Why bother doing anything at all?

Burnt-out car

I think this article by Costica Bradatan in the New York Times conflates several things in the quest for concision. However, it’s worth sharing, mainly due to the connection I make below. The article begins by talking about things that haven’t been created because a perfectionist streak in the artist fears that it will either never be good enough (or be subject to decay rending it worthless).

The author then wonders why we bother doing anything at all:

Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature (Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov or Melville’s Bartleby) are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity.

To be human is to be different from a machine. In other words, it’s OK to be a mass of contradictions. This is all very reminiscent of a book I just finished, and greatly enjoyed, entitled Out of Sheer Rage. The author, Geoff Dyer, comments:

If one could accept one’s own shortcomings, perhaps one could be happy, contented, at one, as they say, with oneself; but what if one’s principal shortocming is, precisely, this unlimited capacity to generate friction between giving in to oneself as one is one moment and the equally strong urge to re-shape and seize control of how one was at some later date?

One of the things that so terrifying about an ‘idle’ life is that it forces you to confront who you are and what you choose to do in the world. When you’re living from one notification to another, trying to juggle a million different things, there’s no time to think about the agency you have. And sometimes that’s extremely convenient. 

(An anecdotal aside: I’ve noticed a lot less graffiti and burnt-out cars in general since the advent of smartphones. I’ve no evidence either way, but perhaps our devices distract us from the lack of agency we have in the world?)

There’s no simple answer here. On the one end of the spectrum is the over-examined life, where it’s almost impossible to get started on anything because there’s so many permutations and possibilities. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the under-examined life, one that’s full of busywork. I’m guessing that there’s an Aristotelian eudaimonic golden mean in there somewhere. Or at least I hope so.

I highly recommend How to be idle by Tom Hodgkinson on all of this, if you haven’t read it. Funny and wise in equal measure!

Image via Nomad Pictures