Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dead Guy as Life Coach

Gurus with respectable intellects are a tough get. I found mine in Irwin Edman, Columbia University philosophy professor circa 1929. He may be dead, but he’s good.

His essay “On American Leisure” resonates now as much as it likely did for folks in flapper gear who were failing to embrace joyful, spontaneous experiences.

Seized by the American compulsion to be all you can be, they had turned leisure into another opportunity to pursue excellence, not happiness.

Here he schools me on how to put a cease-and-desist order on anxiety.
Why is it so difficult to relax and take pleasure in a moment?

The desire for speed, the desire for luxury, the desire for first place – these are indeed three deadly enemies of leisure.

As a knowledge worker, I find I can’t shut all the input valves, not because I desire all that data, but because I fear if I don’t “keep up” I will be left behind.

We have turned our idle hours into the hurried business of getting short cuts to knowledge. Outlines simply are a way of applying efficiency to culture as well as business.

You suggest that our whole culture has a means-to-an-end tinge. We read to have something clever to say at the next party, not for our own silent pleasure. We go to parties to meet superior business connections or romantic partners, not for conviviality. We see classical concerts not out of a love for the music, but to reinforce our identity as educated, classy people. What gives?

We flee to society, dull though it be, through the fear of the greater dullness of being alone.
We hurtle along at a breakneck speed, physically and spiritually, for fear of the drabness and futility we might feel if we slowed down.

What are we supposed to do then? Become hermitic monks?

One need not follow Thoreau into the wilderness to practice his isolation, nor Buddha into the desert to achieve his mediation. There is peace in a city apartment if one will but stay at home an evening to find it, and Nirvana to be found at home in one’s own mind.

What about other people?

Good conversation is certainly one of the most enlivening ways of leisure, and good conversation is something between solemnity and absurdity.

And it cannot happen when the time is structured by means-to-ends dynamics, right?

In America, of late, we have had to choose between talking on ‘subjects’ solemnly and schematically, or babbling nonsense, doing anything rather than talk. We have grown a little weary of talk that is all smart and burnished; we have grown tired, too, or talk that sounds like the overflow program of a literary club.

We are, I think, beginning to learn again the joy of conversation, a light and easy play of minds and tempers over common human themes.
Wish I knew where your acolytes hang out, sans MeetUp agendas or other overweening frames. Why is a return to reflection and genuine engagement so important?

We may talk much about the future of America, and think to measure its destiny by statistics of its educational, economic or political changes. But the outlook for our country lies in the quality of its idleness almost as much as anything else…We may still find time to live rather than time to kill.

For if we do, we shall have learned what the spiritual life really means.  For it means nothing more than those moments in experience when we have some free glint of life for its own sake, some lovely unforced glimmer of laughter or reason or love.