“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The First World Problem

"We won't let you starve".  That was one of the first things my mum said to me when I told her I was giving up working full time and money was going to become more scarce for me from now on.  She meant of course that if I did start to struggle to pay the rent or the bills, she had money available to help me out.  My parents are not rich, in comparison to probably most of their peers, but certainly come under that middle class umbrella of the "comfortably off".  When my grandad died four years ago, my dad (his only child) inherited the house he left behind, which my parents then sold to pay for their own.  When they die, I can safely assume that my sister and I will inherit half of this house each, which we will then of course be free to do with as we liked.  If they died suddenly and unexpectedly today, needless to say I would immediately sell my half.  I believe they paid around £230,000 for their home, so let's assume I would be able to pocket around £100,000.  Assuming - and why not? - that I can simplify my life at least in line with the rate of inflation, living exactly as I do now, I could live off this money about another 100 years  Facetious as it may seem to think about my own parents in such calculating terms, and don't think for a moment that I wish for any such thing, numbers don't lie; and on the conservative assumption that the indefinite life extension technology that is apparently on the horizon will not become available in time (or if it did, they would have no great interest in using it) death is inevitable.  Add to this the fact that with ten years experience of working in health and social care, I could walk into a minimum wage-paying job tomorrow if I chose to (believe me, pretty much anybody in the UK without a criminal record could, even without experience) and I can safely assume that more or less whatever happens, I'm not ever going to be destitute.

I'm not so ridiculous as to suggest that this is in any way a bad thing.  Billions of people enjoy no such luxury.  Here in my corner of the first world, reportedly 8 million people (13% of us) are struggling to adequately feed ourselves.  Obviously I'm not a member of the much-demonised "One Percent" - who if current pop-political narratives are to be taken seriously, are stealing as much money as they can possibly get away with - but using this tool to calculate my own place in the global pecking order, as someone who until very recently earned close to the average UK salary,  seems I'm still a part of that for-some-reason-not-at-all-demonised Two Percent.  That's right, fellow Britons.  We are the 2%.  That's half as bad as being the 1%, mathematically speaking.

Thinking about looking for meaning in life, and what that means (how 'meta' can you get?) means contending with the possibility that there may be no such thing.  Maybe life just is meaningless.  As Camus said, it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning - but maybe he was wrong.  Maybe life has no meaning and can not be given any.  There's an interesting thought.

One way to understand 'meaning' is as purpose - having something to do that you feel is valuable.  This doesn't actually seem to be that hard to find: many people find purpose in raising a family, and/or pursuing a career that contributes in some way to society, or promotes a cause they believe in.  A 'normal' built on such a foundation has great appeal: stability, security, a feeling of making a difference in the world.  A feeling of fitting in.  For some, fitting in is more difficult than for others.  Perhaps all you've ever wanted to do in life is drive trains.  That would meet the criteria for a meaningful life.  People use trains, and trains need drivers.  But for whatever reason - health, accident, bad luck, things don't turn out as you hoped they would, and you never become a train driver.  You knew what your purpose was but could never fulfill it.  Then you die.  Your life lacked purpose, or at least the purpose you wanted it to serve.  Did it also lack meaning?  Perhaps not.  So meaning and purpose may not be the same kind of thing.

For others, the very idea of 'fitting in' is painful.  Normality is something to be avoided: meaning is to be found in the novel and unique.  This can manifest itself in different ways, ranging from the playfully adventurous to the wilfully self-destructive.  "Travel" seems to be one of the most common manifestations.  Travel broadens the mind, they say.  They say that so often in fact, that it's easy to overlook the possibility that some minds may already have been so narrowed by circumstance or personality that they could just as easily, in response to a period of travel, be made narrower still.  However broad or narrow this sort of mind, though, its meaning is found in a kind of purposeless-ness: submitting to wanderlust, where the journey is the destination, and you never arrive.  Purpose may be the opposite of meaning.

I find normality and novelty equally compelling in their own ways.  There's peace to be found in routine: calling something "mind numbing", to me, doesn't have to be a criticism.  I enjoy data entry.  I enjoy filing, photocopying and labelling things.  In some frames of mind, pointless tasks can be hilarious.  A numb mind can be happy mind.  But this is defeatist, too: mind-numbing is how antidepressants work.

It's also, I think, how our First World cultures work.  Almost all of us are comfortable.  Having learned for the most part to tolerate monotony, even the most mundane life, with appropriate sacrifice or compromise, can come to seem worth living.  Escapism is easy.  It's as easy to lie to yourself as it is to tell the truth.  (Sometimes easier).  Self-harm is one of the biggest killers of young adults.  Why?  Perhaps because it used to be much easier to die young than it is today.  Perhaps not dying has become too easy.  Does the comfortable soul crave discomfort?  The psychology of self-harm is complex and contradictory, but one of the most commonly reported drivers of such behaviour is the need to "feel alive".  Why do so many living people not feel alive already?  What is it that we feel, when living, if not alive?  You can't feel dead.  You can't feel nothing, either.  "Nothing" is always something.  You always feel.  You always choose.  Not to choose is impossible: there is no choice but choice.

Last night I lay in bed listening to the late, great American comedian George Carlin reading his own 1997 book, Brain Droppings.  I was tired, so he hadn't made it much past the preface before I drifted off, but I was conscious long enough to hear him indulge in some of the most delightfully brutal (or brutally delighted?) nihilism I have ever heard expressed:
"I'm happy to tell you there is very little in this world that I believe in. Listening to the comedians who comment on political, social, and cultural issues, I notice most of their material reflects an underlying belief that somehow things were better once and that with just a little effort we could set them right again. They're looking for solutions, and rooting for particular results, and I think that necessarily limits the tone and substance of what they say. They're talented and funny people, but they're nothing more than cheerleaders attached to a specific, wished-for outcome.
I don't feel so confined. I frankly don't give a fuck how it all turns out in this country - or anywhere else, for that matter. I think the human game was up a long time ago (when the high priests and traders took over), and now we're just playing out the string. And that is, of course, precisely what I find so amusing[...]
The decay and disintegration of this culture is astonishingly amusing if you are emotionally detached from it. I have always viewed it from a safe distance, knowing I don't belong; it doesn't include me, and it never has. No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to... My interest in "issues" is merely to point out how badly we're doing, not to suggest a way we might do better. Don't confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they "ought to be." And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there's a solution, you're part of the problem. My motto: Fuck Hope!
P.S. Lest you wonder, personally, I am a joyful individual with a long, happy marriage and a close and loving family. My career has turned out better than I ever dreamed, and it continues to expand. I'm a personal optimist but a skeptic about all else. What may sound to some like anger is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt.  I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don't confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything's gonna be all right. 
P.P.S. By the way, if, by some chance, you folks do manage to straighten things out and make everything better, I still don't wish to be included. 
I can find a lot to relate to here - laughter in the face of despair is one of the most powerful forces in the universe - except to say that I do wish to be included.  Desperately, passionately, uncompromisingly.  I just don't know what it is, yet, I wish to be included in.