Archive | W.H.Auden RSS feed for this section

Carpe diem … or the devil in the clock

3 Feb

another angry clock


AS far as I know the acronym FOWT – Fear of Wasting Time – is one I invented myself (this blog, 3 September 2018). But it does seem to encapsulate a common anxiety.

On the Psychology Today website (  U.S. doctor Alex Lickerman writes that of all the things that have made him anxious in life, time is probably the most pervasive. One of the examples he cites is certainly familiar to me. During college vacations – a time when he should have been more relaxed – he found that he was increasingly experiencing feelings of dread. The reason, he realised, was that he’d always wanted to be a writer, and the breaks from a busy college schedule seemed like an excellent opportunity to start writing. But somehow or other he never did.  ‘Which, sadly, often made my vacations feel to me like wasted time.’

Years later, and his time anxiety now seems to him to have become extreme. The conclusion he draws is that it stems not just from a fear of death (that is, of running out of time) but also from a fear of wasting his life. ‘My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning. That is, I worry constantly that I’m spending my time on things that are meaningless. Or, perhaps I should say, not meaningful enough’.

It isn’t, Lickerman says, that he believes some outside power has assigned a meaning to his life which he’s striving to fulfil.  ‘It’s that I recognize my well-being is largely determined by the importance of the value I feel I’m creating with my life. I want—I need—what I do with my life to matter.’

This makes absolute sense to me. I can certainly empathise with Lickerman when he tells us that as he grows older he becomes ever more convinced that he doesn’t want his life to seem like one long wasted opportunity. Presumably a lot of people feel the same way – it must be the reason why one of the questions included in the annual UK happiness survey is, ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’

As mentioned in my earlier blog, immortality probably wouldn’t be the answer, even if we were capable of achieving it.  We’d still be fretting about meaning, and not spending enough time creating it.  The alternative solution offered by Lickerman is to work out what it is you want to do, and then do it.

‘If you also suffer from time anxiety, I’d encourage you to stop and ask yourself if you aren’t really more anxious about what your life means. About what you’re doing with it. And if it turns out you’re worried that what you’re doing isn’t meaningful enough, then figure out what is meaningful enough and start doing that.

If the contribution you’ve decided to spend your life making in fact feels like the most meaningful contribution you could make, and like me you’re anxious because you’re not always spending your time doing it, remind yourself, as I did, that you don’t need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.’

A bit tough, maybe? Personally, I think right now the advice  I need to be following is the bit that says, ‘Don’t spend every minute of your life on value creation’. I’m on a tight work schedule, and just tearing myself away from my desk can sometimes seem to require a superhuman effort.  As for shopping, preparing a meal, and sitting down to eat it – that’s way beyond what I can manage.

Which is stupid.  But Lickerman does take account of  self-destructive urges like this one. Basically, I think he’s suggesting that once we’ve decided what is meaningful for us and have tried to organise our lives around it, then we can afford to take a bit of time off.

But not too much. ‘Carpe diem,’ as the Roman poet Horace memorably advised us (Odes 1.11). After all, you never do know when your end is coming:

‘While we speak, envious time is fleeing: so pluck the day,
and believe in the future as little as possible.’

W.H.Auden puts it even less positively. Unlike other animals – ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes … Swans in the winter air’ –  we humans are afflicted with self-consciousness. ‘We, till shadowed days are done,/ We must weep and sing/ Duty’s conscious wrong,/ The devil in the clock,/ The goodness carefully worn/ For atonement or for luck.’ (Song). 

People as time-anxious as I am are probably well advised to renounce the devil in the clock and all his works (eg. crammed diaries, windows notifications, email alerts). But for me ‘plucking the day’ is still important. Just so long as it isn’t much more than an eight-hour day, and it leaves me at least a little time to go to Sainsbury’s and buy half-a-dozen eggs and a bag of potatoes for my tea. 













What is thinking for?

