‘Not everything is useless’, writes Josef Pieper in his counter-cultural work Leisure, The Basis of Culture. ‘which cannot be brought under the definition of the useful’. Yet, in our pragmatic society we seem to disagree, only finding value in that which can be tied to productivity or efficiency. Underfunding arts while increasing funding for economics degrees and tearing down forest to create plantations for timber are two such examples.
Chemistry, physics, medicine, banking, gardening, carpentry and cooking are valuable because they serve a clearly defined use. But there are things which, while on the surface ‘useless’, remain, in their own unique way, ‘useful’: painting, music, poetry, philosophy, and leisure. And it is leisure – in a world where everything is organised according to productivity and profit – that is most in danger of extinction, yet simultaneously the most important guardian of the inner life of the mind.
The ancients understood the importance of leisure. They worked in order to not work. That is, they worked in order to have free time afterwards. It is a mentality alien to our society, firmly believing as it does in the principle of ‘work for work’s sake’. We readily equate those who seek leisure with being idlers, sloths, or dole-bludgers. For us, productivity and busyness is the name of the game. We must always be occupied, be busy, be productive, be useful.
And how guilty we feel on our days off! When we are blessed to have a free time, or ‘leisure’, we manically try our best to keep productive: doing chores, running errands and so forth. A day not spent ‘doing’ something is a day we feel we have wasted. The mentality of busyness has so infected us that we find ourselves unable to sit still. Free time is not received as a blessing but as a curse.
We are encouraged by a culture of frenetic amusements and relentless striving to never sit quietly with ourselves. We have been trained to always remain busy. If not working 40+ hours a week, then going out drinking, shopping, clubbing, seeing friends, doing chores, or spending hours scrolling through news feeds or watching videos on YouTube. We have, to a great extent, lost the ability to sit with ourselves.
As a result, when we finally are alone with nothing but our own thoughts, we feel incredibly bored. ‘Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do’, writes William Deresiewicz in his landmark essay The End of Solitude, “’it is only the negative experience of that state’.
‘By obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation’ he continues, our culture has ‘preclude[d] one from ever discovering how to enjoy it’. We have lost something eminently important, we have lost what Thoreau called fishing ‘in the Walden pond of [our] own nature”, in sitting with ourselves and being receptive to our inner thoughts and feelings.
As Pieper notes, compared with activity, leisure is essentially the idea of non-activity, a negative, ‘receptive attitude of mind’ that consists of ‘inward calm, of silence’ and of ‘letting things happen’.
Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.
It brings to mind Paul Goodman’s 9 Types of Silence and the particular silence of passive receptivity where the ego, no longer seeking, striving, and straining, quietens down, and allows the deep substrate of our consciousness to find an opening to reveal its secrets.
We are a frantic society, uninclined (and seemingly unable) to sit still. In the pursuit of more and more; more wealth, more pleasure, more power, more experience; we have lost sight of the importance of nothing; of wanting nothing, seeking nothing, doing nothing.
We have (quite unfortunately) lost the ability to sit with ourselves and allow the quieter parts of our consciousness to speak up, something that is only possible when the conscious mind quietens down. Spending a Sunday alone in the study or lying on the lawn in the botanical gardens is an excellent place to start. Receptivity is just as important as activity, and embracing it will lead to a richer experience of life, and a fuller understanding of self. It may not be ‘useful’ in any practical sense, but just because something isn’t useful, does not mean it is useless.
When we look upon the external world and seeing a flower swaying in the breeze, two clouds gracefully combining forms, or a tiny blade of grass slipping through seams of dirt, we see beauty in the fragility of existence. Nothing is permanent and borders are permeable. Yet, inwards, we associate the same fragility as being of the order of the weak, brittle, frail or feeble. That is, in ourselves, we do not locate fragility in aesthetics, but in pragmatism, and it is considered practically useless to be fragile.
