The Jerk

I don’t need anything except this. And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one – I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.

Steve Martin in The Jerk

When life overwhelms Sam she retreats into the 1860s. If only she could live an authentic 1860s life, her world would be ideal. The friends she does not have now were alive in the 1860s. The eighteen-inch waistline that requires a lifetime of corset wearing was commonplace in the 1860s. The too much homework, the too loud traffic, the too fast-talking characters in modern movies, all would not exist. She deeply believes that the decade of her birth is all that stands between her and perfect contentment.

Ridiculous, we all know. Remember the Civil War, oppression of African-Americans and women everywhere, disease, poverty, the hardships endured by those without servants and by the servants of those with wealth? Life in the 1860s can be perfect because it only exists in Sam’s imagination; reality never need intrude. Her demons and disappointments have nothing to do with who she is and would be, regardless of her time and place. Ridiculous, we all know.

Sam is not alone, however. Perhaps she alone yearns for the 1860s, but she is not alone in believing that a single facet of reality can provide—or destroy—her wellbeing.  How different is her delusion from so many complaints I hear all around me: If only I lived in a neighborhood in which people shared my political beliefs, then I’d be happy. If only I had a job at which people respected my contributions, then I’d be happy. If only I were married (or un-), then I’d be happy. If only I owned a treadmill, then I would exercise regularly, lose weight, attract attractive people, find an attractive spouse, give birth to attractive children, and be hired for that prestigious job I covet. Then I could feel good about myself. If only my apartment were large enough to fit a treadmill.

The chain of reasoning in these scenarios always involves fantastic leaps and a narrow selection of supporting actors and environments, but most of us, at some point in our lives, engage in the fantasy. It’s not that external factors do not affect our quality of life. Of course they do. Being a refugee or living in a war zone would, I imagine, destroy any sense of contentment. Hunger, poverty, illness, a bad work environment, and bad neighbors all diminish one’s quality of life. Altering these factors may well make life better. However, no change is going to extinguish all vestiges of discontent. No change.

I’m thinking about this because I have failed, after years of effort, to convince Sam that her 1860s life is a chimera. No time or place will eliminate her adolescent angst, and no time or place will eliminate her impending adult angst. But then I ask myself, why would I expect any success with persuading her? Many neurotypical people I know live with similar delusions, and they are just as determined as she to blame their circumstances rather than their dispositions. Either far more people are neuro-atypical than we recognize, or typical behavior is far less rational than we acknowledge. It’s too bad that Sam is so normal.