The cult of self-esteem

An interesting article in the Atlantic talks about the cult of extreme self-esteem that pervades many recent cartoons and, to a large extent, American culture in general. “You can do anything”, the films say, “as long as you dream enough.” So a crop-dusting plane can become the fastest plane ever, a snail can win the Indy-500 race, a panda can become a kung fu master, a rat can become a chef.

Those films are not necessarily bad. I haven’t seen the others, but “Ratatouille” in particular, as most things Pixar, is pretty good. But it is true that, in general, the message transmitted to children is that they can do anything they want, not because they have a special talent or because they trained hard, but just because they want it. The reverse of that is that if they fail, well, maybe it’s because they didn’t want it enough. So they are losers. And we all know that the worst sin in America is to be a loser.

The author of the piece, Luke Epplin, contrasts that to the “Peanuts” characters, who inhabit a world much closer to reality, where frustration and failure still exist. Charlie Brown will never kick the football that Lucy holds, no matter how much he wants it, and he will never get the red-haired girl, because he will never have the courage to talk to her, and even if he had, she wouldn’t care. That’s just the way it is.

One could argue that Charlie Brown is the exception to the rule, but, in Peanuts, neither the other characters have it easy. Linus is ridiculed for his blanket and his belief in the Great Pupmpkin. Even Lucy, the most arrogant of the lot, a future CEO in the making, has to suffer an unrequited crush on Schroeder. It is almost as if Schulz was telling us that life is not always the way we want it. How dare he!

The trouble is that this is not just something that happens in children’s cartoons, but in real life. We growingly see in America a division between the “winners” and the “losers”, between those who have connections and go to Harvard and get jobs at high places, and the regular folk who have to endure a life made each day more difficult, and still get ridiculed for that.

There’s nothing wrong in promoting self-esteem among children. It is true that, psychologically, it helps to believe in yourself. You may fail 99% of the time when you dream, but, if you don’t dream at all, it is very unlikely that you will get anywhere. On the other hand,  it is a bit unhealthy and damaging to society as a whole to create this fantasy world in which all that matters is “success” – defined mostly as celebrity and material possessions or performing extraordinary feats (even if those “extraordinary feats” sometimes are completely retarded, such as “becoming the fattest woman in the world“).

Hey, there are other things in life besides fame and fortune, and they are not all bad. I’m not saying that you should stop believing, but perhaps a middle-ground can be found?


About Tom C

Teacher, translator, perhaps writer.
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One Response to The cult of self-esteem

  1. alexandra says:

    Ok, I’ll comment later on, since, at the present
    monent, I’m trying to succeed in exceling my knowledge in French.

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