On my recent trip to the Philippines and Hong Kong I was confronted with delicacies such as “Chicken Neck” and “Fried Pig Blood”. At the end of a day I would take a shower and the floor would be covered in black soot, the layer of air pollution that had accumulated having presumably washed off my body. The most repulsive deviations from Western sensibility, however, were the gray-haired white men walking around with South East Asian teenagers, the young girls smiling wide and ordering expensive drinks while the old men pet them in ways that would be inappropriate at a frat-house.
This scene is more revolting in-person than can be illustrated in prose because it isn’t just the smarmy buck-toothed grin of Mr. Grayhair while he rubs her inner thigh and ducks metronomically in for a kiss every minute or two. It isn’t just the 6-inch platform heels and plastic smile on the little girl as she rubs his potbelly. It’s that, when this guy planned a vacation and asked himself what was the closest he could come to living a fantasy, this was as far as his imagination went.
People have vibrant fantasy lives. And fantasies are necessary for orientation. We see ourselves, we see where we’d like to be, and we form strategies for getting there. Some of us imagine running major corporations. Others imagine winning an Oscar, discovering a cure for cancer, or running for President. Still others have more lifestyle-driven ideals. I’d like to split time between some combination of NY/DC/SF and Paris/London/Barcelona while doing inspiring work that generates an income at which I’d be able to enjoy luxuries and never feel financially stressed. I’d like to have a girlfriend/wife who is smart, pretty, confident, and fun and kids who are the smartest, best-looking, and most athletic in the class. In your twenties and early thirties, it seems, the major challenge is to build a world in which the fewest concessions from ideal circumstance are made.
We’re told to dream big, and we do. What we aren’t told is to lose proactively. We are less likely praise a poker player who folded a winning hand because logic suggested his opponent’s cards were better. We are less likely to look at minor concessions and reassessments as necessary for preserving a long-term goal.
Everyone who has ever wanted something badly has reached the point at which it’s obvious a goal will not be met. When this happens, even though retreat is logical, most of us flail. When that smart, pretty, fun, and confident girlfriend/wife prospect hasn’t responded to your last 4 calls, who among us hasn’t made a 5th? For some reason Blackberry keeps releasing new models even though it’s been years since Apple and Samsung rendered it irrelevant. At this point, when it’s clear you’ve lost, what more is there to lose? It seems more appealing to ride that sinking ship as far out to sea as it’ll go than to swim back to the coast and build a new one.
Delusion, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “A false belief that is resistant to confrontation with actual facts.” ‘Deluded’ is different from ‘Misguided’ because the element of naiveté has been removed. Ms. Guided goes to Hollywood with dreams of glamour and stardom. D. Luded, after 3 years of nothing but commercial auditions, decides the solution is a nose job or implants. Delusion in others is both obvious and unattractive. Its adjective form, “Deluded,” carries none but pejorative connotations. Not because having grand fantasies is a bad thing but because remaining delusional is lazy. It’s fixing a hole in the boat with bubble gum or replacing a broken tent leg with a tree branch. It’s too easy, a temporary fix that delays reality’s onset and thusly renders that onset even more severe.
Aristotle is famous for his contention that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency. For example, with respect to ‘pleasantness and social amusement’, deficiency is ‘boorishness’, excess is ‘buffoonery’, and the happy medium is ‘wit and charm’. Or with respect to ‘anger’, excess is ‘irascibility’, deficiency is ‘spiritlessness’ and the mean is ‘gentleness’.
On the subject of ‘confronting inconvenient truths’, I submit that deficiency is ‘delusion’. The opposite extreme, excess, your correspondent further submits, is ‘cynicism’. A cynic interprets facts honestly but is so magnetically attracted to the negative aspects that his thoughts and movements are rarely constructive. A deluded individual refuses to accept climate change as fact whereas a cynic says it’s too late to do anything about it. The deluded individual thinks the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved with a handshake between the right set of ministers. The cynic says it’s hopeless and we should let them keep killing each other. Cynicism, like delusion, is too easy. Harping on imperfections is a way of avoiding the effort required to remedy them. One could argue that cynicism is more perilous than delusion because both are inefficient behaviors, but a cynic’s incessant focus on the negative poisons the potentially positive.
So what’s the mean between delusion and cynicism? Is there a way to congeal these contrasting extremes in a way that magnifies their benefits while minimizing those unsustainable elements?
I believe there is. It takes the form of proactivity.
‘Proactive’ is defined as “Creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.” A proactive person assesses a situation honestly, reevaluates when necessary, and works towards a goal. The poker player who folds a hand that he would’ve won can win the next three if he notices that the opponent rubs his right eye when bluffing. The actress who, after 3 years of auditions, hasn’t landed a gig can transfer her skills quite profitably to marketing or PR. The guy whose calls have not been returned would do well to give up on this one and promise himself that next time he’ll wait until the second date to inquire about her SAT score and detail exactly how many kids he wants. The proactive person continues to have fantasies while drowning out delusion’s lullaby, and he sees the facts without shackling himself in negativity’s prison cell. Proactivity is neither easy nor certain, but it’s liberating, inducing confidence in a way that can only be done through energy well-directed.
And to the gray-haired, buck-toothed smarm in South East Asia, is there a proactive behavior? What do you do if you’re lonely and too old to attract your desired demographic? It could be argued that Mr. Grayhair’s behavior is more desperate and pathetic than it is deluded. Your correspondent maintains that it really is deluded, however, because the contention that a weekend with a South East Asian teenager will do anything other than deepen that loneliness and sense of being socially outcast is too absurd to consider seriously. The challenge presented by affection-starvation is difficult, and simply paying for that affection is too easy. The more he accepts the smiles that money bought, the more he’s conditioned to believe that smiles only happen as a result of a transaction. The more derisive glares he deflects from people like me, the more accustomed he becomes to epithets such as ‘creepy’ and ‘pedophile.’ The cynic, at the other extreme, responds to affection-starvation by deeming resolution hopeless and holing himself up. The proactive play, it seems, is to concede to social norms. Is to become de, as it were, lewded. Use that money spent on the plane ticket to the Philippines to buy a nice shirt and a well-fitting pair of slacks, date someone who also watched I Love Lucy as a kid, and aim for wit and charm, the happy medium between boorishness and buffoonery.
And what to do with that pedophilic energy? Follow Nabokov’s example, perhaps. Isn’t writing just a medium whereby dissatisfied perverts spread angst? Err, I mean, uhh, isn’t writing… oh shit. I’ll just stop.