It’s January, which means that there are a lot of life improvement things floating around. Life improvement things are sticky, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about words like “growth mindset” and “growth hacking” and “self-improvement” and “self-actualization”. I’ve been thinking about how we are influenced by the increasingly controversial idea that economies must always be showing greater and greater growth, the aspirational stories we’re told about people who came from a lower place and landed in a higher place, and how we’ve been taught to look at everything from personal to global histories as simple, linear narratives and that we can move from lesser to greater levels of socially agreed upon successfulness along such simple plot points.
It’s a lot to think about, but as a person given to anxiety and self-flagellation, these cultural ideas need to be pulled apart and picked through, and it’s starting to look a lot like bullshit.
I’ve been tortured since early childhood by the idea that my worthiness is tied to my continually striving spiritually, socially, and financially, that each individual must continually grow and change and achieve greater things to be valuable. We must strive for success at work as well as at becoming our “true” selves, which are always better than the ramshackle bad selves we inflict upon the world. We have to have passions others approve of, and we have to want to share those passions in ways that either make money or are of direct, quantifiable benefit to someone else. Everything about ourselves and what we do must always be about socially accepted forms of growth and achievement of greater things.
I may be a bit of nihilist, but growth-Growth-GROWTH just starts to feel like going nowhere, because, in this never-ending treadmill of growth, you and the things you do are never enough. What achievements matter when they always pale next to the thing not yet achieved? How are you good when you are always fixing what is broken and inefficient about yourself? What about you is truly valued or valuable when your abilities and interests change over time?
It’s not that I don’t like growing and changing and achieving, but I also like being a stagnant, mucky pond of bed-burrowing underachievement at least once a week. Sometimes I’m really into my physical thickness’s power to announce my presence while I eat banana cream cookies. Sometimes I truly don’t care what fiscal measurements will save me from eating cat food when I am an old lady squatting in an abandoned house. It’s such a bizarre notion that my value tanks every time I do something dumb like weigh myself or think mean thoughts about that time I failed to bring brownies to a potluck.
But beyond things that may not be good for me, I also want to do, say, and produce things sometimes without selling them for money or likability and regardless of whether they offer any kind of spiritual, physical, psychological, or financial growth. I’m not opposed to growth, but I would sometimes prefer to accidentally trip over it like turds falling out as cute byproducts of the greater endeavour.
I know I can, and I do, do some things just for the hell of it, and they are some of my favourite things to get down with, but I was raised in a culture of people who saw my art or poetry or whatever and said “that’s nice, but what are you really going to do for money/work/a good husband?” I was too much of a dreamer, too impractical. My passions were framed as cute hobbies that were going to leave me destitute and lonely if I took them too seriously.
That crap sticks with you. At least, it stuck with me.
The idea that what you do isn’t relevant to life unless it makes you an appreciable amount of money and/or benefits others is a destructive load of hooey. I know it consciously, and hopefully you know it, too, but I don’t really know it. I don’t feel it deep inside my sinew that I’m worthy without constant and quantifiable growth and attainment. I still argue my worthiness into the ground too easily just because I gave myself a half hour to daydream.
Intellectually, I know that daydreaming and non-paying art and writing are some of the true meat of my joy in life — in fact, they are essential to the parts of my life that are about growth and attainment — and my health suffers in all ways when I do not give those things proper room to flourish, but they are challenges to decades of capitalist, sexist, overly practical social training. It’s damn hard to override that yoke, even when I can see it in action. I feel guilty when I watch tv without multi-tasking client work into the process, for god’s sake.
I am working on an antidote, though, to fool my brain into giving me a break. My antidote is to turn what gives me joy into a non-negotiable, non-paying job. I have instituted daily, mandated time spent writing, listening to music, playing with images, crocheting, etc. in ways that bear no financial or social compensation. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I’m now using my inborn Mennonite farmer work ethic as an enforcer, rather than just killer, of joy. If the overlord’s going to make me march around, I might as well decide what marching even means and enjoy it.
I’m going to make what I like, and I’m going to like it, and my worthiness is going to remain intact, because that little boss man who lives in my chest and insists work is the only way to love is going to work for me now.
(That last sentence feels like a ridiculously brave statement. Boss man is ridiculing me already. He says I’ll die alone in a hole. I say watching Bob’s Burgers and crocheting a bird with a giant coif when I have a fever is valuable to my well-being. I win. Sorry not sorry, boss man.)
Originally published at elanmorgan.com.