It makes no difference in my experience of the world whether Xris continues to consume deep-fried chicken five nights out of seven, playing Zelda every evening with his wife and childhood friends, working at a dead-end job and visiting with his mom every day. It only bugs the hell out of me because of my unspoken assumption that you have to do something remarkable with your life.It’s easy to believe, given the sheer volume of literature out there touting perennial self-improvement and excellence as the gold standard, that you are a failure for not contributing to civilization.
I think Shanna’s being a bit hard on herself to call it bigotry because, as she says, this sort of attitude is like the air we breathe, taken totally for granted as the natural order of things. Most people never become aware of it at all.
I’ve long been a proponent of principled slacking, and I periodically have to re-explain my credenda to someone or another when they question my lack of careerist ambition. Just recently, I had to deflect yet more importunate attention from someone determined to make me recognize my, uh, calling as a writer. Lord, preserve me from the good they would do in my name…
Look, the vast majority of the human race, past, present and future, consists of people who don’t do anything that “matters” in the big scheme of things. They live simple, unacknowledged lives of piddling accomplishments that are important only to their loved ones before retiring to a grave that no one will visit within a couple generations. To judge by a biased preference for results means having to write off most of the species as a failure, redeemable only by the fact that they served as tiny little cobblestones helping to smooth the way for those with an actual destiny to fulfill, or as minuscule stipples of paint in someone else’s masterpiece. That’s the shadow of this sort of dizzying, utopian optimism that values ends over means: a sour disgust when you finally realize that most people never will actualize their potential for whatever reason.
But even more importantly, there are very few, if any, unalloyed “goods” in the world. Almost anything you can name as a net positive has eventually led to unexpected negative results as well. In an age of mass education, where the average elementary school student is more literate and scientifically educated than most of the ancient world, we’re all too familiar with the strange counter-enlightenment phenomenon of people who have apparently reacted to all this information by taking an insolent pride in being ignorant. Our poor don’t necessarily starve to death anymore, but they suffer disproportionately from obesity-related illness resulting from a cornucopia of food like chocolate-chip-pancakes-and-sausage on a stick. We (at least those of us in wealthy countries) vanquish many of the perennial torments of humanity throughout its history, such as plague, famine and barbarian invasions, only to fall prey to depression and ennui. The Taoists used to shake their heads and chuckle at the earnest way Confucians, in their tunnel vision, thought they had all the answers for how everyone else needed to live. How do we know that the good we do today won’t be the problem someone else has to solve tomorrow?
This isn’t meant to seem like an endorsement of quietism. I, for one, am certainly glad some obsessed geniuses got around to inventing electric guitars, modern medicine and the Internet. And I’m happy to be in unrequited love with writing and music, knowing full well that the more I have, the more I’ll need, never entirely satisfied, always reaching for just a bit more. Striving itself is not necessarily a bad thing. A life devoted to achieving tasks and seeking glory is no more or less valid than a life devoted to happiness. It’s just that too much of goal-seeking places far too much value on the brief moment of satisfaction with one’s accomplishment, which, as we all should know from experience, is never quite as awesome as you’ve imagined it to be while striving for it, and it’s quickly replaced by the hyperactive urge to pick up and get moving again. How many people do we know who spend decades like this, only to conclude that all is vanity because they haven’t enjoyed the time they spent getting there? When it comes to work, the activity most of us spend much of our adult lives engaged in, it seems a lot more psychologically healthy to aim to be content, knowing when enough is enough. The idea that things can endlessly improve along a steady upward trajectory is the product of a historically ignorant, linear-minded culture that thinks we can have good without bad, up without down, or the front of a coin without the back. The idea that our “unique” talent is destined to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace, of all things, unless we shamefully avoid owning up to it, is a ridiculous fiction, as daft as anything John Calvin or Ayn Rand ever belched forth. And it’s insulting to act as if arête is confined to marketable skills and transactional relationships.
We are not in any way obligated to push everything as far as it can possibly go. I can’t possibly stress this enough.