In a previous post I wrote about competitive socialisation and the cult of trendy among young people in London. Since then I’ve thought more about why it is that the London Young Professional (and perhaps most other categories of person) must always be engaged in a whirlwind of social engagements and experiences, in other words must constantly be doing something.
Social pressure to do
There are only two situations in which a day at home (God forbid a Friday night at home) is considered acceptable. The first is when hungover; the second is as a planned retreat from one’s busy life, with ‘busy’ typically defined as the exhaustions of work, not at all those of a full social calendar, which can never be other than a good thing. However, the choice to chill can only be exercised, perhaps, one weekend every other month. Beyond that, it is incomprehensible that a right-thinking person might actually want to sit alone in their house and think, and do sweet nothing.
So there is another reason for our drive for constant socialisation and constant action. We avoid doing nothing, I think, not just because someone might think we’re uncool, but because we’re afraid of spending time with ourselves. ‘Doing’ (anything) is mentally engaging enough that it distracts us from what we know we will encounter when we are alone: that is, our demons. Reflecting, facing these, is not always a ‘good experience’, whereas eating at Dishoom with ten chattering friends is; it’s an easy choice.
Our reluctance to simply ‘be’ is, I think, an avoidance of pain, and a refusal to engage in the effort of dealing with the fears and issues that niggle at us. These are the grave or everyday problems that we begin to feel, and ignore, in our designedly rare free moments, that we attempt to drown out with chatter and alcohol and loud music and Buzzfeed articles, though they will never quite go away, only stay at bay, until we confront them properly. We’d rather do anything than feel pain, and so ‘doing’ has become the imperative, and we’ve defined the successful and acceptable life in those terms.
Some people may take to the life of action more easily than others. If you can’t stand your own company or two hours straight at home, and flit around seeing people, going places, garnering experiences; if you played sports, interned and volunteered while also holding down the presidentship of three university societies, then you might be a do-er.
By contrast, if you like a peaceful home life, a cup of tea and a read of the Spectator; or if you’ve ever, during pre-lash, pretended to go to the loo and actually just gone to bed; or if you’ve ever felt guilty for not participating in the model UN, playing badminton for England, and reading to disadvantaged children while interning for JP Morgan – that none of those things seemed more desirable than staying quietly at home baking something – then you might be a thinker, a ‘be-er’. Casting these people as lazy or undriven is simply an uncritical way of reinforcing the assumed desirability of constant action.
It should be obvious that we’re all ‘on the spectrum’ between introverts and extroverts, talkers and listeners, do-ers and thinkers; but I think we are largely conditioned to believe that the life of action, and not contemplation, is the only worthwhile mode of existence.
Political pressure to do
This conditioning is not just confined to the pressure of our narrow social lives. It’s reflected in our politics, feminism, and educational/cultural priorities – though perhaps for different reasons. It emerges as dismissiveness, deprioritisation and defunding of the arts in favour of STEM degrees, research and careers. It emerges in the large portion of feminist thought dedicated to ‘leaning in’, to ‘having it all’, to the plight of the working woman and her exaltation as the only desirable type of woman. The life of work is the life of ‘doing’, and the choice not to work (for example if you have children, or if you feel your family unit needs only one breadwinner) is one of the most striking examples of the rejection of action for its own sake. This is why I want to dwell on it some more (bear with).
While some will say feminism strives to provide women with choice, one feels that for the most part the choice not to work, that is to refuse the power, the status, the independence that feminism has fought to attain for women, is a rejection of those efforts and undesirable as a form of personal disempowerment.
Professional inaction is not well regarded in the political sphere either. As a notable example, a few years ago Barack Obama declared that staying at home rather than working while you have small children ‘is not a choice we want Americans to make’. (It’s worth watching the clip or reading the transcript for context.)
He says: ‘sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. That’s not a choice we want Americans to make’.
Instead of decrying the compulsion not to work due to high childcare costs (e.g. staying at home ‘is not a choice we want Americans TO HAVE TO make’), he devalues the choice itself. He too had a choice when picking those words and I think they are typical of a certain political attitude towards the person as, you guessed it, a ‘do-er’, a unit of productivity.
Note that it is not a person, man or woman making that choice in his eyes but an ‘American’, and that this casts a very personal individual decision made in service of the family as primarily that of a citizen in relation to the State(s). A good person and a good citizen are different things: staying at home might be beneficial for your family, but not necessarily (at least in the short term) for the State. A good citizen renders unto Caesar that which is his, including tax dollars. It’s hardly surprising that a President would openly state he does not want his citizens to make the choice of not contributing to tax revenues and the economy.
But what do the stay-at-home mothers and fathers say?
These are people who once worked, who were once therefore trained to think constantly about how they are adding value and how they represent that value to others in service of a promotion or pay rise, and to catalogue their every professional action and decision so that, in aggregate, these will push them up a few percentage points at the next performance review.
Their testimonies suggest they are still chained to this mentality of doing and of having to over-represent their achievements. One woman said, ‘I’ve felt the absurd need to pack a million and ten activities into my day so I could list them off to my husband when he came home in an attempt to convince (who really? Mostly myself …) that I was “productive”.’ The same vocabulary of productivity, value and accomplishment recurs every time.
‘What did you do today?’ or ‘What did you get up to this weekend?’ force the stay-at-home parent and I to admit (sometimes) ‘I did nothing’. Yet this response should not imply that I and my mode of existence are also worth nothing. The parent who chooses to stay at home sees a clear value in living not-traditionally-productively. In my case, I can’t deny how helpful and enjoyable can be a day spent watching YouTube debates or trying to articulate my philosophies or looking at flowers in the park. Asking ‘what we did’ forces our narrative about our existence to conform to the rhetoric of action and performance measurement, and contributes to our culture of valuing action above all else.
Nearly done, I promise
Why don’t we ask each other how we feel, what we thought, where we are mentally, what we want and hope for? Those answers are far more interesting than the lists of fun activities and achievements reeled off when we ask the wrong question. Engaging with our inner lives (including our demons) such that we can answer these questions is, I feel, a surer way to self-improvement and contentment than focusing on how many times we got drunk at the weekend, how many times or how well we demonstrated initiative at work, how many hobbies we regularly practise, how many miles we ran at the gym, or how diligently we followed our New Year’s resolution.
I suggest we find a new way of expressing what is truly valuable and good in a way that does not prioritise mere actions, a tiny part of our existence. I suggest we reject notions of usefulness and value-add as expressions of our faulty near-utilitarian culture of ‘doing’. We do not need to ‘do’ anything; we are infinitely valuable as is.