|Essay by Zelda Leah Gatuskin
You Don't Have To Read This
(but you don't have to "sign up" to read it either)
I haven't felt like writing anything for the Soapbox in a long while. I find that as I get older, I'm more opinionated but less dogmatic. You go ahead and think anything you want. Think about anything you want. This is the purpose of this essay: to empower and inspire you to value your own time, your own ideas, your own instincts enough to choose to forgo the myriad messages vying for your attention every minute of every day. You go ahead and push along your own project, whatever that is.
You don't have to read this.
If you want to read it, I will not waste your time and intrude on your privacy by making you sign up to be my friend. I don't care who you are, and that's not because I don't love you. I do, I really do. If you are still reading, I totally love you and thank you. I will try to make it worth your while.
One evening I was going through my twice monthly ritual of paying bills. Yeah, the old fashioned way, with a checkbook. I had in front of me a hefty pile of donation requests. It was George Bush's America at the time, so with the Republicans running roughshod over the Constitution, plundering the middle class, and waging a perpetual terror war, my help was needed, "now more than ever" from the political opposition, justice and aid groups like the ACLU, Amnesty International and International Refugee Committee, not to mention the local food banks and homeless shelters. It was a heavy burden for a self-employed artist; in fact it dawned on me that if I kept writing the checks, I could end up being the one in need of charitable contributions. And that is when I decided that I needed to be my own most worthy cause. I had some things to do that no one else was going to do for me: being me, being an artist, writing, publishing, having my beautiful life with Frank, which is in itself a demonstration of how love and art persist against the ceaseless assaults of capitalism and popular culture. We've been at it for thirty years and are still going strong.
I do still give some of my money to charities and causes, in recognition that I have what I have through no inherent worthiness or special effort, and that as little as I have, it is still more than I need. I am not alone in this, in terms of my income bracket - if the billionaires would give away the same percentage of their incomes as we starving artists donate from ours, we would be living in a true Golden Age.
Maybe you can see why it's hard for me to compose a properly assertive Soapbox argument about anything. There is a duality to human existence I cannot avoid or ignore. On the one hand, I express a very selfish position: I am my own most worthy cause. In the next breath, I am self-deprecating: I have what I have without especially having earned it. Both of those statements are accurate, so they can't be mutually exclusive. This is the human condition. Each and every one of us is utterly unique, but none of us is extra-special. There is a lot of middle ground between Ayn Rand and Ghandi - between complete self-interest and utter self-sacrifice. I'm trying to carve out the place where one pursues self-fulfillment not only as its own end, but as a means for improving our society and culture. Do what you do best, use your special talents. As Joseph Campbell said, "Follow your bliss." I'm following mine right now, whether you read it or not.
I'll tell you flat out that I am not reading all the stuff other folks send to me or point me to. E-mails, links, articles, movies, jokes, greeting cards, political tirades, newsletters... If there is no personal message, I am hitting delete. The joke might be funny, the video might be cute, the cause might be worthy - but I have other things to do. If something looks interesting, I may leave the link in my mailbox to look at another time. I might even find something I find cool enough to forward to a few others. These things that come into our mailboxes are just suggestions. The immediacy of the technology creates the impulse to read/view/respond right away - our Pavlovian response is to click the link. But you don't have to. I don't have to, and I don't. When someone indulging in an Internet binge sends me six or ten forwarded e-mail things in half an hour, I remind myself that they think they are being nice, that I will enjoy or value the messages. Responding would only waste more of my time and energy, so I delete without comment. Until now. Now I'm consolidating my response into a single essay which may henceforth be conveyed with a single link. Let's see if it goes viral.
There's a new kind of website/e-mail tactic proliferating on the Internet now. A worthy cause like breast cancer research or animal rescue puts up a website funded by a bunch of advertisers; go to the website and click on a link to generate a donation from the advertisers to the cause. "It just takes a minute; click once a day." Oh great, now I'm working for the cause and the advertisers. By the way, it takes more than a minute - all those ads have to come up first - and there's more than one such worthy site, so the next thing you know you're at it half the morning. I wonder how many people just give up and send their own check to get it over with. As for the advertisers - give me a break. If you have the money to give, give it; then mention that on your promo materials, and those folks who need your product may be convinced to buy it from you on account of your good citizenship. Don't hold our breasts or pets or whatever hostage for our clicks. That actually lowers my regard for your company. I am a human not a mouse, and I will not be lured into running the Internet maze while the work that I and I alone can do goes neglected.
There is a conspiracy afoot to keep us from thinking our own thoughts and doing our own work. Because if we were to pursue our own self-actualization, we'd be at risk of becoming - OMG! - satisfied. When we are satisfied and inspired by our activities, we can better focus on them, accomplish things, and feel good about ourselves. In doing so, we find we have what we need, or feel confident that we can attain it if we stick to our path. Our decisions are based on reality and reason instead of fear or envy. Dissatisfied people are distractable. Their attention veers easily to the latest sale, scandal or scare tactic; they are more apt to be looking for a fix and willing to shop and search for and buy things to make them feel better.
Sad, sick, self-loathing people make great consumers, but not such great workers. Lately, a number of these poor souls have turned to murder-suicide. They lost their jobs or got divorced, or didn't lose anything but merely feared they would, and became utterly bereft. They felt they had failed or been failed. But really, the only thing that had failed was the instinct to nurture that essence which is unique and whole within each of us and can never be taken or taxed or transgressed. From the day I declared myself an Artist, I knew that I had something no one could ever take from me. No, you don't have to read this, and you don't have to pay me for it - but you can't stop me from writing it either.
Have you noticed that people who are dissatisfied with their own lives are more likely to be dissatisfied with other people and other people's lifestyles as well? I think they should all shut up and turn their attention to improving themselves before they try to work on the rest of us. I'm tuning them all out, and I'm also tuning out the people who argue with them from a position closer to my own. Hey, if politics is your bag, have at it. It is not mine. For me it is a necessary chore, and now that we have elected a good President ("good" in both senses - moral and competent) and I have done my part to make that happen, I turn back to my own bliss, my own work.
Mass media demands our constant attention, making the news urgent, the fads fleeting - trying to convince us we'll miss something if we turn away. Fair enough. I am happy to avoid anything with so little staying power. I'm saving my attention for the things that are lasting. Have you read "Walden" lately? Now that stands the test of time. I will gladly forgo viewing the latest home video or browsing a set of baby pictures for a paragraph or two of Thoreau.
I am no Thoreau and you are very kind to read all the way to the end. You didn't have to. You also don't have to waste your time sending this to your mailing list, or posting it on your blog or writing back to me. Your friends have enough to think about, you have enough to do, I'm already on to the next thing.
Don't try to colonize anyone else's mind. Don't let anyone colonize yours. Think your own thoughts, hone your natural talents, live by your core values. You may be surprised at how persuasive an argument that can become. As my friend and mentor Harry Willson says, "Non-participation is also a form of dissent."
—Zelda Leah Gatuskin, April 15, 2009
[You don't have to read this either, but just so you know: My book, TIME AND TEMPERATURE, thoughts about consciousness is being released in a trade paperback edition in May 2009.]