There is a lot to dislike about Better Off Dead… (1985). It is a formula script from an age of formula. It is intended as not much more than a vehicle for young John Cusack. A better example of his work from a later era, and more germane to the zeitgeist is Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).
I mean, what is more Gen X than a contract killer realizing that he hates his job, has no sense of personal identity, and to top it all off is suddenly confronted with collective bargaining issues?
But today is about Better Off Dead.
“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that.”
First of all, I love that this line is delivered by Steven Williams. See also, “I’m gonna catch that sucka’. If it’s the last thing I ever do.” And, “You’ll only win the war if you pick the right battles, Agent Mulder. This is a battle you can’t win.”
All writers know in the back of their mind that there are only five stories that have ever been written: Love Found, Love Lost, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. All else is variation on a theme. See also, Love, Blood, and Rhetoric. Blood is compulsory.
In today’s example, we see that our hero Lane has been rejected and is taking it to heart. As an example of a young Gen X’er, he still has hope and optimism, and not yet filled with the nihilistic despair that all his life is an absurd puppet show for those who would otherwise ignore him. But he is learning. His first step: suicide.
Well, ok, attempted suicide. The symbolism of him ending up in the bed of a garbage truck is not lost on this viewer. Lane attempts to take the ultimate control of his otherwise out of control experiences and, naturally, ends up failing his suicide, and realizing that he, his life, his experience, is just garbage ready to be hauled away.
The point is that we as humans are comfort-seeking animals, but also persistence predators. We are not the fastest, but we heal faster and carry on longer than most of our prey. All we need to do is keep going. Right? But the energy it takes, the strength needed, all of that takes practice. And sometimes the practice is too much. Sometimes the efforts to become a more efficient killing machine will kill you, the practitioner, instead.
So we also live with fear.
“Truly a sight to behold. A man beaten. The once great champ, now, a study in moppishness. No longer the victory hungry stallion we’ve raced so many times before, but a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion.”
Today, most days, this is me. This is us. Pathetic, washed up, aged. An ex-champion. A study in moppishness. Sure, we have all had a moment of greatness or two, but most days is the humdrum of barely being able to make it out of bed and fulfill some sort of needs placed on us by ourselves or by others. We are not much more than cogs in the machine, ants in the colony. Were we once a champion? Maybe. And yet we still search for that champion spirit. When what we are learning, slowly, is that vulnerability is what gives rise to resilience. It takes practice to learn how to fail. But in the meantime, each failure comes with a cost.
Sure, one can learn to become a “better man”. I have complained against this idea for decades. I happen to think I’m pretty good as I am right now. Why should I want to be “better”? Because, of course, there is always room for better. It is arrogant to think that we, each of us, cannot become more compassionate, more inclusive, more caring. But those things are not always valued. Success and victory are what get the spotlight. The hungry stallion with all the winning races. That is what gets the glory and recognition. That is what we get paid for.
We do not get paid for failure. We get paid for success and we get paid well for overwhelming success, frequently at the cost of the others.
And what of the others. Most of the time we, each of us again, are the others. Our failures fuel someone else’s victories. That is the world in which we are living right now. It is completely reasonable that we would drive the streets like Lane, washed up, and pathetic.
Trauma is the cost of resiliency.
“I think all you need is a small taste of success, and you will find it suits you.”
This quote has stuck with me since it was first uttered by the delightful Diane Franklin. This is that little piece of hope that refuses to succumb to the reality of the absurd world.
The thing is that my cynicism has progressed to the point where I am more convinced that the upside, the reward of good, of success, is small and limited, where the downside, the punishment, of bad is failure and is infinite. Success lasts a day or two. The never-ending hunger of the lives we lead draw on the fruits of success until the coffers are once again bare, and we are back to washed up and pathetic. At some point, the champion spirit is gone, the persistence runs out, and life spirit is drained out of us.
And for what?
For success? For resiliency? For two dollars?
One would think that a little taste of success would suit. A little taste of success and all that fire comes back to life. But, Dear Reader, I posit that is not how it happens. Show me where I am wrong.
Resiliency is all well and good. But it comes at a cost. Its price is failure, endless vulnerability, and trauma that must be processed, but frequently is not. And, if trauma is the cost of resiliency, then mostly I am not willing to take that risk. I have my share of trauma, thank you very much, and I do not feel that I have made any sort of reliable resiliency from it. So who am I to think that if I continue to take risks, to play the chances, to explore the elements of my life that might lead to greater self-awareness, that I will develop resiliency?
What if I am not built for resiliency? What of that?
“I want my two dollars.”
I really wish it were as simple as that. But, even in our example here, we see that young entrepreneur Johnny doesn’t get his two dollars. Ever.
Lane Myer: Gee Johnny, I don’t have a dime.
Johnny: Didn’t ask for a dime. Two dollars.
Is this the best that it gets? Has my Calvinist upbringing inured me to the idea that good enough isn’t ever good enough? Is it a matter of the Gen X worldview that devastation is always right around the corner and that if I am not prepared, then I will be washed into the abyss with the rest of the failures?
Really, all I want is my two dollars, and I will be on my way.
Stephen M. Paulsen is a middle-aged, middle class, white guy from Jersey currently living the life of an expatriate abroad in the Midwest who can’t stop writing.
These Standard Disclaimers apply to all writing, posts, comments, and various interactions from the author:
1. I could be wrong about all of this, and,
2. What the hell do I know, really?
You may follow him on his Facebook page.
Keep watching the skies.