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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Phillips’

13 JULY, 2015

How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

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“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter. “Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. And yet, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.

Kindness has become “our forbidden pleasure.”

So argue psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor in the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness (public library).

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

Taylor and Phillips write:

The kind life — the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness…

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times — in large part thanks to Emerson — did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success. The need for belonging has become an intolerable manifestation of vulnerability — we’ve stopped believing in our own kindness and the merits of mutual belonging, producing what poet and philosopher David Whyte has elegantly termed “our sense of slight woundedness.” On a mission to examine “when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation,” Taylor and Phillips write:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names — sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy… The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,” the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from 'The Well of Being.' Click image for more.

Perhaps because open-heartedness is impossible without vulnerability — an open heart is an aperture through which the world can enter us, but also one through which exploitive and cruel forces can penetrate the softest core of who we are without obstruction — the original meaning of and longing for kindness has been calcified by our impulse for armoring and self-protection. Taylor and Phillips write:

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympathetic because of our kind-ness… And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect” for personal status has become a leading value.

And yet despite our resistance to kindness, some deeper, dormant part of us still registers it, still cringes upon encountering its absence. This paradoxical relationship with kindness, perhaps more so than anything else, explains the “outrage culture” of the internet:

We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Embedded in our ambivalence about kindness is a special sort of psychological self-sabotage — by denying our own kind impulses, we also deny ourselves the powerful pleasure our acts of kindness produce. Taylor and Phillips consider how, given our natural inclination for kindness, we end up cheating ourselves of this deep spiritual reward:

The forms kindness can take … are partly learned from the societies in which we grow up, and so can be unlearned or badly taught or resisted… Children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Picking up where Rousseau left off a quarter millennium ago, Phillips and Taylor consider what it takes to nourish our natural benevolence, asserting that it must begin with embracing the very vulnerability from which kindness springs:

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

At some point in our lives, however, vulnerability becomes a threat and a trauma. Phillips and Taylor trace the developmental origin of that shift:

The child’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgment of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern (“How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care of me?”), which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern — and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it — is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call self-sufficiency, and when we want to pathologize it we call it narcissism. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call failings when we are at our most frightened). Vulnerability — particularly the vulnerability we call desire — is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread.

In a sentiment that echoes Phillips’s illuminating earlier work on why developing a capacity for risk-tolerance is essential to our self-reliance, Taylor and Phillips elegantly capture the dark counterpoint to our tendency to desire safety at whatever the cost:

If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.

[…]

It is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can… Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them.

But rather than a lament, undergirding these observations is a powerful message of hope: For all of its pervasive undertones of and platforms for outrage, contemporary culture — and the digital universe that is part of it — offers fertile new soil in which to grow the natural inclinations that give rise to the pleasure of communion and kindness. Taylor and Phillips capture this beautifully:

By involving us with strangers (even with “foreigners” thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, [kindness] is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But … the child needs the adult — and his wider society — to help him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others… People have long known this, and long forgotten it. The history of kindness … tells the story of this knowing, and forgetting, and reknowing, as central to Western ideas about the good life.

In the remainder of the altogether wonderful and acutely necessary On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor explore how we can build a society that nurtures rather than corrupting our natural kindness by learning, from childhood on, to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable risks of making ourselves vulnerable enough to be kind. Complement it with Einstein on kindness, Brené Brown on the crucial difference between empathy and sympathy, Adam Smith’s underappreciated wisdom on benevolence, and George Saunders’s magnificent commencement address on the power of kindness, then revisit Phillips’s insightful mediations on balance and the necessary excesses of life and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude”.

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08 JUNE, 2015

On Being Too Much for Ourselves: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Balance and the Necessary Excesses of Life

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“There are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.”

“Something is always born of excess,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945 as she contemplated the value of emotional excess, adding: “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” And yet our compulsive pursuit of balance — take, for instance, the tyrannical notion of work/life balance — is predicated on eradicating “excess,” pitting it as a counterpoint rather than a complement to equilibrium and inner wholeness.

That paradoxical relationship is what the celebrated psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips examines in On Balance (public library) — a marvelous collection of essays on “the balancing acts that modern societies involve us in,” exploring the many myths that bedevil our beliefs about balance and impede our pursuit of it.

With an eye to John Stuart Mill’s 1834 proclamation that “there seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance, as if, because anything is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good,” Phillips writes:

The people we fall in love with we find singularly captivating, as are any of the people (or ideas) that inspire us, for better or for worse. What is strange about Mill’s simple observation is that it is the singularly captivating that tends to make us lose our balance. Mill intimates with his peculiar logic that the idea of balance can unbalance us.

