Tag Archives: psychology

Why We Are All Jerry Smiths In A World Of Jerry Smiths

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If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re not a famous scientist, celebrity, politician, intellectual, or cultural icon. If you are, I’m flattered and a little shocked that you’re reading a site built around sexy short stories, erotica romance novels, and multiple pieces on sex robots. Whatever your status, I hope you find this both informative and revealing. It’ll also help if you’re a fan of “Rick and Morty.”

I know I’ve used that show many times to make points about everything from love to nihilistic morality. It’s not my fault the show is so brilliant in how it presents complex issues in a way that’s entertaining, hilarious, and vulgar. Sometimes, we need certain concepts presented in such a way in order to make sense of them, especially if the implications are unpleasant.

While “Rick and Morty” explores many concepts through many colorful characters, some more memorable than others, there’s one particular character who embodies a particularly distressing concept. That character is Jerry Smith, Morty’s father and Rick’s son-in-law. You could argue Jerry represents a lot of things in this show, but I would argue that Jerry Smith, more than any other character, represents us.

Chances are you’ve done something like this today.

By us, I don’t mean the people who watch regularly “Rick and Morty.” I’m not even referring to those exceedingly passionate fans who went ballistic on McDonald’s employees for not having any Szechuan Sauce. When I say that Jerry Smith is us, I mean that this colorful character that we love to laugh at represents the hopes, dreams, flaws, and foils of the entire human race.

To understand this sentiment, it’s necessary to know who Jerry is and what role he plays in over-arching mythos of “Rick and Morty.” For the most part, he’s neither a protagonist nor an antagonist. He’s rarely a hindrance to the cosmic antics of Rick Sanchez and while he tries to be a capable father to Morty, his influence is limited, at best. For the most part, he’s an afterthought at best and an inconvenience at worst.

When the family has to ban together to fight off alien parasites, Jerry doesn’t do any fighting.

When the family first encounters the Council of Ricks, Jerry either cowers or is fodder for pranks.

Even when he does play a significant role in an episode, Jerry tends to make the problem worse with his actions or is the underlying catalyst for them.

Chances are you’ve been this frustrated recently.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s completely inept. By and large, he is a respectable person who tries to do his best with his current situation. Granted, nobody in his family makes that easy for him, but there’s no doubting his intentions. He wants to do what’s best for his family, but his capabilities are exceedingly limited.

That’s understandable, given who he deals with. Rick Sanchez is an alcoholic super-genius who can travel across universes, enter other peoples’ dreams, and build intelligent robots whose sole purpose is to pass butter. His wife is a skilled horse surgeon who can also hold her own against Rick-level threats. His two kids are young, but still capable of handling themselves in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Pretty much every character in “Rick and Morty” demonstrates that they can handle themselves in the crazy situations that Rick often puts them in. When aliens, parasites, or intelligent dogs enter the picture, they can confront the situation and even help resolve it. Jerry has never shown that ability. Every time he tries, he either fails or makes it worse.

Or just looks foolish.

The reasons for his failure aren’t entirely his fault. Jerry’s biggest shortcoming is that he’s an ordinary person in a family of extraordinary people. In any other circumstance, he would be able to relate, understand, and cooperate with others. In an environment where alien creatures are kept in his garage, this just isn’t possible.

In essence, Jerry Smith is as powerless and inept as almost anyone else would be in that situation. That even extends to a real world full of Jerry Smiths and exceedingly few Rick Sanchezes. Unless your name is Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, or Barack Obama, you’ll have more in common with Jerry than you will with anyone else in “Rick and Morty.”

In many respects, that’s a little distressing. It reflects a hard truth that most people aren’t able to effect meaningful change that ripples across the multiverse. For the most part, they’re at the mercy of the powerful forces around them and people like Rick Sanchez who are able to guide them to some extent.

Drunk or sober, Rick will guide you.

Even when Rick Sanchez espouses his nihilistic rhetoric, it seems to hit Jerry and everyone else like him a lot harder. Even if nothing Rick does matters, he’s smart enough and skilled enough to pursue what he wants while minimizing the consequences. Jerry can’t do that. He can only ever react to the random meaningless chaos surrounding him.

Most everyone in the real world is in a similar position. When something crazy happens, be it a natural disaster or a controversial election, there’s little any of us can do about it. A select few, such as lawyers, judges, and other powerful politicians, may be in a position to effect some change. Everyone else is stuck watching, hoping, and living their meaningless lives along the way.

We can react to the meaningless chaos, but we rarely be proactive. If most people had that opportunity, they would likely mess it up in the same way Jerry messed up a simple Meeseeks Box. Even if your intelligence is above average, your credit score is good, and you have no criminal record, you’re still just one person. You can only do so much without a portal gun and a high-tech lab.

However, it gets even more depressing than that. Throughout three seasons of “Rick and Morty,” Jerry isn’t just shown to be inept whenever faced with a crazy situation. He’s also completely replaceable. This is best demonstrated in the episode, “Mortynight Run,” in which Rick takes Jerry to a special adult daycare center that’s specifically caters to keeping Jerrys from multiple universes safe.

