The ability to want what you already have is kind of everything. When I lived by the beach I thought that I would never get jaded about the ocean, the sunsets, but within a year they became wallpaper to me—some blurry things going on outside the world of the internet. It was as though they were somehow already “mine,” or part of me, and I could no longer see or cherish them.
Last week I moved from the beach into a canyon in the mountains. The first day I was here in the canyon I was so enraptured that I swore I would continue to observe nature and remain grateful for living in it. But already I’m looking at my phone more than I’m watching the tall grasses moving in unison in the breeze, the three palm trees swaying outside my window, or the deciduous trees with their cascading leaves glittering in the sun. Also, there’s something else inside me saying, “Run! You must compulsively go back and forth to Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond and various other indoor retail hellscapes, to buy things you don’t really need and then return them.” Instead of simply being with the mountain, I’ve been buying and returning rugs for three days.
What is it about the going back-and-forth from shitty chain stores that in some ways feels so much more natural to me than just sitting and watching the sky? “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” says Ernest Becker in my favorite book, The Denial of Death. “As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.”
When I’m in nature I never forget that I’m going to die.
Certainly, the compulsive buying and returning (or as I like to call it, shopping bulimia) makes me feel as though I have a purpose. It is an ephemeral purpose, a stupid purpose, as the perfect fucking shower caddy isn’t going to make me a whole person. When I die I can’t take the caddy with me. But I think that is the point, actually: a game of reverse psychology I play with myself, wherein I’m so ensconced in the minutiae of shitty home decor that I can forget about death. After all, what kind of person would spend hours at Ikea when they only have a finite amount of time left to live on Earth? If I’m wasting my time at Ikea, then I can’t be about to die, can I?
When I’m in nature I never forget that I’m going to die. This morning, while walking my dog along the incline of the mountain, I remembered something one of my therapists told me about surrendering to anxiety. She was like, “A tree branch that is stiff will snap in the wind, but a reed will bend. You want to be the reed.”
This made me feel sad, actually, that nature in its beauty isn’t inherently benevolent. It’s more neutral. The wind doesn’t care whether it breaks the tree branch, it’s just doing its wind thing. This doesn’t make the wind evil. The tree branch that is ripped off its tree and transformed into a dying stick on the ground can’t even blame its killer for cruelty.
I feel bad for the stick, to be honest. I mean, the stick didn’t really have a choice as to whether it was born a branch or a reed. The stick never asked to be a fucking stick. It’s not like the reed has done a shitload of work on itself in therapy to become more flexible. The reed was born the reed and that’s it. I also think, to some extent, the same can be said about mental illness. It’s like, bitch, I didn’t ask to be born the branch that would be turned into a stick.
While my default mode seems to largely be the stick, sometimes I feel like I am the reed. It’s really a question of where I am in terms of factors beyond my control like my neurochemistry and hormonal cycle, as well as elements within my control like antidepressants, therapy, meditation, sleep, nutrition. When I’m charging full speed to Bed, Bath and Beyond, ten minutes before closing, I’m the stick. And the worst part of being a stick is when I don’t know I’m a stick. Like, when I’m a stick, that’s fine, but it’s important for me to be aware of what I’m doing so that I don’t hurt myself or others. When I’m speeding in my car with three rugs aimed between my windshield and my back window, binge eating Swedish fish, certainly there is the potential for hurting others. That might be a time to say, “Slow down, this is not urgent, the rugs aren’t that important.” But it is the urgency of small purpose that creates the distraction from mortality. There is an underlying promise that if I buy the perfect thing, I will be rendered whole, transcendent, somehow immortal.
As Becker wrote:
…man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body…a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
The answer, obviously, does not lie at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I know this. And yet, because I sense that there is no “answer” to the paradox of human sentience, I go to Bed, Bath and Beyond, because I do not know where else to go. I am a human who is ultimately afraid to want what I already have, in fear of being reminded of my own impermanence. So I look for new shit and hold onto it until it becomes old shit, and then I look for more.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin