You may have noticed that everything is terrible these days. Floods. Earthquakes. Nazis. Terrorist attacks. Maybe nuclear war. A vending machine app that disrespects bodega owners. But there is one nice part about the world being on fire: Now is the time to do whatever we want.
I don’t mean we should all start littering or murdering or anything like that. Everybody please keep their literal and figurative garbage to themselves! Nor do I mean that we should give up on helping each other. I’m just saying that, in addition to the helping, now is a good time to start a miniature donkey ranch, if you’re into that sort of thing. Move to a new city. Join a traveling carnival. Get a neck tattoo. Do anything you like, as long as it’s not hurting anyone.
This isn’t a bad rule of thumb generally, but it’s especially good right now, because the world is maybe going to end soon?
For example, last weekend my friend and I were texting about how she and her husband—two financially stable, responsible adults—were thinking of buying a house. I said that sounded exciting. She said yes, but she was a little nervous about homeownership because of natural disasters and war and the gaping portal to hell that is always hovering on the edge of her peripheral vision.
Very sensible! Hell portals do tend to bring down real-estate prices. But it’s worth remembering that there don’t seem to be any super-safe options in life at time. Equifax just let 143 million Americans’ home addresses and Social Security numbers fall into the hands of thieves. We are deep in carpe diem territory.
This is also how I’m justifying plans to travel to Ireland and Japan before the end of the year. Can I afford to take two international trips? Not really, no. Would it be more sensible for me to use the money from at least one trip for paying down my student loans? Absolutely. Will student loans still exist in 2020, or will the worldwide financial system have crashed and we’ll all be living off the land and the main currency in our new society is just salvaged cans of pamplemousse LaCroix?
It’s hard to say.
The trick is finding ways to carpe diem without dooming your future self, just in case you do wind up having one. New York Magazine’s The Cut reported in December that women opposed to US president Donald Trump were responding by chopping off and dyeing their hair, which is a nice low-key start. “When people experience a change that is so opposite from their value system, that’s very unnerving,” Marion Jacobs, a former professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Take-Charge Living: How to Recast Your Role in Life … One Scene at a Time, told The Cut. “People will use all kinds of coping mechanisms, and cutting their hair and changing their look is one way to show or feel that they are doing something over which they have control.”
But we don’t have to limit ourselves to haircuts. There are plenty of ways to demonstrate free will and self-determination. Conventional wisdom and deliberate calculations, which rely upon the assumption that the world is both rational and predictable, do not necessarily apply. The reality is that it’s hard to plan too far ahead in a world where the US president vows to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy one week, and the next hatches a bipartisan plan to protect it.
Consider the words of Ruth Chang, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. In her TED talk, “How to make hard choices,” Chang offers a liberating framework with which to think about decision-making. A hard choice, she explains, is by definition a choice where there is no “best” option. If you’re trying to decide whether to give up your urban life and move to the country, for example, there will be pros and cons for each option. Neither will be clearly, objectively better than the other. So instead of trying to logic our way through life decisions, Chang suggests we celebrate the chance to exercise our agency and decide what kind of people we want to become.
“The reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out,” she explains. “It is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are.”
We are now living in a time when a lot of reasons have run out. So when it comes to the choice of whether to buy a house, have a kid, go on a trip, or quit your job and go to beauty school, we might as well do whatever seems like the coolest, most awesome thing.
This collective circumstance reminds me of driving to the Berkshires from New York City with a pair of friends recently. Along the way, we hit a giant carpet of fog. We were basically traveling inside a cloud on country roads for 60 miles, and it was late at night, pitch-black, with no streetlights to help us see. My friend was driving and I was sitting next to her trying to navigate on Google Maps, and we were both hunched forward toward the windshield, as if that would help, laughing hysterically. The situation was so ridiculous, and we had zero good options, so we just kept driving really slowly. It was scary and stressful inside that car—but there were bits of fun in there, too. We didn’t know if or when the fog would clear, or what to expect on the other side.