After all, so much of life demands the opposite of us. Our jobs (if you are part of the 80% of people who work in the service industry) will regularly bring us into contact with people who, despite not knowing a thing about us, will tell us where to shove our head. We will have troubles with money, with having enough time to see those whom we love, with taking offence to something our partner said; but we have things to do, places to go, and people to see. We do not have the time to allow ourselves to be deeply affected by such matters. We are, it appears, being eminently practical. We can’t work a 9-5 job, take care of the family, and prepare meals if we are busy feeling too deeply. So, we shut it down.
But in doing so, we are denying an essential part of our humanity. By not letting a problem at work, the strain of falling behind on bills, or an insult directed at us that we felt was quite true ‘get to us’, we are locking up the feeling self, telling it that it is none of its business, and thereby fragmenting ourselves. We have, most likely, a sneaking suspicion that if we were to really feel these things that they would ‘break us’ and reveal ourselves as the fragile creatures we are. Break then! Revel in your fragility, at least then you will be honest with yourself. We are afraid to allow ourselves to feel these things because it will demonstrate an essential truth that we have known all along: we are not in control and not as strong as we like to think we are. The tough guy attitude of not letting things get to us is just a game where we pretend to run the show when really, we don’t.
A healthy life is one where we can reconcile the fragments within ourselves. There is a distinction between fragments and parts. If I disassemble a watch, piece by piece, I will be left with a collection of parts that while separate, have an essential harmony and relationship with each other. If I take a hammer and smash the watch, I am left with fragments, pieces that are separate and have no working relationship with each other. Now, what we do to ourselves is similar to taking a hammer to the watch. When we tell ourselves we should not feel a certain way because it is soft, or weak, or feeble, we are taking a part of ourselves, denying it, and smashing it down. It becomes fragmented and we become increasingly unable to feel at all, because we are continually breaking the mechanics that make feeling possible. To be healthy requires us to stop fragmenting. Next time, rather than saying it is a wrong feeling or a weak feeling, simply feel and receive the message the feeling is sending you. If it shows you to be weak, fragile, and scared, so be it. Better to be honest than live an illusion of a strong self that has no need for certain feelings.
It is unfortunate that we fail to see the stories written in nature about fragility. Look at the flower. Its delightfully oversized petals balance on a stem no thicker than an ant. It does not stiffen against but instead allows itself to be swayed and swooped by the wind, it does not pretend it needs no sun to nurture it and that it can get along fine without it, but allows the sun to direct it throughout the day. The flower is clearly dependent on everything around it but revels in its interconnectedness, rather than seeing its dependence on everything else as a sign of weakness or a negation of its individuality.
Embracing fragility is paradoxically, a sign of strength. It shows you are not frightened to look at yourself as you are: as a being who is sometimes at fault, often wrong, and always needing assistance in some way or another. We say fragile people are weak because they allow things to ‘get to them’. Actually, these fragile souls are the most resilient of all because in the face of a lifetime of sorrow, pain and regret, they have still chosen to feel. To the ‘tough guys’ who hammer down on the fragile part of themselves, we must be compassionate, because in the attempt to be what was demanded of them, they found the only sensible option was to kill a part of themselves. To be fragile is, therefore, a testament to being human and should be celebrated as such.
Groucho Marx once said he would not join any club that would accept him as a member, a statement as true about club membership as it is about love.
We are all, in different degrees, broken, overwhelmed, petty, vindictive, and shallow human beings, and we know our own flaws with a depth and intensity others could only guess at. Luckily (for them) they will never have to know of the inner turmoil we experience daily; the whirlpools of self-doubt that spiral into self-loathing as we hold a mirror to our psyche and see the fractured and mean person reflected back at us. The notion that another could love someone this deformed strikes us as a bit strange.
We often have a remarkably low opinion of ourselves; one which we believe is all the more accurate the more offensive it is. Yet, as we journey through life, we chance upon people who (with either short-sightedness or exceptional clarity, we aren’t sure ourselves…) see us as someone worth spending time with. There must be something wrong with them, we tell ourselves. We know how petty, angry, divisive and mean we can be; how broken, confused, and demented we are, so what the hell is wrong with this person? Anybody who is crazy enough to love us is obviously not someone we would, or should, ever be with. Anybody who would send us an invitation to attend clearly hosts a club we would not want to belong to.
