I consider that we wear our bodies and daily activities in the same way that we wear clothing: there are distinct elements of fashion, practicality, purpose, and utility in the way that we wear both. Some people devote a great deal of time and energy to their grooming regimen and we’ve all made little jokes about people spending two hours on their hair in the bathroom in the morning. Irrespective of whether we’re considering an adolescent male from the decade of the 1950s or a glamazon teen with big hair and bigger shoulder pads from the early 1980s, it can take a lot of effort to achieve the intended effect.
Odds are that there is an archetypal image for every decade of the 20th century available in magazines and other media that successfully distills the message and the mood of the era down to a single picture. Think about some of the iconic photos and images popularized in media at the time- The Kiss, a famous depiction of a sailor returning from World War Two kissing a nurse on the streets of New York, Norman Rockwell’s iconic depictions of Americana including his Thanksgiving illustration of a family around the dining room table- these and similar depictions said something about us collectively. Who we were, who we aspired to be, how we saw ourselves, each other and the pattern of our times can all be found reflected back in the images of advertisements, articles, cartoons, illustrations and photos.
In one sense, media is really a mirror to our collective consciousness. It’s a mind map of the meta themes and meta narrative that frame all of our cultural referents. It’s never been more possible then currently to customize our preferences as consumers. Choices about how we can figure our personal and professional lives have never been more accessible nor more defended through the medium of social media messaging and the schoolmarming voices of advocates for a variety of causes. I remember my dad explaining to me that popular culture in the 1950s was very conservative and that the wagging finger of lecturing and “shame on you” correction was found in the home, on the job and in the larger social systems of the time.
The end of World War Two ushered in a cultural shift of sizable magnitude. There were two simultaneously occurring dynamics of nostalgia for the security and serenity of the home front and vastly expanded appetites for the consumption of all kinds of convenience and luxury goods. In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the American consumer had experienced the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War. Women may have been granted the right to vote, but a lot of anxiety, privation and violence were part of the daily experience of tens of millions of souls. Perhaps to counter the impact of that collective set of disasters The American psyche seemed more predisposed than ever to a conservatism and a nostalgia for the imagined good old days.
Media shifted from the auditory forum of popular radio to the relatively new forum of television and the programs of the day narrated the American mythos of peace, plenty and prosperity. People who had been accustomed to gathering around a radio in order to listen in to their favorite programs for entertainment or news now gathered around a screen and directed their gaze to the characters in the serials, the spokespeople in the advertisements and the earnest anchormen of televised news hours. The impact to the collective social psyche was that people saw themselves more than ever in the mirror of consumer driven programming that had the power to promote ideas of what was good or bad. Moral authority was now with the masses and the moral majority as experienced through the conduit of media programming. Of course media was never the point of origin or Ground Zero for these ideas, but it served to vastly amplify their impact and to standardize the expression of the American character and personality.
Against this backdrop of nostalgia for a nonexistent past, people were supposed to have been simply more competent in their manner of living in the “good old days”. Those days were deemed better by virtue of an almost perfect conformity to a rigid list of do’s and don’ts. The whole social order apparently depended on this cooperative conformity for cohesion and for coherent function. This movement seems to me to have been simply a cultural backlash against the chaos and privations of the earlier twentieth century enumerated above.
As soon as the capacity for production and cooperation could be directed away from supporting the troops or those on the home front after the Second World War, these faculties found their expression in the “rightness” of cultural trends that catered to an ordered world and that was steeped in an appetite for more and better things to have in the home, on the job and in school.
Individualism was in vogue insofar as an idea that people would succeed by dint of determination and hard work. But conformity in terms of conduct was expected and heavily promoted in every sphere. Distinct ideas of what was “manly” or “feminine” prevailed, as did acceptable occupations for activities in work, social and leisure settings. People whose lives ran counter to the prevailing narrative faced social shaming, ostracism and loss of opportunities to earn, live and marry according to their preference.
