Did some laundry. Did the dishes. Mowed the back lawn.
Now it’s 3:00 pm.
— § —
Was a time when I’d have been pushing the mower along in the heat while chewing over the nuances of the complex arguments I wanted to make—but at times couldn’t quite formulate—for my dissertation. Lost in thought and citations and concepts, I’d push it along and dissertate intensely. Was a time when I’d have been pushing the mower along fuming about some reason my then-wife was so pissed off at me, and about how I could improve our relationship and somehow save our family. Was a time I’d have been pushing the mower along thinking about finances and financial strategy to get us through the lean years of graduate-school-while-working.
These days, when I begin to do laundry, or to wash dishes, or to mow, I do it more or less by accident, rather than as the purposeful initiation of a necessary chore, and as I do it I think nothing.
There is nothing but the air on my skin and the passage of time.
“Going through the motions,” I think they call it, and it is stereotypically associated with people just my age.
— § —
When you’re younger you imagine that middle-aged folk “go through the motions” because they—to be ungentle about it—suck. They are essentially unimaginative, uninspired, unagents—previous models or revisions of the human subject so inferior as to be lacking a soul. They operate, you imagine, essentially from a series of written and unwritten rulebooks, the aggregate and bureaucratic code of society and convention, with nary a thought of their own.
When you reach that age, naturally you’ll be different—just look at how your imagination bursts at the seams, how you are chomping at the bit to confront the world!
Of course when you get there you realize that in fact one goes through the motions as a matter of being able to survive and to function. The mind must be off for this to work; when the mind is on, it must not only contend with the problems that are at hand (and by middle age they are manifold and quite serious), but also with History.
— § —
History is the bugaboo here, because as one ages, it grows—the part of life that is behind you, the part with the consequences that echo forward to the present, and that multiply like weeds or rabbits—continually gets larger (as does the canon of consequences that you will and are enduring), while the realm of possibility—that is to say, the future and the things that you’d plausibly like to do or plausibly might do, and that thus inspire planning, agency, and purposive agency—continually gets smaller.
By middle age, the past has become the Past; history as become History, and as one tries to march along through the day, these represent significant, stumble-worthy debris along the road underfoot. The cognitive overhead and costs associated with having to conceptualize and cope with History at some point surpass the cognitive and motivational benefits of aspiration about the ever-shrinking future.
To have any hope of functioning, you must find a way to make History into mere history again, but given that one’s history comes to tower over one’s consciousness as it grows, this is very difficult to do.
“Going through the motions” isn’t a strategy; it’s a tactic. It’s a way of buying time, of bogging the blitzkrieg down in trench warfare so that there is some hope of finding a way to win.
One does catch hints, now and then, in one’s mind of minds that virtually every resource is being dedicated to this tactic and a kind of stalemate has been reached, since with every moment, history grows and the equilibrium must be pursued and recreated anew with mindful mindlessness.
“Going through the motions” is, in fact, thus an active strategy in pursuit of passivity, with the goal of arresting the avalanche of time that will, ultimately, come down on your head and result in your personal—emotional, cognitive, physical—death.
In short, “going through the motions” is buying time. Time to live. Even if that isn’t much, it’s not nothing—and unless you were born an elite, it’s what you’ve got.
— § —
It falls by birthright only to the elites on the coasts, to the legacies and to the bureaucrats’ sons and daughters, to be alive and conscious and engaged after forty. To have ideas. To think a thought every now and then.
Thought is, in fact, a form of hereditary privilege.
For the rest of us, ours is to try to merely stay at least one step ahead of History, so that tomorrow comes again.
Do laundry. Wash dishes. Mow lawn. Work hard not to think ever again—even about not thinking ever again—because you stand at the edge of the cliff of irreversible decline and once you do, your days are short and numbered.
So long as there are people who depend on you, your job is, first and foremost, to carry them as far as “going through the motions,” too. Then, they’re on their own.