Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

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I knew the world was in trouble when, about 25 years ago, I witnessed a psychiatrist talking on two telephones at once: one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears. He was standing in a parking lot dodging cars all the while.

God help him if he had more hands, more ears, more phones.

His behavior is called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t divide your attention as well as you think. At least, unless you are among the 2.5% of the population some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

Scientists report negative effects of multitasking on concentration, productivity, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation attached to computers and other digital devices. Some academicians tell us our brains are being rewired by dazzling digitals — our focus distracted by novel, but irrelevant information. Might a therapist’s rewired brain be less capable of listening to you?

Even for non-counselors, the effects of multitasking are serious: impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived-experience. Error rates go up, speed of performance goes down. You have created a traffic jam in your brain.

Think for a moment.

How many things do you concentrate on to the exclusion of everything else?

My guess is you do lots of activities while watching TV: listening to music (turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are unaware of how many duties we take on incompletely. We switch from one to another, hardly noticing. Time is spent reorienting ourselves as we move between tasks, slowing progress. By attempting to do more than one thing at a time, we increase the amount of time taken on all the jobs so targeted.

When was the last time you savored a single bite of food? You didn’t if you were involved in conversation. If you check your mail every time your phone pings and answer each ring, you will find not only compromised focus, but electronic seduction away from the people you love, the music that could move you, and the joy of witnessing your child’s first step.

Have you ever driven in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat, the variegated sky ahead, the sounds of the other cars, the curious shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you press on the brake? No music, no speaking, no day dreaming: you and the machine and the road, alone.

Do you really listen to your conversation partner? Focus on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the transforming expression of his face, the way he uses his hands, the volume of sound he produces, when he takes his breath, and the emotional weight of his words? Or are you distracted by other sounds and sights, a sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your head wondering what to say next, when you need to get home, how soon you can eat, or the presentation you must make tomorrow?

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My job as a therapist was to attend to what patients said and didn’t say, to detect the tiniest quiver in the voice, the slight raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a tear coming to the eye, the crispness and energy of the gait, the bouncing of a knee. And, if I did this they were usually freer to be trusting and prone to validate their own feelings — think their words and emotions had value because another person thought so.

I brought intensity and concentration to be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; not preoccupied, day dreaming, or worrying about someone else. If a therapist half-listens he should be paid half the fee.

Though I was not always successful, I tried to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus (with only occasional lapses). Why then fragment your own attention? By doing many things at once you sacrifice full engagement and satisfaction with any one of them.

I do understand, especially for moms, you don’t always have a choice. I do understand that attention to one thing is often a luxury. All the more then, we must slow down what we can control for as little or as much as it is, battling a world driving us to speed up.

I imagine you are reading this on a computer or phone. You own these. But might it be just the other way around? Might it be the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

How would your life be different if you practiced being in-the-moment, attentive to what is present at that time and place — making a living-space in your head so you can really live — not plow through the day on an attention-rotating carousel: a mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

Starting is not hard. Take one bite of food. Savor for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio on TV or online will wait. If World War III starts you will know. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will monitor the weather. The downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not urgent. The phone can be turned off.

Difficult choices are required. Some things must be cut from your life. The incoming stream of electronic flotsam can be consulted only after a longer stretch of time has elapsed: first 10 minutes, then 15, longer and longer. Mindfulness meditation, if you make it a practice, will improve focus and joy in the things you love. One task and only one task must be the only thing you take on for, say, 45 minutes before a break or switching attention.

A few years ago I saw the following cartoon: a middle-aged, long-married couple were sitting together. The husband was reading his newspaper while his wife talked. He spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The logo is called Human multitasking DFG Priority Program Logo as created by Sppteam. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revision of one I posted some years ago.

Can Morton Feldman’s Music be a Key to Meditation?

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We cannot escape the press of worldly events, expectations, and anxieties — the noise, the computers and the pressure to be the best. Indeed, to talk about the drivenness of the world only adds to the inescapable tension. Too many of us feel like a child’s old-style wind-up toy, impelled along a track we did not choose until finally we stop moving at day’s end, awaiting the next morning’s rat-race and another twist of the key to the clockwork motor. The world wins, stress wins, and we lose. And performers lose especially, by the anxiety that precedes and impedes their performance.

