I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
(Fritz Perls, 1969)
I’ve been doing a lot of musing, lately, about what I think of as “The legacy of the 70’s”, by which I mean a focus on our own needs as a priority, with other’s needs considered secondarily (if at all), and purely in terms of their own responsibility. Like all sweeping generalizations, this one is easy to pick apart with reminiscences of altruistic behavior but generally, starting around the time of the popularization of Fritz Perl’s famous “Gestalt Prayer”, we began to focus, societally, on what we were learning to call “Enlightned Self Interest”, or “Self Fulfillment”. This was no less a social revolution than the one that took us from “Mad Men” to “Hair”, and it continues to permeate our society today. Just read the news.
I experienced this paradigm shift as an almost palpable wave of change, sweeping though my social groups in the mid-seventies. The previous decade had acquainted us with the idea that the highest ideal was a sort of group Dionysian hedonism in which we indulged because we could: we were young, the drugs were cheap (and, we believed, entirely benign), the music was bitchin’ and we had an obligation to bring down the rotten, decadent system. We did our best. An important plank in the platform we would have built if we hadn’t been too stoned was that of “Inner Direction”: we were no longer beholden to or dependent upon anyone else. We seriously believed that no one in history had ever lived in a time like ours, thought or acted as we did. Why should we listen to any voice but our own?
Against this ran the collective fervor that bound us together as a Global Tribe. Our highest ideal, we might have said, was the collective good. “From each, according to his means”, we quoted, most of us not knowing who first spoke those words. In city and in country, we formed communal groups, and we suffered through endless meetings, seeking, and sometimes finding, consensus. Mere democracy was not enough for us; it was all or nothing. Such were the times.
All this was hard, exhausting work. Thinking of the group’s needs, often valuing those needs above our own, took focus, and came at a cost. Many of us fell by the wayside, exhausted and burned out by a model of what might be called “communally enforced altruism”. Some of us just chipped at it, without ever really diving in, but it influenced us all.
Why were we so ready for the next paradigm? Were we just tired? Were we seething with repressed resentment and passive aggression, remembering all those times we agreed to something we really didn’t want to do? Was it the changing drugs? In the 60’s, and the early 70’s we were smoking ten-buck-an-ounce shake, and passing around the joint was a communal act. Then came cocaine and speed, and suddenly my stash was my stash and maybe I’ll share it if you’ll do something for me. Those who were there remember: the very experience of using drugs changed, from giggle at anything and raid the refrigerator, to a much more wary, edgy kind of thing that did not encourage cooperative behavior; quite the contrary.
In any case, we were ready. We were tired of thinking of other people’s needs. the logical next step was to put our needs first- but before we could do that (without feeling like bad people) we needed someone to come along who would tell us that looking out for our own interests first was not only a good thing for us- it was actually a good thing for our loved ones, too. Right on cue, the Prophets arose, and our friends began to come back from weekend workshops with little, secretive smiles on their faces: they’d Gotten It. They understood that theirs was the only Thing they had to think about. It was different from My Thing, and if I couldn’t take care of My Thing, that was just part of My Thing- not theirs. I think the original idea was benign a reaction to a mind set that stressed endless sacrifice as a proof of love. However you characterize that idea, it didn’t stand a chance. In this new way of being, I could ask (or demand) anything of you, and if you lacked sufficient ego strength to say “No”, firmly and promptly, I could justifiably infer permission and have my way. Poor limit setting? Your problem. Socially acceptable power over! The 80’s had begun!
I intend, when next I write, to take this discussion into my current work with couples, where the still-persistent “Me first” mindset meets “What about me”, and Empathy lingers by the door, hoping to get noticed. As always, I appreciate your comments, questions and feedback. Keep those cards and letters coming.
Until we meet again, Happy Trails to you, Buckeroos.