There’s a conversation that I find myself having with myself in all sorts of odd places (in a corridor, in the breakfast cereal bit of the supermarket, on the toilet, on the bench press, in the bus queue) about what the main game is: is it the professional? Is the partner and father? Is it the writer? Is it the citizen? Is it none of these? What is the core objective for being here, being alive? What is being here for? What am I supposed to prioritise? What is first and foremost and is it the thing I actually put first? What is the journey and which path is the spine of my orientation?
Obviously, these are all roughly the same question and there must be as many answers as there are ways to ask the question, and all of them are contingent on where I am and which path I chose yesterday, there’s never an absolute answer. The cloud is never going to miraculously clear to reveal a single road toward my final destination. There is no highway straighter than the barrel of eternity.
Given the limitations of any possible answers to any of my possible questions I recognise that the practice of asking these questions of myself is unproductive and pretty wanky: picking up a box of Special K and wondering if it is Sein und Zeit is nothing but vainglory. Nevertheless even without bringing Heidegger into the conversation the issue of orientation is important. To simply proceed without considering the strategic or the tactical is fall into the great David Foster Wallace trap of gnawing your life away with the feeling of “having had and lost some infinite thing.”
Going with the flow is to never give ourselves the option of choosing, of orientating our thoughts and actions toward what we regard as being worthy, as a just thing resulting from our being. But choosing, or knowing, what that just result is not straightforward and the process of figuring it out is even murkier. So many of us skip it, I think, we abrogate our own authority to choose by simply leaving the default settings as we find them. Getting stuck into the settings, doing the configurations is too complicated and if we take apart the things we love will we be able to put them back together again?
The simple fact of being is obscured by its ubiquity; everyone is in the same boat so why make such hard work of it? But increasingly it seems to me that this is the right thing to do, to make hard work for yourself. The choices, the priorities, and the orientation: this is the hard work; these are the labours we make in being, these things are the effort. To not choose is to eliminate the spaces our effort creates, the possibility of orientation, of giving a gift to unknown others as unknown others have given to us.
The tricky part of this is when we choose not. When we make a choice we are also choosing not, we are making the tactical choice to not follow one path, to not prioritise something, to not deploy what we have (being and time) for some purpose. And having chosen a path not taken it is ferociously difficult to stick with it, to not objectify ourselves as being a portion of a strategy, a grander vision of wholeness from which we are now absenting ourselves.
Michel De Certeau, of course, argues that the act of choosing, of being an agent establishes “a kind of reliability within the situations imposed on the individual, that is, of making it possible to live in them the plural mobility of goals and desires — an art of manipulating and enjoying” and from that reliability we are able to orientate ourselves, becoming flaneurs picking footfalls through fields of joy. But the crunching horror that comes with this is that as agents we also make choices that are not joyous but are onerous, dangerous, harmful, or grievous.
Perhaps the great test of choice is not accepting the burden of agency but that by accepting that burden we accept that not only will our victories be transient, crumbs from the giants table, but that our defeat is inexorable. And knowing this do can we manage to keep on making choices? Are we able to maintain the effort of being? Are we going to sustain ourselves through agency? Or go for the default settings and accept our proper place?
Standing in the breakfast cereal aisle with a trolley that won’t go straight I can grin at myself and know that these are the crumbs fallen from the giant’s table and that this isn’t real choice, and, knowing that, sometimes I think all that really counts is that we make the effort of being, the effort of knowing that the agent is me, the agent is you. This is the just result of our being. Everything else is just waypoint on the path to our shared and mutual destination, unbeing.