Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Next Logical Step

We crouched over a steel table top while looking at our Indian entrees. My date was describing his graduated thesis. I jabbed at my curry lentil goop as my mind wandered.

It’s called the next logical step.

I’m sorry...what?

Human beings are engineered to expect more. After his years of research and interviews, he found that jobs with clear, logical steps of promotion have a much higher rate of happiness than jobs with undefined standards, even if the latter category is of a high-paying profession.

Apparently doctors in hospitals have terrible job satisfaction because once they become a doctor there is no clear progression to being head of a hospital. You can remain a doctor forever. Conversely, dentists go through numerous levels until they own their own office. Dentists are happier than doctors.

But there is a profession that pays a lot less that but has a very high satisfaction rate: professional waiters. This isn’t the part-timer student waiters and artists. We’re talking about the actual professional high-end waiters. They tend to be very well-adjusted and happy because there is a clear line: busboy to waiter to head waiter. Then host, bartender, bar manager, restaurant manager, owner. The path is laid out very clearly. The key to happiness is having clearly defined logical steps. Even if it takes 30 or 40 years, if we know what the steps are, then the human mind is comforted, happy even.

The catch? Once people arrive at the final destination in their steps and there’s nowhere else to go, then the depression returns. Associate Professors are happier than tenured professors who have no foreseeable way to becoming department chair. Assistant directors are happier than film directors who see their job as a resting place. Credit card companies have picked up on this career-ladder mentality and now have a periodic table of elements to designate member status by gold, platinum, diamond, onyx. Car rental services and airline companies now codify different customers into even smaller categories of rank and privileges.

I thought about the next logical step to love. Does this explain how careerism killed love? You go from date, to dating, to exclusivity, to engagement, and then marriage. Where is there to go after matrimony? Some would say the next step is car, home, kids. But these are no longer elements associated with civil union. Unlike in pre-Baby Boomer America, today’s society sees elements as very attainable steps people can make by themselves or in uncommitted partnering. Disconnected from being important and widely-recognized ‘logical, next steps,’ to being married,  then marital relationships become a trap.

When all of our society’s happiness is subconsciously built on career ladder-climbing and ‘the next goal’ then marriage becomes a bit of a dead-end. No one gets promoted to ‘bronze, silver, gold, platinum marital couple’ after being together a certain number of years and completing certain requirements. Recently the matrimony industry has started to panic. Silver, gold, and diamond wedding anniversaries weren’t enough. In fact, the annual recognition of time spent together can often make couples more melancholy if the relationship has stagnated. The time lapse begins to create an anxiety of expected and continued depreciation in relationship value. There is nowhere else to go but continued stagnation and then death for many wedded unions. 

Adultery and divorce are common, reactive panics to an unforeseeable and possibly depressing future with no clear line of progression. The simple fact is that marriage was a contractual agreement that commodified sex/love into property value and inheritance. But now that the latter has been removed from the equation as essential, what is the solution to fill the gap? Re-do your wedding vows. Re-educate, re-commit. Spend money on a ceremony to reiterate to the world ‘yep, we’re still here.’ Would this be necessary if husbands and wives weren’t looking for some additional element, some next step after being together for so long that separates them from other married couples?

Even recommitment ceremonies can’t mask the problem we have created in our career-drive culture when it comes to the matrimonial dilemma: there is nowhere else to go once the vows have been exchanged. We are just left with ourselves and all those suppressed unresolved doubts that come bubbling back up in quiet reflection. I continued picking at my curry and stared out the window, out on to the sidewalk. Men, women, children in different pairings walked by my reflection, before disappearing into the night.

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