Here’s to Another Year of Being Doomed to Be Ourselves

Say what you will about Sisyphus, but at least he never pretended he was going to start taking advantage of his maximum RRSP contributions. Also, rock-pushing is great for your core.

It’s supposed to take something like seven or eight tries to quit smoking. Like, seven or eight actual flushing-things-and-buying-a-vape tries. Not just holding out until you are drunk again and then making some joke about quitting while you flip a butt towards the gutter, your self-loathing at not even being able to conceptualize a world that doesn’t involve hacking darts held at bay with the hoary wit of 80 million people who laughed until the cancer turned basic mirth into flaming agony. (Perhaps you don’t feel any self-loathing about this, in which case you are in for one hell of a party when you figure out that Impending Mortality is not George R.R. Martin’s long-awaited follow-up to A Dance With Dragons.)

The repeated failures make a certain tautological sense: if you were the kind of person who was capable of quitting you would be the kind of person who was not currently smoking. Smoking may be a slightly special case because of all those wonderful, powerful, habit-forming chemicals, but the logic of quitting a bad or even just neutral-but-not-preferred habit is all the same: the self-loathing that comes from continuing to do it has to overwhelm the fact you’re probably doing it to help kill significant amounts of self-loathing in the first place. (Statistically speaking, if you are not driven by self-loathing, you are either a sociopath or your bad habit is cocaine, although there’s obviously plenty of overlap.)

Human beings are not typically built for the titanic amounts of vicious self-hatred it takes to become genuinely good people, by which I mean people who look in the mirror and see neither a formless pile of failure nor the shattered, useless dreams of everyone they gleefully shivved to be able to afford their failure-obscuring accessories. Fearless moral inventories are essentially The Bachelor: everyone loves to gawk at the people caught in that shit typhoon, but we do not want to imagine what would have to happen in our lives to end up going through something like that. Maintaining our self-image is the thing we are best at; we will colonize the Milky Way galaxy within two months of inventing an engine that harnesses quivering self-justification.

Which is all well and good until you decide that change is what you want. Going on two months out from our annual ritual of potential renewal, as acres of gym clothes lie fallow and chip-greased pages are the only signs you’ve even glanced at your book of 35 Easy Gluten-free Vegan Meals Your Whole Family Will Love, we are reminded that New Year’s is a very fancy way of celebrating the fact we have spent 365 days spinning rapidly only to end up in the exact place we started. Say what you will about Sisyphus, but at least he never pretended he was going to finally start taking advantage of his maximum RRSP contributions. Also, rock-pushing is great for your core.

People tell you to “be present,” as though life isn’t a series of single frames edited together by some pissy French alcoholic whose only goal is to show you getting uglier.

It’s not as though there is glory in this particular struggle, either: change is very plainly about the destination. Like, to the point where we do not really consider it a journey so much as a decision, a thing we do one morning that magically rewrites our DNA or at least our desire to fight off sleep so we can finish watching the fourth season of Friday Night Lights on a Wednesday night. We think it’s doable because our habits, the kind we want to break, show up equally suddenly to our hopeless, cheerfully ignorant minds. One day you just simply wake up crushed under a mess of belly fat and disappointing smells, conveniently forgetting that you have spent the last two and a half years making really lazy sucking double entendres and leaving the back door unlocked for that pack of Belmonts and every pastry in the Starbucks display case.

People tell you to “be present,” as though life isn’t a series of single frames edited together by some pissy French alcoholic whose only goal is to show you getting uglier. Present is precisely our problem, our eternal cage: we are no more capable of imagining ourselves in the future (or past) than we are of imagining ourselves being different people now. Every professional harrumpher bellowing from their pasty white anal cavities about Beyoncé wearing berets and bandoliers is exactly why your odds of sticking to your budget this year are effectively doomed: we are always only ourselves, capable of looking beyond only when it’s absolutely necessary. And if it starts to feel like it might be necessary, we have a fortress of societally sponsored self-worth and cream-based sauces to retreat to.

We keep trying, bless our stupid hearts, because we’re also trapped in it. It feels better than admitting we’re through, I guess, and our imaginary lives are so vivid we can project ourselves into some other life before immediately sinking right back in to the stained couch of our current ones, satisfied that since we have dreamed it, we’ve done it. And maybe some of you will. Hell, I’m still going to spin classes several weeks after thinking I should. Sad as that sounds, just imagine the life that led me to that point.

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Set it on Fire and Start Over: Courting Failure with Idra Novey
Speaking with the author of Ways to Disappear about embracing impulsiveness, the common ground between writing and translating, and the purifying power of flames.