#22: In favor of recklessness
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Welcome to September, which I feel compelled to clarify does not actually spell the end of summer per everyone’s Instagram captions. Fall doesn’t officially start until September 22nd! For reasons I can’t articulate, I die on this hill every time a season changes, although I can admit it feels less relevant this year. Anyway, speaking of dying on a hill or elsewhere, today’s newsletter is all about death.
Have you ever wondered how many times you’ve narrowly avoided death without realizing it? I don’t mean a refrigerator cartoonishly falling out a window after you walk past (although also that), but more like: the car wreck you didn’t get in because you left later than you’d planned. The cliff you never fell off because you paused to take a sip of water. The plane you boarded that would have crashed had an engineer not caught something at the last minute (plane engineers reading this are like, that’s not really how it works, and I’m like, thanks so much for subscribing it means so much!).
I think about death a lot. Sometimes I imagine a doctor telling me the source of my migraines is a large, metastatic tumor. Other times I imagine someone pushing me in front of a train for no reason. Most often I concoct freak accidents in my head as I walk placidly down the street—a horrible slip on a wet sidewalk (“Who would have thought she could die from that?”); a perilous fall through a restaurant’s cellar door; head trauma from a hammer dropped haplessly through construction scaffolding by a worker who had to sneeze. The rarest iteration of this particular form of anxiety, though, is utterly benign: I am old, laying in a bed, and I take my last breath. That one fucks me up the most.
The ancient Bhutanese called this death recollection. It was their belief that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times a day. (I learned this when I downloaded an app inspired by the notion called “WeCroak” that constantly reminded me I was going to die via push notification.) To be fair, the Bhutanese saw death recollection as a kind of meditation, whereas my approach is more like the logical result of hypochondria and anxiety plus cold brew, but I like to think the impetus is the same, which is that it can be useful, among other things, to remember that life ends, or could at any moment.
Pondering at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, 2019
Of course, during a pandemic, there is no shortage of reminders that death is coming for us. And the idea that we have no control over it has perhaps never felt closer to the surface for so many people at the same time, at least in recent history. But there is also less opportunity to make use of this information. Yolo is not hitting. There is little joy in employing our demise to live more fully because living more fully could kill someone. Overtures about not wasting any time or making the most of life seem increasingly less salient as neither is particularly plausible right now. And yet, I keep returning to it—this feeling that life is short and that I want to fuck some shit up. It’s almost as if the inability to be reckless has me finally seeing the full existential value in it.
In favor of recklessness
Prudence has been an organizing principle of my life. I was a very responsible child then became a very responsible adult. I am careful and thoughtful, risk-averse and self-disciplined. In some ways these are points of pride, and yet all of my favorite decisions track almost perfectly with times I’ve railed against these qualities within myself. Like when I quit a good full-time job for a lower-paying contract, or slept with my roommate, or tried ecstasy and then tried it again. As a result I’ve become increasingly enamored with the idea that recklessness is inherent to a life fully lived. It’s an appealing yet threatening idea, because it takes my biggest fear—that through my own carelessness I will suffer unnecessarily—and posits that suffering is worth it.
It worked out with the roommate.
There is an important distinction to be made between carelessness and recklessness, though. Whereas carelessness connotes lacking thought for the consequences of an action, recklessness connotes lacking care for the consequences of an action (counterintuitive to the words themselves). It was actually a legal paper that helped me understand this difference. I was Googling “in favor of recklessness” to see if someone had written about this and, instead of essays, found a barrage of legal documents explaining how “recklessness” is defined in the eyes of the law. “[R]ecklessness in the criminal law,” one paper explained, “is best understood as nevertheless containing an element of reasonableness. To be reckless, in this view, the defendant must reasonably believe that she is exposing others to a risk of harm.” It goes on to explain that if someone is not reasonably aware of the risk involved in their actions, they would not be considered reckless.
Isn’t that kind of illuminating? The recklessness I’m interested in is self-inflicted, but it’s similarly aware of itself; it’s bold instead of stupid. For a long time I assumed that being aware of the consequences of an action is what made you careful and smart—and that, by extension, delusion was endemic to risky behavior. Obviously this is a deeply boring point of view and seems especially so when I spell it out, but I really do think that’s how I’ve thought a lot of the time. When I felt trapped in my mid-twenties by my own carefulness, I remember wishing I were just a little stupider. I see now that what I was actually yearning for was courage.
Pain and pleasure
A friend of mine is leaving New York with his boyfriend to try living somewhere else. He’s not sure if he’ll like it, or whether things with his boyfriend are solid enough to endure this kind of change, and he’s doing it anyway. When he first told me this, a well-worn part of me was alarmed, but another, newer, part was impressed. I imagined the different scenarios that might come out of it—that the two of them blossom into something else and never come back; that he wanders around the suburbs for a year feeling forlorn before scurrying back to New York, changed—and none seemed so tragic. In fact, nearly all of them seemed potentially life-affirming, if potentially painful.