It’s hilarious, but pragmatic for someone like Rick Sanchez because it gives him a place to keep Jerry from undermining his plans. It’s also disturbing how effective it is because as soon as Jerry arrives, he finds himself surrounded by other versions of himself. While upset and insulted, at first, he quickly finds himself enjoying the amenities that are tailor-made to pacify him.

By the end of the episode, it’s hard to tell what separates this Jerry Smith from all the other Jerry Smiths in the multiverse. In the end, even Rick and Morty don’t seem to care which one they take home. One Jerry is as good as any other. He’s basically an interchangeable part that fulfills as basic role and little else.

It’s a role in which many people in the real world find themselves. Modern society, especially after the industrial revolution, has reduced most ordinary people of Jerry Smith’s abilities to that of societal cogs. They’re not individuals as much as they are a mass of humanity that produces, consumes, and provides support for the select few who can achieve the kind of impact of a Rick Sanchez.

More than one episode of “Rick and Morty” has explored how society can dehumanize people and there are plenty of examples in the real world, as well. That dehumanization is just easier to inflict on someone like Jerry Smith. While Rick Sanchez may realize when he’s in a simulation, Jerry likely wouldn’t. In fact, he would be quite comfortable and content in such a simulation.

That’s the ultimate flaw in the character construct of Jerry Smith. By being so unremarkable, he is easy to outwit and even easier to placate. He’s basically a sheep that herders can keep docile just by making sure there’s fresh grass to eat. While Rick Sanchez isn’t always the herder, he and others like him knows how to guide the sheep whenever it benefits him.

Even the Devil is not immune.

Nobody will ever admit they’re just a sheep. People will tell themselves whatever they have to in order to believe that their lives have greater meaning than they actually do. Jerry does this more than once throughout the show. People in real life do so when they carry themselves as the heroic underdogs of their own movie. More often than not, it doesn’t amount to much, which even Morty points out at one point.

Like it or not, most people who aren’t rich, beautiful, or well-connected will always have more in common with Jerry Smith than with any other character in “Rick and Morty.” The number of Jerrys in the world will always vastly outnumber the Ricks. A huge chunk of society is structured around having a vast population of unremarkable, but easily placated Jerrys.

Whether we admit it or not, we are part of that system. We are the Jerrys who act as the cogs while the Ricks act as the operators. We don’t have the resources or genius of a Rick Sanchez so we can’t do much to subvert it. Even Rick can only do so much, even with his immense capabilities, which includes turning himself into a pickle.

It’s a bit depressing, but at the same time, there’s also a strange serenity that comes with the character of Jerry Smith. Even if he isn’t as capable as Rick or his family, he’s still someone who can find contentment and even peace in a chaotic world. Compared to Rick, whose famous catch-phrase masks his own inner pain, Jerry is probably happier overall, despite his meaningless lot in life.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, even if we’re oblivious to how ignorant we really are. In the long run, finding happiness will be easier for Jerry than it’ll ever be for Rick. For him, and the countless others who are just like him, the best recourse may be the same advice Rick often gives Morty.

Simply put, just don’t think about it.

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How Smiling Became A Feminist Issue (For Terrible Reasons)

smilingispowerful

What would you think of someone who randomly walked up to you, sensed you looked sad, and suggested something that is scientifically proven to make you feel better? The person doesn’t force it on you. They don’t offer their advice to be smug or facetious. They just see a fellow human in distress and offer to help. By nearly every measure, the person is being a compassionate, decent human being.

Now, having contemplated that scenario, what would you think of a man who walked up to a woman and asked her to smile? While some might not see that as too big a deal, it has become a serious issue in recent years. It may not be the most absurd since it doesn’t involve Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, but it’s still up there.

The scenario I just described is something that, from a purely superficial level, may not seem controversial. Telling someone to smile, regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman, is not just an empty platitude. There is real, legitimate science behind it.

Research has shown that the mere act of smiling has many health benefits, such as improving mood, relieving stress, and strengthening immune function. To some extent, it helps rewire our brain in a way that directly combats depression, anxiety, and all sorts of ailments. It might be the easiest thing anyone can do to feel better. If it were a drug, it would be hailed as a medical breakthrough.

Why then has smiling become such a point of contention? While linking it to sexism is full of many absurdities, there are legitimate grievances that helped make this an issue. I know I’m going to upset people when I talk about this, but I believe it’s worth talking discussing, if only to preserve the benefits of smiling.

From the perspective of those protesting being told to smile, many of which identify as feminists or left-leaning, the issue isn’t about those aforementioned benefits. It’s about people telling them to be happy in a world where they don’t feel like equals. Considering how unequal things were for women throughout history, that’s an understandable sentiment.

Plenty of inequality lingers.

The situation for these women didn’t involve kind strangers walking up to them when they were sad and telling them to smile. It likely involved bosses, spouses, teachers, and various authority figures telling them to smile because frowning wasn’t lady-like. Even if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, it’s easy to see why that would seem condescending.

In some situations, it was even worse. In service jobs, which are often dominated by women, telling them to smile is like asking them to act as a billboard for an organization. They’re treated as a pretty face rather than a person. It’s the male equivalent of being treated as a cog in an assembly line.

That sort of treatment is dehumanizing and people, regardless of gender, resent that and for good reason. In that context, telling a woman to smile is no different than telling her to just shut up and accept everything the way it is, no matter how much she resents it. While that’s rarely the intent, that’s the interpretation.

