The Self as a Work of Art

The nihilism of serenity or how to learn to stop worrying and love fate

The alcoholic who has hit rock bottom prays to a higher power, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” We feel powerless before an indifferent and hostile universe that doles out suffering and disappointment no matter what choices we make. No one asks for serenity in the face of good and wonderful things that they cannot change. No, it’s failure and rejection, disease, disaster, poverty, and the powerlessness we feel before these things that the petitioner needs serenity to accept lest they seek comfort and the forgetfulness of their powerlessness in excessive drink.

Eternal Return CLXXXIX {It’s All Just Matter and Energy Arranged in Various Ways}

There’s something incredibly sad about the serenity prayer. In the face of disappointing circumstances, the best one can do is hope that you can merely accept it with enough dignity to avoid drinking oneself into needing another AA meeting, and you need a higher power just to do that. Nevertheless, the serenity prayer does one thing right; it forces us to carefully contemplate the difference between the things that are under our volitional control, the things that are directly and predictably affected by choices and the things that are not subject to our choice or will. The more you consider this distinction, really think about it, you will begin to realize that the list of things under your control is far smaller than you naively and pre-reflectively thought, and the list of things that you cannot change, the things the alcoholic asks for serenity before, is innumerably large.

Each of us has images of the person we wish we were and the person we would like to become, fantasies of things we’d like to experience and accomplish, a picture of the person we’d like to be, a vision of our best selves. Short of the lack of awareness brought about by excessive wealth or a lack of self-reflection, each of us, in various ways, fails to live up to that person. As our lives fail to live up to the daydream, we imagine how it could have been if things were different. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the roll of the dice in a universe of indifferent chance or whether it’s unalterable fate written on the record of time; it’s all the same from the perspective of one who cannot alter the unfolding of events and doesn’t know how they will unfold ahead of time. Each of us stands powerless as we survey our own situation and consider what we have become. Even choices that were once up to us in the past, the things that we decided that led us to this point for good or bad, now that they are in the past, they too are no longer under our control or up to us. We stand in the present powerless to be anything other than what we are or in any situation other than the one we find ourselves in, as disappointing and empty as it might be with missed opportunities, cowardly inaction, hubris, and all the rest.

The question that the serenity prayer attempts to answer is what to do with that disappointment and pain that comes with experiencing the weight of fate and chance. The serenity prayer invokes a deity to intervene and illuminate a joint or a break in the experience of being a person, the duel nature of being both an agent who chooses and an object who is tossed by the tempest of time. With that new knowledge the petitioner hopes for calm passivity in the face of fate and dogged perseverance in the face of one’s own power of choice. But this neither does justice to the feeling of disappointment and disillusionment in the face of all the fate one has experienced, nor does it do justice to the weight of having the power of choice.

The calm acceptance of an unacceptable situation is giving up; it is rejecting the values, hopes, and aspirations that led you to being disappointed. It’s the resignation of a prisoner on death row whose life is already over. What looks like courageous perseverance going forward is really only a kind of bland capitulation that says, “Since I and my life has been such a disappointment to myself, the best thing I can do is keep moving forward in time with diminished expectations.” Serenity and courage become an implicit rejection of the values one held before and a hatred of the dissatisfied self.

So the serenity prayer is right about one thing, there is much about ourselves and our situation that is absolutely outside of our control and to think otherwise is hubris and self-delusion. But we need not choose between self-delusion and pathetic resignation that pleads before a higher power.

We stand on the knife-edge of the now. Every single thing in the past—all of it—is outside our control; the past is unalterable fate. The same with the future, none of it us up to us in the present, and so we look toward our future with powerlessness. Even at the now, the now’s very structure, the arrangement of matter and energy, the state of the self, the world, and others, all of that is also outside our control. But at that knife-edge of the present there is the tiniest sliver of what we can control, and with that infinitesimally brief and fleeting autonomy we need not wish for serenity, calm acceptance. We can instead embrace it and say yes to it. Why embrace it when it is full of pain and bitter disappointment? Because that moment, the moment where you ask the question, can I embrace this, is all there is. If ever you have felt joy, it was in that moment of the slightest of choices. If you ever felt accomplishment. If you ever said of yourself, I have overcome, it is because of fate and chance conspiring to make the universe that included a joyous and self-satisfied you, with all your hopes, dreams, desires, and values.

From the standpoint of a single individual, from YOUR standpoint, in each moment you have the culmination of all of history and the universe into this self. You, your experiences, your memories, your habits, tendencies, and proclivities, all of it has been brought about by an indifferent universe that you are faced with in the here and now. It isn’t serenity that is called for. Nor acceptance. But a yes or a no. Love the fate or hate it. Without the pain and disappointment it would all be different, not even recognizable. And you would be different, not even the same person.

So it seems in the face of the unrelenting march of time, we have four choices. 1. A great nihilistic “No” to life admitting its been a great disappointment and thus admitting that you’ve been a disappointment to yourself. 2. A grand delusion in which you deny pain and deny that expectations, hopes, and dreams were not realized. 3. A calm and resigned acceptance, a defeat you can live with, perhaps combined with the vague hope that things will turn out different next time. 4. A great yes to life. Falling in love with chance and fate. Saying to existence and the indifferent universe, “Amen thank you for precisely this!”