Like anger, beneath which David Whyte has so poetically observed lies an indication of what really matters to us, these unbalancing acts, Phillips argues, are a vital and indicative part of our aliveness:

We should not, perhaps, underestimate our wish to lose our balance, even though it’s often easier to get up than to fall over. Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness.

Phillips considers the necessary excess of optimism and why an artificial balance is sometimes more dangerous than surrendering to such “singularly captivating” loss of steadiness:

We can only be really realistic after we have tried our optimism out. It is not always clear in which areas of our lives it is realistic (or even optimistic) to aspire to the balanced view; or indeed in which parts of our lives the balanced view helps us to get the lives that we want. Balancing acts are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In one of the most rousingly and rewardingly unbalancing essays in the book, titled “On Being Too Much for Ourselves,” Phillips considers an especially anguishing aspect of our relationship with excess, fueled largely by our pathological busyness. Phillips, who has previously explored the crucial role of “fertile solitude” in cultivating self-reliance, writes:

It is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us. And it is not unusual to feel that we really should be up to it; that there may be too much to cope with — too many demands — but that we should have the wherewithal to deal with it. Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are all beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on. One of the things people most frequently say in psychoanalysis is, ‘Perhaps I am overreacting, but . . .’; and one of the commonest complaints today is about feeling too much or feeling too little. I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important… My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. It is impossible to overreact.

Our choice of language often betrays our repressed reactions more than we realize, but never more so than in Freudian slips — those awkward moments when our words inadvertently reveal what we mean but didn’t intend to say. Phillips considers this particularly common and colorful example of overreaction:

When we make Freudian slips we try to cover our tracks by claiming that we have said more than we mean, when in fact we have meant more than we had wanted to say… We may feel like we are saying too much, but we may be saying just the right amount; adding things to the conversation that are worth talking about and trying out. We can’t decide not to make Freudian slips; but even when we use ordinary language intentionally, we often say more than we intend. If I say to you that I am a great admirer of your work, I am telling you about my greatness as well as yours; when I say, “See you tomorrow,” I am assuming I know what isn’t going to happen in the interim. Our language, without which we couldn’t imagine our lives, is too much for us in the sense that it can surprise us: we hear in it — and we say in it — more than we intend to. And more than we attend to.

Phillips looks at how our early childhood — those “years of intense feeling” — shapes our aversion to excess and gives rise to our compulsive quest for composure, control, and intentional organization with which to disguise our deep inner shame of being seen as “overreacting”:

We have all had the experience, as children, of being too much for someone; of making someone feel things that they didn’t want to feel… Everyone starts with the experience of being too much for someone else; not only with that experience, but with that experience somewhere in the mix of who one is. Before we acquire the limiting and limited excesses of language we have lived with the excesses of need. If, even only occasionally as a child, you are too much for your parents — which then means you are too much for yourself — what can you do?

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

What we do, Phillips points out, is begin to see this excess as badness — we aren’t simply “too much,” but too much of something undesirable, uncomfortable-making, and ultimately dangerous:

The child who experiences himself as being too much for his parents — all children to some extent — experiences himself as in some way harming them. And as the child’s survival depends upon his parents, or those who look after him, this puts him in mortal danger. For this reason alone it is very difficult for the child — and for the adult that he will become — to think of his too-muchness as anything other than a problem. And yet, of course, parents are there to absorb, and be absorbed in, their children’s excesses (and vice versa). Indeed, people know that they are in a relationship when they become a problem to each other (or, to put it slightly differently, if you want to have a relationship with someone you have to become a problem for them).

Nin, it turns out, was right after all — great excess is necessary for great works of art, and what greater an art than that of human relationships? Phillips captures this necessary too-muchness beautifully:

We are too much for ourselves because there is far more to us — we feel more — than we can manage.

The piercing precision of insight in the example with which Phillips illustrates this took my breath away, for one of my most vivid childhood memories is a newscast in my grandparents’ living room announcing the death of Princess Diana, which instantly sent me into an inexplicable spiral of sobbing grief for a stranger’s tragic fate. Phillips, however, argues this experience is quite explicable for the very same reasons — it bespeaks the uncomfortable too-muchness of our emotional capacity:

People didn’t overreact to the death of Diana; through the death of Diana they recognized just how much grief they were bearing, how much loss they had suffered in their lives, how they felt about the fate of young women in our culture. Indeed, grief, rather like sexuality, reminds us just how much we are too much for ourselves, how intense our loves and longings really are.

