I got to thinking about time when I read Helen Stuhr-Rommereim’s excellent essay “A Delicate Time: Queer Temporality in Torpor” (from You Must Make Your Death Public: A Collection of Texts and Media on the Work of Chris Kraus, ed. Mira Mattar). In it, she suggests that the socially constructed view of time as both linear and goal-oriented is both harmful and potentially false, referring to “teleologies of happiness…in which one’s relationship with the self is defined by speculative investment towards a point of future pay off which is necessarily never going to arrive.” This really struck a chord with me. I’ve always loved the exchange in the film Dazed and Confused, where slightly dorky high schoolers Cynthia, Mike and Tony question the social structures that push them towards endlessly regressing future goals.
Cynthia: Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?
Tony: Yeah, I know. Like it’s all preparation.
Cynthia: Right. But what are we preparing ourselves for?
Tony: Life of the party!
Cynthia:You know, but that’s valid. Because if we’re all going to die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.
And yet, that’s exactly how it’s set up. School, university, work – it’s all presented to you as something you do in order to secure a better future for yourself. Or, as Philip Larkin puts it in his excellent poem “Next, Please,”
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say
It’s not just careers, either – it’s material acquisition. Unless you’re upper middle class or just upper class and are presented with a brand new car on your 17th birthday, it’s pretty much a rite of passage in UK society that your first car will be secondhand, thirdhand, “an old banger,” a hunk of junk that you proudly drive around, secure in the knowledge that one day you’ll be able to afford something better. Because you’ll be earning more, because that’s how time works – everything’s supposed to get better. You’re supposed to get more successful, more wealthy, and have the possessions to show for it. If your first property is a shoebox or in a grotty area, never mind – the next one will be bigger and in a nicer area. As Struhr-Rommereim writes, this kind of “normative becoming” underpins all our Western “conceptions of success and achievement – getting an education, having a job that leads to a better job, having a house, even reaching certain thresholds of health and beauty.”
Or, as Larkin puts it, in awaiting the future, we are effectively watching the horizon, as
the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
But as Larkin and Struhr-Rommereim point out, therein lies the problem. Expectation can be exactly what prevents us enjoying the things we desire when they finally arrive. Because it’s not just possessing the thing – the car, the house, the job, the relationship – that we imagine, it’s how it’s going to feel. And hapless optimists that we are, we expect that it’s going to feel nothing less than amazing.
So if it doesn’t, we feel wrong-footed. Ashamed. We feel like we have to lie, overcompensate for our lack of appropriate reaction. We feel like there’s something wrong with us for not being able to experience the emotion we’re expected to experience in line with the acquisition of the things that are supposed to make us happy. Or, as Struhr-Rommereim writes, “happiness, by guiding us towards certain objects, is restrictive in requiring us not to be unhappy with the acquisition of those objects, making unhappiness a failure or a deviance.” Larkin adds:
they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach…
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
I’m lucky enough to call myself a homeowner. And I do love my house; I say I love it so much I could marry it, and it’s not much of an exaggeration. I love the physical reality of my own space to do with as I please, But I also love what it represents. No more renting. No more rent rises every six months, no more letting agents asking for £200 “admin fees” to sort out a few pieces of paper, no more having to ask permission to put a hook in a wall, no more paying someone else’s mortgage. And security. I’m a believer in what Douglas Coupland wrote in Eleanor Rigby, that a rich man is always just a rich man, whereas a rich woman is only ever a poor woman who happens to have money. My purple-painted, Hindu-god populated corner of the world represents something I might need to fall back on later in life – and since I’m not having children, I’m aware that it’s down to me to look after me.
But in the first few weeks when everyone was asking me if I loved my house? It was sometimes hard to come up with the required response. I loved the fact that the weeks of tedious waiting for solicitors and estate agents to get their act together was over. I loved the fact that I could (for the second time) move out of my parents’ house and this time believe it was permanent. But how did I actually feel? Knackered, skint, covered in paint and sawdust, and like I could sleep for a month. The expected “happiness” wouldn’t materialise until some time later, such as during the winter months, when I’d lay on my sofa, look up at the ceilings I painted with my own hands, and think “all this is mine.” I still get those moments, and it’s great. But I expect I’ll get them less as I get used to the fact the house is mine and start to take it for granted. And there, as Larkin says, is the fleeting nature of happiness, contentment, satisfaction. It’s no sooner present than it’s past. And then we’re on to the next thing. Or as Struhr-Rommereim writes, "cruel optimism occurs when the act of waiting for those boats to arrive is what makes it impossible to have what those boats should bring."
Enjoying the now is so hard to do, especially when we live in a goal-oriented society that frowns upon any standing still. We’re told we should always be moving, moving on to the next thing, that inertia isn’t just death, it's a sin, it’s laziness. People put framed copies of William Henry Davies' poem Leisure - which asks “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” - in their bathrooms and then never stop to read it or think about what it means because their lives don’t allow them that luxury. Earn, produce, consume, never stop. Then when we start melting down, suffering from stress, depression, mental illness, we go for therapy and we’re told to be mindful. To be in the moment. To breathe, to smell the flowers, watch the clouds. And we find we don’t know how, because we were never taught. We were taught that to be in the moment is a crime. From every teacher rapping knuckles telling us to work faster, to every micromanaging boss breathing down your neck and tut-tutting if you dare to lean back in your chair and take a moment to just be.
