October 31, 2014

Culture bound

By Sarah Darmody
Culture bound
What’s our problem with gratitude?

In his remarkable and well-worn book about happiness and creativity, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-hi Cheek-sent-me-hi) delivers a depressing knock to the back of the knees on the first page.

… even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago … there were few bathrooms in the palace of the Sun King, chairs were rare even in the richest medieval houses, and no Roman emperor could turn on a TV set.

It’s a big book, with lots of richer game ahead, but if you get no further than that first titbit, Mihaly’s job is done. You, dear reader, have a truly staggering number of chairs in your life. Why are chairs important? Why not fix on any of the other things Mihaly mentions, like entertainment and running water? Because it’s such a historic constant, the thing to sit on, so looking at this current point in its evolution has much to teach us about our culture-bound state. More so than talking pictures through a cathode ray tube, nifty though that is.

The average Australian has their riches pointed out to them all the time. They are portrayed as multiplying like viral cells in a particularly nutritious host through articles and news pieces and annoying uncles on a daily basis. You live better than emperors! Behold, the combined knowledge of humankind lives in your Japanese triple-dyed denim back pocket! 

Culturally, we frame this stocktake of wonders as admonishment. I remember, aged 11 on a primary-school exchange program to a dusty farm three hours outside Canberra, being driven around by my host family as they pointed out all the ways that life had been shittier “back then”.

“Watched telly for the first time up there at the Duncan house,” said the dad, through a millimetre of freckled lip. “Wasn’t colour, but. Oh no. No colour.” And he made a scoffing noise, which was short for “you kids and your Home & Away with flesh-toned faces and real blue for the uniforms. You live like emperors.”

This is how we talk, as a culture, about progression, about advancements, about riches. We deliver sermons to the young or merely slightly younger about when we never had no iPads, oh no, we had to fight with our sibling all the way to Nan’s, staring for seven hours across the great unchanging Australian baked-grasses of Christmastime. No air-con. Limited cassette tapes. No ring road to shave an hour off at the end.

We peer into closets and exclaim, “I didn’t have this many dresses in my whole life! Silk! I never owned anything silk before my wedding dress!” The cultural message, decoded quickly by Mihaly so that he can get on with his happiness revolution, is: you have no reason to be dissatisfied or morose, you ignorant knave, you have everything. You have more silk than emperors. You have more chairs.

Does that make us feel happier, delivering or receiving this common cultural exchange? Of course not. Feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled, at least some of the time, is greatly compounded when told you are also ungrateful and unable to feel your luck. Why do we persist in doing this to each other? To ourselves? And what’s to blame?

A large part of it is cultural – a relationship to gratitude that is hard to turn around, despite the current and growing hash-taggery of the concept in its various forms: grateful, so grateful, thankful, blessed. But Western culture seems to be having a moment with gratitude. It’s opening the oven door a crack on the cherry pie-smell of gratitude, but we aren’t encouraged to dwell there for long in case we let the heat out.

Back to the chairs. In a class I teach about creativity, I use the example of Marcel Breuer’s ‘Wassily’ chair as a handy illustration of the Bauhaus principle of unlearning cultural expectations about particular objects. The chairs of Western European civilisation looked a certain overstuffed, wooden and wickered way until – poof! Breuer’s machine for sitting arrived. Each time I tell the story of the chair’s invention, I finish by displaying a photograph of the Wassily — a sublime construction of bent aeronautical steel finished with simple leather resting places for human limbs. The participants invariably lean forwards and nod, and say “ooh”, and smile, and exhale together in contemplative wonder. And each time I wait a little longer before asking, “Did you notice the chairs you’re sitting in? When you came in?” because I’ve discovered I’m a jerk sometimes and I enjoy watching my students scramble to look at the chairs in the room. They are sleek, bent-metal frames with a simple fabric scoop. They are beautiful; they are science fiction. They are also everywhere.

Breuer designed that chair in the 1920s, I tell them. That’s not so long ago, really. Chairs had never looked that way before that. People thought it was remarkable. And then they got used to it.

We reach a moment of internal hash-taggery together then, my class and I, where we wonder what else we have become used to and we wash cultural expectation from our over-stimulated irises and see our amazing world. #gratitude #sograteful #thankful #welivelikeemporers #omgchairs

Then it vanishes. I know this because I spend hours of my week encouraging others to shuck off our culture of chair-apathy and iPhone entitlement only to hear myself say things like, “Tramtracker! I used to have to stand in the middle of the street in the rain to see if could see the 112 or if I should walk to Nicholson Street instead. These kids live like emperors!”, and feel my shoulders slump with the regret of the cultural ingrate.

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