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.
We have created a monster that is consuming us. And I don’t mean that “the Internet is bad” in that hypocritical and falsely ascetic way. I mean that we, along with the phones that travel with us, the texts we type in movie theaters, the instant messages we receive now even on some planes, the social media many of us are expected to participate in on behalf of our jobs, and the complexes and work ethics we have all inherited from our diverse array of guilt-generating forebears, have bubbled together into a frenzy of ceaseless professional engagement that is boiling us dry.[…] I don’t own an iPhone or a BlackBerry because I do not want to receive e-mail all day every day. Increasingly I understand this preference to be naive, impractical and really rather twee. On several occasions in the past year, days when I’ve run between appointments and not brought my laptop, I’ve had to call my boyfriend to ask him to log into my e-mail and tell me whether I’ve missed anything urgent. I should get a smart phone because I live in the real world. And in the real world, where I used to receive a few dozen e-mails a day, I now receive hundreds.[…] I don’t think the notion that we have to be constantly plugged in is just in our heads: I think it’s also in the heads of our superiors, our colleagues, our future employers and our prospective employees. There will be judgment, or at least a note made, perhaps by a boss who’s tried to reach you unsuccessfully, or an employee who has an urgent question that goes briefly unanswered.To not be reachable if called upon at any time, except perhaps the dead of night, feels sinful; unavailability betrays disconnectedness, and disconnectedness has come to stand for idleness and indolence. How many people have sent needless e-mails at 7 a.m. or perhaps 11 p.m., with the thought, if not the conscious intention, of communicating an intensity of professional commitment, demonstrating defensively or passive-aggressively or in the hopes of beating the next round of layoffs that they were beavering away at every odd hour of the day and night.America’s excesses are never far from sight: Our endless enthusiasms for boundless capitalism, materialism and hedonism persist. But these three have always had a complicated but close relationship with their uptight buddy, Puritanism, and I can’t help feeling these days like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards have insinuated themselves into everyone’s friends and family network, preaching the gospel of a work world without end.
For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader.
[…] I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private.
[…] What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing—that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld—is becoming harder and harder to comprehend.
— Jed Perl
I, of course, don’t have to worry about the possibility of publication, so it would seem like cheap posturing if I were to claim that I wouldn’t want a huge audience even if I had the chance to attract one. Well, call me a poser, then, because it’s true!
Seriously, though, I do agree with his points. Even as a simple blogger, I can see the truth of what he’s saying. When I first started doing this, I really had no idea what I was doing or why. I was “raised” on the political blogs; in fact, writing about politics and current events was the purpose, maybe even the definition of blogging as I understood it. I knew that there were people who wrote in a much more personal manner, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone outside of family or close friends would want to read what amounted to an online diary. Very few people are talented enough to write compellingly about their personal lives, even if they do lead interesting ones.
I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be just another political blogger, but at the time, I didn’t have the confidence or even a good sense of how to write about other topics, so I took a hiatus for a couple years and spent the time trying to find different writers who wrote about offbeat topics, to help me envision the possibilities this format contained. When I finally decided to get back into it, I made up my mind that I was just going to write whatever I felt about whatever I wanted, serious or silly, coherent or surreal, and I wouldn’t make the slightest effort to attract an audience. Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick for me, and I was able to find somewhat of a voice of my own, free of the expectations of an audience or a desire to please one. Before, when I felt an urge to keep up with some standard, to talk about the same topics everyone else was talking about, I wasn’t enjoying it at all. It was a chore. Since giving up entirely on the idea of acceptance and putting everything out of my head but the desire to write things that I can be relatively proud of, it’s become increasingly enjoyable, to the point where I feel somewhat lethargic and less mentally focused when I don’t get to do any writing. I actually feel energized and alert for the next day or so following a good day of writing, regardless of whether anyone else read it or not.
So even if I were able to make an actual living at writing, I would probably still maintain a pseudonymous blog just for the freedom it affords. I’m sure there are rewards to writing for a substantial group of people who largely enjoy it and give you positive feedback, but I’m content to keep secretly typing away in my tiny little corner of the Internet.
Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.
— Alexander Herzen
I would just add that we menfolk are just as subject to many of the exact same contradictory exhortations to find fulfillment – I’ve had plenty of well-meaning people tell me that a life without a romantic partner, children of my own, and a more professional, lucrative job is problematic – but otherwise, I agree with Rebecca Traister:
You know what I think? It’s all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I’ve aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I’m just not sure that “happiness” is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it’s punishing that we’re constantly being pushed to achieve it.
