“The vibrancy which may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception, it reveals that extent to which our dissatisfaction may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.” (Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, p.153).
I’ve read Alain de Botton’s book “How Proust Can Change Your Life” twice recently. The first time I read it quickly on the way to work over a couple of days, but the second time it was a slow read, with a pen and paper handy to take careful notes and underline and paraphrase key points. This approach felt fitting because the entire book is an argument to not be hasty.
It argues that we should take our time in describing something properly instead of resorting to cliches, that we should take our time making a judgement about someone instead of assuming income and formal education translates to virtue and intelligence, and that we should take our time to understand what life is teaching us when we experience difficulties. And in the perhaps most interesting chapter, we are asked to open our eyes and seek the beauty within our daily life.
According to Proust, we may be unhappy with our routine because popular art has told us that what we ought to value looks different. Reading his example of how an imaginary youth might seek out a museum because he cannot see the beauty in the everyday, I wondered if our expectations act as barriers to being fully rooted in where we live. I know for myself, I came to love Toronto deeply once I stopped seeking Vancouver within it, I loved Bandung deeply once I stopped thinking about Canada, and I have become much happier in Vancouver upon moving back once I stopped comparing it to Toronto. Instead of having specific expectations of what life should look like and thinking, “Toronto doesn’t have mountains!”, “Vancouver doesn’t have the same active Islamic learning scene!”, and feeling disappointed, I’ve been slowly learning to quiet down and appreciate each city for what it is.
The same could be said for life stages. Though I enjoyed graduate school, there was a danger to count down the days and wish the intensity to be over and working life to begin. Now that I’ve graduated and started working, it is easy to grumble through the commute, long for the weekend and exclaim with delight once Friday arrives. Fulfillment and happiness becomes something in the distant future, requiring external conditions – being in the perfect job, in the perfect city, with the right company – to exist.
Aside from the impossibility of perfection, such an attitude ignores the fact that all the moments of your day, week, month, and year make up your life. Which is not to say one pretends to have a chipper attitude – delusion is not the aim – but simply that it is too easy to grumble and sleepwalk through existence. The harder (and according to Proust) necessary work is to find ways to be as peaceful and appreciative as you can wherever you are. To stubbornly insist in seeing and spreading beauty. To have trust that what is challenging now will hopefully become easier and better later, but that requires succeeding in finding the good and lessons in where you find yourself today.
Go slowly Proust tells us, and look carefully, because life is too valuable and short for us to relegate living to a later time.