"Hedonism Is So Distracting"
I had a dream the other morning, in the fitful and usually dreamless hour between my ambitious/idealistic first alarm clock and when I actually get out of bed. I don't recall all the details, but the gist of it was a scene of opulent excess, an enormous feast, only in that particular dream-like way something was wrong. I don't know whether it was the undercurrent of doom, barbarians at the gate, flood-tide rising, or just everyone's declining cardiovascular fitness; I just remember saying to one of my companions, "this hedonism is so distracting".
And so it is, and this is a growing concern of mine.
There's an unworkably unwieldy term, eudaimonia, which refers to what most of us would consider an admirable existence, "living and doing well." It's counterposed to the more familiar term opulence, which is more or less an abundance of nice stuff.
I come to pondering these terms via my favorite economist-who-talks-like-a-hippy-lately, Umair Haque, and a couple blog posts which I really recommend reading. Here's a core concept:
Our conception of the good life... has been centered on what I call hedonic opulence — having more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now. But we might be finding out, the hard way, that the pursuit of lowest-common-denominator industrial age stuff might have been steeply overvalued, in terms of its social, human, and financial value.
That's certainly true of a lot of contemporary America, but it's too easy to take this critique and assume it's only about Big Macs and Hummers. Let's be real: there's a huge complex of opulent and hedonic industries built specifically around the commodification and sale of quality "experiences". There's a lot of shiny seemingly worthwhile stuff that's sort of hollow when you think about it.
For instance: Whole Foods. It's nice to be able to go someplace that tries to source local produce, but there's nothing really healthy or good about that place — it's as full of fattening, sugar-laden and boozy stuff as any Safeway, let's be honest, and they've ruthlessly crushed every attempt their oh-so-groovy workers have ever made to form a union and get a fair piece of the pie. Sure it's nice to get some aged cheddar, locally made salami and a six pack of microbrew, but is this any less hedonic than an extra large Dominos and a case of Bud? It might taste better, but I don't think it's measurably better for me or for the planet.
As the world stumbles towards a huge transformation, I worry that we're missing the train. There's infinite minutia to get lost in at every level: clothes, music, food, movies, tech, travel, housecleaning, sports, scenes, etc. None of these things are wrong or to be avoided, but they're all potential pitfalls.
The line between "passion" and "distraction" is a thin one, and probably dotted. Doing anything more than halfway decently means diving in deeply, damn the consequences. I don't oppose that for a second. It's the slow shallow shallow dive I dread. The dive that just keeps you under water for a while, but doesn't reveal any new territory. The dive of distraction.
Some of this is no doubt the latest clashing of my longstanding internal prejudices and increasingly bourgeoise circumstances. Some of it is also no doubt my distress over the vacuum where my Theory of Change used to be. Some of it is probably just getting older and not yet all that much wiser.
Regardless, the words stick, and they stick because they're true. Without a moral or ethical theory, the highest pursuit is at best glorified gluttony, at worst a self-imposed set of blinders that keep us from realizing the truth. We're better than this, but that doesn't mean we'll get any different. Not unless we try.