15 Oct

A footnote to my last blog: I realise that reading doesn’t always lead to thinking, nor should it. Just after I’d posted my blog I heard a discussion on the Radio 4 arts review programme Front Row (10 October – World Mental Health Day) about the part reading novels can play in combating depression.  For this exercise you need to choose novels which aren’t too taxing. Marian Keyes, herself a novelist, favoured Margery Allingham, while the presenter Stig Abbell was an enthusiastic champion of P.G. Wodehouse. ‘I never go anywhere without a book,’ Keyes told us – she refers to it as her ‘emergency novel’. Once she’s feeling a bit better then she can move on to something more challenging. Continue reading

Was he free? Was he happy? …

1 Aug

This question is posed by W.H.Auden in his poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’, written in 1940. It’s part of an imaginary epitaph composed by state bureaucrats for an anonymous but exemplary Citizen.      

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:                                  Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The bureaucrats in the UK’s Office for National Statistics think a query of this kind is better addressed to the Citizens themselves, while they are still alive. ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ is one of the questions they ask in their Integrated Household Survey.


I approve of ‘happiness’ questions, and I’m certainly not out to criticise this initiative. But we do need to be aware of the problems associated with answers to life satisfaction queries. When we ask people if they’re satisfied with their lives, they’re inclined to say, ‘Yeah … it’s OK … it could be a lot worse’. Most people tend to believe that their lives are good enough. As the philosopher Daniel M.Haybron points out, (‘Happiness and Its Discontents’, The New York Times, April 13, 2014), even in some desperately poor countries the majority of the population are recorded as being satisfied with their lives. Perhaps this happens because we don’t like admitting, even to ourselves, that we haven’t got everything we want or need. It’s easier just to put up with it; there’s nothing worse than telling yourself you’re miserable and then not being able to do anything about it.  ‘This sounds like resignation, not happiness,’ Haybron comments.

And it’s difficult to draw any comparative conclusions from data garnered in this way. In some cultures they set the aspiration bar very low, while in others it’s ridiculously high. So how ‘satisfied’ you are depends very much on where you are living. Is Bhutan, for example, a happier country than the US?  Most world-wide happiness surveys will tell us that this is the case, but this may not be particularly meaningful. Perhaps people in Bhutan just aren’t aware how much better life could be if their homes had electricity and their food supplies were more assured. People in the U.S., on the other hand, may still be hankering after the American Dream, so don’t record very high satisfaction levels. 

Or maybe the surveys are right, and the secret of happiness really does lie in ‘not wanting very much’?  I think I heard one of the characters in Angels in America (possibly Prior) suggest something very like this while he was in a fit of existential despair.  Perhaps everyone, throughout the world, would benefit from a dose of low expectations? Whatever we think about this, we probably have to agree that the responses to the ‘how satisfied are you?’ question aren’t necessarily going to tell us a great deal about  relative levels of  happiness.

Another problem with the question is that a declaration of life satisfaction is compatible with highly negative emotional states, like depression. I speak as one who knows. When I’m plummeting into the abyss, a query about whether I’m satisfied with my life would be meaningless, to say the least. ‘On the face of it my life is fine,’ I’d have to admit if anyone asked. ‘It’s just that life’s too hard for me.  I’m too rubbish to be satisfied. Mind you, I’m not dissatisfied either. I’m just in hell. Sorry.’  But once I’ve  crawled out of the pit – inch by painful inch – I’d  probably report that my life is actually  rather wonderful.

So for me, it would depend on when you asked the question. On my good days – the majority of my days – I’d say that I’m  highly satisfied. But that doesn’t take away the pain of the thirty-odd days a year when I’d  probably prefer not to exist.

Others might freely admit to having sad and difficult lives, but to being nevertheless highly satisfied. Yes, they find their existence gruelling, yes, they’re overworked and badly paid, but what does that matter? They’re struggling to achieve something that is really worthwhile, and that’s what gives them satisfaction. You needn’t be a depressive to express this view  – in fact, you’re probably not one, since confidence in the validity of what  you’re working on isn’t  generally the hallmark of the depressive.  But people slogging their guts out on back-breaking projects and not minding that their existence is pretty bleak might  well say, yes, they’re gloomy, but yes, they’re also satisfied.

So is there any alternative to asking us about life satisfaction? How about trying to find out how we feel instead?  This is the question which is constantly being put to high achievers by interviewers in the media – how did you feel when you won the Oscar, broke the world record, received the Nobel prize? It’s also one of the further questions addressed to very ordinary people by the Office for National Statistics. ‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ It concerns itself with our mental or emotional state. In my next blog I’ll be wondering if this is a better way of testing our happiness.