Do We Live in an Anti-Enthusiasm Culture?

I hate the expression “you have too much time on your hands.”

People usually use it after someone has shared something they put a lot of work into for the pure joy of creation. For example, a friend spent months creating a replica Spanish sailing galleon out of toothpicks. It is incredibly detailed, the windows open, the planks raise and lower, the cannons fire. His friend takes one look at it, shakes his head and says, “You have too much time on your hands.”

With one quick phrase all of that work is rendered ridiculous. the enthusiasm is dismissed.

The idea behind the phrase, I suppose, is that your time would be better spent engaged in some income producing enterprise. Yet you don’t hear people say “you have too much time on your hands” when someone describes what she watched on TV. It is not used for ordinary time wasting endeavors. It is only used for tasks that obviously required a great deal of time and devotion to complete– memorizing all of your favorite sports star’s stats, rebuilding an old car, organizing a collection, doing macrame. It is used to dismiss things done out of pure joy and enthusiasm.

Why do some people feel instinctively compelled to wet blanket other’s enthusiasms? Do they perhaps sense that they have had just as much time and have not done anything remotely as ambitious? Do they simply become uncomfortable with tasks that don’t fit neatly into their boxes of work and play? I don’t know.

Yet it seems undeniable that there is a strong current of anti-enthusiasmism in our culture. One place where it makes itself apparent is in the world of fandom. Being a fan is considered to be immature and laughable. Certain ethusiasms– going to Star Trek conventions or Comicons– are more likely to earn you a “Get a life” than others, for example, knowing all of the classical dancers who have performed the role of Giselle and the nuances of their performances.

There are books, records and movies that we call “guilty pleasures.” That means we’re enthusiastic about them, but are afraid that this pleasure is somehow at odds with the self-image we would like to project. We are defined by what we love. Enthusiasm for the wrong thing is somehow threatening to our social identities.

We tend to think of liking things as highly personal. “I know what I like.” The fact is most people don’t know what they like until they look around and see what other people like and what it is acceptable to like. Liking is social.

Did you know that one of the biggest causes of death in a plane crash is that people forget to save themselves? We naturally look to others to get cues as to how to react. In an unfamiliar situation, like being in a plane crash, many people are entirely immobilized. Their brains have no stored data on what to do. They look around to see what other people are doing. If they don’t see other people racing to get out they will stay in their seats and burn to death.

I am a bit ashamed to recount an episode from early in my high school career. I was (and am) terribly shy. I never expected guys to like me. But there was one boy who sat beside me in science class and we started joking with one another. We clicked right away, were great friends, and in short order there was an element of flirtation between us. It came to a crashing halt when an acquaintance showed me a cartoon drawing. It was a stick figure with spiky hair and a thick unibrow. (My friend had thick eyebrows that nearly came together in the middle.) “You know who this is?” She said and laughed. I got the message that this guy was not cool to like. My enthusiasm for him vanished and I chose another seat in science class.

I am pleased to say I do not do things quite like that any more. But I am not immune to wet blankets. When I share something with enthusiasm to be met with a blank stare and some version of “you have too much time on your hands,” I start to wonder if I was wrong, if the thing I loved was unworthy and my joy in it somehow embarassing.

I remember that Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, wrote a lot about people who instinctively wet blanket your enthusiasm.

“Name your W.B.’s for what they are,” she wrote, “Wet Blankets. Wrap yourself in something else– dry ones. Fluffy heated towels. Do not indulge or tolerate anyone who throws cold water in your direction.”

Good advice, I imagine. But easier said than done.

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