A Good Life in a World of Distraction and Anxiety: A conversation in eight parts


Part I: Of Stuff and Persons                         Part III: A Life without Distractions
Part IV: On being Authentic                        Part V: On Crisis and Friendship
Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life?    Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith

Part II: A Free Prisoner

It is in this temple of excess, dedicated to stuff and distraction, in this church of eternal adolescence celebrating the allure of distraction. In this shopping mall, two friends converged to converse and find their personhood in each other. Stuff and persons, persons and stuff. How is one separate from stuff? How does one flourish as a human being in a world without challenge and infinite privilege, a world of endless anxiety and a smorgasbord of distractions? In this world where what our distractions are often outside our control.

To be Human is to be wounded

Notme: “How is someone in jail not free?” she asked rhetorically.
Me: “Well, they aren’t allowed to do what they want, and go where they want.”
Notme: “So how can a prisoner then become free?” she answered her own question: “By adapting what she wants to her situation! By not wanting to leave the cell nor the jail, and not wanting to do anything which is not allowed within the prison. Maybe she has found a social context. Maybe she wants to become the librarian! She is happy, but at the same time she is no doubt still a prisoner. Meaningness comes from breaking out of jail.”
We were leaning towards each other and speaking loudly at this point, since both the business people at the next table were yelling market lingo into their phones.
Me: “Meaningness means not being happy? Or not being content? That sounds like some self-help nonsense that you’d hear Wall Street bankers talk about: ‘Never be Satisfied’.”
The business people both suddenly became quiet on their phones as I said the last part much too loudly. I hid my embarrassment by inconspicuously blowing my nose.
Notme: “Hmmm… Yes, and no. A culture savvy adult is a free prisoner, and the confines of the prison is insecurity, that is, the fear of feeling the pain of social exclusion and embarrassment. Now, the material of these prison walls are the prejudice of the culture, which are the building blocks of the culture itself. A prejudice is a social category with an emotional association. Meaningness is found by reflecting on and deconstructing our prejudice, which we have to do together with our fellow human beings.”
Me: “Like Kant noted: that you can’t know the thing in itself, you perceive the things in the world through learned categories?”
Notme: “Yes, and when we apply these categories on people we perceive them as things. The first prejudice we have to come to terms with are those which turn ourselves into things.”
Me: “Wait, why would we see ourselves as things?”
Notme: “We see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. And we live in a hierarchical society, and hierarchies makes it impossible to see each other as persons, so the reflection we see is that of a thing. Therefore, we are not only free prisoners, but the prison is our place in a hierarchy. The jail makes it possible for us to avoid responsibility for our situation, since it is governed by those higher in the hierarchy, and if something is wrong with us, it’s their fault, and their amoral behaviour, creating an illusion that we are both free and moral. “

Well surely it’s difficult as drops are falling
Anxiously trembling heavy they hang
clings to the twig, swelling, gliding –
weight pulls them down, how they cling.
Hard to not know, scared and divided,
hard to feel the depth pull and call
still remain seated and just quiver –
it’s hard to want to stay
                        and wanting to fall.
Karin Boye

