Yesterday I got the best present for these cloistered times: a huge English dictionary (in two volumes!) and a book on psychology by William James. These generous gifts from a new friend (thanks, Emma!) have already improved my life and arguably improved our dinner-table conversation. According to me, anyway. Our resident Millennial rolled his eyes about my newfound enthusiasm for etymologies, saying “OK Boomer.” Go figure.
Those gifts have inspired today’s thoughts on time and its vicissitudes. But first, let’s all remember that our lives had vicissitudes well before this crisis! Perhaps it’s the lack of vicissitudes that’s making us miserable? More on that below… let’s recall what the word means:
*Vicissitude (Etymology: Latin vicissitudo, from vicissim, “by turns” + preposition -tude [forming an abstract noun, as altitude, exactitude, solitude]
- Reciprocation, return, an alternation, a regular change (Rare)
- The fact or liability of change occurring in a specified thing or area; an instance of this.
- Change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs.
- In pl. Changes in circumstances; uncertainties or variations of fortune or outcome.
Aha! It is the lack of apparent change, the sameness, of life under coronavirus that makes the time feel so long. Let’s play a mind game to test that: try to grab the now. You’ll find you have to continually say, “Ok now!” “No, now!” “Now!” “NOW NOW NOW NOW!” because as soon as you speak the word, it is already no longer it. But that does not make it any more interesting.
The great lecturer and pioneer in psychology, William James (1842-1910) articulates that paradox nicely:
“Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”
“Reflection leads us to the conclusion that it must exist, but that it does exist can never be a fact of our immediate experience. The only fact of our immediate experience is what has been well called ‘the specious’ present, a sort of saddle-back of time with a certain length of its own, on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. … with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end.”**
Then why is the present is so boring? Back to vicissitudes. As James writes,
“A day full of excitement, with no pause, is said to pass ‘ere we know it.’ On the contrary, a day full of waiting, of unsatisfied desire for change, will seem a small eternity. Tœdium, ennui, Langweile, boredom, are words for which, probably, every language known to man has its equivalent. It comes about whenever, from the relative emptiness of content of a tract of time, we grow attentive to the passage of time itself. Expecting, and being ready for, a new impression to succeed; when it fails to come, we get an empty time instead of it, and such experiences, ceaselessly renewed, make us most formidably aware of the extent of mere time itself.”
He suggests another experiment: “Close your eyes and simply wait to hear somebody tell you that a minute has elapsed, and the full length of your leisure with it seems incredible. … The odiousness of the whole experience comes from its insipidity; for stimulation is the indispensable requisite for pleasure in an experience, and the feeling of bare time is the least stimulating experience we can have. The sensation of tedium is a protest, says Volkmann, against the entire present.”
If tedium is a protest against the lack of stimulation inherent in our current “Lockdown,” “Stay at Home” or “Shelter-in-Place” lifestyles, what can we do? Aha, the dictionary again comes to the rescue! Sometimes understanding a word can lead to an action to activate it or prevent it. To avoid the enemy–insipidity–we must know what it looks and feels like.
Insipid*** (Etymology: comes from the French insipide or late Latin insipidus, formed as IN– [prefixed to adjectives to express negation or privation]+ sapidus, [savory, delicious, prudent, or wise])
- Adjective. 1. Tasteless, having only a slight taste, lacking flavor.
- Lacking liveliness; dull, uninteresting.
- Devoid of intelligence or judgment; stupid; foolish.
- Noun. An insipid person or thing; a person who is deficient in sense, spirit, etc.
The answer to insipidity–that is, boredom– is to find things that are opposite to all of the words above. We turn to the word Interest.
Interest**** (Etymology: from Latin interest, it makes a difference, it concerns, it matters]
Many meanings follow, but for us it is nos. 8 & 9 that matter
- A state of feeling in which one wishes to pay particular attention to a thing or person; (a feeling of) curiosity or concern.
- The quality or power of arousing such a feeling: the quality of being interesting.
CONCLUSION! To change the dull into the savory, without moving beyond our homes or speaking with strangers, we must change our perspectives. We must find something that arouses the feeling of curiosity. Take one thing about your life and change it. For me, I went outside and took a new photo of our window with the sign, from a slightly different angle. The new photo hides the damage on the window frame and ushers in the view of lovely young buds poking out of a tree branch. Now this photo journal will also track the progress of spring!
I’m also creating a new quilt design, by channeling memories of travel and experimentation in a stream-of-consciousness for a young woman far away. These squares show how I’ve deconstructed Alice in Wonderland by stitching some key moments from the book (where Alice puts the key in the door, meets the hookah-smoking caterpillar and follows the anxious rabbit) into a patchwork that includes scraps of one of her old dresses, surrounded by scenes of Paris and a cityscape by night, trees, French words, and a crane for long life and good luck.
Wishing you an interest-ing day! And see ya in the a.m.!
P.S. Interesting. (Etymology interest + suffix ing [forming nouns from verbs, by analogy denoting a) verbal action [i.e. fighting, swearing, blackberrying, or an instance of it, as wedding], or an occupation or skill [i.e. banking, fencing, glassblowing]. Our goal is to create a skill out of being curious with the banal….
*The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), vol. 2, p. 3532.
** William James, Psychology: The Briefer Course, ed. Gordon Allport (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), pp. 147-152.
***The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 1387.
**** Op.cit., vol. 1, p. 1400.