Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

I read Adam Phillips’ book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, and I wish I’d enjoyed it more. I probably would have, if only I were more familiar with Freud and Shakespeare (King Lear and Othello are frequently discussed). I’ve read a couple of his others that I really liked (Going Sane and On Kindness).

This one a lot of “What does it mean when we say ____?” kind of stuff, and a good bit of historical/etymological looks at how our our language has developed ideas like “getting away with it” or “getting out of it”. The best recurring theme for me was the idea of omniscience, and how it relates to frustration (assuming we know what we need; reluctance to seek advice or try new things), escapism/prediction (assuming we know what we’re avoiding, or that we are in fact avoiding it), tyranny (false confidence about someone else’s needs), avoidance (“we mustn’t let knowing do the work of acknowledging”), etc.

It seemed a bit more impersonal and less psychological than what I remember of the other two. Still, some good stuff here and there, and Phillips has a knack for aphorism.

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

As there is no appetite, sexual or otherwise, without excitement, the sane person has to be unusually mindful of all the ways she has of attacking, trivializing, ignoring, ironizing and generally spoiling her own excitement. So she will prize charm in herself and others because charm gives excitement a chance; and she will be suspicious of her own shyness–and more sympathetically suspicious of other people’s–because it too smugly keeps the excited self at bay.

We recognize our sexual desire by the fact that once again–once again, after childhood–we feel our safety and our excitement are in conflict with each other. When we feel we are taking a risk, or are at risk, there is always an object of desire in the vicinity.

Since money always promises something other than itself–it is only, as we say, worth what it can buy–it seems to protect us, as promises do, from the fear of there being nothing and no one that we want.

Adam Phillips. I think I’ll post a couple more from his very good Going Sane later.

On Kindness (review: 4/5)

On Kindness
While it didn’t finish as awesomely as when I first tweeted my excitement half-way through, On Kindness still ended up being very good, and still among the top nonfiction of the year for me. The goal here is to figure out what happened to kindness: why we have an instinct for it, why religions encourage it, how the ideas of fellow-feeling and sympathy went from being a celebrated part of a well-balanced life to something we see as either suspicious or weak nowadays. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor put special focus on the experience of kindness as we move from childhood to adulthood. Rousseau (e.g. Émile) and of course Freud receive special attention. The idea of the “riskiness” of kindness was really, really novel for me. Here are some favorite quotes, starting with a good summary:

Acts of kindness demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other. If kindness previously had to be legitimized by a God or by gods, or located in women and children, it is because it has had to be delegated—and sanctioned, and sacralized, and idealized, and sentimentalized—because it comes from the part of ourselves that we are most disturbed by; the part that knows how much assurance and (genuine) reassurance is required to sustain our sense of viability. Our resistance to kindness is our resistance to encountering what kindness meets in us, and what we meet in other people by being kind to them. And, of course, our resistance to seeing the limits of what kindness can do for us.

Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can.

Freud: We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.

Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be. Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness. Talking about child development and about parenting may be one of the only ways we have now of talking about fellow feeling.

Growing up, if anything, is the imaginative elaboration of fellow feeling: the acknowledgment that other people have what we need and that their well-being matters to us.

When it comes to appetite, all exposure is experienced as overexposure.

If people are too kind–too thoughtful, too considerate, too sensitive–sex can be insufficiently exciting; if they are not kind enough, it can be too frightening too enjoy.

Kindness is a continual temptation in everyday life that we resist. Not a temptation to sacrifice ourselves, but to include ourselves with others. Not a temptation to renounce or ignore the aggressive aspects of ourselves, but to see kindness as being in solidarity with human need, and with the very paradoxical sense of powerlessness and power that human need induces. Acts of kindness involve us in different kinds of conversations; our resistance to these conversations suggest that we may be more interested in them, may in fact want much more from them, than we let ourselves know.

Adam Phillips on the happiness myth | Books | The Guardian

Happiness and the right to pursue it are sometimes wildly unrealistic as ideals; and, because wildly unrealistic, unconsciously self-destructive.

Interesting essay with some good tidbits. This bit on pathologies could also apply, more mildly, to how we react to differing opinions:

We tend to pathologise the forms of happiness we cannot bear.

And on education:

There are, for example, only two reasons for children to go to school – apart, that is, from acquiring the werewithal to earn a living: to make friends, and to see if they can find something of absorbing interest to themselves.

Adam Phillips on the happiness myth | Books | The Guardian