‘I just love to –’ Would this settle the question?
It was January and I was teaching a class. The session was on ‘Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural Development’. The question under discussion: ‘What is happiness?’
This was a mandatory topic and I hadn’t been looking forward to teaching it. Sixteen-year-olds can feel –understandably – reluctant to discuss this kind of thing. I needed some well-selected axioms ready to hand, to guide the class towards some palpable – albeit reductive – conclusions.
But happiness? The question was too big. I was no authority. No – I was feeling bruised. There would be no philosophy happening today. I took a deep breath and beamed.
‘Okay! What do you love to do?’
Bemused silence followed. Faces sagged with fatigue and apathy.
I moved to the classroom door, opened it, stood on the threshold and, in an attempt to loosen up the class, tried to look like I was not particularly listening. I remained doggedly silent and let the seconds pass.
Then a pupil at the back put up his hand. I motioned to him and he said, ‘Making sandwiches.’
‘Can you build on that?’
We probed. We tried to understand. His proclivity had nothing to do with actually getting the sandwich made. Sandwich or no sandwich: ‘I just love to spread.’
Maybe there is an analogy here for that first step of putting pen to paper – running the knife edge over a piece of bread, just for the feel of it.
It can be a mess; never mind. There are plenty of things worth doing for their own sake, in spite of this. Children know. They play. Children don’t ask: ‘what exactly is the point, here?’
We may not always find a point. If the only point of writing is to try to acknowledge the knarled obliquity of life, of questions like ‘why?’, then that seems fine, even if we fail to codify our experiences satisfactorily. The words we scribe or type or tap will still have something to say, even if it isn’t what we intended for them. I know this will be considered unworldly.
In the meditations of T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, ‘trying to learn to use new words’ will always be a ‘different kind of failure.’ In a culture that can feel driven by utilizing others and ourselves as modes of productivity and so-called achievement, perhaps habitual practice in failing is a way to become free. As writers, we acknowledge how difficult it is to fully ‘get the better of words’.
But we can take a stab at it. It’s an activity as good as spreading margarine on a piece of bread, as good as anything that moves us beyond ourselves towards somebody or something else. The question ‘why?’ is never settled. And yet, when we write, we can write from a sort of love; trying to settle it.