For a New Year in the Same Horrible World: Read This
By R.H. Lossin
This year it occurred to me that I would like to give up shopping. I read about this in the New York Times—a place I go for relevant information about distant, violent, conflict and end up staying in for dumb wellness articles. I would also like to stop reading the “smarter living” section and give up television watching. These things make me feel gross. That might be reason enough to abandon them. But I wonder what giving something up even means let alone does. I also wonder if self-deprivation is simply a different way to participate in cultural expectations that are equally pernicious—things like heightened productivity and financial responsibility. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be living in a world that shoved mildly racist, narrative trash in my face on a regular basis and made cashmere sweaters into solutions for bad feelings. But I do live here—there is no exit. And this year I would like to feel just a little bit better about it.
Wanting to feel better about living in a world that you did not choose to live in is not a desire that is specific to capitalism. People have been trying to figure out how to be happy in less than ideal circumstances for thousands of years.
“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” This is how Epictetus, a late Stoic philosopher born circa A.D. 50, begins his Handbook. Epictetus contends that our unhappiness has two basic causes: “our own judgments” and fear—specifically fear of death. The two are intimately related. At the heart of this tendency to misjudge is a confusion concerning what is and is not up to us—death being the supreme example of something that we cannot control.
The Handbook is full of serene aphorisms such as this: “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do, and your life will go well.” Or, “for the time being, eliminate desire completely, since if you desire something that is not up us, you are bound to be unfortunate.”
It isn’t bad advice. But I had the privilege of reading Epictetus with a class of very smart 20 year olds who were not about to roll over and stop desiring anything. The Handbook was, they said, a recipe for political apathy. It told victims of abuse to “buck up.” It potentially perpetuated horrible social inequality by relabeling justified class or race anger as an attitude problem. I think they are probably right.
But I also find this idea of splitting the world into things that I can and cannot control extremely compelling. It is a simple and, when taken seriously, quite rigorous way to live your life. If you dig around in the Handbook a bit more, you do find directions for action—just freighted with abundant warnings about its difficulty. Epictetus, correctly I think, has diagnosed most of us as unrepentant daydreamers. Before you decide to that you should be an Olympic athlete, he says, really think about how much your body will hurt; how much time it takes to train. Nothing is easy. This goes for political change as well as personal behavior, and the mandate to sort through what is and is not “up to us” quite elegantly links the two spheres of action.
I might stop shopping—to the extent that I can without dumpster diving—on January 1st. It implicates me too directly in abuses that I am fully aware of and enlists me in a system of constant production and consumption that shapes and limits the way I relate to the world in noticeable ways. And it is, after all, something that I control even if sweatshops in the Philippines are not. But I will also keep this in mind:
“An uneducated person accuses another when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself; an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself.”
The world does not turn on an axis of individual behavior. It never has.
R.H. Lossin is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.