Stand by Me and Our Modern Goals

Everyone knows what Stand by Me is about. Gordie “Wil Wheaton” Lechance and his three friends buck parental authority and leave civilization behind to go on a quest and play with guns. Along the way, Gordie experiences transcendence, learns the lessons of life and xxxsbm1death, and “becomes a man” — or, more precisely, he becomes fully human. The experience changes him forever, and to the extent that in later life he is an artist (this is explicit in Stephen King’s original text, but is at least implicit in the movie) he has become one through the harrowing and transformative two days of his journey.

Except that’s not what Stand by Me is about at all. Because (unlike King’s text) Stand by Me has a frame narrative in which a grown-up Gordie interacts with his son, a boy of the same age as those kids who camped out overnight in the forbidden wilderness to find a corpse. Little Gordie Jr. wants to go to the pool, but is so without agency that his only device is to beg an authority figure for a ride.

Look at this again: Young Gordie swam, without lifeguards or permission, in a leech-swamp a day’s march from home and it changed his life; his son cannot navigate the FreeRangeParentinganodyne streets of suburbia to spend some supervised time, between “adult swims,” in a well-regulated vat of chlorine without getting a ride in a station wagon.  Gordie Jr.’s life will never change. He will never be a human.

This frame narrative makes Stand by Me thematically incoherent, but it also makes it honest. Because any child of the ’80s experienced this pretty much nonstop: the smug preening of previous generations that almost but not quite explicitly said:

In my day, we had nothing, and we suffered, and this made us tough. Now we have contrived things so that you will not suffer, and you will always be weak. We chose this destiny for you, and we will always have contempt for you because of it.

Speaking of incoherent, how’s that for a value system? It’s clear that either it is good to hike uphill both ways through the snow to school or it is bad to hike uphill both ways through the snow to school. If it is good, why has it been eliminated?


Recruiting poster, 1960.

In many cases, the Boomer teachers and parents who thus sneered at the children of 1986 were in fact projecting a four-Yorkshiremen fantasy — obviously no one except M.C. Escher has hiked uphill both ways to school — but it’s a fantasy born of their own experiences getting lectured by people who had lived through the Depression and fought in World War II. “I killed Hitler, to make you safe, and now you’ll never really grow up,” said the parents, and their children proved them right by tripping through Woodstock. Now at last they had their own chance to deliver a similar “in my day” lecture.

It’s long been a belief that unpleasant and undesirable experiences are in some ways necessary to becoming human. Joining the army and getting shot at sounds very unpleasant to me; but people used to state explicitly that this was something you could do to become a “real man.” At least there was a plan and a possibility!


Recruiting poster, 1915.

Look at this guilty little vermin who didn’t even fight in the trenches. What adventures he missed! With what shame will his daughter turn away from him when she realizes her father so-called in only a half-formed adolescent!

And yet our goal, our explicit goal, is to eliminate or at least minimize wars.

Suffering ennobles. And yet our goal, our explicit goal, is to eliminate or at least minimize suffering.

To put it more mildly: Necessity is the mother of invention. And yet blah blah necessity.

Achilles is given a choice between a short, glorious life and a long, ordinary one. We have a tendency to give lip service to the path he chose, but every revealed preference of our culture is against Achilles’ choice. We choose with Odysseus, who would rather sow his fields with salt than go to war. Then Odysseus ends up suffering the longest anyway, of course, and therefore becomes, according to Joyce, the only “complete all-around character” in literature.

Suffering, Hugo writes, is “the crucible into which destiny throws a man whenever it wishes to have a scoundrel or a demi-god.” We could probably use a few more demigods nowadays, but we don’t want any more scoundrels. And so we chose to eliminate the possibility of demigods in the hope of getting fewer scoundrels (which didn’t really work). xxfrinkx2We chose safety and stagnation over risk. And really, do you want your kids dodging trains and playing with guns? Wouldn’t you rather keep them safe, however broken this renders their souls? Wouldn’t you rather arrest parents with an unsupervised twelve year old ?

None of these points are new, of course,  and our devil’s bargain of sacrificing everything, even our humanity, for security and bourgeois comfort is already a commonplace; Nietzsche, somewhat incredibly, predicted it in 1883. It’s a message that has become so all-pervasive that we hardly even notice it any more. At the very least, Rob Reiner could make a movie that is explicitly about emasculating and enervating a young boy to keep him subhuman, and I could watch that movie a dozen times over the years without ever realizing what it was about (until my wife pointed it out to me).

I bet Reiner himself has no idea.


  1. · · Reply

    Ah, now we begin to get to it. If these observations are true, what is your advice to new parents?


    1. This is like when teachers ask me how they can make school not suck. Part of the design is to remove your ability to change the functioning of the system. You’re not allowed to “opt out” of Leviathan. The infantilization and learned helplessness systematically foisted on all of us is probably a vector to large and powerful for mere parenting to counter. Ride the walrus.

      Maybe the answer is not to let your kid hitchhike to the pool (although maybe it is). Maybe it’s just constantly reminding the young scamps: “Remember that all of civilization is attempting to prevent you from becoming a human. Screw them.”

      I assume if you persuaded them of this, your children would get beaten up every day of their lives until child services took them away. But maybe it’s better than the alternative.

      Awaiting other suggestions…


  2. This is an excellent post.

    I’d like to make a distinction between two ideas 1) Agency ennobles and 2) Suffering ennobles. I agree with the first one and think someone can’t really be what I consider a developed person if he hasn’t realized that his decisions matter and he isn’t responsible for his own life. Of course, with agency comes the possibility that one will make the wrong decisions, so there is some danger in that.

    The second idea, that suffering ennobles, I will grant can be true sometimes. A war or other horrible experience can create a person with a better understanding of what matters in life and a better understanding of right and wrong. But it can also create a homeless guy that constantly screams and shits his pants. Or a sociopath. Or a corpse. I (and assume most other people) can easily think of people who have suffered far more than I or the average person has, but still hasn’t learned anything from it (and in many of these cases their decisions were the main cause of their suffering and they refused to acknowledge it. See above about agency). Suffering seems like a not very surefire formula for nobility.

    And of course all of this is ignoring the obvious moral issues with saying that it is good to go out and risk death and kill others not because it is for a good cause or necessary but because it is a path to self actualization.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I don’t think suffering actually ennobles, although I recognize that this is a common opinion. As usual, I have an easier time picking holes in other people’s beliefs than believing in something myself.

      I remember once reading, one right after the other, books by Primo Levi, Jack London, George Orwell, and Vladimir Nabokov, and thinking, “Wow! These guys had really tough lives!” Often, when I read a book written recently, they feel so…light? inconsequential? Obviously not every great artist lived Solzhenitsyn’s life, but the idea that artists must suffer is a common motif. The idea that art is in some way our only justification or redemption (“that is the only immortality you and I will share”) is another common motif. if both are true, we’re not maximizing very well.

      That “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result” we know. But sometimes when you get shot at it is not without result. Is it worth the risk for exhilaration? For art? For maturity? I would say probably not, but I’ve also been raised in a cautious culture by cautious people. Kipling would have said it was, but maybe he changed his mind after WWI. Has there ever been a poem as sad as this?

      Agency is much clearer morally. Bring back enough agency and people will be able to choose whether they want to suffer, no?


    2. To put it another way: I was remiss in conflating suffering, danger, and agency, and you are right to call me out for it.


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