~or~ in defence of the "downbeat" ~or~ why is enduring contentment SO DAMN ELUSIVE?
Dermot O Leary: Do you enjoy life?
Morrissey: I don’t think anybody enjoys life, Dermot, do they? ...I think it’s thrust upon them and they just get through it.
BBC Radio 2 interview April 30, 2011
Happiness: Miserable old Morrissey does come out some things, eh? Indeed he does, but in this case I found myself chuckling in recognition, because I happen to wholeheartedly agree.
My life thus far: Some of it has been fun. An awful lot of it, if I think about it, really hasn’t. I have a lingering suspicion that I’ve been doing it wrong.
Certainly there have been agreeably regular moments of laughter, excitement, intrigue and contentment; but really, on a day-to-day basis these seem to be heavily outweighed by the more frequent and enduring stretches of frustration, anxiety, irritability, grey monotony, disgruntlement, confusion, listlessness, embarrassment, panic, exhaustion, alarm, despondency... you get the picture.
What’s worse is that such moods and experiences don’t always tie up with your situation – I’ve often found myself looking forward to, and working towards, situations that leave me bored and restless when I get there; or experiencing out-of-the-blue high times when things are otherwise pretty grim. You can never guarantee a good time, or the whims of your weather-like temperament, it seems.
Happiness in a society like ours really shouldn’t be difficult – God knows we’ve got everything we need, food, shelter, considerable freedoms, entertainment, and countless comforts, tools and toys to play with...
So what, dear reader, gives? Well, the most salient thought-cloud hovering on my mental horizon is sheer disparity between my escapist dreams of a happy, successful, functional life and the rather more grey and complicated reality.
And here’s the rub: I’m increasingly convinced that the myths and values we’re bought up with, that teach us what we should strive for and expect out of modern life, are actually extremely dysfunctional and ill-matched with reality as we find it.
Fairness: To put it simply, life is tough. It always has been tough and always will be. The apparent stability and security of our everyday lives, our escapist entertainments and the creature comforts we surround ourselves with lull us into thinking we should have all the problems of existence sorted – but they are very much all still there, and refuse to go away.
For a start, of course, our affluence and comfort is only attained through the hard graft of millions of other people and the downright inequality of the wider world – but I‘m not intending to get all political here, so to move swiftly on...
This idea that life is, or should be, fair: adhering to this sense of entitlement has caused nothing but anxiety and grief throughout my days.
We live in an aspirational society. Pop culture feeds us myths that we will all be rewarded for our hard work and our talents, that life and work could and should be fun and that everyone can meet their potential (ie. get to develop what they want to develop and applause for what they want to get applause for.)
This is supposed to be motivating, but can actually end up convincing you that, if the above is not how you experience life, something is terribly wrong – either you are a failure or you have been screwed over by “life”.
Actually, it’s really obvious that “life” is simply too complex and chaotic to get too upset when things don’t turn out the way you thought they should in your escapist fantasies – because what pop culture is feeding us is, of course, escapist fantasy, and should never have been taken literally in the first place.
Believing that there is a grand plan and purpose to the universe, and that everything happens for a reason (or even, God forbid, the “best”,) has, more often than not, resulted in nasty surprises for me when faced with the curve-balls, snarl-ups and compromises of reality.
Sure, things work fairly well, you are rarely given more on your plate than you can cope with – but not always, not for everyone every time. To put it bluntly, awful things do happen, good things do sometimes turn terminally bad, tragedy does strike, and you... get through it. Hopefully. These days any talk of destiny or karma make me gnash my teeth for just that reason – given all the injustice and suffering in the world, how dare you suggest that everything is “for the best”?
Work: I’m grateful that I’ve done mainly interesting jobs that I’ve found, on balance, quite compelling and rewarding. But all the same, work has been at the very core of some of the more soul destroying staring-into-the-existential-abyss moments of my life.
The problem is not with the concept of work per-se (on the contrary, without work you face the equally abysmal existential void of zero purpose, achievement or self-worth) but more with the relentlessness and compromise of it all. The tragedy is that there is so much to explore and experience that you are aware exists to explore and experience, and are promised that you can; but in reality you realise you will never explore and experience half of it because your time and energy is all invested in doing what you have to do to pay your way.
The fact that you have to do it is automatically galling, not to mention that it often means doing tasks you really don't want to do, or in a way you really don't want to do them, and then getting harshly judged on the results. Even the most exciting or agreeable of tasks lose their appeal if that's all you do - if you were told you had to relax with a cup of tea in a chair for eight hours a day (but, of course, in a particular way that your boss or clients want it done,) it would quickly become a constricting chore.
