In a culture bent on targets, we create the illusion of an objective test telling us whether we are living life well enough. It is a bit like being in an exam the whole timeby Susie Orbach / January 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
One can see the temptation of quantifying all sorts of aspects of life with apps and wearable gadgets—it speaks to order and self-improvement. Yet we psychoanalysts wonder: what do these new measurements tell us about what we fear? What could we be protecting ourselves from?
Measuring might feel like a way into addressing difficult behaviours such as being too sedentary or drinking too much. It might work—in some cases. But when so many of us are suddenly tracking so many things, it looks like a decidedly one-size-fits-all solution, which ignores the variety in what motivates our difficulties. Understanding something of what we are up to when we are doing things not in our best interest could be a wiser course.
What’s concerned me of late is post-partum mums keeping spreadsheets about how many minutes of breastfeeding, physical contact time and how much their babies are sleeping. We are losing the knack of responding to what babies need—and parents too. While this might help some women, it is a mindset that can limit what emerges from the relationship with the baby. Responding to babies is exhausting, yes. But letting them find the “breast” and the mothering person is crucial; the implications of tight scheduling are disturbing.
In a culture bent on targets, we create the illusion of an objective test telling us whether we are living life well enough. It is a bit like being in an exam the whole time. The problem, of course, is that living is not an exam nor an objective question at all.
Recent cohorts of children have not gone through school being encouraged to be critical or curious, but instead being drilled to pass particular tests, and then move on to the next one. It’s as if life were climbing a mountain, always looking to clamber to the next staging post-university, the right job, the right spouse, the right body, the right health profile. There’s a vague sense that all will be well if you can get to the top, but it’s not clear that’s right, or even where the top is—what if the job doesn’t satisfy you? What if life is still not fulfilling with the “right” spouse, the right body, the right job?
The thing about being a grown up is—or used to be—that you understood that it’s the living and contributing itself that’s the point. The self-quantification boom leads us away from that. Are we walking for the joy of it or are we walking to notch up the steps: to perform? Perhaps both, but I fear that tracking encourages an emphasis on measuring as some sort of succour.
More concerning is the question of who are we performing to? Sometimes it is for others; more often it is part of ourselves. We’ve all got our critical and observational sides, and at times it might be useful or interesting to apply them inwardly, to look at oneself in an interesting way. But hard-wired into consumer society, with social media providing a platform for performance rather than being, we may substitute the business of living by performing a run of accomplishments.
There is a generation of mums who have good reason to want things for their daughters that weren’t available for them, and some demand hard evidence they are getting them. But when you are raised with those expectations, everything can end up being done for the sake of “sell” (even if it’s only selling to oneself), rather than out of any integrated connection to who you are. Compulsive tracking takes all this to new heights.
Bridget Jones was logging her ice cream binges, cigarettes and drinks as a form of punishment 25 years ago. That might not have been healthy, but at least there was some spirit to it—she was rebelling against the culture of self-denying femininity. Now we’re into a culture in which there can seem to be nothing beyond selling and projecting success. In the face of extreme consumerism, we feel impelled to constrain ourselves. The tracking boom certainly represents one way to respond to what the culture is offering. But not in a very interesting way.
Yesterday, three of us went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. We walked in step there and back. Our tracking devices gave us three different readings for the same journey. Go figure.