Anyone who knows me knows one of things that I can rant and rave for hours on is a binary. Binarist thinking is one of the major pervasive methods of economic and social control exercised by hegemony: vote Democrat or Republican, believe in God or don’t, be a boy or girl, support Israeli colonialism or you’re antisemitic, etc. This psychological set of shackles is especially important for economic domination: you’re neoliberal or fiscal conservative, you either support capitalism or want to reform it, you’re a boss or a worker. And one binary that crosses through all these realms is this: you are either content and happy with your life or you are depressed and miserable.
I want you, dear reader, to imagine a world in which you are content and happy with your life almost all the time. No seriously, get up off your computer stand up close your eyes and imagine it (no apologies, you should’ve known from the title this was going to get a little hokey). What did you imagine? Our world, through its society of spectacle, wants dreams of happiness to be deus ex machina solutions to our problems generally facilitated through a massive acquisition of wealth. You dream of winning the lottery, of getting your dream job, of marrying a rich partner (guilty, so guilty), of an unknown relative passing and leaving you a fortune.
Conversely, and especially for those who accumulate wealth and still have little to no happiness, there’s also the narrative of the stoic: “I’m happy because I have a positive mental attitude” “I’m content because I value what I currently have” “Why be angry about the state of the world when there is so much beauty and love?” It ranges the gambit from hippy-ludicrousness to yuppie-colonialist appropriations of East Asian religious traditions and philosophies. I’m pretty sure Tao never said, “Just really take a second to enjoy your fat-free banana and rose petal smoothie: you earned it.” We even see some of this within the Left. Self-care is a very crucial thing, but I’ve seen it manifest in some really bourgeoisie and capitalism affirming ways. It means one thing for a person in poverty to say “Fuck the haters I’m buying that Gucci bag (btw have you seen the Gucci bags this season? I NEED ONE)” and another for a person who isn’t making a financial risk saying “Fuck the haters I’m buying that Gucci bag cause self-care.” Consumerism for those with wealth in no way challenges what it means to survive in our society: its exactly what you’re told to do from day one.
I’m going to say something that won’t sound like it makes any sense, so please bare with me: radical self-care is not individualistic. Now that doesn’t mean it can’t be done by yourself, rather what I’m asking for is that we construct self-care in ways that take the whole of our lives in mind. Recognizing that just as our mental health is taxed by our jobs, microaggressions, past trauma, new trauma, or even just learning from a news article or friend yet another way in which our world is a terrible white supremacist colonialist patriarchal place, our self-care needs to be constructed based on all those factors. Our mental state is neither defined by our environment alone nor by our own attitudes alone: it is an inseparable mixture of the two.
There’s this really shitty rehab clinic out in Connecticut that someone I knew was staying at, and while the place had all the terrible things you associate with residential rehab I did really like their slogan: “Fuck Happy.” While happiness can be really important to healing from trauma, to helping us survive, the fact is that life in this world can be really miserable and that especially goes for those who challenge the oppression placed on their communities. The truth, and I’m rarely this definitive but I feel pretty justified in this, is that happiness comes from the combination of actualization of our desires for safety from physical or sociological harm and economic security and the accomplishment in whatever degree of goals that we may have in order for us to feel significant. As oppressed people, we are often deprived of safety and security and have very little immediate recourse.
So we should seek happiness in accomplishment. But I’m not talking becoming a CEO or your book selling really well. Accomplishment can and should be anything from getting dressed and leaving your apartment while suffering a bout of severe depression to showing up to your friend’s art show when you were tempted to be lazy and watch Netflix at home. It can be, but does not need to be, an act of resistance against oppression: it can also be an act of resistance against your own privilege. My new goal has been to compliment people more, to see and name the beauty I see in others that does not necessarily conform to the normative standards I hold in my own presentation.
Sometimes I feel guilty when I talk to some of my old friends from college and it is clear, even though 95% of them have higher paying jobs, that I am generally more happy than they are. And I joke “Oh if only it was as easy as you being trans: once I confronted that I felt so much better.” But it wasn’t just the lowering and management of my gender dysphoria that made me happier: it was being proud of the achievement of being openly transgender despite the slurs, discrimination, and even physical violence I have faced for it.