I’ve spent the last month planning the next year: daily checklists, weekly checklists, monthly checklists, a prioritized list of drop-dead-due dates, creative goals, lifetime goals and yet another checklist of resolutions that, like the items on every other list, accumulate every year and never get done. There are separate lists for health, home repair, parenting and networking, to name a few. The lists swell over time and give birth to sublists and sub-sublists but still occupy only a few kilobytes of space on my phone, laptop, desktop or wherever else I can put them, leaving plenty of space for even more lists. Pre-internet-era creature of habit that I am, I will often scribble a plan for the next hour on a sticky note so as not to sink too deeply into the electronic-list swamp.
It occurs to me that it would be easier to simply die than trying to accomplish all of these goddamn things on all of these goddamn lists. This idea comes much more readily than the idea that “perhaps the world will not end if I simply fail to accomplish some (or even most) of these things.” In fact, in my original draft of this column, I started that last sentence with the word “naturally,” because it seems so natural to me that it didn’t strike me as unnatural until I put it in writing.
For those of my ilk — workaholics, would-be overachievers, conscientious-to-a-fault do-gooders, etc. — the holidays can be a time to reflect on just how miserable our uniquely American work ethic has made us and how miserable we’d like to be in the year to come. In the sacred stillness provided by these few days, a window opens, and some of us leap through it.
The leap is figurative, of course, unless it’s literal. But then, I’ve personally known only one lawyer to leap to his death; most of us shoot ourselves. Of course, the overtaxed brain is sometimes more creative. An accomplished friend and colleague of mine tells a story of wishing for a car accident during her big law firm days, just so she’d have a legitimate excuse to stop working for a while. I can’t tell you how many working professionals I’ve heard openly wish for a heart attack, if just a minor one, to be able to rest for a couple of days without the fear of losing an account, damaging the equity in one’s name or being branded as lazy for not pulling off another 80-hour week. They often get what they’ve asked for.
It sometimes makes sense, given the short windows we are given to contemplate the matter, to escape the samsara of work and bills and guilt and work and bills and guilt by prompting a premature rebirth. Maybe you’ll come back as a butterfly or an ox or dirt in the ground, but at least you’ll be done with all those goddamn things on all of those goddamn lists. The idea may sound good to you for only a moment, but a moment is all that is required.
The lesson is clear: Too much work will kill you. And since we cannot bring ourselves to stop producing for any prolonged period of time, the only way to alleviate the misery of our undefragmented biocomputers is through art. Escaping into a book, into music, into “Star Wars,” if only to complain about it — these things give us something to enjoy in life and therefore a reason to continue living it.
But I am reminded of a story that musicians used to tell about a gifted pupil of the classical guitar maestro Andrés Segovia who, having endured the harsh criticisms of his teacher long enough, elected to escape through a briefly open window. He smashed his hand with a hammer, ensuring he could never again play his instrument. Then, to make doubly sure his career was over, he killed himself.
And then there are the numerous victims of madness caused by too much creative genius (or vice versa). I don’t know if celebrities who overdose or puke themselves to death fall into this category, but surely the Van Goghs and Cobains of the world do. The lesson is clear: Too much art will kill you.
As such, the item I put at the top of my list of resolutions every year is “Survive!” It is important for that item to be there, because if it isn’t, nothing else will get done. And much like anything else, if I don’t commit it to writing, I may well forget to do it.
Surviving these conditions, where even the things we think of as untarnished positives (like work and art) will kill you if you’re not careful, is no small feat. So congratulations, my loves. I hope you have another year of finding just the right blend of work and art and sex and drinking and politics and whatever else keeps you interested enough to make it through the next set of holidays with the rest of us poor, confused, overworked suckers. I hope that when the frenzied carousel ride we’re on comes to its next pause, you decide to keep riding rather than hopping off. And I hope you fulfill as many resolutions as you can. Just don’t put too much on yourself. Surviving is enough. •