Saturday, April 18, 2020

What You Want To Do And What You Should Do: Lockdown Edition

I was sitting around at home on a weekend day feeling dispirited and trying to figure out what to do next. Someone suggested that I might think about what I wanted to do as opposed to what I should do, and do that. Don't worry: this suggestion was socially distanced.

It sounded so plausible as advice. But I had trouble putting it into action. I had no problem coming up with things that seemed immediately appealing, but most of them were things like sleeping and snacking that I knew would make me feel more dispirited in about twenty minutes. I certainly had tasks of various kinds waiting to be performed, but those all seemed like things I should do, not things I wanted to do.

As I should have known, I could have looked to this very blog to understand the source of my confusion. I have often written here about the weirdness of the typical desire-decision matrix of western popular culture. I see it is in 2010 -- ten years ago! -- that I wrote about the lost art of desire-management -- the way we treat our desires as if they are immutable and random forces of nature instead of responsive responses to habit, social context, and our own previous choices -- and thus, things that can be directed and managed.

One of the most destructive elements of that cultural desire-decision matrix is the bifurcation that splits everything into distinct categories of pleasure-yum-love and those of obligation-task-force-yourself-to-get-on-it. Or -- as I described it in 2014 -- that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied.  

I don't know how this bifurcated perspective got so entrenched in our way of thinking, whether it's a trickle-down from formal thinking and rational choice theory, or whether it's just the metaphors of capitalism creeping in everywhere, or whether it has something to do with the neoliberal entrepreneurial self, or what. But it is not good.

Among its more disturbing aspects is that it leaves out a huge category of things crucially important: the things that are difficult, voluntary, and worthwhile. Like making art, or writing something, or learning new things, or reading what for lack of a better term I'll call literary novels. You don't have to wake up with a burning desire to practice scales to make learning to play the piano a cool and worthwhile thing to do. No one finishes breakfast and discovers they're just dying to get on with re-editing the draft of the writing thing they've been working on and not getting anywhere with.

We don't even really have a good adjective to describe the positive subjective feeling that comes with engaging with these types of activities. "Satisfying" is about as close as I can think of, but that is such an oatmeal kind of word and doesn't really capture it.

The resulting perplexity is, I think, one reason that "goal" culture has so totally come into its own in modern life. If you set a goal, then somehow you're able to communicate -- to yourself and others -- why you're doing a thing and why it feels good to do it, even when it is difficult and motivationally challenging. But for me, anyway, the idea of a "goal" distorts the whole thing. I don't write because I need a badge celebrating ten years of continuous blog writing. I write because it's -- worth doing, or satisfying, or whatever the word is that we don't have.

I feel like lockdown has raised new challenges for these complicated pleasures of life that we don't have a name for. To me, one of the small sadnesses of the culture of lockdown is that this amorphous category has somehow formed a weird locus of interpersonal antagonism. First there were the people who said "Hey, you could use this time to learn something!" Which is true. Then there were the people who said "Speak for yourself! Some of us have kids and and chores and jobs!" Which is also true. Then it was pointed out that even if you don't have other demanding obligations, lockdown is hard, so if you want to eat a cookie, just eat a cookie ffs. Which is also, of course, true. 

I'm the kind of person whose general life sadness comes from the Pointlessness of Life demon rather than the Fear and Anxiety demon. So the answer to my weekend conundrum ultimately consistent in remembering that just because I didn't want to do a thing didn't mean it wasn't worth doing, and that even in lockdown, I had to keep making myself do stuff. Just because there's a global pandemic on doesn't mean I'm off the hook for doing stuff I don't feel like doing. So -- it wasn't really what I wanted to do or what I should do but something else altogether.

As always, your mileage may vary.

1 comment:

Janet Vickers said...

Thanks for reminding me that no matter how virtuous I sound I end up doing what I want, as long as no-one is looking.