Enter Morton Feldman, composer, who has not been with us since 1987, when he died at age 61. A man who worked in the garment industry until he was 44. Feldman was no therapist, but his music just might add something to the much commended and researched antidote to the crazy-making nature of contemporary life: mindfulness meditation. I can offer no scientifically validated proof that his music makes a focus on “being centered in the moment” easier, but offer my anecdotal observations for your consideration.

For too many, mindfulness meditation is an elusive solution, despite its well-documented benefits to overall well-being. As meditation newbies we sit quietly and concentrate on our breathing, nothing more. We are told that it will be hard and that it should be done daily, usually shooting for 30 minutes at a time at the start. Eventually — so the research tells us — our brains will be retrained.

The object of such a practice is to permit us to live in the moment, alert to (but untroubled by) the single instant in which we are immersed. Its practitioners claim that it is a path to seeing the world as it is, accepting it without judgment. By doing that, they indicate, we stop ourselves from adding to the internally generated interpretations and pressures — and the self-consciousness — that can make life unbearable. We are advised that true mindfulness does not look back or forward. Nor is it freighted with worry, regret, or rage. They remind us that the past is gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. The only thing we have with certainty is the present instant of time and our ability to really “live” in it.

Ah, but mindfulness meditation is difficult, more than you might think. The mind wanders from the breath. We are distracted by small noises and random thoughts: How much time has passed? What about today’s doctor appointment? What did my voice teacher or boss really mean when she talked to me yesterday? Anything and everything intrudes, including troubling dead-end ideas. We are instructed to expect this; and then, when we notice that our focus on the breath has been lost, to gently return our attention to that target. Our attention and focus will, with enough practice and dedication, get better — so the experts say. Until then keep practicing.

At this point, many people give up in frustration. Here is the opening through which Morton Feldman enters, this unlikeliest of composers: a man of 6′, approaching 300 pounds; a non-stop, cigarette-smoking talker with a strong New York accent. Alex Ross described his music this way in The New Yorker issue of June 19, 2006:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences… In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his, Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

Feldman requires us to listen to music without the expectation of conventional melody fit into a recognizable musical form and provides a kind of experience that creates that new way of listening.  Unlike most Western music, Feldman’s does not seem to be leading us anywhere. We do not come to anticipate the next note or chord, as we do in a popular song or symphony. We have entered an unfamiliar space with nothing ahead of us, nothing guiding us, no forward or backward. Lacking “landmarks” we can be certain only of where we are right now. We are simply “in the moment” with the delicate sound he most often provides us — and the decay of that sound, as can be heard in this example from For Bunita Marcus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

The importance of being neither judgmental nor critical, just experiencing what is present, is crucial. It is easier to listen to Feldman’s music with this type of “accepting” attitude than almost any piece of Beethoven, Brahms, or The Beatles. Their music “leads us” to judgment — too loud, too slow, too fast — once we have established even a bit of familiarity with it. For purposes of enhancing mindfulness, however, music like Feldman’s that provides us with no map is actually more beneficial. It does not “progress” and is harder to know than that which presents a formal structure that can be grasped and notes that can be anticipated, leading our thoughts to interfere with our attention and the mind to drift away from the sound.

Much of Feldman’s work can magnetize our focus so that the pull of external or irrelevant thoughts (including self-criticism) is vanquished, but only if we give up the conventional expectations built from years of listening to “tunes” and apply ourselves to the task he requires of our ears and our brains. With this new attitude, judgments about ourselves and about the music no longer gain an easy point of entry to the mind.

The compositions he offers us don’t seem to make headway except by extraordinarily subtle and quiet changes that are riveting. We are drawn in. To give a visual analogue, it is like looking at a kaleidoscopic image that is changing almost imperceptibly (much slower and without the formal structure of the example just below) with the slightest rotation of the tube, barely enough to be noticeable.

Teleidoscope_animation

As T. S. Elliot put it in Burnt Norton, Feldman finds “the still point” without which “there would be no dance.” But it is a dance in excruciatingly slow motion that can sound boring as described, but is absorbing when experienced and heard; where background silence is as important as foreground, ever-so-careful sound.

