As a child, I never thought of “growth” as being a particularly good thing. Being small was mostly fun. I quite liked running around the park all weekend and pissing about in class from Monday to Friday. The word “grown-up” was pretty much a synonym for “wanker” in pre-punk 1970s Britain for the simple reason that most parents, teachers, and authority figures were actually wankers. I suppose I enjoyed the attention of cooing adults who wittered on at regular intervals about how much I’d grown but I also knew that it would have been weird if I hadn’t grown, and that it was in any case no particular merit of mine. These days of course one grows mainly in girth and in width and rarely receives compliments for it.
Economies must always grow. The electorate demands it. In the staggeringly dull Brexit conflict, aside from a bit of obtuse mudslinging about racism, most of the debate has centred on growth. Will the UK economy grow less, or more, or even, horror of all horrors, shrink, outside the EU? Political structures, representation, constitutions…boooooring. The key question, even for left wing idealists, is will there or will there not be more dosh? I’m no economist but surely this can’t go on forever. Infinity is a long time. If economic growth does go on forever, and an infinite number of monkeys have eventually typed out the complete works of Shakespeare an infinite number of times for an infinitely diverse cast of infinitely represented identity groups, surely we will get to the stage where everyone on the planet has become a multi-billionaire. Which begs the question who is going to do all the work at places like Asda and Burger King? Who’s going to serve the crap coffee, and do the plumbing? I suppose I am underestimating the current trend for neo liberalism to concentrate more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands, so that in all likelihood, in the near future, about 20 individuals will be multi killionaires while the rest of us service them by working in yacht and tiara factories, or in designer clothing sweatshops. Given the current state of progressive politics, this will probably not even be an issue as long as the 20 chosen ones represent the full spectrum of appropriate identity groups. The inalienable right to shit on or be shat upon regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation will lead to a new era of social peace, and the self-righteous will simply wither away, just as Marx foresaw that the state would gradually wither away. Meanwhile, growth will continue to be insatiably self-defeating as the planet wobbles and buckles beneath the weight of human aspiration.
And then there’s personal growth, or personal development as it’s usually called, which to my mind implies that people, like countries, are in different phases of development. There are thus fully developed individuals, probably yoga teachers, artists, and billionaire philanthropists who might be the USAs or Germanys of personal development, the former maybe feeling a little bloated by their own personal progress and given to the odd panic attack, the latter quietly and soullessly contented, yet somehow not quite feeling the love. Behind them the not really there yet developing individuals who have signed up for Pilates classes, and try to take the occasional self-help book seriously, but who still have the odd Big Mac, and ultimately prefer Netflix to Dostoevsky, and Benidorm to Bangalore. At the bottom of the pit, are those who Trump might lovingly describe as “shitholes”, feckless individuals despised by left and right alike, the lazy and the shiftless, who show no signs of developing anything beyond a beer gut, and who seem shamelessly unaware that they should be undertaking a voyage of personal discovery, not just going to the pub.
We are all persecuted by progress. It’s no use just staying alive anymore, which for millennia has been the core aspiration of the humanoid. Instead one must be endlessly moving forward (or onwards and upwards), in a shark-like perpetual motion, harangued by society’s pathological need for self-improvement. Middle class parents increasingly demand that their children speak several languages, and have black belts in karate, and diplomas in piano playing thus driving an entire generation, desperate to experience the joys of the present, into the warm embrace of addictive gaming, or online porn. Underlying all this is the ludicrous idea that everyone is special (in some way), a vacuous assertion easily disavowed by anyone with a passing acquaintance with education, or indeed with people.
The truth is that personal development is overrated. Like everything else, it is an industry designed to bully us into a state of permanent dissatisfaction, and possibly to blank out the unpalatable truth that no matter how much stretching and running and jumping we do, our bodies will eventually go into freefall, a process that accelerates until we reach terminal velocity. At a certain age, it’s all about staving off decay, and slowing down the rate of decline. The same goes for our minds. It may be true that it’s never too late to learn, but it is also true that after a certain point it becomes pointless. I will never learn another language because I simply do not have enough years ahead of me to justify the effort. No return, on the investment. I read a lot, but to entertain myself, not to find answers to the great existential truths, because there are none. This much I have learned.
The great and indifferent universe would probably be a much better place without all this striving and striding forth. Infinity will put a stop to it anyway. Surely world records cannot be broken eternally? Will someone one day run 100 metres in 3.5 seconds, or swim the Atlantic non –stop without support craft? Will we eventually send a manned spacecraft right into the heart of the sun? Will England, one bright sunny new day somehow get beyond the quarter finals in a World Cup? Ecological meltdown will probably intervene before we find out. In the meantime Dear Reader, by all means amuse yourself by playing the guitar, learning Arabic, or developing your own fusion cuisine. The need to impress our peers lurks below the surface of every human exterior. Just don’t expect it to get you anywhere. And above all, have a laugh. We’re not here long so enjoy it.