I may have been distracted from more ‘important’ things yesterday morning. I took myself to the library hoping for some serendipity. I was looking for the unexpected and did, indeed, make an accidental and happy discovery. In this case it was Damon Young’s book Distraction - A Philosophers guide to being free (Melbourne University Press, 2008).
At the heart of distraction is not neurophysiology but an ongoing struggle to flourish within the limits of mortality. We have only one life and it’s marked by all sorts of deprivations, irreversibilities and entrenched habits. And we often have to negotiate these with diminishing hours and flagging potencies. For these reasons, we need to be sincere and judicious in our existential commitments and prudent in our efforts to succeed in each. To be diverted isn’t simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why. Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life, and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.
This book is calling out for a second reading – one less rushed than my first eager skip through its pages. The stories of artists, philosophers and writers are artfully blended. There is past and present, work and leisure, endurance and freedom. Here are some highlights for me.
Neitzsche - “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”
There are stories of Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin, Henry James, Henri Matisse and others. Some are absolutely forthright in their views of the world. Others struggled to find time to become who they were. And who knew T S Eliot was scared of cows? This was one of many lovely little snippets that add to the humanity of each of his subjects.
A calm John Dewey warned against the ills of acceleration in the 1930s. He wrote of the many rhythms of life – the gentle enjoyment we take from completing everyday tasks in their own pace and tempo. Young argues that by disrupting the rhythms of life, the modern workplace also transforms domesticity, making it a site for rushed fun or vegetative stupor. ….. We must be our own custodians if we want to reclaim our own rhythms.
He explores busywork. What’s in short supply are the mental and physical resources for actually taking notice of anything and for trying to make sense of it and extrapolates again from Neitzsche. In the modern workplace these [..]remain a challenge for us all: to endure busywork and its distractions, to fiercely say No to subjugation and to claim the leisurely freedom of the child.
Young relates Aristotle’s approach to the necessities of life, yet is realistic about the technological age in which we find ourselves. “To recover from the distractions of the technological age, what’s required is not Luddite extremism but a more ambitious relationship with our tools – one that promotes our liberty instead of weakening it.
We need to be careful not to be too devoted to our life’s work. In our devotion to work, art and public life, particularly when these are rewarding and recognised, we can be quietly distracted from one another.
Ultimately for me, it’s a book about being and/or becoming who you are. Taking from Spinoza, Young notes that we are free when we are authoritatively being ourselves and not deferring to the demands and expectations of someone (or something) else.
Lynn Walsh – workshop and meeting facilitator – Sydney- business and strategic planning – team conversations