But, we are likely suffering from a slight distortion of vision. When we begin falling for someone, we can only see the good in them, often contrasted against the bad in ourselves. In what is a perverse psychological projection, we take all the terrible qualities upon ourselves while pushing all admirable qualities onto them. We forget they too are, in their own way, broken. They are not perfect. Nobody is. But, failing to realise this, we hesitate in the face of being with someone, holding onto the mistaken belief that because we are unworthy, any relationship we join would be diminished in quality simply by our presence.
In a way, we do not want the one we love to love us back. So long as we love them, we can escape ourselves. But, the moment they love us back, we are forced to look back at ourselves, and are reminded of the qualities that drove us toward them in the first place. We dislike ourselves, so if someone likes us, it doesn’t mean we are worthy of being liked, but instead, that there is something wrong with them.
Seeing only the devil in ourselves is part of the same destructive mechanism as seeing only an angel in them. We need to keep in mind that the person who likes us and we like back is equally flawed and far from a bad thing, it is an endorsement of how everyone is worthy of being loved.
What matters is not finding someone perfect (because they would be intolerable) but finding someone who accepts your flaws and can have you, in turn, accept theirs. What matters is becoming better versions of yourself in the joint project we call a relationship.
The relationship will be a small club with only two members, but it will be one where each member is highly valued. When we are accepted into this very private club, we should not agonise over how we are bringing down the quality of membership, but rejoice and perhaps even laugh about how lucky we were to find someone who despite our flaws, still wanted us to join.
The fear of intimacy is debilitating and emotionally crippling and while it is not built into us from the start, it is one’s stoic attempt to manage in the present the heartbreak of the past.
In a sense, it is not a fear of intimacy, after all, intimacy also includes being cared for and loved, and nobody is properly fearful of these things. Rather, it is a fear of the inextricable other side of intimacy: exposing oneself to another and allowing them to traverse, unsupervised, the emotional topography of our hearts, with no promise they will treat the gardens with care and consideration.
We are not born with this fear. It is a (quite reasonable) conditioned response based upon previous circumstances. Perhaps a parent packed up their things one day and never returned, perhaps a partner cheated, perhaps a dark secret confided to in a friend was used as ammunition for bullying in the schoolyard. Sources for this fear are many, but they coalesce around a single point: betrayal. With betrayal, one learns to hold back, wall off, and close up as the only means to defend against future hurts with any certainty.
This may be fine so long as we remain alone enough, taking refuge in our inner world, and receiving comfort from the fact that although we will never feel another’s love, we are protected from ever being hurt.
The fear of intimacy results in behaviours that are – perhaps unknown to those who do it – seriously self-sabotaging. Having been let down in the past, those fearful of intimacy construct walls of emotional obscurantism. ‘Nobody will breach these walls and assault my heart again’. Lacking a history of genuine and reliable love (as those fearful of intimacy often do), they do not recognise it when it arrives, and are drawn to undermine it, if only to prove to themselves that the love was not genuine or reliable in the first place.
To their credit, these tortured souls understand the inherent ambiguity of existence. Nothing is promised in advance. People may accept us as a flower, or throw us away like a weed. There is no way of divining the future. As such, they have made a choice (which we may agree or disagree with) that the candle is not worth the wick, and have declined the invitation for intimacy, if only to protect themselves from its more disastrous potentialities.
Those fearful of intimacy should not be berated for being cold, distant, or seeming unloving. Well, we could berate them, but that would only draw them further into themselves. What they need is the same thing that we all need, just perhaps with a gentler touch. They need to be shown a love that is steadfast and reliable, a compassion that is unwavering, and a tenderness that reflects the precariousness of their situation.
