The modern cult of spontaneity

Here’s an enjoyably cynical essay which turns a gimlet eye on our culture’s celebration of spontaneity, deeply skeptical without being curmudgeonly, plenty of fun passages which I shall proceed to quote at length.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

So why do we find the idea so attractive?

We dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

This reminds me of the “Wild at Heart” fad of 15 years ago, where John Eldridge made significant coin by encouraging men to tap into their wild side—on the weekends, of course. And it reminds me of all the paid pastimes that were invented in the 20th century (movies, dance halls, vacations, eating out) so that workers could better endure the drudgery of the workweek.

And it really is a mark of genius that modern business can take the problems caused by its money-making activity and turn them into brand new profit centers:

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality.

Those in charge are also learning to turn spontaneity toward their own ends.

The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

The writer also detects a connection between the cult of spontaneity and a newcomer on the scene which purports to be un-spontaneous, namely mindfulness.

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. […]

it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy.

And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

There is an ability to respond gracefully in the moment which we confuse with spontaneity, but is nothing of the sort—the traditional Chinese virtue of wu-wei, described as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.” Ironically, this can only be achieved through long hours of deliberate practice.

The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether.

(I bolded the passage above because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about character formation, in particular the fact that we preach loud and long about how important character is but don’t give people the slightest hint that character can be built, though the process may be long and hard. Where are the training manuals in habitual virtuous action?)

In fact, pursuing spontaneity at all costs can lead to a constitutional inability to act spontaneously.

The problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

And here we come to the crux of the matter.

Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better.

And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

Not only rob the victim of that ability to take pleasure, but turn them into desperate customers ready and eager to pay top dollar to anyone who promises pleasure.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Dark satisfaction. Wow!

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