The Danger in Caring About Everything, All of the Time
On misunderstanding Buddhism, hiking alone, and desperately searching for inner peace
I realized recently that I give too many fucks.
As metaphysical realizations so often do, this one arose during brunch. I was drinking rosé with a group of friends on the sun-washed back patio of a Venice Beach beer garden. It was the Sunday before Memorial Day; garlands of blue and red bunting dangled from every table, couch, and doorframe like a kind of patriotic fauna. Pop music thumped pleasantly — even politely — from speakers tucked tactfully out of sight, and the smell of sunscreen mingled with that delectable olfactory tang so unique to Southern California: barbecue, sea salt, hot concrete, healthy skin.
It was, in other words, the kind of atmosphere in which one would reasonably expect to not give any fucks about anything other than spending time with treasured friends, consuming cool drinks, and perhaps deciding which filter to employ when posting evidence of all this fun later on Instagram. Yet there I was, doing the exact opposite — obsessing over a variety of outlandish, irrelevant, paranoid concerns that zapped around my brain like mosquitoes in a humid room:
- Did my boss’s occasional reticence on Slack belie her secret hatred for me?
- Did my only semi-cool T-shirt, purchased specifically for this occasion, in fact look stupid and actually not-at-all cool?
- Would I ever get a book deal?
- Was my lack of a book deal a product of the same innate inadequacy underlying my inability either to dress well or win adoration at work?
- Could all of these more successful, more beautiful, more mentally stable people around me tell how absolutely in my own head I was? Were they talking about me whenever my professionally unremarkable back was turned?
I clung to my glass of rosé as my heart did cartwheels in my chest. The throngs of attractive people frolicking about in ripped jeans and expensive sunglasses reminded me of insects in an unusually trendy hive. For one horrifying moment, certain that everyone was judging, denouncing, or disregarding me, I felt as if I were experiencing the sensation of being on Twitter, but in real life.
There are, at any given moment, an infinite number of things you could be giving fucks about.
This was, of course, the anxiety of giving just way too many fucks — a character trait I’ve nurtured for most of my life and which, if left unchecked, might eventually kill me.
Now, the dangers of caring too much about too many things have been well-documented. For example, Mark Manson, in his famous essay-turned-book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, writes:
“Most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many fucks in situations where fucks do not deserve to be given… [And] when we give too many fucks, when we choose to give a fuck about everything, then we feel as though we are perpetually entitled to feel comfortable and happy at all times, and that’s when life fucks us.”
And this is true. But as I’ve experienced, the risks of giving too many fucks are farther reaching — and more fundamentally crippling.
Think about it. There are, at any given moment, an infinite number of things you could be giving fucks about. You can stress over the impending and inevitable deaths of all your loved ones; the variety of ways you might one day get fired; the disparate combinations of inadequacies which, if properly analyzed, might explain your poor publication history, lack of personal savings, or the insufficient amount of affection you receive from your wife. At any given moment you can worry over all these anxieties. And our brains — those little laptops buffering atop our necks — simply aren’t equipped to care about that many things at once. It’s like trying to download dozens of hours of porn off LimeWire. It confuses your essential infrastructure, flusters the backend, and can even bring the whole hard drive crashing down.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that endeavoring to give fewer fucks has long been one of man’s chief intellectual pursuits. It is, in fact, the central focus of several world religions. Take Buddhism, for example. Siddhartha Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, yet at the age of 29 — the same age as your frazzled correspondent — he snuck away from his palace to travel as a homeless vagabond throughout the villages and ashrams of Northern India. For six years he wandered, meditating on the various causes of human anxiety. His ultimate insight, the one with the promise to liberate mankind from existential suffering, was that to escape psychic pain, you must stop desiring to rid yourself of irritation, dissatisfaction, grief, and fear, and instead simply understand and accept things as they are.
Basically: You have to find a way to give fewer fucks.
I read about Siddhartha’s journey to no-fucks-given enlightenment after I got home from L.A. I did so at the behest of my father, who is something of a Zen Buddhist himself, and who thought a bit of Buddhism might help me “chill the hell out.”
Unfortunately, initially, I misinterpreted the sentiment. I know this because the first thing I thought of after closing the webpage my dad sent me was the DJ Khaled classic “I’m on One,” in which Drake sings: “All I care about is money and the city that I’m from.” I’d always thought that line was a little close-minded, but suddenly, it seemed like Drizzy was on to something. The key to more sound mental health, I thought, was in fact to give no fucks at all. Except, perhaps, about your hometown and the myopic pursuit of profit.
