The average modern person knows clearly what he or she hates — it’s a modern obsession — but what is most detested is obligation.

Obligation, like jobs or family, gets in the way of personal expression. Personal expression in turn is a way of remaining relevant.

As we age, this becomes increasingly important. Our time is guided by the crowd and if you do not find a way to be important to that crowd, you are irrelevant.

The Crowd, like any good tyrant or totalitarian, is the only source of approval and validation. Without it, your personal expression is meaningless and you are meaningless.

As a result, there is a permanent trend of clamoring for relevance. It is most visible in the old, in whom it is most ridiculous. Elderly people buying motorcycles and convertibles to capture lost youth is a cliche, but cougars and sugar daddies are the same thing.

Even for those who are not yet elderly, a crusade for relevance is ridiculous. As a young adult, you will spend many years worth of time attending hip events that are actually not relevant to you at all. But you want to be relevant, so you come to them, cap in hand.

People seek relevance like addicts seeking drugs or criminals seeking pardons. They are addicted to it. When they have it, they feel good, for a little while. Then they need more.

More specifically, they need to be seen having it. Relevance is something you show to other people to make yourself seem good and thus feel good.

Philanthropists achieve relevance through huge gifts. Evangelical religious groups often achieve it by missionary work. In ghettos, it’s the thug life. In middle class America, it’s keeping up with the Joneses and political altruism.

The quest for relevance makes whores of us all.

Of course, what we see as most relevant — the “cool” — is achieved by appearing to not need relevance. Like a hard to score lover, the truly cool appears aloof, and the only way to bring it back into the fold is to make those cool people addicted to their relevance.

The Crowd becomes a self-enforcing organism, enfolding the independent while bedazzling the dependent. It makes people feel like they are individually important.

The truth is that the quest for relevance makes people like candies in a Pez dispenser. When one is gone, another pops up in its place.

This gives the individual the fewest options possible, because there is another person always willing to take its place. And that person is less critical and has fewer demands.

Individuals thus become interchangeable parts. This makes any difference between any individual and the norm an obligation, and causes people to shy away from it.

In this manner, the need for relevance causes people to censure themselves and act toward a norm, to achieve an independent status they by definition cannot.

Relevance may be the ultimate control method. Best of all it is voluntary. When the ashes fall, no one is to blame, except us all.


  1. Ted Swanson says:

    And the Boomers are not aging with grace.

    1. Ted Swanson says:

      And, of course, we can take it all back to Plato once again. The Republic starts off with a discussion on how to age gracefully. I always thought that was a charming way to start a book.

    2. EvilBuzzard says:

      Nobody ages w/ grace. If they have grace at age 35, they will probably still have a good amount at age 75. As you age, you just become a more pure and distilled version of what you have always been.

      1. Ted Swanson says:

        I see what you’re saying. I guess it boils down to just knowing when you’re irrelevant and when to bow out gracefully.

        1. EvilBuzzard says:

          Relevance has little to do with anything. It’s another one of those false constructs that Brett tells us to cast out like a devil. I serious doubt Gen. Eisenhower gave a rat’s rear-end about his personal relevence on June 5, 1944. He had bigger fish to fry, and the whole issue never came up. You and I make our own relevance and define our own standards of how much of this is necessary for either o us to walk around happy.

          1. Ted Swanson says:

            Are you saying relevance is irrelevant? ;)

            But seriously, I re-read the first few pages of The Republic and in a sense it actually makes the exact point you are making. When you grow old you simply become a more “distilled” version of yourself. The point that Plato is making is that “oldness” is not what causes misery in old age. What causes misery is acting like jag-off when you’re young and this inertia follows you even when you’re old.

      2. I think this is very important wisdom. From what I’ve seen, aging strips away pretense and reveals character, as do all events that challenge us.

  2. Redneck Joe says:

    42 year old bachelor, work mostly from home as an engineering consultant, and have 2 cabins on 52 paid for acres in the hills of TN. I like your articles, but I am an exception to this one – the “cool” is not always just an appearance.

  3. ferret says:

    “It is most visible in the old, in whom it is most ridiculous.”

    Now everyone can figure out how old you are :)

    “Elderly people buying motorcycles and convertibles to capture lost youth…”

    Exactly! And well said. I like flying the plane because as a child I dreamed about a plane model that would fly well. My self-made ones use to fall in a hundred of feet.

    1. crow says:

      Ah, model aircraft :)
      Being a Brit, mine were Spitfires and Hurricanes.
      Being a Russian, what were yours? Yak 9? Sturmovik?

      1. ferret says:

        Mine weren’t as good to resemble any existent plane. The first one was made of wooden sticks with the cigarette paper pooled over. Rubber band motor.
        Another one was made of plywood; I found it on the street. The engine was missing, and all my attempts to fly it with the engine I had (too small, perhaps) failed.
        Spitfires is really nice. Back then, Yak would be beyond my dreams.

  4. crow says:

    It’s a funny thing:
    I’ve never been much inclined to seek relevance, but I put that down to my early life and the lack of any validation provided to me by my mother, school, children’s hostel, or society-at-large. I was never under any illusions as to my importance :)
    Mine has been a life more about surviving in spite of, rather than being owed any kind of respect, affirmation, or a living.
    Some of us are natural-born conservatives, I guess. Or, at least, shaped into that by our individual life-experience.
    I am quite content to be irrelevant.

    1. I always like to be relevant, just not to other people.

  5. Lisa Colorado says:

    Once again, I see myself being talked about and am forced to think about it. I had a midlife crisis and decided that, rather than buying a cool vehicle and blazing the headlights through that darkness (moderate depression) I would take it on foot with just a cane. I’m only 48 but I’d been a pretty girl and felt I hadn’t taken advantage of it properly. Now it seems like the only thing that really matters to do is whatever makes me feel authentic. But the thing is, that’s another blind area. Not much idea what to pursue if nobody’s looking.

    1. crow says:

      Excellent and honest :)
      You came to the right place.
      The idea that anything only really counts is if someone can see it, is at the heart of the modern malaise. The French have a great phrase, that probably nobody understands: Pour la Gloire! (For the Glory).
      The Glory being the Greater Glory that far exceeds one’s limited self.
      It’s possible to get beyond what you describe, and transcend the state that most inhabit: Egos displaying to egos.
      There’s much more to humans than that, but this is not widely known.
      Yet :)

      1. LuxLibertas says:

        So do the Christians – Soli Deo Gloria! For the glory of God alone – “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever.”

        The only way to live is to humble oneself, and know one’s place among the created universe.

  6. [...] a quest to stay relevant, women have rejected the family-centric pattern of decent people. Instead, it’s all about [...]

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