It requires a lot of courage (after many life lessons to do the opposite), to open up and let someone else in. That alone is an act of incredible bravery worthy of the highest honour in the pantheon of achievements in one’s life. When this courage is lacking, we can be there to provide the support and affection that was sorely missing earlier and help someone take the first tentative steps outside their personal citadel, and to reconnect with others.
It may seem counterintuitive, but talking to strangers about our deeper issues offers an opportunity to be candid and honest in ways we are unable with those whom we know well. Unlike friends or families, beyond first impressions, strangers do not have any idea about who we are, how we should act, or the types of thoughts we are meant to have or things we are meant to say. In a way, in the presence of a stranger, we can be unambiguously ourselves.
Of course, there is a time and place for this. It wouldn’t be appropriate or helpful to unload childhood trauma on the cashier at the supermarket but it would be appropriate with a psychologist. Part of the value of a psychologist is they are, to use Adam Phillip’s term, a ‘familiar stranger’, an alien to your inner world and therefore, capable of seeing you with fresh eyes. Our parents will see us through the lens of an entire lifetime of development and maturation. Our friends will see us through the lens our particular social dynamic and the certain masks we wear. But a stranger has no history, no preconceived notions, no box to put us in. They can, perhaps like no one else, really see & listen.
Unlike a parent or close friend, the stranger offers a particular kind of solace because, paradoxically, they do not really care about us. Rather than a weakness, this can actually be a strength. Uninvested in your day to day life, the stranger can give advice entirely free from any emotional attachment, sense of duty, or fear of offence. They do not need to tip toe around issues only a family member would know, or decline saying certain things because it may be hypocritical. The beauty of the stranger is precisely that they do not care and this affords them a quality of honesty and straightforwardness which is always in short supply.
Lack of intimacy is a privilege. Because they are a stranger, they have no reason to be personally invested in our emotional state. There is an opportunity, at least, for things to be said, not because they are nice but rather, because they are true. The stranger can say things without fear of resentment or vengeance, as only those without a future together can. The lack of time too, is a privilege.
In a world increasingly self-same, striking up conversations with strangers may yield some unexpected fruits and expand the horizons of possibilities. Opportunities to have meaningful conversations about deeper issues with strangers would be on a first date (freeing yourself from the banality of small talk), with a travelling foreigner, with someone sitting alone on a park bench, a lonely and perhaps despondent soul (for they always have something interesting to say) sitting alone at a bar, and of course, with those most well trained strangers who know how to simultaneously be intimate and distanced: psychologists.
Our culture exalts the lives of often quite remarkable people. Musicians who have sold millions of albums, Nobel scientists who have developed new genetic editing technology, athletes who have become the fastest, strongest, or most gymnastic; authors who have written best-selling books, or a businessperson who with skill and acumen, has become the richest person in the world. Our society is quite bereft of images that glorify the ordinary.
We also live in a society that thinks and speaks of itself as a meritocracy. The underlying assumption is that there are no barriers to self-fulfilment and realisation. With enough hard work, determination and ambition, anybody can become anything they want. If we try our hardest and (in a properly capitalist circumlocution) ‘invest’ in our ‘human capital’, we too can become exceptional human beings like those we see on TV shows, movies, and magazines.
A society focused on exceptional people, combined with a meritocratic myth, merge to instil in people a belief that they must become exceptional and if they cannot, it is entirely their fault.
We will find articles in the news about the student who achieved the highest year 12 score in the state. The journalist will detail their hard work, determination and ambition as values to be held up for emulation. Of course, that student was incredible and beat immense statistical odds to achieve what they did. But it is no more impressive (or rather, impressive in a different way) than the student who studied just as hard, worked a part time job to support their family, and achieved a reasonably good score that allowed them to enter university to study a course that will land them their dream job.
We will praise the Nobel Prize winning scientist who developed breakthrough technology. But, we will overlook the thousands of men and women who work tirelessly in the background, doing the tedious and tiresome work over months and years laying stepping stones that allowed the new technology to come into existence. Their work was indeed ordinary, but without it, something extraordinary would not have come into existence.
