Brain Food #787: Useful delusions
A breath of fresh air
Thoughts of the day
When it was first published, White Teeth by Zadie Smith was everywhere I looked, but I only got around to reading some of her work, mostly her non-fiction, during the first lockdown. Immediately, I was drawn to her poignant observations of modern life, particularly in an essay titled Find Your Beach, which echoes Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That.
I am always curious about the ways in which a city contributes to the creative and productive energy that runs through its inhabitants, almost turning us into different people every time we return to it. In Find Your Beach, Smith draws parallels between everyone’s journey towards self-actualisation and a gigantic beer ad that gets painted on the wall opposite her apartment in New York, with the slogan ‘Find your beach.’
“[…] the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. […] I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.”
Replace ‘Manhattan’ with any big city, and the sentiment remains the same. Perhaps that is why so many people left their cities during the pandemic, for a more rural reality, only to go back (as indicated by rising rent prices and home address changes). It is not the rat race that they needed, but to breathe the air of possibility again. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, as Kierkegaard said. There is a sacrifice that comes with giving up ambition.
And if a delusion is believing in something that is not true, perhaps we need delusions to carry on. After all, it is up to us to convert our delusions into realities. But a visit to nature, once every now and then, won’t cause much harm, and might offer a new sense of perspective. Nothing beats a breath of fresh air, especially on the beach.
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