Enjoying things is a tricky business. You have to teach yourself how and choose what you enjoy – or you will be left with chasing firsts.
Enjoying things is a tricky business, but not at first.
For a baby, everything is interesting, amazing and new. Delighted to stroke a cat for the first time, the texture of the fur, the purring, even the claws are new and stimulating. We are excited by our first rainbow, the first experience of vertigo, the first walk on a beach, and how sticky tape pulls on our arm hair. That kind of enjoyment comes easily when the stimulus is novel.
But as the years go by, we have less and less firsts.
Remember your first school day? The first Christmas? The first birthday party? The first holiday? How crazy important was that! And not just because every child is completely self-centered by default and whatever happens to them is of utmost relevance. These things were memorable and relevant because they were firsts. It is hard to get excited about our second school year, our 29th birthday party, or the tie we’ve got for Christmas last year. Not to mention the fifth family holiday by the same lake.
Books we read, movies we watch, things we experience are more consequential when we are young because we invest more mental effort into them.
We put more effort into imagining things, we get more immersed. This is why even an inane horror movie can be scary for a child, but not even the most imaginative fairy tale can impress an adult. But even if we read the most flawless books and watch all the flawless movies – the degree of enjoyment will be reduced if we don’t start challenging ourselves. We keep giving less and less of ourselves – and we get less back.
Creating our own enjoyment takes effort
So we seek shortcuts to enjoyment instead.
For a while, we try to create sub-sets of firsts.
First school year, first year in high school, first year in college, first year out of education, first year on a new job. We have had many Halloweens before, but this is the first one as a couple.
We had many holidays, so we try to spice it up. New cities, new countries, beaches further and further away from home.
Our first love is followed by our first real love, then a love that is even better, then one that is more mature, and then one that’s willing to settle right when we are, and then another one that is just new, and then another one that is … yet another love. If it’s not a first in anything, isn’t it some sort of defeat?
Even if we skip the soul-crashing serial dating phase, we will find it less and less appealing to open up for yet another potential soul mate, and we will be less and less willing to put so much into one person – only to put the same energy into someone else in a few years.
Many decide to settle not because the latest one is so perfect – but because we dread of getting even more cynical and disillusioned.
Our first student job is followed by our first real job, then our actual career job, then a job where we make real money – but the whole thing gets less and less exciting, even though we now have the expensive watch and the car we always wanted. We go on the expensive holiday we feel we have always worked for. We work less and less for more and more money as we age – yet we couldn’t be more miserable. We blame midlife and the happiness curve, we lap up self-help – but in truth we just suffer the consequences of our initial neglect: we have neglected to define what work is, what it is for, what we want from it – so we can’t know when we get it. We change jobs instead of sitting down and see that we already have what we wanted out of it. If something is missing – that’s missing from us, not the jobs.
We travel more and further than ever, we check countries off the map like it was mandatory, but new things and new places don’t bring us as much joy as they used to. But even when bored of experiencing new things, we can still enjoy “sharing” them. We report it to more and more Facebook friends and Instagram followers. That makes another first. For a while. We post our coveted girlfriend on social media, humblebrag about the expensive holiday, pose in front of the new car.
But the travelling itself becomes a bore and new places are not quite different – especially if the journey inside has come to a halt.
The apex of excitement had been reached and any marginal increase in enjoyment requires more and more effort. There are no new stimuli, not even semi-new ones, there are no cheap thrills like experiencing the snow or the ocean for the first time. We have even seen Aida and posted about it, even though we didn’t like it. Opera is checked.
What to do now?
The answer to many is to have children and cannibalize the children’s firsts.
Having children is often just a reaction in itself. A reaction to running out things to do according to The Program. We settle because we are no longer thrilled to meet new people (or for reasons that are even worse). We get scared of how long life is and that we may have done everything already. (No, we just hit a certain age and ran out of firsts.) We adopt The Program because it gives us lots of things to do, for a very long time, and we can hide behind the holiness of it and never get asked what we would do ourselves. What we would use life for if it weren’t for our holy reproductive duty and working hard not to run away from each other when we want.
So why not use children as a proxy to experience things for the first time – once again?
