[Originally published Nov. 23, 2017.]
After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste — and waste on our scale must be unthinking — implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place. To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.
…Attention to and gratitude for socks is not a commonly expressed attitude. And yet I cannot help but think that this habit of throwing things away the moment they become defective leads to an unpleasantly disabused attitude to life. Computers, washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, clothes, out they all go the moment they break down or require repair. I know it is a tribute to our immense productivity that it is far cheaper to obtain a new machine than to repair the old, but in a world where everything is so replaceable, what affection or gratitude develops for anything? What do we notice and appreciate if everything is instantly replaceable?
…I suppose that what I would like is an abundance that everyone appreciated and did not take for granted. This would require that everyone was aware that things could be different from how they actually are, an awareness that is increasingly difficult to achieve.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “Attitude or Gratitude?,” Farewell Fear
I have a distinct memory of being fifteen years old and going with my mom to an office-supply store, where she let me get a cool pen. I remember being aware that the novelty of this pen would be a small but genuine pleasure over the following few days, and I also remember thinking that this was the sort of thing that was considered silly, and that I should keep it to myself. Like socks, being grateful and happy about something as ordinary as a pen was lame and uncool, especially for a teenager. Over the years, though, I’ve secretly retained sentimental attachments to all sorts of humble objects, from clothing to electronics, which had long since outlived their “usefulness” by usual standards.
I recently read Robert Samuelson’s excellent book, The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement. In brief, he argued that Americans in the postwar era had come to believe in a teleological vision of life which took for granted a constant upward trajectory of both material and psychological improvement, and that our post-’60s malaise was primarily due to our inability to understand that this was always a chimera. The pursuit of ever-increasing affluence and convenience eventually produces diminishing returns. People who expect perfection will inevitably be disappointed, and our disappointment has led to several decades of fault-finding and finger-pointing as we attempt to pinpoint who or what is to blame for depriving us of our birthright. We still haven’t gotten to the point of questioning whether we ever had any good reason, let alone right, to expect it. As Louis C.K. said in a popular routine of his, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” All we can think about is what we feel was owed to us and wrongly withheld, no matter how much we already have.
Epictetus famously advised that if we are fond of a ceramic cup, we should remind ourselves that it is only ceramic cups in general that we care about, so that we won’t be bothered if this particular one breaks. He applied the same logic to spouses and children, too, a conclusion to which very few people would follow him. Still, even if we keep this line of thought confined to cups (and pens), I feel that the cure is worse than the disease here. The contingencies which make us feel insecure also allow us to feel gratitude if we choose to look at it from that perspective. The fact that all enchanting things will eventually be lost and turn to dust is the very reason why we should be appreciative of having them at all, rather than cursing our inability to possess and control them forever. I wasn’t guaranteed any of this. It could so easily have been different. But it’s here for now, and that’s enough. I’m thankful for all of it.