Thursday, July 11, 2019

“To Conform or Be Cast Out: A Story on Finding True Happiness” by Lauren Cohen





People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.

---Unknown



What would have happened had our ancestors not chosen to progress forward and make life easier? Would we be more carefree, like the Bushmen in Jamie Uys’ 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy? Unfortunately, there is no empirical way to answer the question. However, what can be answered is how the decision to progress forward has shaped the society that we have come to know. Our lives are very similar to the urbanites in Uys’ movie. While we have been walking the path of progress, fitting ourselves into a daily schedule and a select set of social norms, we have forgotten one of the most important things in life: happiness. Unlike the Bushmen, it is rare for a member of our society to feel joyous well-being. Should it happen to someone, that individual is often judged as selfish, their felicity in question. If the only thing we care about is conformity and keeping busy, we may lose sight of the gifts that contentedness and love can bring.



Uys expands on the difference between the Bushmen and Western society by depicting Kate Thompson following the same exact routine every. As the voice-over reminds us, Western society expects its citizens to “adapt and readapt himself to every day and every hour of the day to his self-created environment” (Uys 06:25). Because humankind chose to force their natural surroundings to adapt to their own needs, they now have to readapt their lives to fit into what they have made. Life consists of waking up, going to work or school, going back home, eating dinner, doing homework, and then going to sleep, with some other activities and chores plugged in here and there every now and then. This type of a life is the typical day-to-day circumstances that just about every person leads. It is how Kate Thompson lives, given that she has a conventional job as a journalist. The problem is that these individuals are not necessarily enjoying their quality of life, at least not like the Bushmen.





In the Kalahari Desert, the Bushmen have adapted their lives to nature, as opposed to making nature adapt to their lives like Western civilization. The Bushmen rely on the resources found within the natural surroundings around them for survival. Competition does not exist; there is no sense of ownership and no bitterness. As the narrator puts it, “they must be the most contented people in the world” (Uys 02:46). They feel blessed for everything they have, and believe that the gods have given them everything they will ever need. Their lives are peaceful. That is, however, until Xi finds an empty Coca-Cola bottle that “fell out” of the sky.



Because of their strong belief that the gods send them essential needs, the Bushmen take the Coke bottle as a gift. They, then, learn how to use it for many different tasks and adapt it into their everyday lives; it becomes a snake skin smoother, a pounder for food, “ a musical instrument, a patternmaker, a fire starter, a cooking utensil, and, most of all, an object of bitter controversy” (Ebert, par. 2). Despite never having felt anger, hatred, or jealousy before, the Coke bottle invokes these exact emotions. Tension builds, anger arises, the feeling of ownership develops, and, worst of all, violence breaks out. After the tribe realizes how the bottle has changed them, they unanimously decide that it is best to get rid of the so-called “evil” bottle. So, Xi takes a journey to the “end of the earth” to “throw it off” (Uys 15:03). Making this sort of decision is not necessarily an easy one; that is, to most Western people. However, the Bushmen value their love and happiness over having life made easier for them.



That the Bushmen came to the decision to rid themselves of the Coke bottle so quickly shows how vastly different, and in a sense wiser, they are than their Western society counterparts. Had those in the cities been faced with a similar issue, that of having a single object to share in order to make life easier, all hell would have broken loose. When one thinks of it, that event reflects exactly what happened hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago when Western civilization chose to make life “easier” while natives, like the Bushmen, chose to value love and true happiness amongst each other. “Xi understands that his people have two choices . . . progress or happiness. Our ancestors chose the former, and the world has expanded . . . Xi and his tribe make the opposite choice” (Kaston, par. 2). Our ancestors chose to make their lives “easier” by inventing things, creating governmental systems, and implementing different forms of employment. However, having all these elegant social structures have made life harder rather than easier. Competition was created, rich versus poor ideals formed, tension built over time, and life as we know it has gotten to the point of there being more hate and jealousy than love. This is not the case with the Bushmen; they care for each other, and make sure that every individual is safe and satisfied. So, where did we go wrong?




We failed to ensure that our emotional well-being was stable. We put so much pressure and care into making our physical lives better that we never considered the emotional repercussions. Modern society has become so fixated on the idea of improvement and conformity that we are more stressed and depressed than ever. Just like Kate in Uys’ movie, we are being put into normal jobs that will make us money but that also bring us despair. The only difference is that we are scared to do anything about it. Kate takes a leap of faith and decides to completely change her life by becoming a teacher for children in Botswana after learning about the position through her journalism job (Uys 25:58). Not many people in today’s society would even give that idea a second chance, let alone go through with it. Unfortunately, we have become programmed to adapt to the world around us. But Kate changed the programming when she realized that it was off course. The main issue with our society’s programming is that we are forcing a world to adapt to us, yet are never truly satisfied with the changes.



