I have been trying to draft a post for hours—well, 45 minutes—and each of my false starts so far either goes into too much too deep oversharing mode or into an ultra-negative I hate humanity mode. And I don’t, not really. I can’t say y’all my favourite Earth species, but then, who can compete with the Amber Phantom butterfly, platypuses or capybaras?
Not this bipedal ape with its propensity for cruelty and violence.
So I’m thinking that perhaps this is the sort of day on which the truth can’t even be told at a slant. Such days happen: it is for them that abstract art and metaphor gone wild poetry exists. What did Kurt Cobain mean when he sang, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”?
He was oversharing, but he wanted to be oblique about it.
I don’t want to be oblique; neither do I want to overshare. Where is that sweet spot of clarity?
Somewhere between transparency and metaphor.
You: OMFG, you’re reading the post-modernists again. Lacan? Derrida?
Jane: [shudder] Goddess forbid. Never again Lacan.
I’m actually just thinking about baby platypuses, but trust me, that story as an entry-point to this navel-gazing post won’t work.
Speaking of navel-gazing—a friend wants to meet for breakfast, I explain, again, why I can’t—seriously, do you not listen to me? we’ve had this conversation two, three times—breakfast? Fuck, no, I get up early, write, then children and dogs and even now that I don’t live with them, the priorities and the obligations are the same. I get up early when it’s cold and dark, write so that the artist is placated, then, children and dogs, and it’s not that I’m a slave to schedule or routine, it’s just that… what? Radical prioritization, and obligations, and pleasure after all of that, and why are childless people so selfish.
My friend does not like being called selfish.
Jane: All childless people are selfish, including/especially monks & nuns pursuing enlightenment. You’ll see one day.
Him: They dedicate themselves to their god. One could argue that is a selfless act.
Jane: Bullshit. Epitome of selfishness.
If there is such a thing as an all-powerful god, do you really think it gets anything out of a human animal doing nothing except gazing worshipfully into its eyes; worse yet, its own navel? I think not. I think this fetishization of religious devotion and the search for enlightenment is a pathology. If we all sat under the Bodhi tree or on a pillar in a desert seeking perfect communion with God, our crops would wither and our children would die.
Think about it.
I’m thinking about it because I am surrounded by (lovely) people (whom I love) who are really into self-work—and for whom the pandemic has become a reason to really, really work on themselves and I’m increasingly convinced that way… lies madness, narcissism (the really bad kind) and, also, the end of civilization.
I’m not engaging in hyperbole. Writing in 1930, Bertrand Russell called “the disease of self-absorption” the greatest obstacle to happiness.
“One of the great drawbacks to self-centered passions is that they afford so little variety in life. The man who loves only himself cannot, it is true, be accused of promiscuity in his affections, but he is bound in the end to suffer intolerable boredom from the invariable sameness of the object of his devotion.”Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
He also argued that the cure for depression and ennui is not, as the current gurus would have it, a steady gaze inward, but orienting oneself outwards, both towards the needs of others and towards one’s passions and work.
In a similar vein (although he spends a great deal of time gazing inward), Stephen Cope, in The Great Work of Your Life, writes that if we don’t find the “great” work of our lives—and this, really, is a purpose bigger than self—we make ourselves the work of our lives… and this isn’t, you know. Healthy.
I guess I’m taking this a step further and suggesting that spending too much time gazin inward and working just on yourself is selfishness run rampant.
But hey, if it’s making you feel good…
The thing is, it probably is not making you feel good. Is it? For so many people, the thing they call self-work is just another addiction—the currently socially acceptable crack, laudanum, alcohol—Netflix binge.
You: Really? You’re going there?
Jane: I’m going there.
Her: Don’t listen to her. She’s just feeling guilty because she still can’t meditate.
There is truth in that. Can’t pray, can’t mediate, feel like shit when I spend too much time gazing inward at my flaws and imperfections.
Know what makes me feel better? Making supper for my kids, picking up pistachios for you from Costco, helping a student “see the light” of story structure, writing a story that illuminates an experience other than my own.
In other words… taking my head out of my ass—I mean, er, navel—and looking outside.
But hey. Whatever makes you happy.
Are you happy?