Poverty is more than a fashion statement
A while back, I picked up a fashion magazine to give me something entertaining and mind-numbing to read on a long flight. This turned out to be a mistake on my part, because I ended up reading an annoying rant from one of Hollywood’s top-paid actresses about how, upon reevaluating her life, she was left unsatisfied with its general lack of pain and suffering, resentful of the ease that had characterized it thus far. I think her point was supposed to be that real suffering builds character, but I guess I was too distracted by the childishness and insensitivity of her whining to read much more into it.
At least, that was my initial response. The more I thought about it, though, I began to realize that she was just bold (or stupid) enough to vocalize what are pretty common woes among our generation’s privileged. I thought of all the times I’d listened to my peers, here at our oceanfront university in the hills of Malibu, harp on the dangers of wealth and comfort and the allure of a humble existence. I’ve even known people to go so far as to claim that they would like to be poor later in life–a sentiment you will never hear from someone who has actually tasted poverty.
This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Literary icon Holden Caulfield is evidence that kids born into affluence have been resenting their station since at least 1951. He chose to deal with his particular brand of misanthropy by getting kicked out of boarding school and moping around New York City for an afternoon. While still a viable option for the contemporary elite malcontent, the infusion of hipsterdom into our generation has changed the face of unjustified moping forever. For one, it features more flannel and bird tattoos. Secondly, it is now more likely to be accompanied by somber acoustic music sung by someone who looks like they were raised by wolves.
This may be at least partially due to the popularity of literature that romanticizes starving artists and bohemians, like “On the Road,” the hipster Bible. Many among us have read it or at least pretend to have read it by throwing out key quotes like, “The only people for me are the mad ones” and talking about how we want to drop out of school and hitchhike across the country. Which makes sense, really, when you consider that Jack Kerouac was an ivy-league dropout who shunned privilege for a life of hanging out with hobos.
Of course, the starving bohemian writers who the protagonist befriends are largely revealed to be miserable, and he never finds the sense of fulfillment he chased across the desert, but that isn’t as widely discussed; neither is the fact that Kerouac died prematurely as a result of alcohol abuse.
I think we forget that to entertain the fantasy of immersing oneself in a life of transience and desperation is a luxury of the well-off. In the real world, people aren’t impoverished because they’re trying to experience new things; they’re not trying to “find themselves,” and they’re not amassing interesting stories that can be turned into poetry. Their situation is not a choice.
It’s easy enough to idealize the unknown, but another thing altogether to question why we’re drawn to something we’ve never experienced and see to what extent our motives are based in reality.