With or without Feldman’s music as an alternative to focus on the breath, mindfulness meditation (with sufficient practice) is able to reduce the “chatter” in the brain — all the extraneous and debilitating ideas and judgments inside our head. And to accept life’s inevitable discomforts without so much of the suffering that we seem to add by our anxious anticipation, over thinking, hand wringing, and the belief that things must change in order to create a state of satisfaction.

The regular practice of that discipline attempts to assist us in finding contentment in the terms that life allows, not by virtue of some dramatic achievement or the elimination of all that most of us might wish were different. And, by helping anyone who frets about his own performance to focus on what is being performed (the music or the play or the speech he is giving) rather than the self, the actual execution of that work may reach the state that athletes describe when they are “in the zone” (or in a “flow” state*), fully captured by what they are doing (and achieving the best of which they are capable) rather than observing themselves doing it, or painfully aware that others might be watching critically.

Does Morton Feldman’s music have therapeutic value in the mindfulness enterprise or in dealing with performance anxiety, beyond its shimmering, otherworldly beauty? There is a Ph.D. dissertation or two waiting to be written on the subject, I’m sure. And wouldn’t it be ironic if a man who once said “Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it,” wrote music that might help refocus our troubled souls.

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*For a further description of the “flow” state, see my response to the first comment below.

Here is a short example of Feldman’s music, the first 15 minutes of “For Bunita Marcus:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

Here is a 20-minute talk by a monk and master meditator about the benefits of brain-retraining that can come with meditation: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

The top image is a photo of Morton Feldman taken at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on May 31, 1976 during the Holland Festival. It is the work of Rob Bogaerts. The second image is a Digital Teleidoscope Animation by nadjas. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stress of Everday Life Redux

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Much ink and electronically generated language have been expended commenting on the oppressive and stressful nature of everyday life. We are expected to move too fast, produce instant answers to complex problems, and respond with a fax or an e-mail or a text on the spot.

Many of us travel long distances just to get to work. We hardly know our neighbors and, even if we do, don’t have the time to talk to them. Each of us has his own individualized shipping container (called a car), further separating us from each other.

We relate to gadgets more than to people — voice mail and snail mail need answering, internet sites demand surfing, our phones are always on and in our pockets — even vacations don’t place us out of reach of urgent demands and obligations.

Teacher conferences require our attendance. Our children plead for our time and a car ride to assist them in their own over-scheduled lives, already buckling under the demands of metropolitan living. The house needs minding, the lawn needs mowing — there is never any rest.

We have gone from a time 50 years ago when only doctors were “on call” to one where 12-year-olds can be electronically summoned at any moment. The machines we built to assist us have started to take us over, like the “Cylons” in the science fiction future of Battlestar Galactica.

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Witness this commentary:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches — they are too common. Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception — gone before we have time to consider them.

I should like to have lived in the days when a visit was a matter of months, when political and social problems were regarded from simple standpoints called “liberal” and “conservative,” when foreign countries were still foreign, when a vast part of the world always bore the glamour of the great unknown, when there were still wars worth fighting and gods worth worshipping.

These words were written by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, diplomat, and scholar.

Yesterday, you ask?

No.

They were written 85 years ago in his journal, on December 20, 1927 when he was 23. They can be found in his book, Sketches From a Life, published by Pantheon.

The top image is Tension Belt by LeonWeber. The lower photo is the head of a Cylon Centurion by ckroberts61. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a slightly revised version of one I posted a couple of years ago.

Courage For the New Year

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Many of you, I suspect, have had a tough time over the holidays. Perhaps lonely, perhaps worried about what the future will bring. Many all over the world are yet unemployed or underemployed. Things have been difficult.

I offer you, therefore, an audio excerpt linked below, from a late 1941 speech given by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during most of World War II.

I hope that it will provide some solice and some reason to believe that a better future is possible.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would.

Virtually no one thought England would survive.

But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, still prior to the USA’s entry into the war, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater.

What he had to say applies quite well to those, even today, who might fear that worse is to come in their lives, as well as those who despair over their current condition.

Listen to the first three minutes and ten seconds and take heart.

The entire excerpt is just over four minutes long.

