Full of fire

Self-respect in a feral era

Full of fire


You work up the nerve to ask something of someone. It doesn’t backfire in any of the thousand ways your brain suggested it would, uninvited. It goes far better than expected. This is a nice way to be wrong.

There are less nice ways. A bud of anxiety sprouts. You mistake it for an invasive species that you know well, but not perfectly. You spray it with RoundUp and you shouldn’t have. You were nice not because it was the right course of action but because you wanted an anxious world to feel less anxious.

A grain in a silo that causes less friction than others is less likely to start a grain fire. If one happens, however, and they do, then will this frictionlessness be of any use? Just as I got good at being a software engineer in time for Github Copilot to make a bunch of us superfluous, I got good at sweeping away anxiety just in time for the world to go insane.

Just because you’re paranoid
Don’t mean they’re not after you

— Nirvana


The oceans are full of plastic. The phones are full of spam. Our circuits for handling stress and trauma are frying up like bacon. Compete with the rest of the world, plus the best AI that generational wealth can buy, for each other’s attention, and for survival. Here is where your tax dollars go; here is what a Hellfire missile does to a child. The right wing has stated its intention to do a coup in 2025. The vibes, in case you hadn’t noticed, have turned feral.

The goal of modern psychiatry remains the production of someone who can be productive again. If becoming productive again involves artificial niceness and compliance, so be it. If it involves squashing legitimate beefs, fine. Modern psychiatry doesn’t need your mental health to stem from an intrinsic fountain, a self-driven repository, of self-respect. Reliance on mental RoundUp — SSRIs, rugged individualism, toxic positivity — is necessary to render patients capable of meeting ever-intensifying external demands that any self-respecting society would have renegotiated by now.

I’d still be missing the point of the essay I just linked to if I acted like this was anyone’s responsbility but mine in this day and age. We should have universal mental healthcare; we don’t. Self-respect is both what makes you able to look at facts like this and start to actually move past them. It starts the necessary subsequent conversations — okay, what now? — though it will not finish them for you. It’s what plants your feet on step 1 of solving any problem (admitting it exists), even if the problem is so global it seems masochistic to do so; it does not let you hang back on step 0 and pretend it doesn’t.

When you’re full of fire
What’s the object of your desire?

— The Knife


The siren song of preserving harmony for mere harmony’s sake is not so cartoonish and obvious a villain as someone choosing to bury their head in sand. As Didion writes, it’s impossible for anyone with sense to do this for long. It’s more like listening to a story on social media that you know, deep down, is almost certainly fake, and giving it your attention, nodding along, enjoying it anyway.

Harmony is fine to strive for in some circumstances but not all. True stability involves the tolerance of some instability. When the vibes are feral, there are times when the correct thing to do is be feral back. Self-respect means letting yourself oscillate, not in lockstep with the world but not fully independent from it. You came from it. You live in it.

You will keep swimming against its currents. They’ll flow against the health of your mind and even drag you backward a little. Like a shark you’ll swim against it anyway because this is how you stay alive, intact, possessed of self-respect in a world that still too frequently operates by trying to grind it out of people.

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

— Albert Camus

Title photo: Gesaffelstein, PURSUIT, 2013