The Predicament of not Living Your Own Life

A Director Who Can't Direct

The inciting incident in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006) is a suicide. Albert Jerska is a theatre director who’s been blacklisted by the East German authorities. His friend, Georg Dreyman, is a playwright in good standing with the regime. As Dreyman advocates for Jerska, Jerska sinks deeper into depression. A blacklisted writer can continue to write—maybe even smuggle work abroad or circulate it as samizdat. A blacklisted director can’t direct. He’s like a projectionist without film, a miller without corn, says Jerska. Not long after he explains his predicament, Jerska hangs himself.

Jerska’s despair can be linked to a single incident—the decision by the authorities to bar him from directing—but I think it would be a mistake to characterize his predicament in terms of a particular incident. His despair concerns the overall form of his life, not its particular content. The idea that your life as a whole can feel wrong is a particular kind of suffering. This blog post offers some reflections on this kind of suffering.

Blacklisted director Albert Jerska in The Lives of Others

Two Kinds of Suffering

When philosophers talk about suffering, the familiar examples are particular. Physical pain is the most straightforward case but you don’t have to go there: heartbreak, grief, failure, depression are all forms of suffering that don’t necessarily involve any kind of physical pain. But all these forms of suffering concern the events that make up my life. This thing happened, I’m suffering because it happened, and I wish it hadn’t happened. If it hadn’t happened, my life would be better. The thing that happened is a stain on my life.

The kind of suffering I want to give attention to is less about particular events and more about a general disorientation. The problem isn’t a stain on my life but rather something like this: that I don’t recognize this life that I find myself in the midst of as mine. Like Dante’s speaker at the opening of the Inferno, I find myself in a dark wood with the straight way lost. As a director who can’t direct, Jerska’s own life has been closed off from him. The life he’s been forced into isn’t his own.

Practical Identity

What does this mean? What’s the difference between a life that’s mine and not mine? Surely any life I’m living is mine by definition. I think I can get clearer on the sentiment of not living one’s own life by drawing on the idea of a practical identity. To stay with the example of Jerska, he identifies as a theatre director. “Theatre director” is a description under which he identifies himself and also values himself. A practical identity also gives a certain normative shape to a life. As a theatre director, there are certain things one does, should do, must do, must not do, and so on.

Jerska identifies as a theatre director but he can’t do any of the things that a theatre director does. Without those activities to structure his life, his days are flat, empty, meaningless. He still does things but none of those things make sense to him. They don’t make sense to him because they aren’t activities that sustain or further any practical identity that matters to him.

This kind of suffering, to repeat, is different in kind from the suffering of frustrated desire. It can be confused with that latter kind of suffering because Jerska’s suffering does stem from a frustrated desire: he wants to direct and he can’t direct. But directing isn’t one thing among many that he might want to do. It’s the activity by which he makes sense of himself. It’s as a director that he wants some things and doesn’t want others. If he’s not a director, he doesn’t even know what to want. So his predicament isn’t simply one of a frustrated desire that runs very deep. His predicament is that he no longer knows how to orient himself toward desires at all.

Existential Anxiety and Existential Exile

Jerska’s predicament is related to existential anxiety but I think it’s different in an important way. Existential anxiety also concerns a loss of meaning, and one that confronts a life as a whole rather than just this or that aspect of a life. But anxiety confronts us with the question of how any life could be meaningful, whereas Jerska’s predicament is more particular.

I’ve likened anxiety to skepticism in the way that it not only casts doubt on something we previously accepted unreflectively, but also casts doubt on how anything in that domain could possibly be acceptable. A skeptic doesn’t just doubt whether we know all the things we ordinarily suppose we know. She also doubts the very possibility of knowing anything in the first place. Likewise, existential anxiety doesn’t just call into question the meaningfulness of my life as it is right now. It questions how any kind of life could meaningful—how such a thing as a life might be the sort of thing that could be imbued with meaning in the first place.

Jerska isn’t in the grip of existential anxiety of this kind. He isn’t confronted with this general and universal problem of how a life might make sense at all. He knows perfectly well how a life might make sense. A life of directing would make sense to him. What makes his predicament painful is that he can see what a fulfilling, flourishing life would look like just over the fence, as it were. But the way into that happy field is blocked.

The experience I’m describing is less like anxiety and more like exile. It’s not just any meaningful life that you’ve been shouldered out from. It’s your own life. Immigrant narratives often contend with this feeling of being uprooted from the life that made sense to them and being forced to find some other sense of meaning in a new and strange setting.

