“Keep Calm and Carry On”, “Live, Laugh, Love”, “Good vibes only”, “No bad days”. These are the supposed motivational and inspiring words people seem to enjoy having around them. On t-shirts, mugs, “art”, tattoos, tote bags and bumper stickers, these objects of hope, resilience and positivity abound these days. I recently went into my company’s office, something I do maybe 2-3 times per week, when I came across a coffee mug in the communal office kitchen. It was reddish orange with “Motherhood is more than a job…it’s an adventure!” written across in blocky, yellow typeface. I stared at the mug and was consumed with sadness imagining the person who turns to it in order to carry on with their lives. I pictured a mother receiving it as a gift thinking “It’s true, and because it’s written on this mug it makes it even more so!” . I left the kitchen before its owner returned to collect it, so I’m not sure who it belongs to, and its probably for the best.
Everyone has their own tastes that vary and that’s all fine and good. My concern is not with people’s personal tastes, it’s with the seemingly pervasive motivational messages stamped on objects. What does this ongoing trend say about us? Why is it even a trend? I believe that the life-hacking, start-up like approach to self-improvement obsession had some influence on this strange phenomenon. I also would guess that the fear inducing global and political 24 hour news cycle has many seeking small ways to stay hopeful. Societal trends that bring some escapism or inner peace are springing up. For instance there seems to be a consistently growing societal interest and awareness about astrology and even crystal healing. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to find a healthy way to cope with daily modern life, particularly when it’s as harmless as stopping by the spiritualism store for palo santo. So what is it then, about these motivational messages emblazoned on clothing or printed on stickers that bum me out?
It could be the in-your-faceness of these messages themselves that seem so desperate and urgent. These messages expose deep vulnerabilities of the individuals that possess these optimistic odds and ends. Meanwhile the innocent bystander being confronted with these objects is expected to find the message to be equally uplifting and visually appealing, and if said innocent bystander doesn’t then they are left feeling, what can only be described as icky. This gut feeling of ickyness I think comes from having been made privy to a likely strangers most private desires or fears in perhaps the least personal and nuanced fashion – its vulnerability via cheaply constructed consumer goods.
Because these messages are aspirational, they could actually have an impact on people who truly get and stay motivated simply by surrounding themselves with these words. I would never say the same for myself, but who am I to knock something that works for others! At any rate, I find that this real, earnest root of aspiration is somewhat diminished by the proximity to the merchandising industry. In a way, we pay money to have our affirmations made more real to us by having them exist on motivational junk. Again, this may help some people self-actualize, but I struggle with it. I so badly want to disentangle aspiration and consumerism, but in the west and particularly America the motto might as well be “Keep Calm and Proceed to Checkout”.