Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Don’t “do epic shit.” You’ve been had. It’s time to “do basic shit” instead.  §

Is anyone else put off by the rhetoric of success and fulfillment in our culture? Whether it’s self-help books, TED events, interviews with “thought leaders,” or any other forum, any discourse on living a good life invariably tracks toward a relatively uniform series of phrases:

  • Do epic shit

  • Accomplish great things

  • Expand what is possible

  • Change the world

  • Do the impossible

  • Transform lives

© Sylvana Colmenares

There is this constant, rolling thunder of rhetoric about how the path to happiness lies in, essentially, being Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus.

I can just hear the beautiful people now, echoing this: “Oh yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I mean! That’s what my five bullet points and introductory joke are all about! You, yes you can be Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus. Each of us is a minor deity! Hell, each of us is a major deity if we’ll only get out of our own ways! You as Jesus? Why not! Seize your destiny and be the creator of a radical new reality. The world needs the transformation that only you can bring!”

Some thoughts.

  1. What utter bullshit we all are willing to consume, in large quantities. How did this discourse ever get off the ground, much less become culturally ascendant?

  2. There are so many billions—who just want to chop wood, carry water, and tend to their own little corner of the world with their own little families—to whom this presumedly universal appeal does not actually appeal.

  3. It is never humanity’s rank-and-file saying these things; it is those of extremely high status or wealth. It isn’t easy to achieve status or wealth, or more people would do it. Even the little-corner-tenders wish they had an extra $100 monthly to upgrade their garden hoses and repaint the shed. If changing the world is easy, surely just getting an extra $100 monthly should be desperately easy. But I suspect that if you put any regular Joe from the streets (not the towering offices) of <insert megacity here> on the stage or in a book’s pages, they’d say that it’s damned hard to transform your June, much less the entire world.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that in all of this stuff what I actually see is the global elite telling other members of the global elite how to allocate their money to and with one another—either “Invest in me and people like me!” or “Here’s what you need to care about, how you need to act, and how you must present for me to invest in you!” but dressed up in the language of ethics or aspiration.

  5. Nearly all of the breathless advice on offer takes the form of a discourse of positivity about risk and failure—personal, professional, and corporate. Take risks. Be willing to fail. Do these things that led Unicorn X to succeed. None of it confronts the fact that risk tolerance requires reserves—that if most took these personal, professional, and corporate risks, they would simply end up alone, hungry, and homeless, rather than ascending to the top of the food chain. None of it considers that naked chance has an awful lot to do with success, and that countless people throughout history have lived lives full of idealistic risks, failed utterly, and died miserable (or even died executed), and that we used to call these people “dreamers” and “schemers” not just to describe them, but to warn the children about the likely consequences of simply “following your passion no matter what” and “always thinking outside the box.”

  6. In short, the people who are best positioned to take and use this advice to positive effect are those that don’t really need it.

  7. Yet thanks to modern communications systems, all of this has come to serve as a kind of weird success porn for the global middle class and underclasses, whom are the vast majority of folks. It’s the modern form of gossiping about and hanging off every word of the royals, even though the astute folks know deep down that they’ll never even catch so much as a glimpse of the palace interior with their own profane eyes (the stupid people wrangling their way into the palace and getting hung in the process).

— § —

I have the hunch that a certain amount (and not a small amount) of the politics on the left and right just now—both blood and soil and privilege and intersectionality as discourses—is down to the fact that people are struggling with this hyperbolic cheerleading from the elites, divorced from all reality.

Blood and soil is a values reaction. “You know very well that radically innovating a dot-com into a ‘unicorn’ is something I’ll never, ever do. I reject the lies that you tell me, and advocate for the pursuit of opposite, far more democratic values—the very mundane values of reproductive lineage, which everyone actually does have, and a patch of land, on which everyone actually does stand.” It is expressed histrionically to match the histrionics cheerleading of the elites, because otherwise it is tough to get everyone excited about something that is not, in any sense, elite—that is universal to seven billion people on the planet.

Privilege and intersectionality is an instrumental reaction. “Okay, I buy your story that I can become Jesus. Now I demand the conditions that will make that become possible for me.” It is expressed as true belief because the language of the cheerleaders is also the language of true belief; to embrace their promises requires true belief. Utopianism is all about transforming the world and doing the impossible, so when people are reassured that this is their destiny, it’s not all that surprising that they set out to accomplish it, even if there are practical considerations that seem to obstruct them.

The distasteful irony of all of this is that many of the people at the heights who pepper society with this optimistic hucksterism claim to be enlightened and hew to one spiritual tradition or another, often publicly. Buddhism is a common one, though there are others, some of them secular. But their claimed enlightenment often leaves behind a key tenet of every tradition of enlightenment: the notion that individual humans are very, very small, and our job is to make peace with that, live our lives in acceptance of the suffering that this implies, and simply do every day the little things that need to be done, with gratitude not for our ability to change the world, but in fact for our chance to chop wood and carry water at all (i.e. for the simple fact that we exist and are alive, despite the smallness of both).

— § —

It seems sad that “enlightenment” has become an insidious thing, but under the label as it is used today, I believe that it has. This is a key reason for the popularity of someone like Jordan Peterson. People are tired of being told that it is their destiny to “do epic shit” and “change the world,” then looking around and realizing that not only have they not done so but that in fact they can’t see any possible avenue by which this might occur, much less do they actually want to be involved in any such project.

Look around for people that are telling us instead that:

© Aron Hsiao / 2018
  • Life is hard

  • But you can get through it

  • It’ll still be hard, but easier, if you speak plainly and do your small everyday shit with acceptance and dedication

  • Defend your little bit of ground because it’s all you’ve got, and don’t pursue someone else’s because it’s all they’ve got

  • That’s all there is, but there are moments when it doesn’t seem so bad if:

  • You let go of trying to be Jesus (if that’s your thing) and just do your fucking laundry on time

  • You pull yourself together, forget TED, and just do basic shit (if you haven’t been doing it)

  • Don’t worry, we’re all actually in more or less the same boat, the rest is all lies

  • Always have been, always will be, and that’s basically it, man

I suspect that these are the voices that are going to rise to the top of the cultural pile as the forces of reaction continue to accumulate over the next few years.

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