Tag Archives: modern life

What college can’t do

What a beautiful piece from the New Yorker  In the thick of exam preparations, swim-or-sink instincts, unspeakable ennui (or deep uncertainty), it is worth remembering that the college years are the years of ‘dawning realization’. What have you learnt this year? 

What College Can’t Do

The New Yorker · by Joshua Rothman · August 6, 2014

A pair of Harvard alumni on campus for commencement, in 1977.

There’s a special joy in giving someone advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Wake up at the same time every morning”; “Don’t check your e-mail while on vacation”—and William Deresiewicz must have felt it when writing his recent cover story for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Hypercompetitive colleges, Deresiewicz wrote, are the replicators of the ruling class, recruiting and training “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Better to go to a state school, where the student body is more socioeconomically diverse, or to a “second-tier” liberal-arts college, where “real educational values” persist, than to submit yourself or your child to the careerist “machine” of élite higher education. This is a slightly fantastical way of looking at college—is there really any reason to think that students at Reed are more intellectually curious than students at Columbia?—and its real-life applicability is hard to gauge. But Deresiewicz’s article resonated because it echoed broader cultural concerns about busyness and overwork. It’s now widely accepted that adult Americans as a whole act pretty much the way Deresiewicz thinks Ivy League kids act. Americans work too much, think too much about work, and cultivate an air of competent yet maniacal busyness.

In recent years, essays lamenting the culture of overwork—and the superficial, self-centered, self-destructive busyness that develops from it—have become a genre unto themselves. Ostensibly, these essays are about manageable subjects, subjects about which it’s possible to have a single opinion, like higher education, parenting, or “mindfulness.” But they are also about another, larger subject, which, in its glacial, impersonal force, seems to transcend opinion. That subject, more or less, is modernity. In the background of an essay like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—and of essays like “No Time to Think” or “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” both published in the Times—is the looming presence of the arrhythmic, unreassuring modern world, which seems always to be speeding things up in a senseless way. Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new. Baudelaire coined the term, in 1860, and the first great literary treatments of modernité, such as “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” date from the nineteenth century. And yet to read “Ivan Ilyich,” a story about a workaholic lawyer and his atrophied inner life, is to see how much our contemporary busyness problem owes to a process that’s been going on for centuries.

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.

Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale—which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

* * * Continue reading

Advertisements
Tagged

Modern day anxiety and the busy trap

Anxiety: We worry. A gallery of contributors count the ways.

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Brecht Vandenbroucke

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do. Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

But just in the last few months, I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time I was able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. Except that I hate actually being busy. Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.

Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check e-mail I have to drive to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.

(Anxiety welcomes submissions at anxiety@nytimes.com.)

Tagged ,