I’m starting a new tradition — writing annual New Year’s Eve posts. These will complement my birthday posts and hopefully everything else I write. Sometimes my writings will be brief, and at other times lengthier. Birthday posts are more reflective and centered about my own personal development and evolution while these posts will be more forward looking and touch on subjects well beyond the subjective. There will be some overlap, though, and I’m quite okay with that.
Last year’s New Year’s resolution was to have no resolution and live life with no particular goals or aims; to ‘do nothing.’ My intent was simply to take a break. I’d say I largely succeeded and an unplanned side effect was trading off productivity for awareness. I spent more time observing the world and those around me. I spent less time in my own head and more empathizing with others. I suspect dealing with unexpected death, loss, pain, and accidents that happen to have occurred this year was easier than it would have otherwise been in this frame of mind, though of course one can never really know.
If I failed in trying to do nothing, it was in doing something. It turns out it’s really hard to do nothing. But let’s say for the sake of exposition that I sufficiently well approximated doing nothing, insofar as feasible. I ask that you grant me some latitude and that we just agree to call whatever I was doing ‘doing nothing.’
Something funny happens when you’re ‘doing nothing.’ It’s almost like what happens when you eat nothing.
I’ve really taken to fasting because I enjoy the exercise of will power required to resist hunger. There may or may not be health benefits to this; I don’t know and frankly don’t care. I simply enjoy the feeling. The type of hunger that you experience after not eating for 48+ hours is very different from the hunger you feel when you skip a meal or are excessively stressed.
After 48+ hours, you feel hunger not in your stomach but in your fingers and toes. Hunger falls from consciousness into your inner being. The primal sensation is exhilarating and your desire for food transforms from pragmatic to spiritual. I’ve noted a similar effect after dabbling in doing nothing. My desire to do is amplified by doing nothing. Actually, it goes further than that.
I thank Professor Niklas Frykman, my senior thesis reader, for my most eye opening lesson in college. The single point that stands out in my memory was that freedom was defined by a lack of it, and that the concept of freedom only made sense in a society where some lacked it. This came up in a course on slavery. He illustrated this point by having us imagine living on an island where we had infinite food and resources with no work, an Edenic paradise of sorts, and pondering the concept of a vacation. Almost self-evidently, the word loses meaning in that world. A vacation only makes sense as the opposite of work and without work it has no meaning. Similarly, action can be best understood through inaction.
Doing then may be defined as the opposite of not doing. By doing nothing, I’ve come to understand what it means to do something. I have been feeling a way that re-contextualizes all of my past experiences. Sometimes when I thought I was doing a lot, I was actually doing very little. And at the times when I thought I was doing nothing, I was actually doing quite a lot. This isn’t particularly insightful as it’s a somewhat obvious consequence of the subjectivity inherent to almost everything. What’s more interesting is the mechanism underlying that changing perspective.
My simple theory is as follows: in going through the motions of day to day life, we tend to myopically define or perceive what we are doing as what we ought to be doing; in not doing, we are freed to define future action with less of the baggage and bias from past or present action. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race or stuck in a hamster wheel; I’ll leave it to the reader to choose their preferred rodent metaphor. With time away from doing it becomes easier to see that there are other things that you could be doing and that before, you may not really have been doing much at all. This brings me to the state of world affairs today.
By many indicators, these are the best of times, yet many feel like these are the worst of times. There are so many real causes for concern. If you’re a leftist you’re worried climate change will destroy the world. If you’re a rightist you’re worried the rise of illiberal powers will destroy the world. It seems a contradiction that we could be concurrently living in the best and worst of times. But what if we are Icarus flying too close to the sun? I worry that we may be; the systems that hold as together may soon tear us apart.
It’s quite easy to argue that capitalism has done more to improve the lot of humanity than any system before, but it will soon fail. The reason for that is simple and was predicted by Marx long ago. Competition drives costs down; technology enables them to go to zero. As the marginal cost of goods and services approaches zero, the value of labor will also approach zero shifting the balance of labor and capital entirely to capital; a self-evidently precarious state for humanity. What will we do when great wealth exists but there are no jobs and wages to be had? As of the end of 2018 — we don’t have a clue.
Some talk of universal basic income as a solution, but that would at best be a short-term fix. Socialist societies in which humans derive more of their sense of worth from noneconomic factors may be relatively better suited to weather the storm. But, that’s hardly any consolation given how powerless those nations will be in aggregate relative to the capitalist giants. The economic and military powerhouses of east and west will, in all likelihood, set the course for humanity. I suspect the solutions will have to be as radical and totalizing as the problem.
It’s a perilous and exciting time for humanity which makes it an opportune time to be alive. In my own struggles and experiences, I see those of our human collective. As I redefine action in the face of inaction, I envision a future in which I alongside many others work to avoid some of these calamitous situations. That imagined future life seems more purposeful than the one led by many of us today.
In 2018 I took a break of sorts and gained some clarity as to what really matters to me and what I ought to do; what sorts of actions I ought to take. There is much that is important to me, but little that I have the power to address today. It’s about time to go back to the drawing board, so that’s what I will do in 2019. Instead of drawing, however, I will write. That is my goal for the new year — to write and publish an essay ever week. Hopefully that habit will endure beyond this coming year, but one must start somewhere.
Though we have yet to agree on the exact terms, my good friend Jon and I will devise a mutual accountability system to ensure that we follow through on our similar goals for the new year.
Almost this entire post was written while listening to the Dirty Sexy Money Joe Stone Remix on repeat.