Most reasonable people can and do acknowledge the sentiments that women feel in those situations. Nobody likes being told to just smile and accept your misery. However, the issue descends into absurdity when telling someone to smile is famed as a byproduct of sexism. It effectively politicizes the very concept of smiling.

As a result, it fosters this idea that a woman cannot smile and be feminist. It’s an idea that has become more mainstream in recent years. To see how, just Google “modern feminist” and look at the images that come up. Very few of the faces that come up are smiling. There’s no Rosie the Riveter. There’s only angry, outraged women yelling to the point where it’s a common meme.

This isn’t just an issue with respect to the popular perception of feminists. When it comes to faces, there’s a great deal of intrinsic biology and neuroscience at work. Seeing an angry face triggers a very different reaction compared to seeing a smiling face. Some of that reaction transcends even extends to other species.

There are also significant differences in how people react to smiling men compared to smiling women. The extent to which that difference is biological is not clear, but unlike many other behavioral traits, smiling is directly tied to many psychological and physiological forces. Tying smiling to ongoing debates about gender is one nobody can win. Like it or not, you can’t debate around biology.

Then, there’s the other side of the gender equation, specifically the one regarding the male perspective. While this perspective is less obvious, it does add some other complexities that often fall through the cracks during these arguments. This is where I can offer some perspective, as a man, because I can attest to this impact.

Whatever you think about the nature of masculinity, it’s a well-documented fact that male brains are wired differently compared to female brains. One of those differences stems from how we react to women in distress. Whether they’re angry or sad, seeing it can trigger that protective instinct that men often feel around women.

I can attest that this instinct is real. A few years back, I was walking down the boardwalk at a beach. It was a loud, rowdy place in the middle of summer so there was plenty of noise. Then, out of nowhere, I heard this woman scream. Almost immediately, I turned towards it and I wasn’t the only one. Several other men, as well as a few women, took notice as well.

The woman had badly hurt herself on her bicycle. I’d rather not describe the injury so I’ll just say she couldn’t stand on her left leg. Thankfully, she was with a couple of friends and they immediately aided her. However, her cries caught the attention of plenty of men, most of them total strangers.

While some with more cynical attitudes may think of that reaction as white knighting, I can assure you it’s a real phenomenon. Men sensing a woman in distress evokes a reaction that stems directly from our natural inclination to form social bonds and protect others. Since women are the ones who bear the babies, we tend to give them extra scrutiny.

That’s not to say that a man telling a woman to smile is always an altruistic act. It doesn’t overlook the situations in which someone uses that rhetoric to denigrate women and make light of the issues they face. However, if the simple act of smiling becomes part of the line that divides feminists from misogynists, then the entire debate surrounding gender becomes obscure.

Telling a woman to smile is not the same as telling her to get back in the kitchen. In addition, making outrage the face of female empowerment won’t help in addressing legitimate issues. It’ll just frame every discussion as something hostile and unreasonable. No matter how legitimate the issues are, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion in that situation.

Objectively speaking, smiling is good for you, regardless of gender. It’s something I encourage everyone to do when they’re feeling upset, depressed, or angry. It’s a small gesture and one that doesn’t solve problem, in and of itself.

However, it can help your in many ways, especially if you’re hoping to connect with others in a way that ensures they’ll listen. There are many issues surrounding men, women, and gender that are worth discussing. Making the act of smiling a rallying cry for gender conflicts will only ensure that nobody succeeds in the long run.

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Polygamy Vs. Consensual Non-Monogamy: Is There A Difference?

open-relationships-hero

When it came to dissecting the absurdities of language, nobody did it better than George Carlin. Beyond being one of the funniest comedians of all time, Carlin could break down certain concepts in a way that was as insightful as it was hilarious. His brilliant analysis of what he called “soft language” is more relevant now than it was when he was still performing.

Given the rise of outrage culture, I often wish George were still alive today so that he could tear the absurdities down, as only he could. We can only imagine how he would’ve tackled issues like fake news, alternative facts, and toxic masculinity. At the very least, his legacy of attacking soft language lives on.

In his book, “Parental Advisory,” Carlin defined soft language as terminology people use to help them avoid unpleasant truths. It helps fat people feel better about being “morbidly obese.” It helps poor people feel better about being “economically disadvantaged.” It helps drug addicts feel better about being “substances abusers.”

The face of a man who didn’t buy such bullshit.

Whatever the case, no matter how many colorful words people utilize, the underlying theme is the same. There are certain aspects of reality that bother some people, so they decide to re-frame it in a way that feels less serious and more palatable. It’s rarely overt. There’s rarely an official announcement or anything. Most of the time, it’s just a trend that people forget is absurd.

This leads me to the emerging concept of “consensual non-monogamy.” It’s kind of what it sounds like. It’s a form of a non-monogamous relationship in which both partners grant one another permission to seek sexual or romantic entanglements with others. Sometimes it involves certain rules and boundaries that are openly negotiated. The key is that there is consent and understanding at all levels.

This is not a new idea. If it sounds a lot like polyamory, an idea I’ve touched on before, that’s because it is for the most part. It’s a non-monogamous relationship that people pursue for any number of reasons. It’s actually one of humanity’s oldest forms of relationships and some even argue that it’s more natural than monogamy.

