Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carpe Diem


I have been a little distracted from this blog of late--and that is because I have been trying to fit in a bit of reading around a somewhat hectic schedule. Most recently I have completed Melbourne Uni philosopher Damon Young's Distraction: A Guide to Being Free. I have always felt that living in the relative luxury of the West, freedom has a habit of becoming its own burden. Any life has its limitations, but with most of our basic needs taken care of, we are at liberty to make choices about what we do with the rest of our time--and how easy it is to squander that time on meaningless distractions (which, in my experience, can all too easily become addictions)! There are so many convenient ways of avoiding the central question of Being.

On the all too rare occasions that my partner and I go to a movie nowadays, we seem inevitably to come up against the same dilemma: do we go the Euro art flick or the latest action blockbuster (we're both a tad partial to both). Babysitter in place, a couple of hours to ourselves, the question becomes ridiculously loaded. All too often we tell ourselves: "Ah, we're exhausted, we need a bit of fun, a bit of light relief, let's go the mindless crap." Very occasionally this was the right choice; but more often than not we travel home full of guilt that we squandered our precious time on something so utterly meaningless, even debased, when we might have seen something that actually left us with something--that genuinely moved us or gave us something intriguing to think about. There are certain films that I can say genuinely changed my life--and they were not American schlock (though for some they might be--and this might be a mindful choice).

In his witty, playful and down-to-earth book, Damon encourages readers to live consciously--to question what actually adds meaning to our lives and what merely dissipates our energies. I found there to be so many interesting parallels with The Divided Heart in this book (though in this case those featured are all men). As a parent, life can be so dominated by multi-tasking that our minds can develop a habit of being constantly fractured, in a million different places at once. Art requires a coralling of the self, and if I learned anything from the artists in The Divided Heart it was the importance of carving out that space, however small, where you resist the crowding out of the mind by that revolving 'to do' list and let imagination reign. To give yourself permission to focus on this one thing that you need to do--more than you need to put that next load of washing on.

Damon convincingly argues that it is all too easy to let technological rationality--the "logic of pure availability"--dictate the rhythm of our days, making us blind to our own drives and desires. But it is not a Romantic rejection of technology, or a life of impulsive hedonism that Damon is advocating. Rather he promotes what Seneca called "a politics of character". A life spent lurching towards a better version of ourselves, one that aims to match our values, is the key to freedom and a life lived generously and with attention to what really matters.

I first became aware of Damon's writings after reading his funny and insightful article, Driven by Distraction in The Age. It offers a wonderful take on the contribution children can make to our creative lives, in part because of the discipline and decisiveness a lack of time enforces but also because they are a constant reminder of what's truly valuable in life. In many ways, I think Distraction could be read as an interesting companion piece to The Divided Heart (if Damon doesn't mind me saying so--don't mean to give myself airs!!). He went on to write a very warm review of The Divided Heart in The Big Issue and has, in this era of instant feedback, gone and written a bit of a spiel on nepotism on his blog--check it out. He signed my copy of Distraction: "In writerly, parently fellowships"--and ain't that a great thing. Something we could all do with more of!

Distraction surveys the lives of various thinkers and artists, each providing food for thought on ways of approaching a life lived well. This is no pithy self-help book, but an inspiring guide to seizing the day. Seneca's rhetorical statement that life is the gift of the gods, but "living well is the gift of philosophy" is a great summation of what this book offers--a great gift from a writer who makes complex philosophical ideas relevant to our everyday lives. I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.