…But I would submit also that sometimes dissatisfied is just how life is. And that that’s all right.
…Here is what I have deduced so far both from my experiences and from the hissed warnings of those who propel me toward their idea of happiness and simultaneously warn me it will never really be attainable: There will be peaks — falling in love, seeing new places, enjoying whatever form a family takes, drinking a beer on a warm night, seeing a baseball team win a long coveted pennant. And there will be valleys — divorces and illnesses, joblessness and money trouble, watching those you love in pain, a ninth inning playoff loss. In those valleys, I’m not sure that it’s happiness we first strive for, but rather the power to not get stuck, to move toward just slightly higher ground. A spot within view of a peak will often do just as nicely as a seat atop it.
There is no formula for life satisfaction, no recipe that doesn’t produce lumps of discontent or frustration.
That is happiness by my definition, an acceptance of the necessity of discontent — not merely the inevitability of it, but the necessity. Disasters and heartbreaks aren’t merely temporary obstacles, tests of character, or plot devices to make your life’s story more interesting; they’re not just there to make it that much sweeter when you win at the end, because nobody “wins” and there is no “end”.
Also, “happy” isn’t the same thing as “giddy”. Almost every day, I alternately feel anger, anxiety, and weltschmerz, not to mention any of the other eighty-three problems, but it’s fine if I remember that they will eventually ebb without me really needing to do anything about it. I don’t know if this is a peculiarly American thing, this strange, ahistorical notion that happiness and success can be on a permanent upward trajectory, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Like Treme itself, the show is an oasis of freedom in a sea of slavery. When Davis glimpses Elvis Costello in the audience and tries to get Kermit Ruffins to go kowtow to Elvis to get fame and fortune and a spot on an Elvis world tour, Kermit demurs. Davis demands, “All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?” Kermit murmurs, “That’ll work.”
Davis: “Goddamn, Kermit, go talk — you deserve — don’t you wanna get famous? You deserve to be famous! America needs it some Kermit. You’re — you’re just standin’ there, tellin’ me that all you wanna do is get high, play — play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”Kermit: “That’ll work.”Davis: “God, man, I mean — that’s just so sad.”
Maybe I’m still a kook, because now, years later, my convictions about the ready availability of knowledge remain pretty much unchanged. Devoid of a degree as I am, I have never stopped reading, inquiring, and exploring the world of ideas and facts. All this is not to deny, of course, that formal education is good in its way (and naturally some specialties — law and medicine most notably — absolutely require old-fashioned collegiate training). But I still believe deeply in the worth and merit of impractical learning — that is, learning not yoked with any particular worldly ambition — and I wish that this kind of “aimless” learning could find better cultural legitimacy.
Hear, hear. Many thanks to Shanna for passing along this essay to me. I have been disappointing family, friends and teachers for a few decades with my insouciance toward “applying myself”, which is to say, my refusal to try to make as much money as I can with whatever talents I have. I seem to have had a congenital aversion to that mentality, passive while I was younger, but one that has hardened into a gleeful enjoyment of thumbing my nose at conventional attitudes regarding education and money. And while I have yet to feel embarrassed about being a “loser” when it comes to worldly success, I have felt that way numerous times upon realizing that I’m wasting my enthusiasm for learning and thinking while trying to share it with someone who couldn’t care less. I share Susan Jacoby’s lament about how hard it is to find people with the intelligence and passion to discuss rarefied topics with such a breezy familiarity:
As the art of live conversation continues its decline, it is saddening to discover that some of the best examples of old-fashioned, discursive, passionate intellectual conversation can be found today only in books. For a glimpse of the way intellectuals used to talk, not only to one another but to anyone else who happened to be within range, one might consult a splendid, concise 1988 portrait of the maverick journalist I.F. Stone, compiled from taped conversations between Stone and the author, Andrew Patner. Stone, an autodidact who dropped out of college in his junior year, was talking about his research for a book about the trial of Socrates:
“I’ve often said that no one has gotten away with so much egregious nonsense out of sheer charm as Plato. It’s nonsense, absolute nonsense. And the devout Platonists — it’s like a cult, they’re like Moonies. I mean, Plato is a fascinating thinker and a marvelous writer and a man of comedic genius. Olympiodorus says that he wanted to be a writer of comedy, of plays and comedy — he’s supposed to have had a copy of Aristophanes on his bed when he died — but when he met Socrates he gave that up….And you have to read him, too, not just for his system or ideas, but for the way he gets at it, for all the by-products, the joy, and the wrestle, so to speak. No other philosopher turned his philosophies into little dramas. That gives them part of their continual charm….The Phaedo is just — I was reading the Phaedo at American University, and I just burst into tears. The kids must have thought I’d gone wacky. It’s very moving. A great drama.
