Category Archives: Life
If there’s been any easily identifiable shift in my attitude toward life in the last couple of years, it is one that has also left me feeling much better off in the world: the shift from feeling sorry for those who, if they are mentioned at all in footnotes in someone else’s memoirs, are simply forgotten as soon as they die, to pitying those who think it’s a shame not even to make it into a footnote.
Striking to observe how difficult the idea of “waste” has become. Whatever “wasting something” really means isn’t obvious.
If you can use it again, keep it.
If you have no use for it anymore but it could be absorbed by another process, you’re recycling.
If you accidentally spilled it, take a picture and call it art.
It could sound like I’m being facetious but I’m not. There’s a moralistic, patronizing element to the condemnation of wastage. When the cost of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral was announced, one of the saner common responses to the announcement was the simple question of where else that money could have gone. In other words: What a waste.
It’s not that by being anti-Thatcher you are necessarily smarter about wasting things. Yes, a deeply conservative antagonism to some perceived decline in cultural standards suggests the regret that so much of worth in what has shaped one’s culture should “go to waste” amid the rabble and the babble; but the revolutionary spirit itself, especially when animated by the desire for bloodshed (or the terribly sorry necessity of it) brings with it another standard of wastage. Can human life be wasted? My ideologically inflected answer is: sure. But what kind of waste is impermissible? The genocidal? The plotted? An unfulfilled life? An unexamined one? A godless, hedonistic fall into hell?
Online culture, home of the new utopians, is one of the best examples of the trouble with waste as a concept. Whether it’s Clay Shirky with his “cognitive surplus” or Chris Anderson with his “long tail,” there seems to be a (perhaps imaginary, but too easily imagined) consensus on the matter: waste is difficult. Remixing and resampling is easy, and sharing is easy, so whatever old material you find, you can reuse artistically. No waste. Or: It costs little to store enormous collections of music in the cloud, so even if, out of all the available music, only a fraction of it actually generates real money on its own, the sales from the rest will also be significant taken together. No waste.
Thus, abruptly, ends my catechism.
Ambition is stupid; it makes your actions uninterpretable, turns friends into comforters of Job, prepares the world for your downfall.
When you are ambitious, you present yourself as more than you are in the opinions of others. You stand there, you say what you are trying to do, and you become two people: the person they think you are, and the person they think you’re trying to become. They compare your goals to what they think you can do. They never start from what you actually are, and nobody can force them.
They are cruel, and they’re usually right, in one sense: your ambition is yours, but your public image is theirs. You can try to control it, tell them they’re wrong, have a public breakdown. It’s going to work against you every time, because you are giving your ambition away, and asking others to make sense of it for you. You’re saying: “I want to do these things,” and adding, very quietly: “As long as that’s okay with you, and the people you talk to; as long as my ambition seems justified in your eyes; as long as you don’t humiliate me when I fail.”
The more you try to justify your ambition to others, the less you help yourself. Every word that goes into subtly asking people not to judge you is a wasted word.
Fighting for peace, the motto used to go, is like screwing for virginity. Along those lines, trying to make people love you for being ambitious will make you irritating, unpopular and, most importantly, unignorable. You’ll be a clown, playing the clown any time the conversation comes up, and you won’t have any time to learn to juggle. Disappear for a bit.
Let them ignore you when they aren’t mocking you; and say nothing if you ever manage to prove them wrong.
If you fail, they were right; and even then it won’t matter. But they were right.
Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m going to vanish for a few days, because I want that childlike excitement at another year having passed. The bustle of people you meet every day seems to get in the way of that.
Last night my flatmate, Rob, joined me in a simple experiment:
We turned out the lights, switched off all phones, broke off from the world as much as possible. He sat in a corner of the living room. I sat on the floor. We lit a single candle, which we placed about two meters away from the bookshelf, so that we were both staring at it from roughly the same distance.
Then we sat in total silence for 30 minutes, and thought.
At the 30 minute mark, a subtle xylophone alarm sound went off in the distance.
I’ve been talking to various unconnected people about this type of activity: this total blackout, this taking time to stop absolutely everything that “people do” and focus instead on being absent from the world for an hour. The only reason we didn’t go for a full hour this time was that Rob had never tried it before, and it seemed like a big commitment.
Saying “go away” to the world for an hour is not necessarily meditation — not in the popular sense of the world, which has, at least to me, very subtle spiritual connotations. (I reject spirituality as the least convincing sense of existence — and I am a fan of Dave Webster’s attack on spirituality, which I reviewed…) The candle burning wasn’t a way of purifying anything. It wasn’t a way of reducing stress. It was just something to focus on in an otherwise pitch black room.
It has to be tried, not just discussed. You make yourself a cave-dwelling wanderer and you light a fire and you try to remember the bare bones of existence as a person: being aware of a thing. That’s how it seems to start — you’re here, there’s something over there, and you are aware of it. Philosophers sometimes build their castles simply by being aware of that awareness. You sit and you think, waiting for the bell in perfect silence, staring at a candle burning its way impermanently into nothing. If you suffer from anxiety the way I have done for years, this is a step forward in figuring it out.
Fire is famously taken for granted; it used to be a tool we built along with lances and clothes: you needed fire for something, you set aside time to build it, and you made good use of it. Now it’s a Christmas decoration. What was rare and precious is now ornamental and cheap. Nowadays fire works better as a metaphor for human passions than it does as a manifestation of physical realities.
