Eighth grade was when I really came into my own as a book person. I was in a great “honors” English class with a young, fun teacher, a class that was full of my friends (distracting and prodcutive at once) and had a syllabus full of amazing gateway classic novels. I admit I got a big of an inflated head that year since my teacher unduly praised me because, at least as I see it now, I was one of few with genuine enthusiasm for the texts we delved into with painstaking, exam-prepping intensity. Chipping away at the symbolic iceberg of The Old Man and the Sea literally made me jittery with excitement, even in learning Hemingway’s somewhat deflating secret analysis: “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” Playing at Edgar Allan Poe in a creative writing assignment elicited from me sentences so gruesome that I wouldn’t remember writing them when they were read aloud a few weeks later.
(Of course, my enthusiasm didn’t lead me to great success but rather into a notorious low-paying industry where selfless devotion to one’s work is the norm; this in contrast to my less enthusiastic peers, most of whom probably are now wealthy doctors and lawyers and venture capitalists who have their own non-symbolic boats on which to fish for non-symbolic sharks. But I digress.)
All this is to say that I was really into reading that year, except for one book. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer literally put me to sleep every time I tried to pick it up. When we took the final in-class exam on it, I felt for the only time in my life the sheer panic of not knowing who a character was in a given question, because even though I turned all the pages my eyes definitely did not read all the words. One moment somehow stuck with me about that feisty little tramp, as did the analysis my class did of that scene. It’s when Tom imagines his own death, painting a vivid portrait of the funeral and wailing guests and all the pity that would be showered on him. Most people point to this moment of the book as Tom’s ultimate act of self-importance and cockiness. He’s a little kid and yet he imagines his absence will evoke the biggest sense of loss his town has ever felt.
To me, though, Tom’s reverie always struck me as curiously mature. For a character who otherwise acts with foolish bravado and naive daring, here was a sign of some higher consciousness. He stepped out of his own needs and desires in the moment, which were usually his main reasons to do anything, and imagined that he wasn’t at the center anymore: or rather, was at the center of things because of his absence. Reading Mark Manson’s anti-self-help book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck made me appreciate young Tom even more. With five discrete, no-nonsense steps, Manson presents an argument that we all need to just stop caring so much about so much so that we can figure out what we really do care about. In other words, he encourages readers to find the right f*cks to give a f*ck about, then let everything else go. This is the key to what we could call “happiness,” or at least as close to that misconstrued ideal we all think we should attain. Because we can never achieve a state of mind that’s 100 percent problem-free or thought-free. Instead, we can only strive to have problems and thoughts that bring us some degree of satisfaction through the challenges and successes they engender along the way.
Manson’s stance is not revelatory. He’s drawing on ancient Buddhist philosophy that underpins a lot of the yoga and meditation practices slowly disseminating Western culture. As he points out, people today often quit these practices before they really experience anything because they’re hard. You go to a yoga class thinking you’ll bliss out for 75 minutes with soothing music and incense, but instead you hold yourself in unnatural postures that make your forearms sweat (who knew you could sweat there?). The practice, though, is using that pain and suffering to help you focus and clarify. Eventually, you become so fixed on those sweating forearms that the worries and guilt you usually think about don’t matter for those 75 minutes. Then one day you realize they don’t really matter at all. It’s all the story you’re making up in your head, which you alone have the power to rewrite and control. It’s as simple as that.
Our wonderful human abilities to have abstract thoughts are behind a lot of these self-narrated woes. We can think about past and future selves just as easily as we can interpret our present experiences. In today’s world, the Internet has made it so easy to create permanent records of those selves that we incessantly share with each other every minute of every day; as a result, we not only can’t escape our own memories or desires, but we absorb other people’s too, adding fire to the negative feedback loop of worry and anxiety.
All this comes to a big pause when we think about our ultimate, inevitable, and certain future: death. Our bodies are wired to prevent us from being in situations where death is imminent, i.e. through the sympathetic nervous system which goes into automatic overdrive when we feel threatened. Our clever brains, though, can override these protective urges sometimes and put us right in the face of death even as our bodies scream no no no run away, stupid. Manson relates such an experience of standing very close to the edge of cliff. Even though his body reacted in all the right ways to bring him away from falling off to his demise, he pushed past the safety barrier, was incredibly uncomfortable, but (safely) came away invigorated.
Why is that? Whether we deliberately put ourselves in the face of death or more likely have it thrust upon us when loved ones die, when we watch the news and see images of international genocides and atrocities, etc., recognizing death can and will happen puts your mind in a state of focus a lot like that sweaty yoga class does. You realize that all this could be over in any minute. It’s not something you can really control, so there’s no use worrying about it. But you can do something to make being alive meaningful, and it’s probably not something to do with your five-year business plan or why you didn’t get a date to prom.
Living a life that is satisfying, not just “happy,” doesn’t mean that you care about nothing. If it was, then dying wouldn’t be so scary. Instead, it’s about finding things that you’d be content with having spent time thinking and worrying about. To borrow from Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, and equally tough-love style advice book Brave Enough, “The fuck is yours too, WTF. That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”