I never dreamed I would ever seriously consider the opinions of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Indeed, spelling his name was a challenge, let alone dissecting his contention that desire is futile: even if you succeed in achieving a long hoped for goal, then what do you do? Once the objective is realized, you can no longer anticipate the joy of its success: it is no longer a future target -you have, in a sense, destroyed something…
I used to feel that way about Christmas, when I was a little child. The thrill was in the wonder about what lay beneath the wrapping on my presents under the brightly decorated tree; the zenith was in tearing off the paper -the feeling just before I knew what each contained. I either loved, or tolerated the contents, but whatever, the real magic was over.
I suspect this realization is neither profound, nor unusual -it’s part of Life. Part of maturing. Dessert can’t last forever, even if you’ve been looking forward to it throughout the otherwise disappointing meal.
Perhaps what interested me in Schopenhauer, though, apart from the spelling, was an essay about him that purported to use his beliefs for dealing with, of all things, midlife crises. Usually, the name would have been sufficiently off-putting to discourage me from reading it, but it appeared in Aeon and I was curious why. It turned out to be written by a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kieran Setiya, and I am always intrigued whenever Philosophy attempts to be pragmatic -attempts to solve something, rather than simply play with it: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-schopenhauers-thought-can-illuminate-a-midlife-crisis
‘When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye… When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed.’
So, what about Schopenhauer? Well, according to Setiya, ‘Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t… Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek word for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion… Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.’
I have to admit I had never thought of the distinction -although it certainly makes sense. So, ‘If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is [in] giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself.’
Clever. Unfortunately, I cannot remember ever having a midlife crisis -I somehow sailed into Retirement unscathed, with neurons blemished only with the expected accumulation of rust. And yet, as Setiya concludes, ‘We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now.’
I am impressed with his (not Schopenhauer’s) argument, even if I do feel a little disappointed to think that I missed something in my salad days. Maybe I was just too busy.
Or maybe I never found a reason to regret them. I was immersed in them -or, rather, swimming in waters I rather enjoyed. I realize this is not the case for everybody -or perhaps most of us- and yet, I wonder if it’s more in the perspective than the task. And, while listening to music or spending time with friends may offer some pleasure, it is evanescent. It cannot be what one does for more than a fraction of one’s time. It seems to me that the ‘meaning’ things like that offer, is far from satisfactory. Sitting in a movie theatre or visiting a candy store may feel good for a time, but is hardly a solution to whatever greets you on the street outside.
No, I think Schopenhauer was on to something when he questioned the value of aspiration. It’s like taking a shortcut along a forest path to visit a friend at her cottage. You can either dwell on the friend and perhaps the meal she will be preparing, or enjoy the walk. There are birds singing along the way, and wind softly whispering through the branches where they perch; there is the crunching of your shoes as they rustle through the fallen leaves, and the smell of cedar, or pine, or the fractured stump of a newly fallen tree; there is the easily missed creek nearby that burbles through the undergrowth and glints in the narrow splinters of sun that leak through the forest canopy -if you only took the time to look… And not just then, but always.
Life is a trail whose destination we cannot see; perhaps it was designed that way. Maybe we’re meant to look around a bit along the way. It’s just possible the foliage is supposed to enclose us like a bower -to be enjoyed, not to get us anywhere, or, at least, no place better. It’s the music that never ends.