We have deep seated beliefs about ourselves that we must become exceptional. According to the message of our society, it is not enough to work a good job that pays well and is mildly satisfying; we must rise to the top of the ladder and become the boss. It is not enough that we have shelter; we must have a grand house with marble benches, enormous columns and a spiral staircase. It is not enough to have modest savings that will tide us over in tough times and give us the free time to lounge lazily in the sun; we must work tirelessly to the point of sickness to build savings, invest, use equity to develop a portfolio and build massive riches. It is not enough to travel to a local waterfall or a desert and enjoy the serenity of cascading droplets or the solace of an empty plain; we must travel to exotic places, sail on yachts across Croatian lakes, or rent luxury suites in Milan or Paris.
Of course, not everyone can do this. But rather than recognise this ludicrousness of the belief system, we embrace a far easier (and more painful) mindset: shame. We feel inadequate being surrounded by such wealth, luxury, and exceptionalism. ‘It could have been me’ we tell ourselves, ‘if I had just worked harder, made smarter decisions, or knew what I did now’, ignoring the statistical improbabilities one has to defeat in order to be truly exceptional. The fact is, exceptionalism is simply not a possibility for most of us and that certainly is not a bad thing. If we can embrace the ordinariness of our existence, we may come across a certain peace and tranquillity that is achieved only when we stop trying so hard, like a cat lounging on a couch in the sun. It is perfectly ordinary, there is no striving to be anything exceptional, and how at peace and happy does the cat look?
We do not need to be exceptional in order to be satisfied because we do incredible things all the time. We may never enter the Olympics, but, in our own way, we compete in the Olympics of everyday life. Feeding, clothing, and taking care of children and ensuring they grow up to be well-rounded and happy individuals is an incredible feat, as is mustering the energy to get out of bed, brush your teeth, and do some work if you are feeling incredibly depressed and want to lay in bed all day. Keeping the house in reasonably good order while juggling the demands of work and friends is something to be incredibly proud of, even if it doesn’t land you on the front cover of Forbes. Montaigne writes,
Storming a breach, conducting and embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare, and more difficult.
Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives.
Well ironed sheets, a bountiful veggie patch, and attending university while working and taking care of the house are not glorified like first place in the Australian Open or rising to the rank of CEO, but they are no less difficult or deserving of respect.
Vermeer is challenging us to think differently. Perhaps success is a small garden on a quiet street. Maybe all we need is shelter, warmth and the company of people who love and care for us. The buildings are empty because life plays out in the lives of people, not things. The Little Street praises the ordinary. There is no splendour, no grandeur, no bombast. There is only a scene of a simple, yet beautiful thing, called ‘life’.
An ordinary life can be properly rich and rewarding if we adjusted our perspectives and saw, not a failure to be exceptional but instead, a life with its own treasures and precious memories. If we can realise that our lives do not lie in the stratospheric heights of the exceptional, we may gain deeper comfort and satisfaction from simpler things: a night in listening to a favourite album, a cup of hot chocolate by the fire, or a simple yet tasty meal prepared with love and tenderness by a kind and charitable housemate.
We generally think of narcissists as those who consider themselves exceptionally talented, beautiful, or perfect beyond reproach. The narcissist, in this formation, believes themselves to be incomparably extraordinary. They are, in their own eyes, what others should aspire to, and those who fail to meet their high standards (which, by definition, only the narcissist can satisfy) deserve criticism and rebuke.
This is, however, a very narrow interpretation of narcissism. Broadened, narcissism can entail the singularity of one’s perfection, but also the singularity of one’s deformity. To put it another way, the other side to narcissism can be described as the exceptionalism of one’s pain. In this dimension of narcissism, we fall prey to the crippling belief that we are the only ones who have ever felt this way, that nobody will ever understand our pain, and that what we are experiencing is so unique, particular, and exclusive that it would be a waste of time to try and communicate it to others.