Competition exists in just about every area of life. From the social ladder to economic classes to the expensive items we buy on a daily basis, competition stems from the idea that there always needs to be a new advancement in technology. With this constant change, there is next to no room for us as a society to learn and adapt to our new surroundings. With each new iPhone or new version of Amazon’s Alexa or new autopilot car, like the Tesla, that comes out, society grows ever-desperate trying to get these new pieces of technology in their hands. The problem with this is that not everyone has the availability to get it. But we make it important to have these new toys and if one does not have it, they are automatically seen as less than. Our self-value is based around the items that we can or cannot have. We will consider ourselves to be less than those who can afford the next new and improved “magic power devices” (KP). This need to adapt and conform to societal standards has threatened us, yet we have not even noticed it. 



The main focus of society’s worries and fears is judgment and standing out. It is one of society’s (most specifically our generation’s) main illnesses (Picciano, par. 2). We are so scared of being different that we will conform to whatever society deems appropriate, regardless if we disagree with it or not. This is especially seen within teens. It has become common for “teenagers [to] conform to anything and everything to avoid standing out in the fear of being judged or exiled by their peers, even if they do not agree to the beliefs of the clique they have chosen to fit into” (Bhatia, par. 3). They will do anything in their power to fit in and not be seen as an outsider. This is the type of behavior that leads to the landing of “normal” jobs and living the typical daily lives seen within The Gods Must Be Crazy. We thrive on the idea that we need to be like everyone else and live a “full” life, which is filled with next to no downtime set aside for personal care or growth. The lives that we, and those “urbanites” in the movie, chose to live has turned into this “Normative Social Influence: the idea that we comply in order to fuel our need to be liked or belong” (Green 05:55). Psychologically speaking, we want nothing more than to be seen as normal and follow whatever the current trend is in society. This sort of behavior is nothing new, as psychologists have been experimenting with the idea of conformity for over 60 years.



Solomon Asch, a social psychologist, conducted an experiment about conformity back in the 1950s. The experiment consisted of putting a participant in the same room as seven other “participants” (men who worked with Asch on the experiment) and finding out whether or not the real participant would conform to the answer that the other seven already agreed on. The participants had to distinguish which comparison line matched that of the “target” line that Asch presented to them. What Asch found was that, “On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials” (McLeod, par. 11). Asch discovered through this experiment thatPeople conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence)” (McLeod, par. 16). Despite knowing that the answer was wrong, the men did not want to be seen as the “outsider,” so they went along with the incorrect answer. It is this constant need and desire to be like everyone else that we have lost a very important aspect to living a decent life: happiness and love.




There is this so called “happiness famine” (Morrill, par. 5) in society and it has caused us to lack empathy and love for each other. Most importantly, it has caused us to lose happiness for not only others, but ourselves. We are constantly wanting new “toys” and crave getting the newest technological device. So, when we are unable to get them, we become unhappy with ourselves, and after a while, it leads to self-hatred. Along with this, we force ourselves to follow the “rules” that society has laid out for us: go to school, get a degree, get a 9-5 job that will pay good money, get married, have kids, buy a big house, be rich, and boom, we have the “perfect” life. The problem, however, is that there is no such thing as a perfect life and because of that, we will never be truly happy or satisfied with where we are in life. 



We have let this concept of a perfect life consume us. It has gotten to a point where “stress consumes the population as everyone scrabbles for that house with the picket fence which they never truly get to enjoy because work is always hanging over them” (Morrill, par. 5). Because this is what society says we should have, we feel horrible when we are unable to have it. Unlike the Bushmen, we stress ourselves out trying to get the “perfect” life that an imperfect society has carved out. What this has caused is a dramatic shift in emotional and mental health, and causes distance between us and our loved ones. We live believing that “modern society equals fullness with meaning so if schedules are always booked then life must be wonderful” (Morrill, par. 7). A majority of the time, we never have time for one another, so we tend to not know what it means to love or to be happy. It has gotten to a toxic point where because of this societal pressure to be like everyone else and to have a full schedule, our mental health has worsened as a whole. This is especially true within teenagers.