Some agreement about how government should run is essential to the ordered function of society and some agreement about how any nation should conduct its life in all of its aspects can serve as a unifying social force. A thoroughly reasoned argument can be made for the benefit of a common understanding in these matters. Taken to an extreme, however, the pressure to conform produces a destructive stunting of individual development, growth and liberty.
Whereas the fifties saw a push towards conservatism, the sixties exploded with the energy of a different kind of rebellion. Social mores were strained through the filter of feeling “good” and the paternalistic benevolence of popular culture in the prior decade saw itself overthrown. Decades give way to new movements in every century and the backlash and counter backlash of movement from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other will sway and even wildly swing as long as human cultures endure.
Media is more accessible to us now than ever before and more customizable now, as well. People can find themselves reflected in the mirror of their Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, Pinterest boards and Twitter hashtags. Interestingly, shame has made its appearance on the scene, as well. People can “go viral” in good and bad ways for the things that we say and do. The mindlessness of the meta-media consumption of the nineteen fifties has become the mindlessness of the micro-media production of the twenties of this century.
Information now flows outward from individuals as well as from larger interests and it has had the effect of remapping the balance of power in how events play out. Protests can be arranged on social media. Political figures can be shamed. Parents can be criticized. So, unfortunately can teens, children and marginalized or vulnerable populations. We can mold our own mirrors now more than ever before and make choices in how our lives are lived out. Impacts on the self and on others are vastly amplified and the results can be life enhancing or detrimental.
Let’s own the terrible responsibility that comes with such power. Consciously choosing our values and disciplining our daily routines to conform with them is going to build a life that we love. Respecting all people as sacred beings will allow us to self-differentiate. When people make choices that we disagree with, worry over outcomes can make us anxious, controlling and judgmental. In some instances, toxic displacement occurs and the boss or client that we can’t answer back becomes the child or spouse that we objectify, taking out our exacerbated frustrations on them for minor mishaps and the normal disasters of too much work, traffic, stress and schedule overload.
The social isolation and economic disenfranchisement of Covid-19 adds to the challenge of living out our days in the best possible way. We do indeed want to be at our best and do our best, but may feel overtaxed and utterly lacking in needed resources and adequate margin for social, relational and psychic recovery. Disengagement is tempting and we DO need times to unplug. But let’s do everything mindfully, enjoying our pastimes without getting lost in depression, distractions or dysfunctions.
We can choose NOT to become like those gatekeepers of the nineteen fifties who, having felt the trauma and tumult of many awful events, sought to impose order based on a false narrative. Wagging fingers, lecturing and shaming are tactics of last resort. The sarcastic quip on someone’s post or the side eye in that social group aren’t ideal, either. Be part of the Conscious Resistance and resolve to draw the line from intention to execution to habit to pattern. Do it persistently and your life will happen for you instead of happening to you. You’ll be surfing the waves of your own being, attuned to your own energy, faculties, values and vision. That’s the best possible stance for these uncertain times. (Well, ALL times are uncertain and the future is unknown. But we can leverage our own inner knowing and impose our own vision of things onto the world by embodying the behaviors and beliefs needed to attain the outcomes that we desire.)
Let’s live a consciously chosen, carefully curated life based on our own illumination and inspiration. That way, our authentic way of being and doing life will help our own progress and may help someone else who is struggling. We may not even have to say a word to get that result. And- when anxiety, depression or shame come calling and try to bring us from the optimal to the dysfunctional space, the habit of non-judgmental curiosity can inform us as to the cause and suggest a way forward.
If wearing the habits and attitudes of your life feels a little heavy or awkward, we’re here to listen and support you as you ditch the things that are dragging you out of the light and into the shadow. Healthy connection is a gateway to clarity and inspiration and a coach can help you to tune in and to connect more deeply with yourself and with others so that you can feel fully heard, fully seen and fully your authentic self. Reach out. We’re here to help.