Children don’t mind if you cannibalize their experiences, they are 1) completely preoccupied with themselves and 2) accept everything as it is. If daddy and mommy keep gushing over your shoulder and enjoying things that happen to you, than that’s the normal. Mommy enjoys my first birthday, fine. Mommy enjoys my piano recital – of course she would, she has to.
Who hasn’t heard a new parent gushing about the beauty of the little moments, snowflakes, and the dog’s fluffy tail – just because he saw his own child amazed at those things? Did the child discover something new that the parent forgot – or is the parent so under-stimulated by having to follow a toddler around that he developed hyper-focus on the little things that he otherwise neglected? All those things are fine, for sure. And he most certainly hasn’t enjoyed them for decades – not since he was a child himself. But does that make them really so special?
When seeing through your child’s enjoyment, Christmas is once again, sort of, magical. A first. Your child’s first holiday, then his first beach holiday, then his first school year – they are shadows of the real thing, but still firsts. And that passes for the real thing for another little while. Especially because you are so unspeakably busy keeping your children alive for many years, you don’t even have the time for luxuries like contemplating the pointlessness of existence.
But cannibalizing your children’s’ firsts is not a solution.
You can sense that you have neglected to do something in your ow life, failed to achieve some developmental milestone, that you are not ready, that you are just acting. And the day your child’s firsts run out – or when he develops a sense of privacy and stops sharing them with you – you will be in even deeper trouble. You filled the abyss with baby-busyness for along time and made your child’s enjoyment your own – but in the meantime that gap of emptiness has further widened inside you as you neglected yourself even more than before.
You neglected to give meaning to your own life, you neglected to create an answer to the “who are you?” and the “what do you want?” – and it will keep coming back to haunt you, no matter how many layers of nappies and teenage drama you bury it under.
And every time the problem re-emerges, it gets more and more repulsive, it causes bigger and bigger problems, you will fear it, fear yourself more and more.
It takes two to enjoy things: the things and you
The thing you have missed to develop is your own standards of enjoyment.
Your standard of enjoyment has been adopted by you as a given. The world readily dictates what you’re supposed to consider pleasurable and stimulating: Graduation ceremonies, ready-made milestones, birthdays, coupling, all the things society keeps count of. But these things are not inherent to you, even if you happen to put a great emphasis on some of them. Their significance to you is at least partly adopted. Some of these things might not mean much to you.
The real things that excite you can only be identified or created by you – by standards of value created by yourself. Aside from all the firsts, the socially significant and the obviously relevant, you should have your own relevant things. The two overlap and it doesn’t make it easier for you. You may genuinely enjoy beach holidays or Christmases – but not all the package of The Program.
You will always be inclined to go for whatever gives the biggest buzz to society around you – as opposed to what leaves them cold and only excites you. You will chase a big house, then your own house, than a bigger house than anyone – but maybe deep down, your own housing dream would be a tiny cottage you made with your own hands – with a goat in the garden because goats are funny. But who would applaud you for a goat and a cottage? Would they call you a good boy? Would they stop the disapproval? Would they even get envious? Unlikely.
Standards of excitement (not values) also change with time. Gathering your resources (and permissions from bloody authorities) to build your own house is a process. So is building that home and finding the right goat. (Although they are all hilarious.) And living there for the first year, the first autumn, the first winter, the first spring is all fun. But one day you will be onto something new that excites you. Maybe you want to build a boat. Learn card tricks. Adopt a child. And those things will excite you – whether they are firsts or not.
Standards must be your own. No one will approve of them, so stop hoping. The Program is to break you in, not to make you happy or give you enjoyment.
Standards can also change. In fact, they must. Change is life and if you cannot incorporate change, or do so only unwillingly, you are probably not living.
If you couldn’t cope with eternity, you are not really alive
So maybe you can replace your own firsts with your children’s and then with your grandkids’ but you probably know by now that you are cheating. Cheating yourself. Never to learn how to live life is wildly encouraged in society. If you don’t pursue your own thing, they can always use you. They will always fill up your life-time, but never in your benefit, you can’t seriously believe that.
If we are all just furniture in each other’s lives, and nobody is ever just himself and not a function, do we even need to exist? Aren’t we skipping a task here? Collectively and willfully blind to what we are doing? Passing down the torch and never lighting it?
