There was an eagle soaring in a bright blue sky. “Financial security,” intoned the narrator, in a deep manly voice. “This is what it looks like. Now imagine what it feels like.” Could swear it was that guy—you know, the guy who does all the movie trailers—the one who just died. You’ve got to admit that there’s something godlike about a disembodied Father Figure who can convey divine omnipresence whilst remaining nameless and faceless. Seriously, if Netflix was a country, a religious country, with a Cold War agenda, we’d put “In the Deep Manly Voice We Trust” on our money.
But that’s not what bothered me about the commercial. It was that stupid eagle: that’s what failed to ring true. Because when I think about financial security, I imagine myself sitting by a warm fireplace in the dead of winter. I’m on a comfy old chair. Curled up with a blanket and a book. Enjoying my creature comforts. I glance periodically at the blizzard, a blizzard from hell, that’s raging out there, on the other side of the window, in the real world.
And when I try to imagine what my spirit animal might look like, my financial spirit animal, it’s not an eagle or a lion or a bear. Nothing predatory. Nothing noble. Nope. All I see is a goldfish: a sickly, unloved goldfish, who finds himself, at present, in a freshly flushed toilet.
It’s not that she’s a bad pet owner. It was an accident. She thought the goldfish was dead: really, she did. It was floating in its bowl, after all. Thing only started swimming when it hit the cold toilet water. But, at that point: well, you know how these things go: it was too late, far too late to turn back. So she decided to stay the course, stick to Plan A, and bury him in that watery grave, dead or alive.
But the goldfish didn’t go down. So she gave it another shot, and then another. She flushed him again and again and again, watching him swirl and whirl, around and around and around. But the pathetic little goldfish just wouldn’t go down.
It’s a metaphysical problem—really, it is—because we’re okay with the idea that the universe might be terrifying or unknowable or meaningless or absurd. We’re even okay with the idea that the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons or Tom Cruise might be right about everything. But we’ve never really entertained the possibility that the universe might be boring, and I mean really boring, you know, like, bean-counter boring.
But what if the goldfish is a sinner in the eyes of an angry bean-counting deity, a God of Accountants and Actuaries, Audits and Austerity Measures? What if HE punishes the profligate in the porcelain purgatory of the john? What if the goldfish deserves to suffer? Look, I doubt it, but it’s hard to be sure. Theological truths of this stamp are slippery fish: hard to grasp, and harder to hold. Regardless, this much I do know, and I know it’s enough:
I’m a goldfish, and if you’re my age or younger, you’re probably one too. We’re a generation of goldfish, a generation of redemptioners; a generation that was tricked into taking on mortgage-sized student loans; a generation that was promised passage from Proletaria to Professionalia. We paid top-dollar for the voyage to middle-class America. Yet few of us made it. Few of us arrived. Most, it seems, remain lost. Lost at sea.
There’s this stupid poster that sold really well when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s. It depicts an opulent mansion and a four-car garage filled with assorted sports cars underneath this obnoxious message: JUSTIFICATION FOR HIGHER EDUCATION. It was the kind of thing teenage guys had on their bedroom wall, sandwiched between posters of Cindy Crawford and Mötley Crüe. The poster’s message to my generation was pretty clear: Wanna get rich? Do whatever you have to do to get a higher education.
Though it pains me to admit it, I’m pretty sure I wanted one of these posters during my Alex P. Keaton phase. But I didn’t get one for fear that my hippie mom would disown me. Or simply drop dead of a heart attack. Imagine, for a moment, how horrified a hard-core fundamentalist Christian mom would be if she found a Hustler centerfold on her teenage son’s bedroom wall: well, no joke, that’s precisely how thoroughly disgusted my hippie mom would have been if she saw this crass consumerist poster on my bedroom wall. It represents a value system which is the very antithesis of my mother’s value system.
Be that as it may, knowing what I know now, it’s hard not to cringe when I look at this poster. Because it’s not only gross, it’s also profoundly untrue. My wife and I went deep into debt to fund our higher education (close to $200,000). And, like many of our friends in their forties, we’re still paying for it! Indeed, my guess is we won’t be debt-free until our early fifties. We didn’t get the five sports cars and a mansion. We got mortgage-sized student loans and job insecurity. So looking at this propaganda poster now, in 2016, is sort of like watching one of those insane DDT commercials from the 1950s: you know, the ones wherein smiling kids are being sprayed with a fine mist of DDT as they play in the park. The DDT spray is supposed to be perfectly safe. Indeed, it’s supposed to be good for the kids. But we know it’s really REALLY not! We know they’re actually being exposed to something dangerous and damaging, something that’s gonna have all sorts of horrible long-term consequences.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck is like getting stalked by a hungry lion that never quite catches you, and never goes away. And debt’s the leg weights that render you fast enough to jog but too slow to run.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Book of the Dead (2018)