On the Experience of Using a Guest Pass at an Elite Gym

You used to comfort yourself with the knowledge that social media is fake. But now the beautiful people are here, in person, all around you, and there is no denying any of it. They perform movements you’ve never conceived of, loaded with weights you never thought possible.

Are they on steroids? Some of them, sure. But the better question is, why do you need them to be? Would it be so unacceptable if there simply were un-enhanced humans of this caliber walking the earth?

You’ve spent years decrying the illusory nature of snapchat filters. The judgment inherent in every act of self-promotion. The body-dysmorphia incurred by exposure to this super-stimulating hellscape.

It was about protecting teen girls, ostensibly. But you haven’t met one in years, nevermind cared for their wellbeing. No, this was always about your needs. And a fear, whispered only in darkness, that these beautiful people might actually be out there.

And now here they are in all their glory. Sweat shimmering in a way baby oil cannot. Sculpted abs popping out of midriff-cuts, deltoids bulging out of tank tops, leggings so tight you could see cellulite, if anyone had any.

Your mind flits from one possibility to another. Sure, he’s bigger than you are, but is he smarter? Is his work as socially impactful? Is he as mindful, aware, and empathetic? Those are the qualities after all, which truly determine one’s value in life. But oh how shameful to even ask these questions. To cannibalize so readily every aspect of your character merely to shield your ego. To set ablaze every virtue you may claim to possess at the altar of the vain god.

This itch not to be outdone served you well, but only in smaller enclaves. You could be the best in your grade, your school, maybe even the country. But to want to be the best everywhere at everything demands a reconfiguration not only of your life but of the value system underlying it. Instead of working harder, you do a perverse kind of emotional labor to explain why, actually, this is fine.

How can one possibly live under these conditions? Let’s not ask merely rhetorically.

One: Return to the cradle of subculture society. Go all-in on your hobby. Ignore the chads and study the blade. Develop allegiance to an all encompassing single-axis theory of value. If they are better than you, it can’t be in a way that matters, and so “mattering” ends up taking the hit.

Two: Develop a specific combination of traits so that for any 1:1 comparison, you can always find a way to come out ahead. Become a polymath. Find your niche at the intersection of an increasingly contorted Venn diagram. Convince yourself that this combination of traits is coherent as a value system.

Three: Do this dynamically and on the fly, deciding only at the moment of battle which axis is the one that really matters. Meet someone bigger? Decide you care about the intellect. Meet someone smarter? Tell them to touch grass. Charizard will always be weak to water, but he can also learn Thunder Punch and counter right back. Adapt to any and all phenomena like a late throw in rock-paper-scissors.

Those are strategies for dealing with the mess, but what if there’s something better? A way to outright escape. To opt-out. You could stop making this kind of comparison in the first place. Accept yourself simply for who you are. Find peace.

Next time you see someone better, just think to yourself “Ha! They don’t even realize that you don’t have to compete”. Just be above it all. And hey, maybe that could be your thing.

Unpleasant Experiences Considered Pretty Fun

There’s a tradition of identifying aberrant behavior, posing a mystery around its existence, and using that as a jumping off point for speculative theories on human nature. From Scott’s review of Sadly, Porn:

Why do people have fetishes which seem contrary to common sense (submission, humiliation, cuckoldry, etc)?.. Teach writes: “Porn doesn’t depict fetishes - porn is your fetish.” This seems totally insane and also I can’t rule it out.

This makes for engaging writing, and it’s a good trick to generate suspense, but it only works if you assume that the behavior in question requires an explanation. That is, if you assume that behavior “contrary to common sense” is at all uncommon.

