Thursday, June 3, 2010

Robert Augustus Masters - The Death of Cool

This is an excellent older article from integral psychotherapist Robert Masters on the shame-based nature of trying to be cool. This article comes from the Robert Masters newsletter from January, 2007 (pdf). [There is also a GREAT review of one of my all-time favorite movies in this issue, The Fountain.]

I could be wrong, but this seems to be an issue for men in particular, although women also deal with it in their own way.

I spent years and years trying to be cool - and when I was young, that (to me) meant drinking, getting high, getting laid as much as possible - in other words, being an ass. At the time I did not know myself, had no self-awareness, other than sensing always that I was not good enough, that if my peers knew me, they wouldn't like me.

My struggle to be cool was driven by my desire to be as far away as possible from my shame - of course I did not know that at the time. It took some good therapy years later to figure that out.

I see men all the time trying to be cool - grown men - it's part of the unwritten code of what a man is supposed to be. Detached, unemotional, aloof, strong, decisive. Nowhere in there is there anything about being a human being who makes mistakes, has feelings, doesn't always have the answers. That isn't cool.


It’s getting decreasingly cool to be cool.

This doesn’t, however, mean that it’s cool to be uncool. The evaluative framing that is central to cool is slowly but surely coming unglued, leaving cool out in the cold, dying to chill, to somehow avoid being just more cultural roadkill.

Cool has been around for a long time, occasionally shoved into the background by upstart (and usually quickly dated) variations and offshoots – like awesome, neat, hip, sweet, and bitchin’ – but is being put out of business not by any of these, however cool they may be, but rather by its own operational core.

What this means is that the stylized detachment, emotional invulnerability, fashionable dissociation, engaging disengagement, and contrived appearance of immunity – that in various combinations underlie and animate cool – are now more signs of dysfunction than of having it together.

How cool is that? No more cool than wanting to be cool, but with one difference: Cool itself is losing its privileged status (“If the neighbors are doing it, it can’t be cool”), and is coming undone. The sense that cool ever really was where it’s at is fast unraveling. Cool is losing its cool, losing its composure, suffering a long overdue exposure.

Cool is run by shame, and not just run, but driven.

Of course, cool doesn’t look like it has anything to do with shame, other than perhaps to make others feel shame when they are in the presence of someone apparently cooler than them. But cool is shame that’s run about as far as you can get from shame. If we didn’t already feel shame – which is the nastily gripping, self-shrinking sense of being seriously flawed in the eyes of a convincingly critical audience, outer or inner – we wouldn’t have so much investment in being or acting cool. There are other tracks that shame can take, as when it is converted into aggression (both self-directed and other-directed) or withdrawal, but cool looks a lot better than these.

Cool doesn’t – mustn’t – look ruffled, not because it is courageous or knows how to get centered when there’s a crisis, but because it’s pathologically attached to looking good, and ruffled just doesn’t look so good. Cool does not, does not, does not want to lose face – and what is shame, but a painful loss of face?

Cool kicked in during the 1950s (getting over-associated with jazz), picked up steam in the 1960s (far out!) and 1970s, and really got rolling in the 1980s and 1990s, especially when it shacked up with postmodern thought and its self-fertilizing cleverness (and relegation of truth to a term only the ignorant used).

Cool had come a long way since its early hipster pretensions, gradually infusing the mainstream, with The Simpsons’ “insider” cultural asides at the nicer end of the spectrum, and Pulp Fiction’s glamorous, ultra-hip violence at the other, and the smartly cutting, almost gleefully cynical patter of “serious” comedians like David Letterman somewhere in between, with the whiter, more fashionable shades of rap pervading it all. In an era of unprecedented collective psychic numbing, cool helped keep the numbness alive and dressed to kill.

Cool is auto-cannibalizing itself. The less cool it is to be cool – so that it becomes cool not to be cool – the more that cool will fade. When cool really sees itself, it doesn’t see cool, but shame in I’ve-got-it-together drag. Behind its shades, cool is losing its cool. The lid is coming off, as it must.

Perhaps cool’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of vulnerability (and its tacit pride in such lack). Cool doesn’t wear its feelings on its face, or anywhere else. It instead simultaneously buries them and projects them onto the uncool. Getting emotional is a sign of failure for cool; blowing our cool is a fundamental no no. When cool is in the presence of real love, it gets very uncomfortable, for such love could, like shame, cause it to lose face or control.

Cool is overdressed restraint and emotional removal, a style-driven standing apart that has no heart. As such, it is but the shortest of steps away from cynicism. But strip cool of its outward appearance – after all, it’s all about exteriors – and what is left? All the debris of its unexamined interiority, constellated around shame, shakiness, insecurity – that is, an abundance of vulnerability.

To enter such states with openness and awakened attention requires that we let go of being cool, and start reembracing our bare humanity, our woundedness and shamed selfhood, so that it gets not just a token nod or some pharmaceutical help or the latest shades, but rather a depth of healing that puts us back on our feet and in our hearts, unseducible by the siren call of cool.


Unknown said...

I do not think that being 'cool' will ever change it's real meaning - I'ts a personality type, and shouldn't really be veiwed as a bad thing, telling someone that their personality is 'wrong' is,well... wrong

william harryman said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective, but I have to disagree.

"Cool" is not a personality type - it's an act, a pose - and it only serves to conceal the real self (which is afraid to be seen, afraid to be rejected).