Contentment

“Contentment” is a word you don’t hear very often anymore. It’s such a passive word. These days we’re all about superlatives. You can’t even buy a small Coke. You have to choose from “large,” “extra large,” “big gulp” and “belly buster.”

Don’t get me started on Starbucks.

There are no movie and singing stars anymore. None. Now all actors and singers are “SUPERstars!” The real superstars are “MEGAstars!” (In a perverse, word nerd way I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where the publicity flaks take us from here.)

How many emails do you get in which people use so many exclamation points they must have bought them at Costco?

Calm words are boring, I guess. When I ask people how they are nobody just says “fine.” Everybody is “excellent,” and “awesome!” If you tell somebody you’re “fine” these days they think you’re either deeply depressed or too busy to be bothered. “Fine” has become, in effect, a benign way of dismissing people.

I guess there’s something pathetic about plain old contentment that just reeks of giving up and settling for less.

What’s going on here? Why are we all driving for higher levels of okay? Remember when being okay was a good thing? Now it makes you suspect. If you tell somebody you’re “okay” they think you’re brooding or pouting or about to launch into some self-serving tirade. “No, really, I’m okay!” When you put an exclamation point on it like that it looks like you’re covering something up or being super defensive. Not just defensive, see, SUPER defensive!!! Or, maybe you scare people by being calm. Maybe they suspect you’re going to be the next guy in the news who walked into his former office and shot up the place.

“He was a nice guy. Always quiet; kept to himself. Said he was ‘fine.’”

Something is driving us these days and I don’t think it’s just the cultural evolution of semantics. I think, for some reason, a lot of us are screaming for attention.

And I wouldn’t mention it, of course, unless I had a theory. Here it is:

We baby boomers have been screwing around with America’s social foundation since the sixties when some of us suddenly decided we had no further need for our parents, teachers and other authority figures.

This was evolving when I was still in high school. We still had a dress code and we still addressed teachers as Mr. This and Mrs. That. But just a few years later there was a brief but widespread attempt to equalize the social standing between students and teachers when students began addressing teachers by their first names. Teachers at the time, many of them children of the sixties, nearly unanimously and warmly accepted this practice as enlightened and hip. I don’t know for sure why this cultural experiment didn’t jell but I suspect it caused a structural breakdown that even those young boomer teachers who opposed the rule of authority had to admit caused some real disruption in classrooms. When “Mr. Farber” confiscated your hash pipe and sent you to the office there were consequences. If “Phil” tried do do that, you probably laughed and Phil smiled, too. In any case, it didn’t last very long but I do see a social pattern that can be traced back to that era.

Young people these days almost never say, “You’re welcome.” Instead they say, “No problem,” which is hardly the same thing. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” are ancient pleasantries, expressions of respect. But now it’s gotten to the point I don’t even want to thank anybody because I dread the kickback I know I’m about to receive. When I thank a waiter for bringing my meal he says, “No problem” and honestly, I feel a little insulted or, at least, brushed aside. I want to respond, “I’m greatly relieved that my presence, requiring you to perform a small part of your job, isn’t creating a problem for you,” but I don’t. I know he wasn’t trying to insult me but by not acknowledging my respectful gratitude with an equally personal and gracious, “You’re welcome,” he is unconsciously diverting attention from me, his customer, to himself. Not only does it abruptly terminate the intended exchange of pleasantries, it draws a faint line between us. In effect the waiter is saying to me, “You’re doing your thing (ordering a meal) and I’m doing mine (bringing it.)” In an unconscious effort to equalize the social standing between us the waiter is rejecting the relationship that naturally exists.

Being a waiter isn’t demeaning and neither is being polite. We are all subordinate to others at times in various circumstances and that’s a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble and respectful of others. But when we blur the distinction between customer and waiter we rob ourselves of an opportunity to experience a supporting role in society. At other times, in different circumstances, the waiter is a customer, too.

Carolann thinks I’m a nutball when I start prattling on about this stuff. She says I’m too picky about words and she does have a point because I take people far more literally than they generally intend. The thing is, when I don’t I’m confused. The subtleties and shadings of implications in our language are powerful and I hate being forced to go through life unclear about everything everybody says. I find myself constantly guessing what people mean as opposed to what they say. I’m never sure what to believe and isn’t that true to some extent for all of us these days?

When was the last time you fully believed or understood something you read in a newspaper or saw on TV? It’s popular these days to accuse the mass media of having a political agenda that slants the information they provide us. I hate political bickering and won’t go down that road just now but I do think what we’re seeing, hearing and reading today are more shouts for attention, the clamoring of an ever more desperate generation of narcissists growing old without contentment.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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Author: Dave

Dave Williams is a radio news/talk personality originally from Sacramento, now living in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Carolann. They have two sons and grandsons living in L.A.

