Life as pre-occupying

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Living Consists in Pre-Occuping Ourselves

José Ortega y Gasset on the basic reality of our life.

What Is Philosophy?

Mildred Adams, trans.
New York: W. W. Norton, 1960, pp. 240-9.

But before concluding, I would like to carry the definition of "our life" a bit further. We have seen that it is finding oneself occupied with this or that, a form of doing or making. But all doing is a process of occupying oneself with something and for something. The occupation which is now an expression of ourselves is rooted in and directed toward what is commonly called an end. That "toward" in view of which I now do this, and in so doing live and have my being, I chose because among the possibilities which lay before me I believed that my life would be better if I occupied myself this way.

Each of these words is a category, and as such, an analysis of it would be inexhaustible. Out of them comes my actual life, the life I make, or what I actually do, the life that I decided upon: that is to say, before my life as I make it comes a process of deciding to make it-of deciding my life. Our life decides itself, anticipating itself. It is not given to us ready-made-not like the trajectory of the bullet to which I referred earlier. But it consists in deciding, because living is finding oneself in a world which, by no means hermetically sealed, is always offering opportunities. For me the vital world, every instant of it, is composed of being able to do this or that, not of having perforce to do this and only this.

On the other hand, these possibilities are not unlimited —if they were, they would not be concrete possibilities but a purely indeterminate collection, and in a world of absolute indetermination, in which everything is equally possible, it is not possible to decide on anything. In order that there may be decision there must be both space and limitation, relative determination. This I express in the category called "circumstances." Life always finds itself amid certain circumstances, in an arrangement surrounding it, filled with things and other people. One does not live in a world which is vague; constitutionally the vital world is circumstance, the things and the people about one, this world, here and now. And circumstance is something determined, closed, but at the same time open and with internal latitude, with space or emptiness in which to move about and to make one's decisions; circumstance is a riverbed which life goes on cutting within a valley from which it cannot escape. To live is to live here, now; the here and the now are specific, not to be exchanged for others, but they are ample.

All life is a constant process of deciding between various possibilities. Astra inclinant, non trahunt—the stars impel, but they do not compel. Life is at the same time freedom and fatality; it is being free within a given destiny. This fate offers us a determined and inexorable repertory of possibilities, that is to say, it offers us different destinies. We accept the fatality and within it we decide on a destiny. Life is destiny.

* * *

"Our life" is set and anchored in the immediate present. But what is my life at this moment? It is not the process of saying what l am saying; what I am living this moment is not a matter of moving the lips; that is mechanical, outside my life, it pertains to the cosmic being. On the contrary, my life is the process of thinking what I am going to say; at this moment l am anticipating, I am projecting myself into the future. But in order to say this I make use of certain means-of words-and that gives me a portion of my past. My future, then, makes me discover my past in order to realize that future. The past is now real because I am re-living it, and it is when I find in the past the means of realizing my future that I discover my present. And all this happens in an instant; moment by moment life swells out into the three dimensions of the true interior time. The future tosses me back toward the past; the past toward the present, and from here I go again toward the future which throws me back to the past, and the past to another present, in a constant rotation.

* * *

In this extreme measure and up to such a point is human living a constant anticipation, a pre-forming of the future. We are always very perspicacious with regard to those things in which the qualities that we prefer are realized; on the other hand, we are blind to those which, though of equal or even superior perfections, belong to a type of thing that is foreign to our innate sensibility. The future comes first: incessantly we press it with eager attention so that its favorable juices may drip into our hands; and only in terms of what we demand of it, what we hope of it, do we turn our eyes toward the present and the past in order to find within them the means with which to satisfy our desires. The future is always the leader, the Dux: the present and the past are always aides-de-camp and soldiers. W e live moving forward into our future, supported by the present, with the past, always faithful, off to the edge, a little sad, a little frail, as the moon, lighting a path through the night, goes with us step by step, shedding its pale friendship on our shoulders.

Psychologically, then, the decisive thing is not the sum of what we have been, but of what we yearn to be: the appetite, the desire, the illusion, the ambition. Whether we like it or not, our life is in its very essence futurism. Man goes being carried du bout du nez by his illusion-a baroque and picturesque image which is justified because the end of man's nose is, in fact, what usually goes ahead; it is the part of us which goes into the spatial "over there," the thing that anticipates and precedes us.

The process of deciding on this or that is a portion of our lives which has about it a certain breath of freedom. We are constantly deciding our future being, and to realize it we must count on the past and make use of the present as it operates on the actuality, and all of this within the "now"; because that future is not just any future, but the possible "now," and that past is not the past of someone who lived a hundred years ago, but the past up to now. Do you see? "Now" is our time, our world, our life. This flows along calm or tumultuous, a river or a torrent, through the landscape of actuality, of that unique actuality, world, and time to which we give a number, as of years after Jesus Christ. In it we go encrusted; it marks out for us an entire repertory of possibilities, of conditions, dangers, means and facilities. With its features it limits the freedom of decision which motivates our life, and in the face of that freedom it becomes our destiny.

To say that our times form our destiny is not merely a phrase. The present, in which the past-the individual and the historic past-is summarized and condensed, is that portion of fate which intervenes in our life; in this sense life always carries a fatal dimension and some hint of having fallen into a trap. Except that this trap does not strangle us, but leaves to life a margin of decision and always permits us, out of the imposed situation, to achieve an elegant solution and to forge for ourselves a beautiful life. Hence, because life is part fate, and part the freedom we need to make decisions for ourselves, there is at its very root the stuff of art; nothing symbolizes this better than the position of the poet who bases his lyric freedom on the exigencies of rhyme and rhythm. All art implies the acceptance of a shackle, of a destiny; as Nietzsche said, "The artist is he who dances in chains." The destiny which is the present is not a misfortune but a delight, the delight that the chisel feels when it encounters the resistance of the marble.

Imagine for a moment that each one of us takes only a little more care for each hour of his days, that he demands in it a little more of elegance and intensity; then, multiplying all these minute pressures toward the perfecting and deepening of each life by all the others, calculate for yourselves the gigantic enrichment, the fabulous ennobling which this process would create for human society.

This would he living at the top of one's form; instead of drifting through hours that pass like rudderless ships, we would find them moving-before us, each with its new imminence and importance.

And do not say that fate does not allow us to improve our lives, for the beauty of life does not lie in the fact that destiny is or is not favorable to us, but in the grace with which we accept the challenge and out of its fatal material fashion a noble figure.

But let us gather into one dear formula our entire analysis of what, in its fundamental essence, our life is. These perceptions of fundamental facts flee one's comprehension like shy birds, and it helps to shut them into a cage fashioned from an expressive name which lets us see between the wires the idea made prisoner.

We have seen that living consists in the process of deciding what we are going to be. Heidegger says very delicately, "then life is concern," what in Latin is called cura, from whence comes cure, procure, curiosity, and so on. In ancient Spanish the word "cuidar" (to care for, to take care) had precisely the meaning which we now find in such terms as curator, procurator, curate of souls. But I prefer to express a similar, although not identical, idea with a word which seems to me more exact: I say that life is preoccupation, and not only in moments which are difficult, but all the time; in essence it is no more than this, to be preoccupied. Every moment of the day we are having to decide what we are going to do the next moment, what it is that will occupy our lives. This is occupying ourselves in anticipation, pre-occupying ourselves.