Coping: The restorative powers of boring old porridge

Heidegger had his own theories about how to illuminate a dull life of habit and duty. I suggest porridge

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

I got up at 1.30am to make porridge. Night-time feasting had always been discouraged as a vulgar activity in our house. It was for secret emotional eaters or – worse – for inebriated carousers reeling in from a night of debauchery to throw their haggard faces into desperate relief in the unforgiving light of the fridge.

But that night it didn’t matter to me. My bones called for porridge; ached for its warm heft with milk and sugar on top. It was quite inexplicable. I can’t think of a less sexy food, a food less deserving of anyone’s desire, than porridge. But there you have it.

This aberrant behaviour was only the most recent in a series of bizarre and capricious ones. The week before, I had lost patience with the annoying and rather sexist man next to me on a flight, and ignored him when my polite indications that I wanted to read went unheard. His irritating attempts at flirtation had the queasy, lumbering pace and girth of a gastrically challenged rhinoceros. I politely listened to the very drab contents of his head for quite a while before losing patience. My inherent sense of rigid Irish terror in the face of confrontation broke down when he began explaining to me what a simile is, saying that he didn’t want to intimidate me by using technical language I might not understand. He was about 23. I shoved a pair of headphones on, audibly making a sort of “harrumph” noise, and went back to my book.

Irritation. That was it. That was the feeling grating its way up my spine and prickling inside my head with scalding urgency. It was a form of being pissed-off that landed on a spectrum somewhere after exasperation but before outright anger. A kind of buzzing disgruntlement that I couldn’t source; the sort that leaves you snappish and belligerent, but totally unsure about why, which only adds to the frustration.

Flirtation with Nazism
As I wolfed down the porridge with a strange intensity, the notion occurred again that feeling this way – like your own skin has been shrunk in the washing machine and you’ve put it back on the wrong way round – is generally a sign of some perhaps unaddressed dissatisfaction in your life bringing itself mercilessly to your awareness.

Heidegger, a famously nebulous German philosopher who is often maligned for his brief flirtation with Nazism in Hitler’s Germany, popped into my mind. Certainly, most people tend to make lesser boo-boos than thinking, even briefly, that Hitler might be okay. But that entirely stupid inclination doesn’t mean that Heidegger didn’t have anything worthwhile to say on any subject. His famously complex thinking on the nature of existence is helpful, and he has a lot to say about everyday life.

According to Heidegger, we spend the majority of our lives caught up in a sort of (admittedly advanced) zombie state of what he calls Dasein, which literally translates as “Being-There”. We are in the moment – not in a freeing, healthy sort of way, but in a rather myopic and thoughtless way. We go through what he calls our everydayness indifferently, interacting with the people and objects around us, being-in-the-world without reflecting on the meaning of our existence. When we pick up a spoon to stir our tea, the spoon becomes an extension of our hand, serves its purpose, and is finished with. We don’t think about the spoon in any real way, moving on to the next task and the next.

We don’t break the trance to stop and think about the nature of our lives, or the extent to which we go through them like automatons, trying to please others and complete a series of interactive tasks.

Heidegger’s Dasein is more or less inescapable: it is the mode in which we live. Occasionally, though, a chink of light gets through, and illuminates a dull life of habit and duty, and we start to question things. When it happens, it is distinctly uncomfortable but probably very worthwhile. To make the most of these moments of seeing the world as larger than ourselves and our small lives, Heidegger suggests a walk in the country. Porridge seems to help, too.

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