There is always something missing.
Is there always something missing?
Yesterday I was lying in a hammock in a beautiful courtyard. It is summer now, but it was a coolish day, and a row of birches stood off to my left, their leaves trembling in a way that almost let me pretend that they were aspens and I was on a mountain in Colorado, though I was in fact in a city—Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be specific. I turned from the birches and the students milling about the courtyard, looked straight up to where the canopies of two huge oak trees swayed, and thought, “This is good. I am at peace.” But only for a second. Because the thought of how peaceful I felt led me to speculate on how I could live in a way that led to more peaceful moments like the one I was—or had been—having, and in a thought’s millisecond that how turned into where and I began to imagine owning a summer home, in Colorado or Cape Cod or even in Cambridge, though wherever it was it would certainly have a hammock where I could rest and have peaceful, thought-free moments like the one I had been having a few seconds back. The way the mind turns (or moves or flits or swims or whatever it does), this thought might have led to a darker one: how I could barely afford a first home (and hadn’t bought one until I was forty-nine), which might have led next to the barren land of financial bitterness. Luckily, this did not happen. Instead, lying in my actual hammock, I considered my theoretical hammock, the one in Colorado or Cape Cod or wherever, and decided that when I finally arrived at that future peaceful place, what would complete the picture would be if I were not just lying in the hammock staring up at trees but spending a whole blissful afternoon reading in the hammock. And so I got up to get my book, worried, of course, that someone else would take the hammock while I was gone.
How long did that whole mental drama take? Twenty seconds? Less than a minute, I’m sure. And how many similar dramas go on each day, each minute, in each of our minds? How much sheer energy is expended on such things? “We humans are an elsewhere,” my former teacher Reg Saner wrote. I have perhaps been guilty of using that quote too much lately, but I do because it gets at an important part of what it means to be alive as a human being, or at least what it means to be alive for me. I do not mean this is the only way our minds work—right now, for instance, my own mind is wholly on board with the absorbing, imaginative act of writing this essay—but I want to suggest that this way of being, the elsewhere way, is underrepresented in our writing. We are rarely content where we are, almost always looking to supplement what we are doing with something else, and yet we refuse to acknowledge it. To do so would be to admit that something is lacking in our lives.
We have lately seen some literally glaring examples of this elsewhere life: walk onto a college campus at night and observe the screen-staring zombies shuffling down the paths. Little beacons of light shine out from their machines, from which they appear to take orders. Or consider the eighteen-year-old son of a friend of mine who was just visiting and who, in the evening, would watch a movie or TV show on his laptop while using his phone to tweet or Facebook or text or whatever with friends, making him doubly or triply elsewhere. But these are easy targets, fish in a barrel. What I am trying to get at is not something that started with the Internet, but with the dawn of mankind. It is something deeper, ingrained in human nature, a chronic condition. If anything we can thank the Internet for revealing this tendency to be elsewhere, for making our inclination not to be here (which has always been there) so laughably obvious.
When I was young I made deals with summer. Maybe you did too. I bargained with time itself, trying to slow it down. The burning question was how to make those summer days last, how to forestall fall and school. I spent hours boring myself, not wanting time to fly, trying to make it crawl instead. But this did nothing to slow down the overall momentum of the season.
Last December I began something called a sabbatical. Actually it was a half-sabbatical, or, in my university’s less poetic language, a research reassignment. What this meant was that I did not have to teach, or tend to any of my other school responsibilities, for eight months. Perhaps you feel envious when you read those words—or perhaps, if you are a conservative legislator in the state where I live and teach, you start resharpening your already-sharp knives. If it makes you feel any better, I love teaching. But I love my first job—as a writer—more, though that job entails what the author Fran Lebowitz calls “a lifetime of unfinished homework.” I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy not having to teach. Six months before my sabbatical began, I started to plan out what I would do, where I would go, what I would work on. Just as I had when I was a kid, I played with time in my mind. And as my free time approached, I harbored a secret belief that I’d be less distracted, that life would be better and more fulfilling once it began.
I write this from the end of that time. Has it been everything I expected? Of course not. I did get a great deal done, but I was not granted a special exempt card from human nature, and there was plenty of elsewhere to the time. Considering it now, the sabbatical seems very different, less glorious than it did while I was anticipating it—and it felt different too during the time itself, and its meaning will continue to change. Value shifts with time—even the value of our own experience.
One day in late June I wrote in my journal:
Always confront this sense that life is never quite good enough. If we are honest, there is always something missing. “But it was different when we were young,” we say. No, it wasn’t. It was the same. Expectations always fall short of reality, even during those times we later remember as golden.
Kind of dismal, right?
I do not regard myself as a pessimistic person. Having typed the gloomy sentences above, I feel my mind, and fingers, rushing to counter them. But I don’t want to be too quick to do so. I want to give what Samuel Johnson called the vacuity of life a full airing before I rush to fill that vacuum. I want to stare down the emptiness for a while.
Because filling the emptiness is, for a lot of us, our full-time job. We fill it with work, with games and electronic gossip, and increasingly with correspondence of the latest sort. Emptiness has become the scariest of things, our arch-enemy. Recently I read about an experiment at the University of Virginia, in which a decent percentage of people who were placed in a room alone with no other stimulus regularly pushed a button to cause themselves pain in the form of electronic shocks rather than be faced with their own thoughts.