Notme: “And the jail cell is an identity, reflected in other’s eyes, and our own. We have romantic notions of who we want to be and nostalgic notions of who we were, which form this identity. And we have had imposed on us the aspirations which are available to us. Such notions as parenthood, vocations, careers, or what it means to be a man or a woman, and how to behave to fulfil these identities and gain status as those roles within our culture. It is our identities which turn us into things.”
Me: “So you need to forsake your identity to find Meaningness? Become identity-less?”
Notme: “Not quite… We cannot even perceive the world without prejudice. So forget about becoming identity-less. Meaningness comes from transformation, however. By reflecting upon our prejudice, by Sincerely Engaging with ourselves, and other people, our prejudices change and we Transform, and this Transformation stemming from reflection, this is what gives us Meaningness, of going beyond formation: trans-formation. Meaningness is this process of Sincere Engagements. To unfix the boundaries of our identity.”
I did not find this particularly useful.
Me: “You make it sound too simple! Know thyself and though shalt change! All you need to do is sit down and reflect on your prejudice and you “Transform” and find “Meaningness”? I doubt you can really do that… How do you even know what prejudice you have? And in order to know a prejudice you need some concept of that prejudice that’s based on some other prejudice… “
Notme: “It is as simple as it is hard: We do it together!”
Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people!” Cato hushed him, Nick Cave nodded gravely mumbling something that sounded as “people just ain’t no good”. David Hume read the menu.
Notme: “It is other people who challenge us. Other people never completely live up to our expectations of how they will treat us, and when they don’t, they challenge our prejudice. This makes us uncomfortable, since it risks breaking the walls of our comfortable prison and forces us to face our insecurities. Which is why ‘Hell is other people’. But without this discomfort we will never break out of our jails.”
Me: “Paradise is other people?”
Notme: “In a sense, I guess… And the more Sincerely other people are Engaging in you, the more they will challenge your prejudice and help you Sincerely Engage in yourself and them. Then it is up to you whether you embrace that engagement sincerely or react against it insecurely.”
Jean-Paul Sartre suddenly stood up and stomped off. As I turned to follow his exit I slightly stubbed the injured toe against the leg of the table, and flinched in pain.
Notme: “What happened to your leg, I saw you limping earlier?”
Me: “I hurt my big toe quite badly.”
Notme: “What happened?”
Me: “Was walking cross the square after the rain, and was about to slip so I stopped the fall by jamming the toe into the ground.”
Notme: “So to avoid the embarrassment of falling you injured yourself?”
Me: “It was a reflex. It is a bit humiliating to be wounded.”
Notme: “Seems serious, did you have it checked out? X-rayed?
Me: “Honestly, I don’t wanna know. And as long as I limp it doesn’t hurt much.”
Notme: “So you have found a comfort zone: by limping there is no pain?”
Me: “That doesn’t mean that the pain is gone, but it’s healing.”
Notme: “Yes, the pain is still there, and you have adopted your walking to it. We learn how to walk in society so to not feel the pain from our wounds. The confidence of the culture savvy is really nothing more than a limp. For the priviliged this appears as a fairly unaffected stroll, while others must move awkwardly to avoid the pain. Our wounds of insecurity only heal if we challenge them together.”
Me: “And how do we do that?”
Notme: “Discomfort is the primary emotion. We need to learn to heed our discomfort, not ignore it as we are trained to do. Not give it a shoddy paint job of distractions, pleasure, joy, entertainment, sadness. These do not make the discomfort go away, it only hides it from us. We compartmentalise. No, we need to face our discomfort, which takes courage. And then we need to reflectively and sincerely engage with it. It may be a discomfort with ourselves, or with someone else, or something in our immediate surroundings.”

Me: “But the fear is real, right? I mean, it is not just something you imagine, and as soon as you’ve overcome discomfort you’re fine…”
Notme: “Very real. Our insecurity is based on social hierarchies and norms, and whenever we break a norm we cause discomfort in the people around us. Then many want to punish us instead of facing their own discomfort, by public shaming or violence or by legal means. When we challenge norms we challenge social structures.”
Me: “Like activists?” She nodded.
Notme: “Activism is to force people to face their discomfort. In a hierarchical society, not feeling discomfort is a privilege for those who do not need to limp.”
Me: “If you say so, but my toe won’t heal if I challenge it…”
Notme: “How do you know it is healing now, when you haven’t had it checked with a doctor?”

I shrugged
Me: “What would they do? As long as I don’t strain it, it’ll probably heal by itself.” I leaned forward and lowered my voice “Between you and me, I sometimes exaggerate the limp to gain sympathy.” She immitated me by also leaning forward, and said with a whisper:
Notme: “If you always limp, how do you even know that it hasn’t already healed?”
I shrugged.

To be human is to be wounded.

Next part: A Life without Distractions

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2017

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  • Axel Cholewa

    Happy new year!

    Looking forward to the new season 🙂


  • Axel Cholewa

    R.I.P. Meaningness 🙂

    The question what to do with all the spare time once we get rid of labour is quite essential, I think. It’s interesting to realize that doing things I once would have considered arduous, e. g. getting some firewood and starting a fire in our fireplace or attaching a shelf to a wall, often make me feel more alive than a lot of things I do at work. Probably connected to the topic of alienation of labour.

    I’m excited to see how this will influence the general discussion 🙂

    • ToT

      Yes, I think that is a very important political question, whether or not we actually get rid of labour (to whatever extent), to imagine a meaningful life without it. I hope to elaborate more on that soon (but unfortunately I have trouble finding time and energy for writing given all the labouring I have committed myself to… 😉 )

      The alienation of labour is an alienation of ourselves from ourselves and Eachother. You say that you feel more alive, would you elaborate on that feeling? Do you also feel more connected to yourself through the housework? I must say that the housework I enjoy the most is the ones where I don’t need to engage much (such as doing the dishes), I do it routinely, and the chores become moments of reflection (on other things) instead, which is both energising and rewarding. Were I to put up a shelf I would need to concentrate and solve a host of problems new to me and that would take up all my attention…

      • Axel Cholewa

        I’m not sure if I feel more connected to myself, maybe. But definitely less disconnected. 😉 I feel more in the present moment. I don’t need to think in those moments.

        Lately I feel that too much thought is exactly what disconnect me from myself and others.

        This is connected (no pun intended) to physicality. Physical work is very different from mental work in that it is more wholistic, taking up concentration as well as coordination and sometimes also problem solving skills.

        So if alienation of labour means alienation from ourselves and others, does it mean that un-alienating could be done at least in part by going back to the chores of the past? This might explain that whole homemade/self made trend. A colleague just bought a pasta machine. Can you believe that? 😉