I’m not going to argue how natural or unnatural such practices are, but I think this latest manifestation of soft language requires scrutiny. Like every other kind of soft language, these sorts of linguistic quirks don’t evolve randomly. There’s often a method behind the absurdity and while I’m not as brilliant as Carlin, I have a pretty good idea of why it’s happening.

In terms of definitions, there isn’t that much difference between polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. Logistically, though, there are a few complexities that differentiate the two practices. They’re minor, but relevant to the extent that inspired soft language.

While there hasn’t been much research into consensual non-monogamous couples, the little we do have paints a fairly comprehensive narrative. In these relationships, there is a “primary” partner who holds the role of spouse/lover. This is the partner with which they love and seek to share their lives with. They’re the ones whose names are on emergency contact forms, loan applications, and wills.

Beyond the primary partner are all the girlfriends/boyfriends with which the sexy stuff occurs. The extent and motives behind these encounters are communicated and understood with the primary partner. Every couple is different so the boundaries vary. Some couples have to be together when they’re getting sexy with others. Some are okay with it happening more randomly.

If that sounds a lot like polyamory, then congratulations. You’re starting to understand how George Carlin thought. While polyamory has its own dictionary definition, it’s connotations are not the same as consensual non-monogamy. What people think of when they hear the word “polyamory” conjures different mental images than a term like consensual non-monogamy.

Polyamory, for better or for worse, is one of those terms that has a certain level of linguistic baggage. It’s less associated with the free-spirited couples who get their own reality show and more with outdated traditions associated with polygamous marriages. Think “Big Love” rather than “Friends With Benefits.”

Now, I know I’ll upset those in the polyamorous community for just hinting at that association. For that, I apologize. I know most who identify as polyamorous or consensual non-monogamous don’t like being associated with the kinds of practices that are often associated with horrific crimes. That gets to the heart of where this soft language comes from.

Even if the principles are the same, those sexy free-spirited couples have a valid incentive to set themselves apart from polyamory. It doesn’t matter the disturbing practices of extreme religious cults are only a small subset of polyamorous relationships. They’re distressing enough for most reasonable people.

I dare you to find something more creepy.

As a result, a less broad term emerges. Consensual non-monogamy may have a few extra syllables, but it feels more technical and official. It’s harder to apply to the more distressing aspects of polyamory because it emphasizes consent, a concept that has only become more heated in recent years.

You can’t have child marriages or even arranged marriages of any kind under consensual non-monogamy. It would undermine the whole “consensual” part of the term. In that context, it’s understandable that this kind of term would emerge. There’s nothing in the definition of polyamory that weeds out those negative associations. Rather than actually confront it, soft language acts as a filter.

Given the frequency with which the negative aspects of polygamy still occur, it’s hard to blame those who practice consensual non-monogamy for wanting to set themselves apart. As those relationships become increasingly acceptable, there will be an increasing desire to frame it in a particular way and “consensual non-monogamy” checks all the right boxes.

It emphasizes consent.

It implies choice and personal freedom.

It’s technical, but doesn’t completely undercut the sex appeal.

Even if the definitions aren’t that different, consensual non-monogamy still does just enough to set itself apart from polyamory. In terms of soft language, it adds some critical, but necessary complications to something that is still subject to plenty of taboos. In a perfect world, such a differentiation wouldn’t be necessary. Sadly, that’s not the kind of world we live in.

Sadly, indeed.

I like to think even Carlin would understand that some amount of soft language is necessary. Whether you call it consensual non-monogamy or polyamory, how we think about these ideas are going to affect our attitudes towards it. If consensual non-monogamous couples don’t want to be associated with crackpot religious cults, then they have every right to set themselves apart.

That said, it’s also entirely possible that more soft language will emerge as consensual non-monogamy becomes more mainstream. Love, sex, and relationships are complicated and human beings are uniquely talented at complicating things. Years from now, we may not call it consensual non-monogamy. We may use something along the lines of “mutually non-binding romantic intimacy relationship agreements.”

At that point, hopefully someone will have picked up on the absurdities. George Carlin may no longer be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate more bullshit in a world that already has too much of it.

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The (Surprising) Sources And Implications Of Slut Shaming

vicious-cycle-of-shaming

As a fan of romance and people exploring their sexy side, I’m generally opposed to slut shaming. I understand why it exists, to some extent. Nearly every society in history has had certain hang-ups about sex. Considering its role in propagating the species, it’s understandable that people give it extra scrutiny.

That said, I consider slut shaming a misguided form of scrutiny. The definition, itself, has some ugly implications that go far beyond the inherent risks associated with being reckless, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

For one, it’s almost entirely heaped upon women. James Bond never gets called a slut for his promiscuous behavior. Instead, he gets to be a masculine icon. A woman who has just as much sex gets called a slut and is often painted as deviant. Look no further than legendary Bond girls like Xania Onatopp and Pussy Galore for proof of that.

While it can be pretty overt in popular media, it’s even more pernicious in real life. From women who choose wear revealing clothing to those who actively attempt to confront sexual stigma, there’s no shortage of shaming from multiple directions. It’s frustrating in that it amounts to incessant whining about how other people choose to live their lives, but recent research has cast slut shaming in a new light.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior attempted to analyze how behaviors associated with slut shaming differed among genders. The popular narrative is that men do most of the slut shaming. The logic is that men see beautiful women having a lot of sex. That bothers them because those women aren’t having sex with them.

