Living Rhythmically

Why Making Life Decisions is more like Reading Poetry than like Reading a Map

About a week ago, my husband and I received visas to live and work in Australia. We are planning to leave Indiana sometime around mid-August. This situation – one that involves picking up our whole life and moving again to the other side of the world where we know virtually no one – has come about because I accepted a position with Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. The decision to take the position, which implies leaving behind a comfortable job, caring community, and curious students, was not an easy one to make. I did everything in my power to find some clear reason to stay or to go. I collected as much information as I could, heard opinions from all my friends and family members, tallied pros and cons, and weighted those pros and cons. These strategies are all geared towards, in different ways, attempting to predict the future. Given the precarious nature of the academic job market in which so few academics have stability or a semblance of work-life balance, predicting whether one of my decisions might leave me trapped or send my career crashing to the ground in flames felt like an especially important thing to do. Will a research position on the other end of the world open doors to other jobs in the future? Or is my best chance at that coveted job security to stay where I am? Will staying here too long crush my marketability? Or will I be a barista in five years if I leave?

These are, of course, questions that are impossible to answer. But they also obsessively occupied my attention. My approach to making the decision was to find as much information as possible in an attempt to construct patterns that could predict which route would be more fruitful, gratifying, or safe. I was looking at the problem from 30,000 feet. I was looking at the problem synchronically.

People (myself included) often wonder what the practical applicability of my research is. Most of the time, I’m inclined to resist this question. I believe that understanding reality is a valuable pursuit in its own right even if there are no clear applications for behaviour. In fact, I would argue that the attempt to understand something that is not immediately and clearly related to one’s personal life can be a practice of selfless love and attention. In a sense, the whole point is that it’s not about you in any personal or direct sense. It’s about reality and you are swept up in it insofar as you are part of reality. You are not related to research as the Copernican sun around which everything revolves. That’s to mistake research for self-help literature.

Nevertheless, in the case of my attempt to make a decision about my career, I noticed that the theoretical distinction around which my research on rhythm has been organized was operating in the background of my decision-making process as well. Everything that I have described so far about my approach to the decision assumes a synchronic perspective on reality. In the case of rhythm, a synchronic approach maps out all of the intersecting patterns that make up a particular poem’s rhythm. In a synchronic theory, a rhythm simply is these intersecting patterns that can be viewed all at once. It can therefore be subjected to measurement and analysis. I tend to be critical of this approach to rhythm when it is used as a way to describe reality because if rhythm’s purpose is to describe how reality is the synchronization of differences into a coherent whole, then it must be conceptualized so generally so as to lose everything that matters. It becomes just a vacuous metaphor. One of the most significant and defining features of rhythm is that it is experienced in time – diachronically. To remove that temporal dimension, to freeze a rhythm into a map, is to betray its nature. So, I argue that one of the great lessons of rhythm when applied to theology is that as rhythmic creatures, which is to say, as creatures bound to time, we should attempt to do far less of our theology synchronically than is currently the case. We should be making more attempts to understand our place in time and fewer attempts to articulate some grand metaphysical description of all of reality.

And yet here I was doing precisely this thing that I have been arguing against. I was attempting to see the whole of the pattern, to account for as many factors as I possibly could, so that I could locate myself within the pattern and thereby clarify how I should move forward within it. But it didn’t work. And of course not. This was by definition a temporal decision, a decision that I had to make at one specific and non-replicable point in time, in the context of the highly particular unfolding of the time of my existence. The only thing I could do was to take the step in front of me that was most consistent with my vocation as it had unfolded thus far just as, if I had been reading a poem, I could only make a decision about how to perform the rhythm of the next line based on what I had already performed. I would not have the benefit of a map. I might have prior experience with poetry but it would only be helpful as what it was: a collection of previous experiences, not as a universal map of poetic rhythm. To treat it as such would probably lead me astray in steering my attention toward an abstract pattern and away from what was a hand.

It was only when I realized this that the clouds lifted, the atmosphere clarified, and I could see what I had to do. It felt like a click in my brain, like the view switched from the 30,000 foot camera to the one at eye-level, the one looking straight at the fork in the road. And, paradoxically perhaps, it was this view, not the one with all of the information, not the one that had attempted to work out contingencies and probabilities, but the one that was restricted to evaluating the single next step in time, that could see the way forward.

I have noticed this tendency toward patterns in myself several other times since that moment. I tend to want a clearer picture of the messy things that I am embedded in. In my marriage, for example, I sometimes try to identify mine and my husbands’ patterns of interaction, our goals, and the ways in which these cohere and conflict. I tend to think that if I abstract myself and look for the patterns, this will make me happier and more competent because I will have more information and will therefore be less confused and more in control. This is a lie. Doing this actually makes me miserable. It’s only when I stop looking for patterns and take my messy situation one beat at a time that I know how to move forward.

This is not to say that analysis or attempting to define patterns is always bad. It is a necessary skill in most of my work but I think it only works for certain limited problems, for identifying points of influence between different thinkers perhaps (I’m working on the index for my book right now and that’s all about the 30,000 ft view) but it does not work well as an approach to flourishing. Because, of course, if I’m 30,000 feet in the air, looking down on all of the patterns, I am not really present to what’s happening now. And living well seems to consist largely in being present to what is now.

So we’re moving to Australia. Was this the right decision? It’s a strange question. In a very real sense I don’t know, because seeing patterns synchronically is not the same thing as knowing what the real future, experienced diachronically, will be. And sometimes I wish we were all more honest about this. I wish we were more honest that most of the time we probably don’t make “right” or “wrong” decisions. We just make a choice. We perform the tricky line and everything that follows must make sense of and incorporate that performance in some way. This is me performing the tricky line. I can know whether or not I did it well – that is to say, gracefully, attentively, and responsively – but I can’t know whether or not I did it “right.”


2 replies »

  1. This has been a great post to read. Hello from a fellow WordPress pilgrim.

    I will be responding to another post as well, but I was touched and impressed with this. I am increasingly interested in language (philosophy of language and linguistic anthropology etc), but literature is an area in which I am a layman at best (though I am very interested as a journeyman reader). Prior to my work in aesthetics, I am both professional and academic musician and very interested in the ways in which musical constructs are appropriated across the musical continuum and outside music. I have already learned much about how one might think about rhythm in poetry, but when it comes to music – and not just that of the West – concepts such as rhythm are like concepts of religion – unstable by definition.’Free verse’ is not the same as ‘free improvisation’ in a musical context, and this is part of where linguistic means of both explaining and describing musical phenomena have already begun to unravel – so the idea of basing a decision about how to perform the next line of a poem based on what one performed in the previous line works up to a point (I am a non-fake jazz musician and massively concerned with both the technicalities and the metaphysical questions around improvisation as concept and practice – not least the relation of stimuli to creativity where even the question of rhythmic choices may relate to what was performed (some would say it could not be otherwise), but sometimes really is not – other exigencies obtain instead.

    I took something personal from this post and appreciate the manner of your judicious self-disclosure. That’s also how I try to roll!


    Liked by 1 person

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