Before there were m illennials, there were slackers. Many of us Gen-Xers, who came to what should have been adulthood in the 1990s, would, roughly speaking, have spent some period of time pursuing, if that’s not too active a word for it, the slacker lifestyle. It wasn’t hard to be a slacker. You just needed a soupçon of apathy, a certain disaffection with the expectations people might have had of you, and a talent for chilling. I would think I was definitely some form of slacker for the first half of the 1990s.
ut there was one theory about slackers , the bungee-cord theory, that suggested that slacking eventually caused an equal and opposite reaction. So the theory was you fell down and down into slackerhood, but at some point, you hit the bottom and then suddenly you sprang back into activity, with loads of momentum. I think that possibly happened to me. I plumbed the depths of doing nothing, going right down into the void, and somehow then, some kind of Catholic guilt or something kicked in and I got busy.
Initially I was as surprised as anyone else by this sudden-onset industriousness. But I went with it, figuring it was a temporary bounce, and that some kind of equilibrium would re-establish itself at some point. But it didn’t. I amazed myself, and all those people who had called me lazy down the years, by continuing to be a productive human being, if you can call the kind of random things I have done with my life productive.
I think part of what happened was that there was a cultural change too. While you could still stay being a slacker if you wanted, there was a sense that the world was moving on and leaving the slackers behind. Also as you get older, you get a distaste for the slight squalor of the slacker lifestyle, and you get a preference for cleanliness and for your own personal space. But largely I blame the culture for my slacker bounce back. Somehow, somewhere along the line, a culture of constant self-improvement developed, and somehow, somewhere along the line, I got caught up in it.
Now you may well ask if I’m so into the culture of self-improvement, how come I haven’t improved. But by asking that you would just be demonstrating your ignorance of the culture of self-improvement. The culture of self-improvement is not about actually improving yourself, it is about being in a constant state of self-improvement. The whole point is that you never get there. If you did, then the culture would become obsolete. For example, if there was a self-help book that actually solved your problems, then it would put the whole industry out of business. So there is a tacit agreement among all the self-help writers that no one will ever write a book that definitively solves your problem. And if someone does write that book, mark my words, the publishers will strangle it at birth so they don’t jeopardise the other 50 self-help books they are putting out this year.
No, the culture of self-improvement is about never being enough. We are never quite there, always needing to do a bit more self-improving to get there. We might keep getting halfway there, but as we know, that will never actually get you over the finish line.
I’m aware that it’s all a racket, but in a way, I don’t mind. I like to have a project on the go, some form of self-improvement. It makes me feel like I am making progress. Towards what? Well, towards death ultimately, but it’s probably not helpful to think of it that way. I think I tell myself I’m making progress towards better. Building back better and backing brave.
My current self-improvement involves trying to shift some weight, which I will then presumably put back on and then have to shift again. I am slowly cutting things out of my diet.
The latest thing I’ve decided has to go are the chips. There was a time when chips were a kind of occasional treat. But I think I noticed a tipping point over the summer where the chip became the national food. Now it seems that whatever you order, anywhere in Ireland, you get chips with it. They practically bring you chips with your dessert these days. When we came back from our jaunts around the country, the younger daughter actually got withdrawal symptoms when we got home and we had the audacity to serve her up a dinner not involving chips. So I feel my next tweak now is to stay off the chips.
More progress. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?