The Pressure of High Anxiety
They say Americans are under more pressure than ever these days. Students must pass high-stakes tests in order to graduate. Competition to get into top-tier universities is crushing. The middle class is squeezed economically. Schedules are hectic. Commutes brutal. It's just harder and harder to get by.
This basic idea -- that things are tougher than ever -- is used to justify all sorts of egregious behavior. More kids cheating? Pressure. Stealing from work on the rise? Pressure. Freeway shootings? Pressure. Loutish behavior in airports? Pressure!
But take a closer look. By nearly every measure, life is better than fifty, twenty, even five years ago. People are living longer, making more, and getting better grades while they do it. Even with the housing bubble, the Dow is at levels that would have been laughed at a decade ago. My God, we even have robot vacuums.
Where is all this pressure coming from?
"Pressure" is something that happens to us, lets us off the hook. It's a mitigating factor that everyone can relate to. In most cases, though, it is really just plain old anxiety. In particular, when it comes to explaining bad behavior, it's a special kind of anxiety: that I won't get what I want.
The "pressure" in so many hand-wringing newspaper feature stories almost always turns out to be this kind of anxiety. In otherwise well-wrought articles on cheating in high school, the culprit is the "pressure" to get into top-tier schools - which is really fear that I might have to settle for a school that is not top-tier. In articles on theft in the workplace, the pressure of a tough economy is often the excuse. Indeed, in one article, the advice that gets the last word is to be nicer to employees so they won't steal: "If an employee feels like a valued part of the company, he or she is less likely to steal," says the expert. Road rage is explained away by more traffic.
Almost always, there is an excusing voice calling for some government intervention to relieve this pressure. Road rage stories include a traffic planner's call for more public transit. Cheating becomes an excuse for a teachers union representative to excoriate President Bush for asking schools to prove they are performing. Workplace theft stories provide the opening for a call to redistribute income so the middle class doesn't feel so "squeezed."
But there is rarely a voice criticizing this behavior for what it is. It's bad, selfish behavior, plain and simple. Behavior that will go away only when we stop tolerating it.
We live in a time when it is unfashionable to tell others, or to admit to oneself, that not everyone gets what they think they deserve. Sure, everyone wants to go to Harvard and to get where they are going faster, but not everyone gets to. That's a fact of life that, it seems, is too bitter a pill for many of us to swallow. And so we make excuses, excuses that pile up over time until each of us is certain that the reason we don't have everything we want is that there is something wrong.
Ambition drives each of us to try to excel and compete. Yet we all have limits to what is realistically in our grasp. I will never, ever earn as much as many of my friends from school; I will probably never have that Master's degree; my house will probably never be as fancy.
We all have human failings and limitations -- and we all make excuses for them. Many of us (more and more, it seems) try to overcome them through trickery and deceit. But maybe, by ending the charade that cheaters and thieves are really victims of "pressure," we can begin to right this creaky ship of a society.
If we don't, I fear, personal responsibility will become as quaint an anachronism as standing when a lady enters the room: you respect those who do it, but rarely think to do it yourself. Because, we're just under too much pressure to worry about such things.
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces a videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.