From Hollywood, to kids’ cartoons, to sappy inspirational Facebook posts, entertainment culture is full of advice on how to live our lives. Imagine the consequences of taking this wisdom seriously. Actually, you don’t need to imagine: our culture is littered with living examples of men and women who embraced the subtle and not-so-subtle popular messages. Still, it would be interesting to flip through a book called A Year of Living Hollywood. Here is some of the most common propaganda of social media, celebrities, and movies:
1. Follow your heart. This pretty saying comes first, because it’s our culture’s favorite. I remember years ago asking a wise older friend for advice about getting married, and this is what she said to me, very tenderly though: Follow your heart. I was confused. My very problem was that I had followed my heart, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere. What I needed was some sensible input, help weighing up the pros and cons and identifying flags of all hues in this relationship.
For big decisions, we need more than a heart: we need a compass. Our hearts are like the weather: changeable, vulnerable to all sorts of variables. The compass helps guide us through the weather. Prime casualties of this heart-following philosophy are young women who are drawn to bad-boy types and then fall in love. Being in love leads them through a string of bad decisions, and then they are dealing with the fallout for the rest of their lives.
2. You can be anything you want to be. Um, no, you can’t. Just watch a few minutes of American Idol, and you’ll see this isn’t so. You might dream of being a great singer, and even get on TV, but most of us are just not entertainers. Even intensive singing and dancing lessons, makeovers, and special diets wouldn’t help us in that cutthroat world. Same with becoming president. It takes more than wanting it–we’d actually have to win elections. A more helpful way to frame the concept, although not with the same ring as the original, would be, “You have so many career options available to you.” And that is a wonderful reality.
3. Don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams. Okay, I get it–grit and determination and everything. Stories of strong-willed men and women who succeeded in spite of social, economic, and physical obstacles are inspiring. Their hard work is to be commended. However, as a general statement, Don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams could mean that whatever you want, you should have. That others in your life, your community, aren’t important. Sometimes, you should listen to those closest to you, especially when they are saying to you, “About that singing career . . . Don’t quit your day job, honey.” They just might know what they are talking about.
4. Just be you. Well, that depends on what you want to do. If being you means relaxing at a party, smiling, telling your favorite story without worrying about what the listeners will think, it’s great advice. But this bit of popular wisdom has the whiff of relativistic, existential claptrap.
5. Rules are for breaking. Don’t you know the most interesting, accomplished people are all rebels? If they had been compliant angels, we’d never have heard of them. (It’s beginning to sound like whoever came up with all these wise words had a problem with authority. Plus, when I think of men and women I know who broke rules, both their own lives and the lives of their loved ones are all the more messy and complicated for it.)
Someone once said, “No man is an island.” Maybe it came from a Facebook meme? That one with a famous puppet sipping tea. Or the guy with the mustache and beer bottle. Anyway, if you see that quote in your feed, you ought to share it–once you’ve changed “man” to “person,” of course. On second thought, let it be. Rules are for breaking, after all.