it’s all just arms and noses

For years I’ve debated writing a book about the self-care industry. I probably couldn’t get one published, but it’s fertile ground. The self-care industry is dedicated to the proposition that everyone who buys into it should live a life that is about nothing but self-actualization, self-improvement, and self-interest. The individual is sacrosanct in every sense, and anyone that suggests that what the individual desires is socially undesirable is simply an energy leech who wants to stop you from ascending to your final form. It’s Ayn Rand laundered through yoga memes and clod spirituality.

There’s an awful, awful lot you could say about all this – like I said, a book worth. But what seems to me to be the most obvious objection is also the most inevitably devastating to the self-care project. Consider this self-care meme, which is typical of the genre.

That you should never feel guilty is a commonplace in this world; guilt is never an appropriate response to something wrong that you’ve done but always a dysfunction, a failure to see the hidden righteousness in everything you’ve done. But please take a look at the last entry on the first line, “Saying No to Others,” and the second on the second line, “Asking For Your Needs to Be Met.” The immediate question is, what if what one person is saying no to is the other person asking for their needs to be met? What resolves the tie? Who does this philosophy say should be favored when these conflicts inevitably arise?

For an ethic of self-care to reign, there are two unworkable options. First is a bleak Nietzschean society where every individual asserts their own will wherever they can, where their “self-care” is actualized by relentlessly pursuing their naked self-interest at all costs. This has, I hope you’ll agree, certain social drawbacks, but more importantly for our concerns here it undermines self-care’s weird claim to both individualism and universality. If someone else who’s self-actualizing is stepping on your neck, it’s really hard to live your truth or whatever the fuck.

The other option is the one most self-care people seem to embrace, which is to simply pretend like there’s no such thing as a conflict between sincere people. We can all go about our lives as busy little cauldrons of self-esteem and positive attitudes and we’ll all end up fulfilling our destinies, if we only give up our guilt and our introspection. But our desires are everywhere in conflict; what I want will frequently be directly contrary to what you want. We can’t both fulfill our destinies because our perceptions of our destinies conflict. Under a wiser ideology we would be able to accept that we inevitably will lose out on many of the things that we want, that in fact the default state of adult life is not getting what you want. But self-care can’t countenance that; its basic conception of how the world should work is inimical to accepting disappointment.

Social justice politics are now dominant in our culture and ideas industries, like media, academia, and publishing. The inevitability of their rise in other arenas seems quite oversold to me. But they are the default language of those who write our culture, and so they are influencing our basic conceptions of what we can expect from our world. What they advance is a vision of a frictionless universe where, with better regulation of language and thought, everything can be orderly, just, and happy.

My politics ensure that I am a kind of utopian, and I think that with some easily-achievable changes society could be vastly more equal and just. But even in utopia we will live in a broken world, one where people want things that other people don’t want and where unhappiness and disappointment are something like the default state of human life. I understand that a lot of people in the world walk around feeling that they don’t matter, and that this is frequently because of systemic inequalities. I understand the validity and humane intentions of trying to make them see themselves in a different light. But I don’t know how self-care survives in a world where we understand the inevitability of conflicts between noble desires, the ineradicable incompatibility between us all.