Christopher Lasch had it right. We live in a culture of narcissism. Thirty years after the publication of his landmark work of social criticism, Americans are more self-absorbed than ever. Consider, if you doubt it, Twitter and Facebook. (Among the items from my Facebook feed today: “Watching Charlie play his dad on Wii tennis!” and “Off to dim sum, it’s been too long.”) This way of moving through the world stands squarely in the way of progress towards sustainability.
Narcissism has been on my mind this week because of my experience at a health club that I joined nearly a year ago. I’m a runner, and so I’ve never been much of a health club guy, but I joined a new branch of Lifetime Fitness chain near my home in Bethesda about a year ago because Robert Sherman, who was brought on to lead the fitness program there, is a truly gifted teacher. So I followed him to Lifetime.
Lifetime’s a top-of-the-line gym. Rugs in the locker room. Plants in the lobby. High-tech exercise machines. Well-built. (The gym, I mean, not the patrons.) You can buy a smoothie or get a haircut there. People seemed to really appreciate it—and take care of it—for a while.
But not for long.
The other night, the men’s locker room was a mess. Wet towels had been scattered in front of the lockers and on the floor in a couple of shower stalls. This, in a locker room where you are never more than a few steps from a receptacle for used towels.
Why? What possesses someone to drop a wet towel on the floor, rather than walk a short distance to toss it where it belongs?
What possesses people to toss bottles and cans by the side of the road?
What possesses teenagers to enter a metro car and bus and treat it like their living room, talking in loud, disruptive voices?
What possesses people to talk loudly on cell phones on public?
Worse, what possesses people to talk on their cell phones or send text messages while driving? The Times has done some great reporting on this in the past couple of weeks. It’s truly reckless behavior.
I probably sound like an old crank here but the fact is, America is suffering from an epidemic of rudeness and it’s worth thinking about. I read Lasch’s sophisticated and erudite book many years ago, barely understood it then and so won’t try to summarize it here. But he wrote, among other things, about the declining influence of families, the reluctance of parents to impose discipline on their children, the medicalization of bad behavior, the decline of religion, the rise of the self-esteem movement, and the importance placed on personality, as opposed to character, in the business world.
All these forces are stronger today than they were back in what Tom Wolfe called The Me Decade of the 1970s.
In a 2005 essay called The Overpraised American, Christine Rosen re-examines Lasch and argues that Lasch’s narcissist has become “the overpraised, attention-seeking, technologically dependent American.” She relates this anecdote about suburban child-rearing:
The emphasis on self-esteem building and praise can be found creeping into many different aspects of children’s lives. As I witnessed at a child’s birthday party in a well-to-do Washington suburb recently, the reptile expert hired by the parents to entertain the assembled toddlers didn’t merely perform his routine. At the end of it, he had to present the lucky birthday boy with a large, official-looking certificate declaring him a bona fide junior herpetologist, which the assembled guests responded to by treating the boy to a vigorous round of applause. It’s no wonder the shelves of suburban recreation rooms nationwide groan under the weight of participation trophies, seventh-place medals, and ribbons congratulating kids for simply showing up.
I’m afraid that it is these parents and their kids, who have been told how wonderful they are, despite any evidence to the contrary, who fail to grasp that there’s something wrong with leaving a wet towel on the floor of a public locker room. Or driving while talking on the cellphone.
Rudeness matters not merely because of the inconvenience it causes the rest of us, but because it reflects a deeper indifference. People who are rude either don’t understand or don’t care about their impact on the world. But–the only way we are going to deal with the scary social and environmental problems we face is by become more consistently aware of the impact our actions have upon others, and that means not just the people around us right now, but also future generations. It takes real, sustained effort to think about the affect of our everyday choices—the cars we drive, the food we eat, the stuff we buy, the way we conduct ourselves at work, our obligations as citizens. But only as a result of that real, sustained effort will be get the changes we need.
So I can’t help but wonder: If we can’t take care of a locker room, how, for goodness sake, are we going to take care of the planet? Any thoughts?