2. Resist Absentminded Busyness

eitherorThis is topic #2 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honorable (honest) relationships, and this one is about resisting absentminded busyness, taking a close read of a chapter from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or called “THE UNHAPPIEST ONE” (that link provides the chapter in pdf, should you want to read it; it’s 9.5 pages, 1.5 spaced.) If you want to learn more about Kierkegaard, this is a good starting point.

Let me start by providing the blurb presented on the Brain Pickings post. She writes:

“In a latter chapter, titled ‘The Unhappiest Man,’ he considers how we grow unhappy by fleeing from presence and busying ourselves with the constant pursuit of some as-yet unattained external goal:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.


The unhappy one is absent… It is only the person who is present to himself that is happy.

My first thought, when I saw the ‘resolution’ on the Brain Pickings post, was that this had great relevance to today’s eternally online world. How many people (including me!) talk about taking digital sabbaticals; how many talk about the fracturing of attention we experience now, with such constant competition for our eyes and ears, the way it keeps us from being present. Absentminded busyness, exactly! Of course Kierkegaard’s concern was much deeper, as I knew it necessarily would be, and not just because he was writing in the pre-electronic world. After closely reading and re-reading the chapter, I’m so curious about why this was formulated in terms of resisting absentminded busyness, because it’s a much larger subject than that. I would never have summarized it in that way.

To me, the chapter was much more about embracing reality in a mindful way. One thing that always troubled me about the way I understood mindfulness — being present in the moment — was the problem of the impossibility of catching the present, the impossibility and unreality of the eternal present. I guess one is eternally present when one is dead and time is no longer at play. But for the living, there! Ah, it’s past. There! Future becomes present becomes past in a breath. To be present in a moment includes the coming moment, the next breath, and includes the breath just exhaled, the past. And, like Faulkner, I believe the past isn’t really the past, it all exists in my cells and bones necessarily, and so therefore the past exists in my present moment. Obviously, though, there’s a way to do the past that’s bad/hard/not helpful, just as there’s a way to do the future that’s bad/hard/not helpful.

When you reflect on the past, are you present in it? Are you reflecting on a real past, or a fake one? On the day my father died, before we learned he’d died, my entire family was all but cursing him. And somehow, the moment he died, to all of them he instantly became “Saint Frank.” He did no wrong, but any wrong he may have done wasn’t his fault, it was my mother’s fault (or mine). I looked at them in bewilderment: who is this person you’re grieving? I never met him, and I knew him my whole 23 years of life. If your marriage ends and you reflect on it, are you only pulling out the happy bits (or the unhappy bits) and letting that be the thing you are remembering? In both of those examples, the person reflecting is dwelling on an unreal past in which he or she didn’t live.

When you anticipate the future, are you present in it? Is it a present with any connection to you at all? Maybe it’s entirely bleak, or maybe it’s entirely rosy, but is it connected to you? The future is entirely about hope, whether it’s a lack or abundance, but it’s central aspect is hope. (Think about that and see if it’s not true — I think it is.)

So the past and the future aren’t off limits to the present, as long as they are real, as long as you are (or were, or can be) present in them. As a Christian, Kierkegaard’s examples were often drawn from the Bible, and two illuminated this for me. Both of these broke my heart with their truth, and made me really get it.

  • Job, painted by Léon Bonnat -- the most agonizing painting of pain I know
    Job, painted by Léon Bonnat — the most agonizing painting of pain I know

    Job: “He lost everything, but not in one blow, for the Lord took away, and the Lord took away, and the Lord took away. The friends taught him to perceive the bitterness of loss; for the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and a foolish wife into the bargain. He lost everything, for what he kept is of no interest to us. Honor is due him, dear ~, for his gray hair and his unhappiness. He lost everything, but he had possessed it.”

Because he was present to his abundance while he had it, and because he remembered it as it was — even as that loss was so painful — he was essentially happy, even in his unhappiness. He didn’t turn against all he’d had and belittle it, diminish it; he remembered it as it was, in its joy and happiness, even though it was now a lost happiness. No sour grapes for Job.

  • The father of the prodigal son: I’m summarizing rather than quoting here. All his life, the father lived in hope that his son would return, hoping and imagining that moment. It was always possible. When the son did return, the father’s joy was overwhelmingly happy, but even casting back to his misery during his son’s absence, that pain was unhappy but contained happiness because of his hope. If his son were dead but the father persisted in hoping or imagining that one day the son would come back, that hope would be miserable. (My aunt believed that my father was just on a business trip in Phoenix for the years between his death and hers, and that he’d come back — a perfect example of this.)

So my understanding of this ‘resolution’ is quite different from “resist absentminded busyness.” I guess I would instead summarize it as “experience what is actually happening,” past present and future. Maybe I’m biased to interpret it this way; when my life fell completely apart at the end of 2012, for months I felt every bit of the pain of it – on purpose. I remember thinking that I felt devastated because my life had been devastated. The feeling was appropriate. My heart felt so broken because my marriage had ended and I had to leave a place I loved and my granddaughter died and my daughter and her husband suffered the worst possible blow and I couldn’t do one thing to ease their pain. So of course my heart felt broken, it was entirely appropriate. For some reason I decided not to act otherwise, not to distract myself, not to reframe it, but to feel what was really happening because it was really happening. It was agony, and at times I wondered if it was a foolish thing to be doing because it hurt so bad it often felt unbearable, but I’m glad I did it. I learned that that much pain won’t kill me, even if it feels like it will. I learned that I’m strong, and I wouldn’t have learned that if I’d run away and lied to myself about it. And weirdly, there was a kind of pleasure in feeling what was true, even though it was agony, just because it was true. It involves a willingness to allow and hold complexity — my marriage contained terribleness and goodness, and I remembered both. That was true.

So in this framework, living in the present moment allows me the hope of the future as long as I am present in that future in a real way. Living in the present allows me my memories as long as they are as close to their reality as possible and not rewritten. All three instants of time — past, present, future — might be unhappy, but if they are real and true, I am a happy person. There is an integrity to accepting what is. It sounds strange, and I think it’s a subtle idea, but I think it’s deeply true. The defense mechanisms that Freud described are ways of coping with difficult experiences, and not bad in and of themselves; they become a problem to the degree they take you away from reality. So “No, my brother did not die, he is in Phoenix” is denial that presents serious problems, obviously. But “my brother died and I’m devastated” places you squarely in your real life and there is a kind of happiness in there if you understand this.

Anyway. I understand it very well. So I guess I’d reword the two ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about like this:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships
  2. Experience what is actually happening

And now I’m off to topic #3, living the questions, which relies on Rilke’s gorgeous collection of letters called Letters to a Young Poet. That’ll be fun.

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