On the Value of a Private Life

The way I remember it, we were in a bar in the lower Haight, day drinking on Bloomsday. I was ribbing Chris about the time he spent reading literature.  I was young and at the height of my sanctimonious leftist phase. I think my argument probably went something like, “its bourgeois to spend time reading literature when you could be reading revolutionary theory”… or something like that.

Chris was a bit older than me, much smarter, and much, much more well-read. Being the good-natured friend he was, he didn’t just tell me to just fuck off. Instead he said something along the lines of, “there is value in having a private life, a life of ideas and art that exists outside the market and outside politics. There’s a value to reading something beautiful just because it’s beautiful”.

Now to you, that may seem obvious. But to me it was a revelation. And the older I get, and the more demands are put on my time, the more important it is to me to protect that space, to continue to have that private life.

For many people I know, reading and reflection, art and music, have become luxuries they no longer have the time for. If we read, we read the twitter comments on the book; or we 2x the audio book on our run. If we listen, we listen in the background, while chasing after our kids, or doing the dishes.

I’d argue that this is a mistake. That we (and by “we” I mean “I”) need to take back a bit of time for the private life. For pursuits of depth that do not appear to have any utility. I think they do have utility. I think their depth and their unmonetizable nature make them uniquely important, and I think they make us better humans.

I realize this is easier said than done. I realize I am no longer a 22-year-old kid in a bar in San Francisco.

You’re not either.

I also realize that, as a reasonably successful dude, it is easier for me to say this that it is for others. And I realize that I cannot let the pursuit of a private life put an unreasonable burden on those around me. My wife cannot be asked to mind our children while I disappear to learn Greek. But finding the moments for reflect, however brief, and putting in the effort, however modest, to remove oneself from the daily scrum, if only briefly, if only to engage with a poem for fifteen minutes before bed, is, I think, worth it and worth protecting.

Michel Foucault

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