You have to find a way to live your life one phase at a time, one challenge at a time, love after love, your first passion followed by you next passion – while treating the past respectfully, and not as a failure just because you couldn’t stay in it forever. An ex is not a failure because you couldn’t force yourselves to stick in each other’s lives forever. Your last hobby is not an embarrassment, just because you have a new one.
Things in life change. That’s not failure, that is called being alive.
Only social dogma dictates the opposite, but social dogma is anti-human and is invented to submit humans, not to let them live.
Right now we are very far from being alive.
Humanity somehow agreed with itself that life is a one-shot affair, you can have one profession, one partner, one path for life – and if it doesn’t last until the grave, you are a failure and a bad person.
But social dogma is only conceivable with a very limited lifespan in mind, and only if you regard humanity – and yourself in it – as biomass whose only goal is perpetuation of the species – not the fulfillment or success of any one of them. When I wrote about life “Between 30 and death” I was caricaturing this unspoken nonsense of assuming we get one shot and disappear.
Chasing firsts = Stagnant life
Firsts are instant stimulation that require no effort of your own.
They are a pull that put us into motion. There are also pushes – things we try to avoid – and they, too, put us into motion. So we appear moving, we even make effort, but never to achieve anything, let alone a goal of our own. We are just moved by our pushes and pulls.
An object in motion.
The punishment? That we can only replace the pull of an instant (positive) stimulus with the push of something to avoid (negative). When running out of things we (seemingly) do for enjoyment, we quickly pull a comfort blanket of duties upon ourselves, because that’s the only thing that can keep us in motion when you have no more motivation to move.
An object in motion.
This is why our first thought was taking on the responsibility of a family. So that we can keep moving and doing things in the absence of inherent desires. We will have to keep doing stuff to avoid a baby’s cry, an eviction for unpaid bills, poverty, an unhappy spouse. We will work to avoid these things and don’t have to contemplate what to fill up the remaining time. While others’ needs are our call to action, we can avoid the embarrassing question as to what we were planning to do with the uncultivated time called life ahead of us.
And by the time those pressing needs subside, you will be exhausted and too old to start plotting your own life. The pressure to achieve something will be gratefully over. Because it was that, the outside pressure to keep busy, that made you do things in the first place. Late blooming, empty nesting, perennials, we can see those people who spent an adult life on duty and now enjoy not having any pressure. They can finally think – if they dare – because there is no pressure to crowd out their own thoughts.
What about seconds?
I am really just thinking aloud here, but how do people learn to enjoy things repeatedly?
What do we enjoy about things that are not firsts, things that we already know? What other aspect of a thing can we enjoy apart from its novelty?
Maybe we should redefine “new”. Or maybe we should learn to experience new degrees of the same thing. After all, enjoyment of art, literature, music doesn’t come without practice. It requires invested effort: to learn to read and then read enough to be able to appreciate when a book is good. To try to understand art, so that you’re not bored out of your mind when you look at an exhibition. To follow current events in order to enjoy a political debate. To practice enough philosophy to appreciate a well-made argument.
Maybe relationships don’t have to get more faded and less passionate as you age. The less you put into a relationship, the less it can stimulate you, after all. Maybe the opposite is also true. Maybe you don’t become less every time a relationship has ended because the end of love is not a failure but perfectly normal.
Enjoyment and excitement don’t just come from the objective qualities of your partner – but also how you bother to feel about her. But making the effort to feel that strongly again and again becomes a chore. And it is scary. You fear that you become less if you give more – even though benevolent human interactions are always positive sum.
How can you possibly think that you know everything there is out there?
That you already know everything that might interest you? Spending too much time in the same vantage point makes you so narrow-minded – but no, frantic travelling does not automatically mean a broader mental horizon.
Self-improvement (refined tastes, new skills, new information) is necessary to remain stimulated, but for most, it stops when they make a baby and the baby’s needs crowd out everything else, every noise, doubt, or question. You may still sometimes question what you are doing in life, but your head is so confused, heavy and sleep-deprived that you never really aspire for anything. Isn’t that a betrayal after all, thinking that you are still you? Isn’t it a guilty thought? Isn’t it a thought crime?
I don’t know if having a life outside of serving your children is betrayal or not – but passing down the torch of unthinking anxiety definitely is.
Rushing into the eternal business of serving another human is the wrong answer to boredom and running out of easy firsts to chase – and it means evading a very important question that hasn’t even been formed yet.