The Willingness to Be

Reading James’ Varieties today, and I ran across a phrase that struck me. ‘The willingness to be…” The phrase struck me because it seems particularly apt for characterizing a crucial part of grief and of aging. Each, in its peculiar way, threatens or diminishes our willingness to be.

Grief, the experience of loss, makes the thought of renewed investment in being frightening or unendurable. Aging all-too-often chokes the willingness to be by making it seem that being is the using up of a now urgently finite resource — and we become miserly with our willingness to be, as if unwillingness could somehow bank being, and willingness spend it, if it is spent, only in certain chosen moments.

But we will be — whether we be willing or unwilling to be.

6 responses

  1. There is something wild in the universe we are meant to redeem, starting with our own hearts. For this our half-wild, half-saved nature is adapted. This heart is the deepest communicator of truth and with it these positivist pronouncements sound like the chattering of teeth.

    Exert this will to be and fight for redemption, lest a king more noble and merciful than Henry IV proclaims to you after the battle: “Hang yourself, brave philosopher! we fought and you were not there!”


    Just trying this show I paid attention, both to the above and to your first podcast lecture. Perhaps being heard by a friend is a balm.

  2. I haven’t read William James’ “Varieties,” I confess, though I admire him and return often to the section about him in Louis Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club.” The thing is, though, I just wanted to thank you for your remarks on “the willingness to be.” I swear, sometimes it’s as though weeks go by without me having a useful thought in my head – and now I’m following a strand of thoughts related to miserliness and magnanimity, as they relate to “willingness,” and how “willingness” works, or doesn’t, with philosophy’s big ol’ bear, Free Will. This strand may go nowhere, but it is a beginning – thank you again.

  3. Agreed, Kelly.
    Another variable, i would submit, is prolonged sickness with inexplicable symptoms; a collective malaise that casts a certain shadow of doubt & uneasiness across all of daily living; one doesn’t even have to ‘be old’ to be paralyzed by the “intrusion.”
    As you’ve said (iIm just rephrasing here): There is that particular act of will that makes us participants in literally choosing Joy over despair; that act of will affirms that our finititude, our illness and our mortality is not the last word.

    • I was thinking about a passage of Samuel Johnson on sickness just this morning. “The duty [of patience] is not more difficult in any state, than in diseases intensely painful, which may indeed suffer such exacerbations as seem to strain the powers of life to their utmost stretch, and leave very little attention vacant to precept or reproof. In this state the nature of man requires some indulgence..”

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