Granted, that’s a gross generalization that I’m sure many men and even a few women find offensive. Despite the details, that is the common narrative and it tends to play out in one too many teen comedies. However, science has a way of disrupting those narratives in unexpected ways.

The study revealed that while men and women were equally likely to not trust promiscuous women, women who were more likely to favor punishing those women. In a comprehensive summary conducted by PsyPost, the differences were pretty striking.

“In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.”

Take a moment to comprehend what this does to the slut shaming narrative. For those who idealize that 1950s sitcom family life that never truly existed, it’s an aberration. While those women make for good one-night-stands, they hardly make for quality long-term relationships.

Why, then, would men be reluctant to punish those women? I’ve noted before how society tends to micromanage women’s bodies. Slut shaming is only a half-measure because it offers no tangible punishment. While certain societies don’t mind punishing promiscuous women, it doesn’t appear to be entirely predicated on male attitudes.

This study shows that women are just as mistrustful of promiscuous women and are willing to go further in terms of punishing their behavior. The reasons for this are difficult to surmise. The researchers hypothesized that men were primarily concerned with avoiding investment in a child that wasn’t theirs. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s something to avoid, but not punish.

Conversely, women may be more concerned with the bigger picture. The researchers surmised that women had an evolutionary imperative to keep the cost of sex high to improve their value as potential partners. Actively punishing potential rivals further served that purpose.

From a logistical standpoint, it makes sense. They see beautiful, promiscuous women as people who use cheat codes in video games. They have an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting potential partners and that has significant consequences, especially to those who aren’t beautiful or sexually flexible.

Beyond distracting partners who might otherwise be interested in them, it lowers the value of the sex they have to offer. Why would men be as interested in having sex with them when there are promiscuous women who were willing to give it to them for a lower cost with fewer strings?

While I believe this may be a factor for some women, it’s also another broad generalization that would offend more than a few women. It assumes too much about how they think and feel. Believing women slut shame because it hinders their own sexual value is as absurd as blaming all misogyny on some vast patriarchal conspiracy.

Like all research, the study is limited and can only reveal so much about the complexities of human behavior. The researchers themselves freely admitted this, but that’s exactly why it warrants further study. Like it or not, slut shaming is still prominent in most modern societies. I would argue that the internet and social media are making it worse.

At the same time, I also believe that slut shaming is something we should confront. It causes real harm to real people. It damages our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. There are instances in which someone’s irresponsible sexual behavior genuinely warrants scrutiny, but shaming can only serve to make things worse, even for people who aren’t sluts.

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Why Nobody Should EVER Be As Famous As Michael Jackson

JACKSON GRAMMY AWARDS 1984

A lot has been said about Michael Jackson’s legacy in recent years. Like so many others, I remember just how big he was. I’ve listened to his music. I’ve watched his music videos. I’ve also read some of the many weird stories that have been told about him. While I never considered myself a huge fan, I don’t deny that in terms of sheer star power, he’s in a league all his own.

The extent of that star power is difficult to fathom today, even for people who become stars for all the wrong reasons. It’s impossible to overstate just how big Michael Jackson was as an entertainer and a celebrity. Anyone under the age of 30 can’t hope to understand the status he had in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. He was the closest any celebrity ever came to becoming a full-blown demigod.

Whether you cared for his music or not, he forged an unparalleled legacy that will likely never be matched. Ever since his death in 2009, however, the narrative surrounding that legacy has branched off into two very different directions.

One attempts to celebrate just how much he contributed to entertainment, highlighting how he ascended from his days as the cute kid in the Jackson 5 to one of the undisputed King of Pop. The other attempts to cut through the breadth of his fame to reveal his egregious misdeeds, which may have included child sexual abuse.

The stories surrounding these misdeeds have recently gained greater attention thanks to the “Leaving Neverland” documentary that aired on HBO. In this film, the kids Jackson allegedly abused, who are now adults with families of their own, get to tell their stories. Without spoiling too much, the details of those stories are not for the faint of heart.

It’s impossible to know just how true some details are. I’ve noted before that people should never take documentaries too seriously. I’ve also pointed out that human memory is notoriously unreliable. Even though Michael Jackson was ultimately acquitted, there’s still an underlying sentiment that he’s an abuser who got away with his crimes.

Personally, I don’t blame people for thinking that way about him. Jackson was a weird, eccentric character and for understandable reasons. He was a child star who somehow managed to become an even bigger star as an adult. He even said in the days leading up to his death that he never had a childhood. His whole life was consumed by fame, celebrity, and stardom.

Even today, there aren’t many parallels. Even the biggest celebrities of today, from Taylor Swift to Ryan Reynolds, never had to endure fame to that extent. They got to have childhoods. They had a chance to anchor themselves to the real world, if only to a limited extent. Even the children of celebrities have some breathing room, although not all of them handle it well.

Michael Jackson never had that opportunity. Shortly after he achieved stardom with the Jackson 5, his life became consumed with celebrity. He ceased becoming Michael Jackson, the kid, and forever became Michael Jackson, the celebrity. He never faded into obscurity, like many other child stars do. He remained this superstar icon who, no matter what he did, couldn’t escape the fame.

