The Manic Sluggard: an OxyMORON

To recap: I felt called upon to provide a level of service that I feared was beyond me. I was expected to be effective as a father, a husband, (and a son, a brother, a friend, I guess). I wanted to be effective as a writer; I needed to be effective as a worker, and as a climate-change and civil-rights political activist, because our species is cruel, and the universe itself is scrupulously pitiless – without either bias or compassion. If we don’t work tirelessly for our own protection, we will be exterminated. “If you don’t work you die.”[1]

The consequences of failure were enormous, especially the lasting damage I could do to my kids, but I felt wholly inadequate to all these tasks. I didn’t even know where to start. Confronted with any job, I’d quail. I’d gaze up at its monumental and unscalable cliffs and I become overwhelmed by a hopeless sense of exhaustion.

Years ago, I’d felt defeated by Lulu. I lost the argument, so, despite her resistance, I made myself her captive. I tried to become what she would admire and love. From then on, the only quality I cultivated was a sort of gloomy and passive endurance, an acceptance of other people’s decisions.

Now, parenting, LSA-ing and pursuing writing as a profession (as distinct from just sitting down and off-loading like this) all demand improvisation and decisions, but it wasn’t clear how I should occupy myself. what to do? I didn’t seem to be of much consequence, and I’ve never had the imagination or the confidence or the resilience to make my own opportunities.

I didn’t know what to do with my writing, how to find an outlet for it or get feedback. I still have no idea if anything I write is remotely engaging or well-crafted.[2] At work, the role of the LSA is curiously undetermined. You have to be reactive and flexible, responding to challenges as they occur. You have to come up with your own ways of making yourself useful. I just wasn’t resourceful or quick-witted enough to carve out my own niche. Parenting is famous for being made up as you go along. When you have a second child you realise you still don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

So, you see, I spent my life feeling at a loss.

I knew the first thing you were expected to give was commitment and effort, so I tried to put my head down and charge at it, especially the parent-husband bit, because that was where I felt most immediate responsibility.

With the unflagging Jo as my example, I made a conscious decision to be constantly active, always looking around for some task that needed doing. A secret, internal, unwholesomeness could be balanced by a superficial utility. If I wasn’t a valuable person, at least I could be a useful actor in some small way. In ill-fitting uniforms, I could still help. I adopted a wholly unnatural mania to resist my natural laziness. I was like the old woman who swallowed a fly: I’d swallowed a spider to catch the fly. Neither should have been wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside me.

But I had no goal for this and no real concept of success. I was manic in intention but sluggish in behaviour[3]. I was expecting, at any moment, to be ambushed by my natural indolence, so I felt driven to a permanent state of alertness as I tried maintain the fictions I’d constructed. I needed to maintain the charade of decency, of normality. I knew I was a complete charlatan and I feared exposure. Not only would I be shamed and dismissed, I’d also have to confront my self, admit what I truly was. Perhaps it would prove I didn’t care for anyone, even my own family, that I was some sort of lonely and despicable psychopath. to avoid

I had to step warily across any threshold: waking in the morning, walking through the entrance at work, encountering another person, because I mustn’t ever betray myself. That, in itself, was exhausting. It would be safer never to go out, never to meet anyone.

  • Footnotes

[1] Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of hard work. This is from the poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, first published in The Sunday Pictorial (26/10/1919)

[2] The couple of times somebody has said they’re following my blog, I try to return the favour, but I literally don’t know how to. I’m really sorry, guys. I’ve tried. Isn’t there just a button you can click on? (I’m such a dolt!)

[3] Nowadays I have so many writing projects on the go, theoretically, that I can’t possibly finish any of them. This displays the same commitment to mania, in principle, but complete inactivity in practice.

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