…And so, you understand the Greek theater and its wellsprings of freedom much better when you look at the Roman theater and comedy. And with the Greek law and the Roman law, the procedure and laws of the Greek Assembly and the Roman Assembly….I don’t care much for Rome. Cicero is a big tub of crap. Typical corporation lawyer and ass-kisser of the rich and powerful. But he studied in Athens, a few centuries after the great days, and his philosophical treatises, while they’re not profound, are very valuable. You consult what he has to say in the De natura deorum, De divinatione, and the Tusculan Disputations….I agree with Caesar though. He called the prose style Asiatic, by which he meant overadorned, and I think his speeches are a little too flowery.”
This is what a passionate intellectual conversation sounds like — the genuine learnedness, the intensity, the sense of communion with people who lived and died thousands of years ago. I wish I had been on the other end of that conversation. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone call Plato a purveyor of egregious nonsense, and Cicero was a big ass-kisser. One need look no further for a perfect example of the connection between the decline of reading and the decline of intellectual conversation.
I would say that they’re both connected to the decline of people being interested in anything that isn’t geared toward some tangible measure of success. Who wants to talk about Plato and Roman theater when there’s money to be made? My orthopedic surgeon, an amateur history buff himself, used to always ask about whatever book I was reading while sitting in the room waiting on him, and we’d spend a little time discussing various topics at each visit. Once he finally asked me, “What are you going to do with all this knowledge?” Nothing, really, I said. There were practical obstacles: I didn’t go to college (beyond taking classes for my own pleasure at community college for a few years), and without a degree and some type of specialized skill, there wasn’t any real hope of using my interests to make money. What, is someone going to pay me to sit at home and read a bunch of obscure books? I told him that there were also countless people out there who already knew much more than I did about any given topic, so as far as I was concerned, this was all just for fun and the ability to provide interesting conversation. He didn’t say anything critical of that, but I could tell he thought it was bizarre.
My father once asked me if I regretted not pursuing my love of philosophy to the extent of trying to become a professor myself. I told him that my former professor lived in a small apartment and drove a Ford Pinto; being that I was already in a similar income bracket, why would I want to acquire tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a useless degree on top of it? Another friend of mine, with a Ph.D. in philosophy, has worked all sorts of temp jobs in recent years, including at a convenience store. And yet another friend, in her late thirties, was telling me recently that she’s going to be paying off her student loans until she’s 67. I might not be able to get a high-paying job with only a high-school diploma, but then again, I don’t necessarily need one if I’m not staggering along under the mountain of debt that all my better-educated friends have.
My former neighbor used to good-naturedly lecture me on how I was wasting my time and talents (musical and literary) living an ordinary life doing ordinary things. She was one of those spiritual-not-religious types who hadn’t examined her assumptions closely enough to realize that she still carried a very Christian belief in people having a “calling” that they were obliged to heed. She preferred to say that I had a “gift” for music or writing, but it amounted to the same thing: I was obliged/destined/meant to fulfill those talents to the greatest extent possible, and if I didn’t, I was lying to myself or failing my potential. I used to tweak her in return by saying that no, a “gift” implied a “giver”, and maybe an obligation in return, and since there was no god, I was free to slack off as much as I wanted. And does anyone really need to be reminded how many people have single-mindedly pursued and achieved a goal only to find themselves miserable when it doesn’t measure up to the fantasies they had about it?
Immaturity. Fear of failure. Selfishness. All have been suggested as reasons for my obstinate refusal to allow my “hobbies” to turn into “business”. No one ever seems to consider that maybe having the luxury and freedom to pursue these things at my leisure is what makes them enjoyable and reinvigorating for me. Maybe I just know when I’m already happy, and isn’t that what all our tail-chasing is supposed to be leading toward in the first place?