And a Herpes New Year

New Year’s resolutions are a crock. You know it, I know it and psychiatric medicine has invented entire terms to describe the failure that will meet our doomed aspiration.

Just as night follows day, cronut follows dietary plan. Faithless sex follows a vow of abstinence. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown nearly always follow a plan of literary self-improvement.

There is much to be said for pessimism. Keep your expectations low and enjoy the surprise of occasional joy and victory. Moments, by the way, that do not come to you because you “asked the universe” but because you were lucky enough for a second to be in the path of happiness.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as the authors of our own future and our “will power” as a route to its successful course, the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells a different tale. Where and to whom we were born and with what sort of health plan will largely determine the shape of our lives and deaths.

And this is not to say “Give up! Accept the destiny that the unequal systems of wealth have written!” Nor is it a moral licence to strap one’s snout to a feed bad of ganja—although, let it be said, there is as much useful life in the vacant eyes of stoners as can be found in the hearts of intellectual property solicitors. It is to say, however, that a little suspicion of the idea of self-improvement as noble or natural is healthy.

What if you don’t need improving?

What if you don’t need to lose a few pounds? What if the house in which you are now living is perfectly respectable? What if the love that you have and the things that you own are adequate; beautiful, even?

And even if these things are looking a little shopworn, what if the exertion of replacing them prevents you from finding the contentment you thought was waiting in a better pay packet or body or “lifestyle”?

What if “aspiration” is your problem? What if dissatisfaction has become your M.O.? What if the supposedly natural impulse for self-improvement actually just fuels self-loathing?

This is, by no means, to chide you for your “emptiness”. I don’t think it’s particularly “empty” to believe the thing that has been told as an earnest truth to us since we were very small. It’s just naive trust to think that self-improvement is (a) necessary or (b) likely. The myth of upward mobility, whether it is economic or “spiritual”, is powerful. The idea that we can “grow” is necessary to obscure the fact of our dwindling real. We are not only less intimately ourselves than we were a few decades ago thanks to the uniform imprint of the culture industry. We are, most of us, getting much poorer.

And most of the time, a lack or a surplus of wealth is not down to whether or not we Chose to Set Our Intention or made a positive resolution or asked the fucking “universe” to provide. One could distribute copies of The Secret to those one billion people in the world who have no clean water. They will still die in staggeringly large numbers each Happy New Year due to poor sanitation.

We in the west can “reach”, of course.  But, not too much with any realistic chance of change. We are imprisoned still by circumstance. We certainly have a persuasive gaoler who tells us “you can break out of here if you only try”.

One can thrash a little within these parameters. It is a revulsion for myself, my laziness and my measly handful of achievements that gets me out of bed each day and delivers me from the depression some people have very limited hope of escaping.  And, we can nut out practical ways to make the world a more even and less bloody place.

But what we cannot do and expect our sanity to survive is to think of the things that make us as a kind of second-best.

Life, and the new year that marks its passage, isn’t only characterised by growth and progress. The most tolerable moments I have found myself in were those in which I was sitting still. And, oddly, it’s in this stasis, away from the bustle of self-improvement, that the things that need to change present themselves clearly. And they are rarely, if ever, improvements to my wardrobe or a better desk at work.

And they are not really “spiritual” improvements, either. A belief in myself as a “better” person is a fundamentally bankrupt one that takes its cue from the exchange value of the market. I cannot become more valuable or better. I cannot become less valuable or worse. I should not resolve to change my value unless I want to resolve to do something that is not achievable. All I can do and all you can do is look at the “self” we think we know and try to determine if our moral action is a better idea than our moral reward.

Sure, we have “agency”. But then again, so do ants. And so, I suspect, does my vagina. But this does not mean that me, ants or my vagina determines how we will act. Certainly, belief in our natural self-improvement isn’t going to free us. What might free us, Bobby McGee, is daring to believe that we are not free.

Don’t make a resolution. Don’t try to change; chaos will make sure you do, in any case. In short, you are probably fine. The world, on the other hand, is fucked.

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