7 thoughts on “Contentment”

  1. You hit on my pet peeve of people saying “no problem” in your “Contentment” piece. I roll my eyes when someone says that to me. I, like you, want to respond, “Well, great, that me asking you for a FORK to eat the meal you just served is no problem for you. If it were a problem, guess I’d have to scarf this hot food down with my fingers, wouldn’t I, and I can tell you for certain, that would be a “problem” for me…and then, it would be problematic for you, cuz you’d get zero point zero zero for a tip! And you would end up thinking I’m a jerk and I’d think you were one. But hey, no problem. ”

    You can see, you really hit a nerve.

  2. Dave, you are a great story teller. I miss you on the radio here in Sacramento. It is sad that today being good is just what fair was 20 years ago. Being good is not good enough anymore. After I left high school, if your GPA is not over 4.0, your GPA is not good enough to get into college. I agree with you, being polite or offerring good customer service, or just some service, is a thing of the past, unfortunately. Even for the companies who used to pride in it. For some reason, I guess people are not allowed to be happy with the little, simple things in life anymore. Even look at commercials, they were so low budget 25 years ago. Now even a simple PSA has to be a full blown Hollywood production. If is does not have a WOW affect, it is not worthy of anyone’s attention.
    Thank you for sharing your blog with us.

  3. Loved the blog…
    The contrasting of contentment against hyperbole is simply
    brilliant. On the trashing of standards, I believe the
    answer, not that you asked me, lies in the fact that
    in 60’s there was something to rebel against and
    changes that needed to be made. Unfortunately, it went
    too far. In throwing out the notion that the war was
    not good for us (it could be argued that not fighting
    to win the damn thing was the mistake rather than
    fighting it at all, but that’s beside the point), the
    social structure that had kept us united was also
    discarded. The protesters didn’t question authority,
    they rejected it. Subsequent waves of young rebels had
    power but no real cause. With nothing substantive to
    rebel against, they just kept piling on the
    “establishment” until the old rules no longer applied.
    Young society became increasingly selfish,
    narcissistic and nihilistic. The idea of service to
    your country or even to your community, neighbors or
    family virtually disappeared. With the appetite to
    rebel growing ever stronger and no real causes to
    fight for, the self-destructive, self-centered
    behavior resulted in a generational temper tantrum
    which has our society 180 degrees out of line with the
    goals of the so-called age of enlightenment. Civility,
    as you noted, is not only not taught nor required,
    it’s not even expected or appreciated. Humans
    generally hate being compared to animals, but what’s
    true for all societies, human and animal, is that when
    no structure remains, chaos ensues, polarization
    occurs as loyalty fades and sides are chosen, and that
    NEVER ends well.

    Bob

  4. That’s my former partner. And now you know why I let him do most of the talking.

    Sheesh, Bob! You analyzed stuff I didn’t even realize I put in there! Thanks for adding some brain power.

    Cayenne and Diane, thank you for being moved to comment. If we get enough we may move on to chat sessions.

    Dave

  5. Again, thoughts taking me back to my two-and-a-half year old… I ALWAYS make him say, “Thank you.” When I help him do something he couldn’t otherwise do alone, he says it. When I get him a cup of milk, he says it. I always respond, “You’re welcome.”

    Sadly, to everyone else, I’m afraid I respond, “No problem.” I’ve probably even said it to you. Thus, I’ll be more aware of it. But even that’s sad, isn’t it? That I’m not even aware of what I say. A pleasant, if not, requisite state of politeness in this day and age is overlooked with such apathy that I can’t even remember if I say, “You’re welcome,” or “No problem.” And has anyone else noticed that, “How’s it going?” besides being abysmal English, has become a greeting? I’ve actually responded, “Good” to someone who simply said, “Hello” because I’m so used to the actual greeting being, “How’s it going?”

    And that, I guess, is a problem.

  6. I’m far more word-conscious than anybody else I know. The fact is the rest of the world gets along just fine on “No problem,” and “How’s it goin’?” is a lesson that is beginning to dawn on me.

    Many years ago I had a similar semantics problem with people who brushed off probing questions by saying, “….Whatever!” At the time I thought these people were too shallow to follow my fine philosophical point. Only recently it dawned on me: they were, in fact, brushing me off and telling me to shut the hell up because I was boring them!

    Hey…”It’s all good!” 😉

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