[NPR, “All Things Considered,” March 31, 1997]
I don’t think I want personal advice from gas pumps. The other day, while standing at a self-serve pump, I heard the machine give a peremptory beep. I turned around and, in the tiny screen that usually offers specials on soft drinks, this message was reeling by:
“Each Day Silently Affirm That You Are The Type Of Person With Whom You Would Want To Spend The Rest Of Your Life. Each Day Silently Affirm That You Are The Type Of Person With Whom You Would Want To Spend The Rest Of Your Life. Each Day Silently Affirm…”
I was moved to some affirmations that weren’t all that silent. Who thought it would be a good idea to key inanities into this clicking box of petroleum? I was standing on the edge of a wind-whipped interstate, with eighteen-wheelers rattling by, and getting a lecture on self-esteem.
But our culture generally has a high tolerance for platitudes, and low standards for logic. This one’s a fine example. What use is it to affirm that you’re a good person, if you’re not actually becoming a good person? No striving for self-improvement—just a daily pat on the back for being swell?
But never let sequential thinking stand in the way of a really saccharine idea. There are people who believe, apparently, that the cause of world peace *will* be advanced if they put on their cars a bumpersticker that reads “World Peace” with a smiley face in the middle. That’ll show those wicked warmongers! Or who display a warning that they brake for animals, which causes all of us who like to speed up and run over animals to hang our heads in shame.
Perhaps it began with that smarmy collection of cliches titled “Desiderata,” a poster-sized version of which hung on many a dormroom wall twenty years ago. It began, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste,” and wandered through various boggy thoughts until concluding that that you, the reader, have a place in the universe. (*That’s* a relief.) Cloying and supercilious thoughts soon proliferated on every available surface. Grocery bags tell us how to drive and utility bill inserts tell us what to eat. Bags of cat litter are stamped “Say no to drugs!” (Anyone who’s tried to give a cat a pill knows how effective this campaign has been.)
This endless dribble of patronizing advice begins to grate after awhile, and I feel something like adolescent rebellion rising to the surface. Just for today, I’m not going to stop and smell any roses. Just for today, I won’t visualize world peace. I’m not going to hug my cat, thank a teacher, or have anything whatsoever to do with angels. And I’m definitely *not* going to have a nice day.