On knowing where you get them
My favorite thing was acing tests. To my slow and painful surprise life turned out not to be about the 100 in red ink but everything before it. The usefulness and enjoyment of the skill; an understanding of the rules that lets you break the right ones creatively, not follow the rest blindly. Because of this, when an obscure fact tumbles out of me and someone is more impressed than I want them to be, I hide bitterness. Suddenly part of me would trade that mental real estate for anything else or condemn it altogether out of spite.
The other day I caught myself preparing a listicle. My 15 favorite Wikipedia articles, selected while cleaning out browser bookmarks. Trying to impress again with pure, contextless knowledge. Old habits die hard. I mean, all 15 are winners but I had to stop and shake myself by the shoulders. I’ve committed sins of writing; I’ve used it as therapy, meditation, confessional, outlet, escape, and sketchbook, none inherently wrong but all at the cost of writing as craft. The writing has to be good. The subject can be whatever, relevant or obscure, boring or exciting. The writing has to be good.
Now that I know what I want, I know there aren’t words for it, which makes me normal, not special. Emotion comes before language. If you draw spheres around certain things, the shape formed by their intersection approximates it. Purpose, closeness, usefulness, mutual understanding, Werner Herzog’s idea of “ecstatic truth.” A community where these things aren’t kept from people. I’m probably a lot more susceptible to being recruited by a cult than I’d like to think.
Everyone’s version of this shape is molded by trauma and things they feel like they lack. Everyone’s is changed by others. Our different shapes exert productive pulls. This is normal. Then there are the forces that try to contort your shape into something grotesque, something horrifically well-defined: a crisp suit, a bar of gold, a 100 in red ink. And when the shape of your want feels difficult to maintain, or the one society assigns to you feels difficult to attain, your own hands may mold it into the wrong substitutes and proxies. Arcade Fire in Creature Comfort: God, make me famous / If you can’t, just make it painless. Or into something ever-shifting and unrecognizable: On and on, I don’t know what I want / On and on, I don’t know if I want it. Dreams become not just deferred, but deformed. What happens to those? Maybe nothing. Maybe we find equally grotesque ways to achieve them anyway, and then what?
I saw a post on this site about teenage boys’ rising anxiety and quickening flight into virtual worlds. The Will to Change spoke on this. I came to find that it spoke on this better in twenty words than the article did in hundreds. No depth, no engagement with prior scholarship. It got worse when I looked at what the author’s community made of it: the top comment blamed—wait for it—#MeToo. Boys can’t flirt with girls anymore. I saw Bill Hader say in an interview that you should always listen to people who tell you about a problem and never how they think you should solve it. And I do see it. The video games. And the synthesizers, analog and digital. And the films, A24 and Marvel and French new wave. And the histories, World War 2 and medieval and, yes, that of the Roman Empire. And the “isms,” stoicism and Marxism and nihilism and Buddhism. I see the way young men drop jargon about these topics, mostly fine in and of themselves, into conversation as if daring people to ask them to explain.
There is something these young men can do instead of facing what it is they really want from these things. Validation, community, escape, whatever. And instead of facing the obstacles and winding paths between them and getting these things. And instead of facing the negative emotions that come with that. And instead of facing the social repercussions of adequately handling negative emotions as a man under patriarchy. We can sidestep all that by sitting down at a computer and stepping into a virtual world. What Black Friday deal can compare?
Much of the world will be distressingly fine with you ignoring where you get your pellets, holding the wrong people responsible for them getting delivered to you, acing the wrong tests, staying asleep in this way.
I won’t go so far as to condescend to others about how they choose to get their pellets or which virtual worlds they choose to inhabit because I have my own. Like writing. But I won’t pretend it’s okay to never question them, never think about what they are, never wonder whether the place you get your pellets from even passes your own sniff test. I can’t pretend we do much of anything better, except sleep or dream or snore, when we’re asleep.
Title photo: The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Salvador Dalí, 1937