[…]

We are too much for ourselves — in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates — because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

It is in adolescence, Phillips argues, that we first begin to play with the boundaries of excess, feeling out what we might be capable of and contemplating — sometimes experiencing — its consequences. Indeed, that precipice of maturity is itself “singularly captivating” in both promise and peril. Phillips writes:

Adolescence — when children begin to have the physical capacity to murder and conceive — is our more conscious initiation into those very excesses that make us who we are; and, of course, who we might become. Adolescents are excessive compared with the children they once were and the adults they are supposed to become. But adolescence, at least for modern people, seems to be peculiarly difficult to grow out of.

Instead of growing out of it, Phillips argues, we come to fetishize it — something glaringly evident in our youth-centric, youthfulness-obsessed culture, where a dignified relationship with aging is increasingly elusive. That cult, Phillips suggests, springs from envying the very excesses of adolescence:

The contemporary idealization of adolescence is telling us something about how we manage our complicated feelings about being too much for ourselves.

[…]

Excessive behavior, in other words, is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And with this he returns to the essential what-to-do question of living with our all too human, all too vital imbalances:

Perhaps “excess” is a word we use to reassure ourselves that we can be something other than excessive. If we start off by being, at least some of the time, too much for other people, and become, in adolescence, definitively too much for other people, so much so that we have to leave them, and then become adults who are unavoidably too much for ourselves, what is to be done? Well, one thing that can be done is to find someone we are not too much for…

On Balance is a pleasurably discombobulating read in its totality. Complement it with Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life, Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and David Whyte on the true meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

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16 MARCH, 2015

In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

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Bertrand Russell, Søren Kierkegaard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Susan Sontag, Adam Phillips, Renata Adler, and more.

“I can excuse anything but boredom,” Hedy Lamarr famously quipped. It is befitting that the woman who invented the technology that laid the foundation for wifi would provide the de facto motto of the Information Age. Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.

And yet boredom is not only an adaptive emotion but a vital one — with its related faculties of contemplation, solitude, and stillness, it is essential for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, for art and science in equal measure.

When Jane Goodall set out to turn her childhood dream into reality, she spent three years squatting in the dirt to patiently perform repetitive work that required an enormous capacity for boredom — something at the root of the art of observation upon which all science rests. A capacity for boredom is equally central to the arts. Without boredom, there would be no daydreaming and no room for reflection. Without “positive constructive daydreaming,” there is no creativity; without reflection, we are no longer able to respond and instead merely react.

To be bored is to be unafraid of our interior lives — a form of moral courage central to being fully human. Gathered below are some of the most enduring and insightful meditations on boredom and its paradoxical blessings I’ve encountered over the years.

BERTRAND RUSSELL

In his 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library), British philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) turned his characteristically prescient eye to the problem of boredom, why our dread of it is a self-inflicted wound, and how our quest to eliminate it from our lives also robs us of some absolutely vital faculties.

In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement,” Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, attempt at running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Read more here.

SØREN KIERKEGAARD

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) was a man of such timeless insight and prescience that he was able to explain, nearly two centuries ago, such presently pertinent issues as the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason why we conform, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

He turned the same perceptive eye to the problem of boredom in a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), framing boredom as existential emptiness defined not by an absence of stimulation but by an absence of meaning — something that explains why we can, today more than at any other point in history, feel overstimulated but bored.

Thirty-year-old Kierkegaard bemoans his “utterly meaningless” life and writes:

How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.

He illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:

It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.

And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:

All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.

Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:

Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).

So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:

Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.

Read more here.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Long before contemporary psychologists coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to describe our compulsive consumerism and how quickly after we attain sought-after benchmarks of achievement they lose their luster, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) contemplated the role of boredom, which he defined as “the feeling of the emptiness of life,” in our eternally unsatisfying dance with satisfaction. In The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer on style and his prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he writes:

In the present age, which is intellectually impotent and remarkable for its veneration of what is bad in every form … the pantheists make bold to say that life is, as they call it, “an end-in itself.” If our existence in this world were an end-in-itself, it would be the most absurd end that was ever determined; even we ourselves or any one else might have imagined it.

Life presents itself next as a task, the task, that is, of [making a living]. If this is solved, then that which has been won becomes a burden, and involves the second task of its being got rid of in order to ward off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, is ready to fall upon any life that is secure from want. So that the first task is to win something, and the second, after the something has been won, to forget about it, otherwise it becomes a burden.

With his characteristic pessimism, he argues that the satisfaction of our needs invariably leads to boredom and “boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs,” which leaves us seeped in meaninglessness:

Man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy… If they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us — an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained… Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom.

