Thoughts on Inspiration and Fulfilment

[with thanks to K and Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoy project]

Hey A,

K tagged me in your email forward/inspiration thing. I was a little bit hesitant to participate, however, as I found myself questioning the ubiquity and persistence of these sorts of exchanges. What is it about the contemporary (typically white, middle class, networked) media landscape that seems to require so much motivation, and in such a citational form? In circulating these words of encouragement, are we not also circulating standards of personal worth and achievement, in effect disciplining ourselves and our peers to the impossible standard of being happy, whole, and spiritually fulfilled? My inner Foucauldian wonders if we might be better off talking about how we’re doing right now, rather than the sorts of feelings we aspire to have, or the sort of life we’d like to live someday.

When faced with the project of seeking inspiration or striving for spiritual fulfillment, it’s Judith Halberstam that comes to my ear:

 “Rather than just arguing for a reevaluation of these standards of passing and failing, [this book] dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being the the world. Failure is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contract to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon ‘trying and trying again.’ In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”

The Queer Art of Failure, p. 2-3.

Now, Halberstam certainly speaks from a position of privilege, and her endorsement of failure- of not passing – can’t really adhere to every circumstance. Still, in the face of our mutual affluence and privilege, why not celebrate failure instead of its transcendence? Would this not be a more effective way of building community, and thus also a better world?

I’m sitting at my computer right now, in a state of mild anxiety and procrastination. I am neglecting to work on the writing that I need to produce in order to conclude my Masters degree. My yoga mat is out, largely ignored. My body is sore and weak from sitting at this desk so long and so often. I don’t feel particularly inspired or fulfilled at this stage of my research. I know it will come in the thick of writing this thesis, but there is a fair amount of failure to be had and unjoyfully experienced before that point.

Success in my trade is often predicated on extreme forms of endurance and productivity. Becoming an academic means sacrificing the boundaries between work and leisure, never having a weekend without the guilt of having spent it wastefully, and living without the security of place or the stability of a local community. I find it helpful to acknowledge these costs in order to become more comfortable living in failure, and also to hone my sense of the ways in which social and economic systems beyond my control contribute to these state, and how I might act in my community to create alternatives. Being uplifted by a dazzling story of love or success, in this sense, would be unhelpful, as would calls to focus on my passion for the subject I study or the imagined perks of making it as a professor someday. I wonder if it is often most important to face what we are feeling and experiencing in precisely those moments that we long for inspiration or emotional escape.

Instead of imagining a better future, or focusing on the pleasures to come, I find myself evaluating the decisions that have brought myself here, and the merits of continuing to inhabit this state. Doing what you love, following your own bliss, seems a sure way to guarantee that you will experience little of either. Capitalism commodifies these experiences almost ubiquitously, either by selling lifestyles as monetary goods and services, or by economically penalizing those that pursue careers in the arts, education and nonprofit world. With happiness for sale, is it any wonder that it has become an object of anxiety?

If I may forward a rather negative hypothesis, I don’t believe that inspiration, happiness, or fulfillment are or have ever been sustainable, truly attainable, or a particularly admirable goal. I find value elsewhere: in building communities, in building ideas, in loving other people. These projects, however, are difficult, continuously unfinished, and always somewhat vulnerable. If we are to dedicate much of our lives to these activities, we should expect not to be happy. We’re not owed happiness or success, nor is it incumbent upon us to chase these things. Too often such ambitions lead to a sort of narcissism where failure can be crushing and terribly solitary. Instead, I feel it is better, safer, to build without expectation, sure only in the inherent value of the pursuit, rather than its reward.

I hope in your own decisions and pursuits that you can find a friend in failure, or even a community.

With sincerity,