“Ennui is the condition of not fulfilling our potentialities; remorse of not having fulfilled them; anxiety of not being able to fulfill them, — but what are they?...If there were no parents to make us try to be good, no schoolmasters to persuade us to learn, no one who wished to be proud of us, would not we be happier? What monster first slipped in the idea of progress? Who destroyed our conception of happiness with these growing-pains?”
-- Cyrill Connolly
At one point in the film adaptation of David Mamet's play EDMOND William Macey states: "Nobody's keeping score, and nobody cares." This is meant (I'm assuming) as an existentially blunt comment on the complete and utter indifference of modern society to one's own puny angst. On that level, Mamet was right, but looked at another way, everybody cares. Your entire family is keeping track of what you are doing, wondering if your progress (or lack thereof) might mean that they could have fucked-up in the way you were raised. Your friends are quietly, obsessively noting what neighbourhood you live in, and how much money you make in comparison to them. Your co-workers are casually checking your moods to see if you're in synch with their own moderate level of unease. We're all in this together, as the saying goes, but that's not always a nice motto.
This notion of competition is built-up in our systems of life from the day we are born. How soon do you learn to walk, talk; when do you leave your diapers behind and master the potty; at what stage do you no longer need the nightlight, is it too soon or just right. Then school starts, and whoo-boy. if it's not the classroom, it's the playing field, and if it's not the soccer pitch, it's the brass band, and for the next twelve years it's a mad mental race to see who's better than who in all the dumb ways that we measure progress in our lives.
I used to come home from school soon after I started kindergarten and tell my mum that everything at Pine Grove was going just fine; only a phone call from the teacher blew my careful cover to bits. I guess I did nothing but sit in the corner and cry (although I don't remember this), so my parents racked up a system of star-points-on-a-chart, wherein if I did certain activities, I'd get a nice blue sticker, and once a certain number was reached, I could nab a STAR WARS action-figure. (That I remember, because I eventually ended up with the Han-Solo-in-Hoth-arctic-gear.) Lesson I Learned: bribery works wonders to make a system bearable.
In adult life, the bribery is our salary, and everything else that we need to make our lives hum and flow. Yet: What do we need, exactly? A nice house? A good car? A better house? A snazzier car? The envy of our peers, whom we don't even like?
Life seems to be set-up as an obstacle course solely designed so we can validate ourselves. Justify our lives. Is it all just a grossly inflated version of Hollywood's Golden Globes? Here you have an organization composed of fifty-odd foreign journalists, the views of which nobody in the entertainment industry actually respects in the least, yet because the ceremony itself serves as a harbinger of what the Oscars might enable to their careers and their pockets, people get actively, genuinely excited about the whole banal thing. It affects salaries, careers, lives, to the point where the stars are teary-eyed and choked up because they got an award from a group that they not-so-secretly don't even consider to be all that genuine or legit. If entire business (and familial, and societal) entities and structures are set up with cheese as the goal at the end of the maze, does it matter in the end who put the cheese there to begin with? It's still what we're supposed to be after, so of course we're exalted when we get to it first.
Yet where would we be without this urge to progress? Didn't humanity as a force evolve in the first place because some humble life form slipped out of the water and made its way onto land? Without desire, there is no hunger, literally and figuratively. Perhaps it's in-built in our genes, this need to constantly, relentlessly test ourselves against others, in sports and the arts, among family and friends. If you do tune in and drop out, embracing nature as it is, look out. You're going to be getting some pretty stray looks from those all around you. (Don't you get that life is supposed to be a never-ending slog to prove our own worth via jobs and 'success' and zeros in the bank account?)
What else can we do, though? This urge to better ourselves is often humane and just; it elevates families, brings people up and out of poverty. Drive can quite often lead us somewhere actual. The competitive gene might be crucial to keeping us fed and healthy, for without it we might just sloth around on the beach and let ourselves starve to death.
Even so, I circle back to when we used to give each other Valentine's Day cards back in primary school, and everybody would figure out who got what and from whom, and you'd tally your score, and at the end of the day you kind of knew where you stood. We were, what, seven, eight years old? Already learning about life's means of affection. Unconsciously (or overtly, with a sulk) wondering what we might do to up our own ante, so that next year's batch of folded red hearts on stapled-looseleaf would carry a little more weight in our knapsacks on the long walk back home.