On waiting for something to happen

As often happens when I’m ill, I’ve found myself musing existentially about how I approach life. I found last year immensely difficult and felt like I’d started 2023 with a running start before I was felled once more by the eternally recurring coronavirus. This meant enforced deceleration (for reasons of quarantine, feeling awful and avoiding long covid) after a period in which I was consciously speeding up. I’ve never liked changes of tempo but I’ve often found them rich with insight, at least if I’m inclined to reflect on what the shift feels like and why I don’t like it.

In this case, it made me feel like I was at risk of losing momentum, as if an enforced slow down for recovery imperilled my capacity to regain the pace I had achieved prior to falling ill. Having spent last year waiting for something to happen (to use a line which has always haunted me from one of my favourite Gaslight Anthem songs, attached below) before deciding I couldn’t wait any longer, unchosen inactivity felt like I was once more stuck in a mud not of my own making. This feeling left me reflecting on an idea from John Dewey I first encountered early in the pandemic:

When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.

When I first stumbled across this in 2021 I (mis)read it through an accelerationist lens which equated the ‘full meaning of each present experience’ with the intensity of the activity underlying it, reflecting the existential imperative “to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it” as Hartmut Rosa described this emerging existential orientation. From this vantage point inactivity almost feels like early death, confronting oneself with the brutal fact of 4000 weeks of existence oozing away, second by second and minute by minute.

But reading it back, it’s clear that not only was Dewey not equating ‘extracting the full meaning’ with frenetic activity but he would be suspicious of any such association. In fact to valorise action as an end in itself is likely to collapse the present into the future, moving us forward without learning from the journey. The point I think is to inhabit the present, even when the ‘potentialities of the present’ are constrained and uncomfortable; if we do this then the future comes inexorably, rather than being something we have to be orientated towards or work towards us in some way. Even if it’s boring, you feel ill and e-mails are flooding in at a terrifying rate 🤧

2 responses to “On waiting for something to happen”

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