Which of these options any of us choose isn’t a moral choice. There’s no right or wrong here. Options two and three, delusion or resignation, are simply unacceptable to me. I cannot bring myself to be either of those people. Option one, nihilistic defeat is honest, but it it leads to living in ways that conflict with one’s own deepest values. If you believe that your best values cannot be realized because of a hostile universe and it isn’t up to your control whether those values are realized or not, there is no reason not to simply get drunk, forget, and head towards the rock bottom that the serenity prayer was designed to ward off. For the sake of argument, assume with me that the first three options are not palatable, but is option four, a yes to fate and life in the face of bitter disappointment possible? It may be possible to say yes to fate, chance, life, and existence when things are going well, when you’re happy and healthy and haven’t let yourself down in awhile. But what about the realistic embracing of life? Wouldn’t embracing life as it is mean embracing all the shitty stuff? Wouldn’t embracing things as they are mean glorifying a world of suffering and delegitimize the values you have that say, “This isn’t right; this isn’t’ good.”

The self that attempts to affirm all of existence must include in that affirmation the affirmation of the self, a self that is part of the whole. To love fate means to love what fate has made. And what fate has made in the now is the dissatisfied subject. Fate and chance have conspired to make you, oh discontented one. If you weren’t discontented then you’d be a different person, a person without hopes, dreams, desires, values that could be disappointed. The one who cannot be disappointed by fate cannot be pleased with it either. The one who cannot feel the sting of broken dreams is literally a different person, a person who, if you do have dreams that can be broken, literally doesn’t exist. The one who says the serenity prayer says, “God, make me a different person.” And since there is no god and there is no other person than the person you are, the path of resignation is the path of not wanting to be. It is nihilism by another name. You might as well just say you hate yourself and you hate life. To affirm life is hard. It includes saying yes to your own deep wells of dissatisfaction.

Is there any reason to love fate? If you’re looking for ultimate reasons, no. One choice is as good as any other, the universe don’t care. But when you survey the kinds of selves you could become: Do I want to be clueless and self-deluded? Do I want to calmly let my best values and biggest desires recede into oblivion and thus denying them and the self who had them? Do I want to become one bitter “no” to life without fucks left to give about anything? Or do I want to become equal to my disappointment and suffering?

The universe is infinitely variegated and beautiful, terrible and cruel, indifferent and mocking. The self is a part of all of that. A tiny part, but it’s not separate or different in nature. What would the story of the universe or of one’s life within it be without both the higher values that seek to mold and shape it and the unfolding of events that frustrate those values? Such a universe and such a self would be boring and banal, empty of the possibility of meaning and significance. The self is a perspective on that universe while being a part of it, and that perspective can tell any story it wants, any story YOU want. The unfolding succession of events isn’t up to you, but the interpretation of those events is. The trick is to make the narrative one you’d want to be and one you’d want to be a part of. Not an easy task or a task that one any of us is guaranteed to succeed at, but what other choice do we have but to attempt it?

The Self as a Work of Art

Depression and the Urge for the Road

To call Bitola (Битола), the second largest town in North Macedonia, a backwater is almost an understatement. An entire nation-state’s second largest town is hardly ever a backwater. Los Angeles is the United States’ second largest city. St. Petersburg is Russia’s. Montreal for Canada. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s. But Bitola only has 60,000 people, hardly a metropolis. North Macedonia (Македонија), a former Yugoslav republic, is itself small. Population the size of Vermont. Its main exports are agricultural. Long haired shepherds that look like they came out of a children’s picture bible can still be seen along mountain roads surrounded by their flocks, and most people still heat their homes with wood in the winter giving the entire country the smell of hardwood smoke for 5 months out of the year.

Bitola is beautiful though, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to live there. Ottoman architecture mixes with the plaster crumbling remains of the town’s 19th Century heyday when it acquired the nickname “City of Counsels,” referring to the numerous consulates of foreign governments once located in this border town at the edge of Europe. The old covered market—still in operation seven days a week—is a mixture of vaulted low domes and makeshift tarp walls and coverings surrounded by stalls where you can buy fresh meat and milk, nuts and eggs, local delicacies and the fruits of the earth. Mosque domes and minarets and an iconic brick clock-tower compete for skyline prominence with snow capped Mount Pelister (Пелистер), which overlooks the city to the West casting long afternoon shadows in the summer and sending the entire town into early night in the already short days of winter.

Пелистер Pelister Битола overlooking Bitola Baba mountain snow capped peak
Snow capped Mount Pelister overlooking the town of Bitola

It was during those painfully short winter days in the shadow of Pelister’s peak where I sank into one of the deepest seasonal depressions I have ever known. My partner was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the university there, a year long gig, and I was along for the ride. I was finishing up a grad program in philosophy, and since I was on a writing fellowship and only needed a laptop and a few books to work on my dissertation and no particular responsibilities beyond that, I had all the time in the world. Two people given to seasonal depression living together in a strange place where neither of us spoke the language or knew anyone.