Teens are being crushed under the weight of needing good grades, having a perfect social life, getting enough personal time for themselves, and, worse of all, not being seen as an “outsider.” In Rush’s 1982 song, “Subdivisions,” Neil Peart wrote, “Subdivisions in the high school halls, in the shopping malls; conform or be cast out. Subdivisions in the basement bars, in the backs of cars; be cool or be cast out” (Rush). Peart was referencing how society has created these so-called subdivisions in every aspect of life. This is especially true for students in high school. There are numerous social groups that students get placed into, and if one is to be placed in the “wrong” one, they are automatically cast out and deemed unworthy. This is the experience that I had growing up, not only in high school, but throughout my entire school life.



I was not like the “typical” girl, nor did I fit in any mold that society (specifically the one I grew up in) had premade for the different types of teenagers. This “typical,” ideal girl is the popular, outgoing, kind, friendly, party girl with an ever so slight edge. I, on the other hand, was the shy, overly nice, nerd, who loved the “wrong” music, and was obsessed with theater. I was the outsider and people thought that made me really weird, and for some time, I thought the same thing. This, then, led to my mental health becoming severely worse than it already was, resulting in an extreme case of anxiety and a very mild case of depression. But I am not the only one who goes through this. Mental illness is being diagnosed more than ever and it all stems from the society we live in, most specifically, the lives we have forced ourselves to live.



Because we want the job that makes good money, we get ones that are not necessarily what we dreamed for and end up dreading going to work. We no longer pursue dreams and are scared to work outside of the limits that society has set for us. However, we can live a life that we want and desire. The only thing it takes is stepping outside of that social norm. Take Andrew Steyn, for instance. He has a job that requires him to analyze animal excrement, yet he is content and happy. He is a scientist, one who is proud of where he is in life. Another example is when Kate makes the move to the Kalahari. It is instantly recognized that she is more content being with her students than trapped in the cubicle she used to work within. If we were to follow in their footsteps, maybe we would learn true happiness again.




In order for our society to grow and help the growing mental health crisis, we need to come together again to break these societal norms. As a person who is doing her best to break those social norms, I know how scary it is. I went from wanting to be a physical therapist to a geneticist to being a filmmaker. I may have to struggle in order to live my dream life and will have to work my butt off to make money, but I am okay with that. I would rather be happy living a life doing something I love, something that may mean sacrificing a larger paycheck, as opposed to a life where I am unhappy, stressed, and despise my job.



If we are to have a society that loves and is filled with happiness again, like the Bushmen, we need first allow ourselves to open up and learn what we want in life. With this, we will find true happiness within ourselves. This will, then, spread to each other and we will have a society filled with love and respect and kindness. It is a hard thing to accept but, “until our culture can choose peace of mind over higher productivity, we will never self-actualize like the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert” (Kaston, par. 7). The moment we as a society prioritize ourselves and those around us is the moment that we will truly grow. But until that happens, we will be stuck in the harsh conditions of Western civilization. The real question is, who will be the one to step up first and break down the walls society has built around us?




Works Cited

Bhatia, Jill. “Teens struggle to combat conformity.” Daily Records, AsburyPark, 15 Feb. 2017 https://www.dailyrecord.com/story/opinion/letters/2017/02/15/teens-struggle-combat-conformity/97896120/ 

Ebert, Roger. “The Gods Must Be Crazy” RogerEbert.com, Roger Ebert,  1 Jan. 1981. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-gods-must-be-crazy-1981 

Gordon, Paul Kirpal. Various class Discussions

Green, Hank, director. Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38. YouTube, YouTube, 11 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=UGxGDdQnC1Y

Kaston, Brandan. “The Price of Happiness is Actually Free” Taking Giant Steps, 2 Nov. 2018, https://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-price-of-happiness-is-actually-free.html 

McLeod, Saul. “Solomon Asch - Conformity Experiment.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 28 Dec. 2018, www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html

Morrill, Morgan. “The Ironic Hospitality of the Kalahari Desert” Taking Giant Steps, 14 Mar. 2018, https://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-ironic-hospitality-of-kalahari.html 

Picciano, Kelsey. “Just Another Loose Brick in the Wall” Taking Giant Steps, 16 July. 2016, https://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/search?q=just+another+loose+brick+in+the+wall

Rush, “Subdivisions”, Signals, Terry Brown, Le Studio, Quebec, 1982


The Gods Must be Crazy. Directed by Jamie Uys, performances by N!xau, Marius Weyers, and Sandra Prinsloo. 20th Century Fox., 13 July. 1984. 123Movies

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