According to Vancouver author Bruce Grierson, all of us dream from time to time of overhauling our lives. Of shedding the old self, with its tired habits, complacency, and disillusionment, and taking on some utterly different, more focused and fulfilled identity. Grierson's highly readable new book, U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life? (Bloomsbury USA, $32.95), describes dozens of cases of these reversals: retail executives who suddenly turn into committed anticonsumerist activists, or Wall Street bond traders who drop everything one day and move their family to a farm on the Canary Islands.
In a conversation with the Straight at a Commercial Drive cafí‰, Grierson, a long-time journalist and contributor to Adbusters magazine, explains that both the freedoms and discontents of western society create a climate for such personal 180s. "What applies across the West, and especially in the States, is the whole narrative that says you can completely reinvent yourself," he observes. "And then consumer culture plays into the idea of these U-turns too, by creating a culture of dissatisfaction with what you have.”¦There's a constant restlessness that makes people unhappy with where they are now, and thinking they might be happier if they were a different person."
And, as Grierson notes, that's precisely where most of us remain: at the level of merely thinking. Very few who experience the flash of desire for change act on it–as, say, Malcolm X did in his transformation from petty criminal to revered African-American leader, or Leonard Cohen in abandoning his music career for a Zen Buddhist monastery, to name two famous examples.
"I think we all have these identity questions," the soft-spoken author says, "but until something squeezes us or forces a kind of moment of reckoning, we may not address them.”¦Nobody's doing everything every minute that's perfectly consonant with their belief system, and most people can live with that idea. But there's a certain kind of person who can't, and that's the kind of person who ends up doing these flips.”¦There's a kind of personality that's really driven by duty and guilt, and they can't handle this level of cognitive dissonance. If it builds up to a certain point, they feel duty-bound to do something about it."
As rare as this phenomenon is now, Grierson argues, there have been periods in history when such individual reevaluations and reversals were relatively common, as during the social movements of the 1960s. And he thinks the personal U-turn may be about to undergo a resurgence, as we enter another, similarly pivotal era.
"All of us have one sort of prevailing, operating principle, and that is 'I am a good person and I am in control,'" he says, referring to the work of American psychologist Elliot Aronson, one of the founders of congitive-dissonance theory. "Both parts of that sentence are under threat at the moment in western consumer culture. 'I'm a good person'–well, you can't do anything now without being reminded that every consumer decision you make is hurting somebody.”¦And on the other side, that you're in control–well, most people aren't fully in control of their job. They're not in control, in the sense that they're not safe from terrorism and so on, there's the uncertainty of the economy.”¦You're in control of your own affairs at home, but more and more, I think, people feel out of control in western culture. Too many things are bearing down on them. And when both of those are creating dissatisfaction and a certain instability, you set up the conditions for people wanting to make big changes."