Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Collectively-Enforced Mediocrity

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 26, 2011

Have you seen the movie, The Fighter? It’s already won Golden Globes for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale–and looks like a strong Oscar contender in a number of categories. I loved it.

The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams in "The Fighter"

The movie is also–in its depiction of the psychological dynamics within the Ward family of Lowell, Massachusetts–one of the great cinematic evocations of Group Resistance, or what we might call Collectively-Enforced Mediocrity.

How does Resistance play out within a family? Let’s see what the film’s writers and director–Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and David O. Russell–have to say.

A collective myth

Early in the opening reel we’re shown home-movie footage of tyke Micky (Mark Wahlberg) sparring with his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale). So the kid brother/big brother dynamics are established. We learn also of grown-up Dicky’s claim to fame–that as a fighter he once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard off his feet. This moment has become the Family Myth, the high-water mark of the Ward clan.

Fast forward. Younger brother Micky has now entered his prime as a boxer. Dicky is hanging out at a crack house and hitting the pipe big-time. But he still knows the fight game; he’s training Micky. Micky’s mom Alice (Melissa Leo) does the managing.

In the first fight we see, Dicky and Alice after a booking screwup put young Mick in the ring against a fighter twenty pounds heavier. Predictably, Micky gets his clock cleaned. This act is a criminal violation of the trust Mick has put in people who supposedly love him and have his interests at heart.

Do they? The following is from The War of Art:

Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel peril that also must be guarded against: sabotage by others.  Often couples or close friends, even entire families will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough of mediocrity in which he and all his cronies have become so comfortable. The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.

Micky, by showing potential, has become that crab. The other crabs are trying to pull him back down into the bucket.

A champion for the champion

Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty barmaid who takes up with Micky. It doesn’t take Charlene long to suss out the dysfunction of the Ward household (which also includes seven grown sisters): older brother Dicky is “the pride of Lowell,” no one else may mess with that myth.

Charlene wakes Micky up. She takes on mom Alice and does battle with the whole clan. Why do they keep holding Micky down? Why won’t they let him get real management and real training? Are they afraid Micky will outshine Dicky? What are they clinging to so desperately that they’ll sacrifice Micky’s whole life to it?

A fighter in a fog

Here are three key dynamics that the filmmakers got absolutely right:

First, Micky’s passiveness and cluelessness. We might think that a guy who was getting screwed over so outrageously would see it and revolt against it. But in real life, it rarely works that way. In real life, we’re in a fog. A spell has been cast over us. It takes an intervention to snap us out of it. From childhood, Micky has bought in to the family myth. He too worships his older sibling; he’s stuck in the role of kid brother and mired in the long-superannuated obligations of “son.” He can’t believe that the people who love him most could be working against him.

“We love you, now roll over and die.”

Though the family’s overt message, repeated over and over, is “We want Micky to succeed” … beneath the surface they are all working overtime to be sure that he fails. The whole family is unconscious. They’re all in denial. They “love” Micky but they love the comfort of collective mediocrity more.

When a writer begins to overcome his Resistance–in other words, when he actually starts to write–he may find that those closest to him begin acting strange. They are trying to sabotage him. The reason is that they are struggling [unconsciously] against their own Resistance. The awakening artist’s progress becomes a reproach to them. If he can beat these demons, why can’t they?

A truth we can’t stand to face

The filmmakers’ third brilliant observation is this: that though the Ward family’s myth is of their own exceptionalness (Dicky’s big moment of knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard), in truth their lives are a quagmire of mediocrity. That’s why they can’t let Micky succeed. Because if he does, they will be forced to see themselves as they are–and see Dicky and his Big Moment for what it is. (Didn’t Sugar Ray really just slip?)

What the family fears–and what Micky himself is terrified of–is that, if Micky gets a chance, he’ll be great. What happens then? The whole family will explode. Or so they believe.

I won’t tell you the ending of the movie (you’ve probably seen it already anyway), but don’t worry, it’s not a downer.

(A sidebar thought: a case could be made that a democracy is vulnerable to the same dynamic of collectively-enforced mediocrity as a family. Democracies love nothing better than to set heroes up on pedestals, then tear them down with glee.)

A toast to fight flicks

Of all sports movies, boxing films seem for some reason to be the best. They often have the most on their mind–Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Rocky and many more. And of course nothing beats a third-act slugfest in the ring. For my money, add The Fighter to that illustrious list. Kudos to Mark Wahlberg, David O. Russell and everybody who worked on it. Go see it!

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

16 Responses to “Collectively-Enforced Mediocrity”

  1. January 26, 2011 at 5:04 am

    This sort of collective mediocrity is definitely something that I can relate to personally. And it’s something that, I think, plays itself out in society at large–outside of the family unit.

    I feel like there is a certain degree of accepting “good enough,” rather than pushing people to do better at things that they might be spectacular at.

    To wit: American Idol, inter alia, which has people convinced that they can sing, and that singing is their thing. In reality, all it is doing (the university admissions system is a similarly culpable party) is lowering the bar to greatness.

