Nowhere Pt. II
“I’m sure glad I’m not a cat,” was how the story ended.
I heard it often growing up — a snippet of a Mormon sermon about a boy and his childhood pet. The original teller, a Mormon official named Glenn L. Pace, said that he would “look longingly” at his cat curled up in front of the heating vent as he left for school each morning and could almost hear it mocking him as he ventured out into the cold. But after “experiencing the joys and sorrows of the school day” and finding the feline sitting in the exact same place he left it, Glenn felt like he got the last laugh. The cat hadn’t done anything all day. But Glenn had left the house. Glenn had done something. Experienced something. Learned something.
Of all the tenets of capitalism that we have internalized as personal beliefs, I think the most insidious is the idea that we must always be growing.
In fact, the intertwinement of our economic system with our consciousness is so complete that we may not even register personal growth as an ideology at first. Even those of us with vigorous leftist critiques of America’s unequal distribution of wealth, and I include myself in this number, are still tempted to frame our lives as though we’re on some imagined upward trajectory to somewhere — an emotional, financial, physical, or spiritual destination that is just a bit better than where we currently are. We might say that we’re only doing it for ourselves, but if we can’t even imagine life outside of a system that demands constant profit — and I don’t think any of us can do that in any concrete sense — how can we even know who we are apart from it?
Our desires have been shaped by a system that extracts a lifetime of labor from us in exchange for necessities like food and water that, in any moral rendering of the world, ought to be free. And I think if we truly confronted the fact that we have been swimming in that system since birth, and have been fully indoctrinated by it before we can spell, we would see that there’s no way to disentangle our attitude toward self-improvement from a world in which almost everything we do, no matter how personally meaningful it may be, is geared toward lining the pockets of an owner class.
There’s a reason why the cat sermon sounds at first blush like some banal life lesson that has nothing whatsoever to do with capitalism. But the cat story is fundamentally about profit, productivity, and the Protestant ethic. It is a warning to never be idle. And as with all warnings delivered over pulpits, it’s worth asking what — or who — the taboo behavior would actually threaten? What would be so wrong about being cats — about being creatures whose basic needs are provided by those with excess? In a world structured so differently from our own that we can scarcely imagine it, we could be cats. The unimaginably well-off could distribute their wealth downward — or better yet, we could decide we don’t want to live in a world where people can get so rich that they can’t even remember how many cars they own. Instead of paying more taxes, though, the rich tell us not to be cats. Why? Because it’s not good for us to be cats. It’s not right for us to be cats.
So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have repeatedly been taught both that: a) the economy depends on perpetual growth, and b) our lives have the most value if we are always getting better, stronger, skinnier, and richer. Even leaving aside the structural ways in which (a) has already subsumed (b) by urging us to spend our disposable income on gym memberships and skincare products, the two notions are connected on a deeper, almost cellular level. We have turned our bodies and minds into little economies of their own, assigned them internal GDPs, measuring their worth by where they could go, not by where we are. If we didn’t accomplish anything during a year, we write off the losses as sunk costs and resolve ourselves to try again. Even in a year like 2020, in which disease, sadness, and poverty have run rampant and virtually unabated across our entire country — a year in which no one could have reasonably been expected to make any sort of “progress,” however you choose to define it — we tend to look for lessons learned from the setbacks. Much like our capitalist overlords, we feel like we have to extract value from everything we’ve experienced or else what has it even been for? The fable has to end with a moral lesson, some takeaway we can apply as we march ever onward. It’s a staple of the end-of-year essay genre: What did I learn? How did I change? Where am I going?
Well, this was a bad year, and this isn’t a good end-of-year essay.
I say this as someone who — if I were feeling less vulnerable than I am right now — could feasibly spin 2020 as a story about thriving amid difficult circumstances. I wrote an audiobook that I recorded at home in a makeshift home studio built out of pillows and couch cushions, and that a lot of people enjoyed. I started a tiny little podcast, wrote a novel, and did a whole mess of freelance writing and consulting. I could connect all these dots, do my makeup, take a selfie, and write an inspirational post about how much I got done despite it all, when in reality my drive to do all these things has more to do with some kind of sick, Capricorn-esque “activity for activity’s sake” personality defect than it has to do with wanting to triumph through adversity. Because it’s in my brain, too — this idea that I’m worthless if I don’t do. Well, I did and it was still a bad year. I don’t think I’m any smarter, happier, or more enlightened than I was at the start of it, and if anything, I’m less of all of those things. I learned nothing. I did not grow. And I only changed in my awareness of how much the notches we measure our lives by actually matter, which is to say not very much at all.
The painful irony of our imperative to grow, both economically and personally, is that we all do the opposite of grow over time. We fade. The planet can’t sustain infinite economic growth without literally lighting on fire and becoming uninhabitable. Our fragile, fleshy bodies are built to grow for about two decades, and then slowly descend into obsolescence. Yet every year, we demand of ourselves the same thing the corporations we work for demand of us: growth.
Do more. Do it better. Do it faster.
At the end of 2020 — at the end of any year, really — we don’t need to have anything good to report. I want space to talk about failure. Room to share that our situations may be getting worse. Permission to lose money, friends, and status. This is not dour nihilism. If anything, I think of it as a sort of grim optimism. We may not be able to overthrow capitalism through acts of individual will, but we can start to reject its framework for valuing our own lives, and begin that long process of imagining who we might be without it. There are things you can experience that have nothing to do with advancing your status — and a life composed entirely of those experiences would still be worth living. You can be on the decline and still feel happiness. You can be going nowhere and still matter.
You can be a cat.
Or, at the very least, you should be allowed to want to be cat.