Monday, July 26, 2021

Learning to Live

They proposed mapping out a perfect day, and I drew a really frightening blank. A perfect day? I didn't even know how to imagine a good day. 

"Well, there's your problem, right there."

All right. In my perfect day, there are three work sessions. In the first, I work directly on the Thing. In the second, I work indirectly on the Thing. And in the third I work on something deliberately far afield from the Thing, looking for the serendipitous finds that will eventually fertilize the first two sessions.

In between, I take care of business. Make my food and eat my food. exercise. Do laundry. Go to work. Do a massage every once in a while. Find the perfect sun hat. Dally. Things like that.

The alert reader will have noticed that all this depends on the Thing. On the Thing existing, and on knowing what it is.

Now, maybe there's my problem, right there, and maybe not. I am suspicious. Is that really the question? What is my mission? That's the "meaning of life" move, and I think it's usually a misdirection. "What's the meaning of life?" people ask, when what they really mean is "I'm tired of doing the dishes." Mark Manson avers that life is about having fun and solving problems: and that it's not really that hard to figure out what fun is available or what problems are pressing. It's only difficult when you're terrified by all the fun, or when you believe all the problems are insoluble. Then, and only then, do you go about, lugubriously and portentously, looking for life's meaning. (And at no time, I note in passing, could you be less qualified to establish what it is.)  Here could follow a whole disquisition on "the meaning of life" assuming a Creator who meant us to do this and not to do that, and how suspiciously that looks like the intellectual move of a child desperate to please an imaginary parent. But maybe not today.

The practice, maybe -- I'm speculating here -- the practice might be discovering more fun activities, and trading insoluble problems for soluble ones.


I walked, and said to myself, "the truth of the matter is that I don't know how to live," which is true enough. But that's hardly something new: I have never known how to live. What of that? The fact is that I've spent most of my life desperately evading authorities who wanted to coerce me into doing things I didn't want to do. I've outrun all authorities, now. I'm jogging along comfortably. No one's going to make me do anything. The fact that I haven't learned how to live -- how is that my fault? How is that surprising? I've been on the run. Of course I haven't learned how to live. What am I, Count Tolstoy, or Prince Siddhartha? Am I a man who started life with the resources to make it new? I hit the ground running with a pack of hounds after me. I should give myself some credit. 

People who know how to live work in groups, I mean really work, digging up roots or building weirs or hunting difficult prey. They dance, not because they are good at dancing (though they are) but because dancing is what you do. Their feet strike the ground in time with the drums, and the moon glistens on someone's shoulder and flashes on the curve of their cheek. So I hear. How would I know? That's not what I've been doing. I've been busy avoiding work details and team-building events. I've been learning to keep a low profile, and to live on very little. I've been designing priest holes and bomb cellars, in my spare time, for inclusion in prospective home designs. The art of life has not been an item on my daily agenda.


As so often, for me, my real problem here is not the task, but my conviction that the task ought to be easy, or even that it ought already to be done; and the way to get unstuck is simply to jettison the conviction. It isn't easy -- wiser and more learned people than I have found it impossible -- and whether it should already be done or not, it's not done, which only means that it needs doing. 


I have the enormous advantage, now, of being sixty-three, which is the precise age at which one discovers that one will never make oneself new. Whatever I make will be made with the materials at hand: I am a wary, slow-processing, obstinate man who requires a lot of transition time -- who likes to wake up before the sun, and to have a couple hours to get used to the idea that a new day is underway, before having to cope with broad daylight. I'm not going to magically turn into anything else. Turning myself into an ideal human being -- decisive, quick-witted, and flexible -- now that, that would be a task to inspire despair. But I don't have to do that. I only need to find more fun within my measure, and to take on problems of reasonable scope. Everything else, everything else I can let fall away. I can let it drift away in my slow, dark wake.


Which is not to say that I am not in need of redemption. Oh no, I am not saying that. Not to say that I don't need a visionary journey, which involves a substantial risk of never returning. I do need, as Paul Simon would say, a shot of redemption. But don't confuse that with learning to live. They're two different tasks: they accomplish two different things. Don't get muddled.


Pascale Parinda said...

Oh my friend. We have so little (besides our age) precisely in common, and yet you so often speak for me. Thank you.

am said...

Thank you. Certainly do appreciate your meditations. Had to look up the word "redemption." Of course, I've heard it all my life. But what is it? After reading Google's definition, my first thoughts are about redeeming myself by choosing to love myself, no matter how imperfectly. Funny that this was the quote for the day:

To express your courage outwardly is to concern yourself with death. To express courage inwardly is to encounter life (Lao-Tzu)

To each one's own, it's all unknown -- Bob

Sabine said...

Thank you, much to think here. Having muddled through to my 63rd year, too, I have no wish to actually learn to live, learning as such yes, always, but living, I just do on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. If anything, that's not a skill I could learn, only experience. maybe it's my upbringing, the postwar protestant ethics of becoming/always doing good again, that I - naturally - had to rebel.

There was a time when I studied how children learn, from the basics like understanding why potty training to abstract thinking. I remember the tests we performed (on us students) to determine when the brain can abstract (12 or 16 or 20 objects in four colours, four shapes, three thicknesses - to be sorted in three equal groups by characteristics, go on: how do you do it?) and the ease that comes to the mind when it "clicks". That's the learning. The rest is, according to the man I live with, adapting, forgetting, remembering, getting on with it.

Laura Grace Weldon said...

I really resonate with all of this. I'm coming to believe it also has to do with unlearning. I'm finally getting better at letting my earnestly hopeful and quietly playful self live without apology, better at redefining "lazy" as "mindful," better at giving coercion the finger. Whether I unmuddle or revel in muddle-ry, I'm here for it all.

Marly Youmans said...

I wish you a day of joy with your triune Thing.

Dale said...

Thanks all!

I am credibly informed (and do in part believe it) that Paul Simon actually said "a shot at redemption." But to me "a shot of redemption" is much more poignant: it's the irritable mental shrug of a man who can endure neither his ills nor their remedies: it shows the speaker in a not-very-flattering light. In the Prufrock vein.