I read about Siddhartha’s journey to no-fucks-given enlightenment at the behest of my father, who thought a bit of Buddhism might help me ‘chill the hell out.’
This misinterpretation prompted a number of rash decisions. I deleted my Twitter app. I set my Slack status to “away” even though it was the middle of a workday. I texted my wife, Alex, who was in Seattle on a business trip, and told her I thought we should start our own company. Then, in a final fit of excitement, I called my dad one more time.
“Dad,” I said. “You were right. Buddha says the secret to happiness is to give no fucks at all. Zero. None.”
I heard a beleaguered sigh. “I don’t think that’s what Buddha says, Dan.”
My dad is a very smart man, and so I listened intently as he explained that while giving fewer fucks is a good thing, and likely in line with the general sentiment of Buddhism, you do have to give some fucks about some things. He directed me to go back and reread Manson, who, as it turns out, agrees:
When most people envision giving no fucks whatsoever, they envision a kind of perfect and serene indifference to everything, a calm that weathers all storms. This is misguided. There’s absolutely nothing admirable or confident about indifference… In fact, indifferent people often attempt to be indifferent because in reality they actually give too many fucks. They are afraid of the world and the repercussions of their own choices. Therefore, they make none. They hide in a grey emotionless pit of their own making, self-absorbed and self-pitied, perpetually distracting themselves from this unfortunate thing demanding their time and energy called life.
As I finished that essay a second time, all I could think was: Well, fuck.
I awoke the next day — a Saturday — alone and embarrassed, certain that I was back at square one: paralyzed by giving too many fucks, with no idea what I needed to do to start giving the right amount about the right sort of things. Depression set in, the familiar claustrophobic sense that my room was but one of those drawers that morticians slide dead people inside of.
Desperate, I decided to go on my own journey for Truth. I didn’t have six years like Siddhartha, but I did have a Saturday with nothing else to do. I sat up in bed and considered my options. Where could I go to be alone and find something essential? That’s when it hit me: For the first time in my life, I’d go on a hike, alone. Perhaps I’d find wisdom by consulting nature. I settled on the only San Francisco hiking trail I could reach via a $15 Uber: Land’s End.
Things didn’t start well. The parking lot at the trailhead was packed, and starting down the main path meant wading through a solid river of tourists bearing backpacks and cameras as intricate as scuba gear. Twice, I nearly stepped on a small child. I began to think I’d made a mistake.
Then, however, I found a hidden tributary careening off the beaten path. It availed a dirt trail shaded by a canopy of cypress and lined by roots and rocks. It felt like the sort of topography which might house talking foxes or hobbits. I continued down it.
Eventually, I emerged from the trees onto a bluff overlooking a secluded beach — a cove of seashells and beechwood, rocks and puddles, flanked by trees clinging to the eroding hillside. Entranced, I sat on a tree stump and took it all in. The sky was the same melancholic, marbled gray as the ocean, the fog so thick I couldn’t see the bridge. I could taste the salt in the air, feel the spit of the Pacific on my skin. I listened to the waves, that orchestral breathing, so resonant you could lean your weight into it. A few hundred yards ahead, rising out of the water to scrape the fog, three rocky outcrops bore the ocean’s relentless spite.
It felt for a moment as if I’d stepped into a new world, a small corner of California insulated from all the garrulous noise and chaos. It was objectively beautiful, tranquil, serene. Here, though, is what was running through my head as I sat there amid all that quiet beauty: I love California… I wish Alex were here… Man, walking back up is going to be a bitch.
I was not thinking, Wow, I’ve discovered the secret to not giving any fucks.
At first, this seemed a little disappointing, but now I think the inconclusiveness of my soul-searching is sort of the point. To give the right amount of fucks about the right things at all times is probably impossible. It’s something we can strive for, but never truly attain.
The important thing, I think, is the striving. For it’s in that effort that we combat our worst propensities, become better people, and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. Maybe we’ll never achieve enlightenment or find total inner peace, but we can at least learn to drink rosé and enjoy brunch on a beautiful summer day.
I might still misunderstand Buddhism, but that feels like a good starting place for me.