As a teenager in 1990s England there was only one aspiration which existed in our circle of friends, the popular group, (although I was not especially popular myself). The unifying aspiration was to be cool. This was problematic because often I did not really know what this meant or how to know whether something was cool or not. It was sometimes obvious. For example to do anything with your parents or teachers that implied a respect or partnership or worse subservience, was definitely uncool. Conversely to do anything which implied the opposite was cool. I was good at all that being a rebel stuff, indeed in this area I perhaps set new benchmarks. However there were other areas about which I was not so sure. Clothing for example. What was cool to wear was changing regularly. The alpha male of our group was a deeply unhappy, immensely insecure, vitriolic and occasionally violent boy who was also fashionable. Fashionable because he followed his older brother’s mature lead and fashionable because he said so and one quickly learnt it was better not to argue with him. Unless it was really important and you were prepared to be punched in the head. He also utilised more subtle means to wield his power and was a master of manipulation. He would use his influence in the group to ensure that there were typically more people on his side than the oppositions when disagreements arose. He was the arbiter of good taste and what he said or wore was the lead we slavishly followed. I would urge my mother to buy me a Ralph Lauren shirt back when this was a relatively exclusive designer brand and very much cool. At the time they also had a price tag to affirm this coolness. At other times I just had to hope. I remember one top I had selected from the known to be cool shop however was uncertain if the top itself was actually cool. It was one of the cheaper items and thus quite likely not cool at all. I cringe now as I recall the depth of pride and satisfaction when the alpha male noticed this top one day and said ‘cool top Will.’ I wore it on every opportunity for years to come. Needless to say I recognised his insecurity and anger because I was familiar with my own insecurity and anger. Any emotional authenticity or vulnerability were very uncool so these elements of experience we shared were unspoken.
As I began to think for myself and develop the courage and authenticity to begin to be who I am rather than how others thought I should be coolness and popularity were seen through as the valueless veneer they are. I came to see that they were but the empty wafts of a fearful ego trying desperately to cover up feelings of unworthiness and self-contempt. I recall the amusement at hearing a Zen master I had come to respect as he made this point forcefully, ridiculing this idea of being cool, holding it up as the tawdry egoic manoeuvring it is.
To be cool and popular long ago lost any lustre, mainly because I simply looked a little closer. As I began to value authenticity, kindness and integrity the cool kid became sooo uncool. Beneath the carefully cultivated image one saw a deeply troubled soul with a depth of anger that arose from who knows where leading to pathological behaviour. I saw the fear beneath my own motivations to be cool. I saw that the whole edifice of cool was built on uncool, shaky foundations. Popularity meanwhile was also a passing fad and clearly an unreliable measure of worth. To dive right in with a couple of extreme examples, Adolf Hitler was popular. Tony Blair was popular. Enough said.
It’s funny to note how as these two measures of worthiness have ceased to possess validity a measure of unworthiness from the same time has become an indicator of value. If cool had an opposite it was weird. Whilst one might socially recover from an uncool slip a display of weirdness, or we might say of individuality or authenticity, may well be the death of your attempts to integrate into the herd forever.
Yet it became clear whilst nothing of true value to humanity has ever come from the vain strivings of the separate self to be cool much, perhaps even everything of value has come from the very weird. A bold statement indeed but give it some thought – Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Nikola Tesla, Rene Descartes (he sat in an oven all day), Friedrich Nietzsche, Vincent Van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Bill Hicks – bloody weird the lot of them yet humanity would be much less cool were it not for their being who they were, for the example they offered, (putting aside for now the extent to which their example has been followed, understood or misunderstood).
It is on the margins, amongst those who stray from the pack where evolution happens. It is in the mainstream where slumber and stupidity is maintained, ecocide and genocide ignored or endorsed via complicity. Thus at a time when humanity as a whole seems quite content to drive itself off a cliff perhaps we need more weirdos leaning out the window, proclaiming merrily ‘ how about we make remembrance of our interconnectivity, authenticity and love the guiding principles behind everything we do?’
Yeah, I know, bloody weird. But a little bit cool too?