“Ash Wednesday,” by George Shaw, my favorite forlorn suburb.
Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are two of our most basic instincts, but they’re hard to satisfy at the same time. Hedonism eventually comes for you and asceticism isn’t a good time (consider the hangover). And so any fulfilling life—which I‘d argue involves some level of negotiation between the two—asks that we occasionally ignore our instincts. Which is to say: It asks us to invite and embrace pain as a consequence of living fully. Or to take it further, to understand that pain itself can beget pleasure. As the philosopher and activist Simone Weil once said, “to make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.”
If I think of my carefulness as a form of pain avoidance, it then makes sense that it has at times sapped my life of color. It also follows that lockdown has many of us yearning for the spoils of recklessness. We’ve never been so careful, so fearful, so aware of the end and yet largely unable to meaningfully harness that awareness. It makes me wonder what awaits us on the other side, assuming this ends with society intact, which is a big assumption. I wonder whether our relationship with life will have changed, and in turn our relationship to risk, pleasure, and pain. It can be hard to imagine this crisis inciting a positive psychological impact, but I’ve been considering this idea in my more optimistic moments. That maybe by disrupting the flow of life we’ve embarked on a kind of collective, long-term death recollection. A global meditation on what it means to be alive, however begrudged.
1. This week’s Small Good Thing is this quarantine-inspired short film by Lydia Cambron that reenacts/reimagines the finale of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s so impressively done that I watched all 12 minutes rapt despite almost nothing happening. I’d actually never seen 2001 before a reader sent this to me (although I’d been meaning to), so I decided to watch the full movie first.
2. This swimming pool squiggle pillow, but only hypothetically because it’s sold out and also $150. That said it’s the first throw pillow I’ve ever liked.
3. On a semi-related note: “A House Is Not a Home,” a wandering essay by Eula Biss for The New Yorker, recommended by a reader. In it she quotes Lewis Hyde—“the desire to consume is a kind of lust, but consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it”—and I’ve been thinking of it ever since.
4. “Fire” by Waxahatchee and “You’re No Good” by Chromatics, depending on my mood.
5. The Secret World of Arrietty, which is Studio Ghibli’s interpretation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, which was also turned into a live-action movie in the US in 1997. I looked up an article that interpreted the difference between the two movies and it pointed out that many Studio Ghibli films don’t have a villain, which made me realize another reason I’m drawn to them.
6. Eris the Borzio, a new dog to follow on Instagram that, unlike most animals I follow, does not resemble an ottoman. King:
7. Two reviews for books I haven’t read—which I don’t typically do (spoilers!) but am so glad I did this time:
-“The Lying Lives of Adults,” a review by Merve Emre for The Atlantic of Elena Ferrante’s latest book of the same name, that expertly explores the multifaceted role of deception in adult life. (Also sent by a reader!)
-And “Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless,” a review of Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless by Amber Husain for The White Review that deftly navigates the politics of participating in a culture you know is fucked up. (I want to talk about this one on the podcast this week.)
8. Beverage-wise, a bottle of Other People’s Pinot, which was delicious, and a literal quart of horchata from a Mexican food truck, which made me feel optimism.
9. Jurassic Park, during which I learned there is an absolutely pivotal plot line involving insurance that I completely missed upon first viewing. The movie is still so good.
10. For some reason, the live broadcast of David Blaine’s latest stunt, Ascension, in which he let helium balloons carry him to 25,000 feet before he let go and parachuted down. And also for some reason, a bunch of Blaine’s other stunts, like when he lived in a glass box floating above London for 44 days with no food (this video about it was directed by Harmony Korine, lol! It kinda works). I don’t even care about David Blaine but maybe I do? I like thinking about his absurd role in our culture, or maybe what he represents about human nature. Another topic for the podcast?
11. Several videos of waves set to cinematic music, my new favorite form of Instagram Xanax. I can’t embed it but if I’ve officially enticed you, enjoy.
12. A deep sense of regret that conversation pits are no longer popular.
13. “The Pale Shade of Drag,” an astute piece of criticism by Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis for The Baffler about the commodification of drag queens in the mainstream and the limits of “representation in the media” as a form of activism.
14. Forgive me for I have watched an inspirational Ted Talk: “This Could Be Why You’re Depressed or Anxious” by Johann Hari—which I wish had gone in a more socialist direction but I still found useful, particularly this framing: “If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious: You’re not weak. You’re not crazy. You’re not a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs.”
15. A new collection of nicknames care of Avi in response to the fact that I’ve had a crick in my neck for 4 days: Crickstina Aguilera, Stiffney Spears, Cricks Jenner, etc.
Okay that’s all for today. Thanks for reading, kiss your pets for me and I’ll see you next week,
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be donated to The Bail Project, a non-profit combatting mass incarceration by disrupting the cash bail system.