Recalibration

I believe I have the following passage from The Catcher in the Rye to credit for the latest call to attention, warning me about the need to slow things down, observe, and be thankful for the green, or the brown, of the trees, or the sound of a passing gust creak an unsecured porch door. To briefly set the scene and maintain the original passage’s use of quotation marks, here Holden is speaking to Sally about his latest idea to have the two of them throw their cares to the wind and run away together. Sally sees the suggestion as unrealistic and the fancy of someone who simply doesn’t think things through. Given Holden’s juvenility, her reservations aren’t unreasonable and, to put it simply, are really quite sane. What Holden says in response, though, is what has stayed with me since I last read it. I recommend pausing between each sentence in the following passage to absorb the gravity of Holden’s fear. Or perhaps it’s his resignation:

“I said no, there wouldn’t be marvelous places to go to after I went to college and all. Open your ears. It’d be entirely different. We’d have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We’d have to phone up everybody and tell ‘em good-by and send ‘em postcards from hotels and all. And I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty. There’s always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on. It wouldn’t be the same at all. You don’t see what I mean at all.”

What Holden seems to decry is the loss of simplicity that comes with getting older. In Holden’s view, he seems to see this loss as inevitable, which is why succumbing to viewing newsreels and mindless entertainment is such a tragedy. These absurd scenes are what are supposed to distract you from the absurdity of your routine, which itself exist as the result of your absurd purpose, in all its Kafkian horror. Holden’s sudden impulse to leave town with Sally, someone he later admits wouldn’t be good company at all, comes from his preoccupation that this impulse, which is very important now, must be embraced now. His feeling of urgency is catalyzed by an awareness, however dramatic, that the next stage in his life (going off to college) will necessarily foreclose the revelation of his current life: the need for now. Or, to put it another way, the need to have now available, without the present being drowned out by the million things we’re told to embrace to act as a substitute for now–only temporarily, we’re assured.

Holden is not entirely wrong. He would find at least some support in the Mynah birds of Pala, Huxley’s fictional island. “Attention,” they periodically cry from their perches, as a reminder to the island dwellers to keep their minds from wondering and to pay attention, with the urgent rapidity of a finger’s snap, to the present moment. Holden, like so many of his contemporaries, would fall into the routines he fears as he got older. Absent intervention, such as that of a talking mynah bird, Holden—and, for that matter, anyone simply going through the motions—would view their routines as normal. Abhorrent, perhaps, but what-are-ya-gonna-do inevitabilities so universal as to be compulsory. The mistake in Holden’s thinking is equating urgency in action now with urgency now, for its own sake. Given his age, he is not to blame.

I’ve come to find that fulfillment cannot come from the number of actions one is able to complete now. To accept that view would mean to gleefully take on the puritan work ethic, which is to say, to always be productive toward the completion of, not what would enrich your life, but what would simply keep it afloat, absent any concern with the quality of one’s life. I am not so detached—or perhaps not so enlightened—to forgo the daily tasks that keep my rent paid and keep me living in comfort; but, I recognize that my satisfaction in life will not come from work or from any one of the things that merely keep this body alive.

Which leads to the series of connections that sprouted from the above passage. I have been in law school for three years now. Two of those years were spent in the midst of a global pandemic and, just as we were getting out of it (maybe), world powers seemed to do what they could to win a war without fighting it. To put it more specifically, to win without deploying nuclear weapons. It remains to be seen whether or not this danger is completely evaded. As it stands, the slowdown of life facilitated by COVID, coupled with the uninterrupted curriculum, gave me at least some time to reevaluate and ask, so as to determine whether to affirm or not, whether what I was doing was the best doing to be doing. Never mind the best thing, but at least worthwhile.

I am inclined to answer in the way that I already have. Work, my job, my career, will not give me the satisfaction I believe I need. No work, no career, will. For me to be serenely afloat, I need enough time to remain open outside of work such that I can consciously devote my energies toward the things I feel do give me fulfillment. The simplest of them is sitting and feeling the passing breeze. Laying down and listening to music. Reading books and thinking about what lesson the author, through the characters, wants to share. I couldn’t write this now if I didn’t have the time to feel the breeze as I currently do, on the back of my head. And on my left knee.

Is law the correct field to be in? Given the above, no field is the correct one, as long as each is associated with work. I imagine my feelings toward the practice of law would take on a completely different note if I did it recreationally, as pro bono work, perhaps. But knowing that I am trapped in another variation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, no, I see no reason to entertain or validate this absurd arrangement as anything other than the means to actively participate in the purchase of things. I mean no insult, of course, to any boss or co-worker. Neither do I fault anyone who feels or believes differently about their work, career, or what they feel imparts purpose. We can perfectly co-exist because withholding a sense of purpose from work does not equate to acting negligently or half-heartedly in its performance. All I’m aware of, which I think is key, is that I am a fly who cannot change the fact that he is a fly; who understands that work commands his getting out of bed five days a week, the other two days being slaves to my volition (when school is not in session); and who recognizes that he is a fly that has been made to work but who also knows his happiness is not dependent on work. Work may contribute to my happiness, but it is not my source of happiness.

Now, don’t take me wrong. None of the above is to be read in a tone of the slightest sadness, self-pity, or nihilistic diatribe. There is no sadness in acceptance, but rather revelry in what one finally understands to be true. How many petty worries may fall by the wayside depends on how many presently burden you. It was through a happy accident—or as I increasingly come to see things, a karmic reward—that I came across the following soliloquy from Macbeth which I believe ties up my point nicely. I fully grant that, in the context of the play, the meaning very likely is different than the purposes for which I’m using it, but if this writing teaches you anything, it should be that in perspective lies salvation.

SEYTON The queen, my lord, is dead.
MACBETH She should have died hereafter;
  There would have been a time for such a word.
  To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
  Creeps in this petty pace from day to day  
  To the last syllable of recorded time,  
  And all our yesterdays have lighted fools  
  The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!  
  Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player  
  That struts and frets his hour upon the stage  
  And then is heard no more: it is a tale  
  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,  
  Signifying nothing.  

 

 

 

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