Jailbreaking the Middle Class and Designing Struggle

by Steven on February 11, 2013

In 2009 I moved from San Jose, California to  San Diego, California.  I thought location everything, and San Diego had it all: beautiful beaches, some city life, and a university culture with 24 hour coffeeshops.

The reality was I never found myself comfortable there: the pace was slower than I wanted, I struggled to find friends with my worldview, and I spent more time pining for silicon than enjoying the sand.

Most people construct paradises in their mind: places where they will be happier in the future.  Christians have Heaven, Muslims have Jannah, and hedonists have San Diego.  Whether real or imagined, these places serve as a retreat from our lives, a destination we’re striving for where otherwise we might feel an existentialist crisis.  Your life doesn’t need a purpose: retiring to paradise is your purpose.

This paradise fit perfectly into the script of the Industrial Age rat race: leave home, go to college, find a city to make cheese, and your reward after 40 years will be retirement in paradise.  Physical relocation became symbolic of key moments in your life, so retiring to a paradise seemed appropriate.

Today, however, our script feels more tenuous, and we have a few different solutions to resolve the cognitive dissonance:

  • Naive exceptionalism: keep to the script, acknowledging the the changes in the deal while convinced your map still points to paradise
  • Drugs and Distractions: acknowledge the script is failing without finding a new script.  Instead, find drugs or other distractions
  • Paradise redacted: pretend the script always included buying used clothing and watching a buffet of Netflix rather than owning new clothing and movies.  Its a beautiful world, for you.
  • Anarchy: its going to get far, far worse.  Stock up on batteries and read forums on the next apocalypse.
  • Design: If you can’t find Shell Beach in your script, add it in.

I was an early adopter of the design script: reading “Downsize This!” at age 12, I was made aware of the impending doom and gloom, and after trying all of the above solutions, reading  4 Hour Workweek provided a positive solution: seek out the hedonist paradise now, rather than wait 40 years for it.

So I tried finding my Shell Beach, and that took me to Santa Cruz, Puerto Viejo, San Diego, and Bali.

I found sand, and shells, but paradise wasn’t there.

One of my favorite writings is the play “No Exit” by Sartre, about a collection of people who arrive in hell and realize they are meant to be the tormentors of others.  The most memorable quote from the play is “hell is other people”: this notion that we create hell for each other, and accept it.

In another famous existential writing, Camus tells the story of Sisyphus, who finds happiness in carrying his pointless stone up the mountain.  His joy doesn’t come from the paradise at the top of the mountain, but the striving with the boulder.

Reflecting on these, and in trying to settle in paradise, I found my happiness comes from carrying my boulder up the mountain, seeing others doing the same, and helping them with their boulders.

Is this purpose of life instinctively shared by the majority of the world?  Do they realize the struggle is the purpose?  Or do they simply lack the resources to shortcut their way to the paradise?

I don’t know.

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