What We’re Doing When We Think We’re Doing Nothing

I’ve always liked it that the actor Richard Burton could admit in his diaries: “I am fascinated by the idea of something but its execution bores me.” And this from the guy who played Hamlet (and whoever else) a million times.

But there’s something to it for those of us who’ll never play Hamlet, or ever publish a novel, since even those who have seem to have an inkling of a different kind of fulfillment. In our especially “results driven” time where so much can be quantified with disturbing exactness, the idea that it’s the process that matters and not the outcome is pretty staggering, even to the point of not caring if there’s an outcome at all.

In this way it’s wonderful to think of Burton preparing to play Hamlet, and doing everything from imagining how to put himself in the mind of the Dane; or being aware of the long lineage of actors (from Burbage to Olivier) who preceded him in the role; pondering what it is to be a father or a son; or just becoming aware of his own relationship to drama, acting, art, and the play-within-a-play—it’s wonderful to think that this was enough for him sometimes, and perhaps on some level, all the time. The rest of it literally was scenery and stage-managing.

So that it doesn’t escape me that even if I leave a handful of finished poems or essays in my wake, my family may find the most in the notebooks and diaries I complete without really thinking about it, the slow and bare accumulation of my thoughts and memories before I thought to transform them into “something better.” The critic Harold Bloom made this point much better than me: “what you pride yourself on, the things that you think are your insight and contribution … no one ever even notices them…. What you say in passing or what you expound because you know it too well, because it really bores you, but you feel you have to get through this in order to make your grand point, that’s what people pick up on…. What you really think you’re doing may or may not be what you’re doing…”

Isn’t this interesting? And how does this relate to the rest of our lives? Is sometimes the planning of a trip better than the trip itself; or in a similarly opposite way, is ignoring the itinerary entirely where the real meaning actually occurs? Is sometimes going to the store or a concert or for a run not actually what really happens, in the end?

For all the conscious awareness that goes into paying the bills or noticing how much gas is left in the car, how little else of our lives actually hinges on awareness of that kind? I met my wife only after months of applying and being accepted to a college I was thrilled to go to, but which I easily forgot about when she showed up. So is it healthy to act as if there is an end and a goal in mind, all while going along with the knowledge that what we’re really trying to do is keep ourselves open enough for anything to happen, for risk and accident?

Or just beyond anything cosmically meaningful, I’m aware that for the past year, and quite unintentionally, I’ve been dipping in and out of a certain poet’s work and life story through books and podcasts and documentaries; and for anyone else out there the equivalent could be a director, a chef, an athlete, whoever—just a life. And it strikes me that I’ll probably never write much about this person, never do anything “useful” with the knowledge, but I know that the months slowly spent with him here and there have just been astonishing. I’ll never write a memoir about it, but it’s been immensely meaningful nevertheless. Isn’t this enough—and sometimes, isn’t this actually just it?