Who told you to be a machine?
A resolution against resolutions
I spent New Year’s Eve alone at home, surprised by the second cold in a month. It seemed fitting for the close of 2022, a year I began in confinement and ended in disappointment. I am being reminded of my limits.
I’ve had a lot of time to think.
Usually I use the turn from one year to another to take stock, review what I’ve done in the past twelve months, set some goals for the coming year. They’re not resolutions so much as intentions, dreams, a gilded version of my regular to-do list. I’m lying — there are resolutions in there too, usually having to do with more exercise and language learning. In forty-two years, I’ve never managed to make a daily habit of reading some Latin in the mornings, but that doesn’t keep me from putting it on the list. (If wanting this is wrong, I don’t want to be right…)
But this year, all I could see was blankness. Thinking over the year that was closing, it felt as though I’d done nothing. This was an aggressive kind of blankness I was looking at, a mean fog. I started to count: the essays, reviews, columns, poems, various things I’d published. I counted to thirty-five. I counted the letters I write in here too. I was at forty-five. I wrote down the podcasts recorded and the radio programmes I’d collaborated on. I thought about the courses I taught and the events I planned. I stopped counting. I was a bit scared at this point: the numbers told a different story than what was in my head. It was a story in which I’d spent a busy year doing work I loved and seeing it come to fruition. But my mind was still on the failures: the projects still unfinished or waiting to take off, the pitches ignored or turned down, the work begun and interrupted by another illness or my computer’s untimely demise.
How does this happen? This twist of perception, this bad math in which I am the sum of my worst days? I know I’m not alone, either. Online, in person, I hear from others under pressure. Under pressure to do what? To be more, to do more, to do it better, do it faster. Whatever we have done so far is not enough, it disappears into the past, the reckoning that matters is still to come, and it is ruthless. It’s double entry bookkeeping with infinity in the credit column, so that we are always, always, in debt.
Of course, there are entire books on how this happened, how we came to see ourselves — our intellect, our creativity, our bodies, our passions — as machines to be optimized to produce more, more, more. The industrial revolution. Protestantism. Capitalism. Late capitalism. Darwinian ideas of fitness and competition. Modern medicine. Plastic surgery. Social media. Hustle culture. Purity culture. Eugenics.
The difference between people and machines though is that machines are afforded rest. In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman writes about the Soviet attempt to keep factories working full time by eliminating common weekends. Instead, people were assigned to groups that worked five days a week and took two off, but not necessarily the same two days as their family members or friends. People were miserable, of course, but the key issue — at least according to Burkeman — was that the factory machines broke down. They needed maintenance, it seems. When machines hit their limits, no one can convince them to push harder.
These days, a person who needs maintenance is a failure.
I liked Burkeman’s book a great deal. It’s part of a trend of realist self-help philosophy that’s taken off in the Anglosphere in recent years, as even the winners of history come to see they’re losing. These include Kieran Setiya’s Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way and Costica Bradatan’s new In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility. These are not books about failing in order to produce more, to “fail better.” No, the point is to accept limitations, accept that bodies suffer pain and illness, that idealistic action does not always achieve its intent, that life disappoints.
Burkeman is particularly insightful on the way to-do lists tend to grow. He calls this “the efficiency trap.” If you answer your emails quickly, you find that people send you more email. (What he doesn’t say but might: you might even find people are using you as their own personal Google search assistant.) Check off tasks on the to-do list and you just have more tasks, more to-do’s, endless to-do’s. Adopt a more convenient method of doing a chore — use a machine to do the washing, have the groceries delivered — and your standards just go up, or you try to fit in more activities into the same time.
Here is my theory, one I’ve found echoed in Four Thousand Weeks and in other books on the topic. I think all the activity, the productivity, the self-improvement, are attempts to prove that we deserve to exist. Maybe even to prove to ourselves that we do exist. And this is when I want to take this suspicious pronoun, the “we,” and shatter it — there is no “we” who writes down resolutions and sketches out their five-year-strategy and the micro-habits that will get them there. There is no “we” forced to exhaust ourselves to earn another notch on a decaying stick. There are individuals. I know this because there are many individuals who do not do this, who are content to do a bit less than they could, who worry about the champagne at New Year’s, not drafting the list of new opportunities for failure. The real question is not, Why do we treat ourselves like machines? but, Why do I?
Yes, there are so many cultural messages praising efficiency, productivity, self-improvement. But there are also many people who do not bend to those messages, who live balanced lives, who don’t torment themselves squeezing a few extra seconds out of a day. And this hole, this emptiness that many of us try to fill with work now, it’s older than Darwin and the Protestants and the Industrial Revolution. It’s a voice that says, You should not exist, your mere being puts you in debt. I find this voice in some medieval texts I read, in the notion that people must pay for sins they did not commit. I find it in the Western ascetic tradition, in ideas of self-discipline that are rooted in self-hatred, of self-abnegation to the point of annihilation. I find it in the things my father said to me when I was young, when he made it clear he considered my life transactional. Maybe you find it, if you find it, somewhere else. The hole is not new. What we use to fill it is.
This year, I had no energy left for goals. What I am picturing, instead, is refusal. A refusal to count the worth of a year in numbers, rather than weighing its pleasures and adventures and, in large part, the mere fulfillment of duty that takes up so much of daily life. A refusal to kick myself for mistakes I’d readily ignore in another person. And most of all, a refusal to give shame space it doesn’t deserve, to let it in the room when I’m trying something new — writing a poem, making watercolour circles, willing my hands to touch the piano keys at the same time. Because the flip side of machine thinking — of the discipline, the to-do list, the multi-year strategy — is that it doesn’t count the unplanned joys, the unexpected meetings, the awkward experiments, the beautiful dullness of a calm day.
Friends, thank you for reading this far. I wish you, most of all, a healthy year. If you are inclined, let me know how you are meeting it.
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