Schopenhauer, of course, was a masterful craftsman whose main material was pessimism. One need not subscribe to the same dismal disposition to find a glimmering kernel of wisdom under the drab flesh of his ideas. For, as Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous meditation on prioritizing presence over productivity, sensory satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are very different things — only the former is finite in its attainment and thus destined for the crucible of boredom; in the pursuit of the latter, boredom is our comrade rather than enemy, the necessary stillness-ground of contemplation reels us back from our compulsive business of doing and into a deeply present state of being.

WALTER BENJAMIN

In his indispensable Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (public library), German philosopher, cultural theorist, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explores the role of boredom in the context of his larger meditation on the role of storytelling in setting wisdom apart from information. Arguing that the rise of information has precipitated the decline of storytelling, he calls out our allergy to boredom as a particularly perilous affliction of the Information Age. Half a century before its present metastasis, Benjamin admonishes against this spiritual malady:

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

Read more here.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) used her diaries as a record of her reading and rereading diet, which was extensive and voracious — she read, by her own admission, eight to ten hours a day. With her formidable intellect, she took threads of thought encountered through her reading — including the ideas of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Benjamin, all of whom she noted in her journals — and wove them into the fabric of her own ideas, which is invariably the combinatorial task of the creative mind.

In a diary entry from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

RENATA ADLER

Because boredom is such an elemental force of human life, its exploration need not be confined to nonfiction and epistemological discourse. In her 1976 novel Speedboat (public library), author and critic Renata Adler (b. October 19, 1938) captures paradoxical interplay of boredom and its counterpoint, attention:

It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. But this I know, or think I know, that idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY

Russian filmmaker and writer Andrei Tarkovsky (April 4, 1932–December 29, 1986) is one of the most influential figures in the history of cinema. Ingmar Bergman considered him the greatest director, “one who invented a new language.” His films speak to the simplest and often most difficult aspects of life with the great subtlety and elegance of that new language. In this excerpt from a vintage documentary, he explores one such aspect directly — the necessity of being alone with oneself:

Since the video subtitles convey only a selective portion of what Tarkovsky actually says — quite distractingly so — I asked my friend Julia to help with a proper transcription, which she kindly did:

What would you like to tell people?

I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

ADAM PHILLIPS

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips (b. September 19, 1954), is “What shall we do now?”

In a deeply satisfying essay titled “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

And yet the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place — commonly alleviated today, twenty years later, by sticking a digital device in the child’s hands. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips writes:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

Read more here.

* * *

For more on boredom’s sister faculties, see Alan Watts on how to live with presence, Wendell Berry on the grace of solitude, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in the modern world, then test yourself on the Boredom Proneness Scale.

Photographs: Bertrand Russell by Hulton Getty; Søren Kierkegaard by Niels Christian Kierkegaard; Arthur Schopenhauer by Jacob Seib; Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar; Renata Adler by Marilyn K. Yee; Adam Phillips by Murdo Macleod

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18 JULY, 2014

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Our Capacity for “Fertile Solitude”

By:

From teenage rebellion to self-reliance, how we learn to be alone.

“All of humanity’s problems,” the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Three centuries later, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shared his single most urgent piece of advice to the young: learn to enjoy your own company. And yet today, in the golden age of solo living, Pascal’s words ring all the more urgently true and Tarkovsky’s counsel seems all the more unattainable. The age of Social Everything makes the art of solitude appear increasingly difficult to attain, even terrifying.

Why?

The great British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips examines the psychological mechanisms and pathologies underpinning our aversion to solitude in an essay titled “On Risk and Solitude,” found in his wonderfully stimulating collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library) — the same slim, potent 1993 volume that gave us Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Phillips begins at the beginning: True to his profession, he traces our capacity for solitude — for “productive solitude” — to the formative experiences of childhood:

An affinity for solitude is comparable only to one’s affinity for certain other people. And yet one’s first experience of solitude, like one’s first experience of the other, is fraught with danger… The absence of the visible and the absence of the object; and the risk, as in dreams, that innermost thoughts will come to light. For this reason, perhaps, it is the phobia relating to solitude that for some people persists throughout life.

[…]

It is the infant waiting too long for his mother that is traveling toward death because, unattended, he is in the solitary confinement of his body. Solitude is a journey, a potentially fatal journey, for an infant in the absence of sufficient maternal care. But it is worth remembering that the infant in the dark, the infant by himself, is not only waiting for the mother. Sleep, for example, is not exclusively a state of anticipation. It is, of course, difficult to conceive in psychoanalytic terms of an absence that is not, in some way, anticipatory.

Through desire the child discovers his solitude, and through solitude his desire. He depends upon a reliable but ultimately elusive object that can appease but never finally satisfy him.

