Anxiety dreams and being a Real Grown-Up (TM)

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I just woke up from this dream. It was that kind of painfully-familiar thing where you wake up and wish your anxieties would be a little less boring and predictable when they emerge from your subconscious. Even though I can’t remember ever having had this one before, I have a feeling that it’s going to become a staple.

This one? Oh, this one. I was at some sort of event that was half Rocky Horror show and half actually fending off an alien invasion, but that was just background. As I strapped on my roller skates to go kick some alien ass, my mother appeared. Not, by the way, a person who bears any resemblance to my actual mother. My actual mother is lovely, and I’m not just saying that ’cause she reads this blog. No, this was a Your Mother archetype from my subconscious. The kind that tells you precisely what you’ve been doing wrong, what a disappointment you are, and why.

It’s all about Yer Ma

So as I’m lacing up my boots, MyMa shows up and tells me that I’ve been Doing Adulthood Wrong. Seriously wrong. Everything that I’ve been doing since I became an adult. Wrong. I’ve been refusing to act or dress like an adult and, damnit, I need to start doing that now. Right now. Time to take off the boots, start dressing like a proper grown-up and go get a job in something respectable. Oh, and start a pension fund and get a mortgage and probably have a couple of kids. Then there were a few bits where I opened up my email to find oodles of job rejection letters. That bit, of course, is somewhat more realistic than my brain’s depiction of my mother. Unfortunately, dreams don’t come with sensible voices talking about the current economic climate and how getting a decent job is bloody hard these days. Which is a pity because, well, you probably know how the rest of the dream feels. You know when you’re having an anxiety dream and you’re desperately trying to get someone to listen to you? You’re screaming and crying at everyone you can, trying to explain things and they’re just standing there stony-faced. Yuck.

Of course, I know exactly why I dreamed that, even though I have no idea why my subconscious decided to pick my mother as the person to tell me I need to grow the hell up. My real-life mother has never been one for arbitrary ideas of being a grown-up. She’s pretty damn awesome.

But of course I know why I dreamed that. I’ve only a few weeks until I hit 30! I’m unemployed, living in my friend’s spare room, and I haven’t a bloody clue when I’ll get out of it. This is not what I thought I’d be doing at this age. The fact that I’m more content than I’ve been in years is irrelevant to my feverishly anxious subconscious. What matters to it is that I’m absolutely nothing like its image of a 30-year-old, and that gives it ample material to mess with me while I’m sleepily vulnerable.

suits [uniform and uniformity]

The quarter third-life crisis.

But guess what? I think this is brilliant. I haven’t had an anxiety dream about being sent back to school and made to re-do exams that I haven’t studied for in ages! This has been added to my impressive portfolio of things to worry about along with all my teeth falling out, suddenly finding out I’m extremely pregnant, and the all-time classic of watching people I love die horribly and having no way to help them. I figure that worrying about being good at being an adult means that I’m thinking about what that means to me. And there’s nothing that says nearly-30 quite like having a bit of a crisis about what on earth responsibility and happiness are for me, and how to dispense with childishness while holding on to every delicate bit of childlikeness that I can. Sorting through received ideas of what it means to be responsible, deciding which to keep and which to throw away, and working out how to be okay with that in a world that has one path it wants us all to follow to the letter. Although I’d like to have a way of doing that that didn’t involve unhappy dreams, I’m cool with that. I think that it’s a damn good way to spend my time.

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Anxiety dreams and being a Real Grown-Up (TM)
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A spectacularly middle-class kind of broke.

“Some people are money-poor and time-rich. Some people are time-poor and money-rich. Some are rich in both. Some are poor in both” – The Statistician, in the pub, the other day.

I am broke. Broooooke. Super-trendy-recessionista-broke. Paying the bills for the next couple of months is gonna be tight. I am forced to learn to budget with an iron fist, and I don’t like it one bit.

At the same time, my quality of life has gone through the roof.

I may be broke, you see, but I’m simultaneously privileged up the wazoo in so many little ways that make this possible.

Let’s start with time. I have a job four days a week. This, once I start getting paid for it, will give me just about enough money to pay the bills and have nice things every so often as long as I’m careful. I also have a bicycle. I can get to and from work for free and in a reasonable amount of time. I have three days off every week.

I live in a city where I have easy access on that bike to fresh, tasty produce. As long as I keep it seasonal, it’s also incredibly cheap. I have tupperware and a (small) freezer. I have access to the internet, and I’ve had access to this kind of fresh food all my life, so I know how to make it delicious. I can spend a tiny amount of money and eat very, very well.

I used to have more money than I do now, so I have things. I have my laptop. I have a couple of nice cameras. I have a giant pile of yarn, an e-reader, a ukulele. I have stuff. It may not be incredibly new stuff, but it’s the kind of stuff that I can have fun with.

My job may not be in my field, but I was able to get it. I was probably able to get it so easily because I was able to go to college, and because I look and act like the middle-class arts grad I am.

If push came to shove and I wasn’t able to pay my rent, I have a stack of family and friends who have enough resources that I know I could call on them to help me out if I needed. I know that I could get that help from somewhere, if I needed it. I have no need to fear being homeless or destitute. I sleep well.

Being broke sucks. However I’ve gotta say that this spectacularly middle-class, urban kind of broke-ness? This kind of broke-ness that means I’ve gotta be careful with money and I only have an old Xbox to play video games on? As broke-ness goes, it’s pretty fuckin’ sweet.

A spectacularly middle-class kind of broke.

On Creating an Ethic of Enjoyment

This is in some ways a follow-on from my post But I Like To Like The Things I Like To Like, from the other week.

