There is defined path to success. Find a safe and stable job. Make money. Get married. Make more money. Buy a suburban home with a green lawn and white picket fence. Keep making money. Retire. Die happy.
That’s how society wants us to live our lives.
From the moment our brains are developed enough to understand what the heck is going on in the crazy world around us, they start taking the crazy out of it. When you’re little, you imagine yourself as a wizard or a superhero or a powerful fairy queen or time-travelling rockstar or the captain of an alien spaceship that has entered a wormhole and is a about to discover a new universe with a billion opportunities and where anything is possible. Then, they tell you that when you grow up you have to be a financial advisor. Or a pharmacist. Or a housewife. They say that everyone has a place in the world, but they’re not going to let you find it by yourself. Why are we expected to stuff our identities in a bottle for the sake of social approval, respectability, and money? Why do we let our inner selves rot away and die, only to be encased by a corporate robot that the world has deemed “respectable”? Why is everyone so afraid of risk-taking and adventure when that’s what has allowed our species to progress in the first place? What is so wrong about the word different? We all have freedom of choice. You can choose to play it safe and live a stable life. If that’s what you want there is nothing wrong with that. But if normality is something you have been trying to escape, keep running. Sure, the rest of the world will look at you and wonder what you’ve done with your life and talk about how you’ve ruined it. You probably won’t be getting their approval but you will get something far more valuable: self-satisfaction. Watch everyone else continue to roll along the same track, never venturing an inch off the path, to follow the same route that the preceding generation and the generation before that and the generation before that have all taken, while you explore the rest of the world and its multitude of opportunities.
“Watching the Wheels” was featured on John Lennon’s final and posthumous album Double Fantasy. The song was written in response to critics condemning him spending time with his family, taking care of his young son, Sean, and being a “househusband” rather than spending all of his time cranking out more successful recordings and making more money. Rather than taking the commercially successful route and devoting all of his time to work, he found it more rewarding doing what truly made him happy at this point in his life — his family. He saw no shame in fulfilling the typically “feminine” role of spending time in the house and raising a child (thank you for being a feminist John). While the rest of the world kept spinning along the same path, weary and unfulfilled, he did what he wanted to do, valuing his own happiness over fame, fortune, and public opinion.
“People say I’m crazy, doing what I’m doing
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I’m okay, well, they look at me kinda strange
‘Surely, you’re not happy now, you no longer play the game'”
Everybody thinks that they know best and that they have the answer to living a happy life. While someone may know how to make themselves happy, no one can answer that question for anybody else. There is the popular idea for how to live a happy life: pick the stable job that if you’re lucky, you might find semi-interesting, and bring home lot’s of money. Critics condemn Lennon leaving of his work behind and “no longer play[ing] the game”. But what people continue to forget is that money cannot guarantee happiness. This idea has been expressed in countless songs, books, movies, and has even been reiterated to the point of becoming a cliché. And yet, so many people are still unable to learn this lesson. The corporate machines work all day at their high-paying jobs and laugh at the nonconformists, unable to comprehend the fact that someone’s life purpose could possibly be found outside the office.
“People say I’m lazy dreaming my life away,
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me,
When I tell that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall,
Don’t you miss the big time boy you’re no longer on the ball?”
Society has never been friendly to dreamers. Anyone who sees, thinks, or acts differently is branded as a nutcase, their ideas scoffed at, and is thrown into a social insane asylum. There, they get to rot away in solitary confinement while the rest of the world continues to ride the “merry-go-round” of mediocrity. Maybe the crazies are watching “shadows on the wall” because they see more than just shadows — shapes and characters and stories and concepts — that the rest of the world cannot see because they are too worried about public opinions and being respectable to see beyond what they have deemed “real life”. But everything we see in the world is only as real as we interpret them to be. Is it realistic to think that if you keep toiling along, repeating the same routine everyday, that it will bring you happiness today when it didn’t yesterday? If you have tried the “big time” and it wasn’t for you, why stick with it?
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go,
While the first two verses discuss society’s point of view on the individual, the chorus represent’s the society through the individual’s eyes. To me, Lennon’s words here are reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. The individual has seen something different, beyond the comprehension of the rest of society. Upon learning new truths, he or she looks back at those left behind in the dark, continuing on with their lives, which now seem silly as they obsess over the lies they have been told since birth. And yet, they condemn those who have seen another way of life, just because it is different than their own. So, the individual watches the community that has been left behind, in which people continue to ride “the merry-go-round” that they have ridden for their entire lives, afraid of jumping off.
“People asking questions lost in confusion,
Well I tell them there’s no problem,
Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind,
I tell them there’s no hurry…
I’m just sitting here doing time,”
Some people have been riding the merry-go-round for too long, have gotten dizzy and motion-sick, and can’t figure out why. Blind to everything but the world they know and are comfortable in, these merry-go-round riders refuse to recognize solutions that exist beyond their conventional realities. When unorthodox ideas are proposed, “they shake their heads and look at [them] as if [they]’ve lost [their] minds”. Even when they recognize that there is something wrong with the system they have lived in all their lives, people refuse to recognize legitimate solutions. Everyone thought that World War I would be the “war to end all wars”, and yet it was followed with an even more devastating and tragic war. Shouldn’t this have been proof that war doesn’t bring about peace, only more suffering and loss of life? And yet we continue to fight to solve our problems. If the methods that we have been using to solve our problems for generations still don’t work, maybe we should be listening to someone who is thinking a little more outside the box.
“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.”
The wheels will keep on turning and the merry-go-round will forever be spinning, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t free to jump off whenever you’d like. Instead of being forced to sit on a porcelain horse and cling to a swirly metallic pole for eternity, take a leap into the world surrounding it. Run free with your own legs, breathe in air that isn’t tainted with the smell of deep-fried carnival food that the vendors try to stuff down your throat, and explore the millions of billions of trillions of opportunities that exist beyond the “normal”. See things that you never thought existed and do things that the people you once knew said were impossible. The others might think you’re crazy, but then again, they’re the ones whose realities are composed of mirrors and shadows and cold, intricately painted figures of horses and rabbits that will never breathe and sprint and live like the ones you can see elsewhere. Maybe you’ll lose friends in the process, maybe you’ll lose respect, maybe you’ll even lose the safety and security that your old world had to offer, but you will gain something else: an identity. If what society offered you was unsatisfactory, be satisfied with yourself and all that you have done to build yourself into the person that makes you happy.