It recently occurred to me that I’d really like a personal life. I’d like for people to ask me, “What do you do in your personal life?” or “Do your coworkers know about your personal life?” and for my answers to be anything other than confused laughs.
This is a foreign feeling. For a long time, I was intent on destroying the kind of boundaries implied by deeming one slice of your life “personal.” It sounded suffocating. Instead I wanted to achieve a kind of foggy symbiosis between all my disparate parts, where my work self would be the same as my weekend self; my home self the same as my vacation self. This way, I could be the physical embodiment of that twee Tumblr meme that demanded I “build a life I don’t need a vacation from.” This was peak self-actualization to me.
But now I’m not so sure. After finally cultivating a life I don’t need a vacation from—where there exists a startling continuity between what I do for work and what I seek out for entertainment and what I post online and what I talk about in therapy—I think I miss vacations. And I don’t mean weekend trips upstate, I mean the emotional act of vacating. Of un-occupying a mental space every once in awhile. It sounds nice to move in and out of different parts of my life like it’s a Russian bath house instead of swimming around in my own tepid pool all the time.
Now that I know I want a personal life, though, it’s occurred to me that I don’t even know what a personal life is. I’ve been asking friends and strangers over the last month and have yet to receive a satisfying answer. The internet defines it as the sum of our personal choices, or as our non-public-facing life, but both leave a lot of room for interpretation. A personal life is not one’s “home life” nor “private life” either—it’s less specific. A feeling maybe. Like believing in Santa in the 90s. Fittingly, no one I asked felt they had one anymore. And when I consider the cultural and structural shifts that have occurred over the last decade, I’m not surprised the notion almost feels outdated.
Since 2010, we’ve witnessed the rise of social media, where the private becomes public; the creeping presence of workism, where hobbies become hustles; the robbing of our attention in increasingly smaller increments; the emphasis on hyper-optimization, where leisure becomes productivity (and mornings an opportunity); the pressures of late capitalism, where time is money; and the cumulative impulse to build personal brands out of our personal lives (whatever those even are). As a result, day-to-day life has become so overstimulating over the last decade that often our free time is spent in search of ways to “turn our brains off,” rather than turn them on in service of ourselves. It’s no wonder many of us feel constantly, unwittingly overextended. The machinations of modern culture have erased our boundaries. We’re like an open concept office with free snacks and scooters but no where to take phone calls and cry.
It’s difficult to explore this topic without trotting out the anti-capitalist talking points we’ve all heard before—that we’re more than our labor, that we need to take our time back, that we should probably get offline and forgive ourselves. And I do believe all those things; but maybe what I’m getting at with this new obsession is that I’m after separation more than secession. Or rather, I think there’s something to the idea of reintroducing stratification into our lives when everything starts to feel like a blur of sameness.
In its ideal form, I think my personal life would be comprised of interests and behaviors I privately cultivated for no particular reason and with no obvious effort. It might mean reading for pleasure or deep-diving a niche blog or getting really into baking pies or reorganizing my socks or making a seasonal playlist. Maybe it’d mean staring at the wall and imagining I’m someone else. I’m not sure yet! But I would feel no need to weave it into my “personal brand,” address it in my work, or post about it online. Nor would I view it as a means to improve, get ahead, or even grow. In that sense it wouldn’t really be something I “cultivated” at all, but rather made time for.
Maybe that’s what’s at the heart of the creeping obsolescence of the personal life; when our every minute is filled with noise—with other people’s ideas and our need to optimize and our impulse to exploit ourselves for content, as I’m doing now—our inner worlds resemble a losing game of Tetris. Too crowded to allow for the trivial trappings of a personal world, and too densely arranged to differentiate our diverse parts.
I’m still drawn to the idea of one unified, vacationless self. The Tumblr conditioning runs deep. But I’m beginning to see how that aspiration was shaped by the same culture that created the personal brand. Perhaps it’s up to us to reject the forces so intent on flattening us into avatars. By protecting our time against the feverish desire to optimize, indulging in our most pointless instincts, and occasionally inviting a separation between our different selves, we invite a sense of mystery and texture back into our lives. Because none of us are all one thing, and surely we all need a vacation sometimes.
Graphics by Lorenza Centi.