Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Obession: The Big Lebowski, Steve Jobs, and the lies of Self-Awareness

In the last post, I grazed the idea of a need for projects, or what I like to call immersive obsessional experiences. I believe this experience, at one point, touches upon all of us, but we rarely flesh out the complete implications of this idea. Our society has created categories for the two extremes on this spectrum: the workaholic and the bum.

We tend to assume that both of these archetypes contain both negatives and positives. Yes, even the “bum” life contains much merit. Think of the appeal of the Big Lebowski, especially the appeal of the Dude, or el Dudereeno, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. The dude clearly doesn't work, his last gig coming as a roadie for Metallica or something stupid like that. He smokes a lot weed, listens to whale sounds while vegging out on the floor, drinks a lot of white Russians, possesses mostly sub-par detective skills, and bowls more in a month than most people bowl in a lifetime. He is not a genius of any sort, though clearly not stupid, he’s sharp, witty, and overall just relaxed about life(It’s not clear that he changes his clothing much, and for the most of the movie he appears to wear the same jellies that we wore, with embarrassment as children.) He displays good taste in music, hating the Eagles, while enjoying CCR. He makes out a check worth 69 cents to Ralph’s and faces a bunch of thugs with the aplomb of a seasoned spy. (“Obviously, you’re not a golfer.”) Though I imagine most of us couldn’t actually live that life, we respect it, cherish it, protect the movie with ferocity of a family member because the Dude represents something so heroic, so different. He represents a style of life we all, it seems, on some level wish we could achieve. A peace towards life, a contentment with ridiculous friends, with attending absurd plays put on by our landlords, and the simple joys of relaxing baths. The dude is everything our society secretly wants to be, mainly relaxed, open to adventures, and not neurotic and obsessive about work, achievement, and status anxiety. Though, imagine the epitaph on his tombstone: "Herein Lies Jeffrey Lebowski - Cool Dude."

Yet, on the opposite end of the spectrum we lionize those who give their life to their craft, to their field. Steve Jobs understood his shortcomings as a parent, but we, in this individualistic, achievement oriented society focus on his output, his contribution, his genius more than his inability to act as a responsible father. We forgive so much of our celebrities, intellects, artists, and visionaries because their work redeems their personal shortcomings. (By now it’s a truism that devotion to public life most often comes at the price of private life. We see this in the bible, throughout history and literature, and everyday in the headlines.) Their personalities transcend their actual personas so we end up not caring that, perhaps, our artists are assholes, or bad parents, or terrible people, or racists etc.

In a simplistic nutshell, this is our situation, a situation perhaps unique to our Western world. It constantly raises the question of how to navigate accomplishment with contentment, serious pursuits with relaxed wisps of nothingness. However, these two forces most often clash as oppose to compliment each other. Another truism that deserves mention is that we all, in some way partake of this culture of addiction. Yes, in many ways this exaggerates our situation, but try to think of a day in which you quell the boredom in your life with some sort of external pursuit, whether tv, movies, music, or the internet. It’s a strange realization that we are forever moving, forever thinking a head to what’s next, checking our phone too much, or our computer too much. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just incommensurate to our actual needs.

Consequently, At the same time that we all “know” the value of vacations we send mixed messages when those who make it in our society are those that can completely give of themselves, and their time. We, as Americans, live in this strange tension between work and play, between making money and knowing how to spend it, between sacrificing most of our life to a job while balancing family, social, and even religious needs. It’s almost a clusterfuck to think about, but it defines so much of our life, it’s hard to get around. Just think about retirement. I don't know when this idea entered history, but I imagine it as revolutionary, as somehow both a pinnacle to reach for, but also, an odd sense of defeat, because “It’s a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you – I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out.” (DFW, of course.) Even in retirement, we respect those who don’t truly retire, but change speeds, move their energy to other pursuits.

On a more normalized level, this tension comes out in the careers we choose, in how we allot our time, in the lifestyle we devote ourselves too, in how we choose to spend our vacation; what’s important in our lives: family, personal expression, making money, helping people, or a balance of all of these that include relaxation. We all try to find a balance that works for us, but I don’t know many who can speak of success in this area. Ironically, when we work, we desire vacation, and when we vacate, we desire something to do, whether that something be TV, or to sit and read on a beach. It’s infinitely hard to actually do nothing. Doing nothing is not an American idea or ideal, for the most part, and hence, we get to a situation in which we need projects. TV stands in as a passive project for many people, or drugs can fill this whole, but it seems, perhaps, that hardwired into our personalities is a need for forward movement. This sounds almost preachy, and perhaps even religious, but it doesn't have to. If you ever stop and observe your thoughts, most of the time we think about the the future, i.e. worrying about it, or thinking what we can accomplish, or what’s next, or we think about the past, how great it was, or regrets come up to our consciousness. True existence in the present, ironically, requires a lifetime of work. Either way, we perpetuate this false idea of rest. Give a sane person six months of nothing to do, no obligations, no responsibilities, nothing expected from them, and either they will gravitate towards projects, or gravitate towards insanity, consequently seeking out the rigid structure of a 9-5, or something to devote themselves too.

Many lament this fact. Easterners complain of our discomfort with silence. Psychologists asks us to try, even for ten minutes, to be alone with ourselves, our thoughts. They tell use that this frenetic culture, this need for constant movement is an evasive maneuver to confront the true horrors we harbor within: the terror of confronting our selves, our mortality, our mediocrity. David Foster Wallace explains, “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.”

I understand the ambivalence about this point. What do we expect to find when we explore the silence? How far can our culture of therapeutic self-awareness take us before we become obsessed with the whys of our life, and never engage in action? Certain psychologists, eschewing this more thought based life find that we thrive, we work at our highest potential in flow, a term that simply means losing oneself in the activity - a complete lack of self-consciousness. We forget that I am doing this action, and we wholly think about this action. Flow is the opposite of meditation, it is the opposite of mindfulness, it is mindlessness. It is the body, the brain, the mind on creative autopilot. So here we are - silence vs. total noise, flow vs. mindfulness, contentment vs. restlessness. Of course, these binary constructions paint too broad of a static picture, but these tensions exist. Are these questions of how to find a balance, or inherent tensions in life? Does the answer matter?

In a sense, at least at a certain point, I found the examined life less worth living. I envy those who can do without thinking, because ultimately, it’s not clear what the whys in life bestow. To the extent that self-awareness allows for better functioning great, but sometimes, understanding for the sake of understanding provides rationalizations, excuses to not challenge yourself, to not push yourself. We don’t stop to realize that the intellectual life, the life of self-awareness are choices, methods towards happiness just as the frenetic life is a chosen, or not chosen, but intuited path towards happiness, no? So, yes, indeed, we do seem to need projects, and perhaps they serve as a distraction from some truth desperate to be told, but why must that truth enslave the choices we make? Why must a deep conversation about the meaning of life be more important than playing an engrossing video game, or bungee jumping. We all chase something in life, some sort of fullness or contentment. Even the mystics who can embrace the nothingness, the silence, chase something: an effacement of the ego, or a unity. This all feels quite circular and hard to pin down, but maybe we need to accept this fact of life, our restlessness, and instead of trying to calm it down, learn how to control its directionality.
Thanks for reading,

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