Lately the Internet has been crowded with stories of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, in which hundreds of college-age or slightly older kids have assembled to air a vague but passionate collection of grievances. The demonstrations have spread beyond Wall Street, and in some cases have turned violent. I'm not going to comment here about the protesters' ideology, because I don't think they have much of one, and what little of substance they are saying doesn't interest me. What does interest me is their psychology, because I can relate to it, and because it carries implications for human nature in general.
I need to get autobiographical here. Thirty years ago I graduated from college, having earned a not-very-marketable degree in Film Studies. I set out for Los Angeles, expecting to take the movie industry by storm. I had been encouraged in this expectation by my teachers' praise, and by the fact that my life up to that point had been pretty easy–I'd never had to work very hard to get good grades, and though I'd held a few jobs to earn extra money, I'd never been in danger of missing a meal. I saw no reason why things should be any more difficult for me when I left the comfortable embrace of institutions of learning. I was in for a rude awakening.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that a film degree was nothing special in Los Angeles. Everybody had one, including the waiter serving me a cheeseburger at Bob's Big Boy. I also discovered that without connections or any particular talent at self-promotion, I wasn't likely to make inroads into the movie industry anytime soon. In fact, everything was a whole lot harder than I'd expected. I ended up taking a rather crummy job as a delivery person for a company that sold investments over the phone. My job was to drive around Los Angeles County delivering contracts. I put hundreds of miles on my car, a cheap little Chevrolet Chevette, which was, incidentally, one of the ugliest automobiles ever produced in America. I wrote a number of screenplays and tried hard to get an agent, but faced a wall of rejections and mounting frustration. I began to feel that I'd been badly misled. The easy path to success that I felt I'd been promised had not materialized–had, in fact, turned out to be a chimera, a mirage. My teachers had made it all sound so easy, and the constant self-esteem-building encouragement I'd received in my formative years had led me to believe that whatever I wanted was there for the taking. How wrong I was.
Beyond all this, I also felt alienated from mainstream society for ideological reasons. In college I'd become infatuated with the writings of Ayn Rand and had adopted a radical libertarian political perspective. The first presidential candidate I ever voted for, in 1980, was Ed Clark, nominee of the Libertarian Party. In 1984 I didn't vote for president at all, because I felt there was no difference–no difference?–between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. My view at the time was that all mainstream politics was hopelessly corrupt and that American society was hopelessly irrational and stupid and that we were all going to hell in a handbasket and deserved it.
And so, as a result of my personal frustrations and my ideological estrangement from society, I became a very angry guy. I mean, really, really angry. I spent a lot of my time just seething at the injustices and stupidities of the world. I was furious at American society and its economy and culture and leadership class and voting public–all of it–furious because it wasn't behaving the way I wanted it to, and it wasn't giving me the life I wanted to have.
It is probably fortunate that I had an outlet for my anger–namely, writing. In those days I cranked out a large amount of fiction, most of it garbage, but while the material may have been unpublishable dreck, at least it allowed me to vent my frustrations. The first novel I ever sold was a horror story in which a pack of attack dogs, having gone feral, proceed to terrorize a small town very similar to the one in which I'd grown up. The book is brutally violent and contains numerous scenes of innocent people being torn to shreds by the howling ravenous pack. The mutilations and maimings inflicted on these characters are described in voluptuous detail. I definitely had issues, and ripping the hell out of people in my fiction was my way of dealing with them.
There was a lot I didn't know at the time. I didn't know that the first steps are always the hardest, and that things do get easier as you go along. I didn't know that it takes time to build a career, especially in a field like filmmaking or novel-writing, where there is no clear path to success. I didn't know that I wasn't alone in my frustrations and failures–that millions of people my age were going through much the same thing, and that millions more had gone through it in the past. I didn't know that my assumptions about the way the world should work were fundamentally unrealistic, a product of dorm-room bull sessions and Ayn Rand's feverish fiction. I didn't know that most people really are doing the best they can, and that if society is unsatisfactory, it's because human nature is imperfect.
I also didn't know that it wasn't all about me.
That was really the main thing I didn't know. I was stuck in a stage of narcissistic development in which the only thing that mattered was my life, my ambition, my desires, my disappointments, my beliefs, my ego, myself. I couldn't see past my own problems and my own very limited perspective. I couldn't see that other people had far worse problems and were dealing with them without complaint. I couldn't see that my problems really didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world, as Rick in Casablanca would have said.
