Tuesday, February 26, 2013

TO-READ l Missing Out

What follows is a conversation I had recently with a five-year-old immersed in the construction of a wooden bamboo hideout for two miniature pandas:

five-year-old: "Colin, I'm being the nice panda and I'm not talking to the mean panda cause he's mean."

me: "Oh, gosh, well I hope it all works out."

five-year-old: "It does at the end, but not right now cause it's still the beginning, and he's mean." 

me: "Right, plus pandas don't talk."

No, I didn't say "pandas don't talk," but I did ask why their dispute had to wait until the end to... end, which is kind of like poking your head into a chef's kitchen on a Saturday night and asking what the hurry's all about. The point being that conflict and its coming to fruition in the form of resolution, like a magic trick whose purpose is to make stuff disappear, is engrained in us, from early on, as a demonstrable route to disappointment, if not outright self-hatred. Why?

Perhaps because creation is itself based on a kind of dialectic argument between absence and existence; nothing and something; calling soda "pop" or "soda," or "coke" or something. Stories, too, depend on tension for a sense of who or what they are, in order to abate and thus reveal that which, in most cases, was there all along. Which all makes sense, for as Adam Phillips enlightens and (re)directs us in his new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, "everything depends on what we would rather do than change." 

The change Phillips is talking about isn't as daunting as it sounds. As a psychoanalyst (and engagingly straightforward writer), Phillips naturally pursues life's complications, as if training for a marathon, rather than running frantically away in the opposite direction, attempting to eradicate uncertainty by making it, again, merely invisible, and he advises us to do the same. So, rather than capriciously taking up rock climbing, for example, or "rewarding" ourselves with depressants, such immediate and roundabout solutions should, in Phillips' view, be dutifully staved off, if our desire is to claim our apprehensions, our permanent collections and most stolid inhibitions, not their listless sea of symptoms, or we run risk of displacing that which maddens and potentially enriches who we are and severing any line between tension and release. Oh, and a little bit of red wine is okay, Phillips writes, I'm pretty sure.

And therein--somewhere--lies the problem. For as Phillips definitely writes, "Frustration may be the thing that we are least able to let ourselves feel; and by not being able to... we obscure our satisfactions." Obscured, displaced, but far from enervated, our contingencies, our better and in some sense unavoidable halves might be made next to whole if we can learn to live, not necessarily with difficulty, but perhaps dissatisfaction in relation to what we tell ourselves the rest of the world has and has to offer; if we learn, in other words, to let life undulate and vibrate like a string when plucked by hardship or, as commonly, unknowns. Which isn't easy or congruous with our high-speed, second lives lived on the internet, offering to us a constant screen to project our unsatisfied or savored disappointments onto others people's problems, triumphs, partners, scandals, backyard grills and even, from a distance, lives, only to watch them sail away. The questions this book raises then will depend on how you look at distances, which more and more we're told do not exist. And yet, as David Shield writes in How Literature Saved My Life, "In life, in love, otherness is sexy but unbridgeable."

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