Like most of us I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix. I recently rewatched Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Aviator, his story of billionaire industrialist and TWA owner Howard Hughes’ rise and fall. Hughes’ story of crippling anxiety to the point of madness is one all of us can relate to lately. Like the Spruce Goose, the large ungainly transport plane Hughes built for the military in the 1940s, each day we try to achieve enough airspeed to maintain our altitude above the preoccupations and anxieties surrounding us during the pandemic. These threaten to pull us back down to earth, trapping us in obsessive thoughts and worry that rob us of joy.
Many of my friends and colleagues are working ten hours, six days a week, fighting anxiety about their jobs, their families, their relationships, and their hopes for the future. I wake up usually after a bad nights’ sleep to face the prospects we all face, going through a litany of self-reassurance:
Money in the Bank (Enough for now)
Job (Some teaching gigs, recent interview)
Meaningful creative work (Both making and enjoying others’)
Meetings with friends (Virtually as necessary but craving facetime )
All those positive-thinking aphorisms have lost some of their shine. (Is it all good? Really?) We live in a world rife with uncertainty that pushes our fight-or-flight buttons. Yet our culture tends to place the responsibility solely on us as individuals for our mental health, pathologizing our struggles and human responses to the trials and tribulations of life merely as occasions for therapy and medication.
Hughes’ own struggles with OCD and anxiety drained him of happiness. In a tragic tale worth of Greek mythology his self-imposed quarantine alienated him from those he loved and who cared for him most. (The film’s account of Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn is heartbreaking.) His anxiety grew into a demon that devoured his life. Magazine accounts when I was younger described Hughes as a hermit afraid to go out, afraid of the touch of human warmth, who was reduced to shuffling about in Kleenex boxes. My horrified response then was ‘What a weirdo’. Now as we all struggle to counter our fear and isolation trying to maintain hope, I see him as a fellow traveler worthy of sympathy on the road we all face as human beings. — CDL
Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.
My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?
Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?
Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group.In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.
So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).
I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again: All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.
Just say ‘No’.
I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5