Most of us live hungry but uncertain of what we hunger for. We dream of the future, regret the past, wish we could get to a place where things are better. We look for an answer, a formula, a way. We want something that can truly fill us up, not something that briefly sates us and leaves us craving our next fix. But if this larger satisfaction is unavailable, we will greedily take the smaller fixes. We will throw the switch that shocks us. Better than being alone and staring into ourselves.
It would be easy to say that this happens because we live in the age of overstimulation, but I think it’s something more. Anyone who has experimented with spending hours alone knows that it can be the quick road to melancholy. Even Montaigne, that great granddaddy and patron saint of retreaters, couldn’t get the hang of it at first, and found himself overwhelmed by his mind’s “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” and swallowed by a “melancholic depression.” It was only by starting to write about the chaos that he could bring it into a kind of order. He learned that the trick, if something so essential can be called a trick, is to have a project—a way to give your mind, made unruly by the emptiness, a focus. That focus can be as simple and internal as a line of thought to puzzle out, or as relatively external as making art out of the experience of being alone. Donald Hall, in his wonderful book, Life Work, suggests that the secret to life is absorption, to find something you can throw your whole self into. “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working,” he writes. He speaks lovingly of:
early morning hours, concentration on the page and its words, total loss of identity, hours that pass like seconds or without any notion of time elapsing: It is always the paradox of contentment—of happiness or joy—that to remain at its pitch, it must include no consciousness of itself; you are only content when you have no notion of contentment.
Which leads to a question that may seem like a contrary one. If we fear the emptiness, and if we accept along with Hall that being absorbed is our highest state, then what is wrong with being absorbed in a video game or being absorbed in our computer worlds? Why is this inherently less good than being absorbed in painting a landscape or going to church or taking field notes about a chipmunk? Does it really matter exactly what we get absorbed in?
I’m not sure it does, and I can only answer for myself here. What I offer is not an intellectual argument but the testimony of my own experience: the moments in my life when I have felt least elsewhere. Only rarely have these been moments of true quietude, of peace. I am not a big believer in the jargon about being in the present moment, at least when the present moment is supposed to be one of thoughtless calm. The present moment I celebrate is more complicated and messier and fuller than that. The times I love most are not only times of being absorbed but of challenge and stimulation. I am thinking of experiences that don’t just fill the mind but excite it—experiences like creating art, when so many disparate parts of the world and self come together to make something new, or like falling in love, when you break through the boundaries of self and merge with another, or like hiking into a beautiful place, when the world outside excites your inner world in ineffable ways.
Dare I suggest that these experiences are somehow better than checking your iPhone? Let’s not go that far. Let me just suggest that for me these are the times when I feel less elsewhere, times when I feel content—no, not content, but thrilled—to be exactly where I am.
That these moments don’t happen very often hardly seems a knock against them, and in my less bleak moods I like to think they radiate outward into the rest of my life.
This morning I am remembering one such moment that serves to counterbalance my listless time in the hammock. I was out west, in Dinosaur National Park in Colorado, there to follow the footprints of the great writer Wallace Stegner as I worked on a book that was in part a biography of the man. Already my project infused the day with meaning as I drove up into the park, to the trail to Harper’s Corner, which led to an overlook at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. After hiking for a mile or so I stood on top of a canyon wall a thousand feet above where the rivers met. I edged out close to the side of the cliff, partly terrified, partly thrilled. A gray jay landed in the twisted juniper over my head, cackling hello. If I walked to one side of the cliff I could see the Yampa snaking in, looking dried up and shriveled, and then the Green winding to meet it. The actual joining of the two rivers was hidden from my view, modestly taking place behind a boulder. But when I walked across to the other side of the cliff, I could see the Green, renewed by fresh waters, a transfusion of sorts, flowing on out west, down, down, down to where I would later be sleeping by its side in my tent.
A dusty wind kicked up silver waves on the water. I knew that I might have been looking down at a dam had it not been for Wallace Stegner. Stegner fought successfully against the dam’s construction in 1955, working with the Sierra Club’s David Brower to create a book of writing and photographs celebrating the place. The book was called This Is Dinosaur and was distributed to every member of the U. S. Congress. The effort wasn’t just successful; it also served as a template for environmental battles over the next two decades and still, to some extent, for our battles today.
So the place had significance, both intellectual and symbolic. It was not just a place of beauty, but a former battleground. William James often spoke of the need to engage in the “moral equivalent of war.” He was describing the state necessary to fight for things we really care about. While he abhorred the violence of war, he admired the energy of those who fought it. What if we could bring that same energy to peaceful pursuits? Imagine the power it would unlock. And imagine how it would fill the life of the pursuer.
But my feelings in this moment went beyond even that. The overlook created something in me, some sensation that even the experience of seeing the ocean couldn’t match. It was almost chemical: I saw the landscape and then something bubbled up, rising unbidden. I stood in a place that was almost desecrated and drowned but was not. A place that was saved.
The religious wording is intentional. As I stood there, overwhelmed by sheer space, by the fact that I was part of a vast landscape that was, at least for the moment, devoid of any other human being, the word awesome, in its old usage, came to mind. My hyperactive brain for once stopped its querulous wishing that it were somewhere else. The place both emptied and filled me. The sun hit the river and it became mirrored glass, blinding.