It’s a caliber of fame that, logistically speaking, just isn’t possible today when one mis-worded tweet or one scandalous video from a smartphone is enough to cause a celebrity’s downfall. Personally, I believe that’s a good thing. I would even go so far as to say that nobody should ever achieve the level of fame that Michael Jackson had.

It’s not just that fame can corrupt otherwise decent people. Michael Jackson already had issues beyond fame, from his lengthy list of medical ailments to the way his father disciplined him and his brothers. Fame, in many cases, acts as a fuel rather than a catalyst. It compounds the good and the bad in people. For someone who has real demons, the bad can lead to real tragedy.

The level of fame that Michael Jackson achieved wasn’t just fuel, though. It was more akin to weapons grade plutonium, bombarding him with a level of volatility that no human being is equipped to handle. Through both the interviews he has conducted and the anecdotes of other celebrities, the effects of such immense fame are painfully clear.

Michael, as talented and weird as he was, couldn’t handle it. The pressure of navigating that kind of celebrity isn’t just daunting. It’s impossible. It’s also likely that pressure played a role in some of the health issues he endured later in his life. It probably played a role in his less-than-normal mental health.

Now, none of those issues should absolve him of any crimes he may have committed. The fact that he’s no longer alive to defend his legacy against a contrasting narrative is worth considering when judging him, as both a person and an icon. That won’t stop some from furthering a certain narrative, which has already had a substantial impact on Jackson’s legacy, but it should provide context.

Regardless of the narrative that best reflects the truth, there are lessons from Michael Jackson’s famous story that are more relevant now than they were when he was alive. Currently, we live in a world of outrage culture where the internet and social media has given people unprecedented access to the world of celebrity. With that access, the dark side of that world is harder to avoid.

Even at the height of his fame, Michael Jackson just had to dodge reporters and the paparazzi. He could also rely, to some extent, on people not taking the tabloids too seriously. After all, some of those tabloids published stories that were weird, even by his standards. Today, he would have to worry about everyone with a smartphone and social media account.

On top of that, the very nature of the internet and human psychology have made it so that even proven lies somehow become accepted as truth. They never go away. The internet never forgets. Once you’ve been labeled with an embarrassing smear, it doesn’t go away. Even if you’re innocent, the label sticks.

Someone of Michael Jackson’s fame and eccentricities wouldn’t last long in the current social climate. It’s remarkable how some celebrities manage to sustain themselves for extended periods of time, but those individuals are few and far between. In addition, none of them have ever come close to achieving Jackson’s level of fame.

Perhaps, it’s for the best that no one will ever reach the level of celebrity that that Michael Jackson achieved. The human psyche, no matter how talented or resilient, just isn’t equipped to handle that kind of stardom. What it means to be a celebrity is rapidly changing, thanks to the internet and even to Jackson’s influence on the culture, at large. Chances are the pace of that change will only accelerate.

For better or for worse, Michael Jackson’s legacy is a testament to how damaging fame can be when taken to ridiculous extremes. In an era where fame is both fleeting and increasingly irrational, it’s harder than ever to escape that damage. Even if it’s no longer possible for someone to achieve that level of fame, the lessons of that legacy are worth learning from.

 

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Addiction, Religion, And The Striking Similarities

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Battling addiction is a serious issue. Even if you haven’t struggled with it at some point in your life, there’s a good chance that you know someone who has. I’ve known more than a few. I’ve seen how damaging it can be to people and their families.

That makes the process for treating addiction just as critical. Unlike the flu or a nasty headache, it’s not as easy as simply getting a prescription and taking a few pills. Oftentimes, there are powerful psychological factors at work to go along with the equally-powerful biological factors. Finding an effective treatment is exceedingly difficult, especially in the midst of a deadly opioid crisis.

One of the greatest challenges for finding such treatments is ensuring that someone doesn’t just exchange one bad addiction for another. Even if some addictions aren’t as damaging as another, going from heroin to methadone is only a marginal improvement for many. There is, however, one secondary addiction that adds even more complications to the mix and it’s not a pill or a substance. It’s religion.

As always, I’m going to try and be careful with my words here. I know discussions involving religion tend to bring out a lot of high emotions. I’m also aware that whenever I discuss religion, I don’t portray it in a positive light. I make it a point to disclose that religion can be a positive force for many people and I have many devoutly religious people in my family who I love dearly.

That disclaimer aside, the forces surrounding organized religion are powerful and they can be misused. The history of such misuse is well-documented. It’s impact on treating addiction is less known, but does manifest. There have been more than a few celebrities who have become religious after a battle with addiction. Some are genuinely better because of it. However, that does raise a few questions.

Did their religion actually help them overcome their addiction?

Did their religion help them address the underlying factors behind their addiction?

Did their religion just become a replacement for whatever they’d been addicted to?

These questions may come off as cynical, but they have serious implications. Religion is a powerful force on some people. Whether you’re a true believer or an ardent atheist, it’s hard to deny the impact of such a force. Religious experiences have been documented to have measurable effects on the human brain. Some of those effects are comparable to addictive drugs.