Once you click on the blue link just below this paragraph, look at the upper  right corner of the page. Then scroll down and click on the Speech #33 (incorrectly identified as having been given in November 1941):

BBC Winston Churchill Speech to Harrow School

The image above is Winston Churchill on Downing Street Giving His Famous ‘V’ (For Victory) Sign, June 5, 1943. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Multitasking: You Are Missing More Than You Think

H A R M O N I C A   F R A N K

I knew the world was in trouble about 20 years ago when I watched a psychiatrist (yes, a psychiatrist) talking on two telephones at once, one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears.

God help him if he had more hands and more ears and more phones.

Its called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t do it as well as you think. At least, unless you are in the smaller than 3% of the population that some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

For the most part, scientists have looked at the negative effects of multitasking on concentration and focus, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation that attaches to computers and other digital devices. Is it a wonder that so many children are diagnosed with attentional problems? Some researchers suggest that their brains (and ours) are increasingly being rewired to the point of having our concentration drawn away from its original target by novel, but irrelevant information and other distractions.

The result? Impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived experience.

Think about it.

How many things do you really concentrate on to the exclusion of just about everything else?

My guess is, for example, that you do lots of things while watching TV: listening to music (sometimes turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, eating, text messaging someone, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are not particularly aware of how many things we take-on simultaneously and the fact that none of them capture our full attention. Later, if asked to recall what we did, we just might have some trouble. And a person who really wants to talk with us while we are preoccupied with all the other things I mentioned, will find himself frustrated or, at least partially, ignored.

When was the last time that you really savored a single bite of food? If you were heavily involved in conversation or on the computer you probably didn’t.

When was the last time that you really drove your car in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car on the road, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat and your hands on the steering wheel, the variegated sky ahead, the differing sounds of the other cars, the changing shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you pressed on the brake? No radio, no CDs, no texting or talking on the phone, no conversation of any kind, no day dreaming; just you and the machine and the highway.

When was the last time you listened, really listened and watched your conversation partner? Focused intently on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the changing expression of his face, the way he used his hands, the volume of sound he produced, when he took his breath, not to mention what he was saying? Or were you distracted by other sights and sounds, your own sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your own head wondering what to say next, when you needed to get home, how soon you could eat, or the presentation you had to make the next day.

Is it time to slow down? I know, you might feel that you can’t. But is multitasking really making you more productive? Is it enhancing the quality of your life? Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth’s comment long before the computer-age: “Getting and spending (and surfing), we lay waste our powers.”

As a therapist it is essential for me to pay attention to what my patients say and don’t say, how they look and how they move; small changes in their facial expression, tone of voice, and mood; the hint of a tear coming to their eyes, the crispness and energy of their gait. And, if I do this, they will usually be freer to be open and trusting; and more prone to validate their own feelings — think of their words and emotions as having value, because someone else does.

I must bring my own intensity and focus, be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; and certainly not preoccupied, day dreaming, thinking about my next meal, worrying about some other patient, or texting another individual while I half-listen to the person sitting across from me.

Although not always perfectly successful, I try to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus. So why would you live so as to fragment your own focus by doing so many things at once that almost nothing fully engages you and produces your own personal life satisfaction?

I imagine that you are reading this on a computer that you own. But might it not be just the other way around? Might it be that the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

What would your life be like if you practiced, more and more, being in-the-moment, attentive to just what is present at that time and place — making a living-space for yourself so that you can really live — not just plow through the day in its attention-absorbing, mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

You can start so simply. Just one bite of food, savored for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio or TV or AOL will wait. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will take care of the weather. The CD or downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not that urgent. The phone can be turned off.

We hear lots about traffic accidents caused by ADHD teenagers, who are driving, texting, talking to the person in the passenger seat, combing their hair, putting on nail polish, listening to the radio, and conversing on their cell phone, all at once.

Why would one want to be an only marginally less distracted, fragmented (and dangerous) version of that person? Out of touch with the world and oneself?

A few years ago I saw a cartoon that looked something like this: a middle-aged couple, obviously married for many years, were sitting together. The husband was trying to read his newspaper and watch TV while his wife talked. Then the husband spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The above image is of “Harmonica Frank” Floyd, who is seen playing two harmonicas, one using his nose and one using his mouth. He also was reportedly able to play the harmonica and sing simultaneously. Today we would call Frank a “supertasker.”

Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.