This is the second instalment of Red Flags, Novara Media’s new advice column for anti-capitalists (here’s the first). Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags will explore how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it.
From sex to housing, work crises to climate crises, Red Flags will offer guidance rooted in radical politics and informed by psychoanalytic theory. Its advice won’t be prescriptive or dogmatic, but will instead invite readers to consider the roots of the problems that plague us all. “I don’t believe in ‘right’ answers,” says Sophie. “I have no idea how to live either. But I do believe in creating spaces for dialogue and reflection – and I hope Red Flags can do just that.
Need advice? Write to [email protected], or if you’d like more anonymity, fill in this form.
I feel like I don’t have time for all the things I need to do each day – let alone the things I want to do. It makes me stressed and miserable. I don’t understand how life adds up for other people.
I want to be good at my job, to have time for meaningful activism, to write, to exercise, to regularly cook healthy meals and, in particular, to be a good and supportive friend and comrade who consistently shows up for the people around me. I feel like I’m doing almost none of it. I try to schedule things in, but that planning in itself is time-consuming and stressful. I then feel like I’m on a treadmill each day, with no flexibility. I feel guilty and worthless looking at all the things I’ve failed to do every evening.
In this context, the time I spend with friends is often fleeting and almost perfunctory – I want to live my life alongside them, but instead, I’m just checking in once a month while living a life that sometimes still feels lonely. I often wonder what the point is of doing everything in too much of a rush to really enjoy it. It’s like I’m going through the motions of a life, but there isn’t always much pleasure in it.
I am frequently regretful about time badly spent, because time is such a scarce resource. Rest is not restful because I feel guilty for not achieving anything.
It seems like other people simply have more time than me – is this because they have better habits, better executive functioning or more willpower? Or is it just an illusion? How do I decide what to prioritise? How do I stop feeling guilty all the time for not being productive enough, and regretful for missing out on things?
– Not Enough Hours in the Day
Dear Not Enough Hours in the Day,
Since I first read your letter, your lament: “I don’t understand how life adds up,” has stuck with me. There are many possible meanings to the idea of a life “adding up”, all of which I think could be helpful to your conundrum – which is, in many ways, the conundrum of being alive, and in particular of being alive under capitalism.
You don’t mention how much time you spend working – but I imagine, like most people, you spend much of your waking life doing your job. You don’t say what you do either, but – like most jobs – I imagine it takes it out of you. It being whatever energy you need to experience, explore and enjoy your remaining waking hours.
We have worker organising to thank for the fact there are any regulations on working time at all – but even if we “only” work for eight hours, the rest of our day is often spent recovering from the physical, mental or emotional toll that work takes. How a life “adds up” has a lot to do with how the sum of our lives is necessarily calculated around work: how much of it we must do to make enough money – and what, in turn, it takes from us.
It is simply not your fault you were born into this rotten economy in which there is a cost to living; in one way or another, most of us are paying for survival with our lives. I realise this is a rather melancholy proposition, coming from someone who would like to help you feel better about the state of things, but holding this reality in mind might be one way to show yourself more compassion. What I am trying to say is, please give yourself a break when the world won’t!
And then, also – there’s death. When faced with death, as we all are, I’m not sure if any of us really knows how life “adds up”. We don’t tend to think too much about our ever-nearing end in Western cultures though, and I think whatever forms of unconscious denial we may have around it are often aided by the urgency with which many of us experience life.
I’ve never lived anywhere but a big city, so I don’t know how things feel elsewhere, but in London experiencing life as spacious seems impossible. People are always busy – albeit often, as you suggest, in ways that leave them feeling empty. With the relentless demands of work, and the culture of urgency in which we exist, it is no wonder so many of us struggle to find solid ground upon which our hobbies, relationships and rest feel meaningful.
Capitalism is predicated on optimising productivity – and we ourselves, whether we want to be or not, are parts of this system. The trouble is, as you identify, feeling under pressure to do – to do everything, all the time – can leave us feeling like we are doing nothing at all. Constant doing leaves little space for being, which I would suggest is a recipe for alienation from those around us and ourselves.
You ask whether others have better time-management skills than you, how you can decide what to prioritise, and how you can avoid feelings of guilt and regret. I wonder how helpful these avenues for exploration will ultimately be; I worry that comparing yourself to others, attempting to fix these difficult feelings through “better” prioritisation, and aiming to “stop feeling” will only magnify the suffering you are already experiencing. So I hope you’ll excuse me for skirting around these precise points somewhat, with the intention of – hopefully – helping you to find some comfort.
Your letter brought one of my favourite books to mind: Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by the psychoanalyst Adam Philips. “Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life – the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life – the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it,” he writes. “For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.”
If we can accept that we are “nothing special – on a par with ants and daffodils,” suggest Philips, we might ask ourselves: “What kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special?” This line of enquiry need not distract us from the harsh realities: work eating away at us, time ticking on in high-pressure environments. But it might help us notice what fuels and fills us up, given all the draining and empty-feeling aspects of our lives. Our frustrations – about all the things we are not doing, not living – can be instructive. What would it mean, for you, for life to “add up”?
I notice the importance you place on friendship. Among all the other priorities and demands you write about, having strong connections with friends seems very meaningful to you. What would it mean to you to live life “alongside” these friends, as you desire? Even if some of these visions aren’t possible in reality, they could be important to explore – especially in conversation with these loved ones. I’m sure you know that life will never be free from difficult feelings like guilt and loneliness – but having friendships that mean so much to you, having people with whom you can work things through, means so much. They will have their own frustrations, laments, their own unlived lives – can you, together, through examining what you are missing, work out what it could mean for life to “add up”?