What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.