I don’t think this is true. Across domains and cultural contexts, people have all sorts of weird preferences, and engaging in at least a few of these seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Consider:

  • Spicy food made with capsaicin, which literally evolved in plants to prevent animals from eating them.
  • Scary movies
  • Liquor which burns your throat.
  • Exercise in general, including weightlifting which literally tears your muscles, hobbies like rock climbing which routinely involve torn skin, all combat sports.
  • Very bitter beers
  • Sad music, movies, books
  • Strongly fermented foods like natto (fermented soybeans often described as having a “booger-like texture”), blue cheese, garum (made by letting fish intestines rot in the sun), and so on
  • Etc.

And ask yourself, does the existence of submission as a fetish really require a particular explanation? Is it so mysterious that I should be willing to accept a highly speculative hypothesis over the default stance that people often enjoy things which don’t seem (to me) intuitively pleasant?

Some of you read the above list and though “you nerd, liquor is good, you just have to learn to appreciate it”. But that’s precisely the point! I do like many of these things, and I expect you do too.

The popular explanations fall into veins like:

  • “People just pretend to enjoy those things in order to seem manly/interesting/cultured.”
  • “People just pretend to have weird fetishes to have sex with other people who either genuinely have those fetishes, or are just playing the same game.”
  • “People engage in unpleasant things as a means to an end. No one likes running, they like endorphins.”

And sure! That might be true. My point isn’t that people are self-defeating and hate pleasure (though this also sometimes seems true), or that the existence of these preferences doesn’t provide an insight into human nature. It’s that “enjoying seemingly unpleasant things” seems to me nearly universal, such that any particular instance of it doesn’t merit much psychoanalysis.

The Repugnant Conclusion Isn't

There is nothing bad in each of these lives; but there is little happiness, and little else that is good. The people in Z never suffer; but all they have is muzak and potatoes.

– Derek Parfit, Overpopulation and the Quality of Life

The image of World Z provokes an unsettling cognitive dissonance. It forces us to confront the possibility that any degree of happiness, no matter how magnificent, can be outweighed by arbitrarily small pleasures multiplied across a sufficiently large population. Imagining this kind of mediocrity, we can hardly endorse it over a small yet ecstatic utopia.

And yet, I feel strongly that this perceived tension is due entirely to a failure of the imagination. When Parfit says “muzak and potatoes”, perhaps you conjure up the image of a medieval European peasant, covered in mud, living in squalor, only just barely getting by.

But read again more carefully: “There is nothing bad in each of these lives”.

Although it sounds mundane, I contend that this is nearly incomprehensible. Can you actually imagine what it would be like to never have anything bad happen to you? We don’t describe such a as mediocre, we describe it as “charmed” or “overwhelmingly privileged”.

After all, each of our lives are absolutely filled with bad things. Some of these are obvious (injury, illness, the loss of a loved one), but mostly they just exist as a kind of dull background pain we’ve grown to accept. The bad things are, as Simone Weil put it, the “countless horrors which lie beyond tears”.

In stark contrast, consider Parfit’s vision of World Z both seriously and literally.

These are lives with no pain, no loneliness or depression, no loss or fear, no anxiety, no aging, no disease, nor decay. Not ever a single moment of sorrow. These are lives free entirely from every minor ache and cramp, from desire, from jealousy, from greed, and from every other sin that poisons the heart. Free from the million ills that plague and poke at ordinary people.

It is thus less the world of peasants, and closer to that of subdued paradise. The closest analog we can imagine is perhaps a Buddhist sanctuary, each member so permanently, universally and profoundly enlightened that they no longer experience suffering of any kind.

And that’s not all! Parfit further tells us that their lives are net positive. And so in addition to never experiencing any unpleasantness of any degree, they also experience simple pleasures. A “little happiness”, small nearly to the point of nothingness, yet enough to tip the scales. Perhaps the warmth of basking under a beam of sun, the gentle nourishment of simple meals, or just the low-level background satisfaction of a slow Sunday morning.

Properly construed, that is the world Parfit would have us imagine. Not a mediocre world of “muzak and potatoes”, but a kind of tranquil nirvana beyond pain. And that is a world I have no problem endorsing.

Coda and part II