Is this it?
Is this it?
This disaffected little tune by the Strokes has been playing on repeat in my mind as I make my way to work every morning. I commute on pure autopilot now, muscle memory taking over for any conscious intention. Usually I have headphones in. Sometimes I play Settlers of Catan on my iPhone, until my levator scapulae start to ache too much. When I get to the office, I plop down on my Container Store Bungee Office Chair, open up the MacBook Pro on my desk, and proceed to stare at a glowing rectangle for eight hours. At 6 or 6:30 PM I debate going to the gym or dropping into the boutique yoga studio a few blocks down for a class. More often than not, these good intentions toward self-care and revitalization are subsumed by the siren calls of screens and sofas, impossible to ignore. So I commence the reverse commute back home, following my feet, checking the Snapchats on my smaller glowing rectangle, rubbing the levator scapulae that are smarting more intensely than this morning, and listen again to the apathetic Strokes song that has become the anthem of my existence. I notice a hunchbacked old lady on the subway and realize that I’m looking at my future unless I start to take better care of myself. Tomorrow, I say. Tomorrow I will start taking care of myself.
Tonight I’ll make Annie’s mac n’ cheese or microwave a Smart Ones dinner from the freezer, melt into my couch, and share a few much-needed laughs with my roommates. We’ll turn on the largest glowing rectangle of them all and passively consume five episodes of Friends, or Parks and Rec, or perhaps a movie. Then we’ll say goodnight and head to our respective rooms. Sleep, work, chill, repeat. Screen, screen, screen, screen. Punctuate that with some drinking on the weekends, and cleaning the house, and catching up on paperwork. Maybe I’ll treat myself to a 30-minute massage for those incessantly throbbing levator scapulae. Maybe I’ll buy a new pair of flats, or some fancy cheese and a probiotic drink from Whole Foods. Maybe I’ll go on a short hike this Sunday, because it’s supposed to be nice out. Maybe that will imbue a sense of meaning; or at least enough to keep me going until the next weekend, when I can commence the search again — in between chores, and socializing, and dulling the part of my brain that’s actually attuned to the illnesses of society with a moderate amount of alcohol.
This is the life that was purchased for me, so this is the life that I live. And for the entirety of my existence on this planet, I’ve never really deviated from this path. I was expected to excel in school and in my extracurricular activities (sports, music, etc.), so I did; I was expected to attend a prestigious college, so I did; I was expected to move, upon graduation from said prestigious college, to a large coastal city in the US and live the neoliberal yuppie lifestyle, so I did. I’ve only recently started to engage with my own organic passions, like writing — but everything else that I’ve pursued and continue to pursue has merely been a part of the broader strategic attempt at reaching the next rung on the ladder. I’m not even sure that my “passions” qualify as an exception to that rule.
The question that is suddenly becoming inescapable — the question I’ve never before had the courage to ask — is: Why am I climbing this ladder? What’s at the top? Money? Happiness? Security? Self-optimization?
The truth is, I can’t possibly know what’s at the top or how I’ll feel once I get there, because I’ve never known anything but this ladder. I’ve never changed up the paradigm of my existence in any meaningful way. I’ve never experimented with the value system that was instilled in me, never tried out a different way of life to see if it would suit me better. I’ve never stepped out of the hustle to ask: “Hell, is any of this even right for me? Is any of this even what I want for myself?”
And so I don’t know the answer. I only know that every time I meet someone who lives an “alternative” lifestyle, I feel a mixed sense of fascination and longing. I find myself drawn to those people who hopped off the conveyer belt to pursue something “crazy.” And I’m not talking about the Emerson/Thoreau kind of life, because I don’t think that opting out of society or relying solely on yourself is really the answer to anyone’s problems, unless you literally hate having relationships with other people. I’m the opposite way — I love people. I love connecting with them. I love figuring out what makes them tick.
The only problem is that I can’t seem to connect with myself; I can’t seem to figure out what makes me tick. And the anxiety stemming from this dilemma has reached a boiling point. So I’m faced with a decision: do I leave everything I’ve built and start over? Do I quit my job, sell my stuff, find a subletter and take off to do volunteer work in rural areas on the other side of the world, chronicling my journey of self-discovery in a travel blog? Or is that just another millennialized Path of Privilege, another means to the end of neoliberal self-optimization rather than a way of opting out of the system entirely?
Well, why not try it out — right? Seeing the world and immersing yourself in other cultures can lead to many things: a broader perspective, more knowledge, new skills, more inspiration. But does it lead to fulfillment? Does it lead to happiness?
A recent New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen suggests otherwise. Aptly entitled “Mow the Lawn,” this is the advice he gives to the year’s onslaught of graduates:
“I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half- forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next… In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”
Reading this column was both a revelation and, oddly, a relief. And Cohen has some support in this theory: happiness researcher Matt Killingsworth found that focusing on the task at hand — no matter how mundane — leads to a far greater sense of happiness than allowing your brain to wish you were doing something else. Perhaps what I’ve been missing in my life is not so much happiness, but rather a sense of “epic-ness” — a sort of branded glory that masquerades as happiness in our media-drenched, comparison-laden, grass-is-ever-greener type culture. “Epic-ness” of life is certainly a pursuit — but maybe happiness isn’t. Maybe happiness means accepting that this is it; and that even when I return from my year of travel, this will still be it.
And it’s only more “it” from here, once kids and marriage and family life become my reality. Even though I feel like I know so little about myself, I do know that I will want all of those “it” things (eventually). So who am I kidding? There is no life — not even an “alternative” life, not even a ladder-free life — that doesn’t require grinding; no life that doesn’t place the burden on the individual to create their own meaning, and find fulfilling ways to unwind, relax, and restore outside of an endless slew of tasks. Maybe I just need to learn how to do so — how to forgo screen time, how to fit in exercise, how to cultivate wellness — in the arguably great life I already have.
Maybe. Or maybe Roger Cohen can go fuck himself.
What do you think?