Illustration from 'The Baby Tree' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

In line with the notion of “limbic revision,” Phillips stresses the formative power of our early bonds and the importance of a psychoemotionally sound, stable, and nurturing upbringing:

The clamorously dependent infant with a sufficiently attentive mother ends up, so the normative story goes, as an adult with a capacity for solitude, for whom withdrawal is an escape not merely, or solely, from persecution, but toward a replenishing privacy. But dependence, we assume, does not simply disappear; somewhere, we think, there is an object, or the shadow of an object. So, in states of solitude what does the adult depend upon? To what does he risk entrusting himself?

[..,]

The infant depends on the mother and her care to prevent him from being out of his depth; in adolescence, as we know, this protection is both wished for and defied. Risks are taken as part of the mastery of noncompliance. One way the adolescent differentiates himself, discovers his capacity for solitude — for self-reliance that is not merely a triumph over this need for the object — is by taking and making risks. He needs, unconsciously, to endanger his body, to experiment with the representations of it, and he does this out of the most primitive form of solitude, isolation.

Phillips cites the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott — the subject of a definitive biography by Phillips — who wrote in his influential 1984 treatise Deprivation and Delinquency:

The adolescent is essentially an isolate. It is from a position of isolation that he or she launches out into what may result in relationships… The adolescent is repeating an essential phase of infancy, for the infant too is an isolate, at least until he or she has been able to establish the capacity for relating to objects that are outside magical control. The infant becomes able to recognize and to welcome the existence of objects that are not part of the infant, but this is an achievement. The adolescent repeats this struggle.

Illustration from Now To Be a Nonconformist, 1968. Click image for more.

Phillips argues that one primary domain of the teenager’s foray into risk and quest for personal agency in solitude — as any parent of a tattoo-hungry, makeup-militant, sex-crazed teenager can attest — is the body. He writes:

To the adolescent [the body] is like the analyst in the transference, the most familiar stranger. In puberty the adolescent develops what can be accurately referred to as a transference to his own body; what crystallize in adolescence, what return partly as enactment through risk, are doubts about the mother and the holding environment of infancy. These doubts are transferred on to the body, turned against it, as it begins to represent a new kind of internal environment, a more solitary one. That is to say, the adolescent begins to realize that the original mother is his body.

But risk, Phillips is careful to point out, serves a deeper purpose in the architecture of our character than mere transcendence of the body — it allows us to cultivate the very value system that defines who we are, wherein the contours of what is worth risking shape what is worth having:

Adolescence … recapitulates something of infancy but in dramatically modified form. From adolescence onward the link between risk and solitude becomes a vivid and traumatic issue. But the pressing question of risk is clearly bound up with something that certain psychoanalysts after Freud have seen as central to early development: a capacity for concern. We create risk when we endanger something we value, whenever we test the relationship between thrills and virtues. So to understand, or make conscious, what constitutes a risk for us — our own personal repertoire of risks — is an important clue about what it is that we do value.

Phillips returns to Winnicott’s theories of development and explores the relationship between risk, solitude, and creativity — or what Winnicott called “creative living” and defined as a process requiring the search for an environment or haven “that would survive the person’s most passionate destructiveness.” Phillips captures that interplay beautifully:

The risk in destructiveness is that it may not be withstood; the risk of establishing one’s solitude is the risk of one’s potential freedom.

Phillips concludes by considering what defines the best kind of solitude. Describing a state that pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later come to call flow — something the composer Tchaikovsky described vividly in an 1878 letter — Phillips writes:

A fertile solitude is a benign forgetting of the body that takes care of itself… A productive solitude, the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears, is linked with a quality of attention.

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Quoting Nietzsche’s famous words on solitude, Phillips returns to Winnicott’s work and the role of our earliest experiences in shaping our capacity for such “fertile solitude”:

Although the wish for solitude can be a denial of dependence, a capacity for solitude may be its fullest acknowledgement.

[…]

The precursor of the capacity for solitude is the child in the reliable, unimpinging presence of the mother who would cover the risks. If the mother is there, he can lose himself in a game; and optimally, in Winnicott’s work, mother is always there presiding over our solitude… For Freud, solitude could be described only as an absence, for Winnicott only as a presence. It is a significant measure of difference.

And still the question remains: to what do we risk entrusting ourselves in solitude? Although God is no longer our perpetual witness, we have our own available ghosts, our constitutive psychoanalytic fictions — the unconscious, the good internal object, the developmental process, the body and its destiny, language. Perhaps in solitude we are, as we say, simply “on our own.” Is it not, after all, the case that the patient comes to analysis to reconstitute his solitude through the other, the solitude that only he can know?

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is an excellent read in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with how to be alone.

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