I know only one poem written by British poet Frances Darwin Cornford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin. I know there are others, and I know where to find them. I find this particular poem provocative. It is titled, “Youth,” and it describes the difficulty of the daily grind of life.
A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life.
I thought I was going to positively change the world. I suspect most of us once believed we were the golden-haired Apollos exquisitely described by Cornford. I suspect most of us who find ourselves surprisingly well into their second semi-centennial, as I do, identify with Cornford’s “long littleness of life.”
Living with urgency, as I often recommend, is challenging. It requires focused attention. It is therefore exhausting. Why bother?
Why bother being consumed by Cornford’s “long littleness of life,” which I interpret as diligently attending to the mundane details of daily living? Why bother living with urgency? Why bother paying attention? Why bother being fully present? Why bother living in the here and now?
These are great questions. As I told my students in classrooms for two decades, when I say, “that’s a great question,” it means I do not have a definitive answer.
Why bother? So far, at least for me, the alternative to the long littleness of life is not appealing. So far, at least for me, the certainty of my near-term death, coupled with the absurdity of life, encourages me to march onward through the mundane details of everyday life. Better yet, my Camus-inspired perspective regarding absurdity and my Edward Abbey-inspired sense of anarchism allow me to appreciate the mundane details of my daily life. Perhaps an example will help.
I used to rush through the mundane tasks I deemed important only in the sense that they illustrated my desire to take responsibility for myself. I would take out the garbage, wash laundry, and clean the countertop with an uninspired approach: Must Go Faster (MGF). Now, however, I am less hurried and more attentive as I go about these tasks. I just gathered the garbage in the apartment I occupy and then I hauled it to the nearby dumpster. It went swimmingly, so I will tell you all about it.
Four baskets were filled with garbage from the three rooms upstairs. How did that happen? Included was the package from the crackers I had two days ago for lunch. The package made me smile, and it took me back to yesterday’s light breakfast, no lunch, and then dinner with two beautiful new friends. I look forward to seeing the friends again in the days ahead. Doing so will interfere with my ability to research, synthesize, and promulgate evidence about our imminent demise. This tradeoff is definitely worth it.
Downstairs were three trash containers, including the big one in the kitchen. It reeked of rotten bananas. I love the smell of bananas, even rotten ones. I carefully put all the trash, from upstairs and down, into a total of four bags. I exchanged the slippers on my feet for slip-on shoes and ventured into the freezing outdoors. I know it was freezing because the snow that fell early this morning is still about an inch deep on the sidewalk. My arms full, I stopped to smell the crisp outdoor air before proceeding to the dumpster. Then I leisurely returned to my keyboard. I could go on, as regular readers know, describing the falling of each footstep, the sounds of the village, and my focused attention to each breath. With this mundane task, I was balancing urgency with a profound appreciation for the mundane that I formerly lacked. I am now urgently, diligently paying attention to details that I ignored for more than five decades.
I enjoyed the 10-minute excursion even as my MGF non-consciousness was whispering that I could have accomplished the task in half the time. Yes, I argued with my MGF non-consciousness, but the five minutes saved would not have been worth it. I have traded in the ability to accomplish more work for appreciation of the here and now.
Even if I exceed my anticipated expiration date by a few years, I have very few remaining trips to the dumpster. I will not get to take out the trash more than a few dozen times. I will revel in every one. I will gladly dismiss thoughts of Must Go Faster for a few more breaths of crisp air.