Philosophy Jude Law says something on this very subject in that Shakespeare interview book I reviewed the other day. At first he’s speaking about the change in Hamlet’s attitude to life, but then he opens out with:
“We all start with great optimism and exuberance and belief, then we end up realising that life can be fucking hard and brutal – a grunting, sweating weary life – but we can choose to bear it. What’s the choice? But then while we’re bearing it and while it can be brutal, and not as shining and joyful as perhaps it was when we were six or seven years old, we also have to be ready for anything, and that in itself makes it extraordinary. The rest is silence.”Which I think you’ll agree is an reasonably insightful comment not just on the play but on life in general. It’s also the main theme of Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works (which I wrote about along with a bunch of other Woody Allen films earlier this year) and probably the key topic of all drama since Sophocles spoiled everyone’s relationship with their mother (cf, Hamlet again). How to make the most of the time that we have and reconciling that with the fact that for most of us the experience won’t be that great?
Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill suggests that he can’t get through a week without making one or two really good rationalisations and that’s probably the level most of us work towards. During this financial crisis when unemployment is due to rise to levels even higher than usual, no matter how much we hate our jobs we’ll tell ourselves “Well, at least I have a job”. If we’re in an unsatisfactory relationship, we might say “Well, at least I’m with someone.” For some of us, that’s enough.
But what we have to be careful of is not comparing our own achievements against others. That really is depressing. If the world wide web has offered the ability to expand our horizons beyond our street or town, there’s also now the chance to read about the lives of an infinite number of people who are better looking than us, have better jobs and more attractive partners. Blogger-envy has given way to Twitter-envy but you have to wonder how most of these people fit it all in.
Essentially we're all trapped in a Sisyphian state of uselessly pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it falling down the other side knowing that we'll only be perilously nudging it back up again. Of course, Sisyphus was trapped by the gods in his never ending task for being a bad person and I don't think that's a fair assessment of everyone. But I think it neatly demonstrates now many of us, in search for a purpose in life, ultimately find ourselves striving within acts of futility, continuing to do so even when we're given reasonable evidence that we are indeed wasting our time.
Oh how I’ve agonised. Everything I do seems to be a waste of time especially a waste of my leisure time; I always assuming I'm watching the wrong kinds of films, listening to the wrong kinds of music, reading the wrong kinds of text and anyway couldn’t I be doing something more useful than any of those three? Shouldn’t I be giving all this time to charity instead of selfishly wasting it in front of All The President’s Men once again, marvelling at the Burlesque soundtrack (spotify) or guffawing at Charlie Brooker’s latest column?
What I’ve decided, my big rationalisation if you will, is that I’ll never be happy. No matter what I do, I’ll always feel like I’m wasting my time. So it’s best just to meander on, do the best with the opportunities that open themselves up to me, and make do. In other words, the state Jude Law describes in the quote at the top of this piece and Woody, or his avatar Larry David says at the close of his movie (because on this point pop culture and academia tend to intersect):
I happen to hate New Year's celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself. Because its by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you'd like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your fathers one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you. Don't think about it, you'll have a panic attack.Which is a cop-out. A platitude. Someone else's words. But I don’t have a better answer than that.