Adam Phillips Fritz Perls Gardening Guilt Procrastination

The Forbidden Guilt of Unfinished Projects & Unforbidden Pleasures

If the winter had been colder, I would feel less guilty, but it has not been cold.

In fact, it’s been so freakishly temperate, that many a day, I could have stepped out into the garden quite comfortably with nothing more than a t-shirt, a fleece, some trackie bottoms, crocs (navy blue, so almost permissible, I hope?), and a thick pair of socks on my feet.

There have been previous winters where I’ve suffered in a noble but excruciating fashion with chillblains in my fingers and toes, after digging in the dirt with only a light cotton gardening glove on my hands, nothing but wellies on my feet for warmth and padding. This winter is not one of those.

Guilt is a social emotion, a sense of having failed some kind of moral order. Martin Buber talks about three spheres of guilt in his essay “Guilt and Guilt Feelings”: civil guilt, existential-religious guilt, and psychological guilt. The guilt I feel towards the garden, as well as writing, I think falls into the second category.

Perhaps because, in my mind, bringing a garden into being stands as a kind of covenant between me and some of the 300 thousand species of multicellular eukaryote (plants) known to be currently co-existing with us on the planet. A covenant, not that dissimilar to the Noahic or Mosaic covenants (the former to protect, the latter to cherish and nurture). A covenant struck between Man and his Judeo-Christian sky-deity.  Also the more familial and familiar secular versions of this: parents and children, dogs and their owners, clients and therapists.

In all of these spheres, a seed has been planted, cultivatory energies unleashed, and so perhaps to abandon the project as it begins to grow might be seen as a form of neglectful oversight, or in the worlds of Lady Bracknell, just plain carelessness.

Not that this should matter, you might argue to readers of the blogosphere where the “product” you’re consuming is just one of 70 sextillion (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) grains of data-based sand lying on Google’s abysmally vast text-beach. But it matters to me.

Guilt is not necessarily assuaged by reminding ourselves of the polarised demands on our energies. Time spent in the garden, writing about the garden, and more or less every other pursuit in my life has been heavily truncated since the arrival of Max, as every puppy or non-puppy parent would no doubt acknowledge.

If I were a better organized parent, I’m sure I could probably do a bit of everything (parenting, gardening, writing, socialising) in moderation, and so continue to keep all those generative plates spinning, but I am not especially well-organised, so I tend to either binge on one extra-curricular activity to the detriment of all the others, or hand-wringingly bemoan the whole lot of them being swept aside by kibble, odiferous calves hooves, and the demanding timetable of daily walks, grooming, and general beady-eyed monitoring.

Or maybe it’s more complicated than this I-Don’t-Know-How-He-Fails-To-Do-It dynamic sketched out above. Perhaps a more congruent way of exploring this kind of guilt, or any kind of guilt we might have, is to think in terms of a dialectic Adam Phillips explores in his recent book-length koan, Unforbidden Pleasures: an attempt to redescribe and rethink the show-stopping or show-stealing forbidden pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – or whatever floats your boat in that sphere- in order to help us focus with more gratitude and joy on our unforbidden pleasures like gardening or blogging.

The unforbidden, as you well know, usually falls into a diminished category: “a merely a forlorn consolation for the middle-aged”. But what would it mean to become more mindful and curious, Phillips wonders, about “our largely unarticulated experiences of unforbidden pleasures, in all their extraordinary variety”?

“The aim of development may be to become as dependent as possible, not as transgressive as possible,” he suggests. Particularly if transgression always sets us up for a kind of “tragedy”, which is “what happens when we let the forbidden narrow our minds. The idea of pleasures that are not somehow painful – that are not cures or compensations or alibis for pain – has become literally inconceivable, so wedded are we to our perpetual dismay.”

One of the ways I am wedded to perpetual, guilty dismay, is in the way I compulsively seek the forbidden, and then abandon it as soon as it settles via habit or unrestricted repetition into the unforbidden.

