Caveat Lector: Someone, somewhere, has problems more pressing than those outlined in the following. This essay will do jack all to ameliorate the condition of such a person and will, no doubt, sound like so much privileged whining to her—if she reads it, which she is probably too exhausted or disheartened to do.
Whew. Now that that’s out of the way, we can get to what we’re really here to talk about: the ubiquitous and seemingly compulsory caveats about the relative good fortune of authors of articles lamenting the nuisances remaining once one is adequately fed, housed, and clothed. The nation’s periodicals are awash with such articles: grumblings about smart phones, grousings about play dates, gripings about personal relationships, musings about personal identity. Each includes some passing reference to the less fortunate. It seems that no one well-educated and well-connected enough to write an essay for The Atlantic or The New York Times dares do so without a nod to the downtrodden or, at least, the less well-heeled.
The caveat doesn’t do what it pretends to do: include those excluded by their position in the class hierarchy. Nor does the caveat do what it is really intended to do: stave off accusations of navel-gazing or confer some kind of authenticity.
Two recent examples of the caveat were striking: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-talked-about lament of ongoing gender inequity in The Atlantic and Tim Kreider’s otherwise excellent essay, “The Busy Trap,” in the Times. Both pieces were careful observations of conditions that affect the lives of real people. Both included throwaway mentions of other real people who do not have the leisure to worry about such conditions.
Insincerty and timidity
There are two problems with this: insincerity and timidity.
Let’s start with insincerity. No doubt Slaughter, Kreider, and the blogger du jour are people of at least average compassion. They are conscious of the suffering of others and, when confronted directly by it, are more than likely to be moved into action or at least sympathy. Their compulsive caveating is not evidence of lack of genuine feeling, but neither is it an expression of it. An author who genuinely believed the problems of single mothers or workers with three minimum-wage jobs were more deserving of attention than her own would give them more attention, would give them more than a dozen words out of 2,000—which is the op-ed equivalent of fishing a nickel and safety pin out of your pocket and dropping them near the homeless person you’re stepping over on your way to dinner.
Which brings us to timidity. You have to be bold to invite a homeless man to dinner. You have to be bold to expect strangers to spend up to seven minutes reading your thoughts. You have to be bold to be unthankful.
Perhaps the caveats in Slaughter and Kreider’s pieces were striking because they were both making rather bold statements until they hiccupped out their apologies to the faceless masses. Slaughter, in suggesting that women can’t have it all, and Kreider, in suggesting that most busy people aren’t really doing anything all that important, were displaying some unconventional, even daring, thinking. Yet neither was unconventional or daring enough to forego a little shamefaced qualification. Why? Because they were writing about problems that only affect a certain group of people—a group of people these authors suspect might not be entirely real.
Never mind that these authors—along with most of their colleagues and readers—belong to this group. Never mind that periodicals catering to the interests of nonexistent people would be in straits even more dire than those the rest of the publishing industry is paddling through. This is a group of people with serious doubts about its own authenticity. Such a difficulty might seem like the ultimate luxury, but it has become surprisingly mainstream. The compulsive caveating of the opinionati is evidence of a broader cultural tic. A sort of mass Snuffaluffagus-itis. In downtown coffeehouses, suburban rec rooms, and places of relative comfort in between, people both wealthy and less so feel vaguely unreal. Why? Could it be because they are unseen? It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling unseen here at the apex of social media, but think about it: Would anyone who felt acknowledged in their analog life need a virtual audience?
Desire for digital validation
One of the accelerants of the rise of social media might well have been a collective desire for digital validation in the absence of daily physical reminders of our own mortality and fragility. Most of us will not be hungry or exposed to the elements or in danger of being attacked by man or beast today. That sort of fear, that sort of danger, that sort of discomfort and pain are the simplest ways to make sure you’re alive. To be in extremis is to be real. This is why we watch television shows like The Wire and movies like Winter’s Bone. (It’s part of the reason; they’re also really good.) Their baseness, grittiness, and wretchedness are shortcuts to reality—and, we often assume, to truth. We don’t have to search for meaning in them; it’s right there on the surface. This shortcut can be an atrophic, though. It is not difficult to understand the humanity, the tragedy, or the triumph of people who live in extreme circumstances. It can be much more difficult to understand the contours of a secure life—even if it’s yours.
This doesn’t stop us from complaining, of course. It just gives us the feeling we ought to apologize for complaining. Thanksgiving is usually a microcosm of this: a forced moment of gratitude followed by an afternoon of griping and sniping. What is this but a desire to be seen coupled with a sense that one does not deserve to be seen?
So, yes, it takes boldness to be unreservedly unthankful. And it is difficult to be bold if you’re not quite sure you’re real. You don’t need the blithe arrogance of a reality-TV starlet to boldly assert your own authenticity, though. There are acres and acres between Paris Hilton and Mother Teresa. Take up some of that space, and don’t apologize for it. Your problems are real, even if they are not crippling. You are real, even if you are not desperate.
This year, celebrate Unthanksgiving. Spend the fourth Thursday in November trying to understand yourself and the people in your life without comparison or apologies to the unspecified less fortunate. And if you can’t do that, get off the couch and go help some of them.