Silence, on the other hand, is in short supply. Unlike the elusive spark that sets a bundle of sticks alight, silence is an overwhelming restriction on human babble. It’s everywhere, when you remove the noise, but finding a way to do that is ever harder. I’m not used to walking into someone’s house for the first time and discovering a microcosm of silence. There’s a TV, a washing machine, a hairdryer, an iPod connected to speakers with subwoofers. The phone rings and it must be picked up. The doorbell interrupts a conversation. Somewhere a dog barks because it is a dog, and someone honks a horn because there happens to be a person of their acquaintance on the other side of the road. Neighbors are having loud sex for the first time in months.
Boringly busy people may find sitting for an hour in the dark as tedious as a commute to work. The indifferent and the commonsensically inclined may agree it could work for some people, but nah, no thanks.
Yet sitting and thinking in the dark is, paradoxically, an act of great illumination. You can surprise yourself. By the time the bell has rung, you realize you’ve spent the last fifteen or twenty minutes imagining other people talking about you. Or remembering projects you were excited about for weeks, then totally abandoned without a backward glance — why did that happen? Or you find your mind circling obsessively over an ex you haven’t thought about with any clarity in months or years. Or you find yourself so inspired by a sudden insight that you are literally getting up to turn on the lights at the moment you realize the bell hasn’t run yet. And then you have to wait, and you start thinking some more.
It’s not therapy. It’s not a purging of your demons. It does give a sense of returning to a state of naivety, which I consider a good thing sometimes. But really, nothing on the outside has to change. You’ve remembered the accumulation of events and people that made you this person, with these opinions, and these regrets, and these triumphs.
With some luck, you will end up remembering the fascination of fire and silence, and the benefit of that is a secret you, too, will leave mostly unarticulated.
If high school is where you learn about how people work, then your twenties seem to be all about making sense of your high school years.
It’s a cliché (an unhelpful cliché) to say high school is artificial and not what the “real world” is like. You’ve probably heard someone talk about how carefree and insulated high school students can be. How they focus on being popular because they don’t have to work for a living. Their parents put up with their mood swings, often with unconditional parental patience.
Bull. There’s more to it than that. In high school, you’re lumped in with a bunch of people you don’t necessarily like, and you have to spend a big section of your day with them working on projects you’re not sure you care about. Some might call that a job situation.
In high school, you catch a glimpse of people before they’re self-aware enough to conceal their nature. You see betrayals, hazing rituals, bullying, cheating. You see people falling in love with other people for reasons nobody understands. Your best friend is important to you because without your best friend — without someone who isn’t just going to flip their shit and judge you for whatever stupid reason — you’d be alone.
In high school, if you do well, you’re a teacher’s pet, or a show-off. If you do poorly, you’d better have a good justification (banging a classmate all week, smoking joints with an infinitely more interesting person) or you are simply an idiot. Or weird. As soon as you get called weird, you are to your high school what the creepy guy is to the office.
High school is fun when your workload doesn’t make you miserable. It’s fun when nobody’s mocking you. Sometimes you find yourself at the heart of vicious rumors. And the rumors make no sense, so you get paranoid.
In other words, high school is a distillation of social life in general. It tells you everything you need to know about the dangers of living around other people. And because these are your formative years, high school is as real as the Real World will ever get.
The danger isn’t high school itself. What’s really going to screw you is the kind of thinking you do in the years after you’ve left high school. Some people go get a degree; others get jobs. But unless I’m mistaken in most of my observations over the last few years, the way you behave after high school is in large part a reaction to the person you think you were back then.
A guy wasn’t popular in the twelfth grade. He gets a clean slate, discovers he can be charming, and goes on a sexual rampage. Time to make up for lost time.
Another guy was sick to death of being treated with condescension by teachers he wanted to admire. They made him feel like an idiot for asking questions. He’s damned if he’s going to let that happen again. He overdoes it. People call him arrogant now.
One girl left high school with ridiculously high grades, a sense of her own intelligence, and a sense of humor about the whole four-year block of stupidity she had to go through as a high schooler. She used to dream of marrying an equally mature, interesting guy, but when she think she’s found one, he lets her down, and it’s as if her sense of self is shattered. She waited too long to be this devastated.
A guy snorts coke because what the hell was all the fuss back in high school? This stuff is ridiculous.
A woman has learned to trust very few people because of that seriously evil thing her friends ended up doing.
He was only a liberal because his school was full of liberals, including his favorite teacher, so when this one guy realizes he actually has conservative sympathies, he becomes very obnoxious about justifying his old mindset as the result of peer pressure and being young. Which, he’ll remind you, is how most people turn into left-wingers. Nobody thanks him for his insight.
High school is the first truly explicit and violent exposure to how people work that most of us get. It’s transformative. Your teachers treat you like you’re an idiot, so you stop trusting those in power. Your friends change allegiances even though they were perfectly happy to insult everyone but you just last week.
It’s a lesson in itself. There’s no need to react to particular traumas. Let it sit in your memory as the purest expression of human fluctuations you’ve ever known. You won’t always be helping yourself by trying to undo all the damage you think you incurred from being a student.
If you look at your current life — the way you enter relationships, the way you treat people you admire, the way you treat people who seem clueless, the way you treat your own body, how you view the social sphere as a whole and your place in it — and find traces of a high school career you wish you could change, well, you can.
By not reacting against it.