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Life's boosters

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 15 September 2017


There is a shrill voice in our ears that comes from every quarter. Some years ago, we were invaded by the asinine "have a nice day" I think from California from whence came the even more annoying use of "like" in every sentence. "Have a nice day" was lampooned for the sickly sentiment that it promoted and proved to have a limited shelf life, fading away from our lives. But now it's back, used by young people who do not remember its falling and it is embellished. Now people giving change or returning our credit card after a purchase tell us to "have a really wonderful morning/afternoon/evening!" Such bright and hopeful exclamations are unavoidable. It is as if life is full of ecstatic experiences that we will miss if we are not reminded to have them.

Billboards tell us to "Live Life!" As if we have a choice. Boredom and ennui cannot be countenanced. Indeed, we have a duty to be spectacularly happy and fulfilled in every aspect of our lives. We are winners! We are capable of achieving anything we put our mind to even if we are severely disabled or lack talent. Our favourite story is about the sports star who was injured and makes an incredible comeback to be faster, stronger and more talented than ever. The ability of the human spirit to overcome all odds is celebrated. We feed our hope on these stories because they celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.

And if we encounter a personal tragedy we will dedicate our lives to eradicating its cause for others. We will perform great feats of endurance to attract enough attention to rouse the government and philanthropists to fund research, that promissory note against all that ails us. Remember the ABC comedy "We can be heroes"? Grief is alchemically changed into ferocious activism, the kind of thing that gets on Australian Story. The suspicion hangs in the air that we have lost the ability to deal with tragedy in our lives and our solution is to invent an all-consuming crusade in which we may paradoxically forget to "live life!"

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This life boosterism is aided by the mighty advertising industry that we think we can ignore but which provides life with a base note of obtainable pleasure. Every ad will insert us into a glamorous life that is ours for the buying. Travel ads are notorious for this. All our lives really need is that spotless beach lapped by azure waters, luxury accommodation and fawning servants. A fabulous time will transform our lives, after all, we deserve it. Capitalism has a stake in boosterism by making a connection between luxury and satisfaction.

If there is a person who epitomises this spirit of the age; it is the elite sportsperson. We find in this group men and women who are devoted to doing some physical feat better than anyone else. This orientation produces a certain kind of person as Richard Ford points out in The Sports Writer:

Years of athletic training teach this; the necessity of relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favor of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality which has instant rewards in sports. You can even ruin everything with athletes simply by speaking to them in your own everyday voice, a voice possibly full of contingency and speculation. It will scare them to death by demonstrating that the world – where they often don't do too well and sometimes fall into depressions and financial imbroglios and worse once their careers are over – is complexer than what their training has prepared them for.

Elite sportsmen and women represent Norman Vincent Peale on steroids, sometimes literally. They cannot allow negativity any purchase. Boosterism shares this view. It is narrowly focused on the good time (we are not here for a long time, we are here for good time!), it refuses self-inquiry and has its eyes only on the instant (live for the moment). However, boosterism takes a lot of energy, the energy required to ignore or deny the most basic aspect of human life; that we are creatures marked for death. The energy required to live as if this were not the case is expended in activity and distraction. The skull and the hour glass, those traditional memento mori,are banished because they give the game away. We live in a celebratory society in which loss and grief at funerals is replaced by a celebration of life no matter how tragic the circumstances.

Hillary Mantel points out that: "Now funeral notices specify "colourful clothing". The grief-stricken are described as "depressed", as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, "he wouldn't have wanted to see long faces", we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?(Guardian 28th August)

In philosophy, this phenomenon has been called "the turn to the self". I am conscious that I bang on about this ad nauseam and its emergence in the European Enlightenment but it does seem to be at the centre of our malaise. This process dethrones all authorities but the self, leaving us all to make everything up as we go along and leaving us vulnerable to fashion of which boosterism is but one movement. Binge drinking and the drug culture are the regrettable consequences as is rampant consumerism. We are in danger of becoming a society on the run in a desperate attempt to get ahead of the vacuum that threatens to engulf us. So, we revert to the attempt to convince ourselves and others that life is simply a matter of having a wonderful time, even if you are going home to do the ironing.

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The problem with being on the run is that we lose our peace, we lose the present, we lose the abundance of the small and the simple and we lose one another. But worst of all we lose the self because we are dominated by a fear we will not recognise: that all is for nothing and when the good times come to an end and we realize death is approaching there is only the abyss.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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