Living in a Bartleby Age

Speaking with a friend a few days ago, we talked about the rise of adult children still living at home or, as is the usual case, adult children venturing out on their own for a bit and then moving back home without any qualms of feeling that they’ve let themselves or their families down. We also talked about the pitfalls of some intellectuals and academics who disdain jobs that are below their abilities, like being an office wonk or a cashier jockey, and prefer to remain unemployed or horribly underemployed as they await a position commensurate to their degrees, their skills, their knowledge.

Such topics, among other things, reminded me of a Herman Melville (of _Moby Dick_ fame) story called “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in which Bartleby, the main character and an office worker, one day decides that he prefers not to work, to move, to change his condition, to improve, to act — in other words, he prefers not to live. “I prefer not to,” becomes his mantra, and nothing seems to satisfy him such that he does nothing. “I prefer not to make any change at all,” he says, even though he is deeply dissatisfied with his life. It’s clear that he is not a stupid man, that he is well aware what needs to be done in order to improve his life, but he “prefers not to” for any number of reasons, but to the same effect. Nothing happens in his life, no highs, no lows, but a mediocrity that leads to a sense of being at a dead end of one’s life, of being in a rut, of being in “blah”, whatever one may call it.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, a “it’s just a phase everybody goes through” thing, or what, but we’re seeing more — or maybe it’s just because more people are more open about it — examples of people living “lives of quiet desperation” as Henry David Thoreau called it. But I really think, because we’re not stupid people, that, like Aristotle, we *know* enough of what we need to do to change our situations; we just don’t have the will to do it — “I prefer not to.” Why that disconnect between what we know and talk about and what we actually do about it exists, I don’t know. I suspect it has something to do with fear of change, of incurring risks that would really change our lives. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, human nature likes a stable life and thus can put up with a lot of crap. Put it’s real courage to go, “Enough is enough,” and do something about the crap, to break out from the stationary orbit of our crappy lives and do something about changing it.

Quitting a crappy job is scary. Moving away from one’s suffocating home is scary. Leaving a hurtful relationship is scary. It’s all scary because we at least *know* the crap of our current lives and have worked with it, worked around it, or just plain ignored it. But doing something about changing it creates a life that is unknown — and fear of the unknown is scary. And, I believe, a lot of people sell themselves short, underestimating their abilities to improve their lives, to make a better life for themselves (and, in doing so, make a better life for the people they love). We sell ourselves short, waiting for other people to solve our problems, waiting for Godot, when, really, we have the power to do the needful things that will improve our lives, if only we get off our cowardly, well-meaning asses and do it.

I only have my experience to go by because that’s the only person I know pretty well — other people I go by hunches and speculation which I always assume I’m wrong. But, as for me, I’ve gotten over the years some comments (some friendly, some not so) that I seem to have it easy in my life, that I luck into opportunities and good things, that I must lead a charmed life.


There were two things that my parents taught their kids to be ashamed of, and that were 1) being stupid, and 2) being lazy. It’s the greatest of insults for my parents to call any of their kids stupid or lazy, and so I’ve strived damn hard not to incur those insults. Hence my voracious reading, my talking things out, my keeping my mind open but not so open that my brains fall out. Hence my always pushing to finish projects, to finish my paid work, to finish my unpaid work, always to keep organized, to take care of my finances.

But a large part of that is my parents teaching their kids that they *weren’t* stupid, that they *weren’t* lazy except that they *choose* to act that way. We can do better than that, in other words. It’s not being arrogant or elitist or proud — it’s realizing that we can do more than what our preferences, our feelings, our emotional baggage say we can do. We can do better than that because we *are* better than that.

And so, I’ve fulfilled the American Dream, as some has said — contented marriage, middle-class house, teaching job in my field that pays. But behind all of that are years of hard work, all striving for something better each year. To stay still, to settle for “okay, this is all there is” may as well be, like Bartleby, to lie down and die.

We know what to do to better our lives. Now let’s do it.


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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One Response to Living in a Bartleby Age

  1. Pingback: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | I Am the Lizard Queen!

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