Sunday, October 29, 2006


I was talking the other day with D and E (no this is not some sort of cute little alphabetical allegory) about this goddamn soul-crushing American fear of wasted time—the relentless drive to be productive at every moment of the day. Not to oversleep. Not to take a vacation that is longer than ten days, lest your life fall apart completely in your absence. I have heard my nearest and dearest griping/gloating about how France is finally having to face Reality and question its two-month Summer holidays, now that it is economically plugged into the European Union. I have heard same respond to news of joyful, non-job-related happenings with a sour “It must be great not to have responsibilities.”

Over the past few years I have made my money as a teacher, first of middle school, now of community college. In the faculty lounges of these institutions (as I guess is typical of any lounge in any government facility) I have listened to the complaints and the tirades of those whose spirits have been crushed by too many unpleasant responsibilities and a general lack of joy, to the point where any manifestation of joy seems suspect to them, to the point where even the desire to experience joy seems childish and unrealistic. Their words, their faces, I can say without the slightest fear of disingenuousness, have been knives in my heart. Always are. They drive me to madness and despair. Madness because I want to grab them by the collars and scream: THEN GET OUT OF HERE! Change your job! Change your life! Divorce your husband! Dismantle whatever it is you’ve imprisoned yourself inside of and MOVE ON? What have you got to lose? The alternative is seeping out your miserable, small, complaining, disgruntled existence for another, say, forty years until you die.

Or, um, is it NOT THAT SIMPLE? Anyway, that’s the madness.

Despair because their words are acid, poison. If you don’t exorcise the stuff by spitting back in their faces (which I tend not to do, being basically a nice, polite boy), it threatens to worm its way into you. To make you think that this disease of smallness and discontent and enslavement to unwanted “responsibilities” at the expense of joy is somehow inexorable, universal.

By far, the most attractive response to all of this, theoretically speaking, is “fuck it.” Maybe practically speaking, too. At any rate, my oversensitivity to this tendency a lot of people seem to have to be poisonous, suppurating sacs of bitterness has led me to keep most people at a distance. This is probably, no, certainly overcompensation, in that, paradoxically, good, healthy contact with others is one of the things in life that can be most joy-bringing and life-sustaining. Trapping yourself with nobody but yourself, unless you have a particularly positive and autonomously content Self (which I don’t), can lead to long periods of decided un-joy.

What I’m questioning here is what seems to me to be an unspoken agreement between a lot of people that Responsibility = Unhappiness and Happiness = Irresponsibility. Some kind of artificial distinction between those activities and modes of thought which are appropriate to grownups (i.e. Seriousness, Responsibility, Sobriety (spiritual and literal)) and those which are not (i.e. Playfulness, Joy). This duality, which seems to me to be all-but-all-pervasive in the adult (and possibly, particularly American) world has (as I guess is abundantly clear at this point) been a source of great distress to me for as long as I can remember. I struggle with it both outside and inside of myself. But whatever the outcome of my struggle at any given moment, or in the long run, I swear this: that I am the Enemy of Joylessness, of Unromantic living. Of the celebration and fetishization of Responsibility at the expense of happiness and personal freedom.


Anonymous said...


1. If you are having fun, you are not being responsible.

2. If you are around people who are having fun, please leave.

3. You are entitled to up to 3 hours per week of 'leisure' (i.e. 'fun') activities, but these should be severely regimented, restricted, and planned within an inch of their lives.

4. Please do not meet with others unless they can help your career in some way.

5. Please do not begin any creative activities until you have a clear goal and/or business plan already laid out.

6. It is okay to be happy, just don't be too happy. Glow, don't radiate. Don't smile to broadly. Enjoy life, live it, just don't live it up or too hard.

7. Stay within a very small radius of people, places, and ideas. This will help to keep you grounded in 'reality.'

8. Make sure to bathe on a regular basis.

9. If you question any of these rules, please look at the increasingly abundant homeless population on the streets and ask yourself, "Do I want to wind up like them?"

10. Think about what you really want in your life. Above all other things. Then write it on a tiny scrap of paper, rip it up, throw it out the window, and forget about it.


MiriyaB (Becca) said...

this goddamn soul-crushing American fear of wasted time—the relentless drive to be productive at every moment of the day. Not to oversleep. Not to take a vacation that is longer than ten days, lest your life fall apart completely in your absence.

Two thoughts, one negative, one postitive:

1) When I read this section of your post, I thought immediately of what Auden diagnosed in us moderns--what I recognized all too well in myself on first reading it--in "In Praise of Limestone":

Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell.

But I also take comfort in his solution/offer of another perspective:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

2) And yet, there is a positive version of the desire to make each moment productive--not unreflectively productive of more Gross National Product, but of whatever it is that one most truly values. Love. Joy. Freedom. Choice. Beauty. It can come at too high a cost--and many devotees of Pater's gem-like flame could use some of Auden's relaxed approach--but I have always been drawn to his appeal to make each moment a significant one:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, -- for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world.... Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
(Conclusion to The Renaissance: online at

On another note, I find this simple language of the natural world almost unbearably poignant:

on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening

or, from the Biblical prophetic writings (Jeremiah 2:2; loose translation):

you followed after me in the wilderness, in a land unsown

I've often felt that I don't know what to do, scarcely know who to be, or how I am to make my way in this world.

But as long as there are such words, such feelings, in it...I'll be all right, we'll be all right.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

(I love Hopkins so much...poor God-wracked GMH, crying so often not What I do is me but rather, out of those depths the psalmist knew as well, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed...)

And yet another way of seeing it, from the chassidic tradition:

Reb Zusya said: In the world to come, I shall not be asked, "Why were you not Moses?" I shall be asked, "Why were you not Zusya?"

I know I'm not Moses, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Helen Vendler, or Abraham Joshua Heschel...

I may not be sure of what it means to be Rebecca Boggs (and I've had different conceptions of the matter over time) -- but I do have some sense...and I owe it to myself and to others to try to find out...

rather than to try to remake myself in some ready-made, readily-approved form -- a doll, or series of dolls, plastic but not pliable: Successful Lawyer Barbie, Star Professor Barbie, Mother of Precocious Darlings Barbie, Big-Shot Mover and Shaker Barbie...

Hold fast to that joy. And to the search for it. And to what it makes you. Hold on.

Hazak hazak v'nithazek: let us be strong and let us strengthen each other.