How can I live the contemplative life?

I want to break free of the quotidian wheel, but America says, Produce, produce, produce!

Topics: Since You Asked,

Dear Cary,

I’m 46 years old, single, unattached, long-ago divorced. I am between relationships, between real jobs. (I am employed, temporarily, contingently, as a college instructor, with no certainty I will continue to work here, nor any great drive to remain.) I am, in a phrase, sublimely ambivalent about “reality” itself. I am between joys, between apartments, between states-of-mind, between commitments, between intensities, between, between, between. Since the age of 17, every decision I’ve ever made — to attend grad school, to travel, to live abroad, to marry, to divorce, to move out West, to teach, to take a break from teaching, to live alone (for over eight years), to accept a life of poverty, to be between and between and between — has been taken in order to write and read. Recently, I’ve realized that this need is not an ambition or a careerist desire: I love the state of mind that comes when I do this. All literary baloney notwithstanding (including close calls with publishers and a final, peaceful and peacemaking decision to abjure the business side of bookmaking and notice-seeking forever), I do this because it is the best use of myself, my brain, my being, my body, my heart.

The problem is: With this One True Commitment has come a great difficulty. I commit to nothing else. I’ve ruined several good, even great, relationships with women. I have avoided all professional advancement. I am poor and uninsured and now — in this summer of the culmination of the necessary choices that I’ve made — I’m high ended. I live untenably in what seems an untenable world: I want not to think and to suffer, I want to think and be ecstatic. I want a life very few people think of in America or in the Occident. I want a contemplative’s life.

You advocate action. You advocate getting out of one’s self, freeing one’s self from one’s classic Ego. This occurs when I read and think and write. But the work I do at the college exhausts. The breaks I take from teaching bankrupt me. I bound and bounce between psychic emergencies, between working for money and dying inside because I cannot think, when in fact I think to be. I will tell you: I apperceive divinity. I know where it is to be found and how to find it, but I have no practical abilities, no clue how to balance this stuff. I have no more ambition: I simply wish to read deeply, to make words on paper, perhaps to love someone. But short of some sort of grant from the Department of the Deus, I have no way to really attain this. To solve my practical dilemmas I have no practical answers.

I am in line for a full-time position (again) at this college. I both want it (to avoid hourly wage work) and do not want it. There is ambivalence, yes, and there is this real thing, this other thing outside of all common sense, that I know fulfills me. It is a modest desire, I think, to wish to be engaged with ideas and language. It is mine, but I cannot have it. And the years tick by. I do not do what I must …

All this muddle has crippled my ability to think practically, to make sound, logical and practically healthy decisions. I have thought of withdrawing my application for this job. I have thought, again, of fleeing. I have thought of standing to fight, but what am I fighting for, the option to waste my life in academia? Fighting for a contemplative life is like waving a stick at the air.

I understand the beauty of contingency. I understand the spirit of the age. I am willing to live in the broken breezes and fragmented mists of my time. Only let me live in it, not in the false world of the chase for shelter and routine.

When I write this down, I think: You’re a loon. You’re unable to grasp anything but a hallucination, a delusion. And so I must live with this as well: my practical inabilities, my dreaminess, my ineptitude, my desires.

So? What?

A Half-Baked Diogenes

Dear Diogenes,

Well, indeed, what?

There seem to be several interlocking questions lurking in your letter, but this is the one I like best: How does one live the contemplative life in America? It’s not easy. For one thing, you simply cannot get the clothes. You go to Banana Republic and say you would like something for the contemplative lifestyle, and you get that look. They don’t have anything for you. You go to an employment agency and say, I am looking for something in the field of contemplation. They’ve got no current openings. They’ll call you if something comes up. Something never does. You tell a real estate agent, I’d like an apartment complex attractive to, you know, contemplative types — with a 24-hour library, on-call Kierkegaard scholars, the works! They act like they don’t know what you’re talking about.

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Contemplation is not on our national agenda. There’s no plank in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We think there’s something fishy about contemplation, frankly. What is its product? What do you get when you’re done? The thought of a man spending all day reading offends us. If he must do that, at least, we say, he should produce books that can be sold at the airport.

The university and the church are your two best bets. But each institution has its loyalty oaths and its trials, and neither truly embraces pure contemplation. Each, in the American model, is a factory of sorts; scholars and ecclesiastics alike are essentially shoemakers and saloonkeepers. Produce, produce, produce! Serve us, serve us, serve us! Even contemplation must bear fruit! America commands you: Produce books! Harness yourself to the publishing machine and pull, pull, pull, you recalcitrant donkey, you solitary Don Quixote!

But face it: Being a contemplative sort is weird no matter what century, what continent. Even in Tibet or India, the classic destinations, you’re on your own once you begin thinking, because you’re in your own head, dude! Nobody can go there but you! No wonder it’s weird!

As a contemplative person, you are truly in your element on the margins; you are truly alive when you are only half-alive, if you get my drift, peripherally speaking. You live in the interstices, down the alleys between the actual streets.

This is how we remind each other that however strange and isolated it may seem to be you, there is another person to whom life seems just as spectral and constrained, just as contingent: We write these letters to each other that say yes, I know, I too feel that if I could only sit in my window for a thousand days without speaking and without spending money I would finally be free! If only I could unmoor this hulking frame from the quotidian wheel! Yes, we are with you, or would like to be, if only your project were one that we could join (we’re not sure it is; its very existence may be contingent on its being un-joinable)! Even in saying we are with you, we transgress, because you know and I know that none of us is with any of us! Camped together on the outskirts of town, we are still alone, each struggling to find a way to do this unnameable thing.

Strange to say, I think we like it that way. It just gets lonely sometimes, is all.

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