I despair a little when I see bestseller books advising me that I should not give a f**k. I dislike the packaging of indifference as a ‘subtle art.’ There is nothing very admirable or creative about applied apathy. We live in communities, and indeed, on a planet, which requires us all to give more of a f**k.
Volunteers are getting harder to recruit and charity giving is falling. In “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putnam pointed to a decline of 58 percent attendance (from 1975-2000) in the once-huge service clubs such as Lions and Rotary. When I was a kid, these clubs did so many practical things to improve people’s lives, locally and globally. We now seem to be replacing action with virtue signalling, which does f**k all to help anyone.
Putnam also noted that this trend in service activity was part of an overall decline in social capital in the US, where there are 43 percent fewer family dinners and 35 percent fewer people reporting that they have friends who drop in to visit. In my volunteer life, I routinely notice this change. Australia, the lucky country that prides itself on being so matey, has far too many people who have absolutely no-one to talk to, and no-one who would notice their disappearance. They’re not living in caves. They exist in suburbia, apartment blocks, and probably in every street. They ring organisations like Lifeline, simply to engage with a human being. Forgive me if I struggle to believe that giving a f**k’ is a problem that we need to address.
But these books clearly sell in big numbers and have a fan base. In a meeting a few years ago, a colleague pushed a copy of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k across the table to me and assured me it was life changing. He has now retired and relocated to a country town. Knowing a little about how rural communities operate, I wonder how this philosophy is serving him.
Another colleague forwarded a You Tube clip about this philosophy to me, with a degree of excitement. She had found a new guru – a speaker who felt that it was empowering to decline invitations and disconnect from social ties, because she only had so many f**ks to give. I watched the clip and was appalled at the cold arrogance of the speaker, currently at ease with money, health, career, and partner, casting off people in her life the way most of us take out the rubbish. To be clear, I don’t accept every single invitation or keep every contact. We have choices and need to exercise good judgement, but how many bridges can you burn before it starts to get lonely?
Fortunately, there are other kinds of books and philosophies. I was given a copy of Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness where he writes, with his trademark wit, about things that bring him a sense of joy; from playing crazy golf (or putt-putt) to following his daily coffee making ritual. He also referenced the UN’s World Happiness Report, which has six main criteria on which it surveys countries. One, he writes, is almost shocking in its simplicity. It is having someone you can count on. Our daily existence and well-being may be improved by being a bit more neighbourly, or in short, trying a little kindness.
Bill Bailey could have done many things with time on his hands during Covid, but he chose to write an uplifting book. It will, in the words of Dickens, lighten the burdens of others, even for a short while. But I’m just glad that he gave a f**k.