Someone recently asked me about the books I like to read. My first impulse was to start naming books that have changed my life. But then I realized, the conversation we were having wasn’t about life-changing moments: it was about leisure. What she really wanted to know was what sorts of books I liked to pick up when it was time to relax at the end of the day, but the only sorts of books that I could think of were the ones that pushed me to evaluate and to transform some of the foundational principles and assumptions upon which I based my life. This is far from relaxing. But more often than not, it seems to be the way I expect myself to spend my free time these days.
I love my life and my work in the academic world. I get to spend my days in the exciting realm of theology and the arts, reading books and asking questions that have always mattered to me, and that have the potential to be life-changing. But it’s very easy to get so caught up in that world that you start to think of the radically life-altering as the norm, so that eventually even leisure time becomes a part of that world of expectations, and thereby ceases to have its own special significance as a time of, well, leisure.
Plumbing the depths of life is hard to do, in a way, but sometimes it can also be easier than living closer to the surface of life. This is particularly true in the world of the arts. We are drawn to those works that take us deep into the heart of the human experience, that challenge what we think we know about our lives and our world, and that make us know in different ways. These works help us to affirm that there is something deep in our experience of the universe. They give us the comfort of knowing that what we see or comprehend isn’t all that there is, and that there is more out there than we can fully comprehend or grasp. When set against art with this sort of power, novels or music or films or pictures or whatever that merely give us some moments of enjoyment at the end of the day seem pretty shallow.
But shallowness is the point. Shallowness is where we live most of our lives. Shallowness is where we interact with the people we meet, where we divide up our time, where we spend our money. Anything deep begins with something shallow, and the things we discover in the depths have to be brought up to the shallows in order to have any real significance. That’s why sometimes some of the most important works of art are those which do a good job of representing shallowness. These works don’t change our way of viewing the world; they simply show us the world as it appears on the surface, in a way that makes us appreciate that surface. They help us to take a mental break or to wind down at the end of the day by reminding us that the world is a nice place to be.
This doesn’t mean that they represent a naive, unrealistic image of a happy-go-lucky reality, but that they show us how all the personal and inter-personal dilemmas that we inhabit on a daily basis come together to form a bigger picture, which, when it’s completed, we can put down with a satisfied sigh. This kind of reading (or listening or watching) for pleasure fosters love, joy, and respect for the ins and outs of the shallowness of life. Without this sense that the surface of life is ultimately a good place to be, we might just drown in the depths.
Caitlin Washburn is a first year PhD Candidate at the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts and recently completed a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Historical-Critical Biblical Scholarship for her MLitt at St. Mary’s College.