Some of those short winter days, after her teaching duties at the university were done for the day, we would make our way to only supermarket in the city center, stock up on junk food, and watch from our 9th floor balcony as the sun made its way at only 3:00 in the afternoon behind the snow capped mountain, sinking us and our adopted temporary home into an early night. We would then binge on Milka and Ritter Sport chocolates. Eastern European Lays potato chip flavors like paprika or tzatziki. The healthiest thing I think we ate all winter was local homemade ajvar purchased from the farmers’ market, a smoky spread of roasted red peppers slow cooked in olive oil, on bagel chips. Wine was less than 2 euro a liter, so I was drunk as often and as easily as I’d like.

I am a wanderer and always have been, and here was my chance to explore a place with an unfamiliar and beautiful alphabet, a hospitable and vibrant food culture, a town full of architectural gems and post-industrial decay mixed with the crumbling remains of its belle epoch past ripe for exploration. A region with ancient Greek ruins, hills above to hike littered with abandoned churches and the telltale remains of the past to poke our noses into. And all we could do was gorge ourselves on trash food and wallow in melancholia. By March my time in North Macedonia and the Balkans was coming to an end, and I had virtually nothing to show for it except for disturbingly rapid weight gain and an increasingly sluggish metabolism.

Sitting just 15 km North of the Greek boarder in that landlocked space between Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece, Bitola’s Spring broke in mid April. The days grew longer, and as the temperatures warmed, the smell of wood smoke from people heating their homes gave way to the balmy fresh smells of spring’s rains and budding foliage. Pelister no longer hid the sun in the mid-afternoon. With those lengthening days my lethargy gave way to wanderlust and my gluttony for sweets and fatty carbs gave way to a desire for greens and fresh fruits. Only a month and a half left of my time in the Balkans, and all of the sudden I had the urge to be on the move.

My partner and I rented a car, a little Kia with manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive. We had the car rented for a month; we were done sitting around. We were going to see as much of North Macedonia and the rest of the Balkans as we could in the little time we had left. I learned how to drive a stick shift on the fly with a “fuck it” attitude to the frustrated honks from other motorists when I stalled. By the end of that month I could drive a stick shift with the best of them. We saw medieval monasteries in the lake town of Ohrid. Saw the post-industrial decay of Albania. Sarajevo’s war torn streets being rebuilt into the cultural hub it once was. The stone and terra cotta magnificence of Dubrovnik. Peerless local wine and homemade cheese in Montenegro. Canyons. Lakes. Fortresses. And from a high peak, the beauty of the Dalmatian coast.

The contrast between the depression of a Winter spent indoors with no vision or desire and the Spring of exploration and openness to the world could not be starker. The transformation it wrought in me was permanent and drastic. As I watched myself go from a troll who could barely blink in the sunlight to a sun eating worshiper of the world’s good things, I realized that I must always explore places and their capacities to affect people. Time is short, and I was fortunate to have any of it. Experience new tastes and smells and sights and visions. Must be open to things. Never sit still. Oh, of course depression has caught up with me many times since and it will again, but I have never, since then, lost sight of the deep and abiding wanderlust in my soul and the need to express out of the experiences that are my attempt to satisfy those desires.

To experience. To create. To encounter and produce the new. To move about the world on my own terms. To find ways to live that are different and my own, as much outside systems of domination, exploitation, and community killing artificial scarcity as possible. To think through these things and communicate them through art and writing. This is who I am; I have no choice.

Depression, seasonal and chronic, both of which force me out of routines and revelries periodically, is not something I’ve conquered. Nor is it something I merely live with. Rather, my time in Bitola, the winter’s depression and the coming to life convalescence that was as much spring’s doing, as it was an act of will, taught me something, if not about depression in general, then at least about my own mental health. None of us can choose a different neurobiology. We can medicate it and hack it and take it to therapy, but in general, the background conditions of how our affectivity relates to the changes in our environment is not something that is up to our conscious, volitional will. What I learned is that I am given to depression, to times when nothing happens, when I can barely breathe or drink a glass of wine or cook a decent dinner… barely. But those times come to an end, and when they do come to an end, when the morning is bright and inviting instead of making me want to put blankets over my head and wish for the end, these times are all we have, all I have. I’ve begun to think of depression as a gathering up of strength. A shepherding of internal resources for the times when I will be on the move, creating and exploring.

We are each given three score and ten—give or take—and for those of us who struggle with depression that time is carved up with bits of death between the periods of life. To create the self is to shape the bits of life into something beautiful, something that you can say yes to, something you can will to return eternally. And the bits of death in between, the depression caused by lack of sunlight or the exploitation of capital and breakdown of functional community or bad genes (or as is usual a combination of the three)? For a depressive like me, those times make the creative exploration possible. I would not be who I am without having to continually convalesce from the deepest night. Not something to regret, but something that motivates me further to write and explore and create and hopefully live differently and do a little bit to create a world and a life we can say yes to.