Part III: A Life without Distractions
To be human is to be wounded.
The impeccably dressed waiter arrived at the table, gently smiling and discreetly served us our coffees and lunches. Such professionalism is a rare pleasure to experience, and in a busy mall mezzanine café at that! Her manners more than amply made up for the tardiness by which our order arrived. Almost before we had even noticed her, she was gone in a flowery whiff, leaving me with my golden brown freshly baked bread in a cloud of strong coffee fragrance which made my head buzz and stomach rumble.
Me: “I too have discovered what your so-called meaningness is, and my answer is rather different from yours.”
Notme leaned forward over her pasta.
Notme: “Really?! What is it?”
Me: “It’s to get rid of all distractions!”
Notme: “Go on…”
Me: “The question is, in a hypothetical perfect society: How does one flourish as a human being with infinite privilege and without challenges? My answer is more of a process. It’s a process for finding what matters in your life and how it matters. Through a thought experiment: By imagining that there were no distractions in your life!”
Notme: “And what do you mean by distractions?”
Me: “Anything that keeps you from being reflective. If you are poor your mind will be taken up by thoughts on money, if you are hungry you will spend your energy on getting food. Or in a wellfare state your job, and your family unit can be the distractions. Or television.”
Notme: “Isn’t that just life?”
Me: “Sure. But that is what I was trying to get at before. What many people seem to think is that meaning in life is coming from what we do; from a job or a career, or forming a family, or struggling for justice, or to make ends meet. That is how politicians keep describing the importance of jobs, that they do not only give people economic independence but also meaning.”
Me: “I often even hear people claim that in the modern welfare state, where all our needs are met, we are deprived of meaning in life. That it is not possible to find meaning without struggle. And that consumerism acts as a superficial substitute for molding our character. That we can’t grow as human beings if we do not have to overcome hardship. “
Me: “Sure, but maybe not completely. To me it is almost a paradox of the welfare state: That with all basic needs taken care of, we should all have ample opportunity to be reflective human beings. We lack excuses not to be! But that is not what seems to be happening. Instead we introduce new distractions into our lives, in order not to reflect. Voluntarily! When all our needs are taken care of and we are free from distractions, when we are really able to grab our agency and personhood! But maybe it is as you say, a culture savvy adult is scared by the idea of doing that, of the risk of feeling social pain of facing their insecurities. So instead we let consumerism work its wonders in introducing new distractions. Or some other kind of hierarchical organisation one may join may also work for re-introducing distractions into our life so that we don’t need to deal with who we are–and who other people are. I guess it is easier to treat ourselves and the others as things as you said.”
I took a bite on my baguette and was pleasantly surprised by how well the texture of the bread–a crispy flaky crust and a spongy yet brittle interior, its flavour, and smell, worked with the fresh vegetables and basil filling the bread. And that olive oil was to die for! I added some salt.
Me: “But here’s the thing, here’s what I’ve come up with. I think that when we get rid of all distractions (hypothetically), when we don’t need to worry about food and shelter, etc. and don’t need to worry about comfort or our future, when we live a life without distractions, what is left, that’s what we have to derive meaning from. To derive meaning from distractions is nothing but childplay!”
Notme: “Exactly! And the greatest distraction of all is to try to conform to a position in a cultural context.”
Me: “Maybe. And all the narratives we weave about ourselves.”
Notme: “You said it was a method, this does not seem like a method, rather as a goal to get rid of distractions and then find meaning?”
Me: “Not at all! To get rid of distractions is not possible, at least not for the most of us. No! The method is to imagine a life without distraction, and derive meaning from what we imagine is left. And then let that meaningfulness influence how we handle everything in our distraction-filled lives. Let it permeate how we conduct ourselves. We let that insight guide how we pursue a career, or how we deal with shortage of money or what other troubles and distractions life may throw at us. We deal with it in a way informed by both previous and current reflection.”
Notme: “Ah, I see! So tell me, what is then left to derive meaning from in a distraction free life?”
Me: “Well, you see, I don’t quite…” She interrupted me.
Notme: “To treat ourselves and Eachother as persons and not things! We are in perfect agreement!”
Me: “Maybe… I was going to say that whatever it is, and it could be different for each of us, it will certainly help us live a more authentic life together.”
Notme: “Being authentic is one thing, but no, that is not what we want. “
The impeccable waiter came and asked Notme if she wanted grated cheese on her spaghetti. Notme agreed, and the waiter started to grind a chunk of cheese against the grater. It appeared that this cheese had been grated before, and perfectly adopted its shape to the grater, so hardly any cheese ended up on Notme’s plate. Notme pointed this out to the waiter who shrugged and left. I don’t think she understood what Notme was telling her.
Next part: On Being Authentic
TT, Thinking of Things, 2017