"After This, Nothing Happened"

Jonathan Lear offers a powerful illustration of the same phenomenon in his book Radical Hope. The book takes its cue from a remark by the Crow chief Plenty Coups. Plenty Coups led the Crow during the period of upheaval when the Crow went from being nomadic warriors and hunters whose communal life was structured by the buffalo hunt and war with traditional enemies like the Sioux to being sedentary farmers forced onto reservations by the US government at a time when the buffalo had been hunted to near extinction. Reflecting on the decades after the buffalo hunt had ended and the Crow had been forced into reservations—decades in which he was very active as a leader—Plenty Coups says that, during this time, “nothing happened.”

Lear interprets Plenty Coups’s remark as expressing the loss of identity that befell the Crow through this massive upheaval. The identity of an adult Crow male is shaped by his prowess in battle and on the hunt. If those activities cease to exist, the anchor points by which he makes sense of his life have been removed. There are no longer any events that can count as something “happening.”

Crow chief Plenty Coups

Radical Hope

Unlike Jerska, Plenty Coups did not commit suicide. On the contrary, the latter part of his life was quite active. The “radical hope” in the title of Lear’s book expresses the form that this activity took. It didn’t consist in a sequence of “happenings” that made clear sense. It had an exploratory quality, which involved projecting himself and his people into a future that didn’t yet—couldn’t yet—make sense.

There was hope that on the far side of the collapse of the traditional Crow way of life, there would be something to live for. And that hope was radical because, from his present situation, there was no for Plenty Coups to understand what that new way of life might be or how it might make sense. Not just in the sense that he didn’t know what the future would bring, but in the sense that, what the future would bring would be unintelligible from his present circumstances. What it means for something to “happen” would have to undergo a sea change.

Conversion and Grace

The openness to something that doesn’t yet make sense is a theme in conversion narratives. I’ll set one more figure alongside Jerska and Plenty Coups: Saint Augustine. The narrative portion of Augustine’s Confessions has a curious parallel structure. The very same events fit into two different narratives: the story that Augustine at the time thought he was living out and the story that in hindsight he can see was the journey God was taking him on.

For example, in the middle of Book 5, Augustine travels from his home in North Africa to Italy. At the time, he saw the purpose of this journey as taking him to better disciplined students and prospects of career advancement. But in hindsight he sees that God was sending him across the Mediterranean to bring him into contact with Saint Ambrose and eventually to conversion and baptism.

Augustine didn’t see at the time what awaited him in Italy, and if he had, it wouldn’t have made sense to him. Even when he has become convinced of the truth of Christianity and longs to convert, he isn’t ready—famously asking God to make him chaste, just not yet. What brings about the conversion is beyond his control. A moment in a garden in Milan, he hears a child’s song, he opens a book to a random page—none of this is planned or is made to happen through an act of volition. In Christian language, what Augustine experiences is grace.

The Conversion of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico

Alternative Narratives

One way of understanding Augustine’s conversion is to say that the story of his life made sense in a whole new way. He had thought he was living out one story and, after his conversion, a different story became apparent, a story he’d been living out all along but hadn’t been able to see. And it’s not just that he hadn’t been able to see it—it’s that the one story occluded the other, so that, as long as he thought he was living out the story of a teacher of rhetoric, he couldn’t see the story of conversion and grace.

A story doesn’t just relate a sequence of events. It organizes those events into a meaningful structure. You might say a story relates something “happening.” One way of interpreting Plenty Coups’s remark about “nothing happening” is that he can’t fit the events of his life after a certain point into a story that makes sense to him. The radical hope that Lear describes is the hope that there is a story that all these events fit into just beyond the horizon of intelligibility.

How to Radically Hope

What grace and radical hope have in common is that they’re unlooked for, and can’t be looked for, but that doesn’t mean that they happen at random. They require an openness to the possibility that life might change in ways that can’t yet be understood, and a willingness to relinquish an attachment to life as it is. Plenty Coups was willing to imagine such a change. Augustine longed for it. Jerska couldn’t see the possibility of a life beyond the one he’d been deprived of.

Jerska wasn’t necessarily wrong. To say that there can be liveable alternatives on the far side of a momentous change doesn’t mean that there is such an alternative. Plenty Coups’s hope wouldn’t have been radical if it were assured of success.

A Distinct Kind of Suffering, a Distinct Kind of Hope

Radical hope is a distinctive response to a distinctive situation. Toward the outset of this post, I said I wanted to consider a distinctive form of suffering—suffering due not to a particular unhappy event in one’s life but due to its misshapen form, to the sense that one isn’t living the life that’s properly one’s own. Radical hope addresses this distinct form of suffering because it’s directed at the life as a whole. It offers the hope that this life that you’re living, the one that doesn’t feel like your own, might yet become your own in ways you can’t yet understand.

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