That’s not to say that going to church and going to a heroin dealer are the same thing. Addiction is complex and so is brain function. At the same time, the human brain is prone to plenty of flaws. It can be easily tricked and people can even trick themselves. When it comes to addictions, you can’t expect your brain the know the difference between heroin and a religious experience.

There is even some research that demonstrates this to some extent. For people who once built their lives around their addiction, religion is a pretty effective replacement. It demands a great deal of money, time, and energy. It surrounds you with people who reinforce and reaffirm your beliefs and behavior. It can even give some people a very specific high.

That high just becomes the new addiction. That intense feeling that religion gives people suddenly becomes the feeling that addicts are so driven to pursue. It may not feel the same as an addict’s previous addiction, which is why they may not see it as such. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that it fills the proverbial void that the previous addiction once filled.

That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising to find out that some famous addiction treatment programs have deeply religious roots. It also shouldn’t be that surprising when those who find religion after dealing with addiction tend to be quite passionate about their faith, compared to those who found religion through a different path.

Even if these programs help people, it still doesn’t answer the relevant questions surrounding their addiction. Exchanging one disease for another doesn’t constitute a cure, but people make an exception for religion. The idea of someone being addicted to a religion isn’t as easy to imagine as someone being addicted to cigarettes, gambling, or porn. To them, a religious addict is just someone who goes to church more often.

Some see that as a good thing. Compared to robbing gas stations for drug money, it is an improvement. However, it still leaves the underlying cause of the addiction untreated. Whatever is making someone an addict is still present. While I don’t doubt religious organizations are happy to accept their adherence, it doesn’t fundamentally change an addict’s condition.

That can be damaging and dangerous to people who are already vulnerable. In the worst case scenario, finding religion can only create the illusion that the addict has been cured. Society didn’t approve of them being a junkie on the street, but it does approve of them being a devout religious zealot who rails against the evils of their former vice.

That sends the message that society is selective when it comes to treating addicts. As long as their addiction is productive for society, in that it benefits established institutions, it’ll treat that as a cure. It doesn’t matter if it never helps someone get to the root of their problems. As long as it makes them productive, that’s good enough.

Again, I’m not claiming that most religious organizations actively exploit people struggling with addiction. Some definitely do and a few are quite famous for it. However, it’s somewhat telling that we ascribe finding religion to overcoming an addiction when, on many levels, it’s just exchanging one source of addictive behavior for another.

At its best, religion inspires people to do great things for all the right reasons. At its worst, it can exploit someone to such an extent that it can make people who are genuinely sick feel like they’re healed. Addiction, like many other disease, is something that can only get worse if left untreated.

Whether it’s religion or crack, the brain of an addict will do what it takes to sustain its addictive state. There are effective, legitimate treatments for addiction that actually attempt to confront the source of the issues within an addict. Many aren’t as easy or overwhelming as finding religion, but they make a concerted effort at treating the addict rather than simply guiding them to a more socially-acceptable addiction.

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Understanding And Appreciating The Work Ethic Of Hank Hill

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As kids, we don’t always appreciate the deeper messages of certain TV shows, movies, or songs. I imagine most kids who saw “Jurassic Park” in 1993 didn’t care that much about the larger points Ian Malcom made about tampering with nature. They just loved seeing dinosaurs eat cowardly lawyers off toilets.

That’s why re-watching shows you loved in your youth can be insightful. Sometimes, it can be a little distressing, seeing themes that aren’t quite in line with today’s taboos and social norms. However, I don’t want to focus on those unpleasant instances. Instead, I want to focus on insights that we appreciate more as adults than we do as kids.

This brings me to a show that, even by today’s standards, has uncanny appeal. That show is “King of the Hill,” a show I’ve already singled out as home to Hank Hill, a strong example of noble masculinity. After rediscovering the show, thanks to Hulu, I’ve found myself appreciating the less obvious messages of the show.

One clear message that seems to come up several times over the course of the show’s 13 seasons is the value of a work ethic, especially when contrasted to those who have none. It’s a value few kids and teenagers appreciate. That’s understandable because in the innocence of youth, most go out of their way to avoid hard work or laborious tasks.

What makes “King of the Hill” stand out, more so to adults than to kids, is how it portrays work and the way people go about it. One of Hank Hill’s core traits is his dedication to his job. Among his most memorable and oft-repeated quotes is that he sells propane and propane accessories. That’s not just his job, though. It’s part of his identity.

Hank, unlike many male protagonists in animated sitcoms, actually loves his job. It’s not just something he does to pay the bills and provide for his family. He genuinely loves selling propane and propane accessories. That love is played up in plenty of comedic ways. In one episode, “Hank’s Back,” even doctors had a hard time believing that anyone would avoid a worker’s comp settlement.

What makes that comedy work is the common expectation that few people actually like their jobs. If they do, it’s only because they’re rich and it affords them all sorts of fancy perks. However, Hank is not rich. One episode even goes out of its way to show that, even by middle class standards, he’s not that well off. He’s no Al Bundy, but he’s not Charlie Harper, either.

That doesn’t matter to Hank because his is not entirely about money or even the opportunity to make more money. It’s about doing something he loves and deriving real meaning from it. His job selling propane and propane accessories gives him a unique sense of fulfillment that can’t be quantified with money.

