Friday, June 9, 2017

Living the Moment

Today, I found myself thinking of this passage from C.S. Lewis's essay "On Stories":

Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas – homecoming, reunion with a beloved – similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so – well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?

I think about this a lot. Generally, in my writing and talking, I try to be upbeat and encouraging, but sometimes I feel myself thinking about deep matters where honesty makes it hard to be upbeat.

For instance, take this poem by Philip Larkin, not entirely irrelevant to my subject:
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes away from death -
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.

How awful-- and yet, how much truth is enunciated here! But does saying it do anybody any good?

Today I found myself thinking about the difficulty of being lost in the moment, the sense of restlessness and divided attention that seems to accompany consciousness itself.

I use the phrase "seems to" because claiming this as a universal characteristic of consciousness may be too strong. Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps it's just our internet-distracted age. (But before that we were TV distracted...) On the whole, however, I am inclined to think that everybody experiences this to some degree.

But perhaps I experience it to an unusual degree. I remember being extraordinarily bored in my childhood, whereas most (or many people) seem to recall their childhood as idyllic and full of fun. There were moments of pure ecstasy, of course, but they seemed to exist outside time rather than within time.

The point C.S. Lewis makes about theme and story is very relevant to my experience of playing with toys. I was greedy for toys but I always found playing with them difficult. I think it was because of my high standards. I wanted to come up with proper stories, stories that had a structure and a climax and twists. I couldn't just smash them together and make up ad hoc adventures like other kids seemed to do.

Well, I no longer suffer from constant boredom like I did in my childhood. But I do find it very hard to live in the moment, to devote myself completely to what I'm doing and not to be thinking of the next thing, or at least something else. I suffer from this all the time. I suffer from it at Mass and during prayer, but also on almost every other occasion.

In fact, the thing that got me writing this blog post was the realization that writing itself is one of the few activities during which I feel completely invested in what I'm doing-- one of the few activities in which I can "lose myself", to use the common phrase. (Perhaps "find myself" would be a better one.) Maybe my mind works at eighty-five words a minute, which is my typing speed.

What other activities fall into this category? A really good conversation is one. Low-intensity activities, such as putting up Christmas decorations or cutting articles out of newspapers, while watching or listening to something else, is another. But aside from that...although I am a glutton, even eating and drinking don't fall into this category. Although I love movies, watching movies doesn't either. I feel restless even when watching movies. I love poetry, but reading poetry certainly doesn't fit into this category-- reading poetry is hard work, the pay-off comes when the poetry enters into your memory. Poetry, like so many of the things I love, is somehow outside time. As for reading in general, I've always envied "voracious readers" who can read for hour after hour. I can't really read more than twenty minutes at a time.

Perhaps this explains my love of tradition. Tradition is something else outside time. But it certainly explains my love of writing, and my gratitude that people read what I write here.

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