So after David Foster Wallace, the next book at the top of my pile was Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety, where within the first 20 pages I read this:
When belief in the eternal becomes impossible, and there is only the poor substitute of belief in believing, men seek their happiness in the joys of time. However much they may try to bury it in the depths of their mind, they are well aware that these joys are both uncertain and brief. This has two results. On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “What’s the use anyhow?”
Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction—a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.
To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family…and so ad infinitum.
This is no caricature. It is the simple reality of millions of lives, so commonplace that we need hardly dwell upon the details, save to note the anxiety and frustration of those who put up with it, not knowing what else to do.
Double ouch—although I’m thinking that maybe Alan has some suggestions to offer, so I’d better keep reading.