Archive | Vasily Grossman RSS feed for this section

Living in the moment

18 Aug


In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), the beautiful, dissatisfied landowner Odintsova says, “Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for example, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation with people we like – why does it all seem to be a hint of limitless happiness existing somewhere else, rather than genuine happiness, the kind, that is, we possess ourselves?  Why is it?” (chap.18)

“You know the saying,” the young radical Bazarov replies. “Happiness is where we are not.”

I know just what Odintsova means. Her dissatisfaction speaks of a nagging perfectionism, a feeling that any snatches of  happiness we manage to experience are offering us mere glimpses into a seamlessly  happy existence that is always going to be beyond our reach.

It is this sort of mentality which the disciples of mindfulness  are attempting to combat when they advise us to live in the moment, without  being always on the look-out for the worm in the bud or the future fall from grace.  Whenever I’m feeling particularly at ease with the world I often find that I have to suppress the urge to stop and write down the recipe. “This is how I ought to be conducting things all the time,” I say to myself. More strolling, more music, less talking, fewer glasses of wine. It’s as if I’m trying to make a rule for life out of the moment rather than just experiencing it. And that is probably not a good idea.

But  there must be limits to our enjoyment of the happiness of the moment, surely. If our sense of present well-being is bolstered by an awareness of the suffering of others (‘We’re so much better off than ….’), then it probably should  be resisted. The Ukrainian/Russian writer Vasily Grossman gives an outline of just such a moment in his story ‘The Old Teacher’, first published in 1943. It’s an exceptionally grim counter-example, an episode in which the mass execution of Jews is presented as a ploy to make other races feel that their sufferings could be a great deal worse.  In the story, an old Jewish scholar in a small town in the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union is analysing the tactics pursued during the wartime invasion by German forces. “‘The Fascists have created an All-European system of  forced labour, and to keep the prisoners obedient they have constructed a huge ladder of oppression. The Dutch are worse off than the Danes; the French are worse off than the Dutch; the Czechs are worse off than the French. Things are still worse for the Greeks and the Serbs, worse still for the Poles, and last of all come the Ukrainians and Russians. … The further down you go the more blood, the more sweat, the more slavery. And then, at the very bottom of this huge, many-storeyed prison is the abyss to which the Germans have condemned the Jews. Their fate has to terrify all the forced labourers of Europe, so that even the most terrible fate will seem like happiness in comparison with that of the Jews. … The Germans will say, ‘Don’t grumble! Be happy and proud, be glad that you are not Jews!’”

This was not of course the right moment for Ukrainians and Russians to be feeling happy or proud. It was a moment when the very notion of happiness had to be rejected, and general suffering embraced.

So there have to be limits to living in the moment. But knowing where those limits are to be set in our own world isn’t easy.  Staying in the moment and resisting the yearning for a more complete happiness  is probably good for our individual peace of mind.  But that doesn’t mean we ought also to be resisting the intimations of unhappiness which the prospect of other people’s suffering evokes in us. We shouldn’t  be staying in the moment if that means shutting our eyes to painful or unjust events taking place beyond our immediate horizons.

Suzanne Moore, I find, has similar reservations about the value of mindfulness. In The Guardian recently (Aug 6 2014) she announced, with deliberate irony, “Most of what is wrong in the modern world can be cured by not thinking too much.”  Clearly, Moore believes that the problem is too little thinking, not too much. Mindfulness, in my view, has a lot to offer stressed or depressed individuals. But, as Moore argues, it would be  a mistake to see it as the ultimate panacea for the world’s ills.