Tuesday September 16, 2008
Sitting on the bus today, I passed a sign reading “Is this it?” This is, no doubt a perplexing question, and after a little reflection I can only think that the most sensible answer is “Is what what?”, so prompting a long game of Questions, after the fashion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. A second glance revealed that the question was part of an advertising campaign for the Alpha Course, a short course that aims, according to its publicity material, to examine that question of all questions, that of the Meaning of Life, from a Christian perspective. And if you think that this cryptic question “Is this it?” can be best addressed by going on to ask things like “How does God guide us?” and “Who is Jesus?” (questions that, one suspects, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might dismiss as fouls, on the grounds of being non-sequiturs), then my best advice to you is that you should renounce this heathen tosh right away, and you should head off to the Alpha Course website where you will waste no more of your precious time.
Still here? Good. Let me continue. This question “Is this is?” is an intriguing one, one that seems to be born out of a dissatisfaction with life and it is this dissatisfaction that I am interested in. Dissatisfaction is perhaps something that we all experience and, whilst dissatisfaction may not be the most pleasant state to be in, it is a state that is not without its virtues. Absolute satisfaction, after all, looks very like smugness, and there is a good case to be made for the claim that there is much in the world that we should not be satisfied with. If “Is this it?” is a question born of dissatisfaction, then there are two questions that can be asked in response that do not, I think, qualify as fouls in the game of Questions: firstly, what are the objects of our dissatisfaction?; and secondly, having established what these objects are, what are the most appropriate responses to these various dissatisfactions?
I think it can be useful to break down the sense of dissatisfaction in this kind of analytical fashion, because there are different classes of objects of dissatisfaction that require different responses. Let us say I am dissatisfied with my ability to play the piano. This may be amenable to being broken down. Firstly, I might be dissatisfied by my technique. Secondly, I might be dissatisfied that my fingers are too short. Thirdly, I might be dissatisfied that I did not start playing when I was five years old, like my friend Sergei did. In the first case, I can respond by practising, getting myself some classes and so on; in the second case, finger extensions being out of the question, I can respond by adapting my technique to my hands, by recognising that, for better of worse, these are my fingers, and they are all I’ve got; and thirdly, I can respond with the recognition that I am not Sergei, that we have had different life-trajectories and that the time spent being miserable about what didn’t happen a few decades ago would be better spent playing my scales.
There’s something here rather like Stoic practice. Or even (but don’t tell anyone I said this, as I don’t want to get a reputation) Buddhist practice. The Stoic Epictetus writes that we should distinguish between those things that are “up to us” and those things that are not up to us. The former, we can do something about. But we should train ourselves (and it does, no doubt, take a fair bit of training!) to not permit the latter to disturb us, because there is nothing we can do about them.
When it comes to the question “Is this it?” this kind of analytical approach seems to be useful. What, precisely, are the sources of our dissatisfaction when we ask this question? We might just be fed up with the bus journey. We might have a more existential, nagging dissatisfaction that we can’t quite put into words. We might be dissatisfied that we are one day going to die. We might want to upgrade our life in one way or another (new job, new partner, new house, new cat, new car…). Or our dissatisfaction may be ethical in character – we really should not have said what we said last night. And when we have taken such an analytical approach, it is more possible to see the kinds of resources that we have at our disposal to respond to these myriad dissatisfactions. This does not necessarily mean that we should obliterate the objects of our dissatisfaction – some may not be amenable to obliteration (however much we may be dissatisfied with death, for example, it is going to happen); instead it means having an intelligent response to the particular dissatisfaction with which we are faced and to how we can best respond given the resources at our disposal.
This, I think, is a long way from the usual response to this question of “Is this it?”, which is to bundle up all dissatisfaction in one unexamined ball and then, because we feel grudgingly about life as a whole, to conjure up vague, gauzy metaphysical entities – other realms, promises of overcoming that which cannot be overcome (our being as physical, biological, temporal creatures, for example) or other convenient fictions, fictions that betray a lack of appreciation of the richness and depth of the life we find ourselves in the midst of. Such a response is, I think, unhelpful precisely because it obscures the very things that may allow us to best respond to the dissatisfactions we encounter in our lives. Seeing dissatisfaction as something that is multiple and that therefore does not demand a single response, allows us to see it as a part of the fabric of our lives. It is not an existential problem to be overcome once and for all, but a continual call to look at the fine grain of our existence.
As I sat on the bus thinking about the question Is this it? I found myself thinking that all the evidence points to the answer: Very probably, yes – at least in the sense of there being no other metaphysical realms to call upon, there being only this life and this world with its many shortcomings, demanding a constant response. But then I thought, Should we feel short-changed? When one starts to pay closer attention the nature of our many dissatisfactions, then the answer seems obvious: almost certainly, no. For my hunch – a hunch borne out to some degree by experience – is this: that the more closely and analytically we look at the dissatisfactions of our life, the more we become aware of the resources that we have to respond to them, here in the world. And responding to the nuance and the fine grain of our lives in this way seems, although not absolutely so, to be a deeply satisfying way of living.
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