What I Learned About Life From Homer Simpson

When a show is on the air for over 20 years you can bet that it resonates with people. Most people think this is a happy thought, but The Simpsons succeeds in large part because it captures the misery and difficulty of life. It reflects the struggle for recognition and meaning in life. The characters are constantly battling for their little territories, negotiating and manipulating to make their lives just a little better to alleviate their misery for a little while.

The top of his head is still showing, claw at it.”

It might be strange to think that this little scene in The Simpsons Movie is the most accurate metaphor for human existence. In the scene, the usual angry mob is trying to attack Homer, who contaminated Lake Springfield, causing the town to be encased in a bubble by the feds. He jumps into a sinkhole, but his girth gets him stuck so that only the top of his head is showing. So Moe encourages the angry mob to claw at his head. After all, that’s the only thing left to them.

This is how most of us live our lives. We claw at whatever we can in the vain hopes that we will be able to alleviate our misery, even for a little while. This is especially true among the men I know (I can’t speak for women on this one). If you are a man think about all of the activities you do, the new things you try just to alleviate the mind-numbing existence of the working man. To paraphrase the comedian Bobby Slayton, men will even do crazy things like go ice fishing, all just to get away from their lives for a little while.

What do we do in the workplace? We claw and fight for raises and promotions. Why? Because we have nothing else to do. We have to give meaning to the workplace, otherwise we are just cogs that do not matter in the least. We have to have goals to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we are miserable and that we are, in fact, meaningless. We think “if only I can get promoted” or “a raise will make me feel better.” Have these ever satisfied you? Who among us advances one rung on the corporate ladder and says “that is enough for me?” Who gets a raise and says “I make enough money?” No one. It is never about money or title, it is about bullshitting yourself into thinking that you actually matter.

“No matter how good you are at something, there are like a million people better than you.”

Think about when you discuss your job with new people who do not know what you do. Everyone tries to make it seem like they are more important than they really are. They act as if the world could not go on without them, as if they are the most important person in the world. Yet few of us, myself included, have a job that does anything to legitimately help people.

No matter how good you think you are at your job, whether you are a doctor, lawyer, electrician or assembly line worker, millions can and will do your job better than you. So no matter how much we kid ourselves into thinking that we are important to the bottom line of the company we work for, we aren’t. We are nothing more than the grease that makes our employer’s work get done, and every bit as fungible as grease.

And the sad fact is that it does not matter. In the long run no one cares. It makes no difference to us or anyone else. When we are gone our entire life’s work will be taken over by someone else and within a few months it is as if we never existed. We are never happy, never satisfied and never satiated. So we try to imbue our work lives with a meaning that is not there because it makes us feel better and distracts us from the fact that we are simply oxen, working for someone else and hoping to get an extra handful of grain for our troubles.

“If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead”

Homer was giving Bart some advice when he said the above. As you get older this statement is most certainly true. The reason why mid-life crises exist is because life is a string of defeats and we know it. The highs and successes of life are few and far between, and short-lived. You got a raise or promotion at work? So what, in a year you will still be complaining. Yet the defeats are long-lived, scarring us and making us hurt for a long time.

When you get to your late-30’s and early 40’s people start dying. Those closest to you get sick. They get cancer and die. Your parents, if they are still alive, are not likely to be around in ten years. You watch incompetent people do better than you because of random chance and it ruins your drive to succeed. These things hurt, and the pain they inflict far surpasses the short-lived benefit of the raise, promotion or watching your children play.

“Sometimes the only way you can feel good about yourself is by making someone else look bad”.

As we get older we are a bundle of neuroses. Speaking hyperbolically and out of my ass, virtually every adult I know is either in psychotherapy, taking anti-depressants or otherwise generally dissatisfied with life. All I hear are complaints from people about their lives, their status or their complaints about other people.

Gossip about other people is nothing new. Most of us are too brain-dead to talk about ideas or events, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt. So we talk about people. But not in a nice way. No we are mostly concerned with picking apart the foibles of others, pointing out how we have it slightly better than some other oxen. That does, as Homer recognized, make us feel better.

Think about when you get together with your friends. How much time do you spend complaining about your life or the faults of others. Keep track next time and let me know. Most of us, sadly, have not grown at all since high school, and the pathetic way that we are so willing to slice apart others while ignoring our own flaws makes us feel better.

As a parent of two, it is my sad duty to report that some people are willing to make other people’s children look bad to make themselves feel better. Yes, even kids are not immune from the daggers of adult psychoses. I will give you three guesses how they will turn out. At a recent event I attended one adult who was  there had to one-up someone’s eight-year-old daughter to make themselves feel better. And it happens all the time.

“Turn on the TV, I am starting to think”

Homer said this when the TV was on the fritz. We are constantly looking for things to fill in the gaping holes in our psyches that life’s defeats bring. We go on vacations, try learning new activities, read books or do whatever we can, including watching TV. It is all a vain attempt to distract ourselves, to keep us from thinking about our misery.

But it is always there, lurking around the corner waiting to engulf us once our brief respite is over. Work is always there, commuting like the sheep at the beginning of Chaplin’s Modern Times, which shows a herd of sheep morphing into a mass of humans entering a subway station.

The point of this scene is not just to show that we are herded like sheep. That is too facile an interpretation. It is also that the corporate, industrialized workplace de-humanizes us. We can gain only the briefest respite from the daily grind, but that grind will inexorably continue, grinding our spirits to a nub like a pencil. Like Chaplin’s sheep we become something like drone bees, living only to produce wealth for others and to support those sad, useless individuals who simply will never do anything other than consume and use our spirits and our energy for financial support.

There is plenty more we can learn from Homer and his clan, but space is limited. But kudos to the show for capturing the essence of human existence, a Hobbes-ian existence that is nasty, brutish and short no matter how we dress it up in nice clothes, fancy watches and houses.


One Response to “What I Learned About Life From Homer Simpson”

  1. wow

    you have written everything that I am, at 42, struggling with.

    life is arbitrary and unfair – and any appearance of rules of conduct turns out to be a trick of the light.

    It astonishes me when the religious folk cling to the belief that humans are the apex and somehow matter,


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