    We no longer embrace the great and the good, instead, we have become obsessed with the new. In some ways, I think that Seth Godin’s (and some of Steve Pressfield’s) ideas about shipping can dilute greatness. That’s not to say that not shipping is a good thing. It’s still better to get product out there than to sit on something amazing, trapped by the lizard brain.

    So in sum, I think that society at large has become too willing to accept the mediocre, either at the cost of others’ feelings or simply through laziness, and to shy away from the great and impressive.

    This is a great post, and it has sold me on seeing this movie.

    • Amy Sheridan
      January 26, 2011 at 8:45 am

      Thanks, Steven–my sister gave me War of Art 5 years ago and it gets me through some bad moments. I’m off to a writers’ conference and critique session, and Resistance-the-Anti-Muse is flapping her wings heavily.

      re American and confusions between democracy and equality: there is also the thought expressed in The Incredibles: if everyone is special, then no one is.

  2. January 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

    One of your best posts ever, Steve. Self sabotage and the unconscious sabotage of people that “care” about one are problems we need to be aware of. Thanks!

  3. Tricia
    January 26, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I agree with Rod … one of your best posts ever.

    To me the words fog and spell capture it all: you can try to address this crap with the intellect and it only gets you partially there because the spell has seeped it’s way into your psyche and taken hold, blinding and imprisoning you by the very opacity of the fog. It is powerful in its hold and my feeling is that only the gift of grace and a lot of hard work gets you out of it.

    If I recall correctly, the film/book Ordinary People addressed a similar theme albeit from a different slant. (haven’t seen The Fighter yet)

  4. January 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Spot on, Steve. I think that this is the most difficult form of Resistance to identify and overcome. Not a bit boxing fan, but I’m looking forward to seeing this movie, now.

    Thanks for all you do!

  5. Rick Morrissey
    January 26, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,
    As a teacher in an urban school system I see with painful regularity many of the points that you have brought forward. The great challenge is to inspire my kids( please forgive the “my kids” conceit) It is one of the great challenges of our time. The thing that keeps me going are my kids that come back to see me and to tell me of the good things that they have done with their life. When they seek me out I feel blessed to know that I was there when they needed me whether I knew it at the time or not.

  6. Rick Morrissey
    January 26, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    sorry for the misspellings. I do tend to dash things off. RM

  7. Len
    January 26, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I’m in the middle of this now as a writer. Thank you. Simper Fi.

  8. mControl
    January 26, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Excellent post! Thanks.

  9. January 28, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Hmmm…okay, you’ve inspired me to give this film another try. I had really looked forward to seeing it and became increasingly frustrated with how the characters behaved. By the mid-point, I walked out of the theater and went home. That’s a rare action from a big movie buff like me.

    I do agree that in real life, often people are in a fog and don’t see what others are doing to them. I suppose that is what frustrated me so with Mark Wahlberg’s character–his family irritated me in so many ways, I kept wanting him to wake up and SEE.

    Great post, I will try to give the film another shot. I will say this…if actors like Melissa Leo and Christian Bale can cause someone in the audience to utterly despise them, even to despise looking at them on the big screen for how they are behaving, then in reality, those people are talented actors.

    Elaine

  10. January 28, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Great post…and so true. This kind of resistance is so difficult to spot when its happening to you, but easy when its going on with others around you, ain’t life just like that!

  11. January 28, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    This is part of the family dynamic generally. In Australia, apparently, they call it the tall poppy syndrome. It comes out whenever you try to break out of the family mold, and it really comes out if you think about making money online. The richest example I ever heard of concerns the programmer who built the orignal engine for Doom. The game was finally taking off and he had just bought his new Ferrari. When he drove to his mom’s place to show it off, she said something to the effect of:That’s all well and good, but when are you going to get a real job?

  12. January 29, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Take down the evidence !!

    I recommend two of Alice Miller’s books:

    For Your Own Good (1980)

    Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1981)

  13. January 29, 2011 at 10:12 am

    What an amazing article. Thanks so much. Reminds me of my favorite Marianne Williamson quote:

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

  14. February 1, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I recommend Alice Miller’s Books

    For Your Own Good (1980)

    Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1981)

  15. Jonathan
    September 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    There’s this friend of mine–we’ll call him Ismael–who always makes fun of me when I’m writing, be it an article, a screenplay, even a diary entry.

    To say his comments don’t bother me would be a lie. They, in fact, do bother me, but not in any way negatively impacts my writing.

    In fact, his snide remarks only fuel my passion to write. But, I’m the type of person who’d rather create (“write”) for the purity of the work, the idealistic values that the completed work could possibly achieve.

    Anyways, when Ismael makes his remarks about my passionate work habits, I feel sorry for him. I always believed that someone who belittles the positive actions of others are really, deep down inside, little people.

    By “little people,” I mean persons who are spirutually small. I believe in the human spirit. I also believe that the human spirit is like an ocean–it’s meant to be expansive, all-encompassing.

    Sadly, my friends spirit is like a puddle on the street: people barely notice it, and even if they do, they’ll have no problems stepping over it.

    If only he could embrace the greatness of his human spirit. If only they all could…