla was knuckling down to the work.
Carla had agreed to see a counsellor on the campus, who urged her to rethink the course she was enrolled in. She fell out with her friend, who accused her of being arrogant and self-absorbed. She found herself constantly bursting into tears. Finally, she phoned her mother and asked to be picked up and taken home. Her parents found her standing outside the front door of the college, bags packed and tears streaming down her face. She had withdrawn from her course, having been assured she could re-enrol the following semester if she wanted to.
Back home, Carla felt wretched and confused. She couldn’t decide what to do next. She was offered her gap year job back and took it without enthusiasm. Her parents offered to buy her a return ticket to Europe, to clear the cobwebs, they said. She declined, knowing the problem wasn’t cobwebs and recognising another of her parents’ attempts to smooth things over with euphemisms. They, too, were confused. Until now, everything had seemed so perfect, so full of promise. They had been so proud of Carla. She was their princess.
Jean Twenge believes that receiving the constant message that you’re special is counterproductive, not only because it creates an unhealthy inflation of self-esteem but also because it tends to alienate those around you. These are kids, she says, who ‘grew up in a bubble, so they get into the real world and start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right – they don’t’.
‘You Are Not Special!’ was the title of the 2012 commencement address at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, delivered by David McCullough, a teacher of English at the school. He clearly believed the graduates needed a reality check, and his rather bracing message was that, if you’re so special, then what about the other 3. 2 million seniors graduating from more than thirty-seven thousand high schools across the United States? Even if you are one in a million, he told the students, that means there are seven thousand other people exactly like you on the planet. Noting how values have changed, McCullough complained that ‘no longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose or learn to grow or enjoy yourself. Now it’s “So what does this get me?”’ In a direct swipe at the entitlement–dependency mentality, McCullough said, ‘The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or Mommy ordered it from the caterer’.
Lori Gottlieb describes one client who is typical of this new breed of young adult as ‘bright, attractive, with strong friendships, a close family and a deep sense of emptiness’. This young woman, like Carla, was troubled by the feeling that she was less amazing than her parents had always told her she was. Though she regarded her parents as her ‘best friends in all the world’, it hadn’t occurred to her (and why would it?) that they had actually set her up for disappointment, disorientation and anxiety by transmitting to her the values and expectations of their own unrealistic vision of Utopia. ‘Could it be’, asks Gottlieb, ‘that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?’
School teacher Jessica Lahey worries about the kind of parents who won’t let their children learn; whose over-parenting has the potential to ‘ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence’. Writing in The Atlantic (‘Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail’, 2013), Lahey describes an incident where she called a student’s mother to inform her that her daughter was to be disciplined for plagiarism.
‘You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong, ’ said the enraged mother.
‘But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off web sites, ’ Lahey replied.
‘No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper. ’
We have a long history of believing that damaged adults are likely to be the products of a lack of adequate parenting, and that continues to be true in many cases. As the Utopia complex tightens its grip on our culture, we may also have to start looking out for adults who were damaged in childhood by the very opposite: over-parenting. It’s a disturbing thought, but it may turn out that recruiting our kids in our own mad quest for Utopia is actually a form of child abuse.
In a seminal 2011 article published in the Journal of Youth Studies, ‘A New Narrative of Young People’s Health and Well-being’, the Australian social analyst Richard Eckersley challenges the widely accepted view that young people’s health is steadily improving. He notes that while death rates (including deaths from road accidents and suicide) are falling and young people’s own reported levels of personal happiness remain high, the incidence of mental illness and obesity-related health problems and risks among the young has increased markedly since 1990. He also points out that these health problems are no longer to be found primarily among the marginalised and disadvantaged, but in society’s mainstream.
Eckersley acknowledges that such deterioration in the health and wellbeing of the youngest members of a society must be the result of many interacting factors. He identifies a wide range of problematic health behaviours, including inadequate sleep (the internet never sleeps, and many of its heavy users are trying to get by on less sleep than they need), poor diet, drug and alcohol use, and insufficient physical activity. He also describes such societal factors as social inequality, family upheavals, educational pressures, the growth of mass and social media, the decline of religion, changes in youth culture including the growth of the so-called night-time economy, with pubs and clubs open all hours and people not only drinking more but becoming both sleep-deprived and more disposed to violence as a result. In Eckersley’s view, ‘Fundamental features of modern Western societies, including those that have contributed to past progress, are now working against mental health’. Along with many other social analysts, he links the increase in mental and obesity-related health problems to the big shift in Western culture towards greater materialism and individualism. Eckersley is in no doubt about the consequences of such a shift:
A cultural focus on the external trappings of ‘the good life’ increases the pressures to meet high, even unrealistic, expectations and so heightens the risks of failure and disappointment. It leads to an unrelenting need to make the most of one’s life, to fashion identity and meaning increasingly from personal achievements and possessions and less from shared cultural traditions and beliefs. It distracts people from what is most important to wellbeing: the quality of their relationships . . . which, ideally, contribute to a deep and enduring sense of intrinsic worth and existential certainty. As Goethe warned, things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.
Excerpted from The Good Life by Hugh Mackay. Copyright © 2013 by Hugh Mackay.
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