This flagellating mentality is centripetal, drawing us away from the very thing that would allow us to heal the pain that afflicts us: the company of others. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we believe others will not understand so we keep our pain to ourselves, thereby denying others any chance to discover what is wrong, and thereby using their ignorance as proof that they cannot understand. The curse of thinking ourselves exceptional is that we create the conditions where we must go it alone; Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders alone.
By keeping silent, we compound the pain of mental illness with icy cold isolation, separating ourselves from what would potentially be the best remedy for our toxic exceptionalism: the company of other people.
By opening up, we would find that our friend too has gone through a terrible breakup, the loss of a parent, the revision of self-worth in the face of an academic or business failing, and we might even learn of a problem they have never shared that would put our own problems into perspective.
We are all scarred, bruised, battered and damaged in some way and should not mistake an inability to see pain in others as proof that it is not there. Opening up does not necessarily guarantee we will heal, or we will even feel much better, but it will help put our problems in perspective. We will learn that our suffering is not a curse bestowed exclusively on us, but is the unfortunate lot of human beings. We will also learn a vital lesson that we should draw on for the rest of our lives: we are not exceptional and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We all suffer, but, with the company of kind, caring and compassionate friends, we do not have to suffer alone.
With our prodigious minds, we can recall fond memories throughout our years: birthday parties surrounded by friends and families, the first time we fell in love, the day we received our first A+. But, it is the irrevocable fact of life that one cannot have pleasure without pain. Just as we have fond memories filled with joy and happiness, we likewise have ones filled with pain and suffering.
We remember the nasty things said to us, done to us, and suffered by us at the hands of others: the bully who put us in chokeholds, the peers who taunted us about how we spoke, or the inattentive mother who turned a blind eye to our pains.
In all likelihood, we may never have forgiven others for what they did. We have held on to the hurt, in the process stopping ourselves from finding peace. In order to free ourselves from the self-imposed bondage of memory, we need to share one of the most precious gifts of the soul: forgiveness.
Just as we cannot fight fire with fire, we cannot extinguish the egregious hurt others have committed against us by holding on or deflecting that hurt back. Instead, by cultivating humility, patience and understanding towards those who have hurt us in the past, we allow ourselves the opportunity to forgive. Other people are – as we know all too well about ourselves – flawed, impaired and damaged. Rather than misanthropy, it is recognition that nobody is perfect in every way. When we remind ourselves of this, the fact that we have been hurt by them becomes more understandable. We can show forgiveness in the hope that others will do the same when we (inevitably) experience our own moments of weakness.
Yet, we hold ourselves to different standards than we hold others. To forgive others may be difficult, but one of the most monumentally difficult tasks in life is mustering the necessary kindness and affection to forgive ourselves. We are, unfortunately, often our own harshest critics and strictest moral teachers.
We can find the space in our hearts to forgive others, knowing they can sometimes be petty, impetuous, and almost incorrigibly blind to how their words or actions affect others. Yet, we hold ourselves to a different (and impossible) standard. We tell ourselves that we cannot be this way and that we must be (although we might never say it precisely this way), perfect.
When we withhold forgiveness from ourselves, we continue living in the past. We never move beyond what we have done, and we continue to allow these things to define us. The petty arguments we started in our last relationship, the time we kicked up a fuss when we were made to wait 20 minutes (even though they had a very good excuse), and the bitter breakup because we were unfaithful; are not seen as unfortunate errors that have given us an opportunity to learn, but rather as irrevocable stains of our character that will never wash away.
It would be wise and therapeutic for us to apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others. We are, just like everyone, prone to faults, missteps and mistakes. But these do not define us any more than they do others. Rather than immutable statements about our flawed nature, our past misdeeds should instead be seen as unfortunate but somehow necessary moments that have given us the opportunity to reflect and grow. In doing this, we can finally begin to forgive ourselves and nurture the most important and long lasting relationship we will ever have: the one we have with ourselves.