Right now, I’m in a coffee shop on my laptop, with my phone by my side. There’s music playing, there’s the hiss of the milk steamer, the crackle of the guy eating crisps five feet to my left, the chatter of the other customers, the breeze coming in from the open back door, the light breaking through the clouds on the high street…and I’ve probably got at least 6 different things on my mind, (that's just the conscious part, anyway) and trying to stop my brain from multi-tasking or perpetually living in the future is more trouble than it’s worth right now. I’ve got to collect my car from where it’s being fixed for a fee I need to find more work to pay for, so I’m worrying about that. I’ve got to post that letter, answer that email, go and do a care shift because freelance writing currently doesn’t pay enough for me to do that full time, get stuff ready for tomorrow because I’m having a day out, go and do my hobby that I love. And I’m not complaining about any of this, because I recognise I’m ridiculously privileged and live an insanely comfortable life. I’m just saying that the way we live doesn’t equip us, nor enable us, to live in the moment or appreciate the present.
Returning to Cynthia’s point, the need to keep our lives so frantically busy does point to an avoidance of the truth that none of us want to face – that we’re all going to die, we’re unlikely to be remembered or make much of a mark upon the world beyond our immediate family, and if, like me, you’re an atheist, there ain’t no afterlife or any vindication or justification for the running around we’ve been doing on this anthill for the 80 years or so we managed it. Larkin says that we believe our ship will come in, that it will bring with it all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong.
He ends on the distinctly unsettling but, to me, utterly accurate verse:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
The realisation that death is coming for us all one day can either depress you or mobilise you. I suppose for me it does a bit of both. Fighting against the tide of social pressures that would rather have me mindless than mindful, doing a job I dislike just to acquire money I don’t need in order to own things I’ll soon grow bored of and a property I leave empty all day in order to do said job, can be exhausting. I’m lucky to be able to reject that pressure – although I bowed to it for many years and ended up depressed, three stone heavier and ready to walk out into traffic, I loathed my life so much – and lucky to be able to freelance, working from home, enjoying my home, my time, my work. But it takes guts and nerves. Not cracking and going back to full time employment when funds get low takes a steely disposition. So does living my life on my terms when it comes to relationships. Rejecting the narrative of long term monogamy, because I know it’s not right for me, takes intense self-knowledge and conviction, a thick skin against the judgmental bullshit of others, and the ability to reassure oneself, in the lonely 4am moments of panic that we all get, that it’s OK to have occasions of doubt, but better to have those while happily and honestly polyamorous, rather than experiencing them after having surrendered to marriage and suddenly realising it doesn’t suit you. And as for not having kids? Again, you’ve got to know yourself and develop a duck’s oily sheen in order to let all the obnoxious and predictable comments slide off you, but it’s not that tricky once you’ve looked around at your peaceful home, full bank account and unmarked body to remember you love your life the way it is.
People do make the choice to get married and have kids, and that’s great for them – as long as it’s what they really want. But I have a strong suspicion that a lot of people are lulled into one or both of these things by the destructive social narratives that make us think our lives are a) lacking without them and b) will be automatically fulfilled once we gain them. I think those people also experience great distress when the promised happiness that these things are meant to deliver doesn’t materialise. The woman currently ignoring her child while she plays on her phone and he runs around the coffee shop annoying other patrons doesn’t seem to be experiencing much, if any, joy from her offspring. And yes, I’m being overly simplistic to imply that means having kids brings no joy at all, but from what I can tell, a lot of this joy comes retrospectively rather than in the moment. That’s what no one is told until it’s too late. That’s why you have countless anonymous parents posting in terms of deep shame on Reddit that they wish they’d never had their kids and they wish someone had told them how tiring, stressful, boring and destructive to their relationship it was going to be. Yes, you’re allowed to jokingly say “Oh, I could strangle them sometimes!” but actually admitting that the thing everyone tells you will fulfil you has just turned out to be a massive, sticky-faced, screaming, tedious disappointment remains taboo.
This is where a queering of time and a rejection of goal-oriented society – or at least more honesty about the true nature of these goals we are told to work towards - might serve us well. Writing about one of Chris Kraus' characters, Sylvie, who leaves behind her marriage and desperation for a baby to have casual sex with strangers, Struhr-Rommereim writes "Sylvie finds solace and satisfaction in sex that bears no suggestion of a future, no shadow of a narrative. . . The point is not that casual sex is more favourable than long-term, committed relationships or children, only that for Sylvie it offered a way out of what became a limiting and damaging relationship with the future." The reason this is so liberating is because it's a refusal to bow to the aggressive demand that we all be perpetually in motion towards socially sanctioned goals, and is instead an affirmation of one's choice to engage in things for their own sake, as ends in themselves, to seek pleasure without purpose. It's a rejection of the idea that "happiness can be found in perpetual improvement, in a constant orientation towards the future as the place where things will be better, and better in a very specific way." Radically reframing our conception of time away from this might take some brain-bending, but it's a very interesting prospect.
I'll leave the last word to Mike, the loveable dork from Dazed and Confused, who, when he admits he's having second thoughts about becoming a lawyer, is asked by his friends "What do you want to do then?"
Mike's response? An impassioned "I wanna dance."