Narcissism is, I think, a perfectly normal stage of emotional development. It is actually healthy, because it allows young people to exhibit the self-confidence necessary to attract their mates. It is a biological adaptation that encourages or that promotes procreation. Undue self-regard, as obnoxious as it may be, is beneficial in terms of reproduction, just as the flamboyant feathers of the peacock are helpful in attracting the amorous peahen and ensuring new generations of peacocks.
The author Barbara Sher writes persuasively on this topic in her excellent self-help book It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now, which discusses the changes in personality that most of us go through as result of biological adaptation and social conditioning. Narcissism, grandiosity, and self-dramatizing self-obsession are hallmarks of adolescents and of the immediate post-adolescent years. Thus has it ever been and thus shall it ever be. And our indulgent and comfortable society only encourages this mindset and helps it to stick around a little longer than it needs to.
Even so, for most people, this stage of development is blessedly temporary. By their mid-twenties they are moving beyond narcissism, usually because they have started a family and must provide for their children, which requires sacrificing their own pleasure and convenience. But in the interval between the onset of adolescent narcissism and its gradual dissipation in light of adult responsibilities, there is an extended period akin to the terrible twos, which can be summed up in one word: me. Or more precisely: me, me, me, me, me!
Now we come back to the Wall Street protesters. Most of them are lodged securely in this demographic group. They are of college age or a little older, and they have not yet had children. They are taking their very first steps into the real world, away from the protection of academia and their parents. They are finding those first steps difficult–perhaps unusually difficult right now, because of the bad economy, but let's not kid ourselves; those first steps are always difficult, even in a good economy. And, like me thirty years ago, they are deeply frustrated, disappointed, and angry. Things are not working out the way they were supposed to. Implicit promises made by the system are not being kept. The easy path to success and happiness has vanished like a dream, replaced by a stony and winding uphill trail that leads to an uncertain destination. They feel lied to, and in a sense they have been. They have been coddled and therefore somewhat hobbled by those who, seeking to boost their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves, have told him over and over again how special they are and how bright their future is. They feel betrayed. They feel cheated. They feel scared. They feel lonely. They feel helpless. They feel hopeless. They feel all the things I felt, and all the things that young people always feel when youthful dreams crash headlong into the brick wall of reality.
And so they occupy a park, march on Times Square for no particular reason, chant silly slogans, carry misspelled signs, and bang on drums–not because any of this will do them any good, but because they don't know what else to do. Incoherently they feel that if they just express their rage loudly enough, somehow the universe, like a loving and indulgent parent, will hear them and take pity on them and make everything all right again. And if it doesn't, then at least they can lash out and try to inflict hurt on this world that seems so intent on hurting them. I know all about that. When I was their age, I often felt like screaming and lashing out too. The emperor Nero famously said he wished humanity had a single throat so he could cut it. I used to wish humanity had a single face so I could punch it. These protesters feel the same way.
Are they idealists? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they imagine there is some better system which, if implemented, will magically make the problems of adult life go away. It doesn't matter whether they imagine that system to be socialism, communism, anarchy, or–as in my case–libertarianism (radical laissez-faire capitalism). They are naïvely hopeful that human nature can be altered and perfected if only the right policies are implemented. This is a kind of idealism.
But it is also a kind of ignorance and stupidity. It is the ignorance and stupidity of the young, who simply don't know better, because they haven't experienced much of life, and because they're relying on information obtained in books and lectures safely removed from the real world. And it is a dangerous ignorance, a perilous stupidity, because it may lead some of them to do desperate things. In fact, it already has. Hundreds of these protesters have been arrested, and those arrests will remain on their records for the rest of their life, complicating their efforts to find employment. Some have committed acts of violence; an 82-year-old woman suffered a fractured skull in the Times Square riot on Saturday night. Some may become so frustrated and depressed when their movement inevitably fizzles out that they will turn to drugs, alcohol, even suicide.
So yes, I do understand these people. I understand their fears, their frustrations, and their rage. And I understand that since most of them have no creative outlet, they can find relief only in mob action, in screaming and running amok and acting like idiots. They're young; they're supposed to be idiots. That's what youth is for.
But they also need to be corralled, controlled, disciplined, and—in cases of lawbreaking—roundly punished. Because, you see, that's what adulthood is for.
And we all have to grow up sometime.