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Finding extraordinary delights in everyday life
Proust once told a story about a young man who spent much of his waking hours finding things to be unhappy about. An aesthete at heart, he would sit at the dining table and fantasize about the splendor of museums, then feel dissatisfied when he snapped back to reality: A used spoon lay on the table, the family cat napped on an old cupboard in the corner, and the tablecloth that had turned half-black from hot skillets was fraying on all sides.
You see, he had a taste for beautiful and expensive things—things he couldn’t afford. He would envy the financiers and lawyers who had enough money to decorate their houses properly, down to the gold on their cocktail tongs. And so, to escape what he considered an eyesore of a home, he would visit the Louvre to satisfy his appetite for beauty, perusing the grand palaces by Veronese and the princely portraits by Jacques-Louis.
One day, Proust tried to change his mind by suggesting that he take his Louvre tour in a different direction. Instead of Veronese, Monet, Jacques-Louis, and the like, he pointed him towards Jean Siméon Chardin.
Chardin wasn’t concerned with plump aristocrats hobnobbing in palaces or impressionistic water lilies. He painted ordinary things and ordinary lives: Bowls of fruits, empty jugs, gutted fish, bread loaves, and knives lying about. Even when he painted people, the subjects were never doing anything heroic: One boy was making a house of cards, a maid was scrubbing dishes in a barrel, and a schoolmistress was underlining bits of homework for a young student.
Yet, deep within the ordinary, there was something extraordinarily beguiling about Chardin’s paintings. He could paint a peach to be as pink and chubby as a cherub; a plate of oysters with a wedge of lemon to be as tempting as they should be as a symbol of sensuality. A dead hare, eyes still open and leaning against a silver tureen, evoked a successful morning hunt. At its belly nestled a partridge, breast punctured and wings slightly spread. A curious kitten stalked the prey from a corner and miscellaneous fruits surrounded the scene. Its colors were no less vibrant than the windows of a cathedral and there was a harmony between objects: The tureen is assumed to serve a stew that would be made with the game; the fruits and chestnuts signalled an active kitchen.
Chardin painted scenes of a normal world with places and things that are recognizably our own, yet wonderfully captivating.
This is what Proust tried to show the young man, so that when he returned to his parents’ house, he would no longer feel left out of the glitzy world of bankers and aristocrats. He wanted the young man to realize for himself that what he called mediocrity could also be depicted with opulence and that his taste should not be so single-mindedly defined by silver candelabras with crystal droplets.
When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself, this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.
— Marcel Proust
Proust wanted to say that the aesthetics realm is not out of his reach, and that, if he just opened his eyes, he would see that what he's looking for is right there with him in his very own dining room.
The 21st century is no different: Although it may not be aesthetic-related, we certainly relate to such fear of missing out. Fearing that you’re being left out of something brilliant is simultaneously fearing that what you have or where you are right now is not good enough. So the real question that FOMO poses you with is:
Are you missing out or are you just generally unhappy with yourself? Because no baseball game or concert is going to fix that sort of underlying discontent; no matter where you are or who you’re with, you will always feel like the action is happening elsewhere. Unless you find out how to become truly happy, you will always have that fear of missing out.
If you don’t like who you are, you will look for yourself everywhere you go. If you don’t like where you are—not because it is objectively unpleasant but because it doesn’t match your standards—you will travel the world, picking out its problems: You will fix your attention on the littered streets of Paris instead of its charming bakeries, the biting wind of Hafnarfjörður instead of its mossy flora, and the cacophony of Chennai instead of the colors of its spice market.
Comparison will only steal your joy if you let it. The best way to prevent comparison from luring you into the trap of envy is by having deeply purposeful goals—ones that make a Friday night out dull by comparison. Something is purposeful when no amount of shallow desires can cause it to falter. For me, no missed shopping trip or networking event will measure up to the joy of staying home to write or play the piano. A purposeful pursuit worries about happy hours as much as the 145-foot-tall canopy of the Amazon rainforest worries about flooding.
Comparison isn’t always bad, but comparison should never be the way in which you decide the value of your own ambitions. Instead, practice tuning out the background noise of the “shoulds” and focus on your grandest and most unwavering “wants”.
Slow down…you are never missing out if you fully appreciate where you are now.
There is a joy of missing out: It allows you to live at your own pace. It lets you practice saying “no” to invitations you don’t feel very glad about. It gives you permission to think about your priorities and place quality over quantity.
Perhaps, you’re undervaluing what you have and overvaluing what you don’t. What if what you want isn’t over there, but right here? Gratitude is easier said than done, because, in practice, being grateful requires you to control your appetite for more. But, once you find gratitude, whatever you have will turn into enough.
If you slow down and open your eyes to the extraordinariness right in front of you, you will rejoice in where you are right now. You’ll find the seeds in a raspberry, the smell of a new shampoo, and the foam on top of a cappuccino to be that much more delightful. You can always live inside a Chardin; there is incredible joy in the mundane, it’s just waiting for you to pay attention to it.
Thank you for reading & I hope you share this piece with a joyful heart,
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