I’ve got to admit that without a doubt the happiest periods of my life have been when I’ve been slightly removed from the politics of the workplace and demands of authority, and been relatively independent – when I’ve had time and energy to explore things, to indulge my preferred talents and interests, to consider and discuss and even joke around, to pay as much care and attention as I like to things I’m doing and produce results I’m proud of, to interact with others as a fully rounded human being.
That kind of freedom, quite understandably, does not exist in most workplaces, which, it’s got to be said, tend towards a slightly dehumanising effect. During business hours you are essentially a tool controlled by the demands of others – whether it’s management or clients or customers – who will rarely be happy unless you are giving 100% of yourself to their agenda 100% of the time. The majority of us still have to spend the majority of our active waking hours doing this, and struggling to exert some kind of influence over the course our own lives.
It’s also got to be said that, especially in the current climate, most organisations, private or public sector, are predicated on everyone being squeezed and stretched all of the time, which means morale is always under threat and inter-personal resentments undergo a kind of hot-house incubation.
My point is even if you, broadly, on balance, enjoy your work, it’s still a daily struggle. If, God forbid, you really don’t enjoy your work, or get on with the people you work with, then it doesn’t matter how much money you're making or how great the stuff you buy is – a massive portion of your life is spent in teeth-grinding misery, and you are perfectly justified in despairing about it.
Is there any way out of this? The answer would appear to be, for most of us, no – not unless you win the lottery or luck out in some other way. But that’s not a real solution, you have not really found the key to self sufficiency - it's fraudulent, because you haven’t earned your escape from the wheel of drudgery; and irrelevant, because without responsibilities or contribution to the world you end up no more than a pampered parasite, swaddled from the world, with no right to comment on the lot of everyday man. If you don’t muck in with society, why should society care two hoots about your over-privileged ass?
Resentment: It’s easy to look at successful and wealthy people and make glib, resentful proclamations about how much easier their lives are and how you wish your life was like that – but it’s all relative and that’s only how it appears on the outside.
Beneath the veneer everyone has their own frustrations and constraints, demands on their time and person, hopes and fears, heartbreaks and tragedies, flaws and failures, dramas and neuroses. No apparent “perfect life” is static and permanently sustainable. Life has a habit of compromising and complicating things and every element of our lives is subject to change and entropy.
The Greeks said “call no man happy till he is dead” – meaning it’s futile to envy the living, before their life stories are complete – because no matter how happy someone appears to be now, it might all go tits-up tomorrow, and you sure as hell won’t be envying them then.
No matter how buffered against catastrophe and sorrow and suffering we are by wealth and success, no buffer is totally bullet-proof. In fact everyone is faced with the same unpredictable, unknowable onslaught of chaotic events that life throws at us, and there is at least a kind of final fairness in that. We all still die.
You may feel resentment that you haven’t got every box ticked: the healthy energetic lifestyle, the fun and interesting social life, the professional recognition, the idyllic home, the perfect relationships, all the time, money and leisure that you feel you should, in a fair and ideal world, have got by now. But look around you – who the crap has? I mean really, beyond the surface showboating bullshit?
Getting By: I suppose the point I’m trying to make, is that your life is your life – it’s pointless comparing it to someone else’s and thinking yours should be like that; or to an idealised fantasy and getting upset that it’s not like that. Reality can be as much Steinbeck novel as sitcom, and feel as much Kafkaesque nightmare as Glee-esque dream, no matter who you are.
We are brought up to think if we are not having fun and doing amazing things and being happy and content all the time we are a failure, and something is wrong.
But life is strange, unpredictable and all-over-the-place, and everyone has their own unique challenges, obstacles, tragedies, deficiencies, demons and regrets – everyone has their own “shit to deal with”, everyone has their own hard times. In these uncertain times, certainly - clinging on to your youthful assumptions of "how things should be" just looks like a naive dream borne of a cotton-wool-swaddled bubble. Everything is different now, and everything could be different again tomorrow.
For the vast majority of people through the vast majority of history life has been grim, or at least a struggle. Life never has been all about having constant fun and high times, no matter what the movies and sitcoms and endless aspirational TV series seduce us into believing. You are doing well if you manage to keep poverty and despair at bay and just get on with living. As long it stays generally tolerable and functional enough to keep you moving along day to day, then that’s all anyone is really “entitled” to.
This sounds relentlessly grim, but I actually take a fair bit of comfort in it – it’s ok that things did not turn out like your perfect and wonderful day-dreams, but it's also ok to rage against your lot once in awhile, and it’s ok not to be all happiness all the time. Things are tough all over and everyone should give each other more of a break. We may dream visions of a halcyon Hollywood life made up of those all-too-fleeting fun and exciting moments, but in reality there is Steinbeck too. This is life: We’re all just getting by.