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.