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Living the low-stakes life

I have lost touch with my friend Mark, and, assuming he is alive, it will be some work to track him down, because he is periodically homeless or semi-homeless. My first impression was that his economic condition was mainly the result of his having been for many years a pretty good addict and a pretty poor motorcyclist, a combination that had predictable neurological consequences. I never knew Mark “before” — there is something in such men as Mark suggesting an irrevocably bifurcated life — but the better I got to know him, the more I came to believe that he probably had been much the same man, but functional, or at least functional enough.

Like many people with mental problems, Mark tended to be repetitious. His rants were as well-rehearsed as any stand-up comedy routine. “My dear, sweet mother said I was a rebel, a troublemaker, and a hoodlum,” he would say. “But she was wrong. I ain’t no hoodlum!” Mark’s conception of himself as a rebel was central to his outlook on life, and it was reinforced by the amusing decision of the local social-services agency to put him into a subsidized apartment in a narrow strip of commercial and retail properties abutting two of the wealthiest communities in one of the wealthiest municipalities in the United States. He reveled in the fact that his mere presence on the street was sufficient to épater le bourgeois.

Part of it was an act, but not all of it. If you saw him on the street and called his name, he’d spin around on you, fists balled up, half enraged and half afraid, ready to fight, until he recognized you, which could sometimes take a few seconds longer than it should have. But then he was all smiles and wry commentary on the passers-by and the police. He’d gesture at passing police cars (he lived about two blocks from the police station) and say, “They all know me,” which was true. We talked about motorcycles and his longing to ride again, and he’d explain to me all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. “They’d lock me up,” he’d say darkly, which also was true. He’d sometimes ask to borrow mine, and I’d explain to him all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. “You’re a maniac.” This was an approved line of argument. “That’s right!” he’d thunder. Maniac was fine, but he objected to lunatic. He didn’t like bum very much, either, but he was a realist.

Mark was in his fifties at the time, and was still angry at his parents, his teachers, his family, society, and others he thought had failed him. He curated his resentments with the care of a sixth-century monastic archivist. I was in my thirties at the time and resolved to stop doing that.

(I am still working on it.)

The inability to move on from adolescent resentments is a strangely prominent condition among American men, as indeed is the inability to move on from adolescence in general. That is one of the unhappy consequences of the low-stakes character of American middle-class life, by which I mean the fact that the difference between being in the 50th percentile and being in the 55th percentile of whatever index of socioeconomic status you think most relevant is not that consequential in terms of one’s real standard of living. The price of being a little bit of a slacker is not very high in the United States, though the rewards for success can be staggering. Life is pretty comfortable, and you can take six years to finish your bachelor’s degree in art history while working at Starbucks, and it isn’t miserable.

A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content.

Necessity used to be what forced us to grow up. That was the stick, and sex was the carrot, and between the two of them young men were forced/inspired to get off their asses, go to work, and start families of their own from time immemorial until the day before yesterday. A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content. Some of them understand that there is more to life than that, but some do not. David Foster Wallace’s great terror in Infinite Jest was entertainment so engrossing that those consuming it simply stopped doing anything else. (Is it necessary to issue a spoiler alert for a 1,000-page novel that’s 20 years old? Well, spoiler alert: It’s Québécois separatists.) He revisited the idea later in “Datum Centurio,” which is one of the all-time great short stories, one that is written in the form of a dictionary entry from the future for the word “date.” Over the course of the definition (and the inevitable footnotes), we learn that pornography has become so immersive in the future that conventional sexual behavior has been restricted entirely to procreation. The final footnote reads: “Cf. Catholic dogma, perverse vindication of.”

As our collective standard of living gets higher, the cost of individual failure gets lower. This is, we should appreciate, a good thing, especially for people like Mark, who sometimes fall right over the edge of adult life. (I can’t help but think of Wallace again here and his bitterly ironic treatment of a porn outlet called “Adult World.”) The old men who sit in chairs and rail about how peace and prosperity are making us soft and what we really need is a “good war” — as if there were such a thing — are wrong, as they always have been.

But it is the case that the stakes of life are higher in India and China, where the difference of a few points on a test or a few degrees of scholastic prestige can have radical consequences on one’s life. The stakes are higher in a different way in Karachi or Lagos.

Tyler Cowen considers some of this in his new book, The Complacent Class, in which he argues (in the words of Walter Russell Meade’s review) that “the apparent stability of American society . . . is an illusion: behind the placid façade, technological change and global competition have combined with domestic discontent to bring forth a new age of disruption.”

That seems to me likely to be true, though I have no idea what “disruption” is going to look like, and I do not think anybody else really does, either. I suspect it is going to be very hard on the 40-year-old teenagers among us. But we should be thoughtful in our judgment of them. It isn’t that they have got over on us and gained some sort of unfair access to a life of ease. Mark’s life did not look easy to me, no matter how late he slept. Extended adolescence does not represent something that has been gained, but something that has been lost. That’s more obvious in some men than in others, but the principle is universal.

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