Sunday, January 11, 2015

Misery In The Middle

'Malcolm In The Middle' is a popular US sitcom in the early 2000s, which tells the trials and tribulation of a middle son in a dysfunctional family. Being a boy genius, he is seemingly the only sane member of the family which doesn't appreciate sanity. Life, throughout adolescence, is hard and cruel.

Strangely enough (or maybe not), the show reminds me what it feels like to be in the middle class of society - or more specifically, a dysfunctional society such as Malaysia. The similarities are alarmingly many.

Guess who's Malcolm?

No Pioneer Status, No Infant Spoils

The eldest child is a novelty to the parents. First to be born, first to be showered tender loving care. Fancy clothes, awesome toys, and prime schooling. The child's the shining beacon of hope, the pride of the family. And then the middle child comes. The novelty has dimmed, the pampering feels routine. Hand-me-downs save time and money. And finally, years down the road, the youngest child enters the fray. The spark brightens again. After years of putting up with noisy and rebellious brats, it's nice to have an infant for a change. Hence, the youngest gets spoiled as much as the eldest, if not more.

Take a developing country like Malaysia. The earlier generations benefit from the flow of wealth at an age where resources are untapped, opportunities abundant, and competition low. Politics are intertwined with patronage. Follow the leader, tow the line and keep your nose out of trouble long enough, and you will be rewarded. The subsequent generations are not so fortunate. With less of the pie to go around, they have to struggle. Naturally, those born later will be squeezed more - but they also grumble and throw tantrums more, and more likely to be noticed and showered with handouts and free rides.

The generation in the middle, however, is caught in between. Too rich to qualify for welfare goodies, too poor to invest. Too far up the ladder to be given a leg up and needing a safety net to fall on, too low to reach for the stars. Even worse, studies show that due to the increasing costs of living and declining poverty, "being middle class today doesn't mean anything".

Paying more, getting less

Picture from Reuters

The Pain Of Mediocrity Cuts Deep

In the show, the second eldest son (the eldest is away at military school, hence out of the picture most times) is Reese. He is not very bright, and a big bully. Dewey, the youngest son (for the earlier parts, until another son is born), is smart and musically talented, yet somehow ends up in a 'special class' at school by mistake and suffers greatly from his brothers' antics. Malcolm, the most self-aware of the three, tries to be nice, yet he too falls prey to insecurities and laments on the unfairness of life.

Knowledge is both a blessing and a bane. And the middle class knows this best. True, they are better off than the unlucky sods below them. But they are cursed with the knowledge that they can never quite rise a level higher, their climb impeded by bullying buffoons at the top. The unlucky sods, however, still have lots of room to climb to, and eventually, with hard work and right attitude, they will draw level with the middling folks.

Then again, is being stuck making a decent living for the rest of one's life a bad thing? Most people would think it isn't. A bush in hand is worth two in the bush. If given a choice between a million dollars and a 50-50 chance to earn ten millions or nothing at all, people would pick a million. In sum, people would rather be stuck in the middle than languish at the bottom.

But life is also about aspirations and striving. And it's hard to aspire and strive for things that are close to impossible to reach. The feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness can be paralysing, and drive the best of us into depression.

Middling in Misery

Being a genius is painful when everyone else dismisses your woes as pointless. Every cause of complaint is shot down by the classic "be grateful" and "think about the starving kids in Africa" responses. You have no voice.

Despite their personal troubles, Reese and Dewey seem generally happier than Malcolm. And maybe that's life. Ignorance is bliss. Middling only attracts misery.

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