The social media is buzzing with videos where many people are jumping out of their moving cars. They put their life at risk to dance to the beat of a Canadian chartbuster for a one-minute video. The performance could be somewhat spectacular, or full of quirk or it could even involve serious injuries, but the performer wastes no time in uploading the video. The requests, warnings and threats from the traffic police across the globe seem to be falling on deaf ears as more and more enthusiasts join the gang each day.
One may wonder what is making these people lose their sanity? Is it another episode of mass hysteria or are they so fed up of life that they don’t mind playing the game of death! What else could explain this dangerous and seemingly mindless act? For more than a decade, I have been listening carefully to the narratives of people who come to me for psychotherapy. Time and again, this attentive listening has taught me that human beings are an intelligent race and whatever they do is governed by some reason. In many cases, the extreme life choices and bizarre actions are a twisted manifestation of our unfulfilled needs and desires. This also applies to such episodes of mass hysteria.
Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the authors of ‘The Narcissistic Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement’, explain that the present generation values money, image and fame over community, affiliation and self-acceptance. All our life choices are being ruled by narcissism and almost everyone is hungry for recognition and admiration from the world. People wish to portray themselves as being in the forefront of suaveness, stylishness and splendour. This image of grandiosity and overconfidence is often constructed to hide painful feelings of low self-worth, shame and insecurity.
The rise of social networking sites has helped this group in reaching out to hundreds of thousands of viewers across the globe from the comfort of their smartphones. All you need to do is record and upload a video and it almost travels at the speed of light. Although you get likes, shares and subscriptions, but the competition intensifies. As soon as people come across a news or video of someone performing an unusual act which has been appreciated and liked by others, they feel somewhat envious and insecure. An unconscious desire to seek attention and prove themselves emerges, and more and more people want to perform a better act than the original. This strong wish clouds their thinking and judgment and at a collective level it leads to crazier endeavours.
The Kiki Challenge has met a similar fate. The internet comedian Shiggy started it by shooting and posting a video of him dancing on the streets to the tunes of the Drake track. Then another star brought a stationary car into the picture and slowly people took the challenge to the next level by stepping out of moving cars. I was told that a Hollywood star even danced atop a bridge in Budapest. If this challenge continues we will perhaps get to see even riskier performances by people who are desperate to show that they have lots of substance. Or maybe another challenge, deadly game or outrageous gimmick could shadow the Kiki challenge.
Collective memory is very short and is always on the lookout for novelty. A few months ago, I was called by an organization to elucidate the psychological aspects of the blue whale challenge where the player is encouraged to indulge in progressive episodes of self-harm and the final task is suicide. The problem does not lie in these challenges per se but the narcissistic mindset of a large population which makes them gullible. The well-meaning warnings will continue to be disregarded until we do something to change the inner psychology at a collective level.
What led to this narcissistic epidemic in the first place? It is the modernisation, individualisation, greed and workaholism of our society. The entire emphasis has shifted from community life to a lone self. Without the relevant connections, this lone self feels insecure, small and shameful and believes that it must do something larger than life to feel good and attract the love of others. Over time, people build a false self to reassure themselves that they are significant, and the exaggerated self-love compensates for an absence of unconditional love from significant others.
Even the parent-child relationships are getting defined by the need to prove oneself. We work hard so that we can put our children in elite schools, take them on vacations to the most exotic places and shower them with flashy gadgets and gifts. We give them the ‘best’ and expect them to give the ‘best’ in return - to excel in all spheres and outperform everyone. Nowadays, the competition starts early, and many parents leave no stone unturned in grooming and training their toddlers to win reality shows.
Sadly, in all this ‘doing’ and ‘performing’ for each other, we have forgotten ‘how to be there for and with each other’. This has led to the rise of a meaningless self that can feel alive only when it succeeds. Despite all this running around, are we really happy? The statistics clearly tell us that the incidence and prevalence of medical diseases, social issues and psychological disorders has increased manifold in the last few decades. For now, happiness seems to be out of sight.
Robert Waldinger, the director of a landmark 75-year-old longitudinal study on human development observes that fame and money rarely gives happiness. He says that the greatest source of joy for most people is having strong and supportive relationships. This is not too difficult to understand. I remember my childhood days in a small joint family where Sundays were fun. Everyone used to sit together, play, eat and laugh. Nobody had to look into a screen to finish their pending office work or an urgent assignment, check messages on their phone, make a call to an international business partner on Skype or watch random shows on television to kill time. We used to look at each other and I felt happy that I existed.
Of course, we don’t need to undo all this development and invent a time machine to take us back to 1980s. But we urgently need to find ways so that we can once again exist meaningfully for and with each other. Then, our need to be seen, acknowledged, valued and loved will be met without the caricature superhuman acts. And then, Kiki will once again become a peppy lament of failed love stories.
(The writer is a clinical psychologist)