Why to never say awesome.
Toilet wall, Bondi Beach, Sydney: “The first step to happiness is to give up the idea of being happy.”
“Yuk!” You’re probably thinking. “I hate it when people say flaky crap like that.”
I know what you mean. There is a thing that frequently happens in workshops around the world where folks sit together in a circle after class and say how we are. In a word. What I hate is when people say, “Awesome!”
For one thing, it’s insensitive to Australians who are wired to say “Good, mate.” whether they’ve won the lottery or slammed their fingers in the car door. For another thing, it’s mean-spirited.
When someone says, “Ooorrsam,” with that self satisfied grin, he might as well have said Royal Flush people. This game is over! And punched his arm at the air. If I say “good” and he says “awesome,” well, that pretty much puts me in the dust.
And if what I really want to say is “confused, angry, cynical, menstrual, borderline depressed with severe anxiety over the International Situation,” then he has so effectively cancelled out my pathetic state of being with his pronouncement of being, yes, folks, not great but actually awesome, that I usually revert to my backup word, “flexible.”
What awesome means, actually, is to inspire fear, dread, wonder and submission. So this particular awesome guy—let’s call him Mr Happy—when he does this little number, it feels to me like he’s adding to the problem, stirring the scum from the bottom of the neti pot, making it an act of rivalry to simply say how you feel.
He creates what is being called Pressure for Emotional Performance, and “boosting” (as in, overdoing it). He creates confusion about whether happy, and doing fine, or relaxing into it, say, are warnings that you’re headed in the wrong direction when there are people right next to you who are “Awesome!”
Mr. Happy legitimizes “awesome” as a normal state for a skinnier-than-average-human-being, while the truth is we’re all really only just recovering from the myth of being happy.
Folks using “awesome” as a greeting, or in advertising material for their life-changing workshops are doing what linguists argue causes a loss of real meaning in language and therefore in relationship: creating a kind of pseudo-pop-babble by using hype when ordinary words will do.
There is plenty of good logic to argue that being “awesome” at this time on the planet is a downright dumb response to ecological crisis, depletion of the ocean and exodus of paranoid white folk into hapless third world pueblos while Wade Davis makes his beautiful pleas against the boggling and tragic destruction of human cultural diversity. Let alone irritating.
Happiness is estimated to be worth a staggering $50 billion on this planet. Tragic, isn’t it? Considering everybody knows we can’t buy it.
But just as orgasmic is the new organic, awesome is the new happy and is said to be worth about $26 billion already on a market more stable than gold. When things get tough, it’s a fact of commerce that vices and illusion surge on the stock market as people scramble for relief from anxiety.
If you’re trading in awesome, you’re up there with booze and tobacco and porn and casinos as less-than-awesome-feeling-folk-with-a-few-thousand-in-the-bank search for relief from real-life pressures, and the economy chokes on a bone. And just like those Deadly Horsemen of the happiness industry, selling awesome as a destination, or a way of being, or a state achievable on raw food, is strictly a buyer beware business.
We all know what happened to the Marlboro Man after he’d sucked too long on one particular illusion.
Most of us teaching “self help” skills want to make a difference. As Deborah Williamson wrote recently for elephant though, it’s a slippery slope (with dollar signs on it). She warns that the idea that we have to love ourselves before we can love others is treacherous pop-wisdom, and I agree that helping others is helping ourselves.
So what really is helping? Isn’t it time we asked ourselves, as just basic and good people dabbling with the healing arts—which side of the problem of human contentment we’re really on?
Of the thousands flocking to shaman, detox spas, yoga retreats, raw food schools and raw chocolate parties promising to make them “awesome” in any way, how many just end up with expensive dehydrators and dubious new portraits to upload on Facebook?
Of the thousands with cash-dollar and mild anxiety who want to be awesome, like Mr. Happy and thousands of others in the self-improvement industry say we are in the marketing material of our financially motivated yoga/colon therapy/ raw food ventures…how many are really just being misled into barking up the bodhi tree when all they really need to do is sit quietly underneath it?
The unregulated, entrepreneur-fuelled spiritual health movement is prone to making promises once exclusive to gods and snake-oil salesman.
Here are examples of sales rhetoric in the spiritual health movement on the net:
Learn to heal others with your angelic touch
Happiness, Bliss and Liberation—with yoga alliance accreditation
Uplift, transform your life and discover your true radiance
Change your life forever
No profession in history has had the audacity to sell karmic upgrades or actual happiness before now (except perhaps Coke and McDonalds?).
So are people aspiring to become “awesome” at yoga teacher trainings like those who bought Beta when videos were born? Check out what the London Times says—this article, Why the Happiness Industry Can Only Lead to Misery, argues that “moderate pessimism” creates a longer life, better choices and freedom from addiction.
Cosmetic surgery, one of few industries to experience radical growth at this time, is experiencing similar dark tremors. This other modern (let’s admit it) business which promises life-changing results for under $10,000 has short-term benefits beleaguered by long-term suffering.
While surgeons in Southeast Asia report a massive boost in Botox, breast augmentation and implants attributed partly to the surging yoga scene in the region, their own research shows that body dysmorphia, depression and suicide are escalated risks post-surgery.
In my own experience of life-changing, radiance-elevating, change-your-life yoga workshops, the after-effects of disillusionment, resentment toward self-styled gurus and their entourages, and shame at actually falling for this stuff have been less than awesome.
Friends of mine with actual jobs call this a head-on collision with common sense, and continually wonder at my fool-hardy bravado in dabbling with the “healing arts” when I could earn six figures in a library and solve all my problems with a couple of Cuba Libres.
And while they are sniffed at by raw foodies and other purists, my ordinary friends are by far those with the best sense of humor and can be relied on in a crisis.
Psychologists call it depressive realism. Evolutionists argue moody, hypochondriac garden-variety cave-dwellers had a slight advantage over their happy-go-lucky or “radiantly alive” neighbors which meant that over millions of years the anxious survived while the carefree pranced about trying to look “happier” then their neighbors as their wounds festered, their crops died and bears ate their kids.
Possibly cavemen who dabbled in being awesome were clubbed to death by irritated clansmen, or evolved on the spot, as they rave on about doing here in Ubud.
The question I am asking is really a very basic one: when did the “healing arts” forget the common sense dictum that You can’t Buy Happiness? When did we betray that downhome wisdom by being the ones to set out to sell it?
When did we, en masse and all over the planet, start trading in healing arts not just as good healthy activities toward a good healthy life, but as boosted up virtual magic that hapless desk workers on stable incomes can buy in Bali and elsewhere for the price of a family home in Ecuador?
Jade Richardson. It was in the dark winter of 2008 that writer, mountaineer (www.girlsontop) and yoga teacher Jade Richardson was sent by weird forces from her quiet little Australian cottage into the wilds of the Amazon in search of something sensible to say. After four full years (and 1 month, exactly) of wrangling with side-winders and ferrets, lost causes and lame burros, missed connections, bedbugs, avalanches, hallucinogens, conjunctivitis, cancer scares, stinking yoga mats, nymphomaniacs and narcissists she reports for Elephant on her quest for a clear view through the holy smoke of the spirituality movement. Follow her blog at passionfruitcowgirl.wordpress.com.
Editor: Ryan Pinkard