Jonathan Iwry | A war on ennui
The Faithless Quaker | One month after graduation, my slacker’s paradise is turning into purgatory
June 25, 2014, 8:09 pm · Updated July 4, 2014, 8:09 pm·
B laise Pascal once wrote that when a soldier complains about his difficult life, “try giving him nothing to do.”
For the first time, I’m starting to feel like Pascal’s soldier. It’s already been a month since I completed my undergraduate degree — since I returned home a veteran of the whole College Experience. I was looking forward to a comedown from the sweet grandiosity of graduation, a spectacular victory lap around the neighborhood to indulge and relish my own sense of accomplishment. I expected that I would get back to work on the Future soon enough, but that first I needed a few weeks to decompress. I had earned it.
Sadly, the leisure couldn’t last. Boredom, that silent killer of the young and restless, is starting to overtake me, and I’m aching for something to do. I’ve been trying desperately to occupy myself by rereading novels, scouring Wikipedia for information to swallow whole and hopping between my house and the cafe down the street. My freedom is becoming a prison.
A couple of days ago, amid my daily meme hunt, I discovered a Japanese video of a cat sitting in a chair looking out over the horizon. Amusing though it was, I couldn’t help but see myself in him. For the most part, he was relaxed, contemplating whatever it is cats contemplate and turning his head every so often for variety. This particular soldier didn’t seem to mind being relieved of duty.
Even so, there was something not quite right about his situation. He looked slightly uncomfortable, and I got the sense that he felt out of place. This wasn’t his natural inclination.
As an undergrad, I used to anticipate eagerly the creature comforts of home — taking a sabbatical from the to-and-fro of life at Penn to savor my suburban sanctuary. But it was only because they were breaks that I could appreciate them in the first place; I now stand before the inevitable transition into real life, and these escapes are losing their sweetness.
A life like this seems perfect from a distance. But whoever probes the human condition discovers that we need purpose, some sort of engagement with the world to keep us going. It’s in our nature to strive for progress and press forward into the uncertain void. A crucial part of our humanity is our ambition, a will to power that requires no justification and pushes us to make something of ourselves. Without it, our existences are less lives than limbos.
In one of his most famous works, philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to imagine an “experience machine” capable of simulating any pleasurable experience we desire. If we plug in, we trade real life for a world of perfect hedonis m. Nozick suspects that if given the choice, most of us would choose meaning over artificial pleasure. Even Simba chose to return to the Pride Lands; things couldn’t stay hakuna matata forever.
Now, languishing in the monotony of an endless summer, Nozick’s dilemma resonates with me more than ever. I always believed that a life of pleasure is worthless without meaning, but I hadn’t realized just how saturating it can be. I feel like Odysseus stuck on Calypso’s island — seduced at first by an eternity of simple pleasures, I have started to come back to my senses. The ambrosia has gone stale, and my heart aches for Ithaca.
I have been doing nothing for far too long, and nothing is too exhausting a thing to base one’s life around. It’s time to unplug from the machine.
Perhaps the cat and I really are alike, waiting for a leisurely relief that never comes. Like me, he is procrastinating, distracting himself from the age-old mouse hunt, and hard as he tries to escape his soldierly self, he can’t help but miss it. He knows the hunt could be for naught, and that the mouse may linger just beyond his claws forever. But h e strives anyway because it’s the striving that keeps him going, that keeps him alive. If there were no mouse, he would invent one for himself. It’s the hunt, not the prey, that electrifies his dreams.
At the end of the video, the cat notices something in the distance. He hoists himself off his laurels, abandons his post and prowls away to some adventure beyond the screen.
Jonathan Iwry is a College 2014 graduate from Bethesda, Md., who studied philosophy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.