‘I don’t have to’
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Korean friends and conversation partners are shocked when I tell them I never feel stress. When some challenge me, I just say I’m a hedonist in search of pleasure. When doubters probe deeper, I confess: “I never feel stress because I know I am going to die one day.”
As if reading a script, most say that “everyone” knows that. I think I was eight years old when the reality of death hit me. I had many sleepless nights when I realized I would be dead forever.
The reality of death was terrifying—but also liberating, energizing, a great motivator for me. I happily burn the candle at both ends, recognizing my fire will be completely extinguished one day. Quoting Bon Jovi, I tell people, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I won’t beat death but every day is a celebration of being alive, to “live life, like it’s the last day of school,” as the Wylde Bunch sang.
When I was young, I remember hearing older relatives and friends say, “I ain’t got to do nothing but stay black and die.” It dates back (in print) to “Necessity,” a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-67), in which he wrote, “I don’t have to do nothing, but eat, drink, stay black and die.”
I have heard other variations of it (paying taxes or using the bathroom). In Hughes’ poem, the speaker asserts his defiance, but then reflects on his situation ― living in a small room owned by a landlady who can raise his rent. He concluded he must work in order to support himself.
I had my own internal conflict until I read David Kelly’s essay “I don’t have to.” Kelly, an Objectivist philosopher, recommended asking “Do I want to” instead of thinking “I have to.” It changed the way I talk. I began cursing when I caught myself saying, “I have to (fill-in-the-blank).”
“I ain’t got to do nothing but stay black and die” is still in me, as well as “you ain’t the boss of me.” But they now feel defensive. “I want to,” “I will” “I don’t have to” “I am going to” are reminders to myself to assert my individual autonomy to peacefully live my life as I choose.
Some people, including conspiracy theorists, who know about my professional career in America ask why I am so happy running a small little organization helping North Korean refugees. Back when I was a think tank analyst in the U.S., I remember reading about Warren Brown, a popular Washington, D.C. lawyer who quit his secure government job to open a small bakery. I’ve read about other cases of people walking away from the rat race. These days, when people ask “What do you do for a living,” I reply: “As I please.” (I heard that from a friend who also dropped out of the rat race.)
Korean friends are more impressed when I quote Steve Jobs: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’” Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute recently suggested people should think about death to“remorselessly root out activities, small and large, that don’t pass the ‘last-year test.”
I am for freedom and doing practical things before I die. Many “know” they will die, but act like they will live forever, debating issues eternally, talking, talking, talking.
When Koreans ask if I enjoy being in Korea, I say, “I’m still here. If I stop enjoying it, then I will leave.” Two years ago, I was offered what seemed to be a dream job back in the USA, but I was enjoying my activities here (paying me much less), so I stayed.
My carefree approach is in conflict with Korea’s emphasis on duty and responsibility. Peacefully doing what you want without considering the group often seems to be an affront.
Years ago, an older Korean man told me that I couldn’t go through life eating only what I want. After he told me a second time, I thought about quoting Langston Hughes. Instead, I politely informed him that I don’t have to eat everything on my plate (or at the table). I have been less diplomatically lately, telling people, “My plate, my way; your plate, your way.” I’m no longer an eight-year old who must eat his vegetables so the kids in Africa won’t starve (I got a whipping for making the same point when I was young, that maybe another reason death was on my mind).
But that is a lot to tell conversation partners talking about overcoming stress. So I just tell them that I am a hedonist who wants to enjoy every minute I am alive, so I don’t have time for stress.
The writer is co-editor of “Educational Freedom in Urban America: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education.” He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu