I’m terrified of white picket fences. Someone I knew in high school started saving cash from a weekend job to use as deposit on a house. That seemed like a joke, but a few years later I met him and he had that house, and a secure job, and he’d met the woman he was going to marry. His life was mapped out and it was perfectly sensible. The fabled summer ant. He and his wife would be able to afford their 1.7 children, and even send them to college. His retirement was going to be comfortable.
It’s a carefully considered and effective strategy, which recognised and fulfilled his needs and, I hope, made him happy. But the very idea makes me ill. Not because that he might have died before he had a chance to enjoy his savings, but because he wasn’t living, not the way I see it. He merely existed, in the most painless and comfortable way possible. That is if you’re somehow anaesthetized to the boredom and creeping horror.
The world is teeming with similar zombies. Most of them driven by a combination of the security stick and the pleasure carrot. This makes them less effective than Brian because they’re torn between short term and long term requirements, and also because they don’t approach their goals rationally. This is how people become consumers, and the advertising industry – in other words, the whole of western consumer capitalism – has grown up to encourage this in a co-dependency which is sucking meaning out of people’s lives and destroying the planet.
As for me, I think my goals are as innate as Brian’s. I need to engage with life, both intellectually and emotionally. I need to experience, feel, and understand. I think the reason that’s so important to me is that I find it very easy to withdraw from engagement, and occupy myself with distractions from having to care and make an effort. Books, computers, education, my own imaginings, and even to an extent politics. The thing is that each of those are useful to engagement, when used for that, and a displacement activity from engagement when used otherwise. Just like financial security, and like pleasure. Without them life is a struggle rather than a joy, and without a light heart there’s engagement only with the idea of a thing, not with the experience itself.
Which is why I’m scared of those fences. I don’t want security because it makes it too easy to sink into a comfortable disengagement, but I need money so as not to be distracted by getting it. I don’t want an intellectual life, but it’s both a pleasure and a necessity for understanding. It’s also perilously close to all sorts of ways of forgetting goals; a slow and apathetic disintegration that I’ve come close to, briefly, a few times in the past. And each time I’ve become deeply, desperately, miserable, and changed things. Which is exactly what happened when I had a lot of money and got distracted by hedonism. Nothing about my needs is a choice, but like Brian, or rather, most of the time like Brian, I carefully think about how to best meet them.
I don’t think my goals are uncommon, but our culture misrepresents and subverts the idea to certain kinds of consumption. Because of that it’s important to reframe things , to make a language and a set of ideas – what a friend of mine would call a mythology – to understand this completely and on its own terms. Someone else’s framing begs the question, puts a worm in the heart of the rose. You think you have what you mean and suddenly it’s turned around to mean the consequences of its preconceptions. In essence any new question needs a new way of thinking, and any new way of thinking is a whole world.
Which is a big ask, but we’re pattern matchers and world creators, we humans. And I have a shorthand for this idea, I call it “calling out the fey.”