This sort of approach to work isn’t just unique among sitcom dads. It reflects an approach to work that is rarely emphasized, even in a world where work is changing due to automation. Growing up, the nature of work and careers is presented in a certain way. It’s not always through the media or movies like “Office Space,” either.

When kids and teenagers are encouraged to think about future careers, it’s almost always framed as a means to an end. First and foremost, a career provides money and resources with which to build a life, whether it’s a family or just a home in general. It’s part of a much larger process of becoming a productive member of society.

Most counselors and teachers will encourage kids to find a career they actually like. That’s the ideal. However, it’s a poorly-kept secret that few people ever land their “dream job.” Just as few people end up working jobs that are related to their college major. On top of that, many of these people who graduate college are underemployed, which put them in a similar position to Hank.

To some extent, Hank Hill is in an ideal career because he’s doing something he loves and he’s getting paid for it. That alone sets him apart from many career-seekers, both in the real and fictional world. However, the love he has for his work and his career actually runs deeper than that.

To him, his job isn’t just a means to an end. It is the end. The work itself is the reward. The money he makes is only ever secondary. For Hank Hill, the best moment of his job isn’t when he gets his paycheck. It’s when he sees the look on a satisfied customer’s face when he sells them a new grill or helps them refill their propane tank.

That kind of fulfillment isn’t just rare in an animated sitcom that includes a self-professed conspiracy theorist who never realizes that his wife cheated on him for years. It’s a rare and unique state of being, having a job in which the work feels so rewarding. Even in the real world, this sort of mindset is rare, which is part of what helps set Hank Hill apart.

For most of human history, people didn’t have careers. They just had things they had to do to survive another day, whether it involved hunting and gathering or growing crops. In modern times, a new host of jobs gave people a variety of ways to earn a living, but the nature of the work was rarely fulfilling and often laborious.

The idea of having a job that you actually like and feeling fulfilled in the work you do is akin to a modern nirvana, of sorts. It takes the very idea of work and turns it into something other than that stuff people have to do in order to make money. Hank isn’t just lucky in that he has that kind of job. He’s got the perfect attitude for it.

That attitude of seeing work as something inherently fulfilling often puts him at odds with other characters and sub-plots throughout the show. On many occasions, Hank’s approach to work often clashes with other characters who go out of their way to avoid hard work or seek to make as much money as they can for as little effort as possible.

His son, Bobby Hill, often embodies that sentiment and not just because he’s terrible in gym class. In multiple episodes, Bobby’s fondness of laziness is not very subtle. When faced with the prospect of having to work hard, he usually does what he can to avoid it. More often than not, trying to avoid the work backfires or ends up being more laborious than the work itself.

He’s not the only one who harbors this attitude. Hank’s loud-mouthed neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone, attempts more than one get-rich-quick-scheme throughout the show. To him, work is always a means to an end. Even though his job affords him more money and better material assets, or so he claims, he rarely comes off as fulfilled as Hank.

Even when money isn’t the endgame, others still approach work with a different end in mind. Hank’s wife, Peggy, approaches her job as a substitute teacher with more passion and purpose than most. For her, though, the work she does is less about the money and more about feeding her inflated ego. In some cases, it borders on outright narcissism.

Regardless of intent or goal, “King of the Hill” often comes back to the same theme with respect to work. Hank, for all his faults and shortcomings, has the right attitude when it comes to work. It’s not just about having your dream job and doing what you love for a living. It’s about seeing work as inherently fulfilling, regardless of money or material aspirations.

At a time when the future of work will likely change what it means to have a career, Hank Hill may very well be ahead of his time. Even in the current work climate, his has major value. It’s a perspective that most kids and teenagers don’t appreciate. For some, it may not even be an idea they’ve ever contemplated, the notion that a job could be so inherently fulfilling.

It may still seem like an impossible ideal for many, but Hank Hill shows that it’s not that impossible. Selling propane and propane accessories isn’t one of those jobs that requires a rare set of skills or talents. It requires only basic people skills, salesmanship, and a working knowledge of propane.

Hank didn’t go to college and he didn’t go through some rigorous training to achieve what he achieved. He simply took a simple job selling propane and propane accessories and made it part of his passion. Even in an animated world where impossible things can happen, Hank makes his approach to his job feel attainable, even in the real world.

Appreciating Hank’s work ethic was not the first thing that appealed to me when I watched “King of the Hill” when it was still on the air. However, as I get older and see people wrestle with their careers, I see more and more merit to Hank’s approach to work.

I don’t deny that hard work can be tedious, at times. I also don’t deny that every job, even so-called dream jobs, have bad days every now and then. Even Hank has a few bad days at Strickland Propane throughout the course of the show. That still never discourages him from doing his job as well as he does it and getting genuine fulfillment from it.

There are plenty of lesson in “King of the Hill” that are as relevant now as they were when the show first aired. It’s possible for people of all ages to appreciate those lessons and the comedy that comes with it. That’s part of what made the show so successful for so many years.

When it comes to work ethic and approaching a career, Hank Hill stands out more than most. He sells propane and propane accessories better than anyone has or probably ever will, but that’s not the point. For him, the work itself is the greatest reward. Whether you appreciate his many other quirks or not, that’s a sentiment worth respecting.

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