Let’s set a scene here, shall we? Last Friday, in the work canteen. Me eating my (delicious) apple pie and custard, in a room full of steak-eating men and salad-eating women. The apple pie was good, and I’d quite sensibly justified the indulgence on the grounds that I’d done a lot of cycling in the past few days, and the chicken noodles I’d had for lunch hadn’t been a particularly generous portion. I’m very good, by the way, at justifying apple pie.

But why should I need to? And why is it so goddamn difficult to stop feeling like I need to?

It’s one thing to say that it’s a good thing to reject the idea that we need to justify our likes and enjoyments. However, without something to replace them, it’s nigh-on impossible to do so. So to start, let’s take a look at that delicious dessert again, shall we?

The context of apple pie and custard

Sitting in a canteen, eating a delicious apple pie, which I justified to myself because of having cycled a whole lot the day before, so I was due an indulgence. I feel a little guilty about the apple pie- I’ve spent money on it, and it’s something I’m eating purely for the pleasure of it. But that’s okay, because I cycled about a whole lot yesterday and the day before. Loads of uphills.

What does this say about how I view either of these things? Everything is being viewed in relation to each other, on a scale from ‘good’ to ‘bad’. My enjoyment of my delicious pie is marred by having to justify it. As is how much I enjoyed cycling to and from work and shops and people’s houses the day before. The cycling was framed in the context of “should do”, which meant that I couldn’t even enjoy that one on its own merits. The entire ethical framework at work here, you see, is one of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Of being a person who does the right things- working hard, taking care of myself and whatnot- versus ‘letting myself go’ and losing control.

That, my lovely readers, is one hell of an impoverished way to live one’s life.

Do Ethics Mean What I Think They Mean?

I should pause here to talk a little about what I mean by an ‘ethical framework’. I’m interested here less in whether we think that Act A is an ethical or unethical thing to do, so much as what the underlying framework is through which we make these judgements. What are the criteria by which we judge a thing as good, or bad, or neutral?

Pleasure and enjoyment have not, by any means, been seen as necessarily ethical things in the cultural context I come from. Good old Catholic Guilt runs deep, whether we like it or not, whether we believe a word of it or not. Beyond any questions of (dis)belief is the fact that we are, or were, raised to see sacrifice as somehow a good thing by default. This is, by the way, by no means limited to traditionally catholic cultural contexts- without even leaving christian culture I could mention the rather similar Protestant Work Ethic. Suffering/work are good, pleasure and enjoyment are suspect. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, even pride are seen as barely forgiveable. Giving in to our desires too much is bad. These desires need to be fought. So we justify them, we allow ourselves little indulgences and we pay for them with ‘good’, sacrificial actions. But what if we could just toss all that out the window, and create a genuine moral framework based on pleasure, based on enjoyment?

An Ethic of Enjoyment

Let’s start from the premise that either we only have one life, or we really aren’t sure and should damn well better act as if we do. It’s the premise I start from, after all, and this is my blog. What’s the best thing for us, as individuals and as a society, to strive for within these short few decades? What makes us appreciate being alive, feel most alive and whole? It’s rather obvious to me that, while the specifics of course vary, it is maximising enjoyment, pleasure and joy which makes our lives most worthwhile. When you take away the potential for eternal rewards, it’s rewards here that matter. The things that make you laugh out loud, make your uncontainably happy, make you chuckle, make you smile. If we get to decide what is good and worthwhile, what is the ultimate virtue, why not make it happiness?

Let’s go back to lunch the other day, seen through a lens of an ethic of pleasure. The day beforehand, I had spent some time cycling about in the sunshine. This was lovely– the wind in my face, the sun on my back, the sense of satisfaction on reaching the top of a hill and coasting down the other side. Lovely! The next day I had delicious apple pie. It was lovely– scrumptiously moist, with a crunchy crust and a giant dollop of sweet, creamy custard. Lovely! Through this framework, the only problematic thing was the slight twinge of guilt and justification- these suck, there’s nothing to be gained from them, and they detracted from enjoyment.

But doesn’t that excuse… All Sorts?

It could be argued that living through an ethical framework based on pleasure, as opposed to control, throws the door open for all sorts of undesirable things. Going back to those seven deadly sins- if pleasure and enjoyment are our primary ethical principles, then how do we get anything useful done? And aren’t we all going to end up, well, selfish assholes? Don’t worry, I have three arguments against this:

Firstly, in order to increase my overall enjoyment, sometimes I have to do things that I don’t, well, enjoy. I really like having a house to live in, for example. Specifically, I like having this house. It’s got my stuff in it, I like my housemates, I have enough room, it’s got an awesome location. I also like having things like food and electricity in the house. If I want to have those things, I gotta go to work. Which sucks at 7am, but overall, the things I gain from going to work cause an overall increase in pleasure and enjoyment in my life. It’s about the big picture here.

Secondly, people enjoy doing altruistic things. One of the major things that we do to feel happy is doing good things for others. We’re social animals, we gain some of our deepest senses of satisfaction and joy from our relationships with others. I love making dinner for my friends, or finding/making something that I know they’ll enjoy, or spending time with them. And doing the work that we need to do to nurture our relationships with each other? Leads to an awesome level of increased happiness and satisfaction.

Thirdly, this opens the way to a guilt-free conception of altruism. I never said that this was about maximising only my enjoyment. It’s about happiness being our primary ethical principle. Instead of framing altruistic acts as decreasing suffering, we can frame them as working to increase society’s capacity for enjoyment. If happiness is our guiding principle, then there is no point feeling guilty about social structures which existed before we were born- the important thing is just to do what you can, to the extent that it is practical, and doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying their own life.

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I’ve more to say on this topic, I’m sure. But it’s a sunny day, and I want to go enjoy it.

On Creating an Ethic of Enjoyment