Friday, January 06, 2006

Everything Old is New Again

Ah, a new year! I’m somewhat addicted to change, so new years always present themselves to me in much the same way as a blank page—rife with possibility. I’m in love with dynamism, even as I wax nostalgic sometimes.

2005 was a complex year, presenting good (my first A+, my first literary contest win, my growing confidence in a career trajectory and social consciousness) and stressful (a lawsuit, a car accident, creative uncertainty, a realization that I’ve chosen an unprofitable career). Despite the periodic angst of some rather unpleasant occurrences, I loved 2005—it felt like I was there, it never shrunk away from making itself known to me! And for the first time in quite a while, I felt that I didn’t hold back as vehemently as I tend to do when I’m feeling insecure. I’ve come to realize that for some of us life feels more manifest, more animated and tangible, when it arrives in experiential peaks and valleys. Some of us actually crave variety with all it’s implications of tension and necessary adaptation. It’s all part of what social philosopher/theologian Eric Santner calls “turning into the midst of life”—in a nutshell, getting engaged with a world outside one’s safety zones. This sort of embracing the world of the unknown, variable, and the so-called “real,” opens us to experiencing our emotional scope,
beauty being emphasized and heightened by the presence of the ugly and gruesome as contrast.

But life is surely easier when we strive to weed out the complications that are part of what is real. This would include shielding ourselves from the inequalities we know exist outside of our protected realms, ignoring a seemingly ethical call to engage in the tougher stuff. This means taking the time, and expelling the energy necessary to recognize the mechanisms of our social order which exclude many people from—at the very least—a decent form of life. It means recognizing how even our apathy (or denial) does not preclude us from culpability. The need to filter unpleasant truths is a natural compulsion, and I’m particularly guilty of strategies such as retail therapy, isolating myself from certain endeavors that require obligation or commitment, and escaping reality by way of the imaginary. I think it is OK to do these things occasionally to give our spirit a rest. But I also think we can become walking zombies (Santner calls it the “undead”) when we perpetually exist in a state of denial and self-protection.

This bracing is manifest in so many ways … namely in our utter worship of consumerism and wealth. We think getting material things equates enjoyment. Anyone who has watched children power through endless gift-opening with barely a fluctuation in emotion, knows how untrue this is—particularly when so much stuff seems infinitely accessible (instant gratification). I believe that we value the small thing earned so much more than the things that are massively availalbe.


Scholar and philosopher Todd MacGowan presents a theory that suggests we’ve turned from a society based on a prohibitive mandate, to one that is driven by a command to constantly experience “enjoyment.” This is really a provocative assertion, and it rings true to me. For those of us who were late baby-boomer/borderline Gen-Xers, we can palpably recall the shift from discipline to indulgence, we realize how lifestyle and social consciousness has radically changed. It was “cool” to be socially aware and engaged when I was young; it is now “cool” to be indifferent and carting around a multitude of toys. I’m not saying one is necessarily a better way to exist than the other, but enjoyment that is commanded can never be authentic—in fact, MacGowan argues that accumulating things or experiences are an illusion of enjoyment, that true enjoyment (jouissance) is never achieved by a concerted effort toward it. It is elusive and requires engagement of the unconscious.This is why, I think, so many of us feel empty even though we “have” so much more than our parents ever did.

I would like to view 2006 as a year in which I begin to take creative and ethical chances, even if they require a certain sacrifice (monetary reimbursement for instance). For the past few years, Aaron and I had to radically change our lifestyle to extricate ourselves from debt. We aren’t totally out of the woods, but we feel the freedom of living in a tangible way (cash for nearly everything). In fact, downsizing is the best thing we ever did. I just want to call anyone who has been teetering with dissatisfaction to try to determine the origins of your discomfort. Are you avoiding “being political?” Are you happy to let “the experts” determine your ethical compass? Are you buying things to feel better?

I’m all for celebration, the expense of artistic gratification, and the dignity that accompanies taking care of oneself. We still need to experience a decent amount of glorious squander (that, too, I believe helps us to feel alive). I just suggest—to myself most of all—a realistic view of determining where enjoyment (jouissance) really originates. I have never felt better than after showing an underprivileged child something s/he has never seen. I’ve never been more rewarded than when saving an abused animal (my days with Sheltie rescue). If you haven’t made time for it, please consider philanthropy in your plans for 2006—and definitely support ventures (corporations) who make this part of their ethic.

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