The Ironic Distance

I love the movie 21 Jump Street, in all of its ridiculous and quotable glory. One part that especially stood out to me was Channing Tatum's three keys of coolness in high school:

Jenko: The three keys of coolness in high school, by Jenko.
One; don't try hard at anything. Okay?
Two; make fun of people who do try.

Juario: Hey, will y'all shut the hell up? I'm trying to study.
Jenko: Look at him! He's trying. He's actually trying! What a nerd. Look at the nerd. Look at him. Look at the nerd.

While clearly intended as satirical hyperbole, I know many people who actually subscribe to and live by the principles behind Jenko's three keys of coolness in high school. These same principles govern the game that so many of us seem to play, and is won by whoever manages to care less. There are many different versions of this game, but all of them are in principle the same. Whoever betrays emotion and cares more loses, and whoever can maintain an ironic distance and care less wins.

One strange manifestation of this game (although all of them are pretty weird) is the idea that masculinity and emotion are two disjoint sets. I am reminded of a quote from the excellent, manliest of men Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation:
"Crying: acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon." 
Again, clearly a joke- but almost everyone on some level believes it. Somehow, the qualities associated with masculinity neglected emotion, and to be distraught, to be upset, to be sad, to be disappointed, to be unhappy, to feel half of all human emotions is to not be a man. And what a ridiculous and destructive idea that is! To share is to be human, and the very goal of this game is to not share. Many men do not recognize, acknowledge, or seek help for their depression, because of this stupid, twisted, macho idea that real men don't feel emotion. On a less serious level, as far as I know, men are less likely to admit and share their emotions and problems, because men are supposed to be some kind of emotionless anchor. But why is it so bad to feel, and admit to feeling emotion? Why is it so bad for men to (dare I say it) cry?

Another popular version of the game is played out on the romantic front. It is a strange truth for many that whoever cares more in a relationship tends to be the one who gets hurt more. After all, it is not "unhappy" Aeneas but rather unhappy Dido who burns with the pain of love, and eventually quite literally burns to death. The one who cares more is the one who invests more, and thus has more to lose and more to risk. To avoid such a precarious position, many emotionally close themselves off. "Yeah, I didn't really like her anyways" and its derivatives and synonyms are mostly protective in nature- to avoid taking a risk and being hurt, or worse- to look like an idiot. But that very idea is antithetical to the idea of a relationship, and entering one with guards is inimical to the success of one. It should not be a weakness to care, and it should not be a strength to not care. My favorite two lines in Auden's The More Loving One goes:
"If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me."
What a wonderfully brave thing to say!

These are only two instances of the game, and I can think of many more (the hipster movement readily comes to mind). All of these games are really the same one though, and they are all based off of the desire to be hip, to be cool, to be ironically distant. But what for? To be protected? Protected from emotion, from life, from being... human? But at the end of the day, without exception, all of us die, so I would rather be ashes than dust- I would rather sail and be in the arena and live than just exist at an ironic distance, vaguely amused by and disinterested in life.

This is of course not a justification of the other extreme. Caring about frivolities is still frivolous, and we should still not be so enamored with our own lives that we forget the big picture. But to not care about the less important things is not the same as to not care about anything, and it is dangerous to eschew emotion looking for protection. I am reminded of an excellent TED talk by Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability:

She highlights an irony that I think is important: to avoid and to hide your vulnerabilities is to be exposed and to be endangered by them, and to truly master your vulnerabilities (and we all have them), you must admit and acknowledge them. Tyrion from Game of Thrones shares a similar sentiment with Jon Snow when he shares this piece of advice with him:
"Let me give you some advice, bastard: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you."
Your vulnerabilities and weaknesses and emotion are not the things to be armored- they are the armor.

I'd like to end with a quote from a letter poet Ted Hughes wrote to a his son Nicholas:

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignored their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing that people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
And that's how we measure out our real respect for people- by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate- and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: "live like a mighty river." And as the old Greeks said: "live as though all your ancestors are living again through you."