I have spent most of my adult life around people who are used to getting what they want. I don’t mean this in a negative way, necessarily: they’re not pushy people, not aggressive or out-of-touch in a trust fund kid stereotype kind of way. I just mean that they’re golden. Life has smiled upon them: spoils have fallen into their outstretched hands. These people are for the most part smart and kind and as conscientious as you might reasonably be given the rather unconscientious world we live in. Many of them had childhoods and young adulthoods that were far from golden, were in fact very difficult, so they have the mental narrative of having been the underdog before achieving a state of being intensely admired and loved. It’s a heady psychological brew.
I don’t know if I recommend becoming an adult in this environment. I think it encouraged me to look around me for what I should have looked for inside me. All around there were people who seemed so wholly focused and competent and desirable, so certain of themselves, and all I wanted was to absorb that certainty by osmosis. But I couldn’t. I really struggled. When I finally found certainty it was by turning away from other people and turning towards myself. I guess that’s how everyone finds confidence, in the end: through rejecting mimicry.
So many of my friends have been told over and over again for many years, from different people and in different ways, that they are so very special. Being told you’re special warps you, and warps the people around you. I think it’s hard to separate your own judgment from the judgment of other people, especially when you’re younger: it’s hard to say, well everyone else might be telling me that you’re special, but I think you’re just okay. It took time to be able to tease out my own opinions.
As a culture we move money through marketing desire. There are plenty of people who make a living just from sharing certain culturally fetishized lifestyles. In Utah, for instance, there’s the Mormon blogger mom. In New York there’s the cool young model or the artist who paints large abstract canvases and dances in front of them. If you asked me whether I’ve fetishized the life I live or the lifestyles I’ve been around, I’d tell you maybe, yes. Maybe once, maybe always. But also I understand that people can so easily become symbols when they’re only people. For a while I dated a boy who reminded me so much of another boy I’d had this intense crush on when I was 10 years old. They had the same face and the same easy, kind manner. What he represented to me was an intangible emotion: belonging and yearning, past and present all mixed up. But he was only a person, in the end. People aren’t what they represent to you, they’re only themselves. I think it’s important to remember that. When I met my current partner he didn’t remind me of anything from the past. That made him feel unfamiliar, but it also made him feel free.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say with this post. I think privilege is mixed up with dreams in American culture, that we expect to find the spiritual in the material. Klimt’s golden phase—the period when he made paintings with gold leaf of women dressed in furs—is what brought him critical and commercial success. I wonder what people feel when they see these paintings. We look at beauty and we want to absorb it, to consume it. But I don’t think you can buy or own that feeling, even if you can acquire the actual painting and the actual person. The beauty has to come from you and you alone.
When I was a child I thought happiness might come from objects or from a proximity to privilege. I think that’s the message a lot of immigrant children absorb: solve for stability, solve for prestige. Then I grew up and met people who had solved for these things and wondered what it ended up meaning to them. It did mean something, but what it meant had so little to do with joy. I guess this is why people need God instead of intelligence or belongings or physical beauty: it turns out that when you consume the tangible things, they consume you right back.