I started hand-washing my clothes again today.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an unrealistic hippie with delusions about living in a pure communalistic society where everyone sings ‘Kumbaya’ in politically correct and culturally appropriate ways. In our family (and I’m guessing, most families) these days, we just tend to throw all our clothes into the washing machine. Then a while later, after the magic rumbling has ceased, we take our clothes out, and they are (theoretically) Clean.
Why? The simple answer to this is: I want to be more busy.
There are gray days sometimes, when there is too little to do, and one sits and lazes, and strange, sad thoughts fill your head like sludge. Have you ever had this feeling?
I have these lukewarm days sometimes: when nothing seems to happen, and dangerous thoughts wander into my head. Thought like: what’s the point of it all, really? What’s the meaning of all this struggling? All this pointless hand-to-mouth existences, all this schooling all this working?
What if there isn’t a point, and we just eventually die, after having accomplished Car, Credit Card, 2.1 Children, Cat, Condominium and …Cancer?
I’ve been told this is existential angst, ennui, and anomie. A lack of purpose. I fear such days the most. They leave me sad, with very little explanation. Another word I’ve learnt is melancholy – sadness with no apparent cause.
I think (or feel?) such strange days actually materialise because I have too little to do.
Normally, during term-time, or when I am gainfully employed, this is not a problem. Having too little to do sounds like the opposite of a problem, doesn’t it? But this is, I think, the creeping terror of our modern industrialised, materialist and consumerist societies: we have so little to do that we look for pointless banalities to fill our time with instead.
Agriculture and the Rise of Civilisations
If you wanted to, you could discern a rough pattern across history. Civilisations only arose once people started to farm, and obtain food in more predictable patterns. Instead of spending most of their day (and their physical+mental energies) hunting and gathering, there was more time to do other things.
Once you had farmers, you had more food. And you had more time on your hands. And so you could specialise, diversifying into a broad array of different occupations. People could start doing what they like. And they found out what they liked, what they were good at, by experimenting, doodling and tinkering. Freed-up, surplus time gave people the space to play. To dream.
People specialised. You had your metalsmiths. You had your builders. Then you had your leaders. And pretty soon, you had your soldiers. Civilisations rose once people started having more time on their hands.
Fast-forward a little and you get the Industrial Revolution(s), the precursor of many other Revolutions, (technological and political) that would weave the world kicking and screaming into modernity. Life, on the whole, became much better for human beings living on this planet. We had more and more free time.
And with machines slowly coming into the lives of the everyman: washing machines, cars, buses, stoves, refrigerators – there were suddenly even more vacuums in our daily schedules.
Until we finally arrive at today, where this privileged, middle-class undergrad in Singapore can type this entry for you to be reading on the dump, or on the bus, or on the procrastination gravy train, instead of worrying about whether his crops will grow or his piglets will survive.
To a certain extent, I do think activity and work can make us happy. You could arguably make a case for how work simply distracts us from the ultimate nihilism and meaninglessness of human existence, that having menial, banal things to worry about allows us to pretend we are too ‘busy’ to understand the ‘bigger’ questions in life.
Homo Sapiens: Thinking Man
But I think the human being, homo sapiens; thinking man evolved to be an active animal, rather than a sedentary, lazy one. Sitting around with nothing to do only leaves that mighty engine that is the human brain idling away, trembling with unspent energy and potential.
What happens when the thinking man thinks too much?
Unused, the brain runs around in circles, with nothing for it to latch on to, devour, consume. An animal living in too small a space, in abnormal conditions and barren environments goes stir-crazy. Elephants start shaking their heads and waving their trunks. Birds pick at their feathers and over-groom. Sows chew on their cages excessively.
And the human mind likewise turns on itself. It starts to rot.
But it’s the fashionable Thing isn’t it, to always seek out free time. To see the holidays as a god-send for a ‘break’. But I think too much (notice I qualify with ‘too much’, in case you want to turn my point into a strawman) time on our hands actually leaves us unhappy. Incredibly unhappy.
The Soma Age
We live in an age of increasing, apparent leisure. Where we simply pay money for some service or some good and it’s supposed to make us happier. There’s good food, framed and filtered artfully for you to eat. Vacation and dazzling sights are but a click away. Sitcoms and television shows and movies, promising the most moving experiences and the most complex characters and thrilling plotlines. Candycrush. We live in an age that is moving gradually to the lobotomised creatures of Huxley’s Brave New World, or Pixar Wall-E’s fat, opiated spacefarers. We live in a soma age, in the continual pursuit of leisure and pleasure.
And yet somehow I feel an emptiness at the core(s) of it all.This television series is finished? Off we go then, in search of the next series to vicariously live our lives through. We will never finish watching everything on Netflix, or Youtube. The funny dank and kitten memes will never exhaust themselves. What next, and next, and next? Where is it all headed?
A Life of Texture
I want to go back to simpler things. I want my existence to be more textured: coarse and grainy and oily and warm and cold and umami. I weary of this glossy and shiny existence, filled with a creeping dread and anxiety we cannot place, we cannot explain – perhaps the shadow-glitch of an over-active mind unsatisfied with the numbed banalities of daily life. We think we can tame it, this quiet dread and anxiety and anomie. We think we can fill it, please it, silence it, muffle it, suffocate it with more, more, more.
But I think so long as we always think we need more, we will never have enough.
Maybe the antidote is as simple as it is difficult: to realise, or to convince ourselves that we have enough. I wish to return to simpler things. I think we can find a deeper, more lasting fulfilment there.
I have started hand-washing my clothes and cleaning my house out, corner by corner. Before the madness of the meaningless rat-race starts again, I wish to return to simpler things. It saves me water, it slows me down, and gives me awareness. It gives me a quieter simplicity. Maybe like this, I am still unhappy.
But I am content.