Do you do this too?

For example: I might turn to the pursuit of gardening to satisfy a need for forbidden pleasure (transgressively carrying out unremunerative work when everyone else is slaving away at desks for their daily dolour/dollar). But as soon as this starts to feel permissible and legitimate (gardening in the morning, seeing clients in the afternoon), a new contender for the forbidden must be found in the way that a certain kind of man might at some point in his marriage require a mistress in order to make up for the unforbidden pleasures of having a wife.

In my case: I start writing a blog about gardening. And when that mistress also becomes as unceremoniously unexciting as the wife I’ve given her up for, i.e. just another “forlorn consolation”, I then move on to another project. And as I go along in this back and forth pull between unforbidden safety and certainty and forbidden excitement and stimulation, results in the ever-increasing likelihood of a series of fractured, unfinished and incomplete endeavours. You might not be surprised to discover that I have a number of writing projects that fit this modus operandi.

The only problem is that unfinished business doesn’t seem to be particularly good for our psyches. Compare our feelings towards artists who manage to complete a major piece of work before they die (two recent examples: Bowie’s Black Star and Oliver Sacks’s On The Move), compared to those who don’t (Dickens’ Drood, DFW’s The Pale King, Jeff Buckley’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk).

Or think of poor Edward Casaubon, the fusty academic who in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is higgledy-piggledy enmeshed in the research and writing of his lifelong project The Key To All Mythologies. We, as readers, know straight away that Casaubon is a man who has lost all rhyme or reason (the bon-cause?) in terms of the functional completion of his work. But it takes his new wife, Dorothea a little bit of time to catch up with us:

“And now she pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins—sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child….[His] was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.”

You don’t get more unfinished than that, do you? To understand why Casaubon’s unfinished business feels so piercingly painful to Dorothea (shattered mummies, crushed ruins, aborted infants, cosmological confusion), we need to understand why unfinished projects weight so heavily on all of us.

In thinking about the forlorn dissonance of any incomplete work of art, it might also help to think about matters as diverse as the irritating ditty playing in my head at the moment on repeat (Right Said Fred’s “No One On Earth), as well as how waiters without pads to write on, remember long and complicated food orders, but just as quickly forget them as soon as the order has been filled.

In 1947, Fritz Perls, the aggressively zany founder of Gestalt therapy, popularized the idea of a self-regulating experiential cycle that maintains the internal equilibrium of each individual by seeking to complete itself. He called this the Cycle of Experience, and we can use the idea to track the writing of this blog post:

  1. The organism (me) at rest: sitting in the summerhouse working my way through a packet of Fox’s Ginger Creams.
  2. The disturbing factor: this may be external (noticing how untended and unloved the garden is looking), and/or internal (thinking about the last time I updated LLFOG)
  3. The creation of an image: me spending a few hours each day getting back into the gardening groove, as well as gestating some ideas on what to write about next
  4. Behavioural activation with the teleological image in mind: such as making a list of what needs doing in the garden, or scribbling down a few thoughts on the unforbidden/unfinished in a notebook
  5. A decrease of psychic and physiological tension as the activities carried out mark for the organism a reboot of the incompleted task
  6. And finally, hopefully: the return of organismic balance as a section of the garden gets tidied, or this blog post finally gets written. Only for the whole cycle to then start all over again.

Twenty years previously, Bluma Zeigarnik, a student in Berlin, had noticed how waiters in a Venetian restaurant were able to remember complex orders while they were being filled, but forgot them as soon as they were completed. Her realisation (which Perls must have mined for his Cycle) was that until we complete a task we’ve set out to do, we experience an internal tension that rattles around in the psyche with a teleological clatter until we finally take heed and actualize our need to complete.

Similarly with my Right Said Fred earworm: one way to get the 15-30 second snippet off the inner-turntable, would be to sing the whole song all the way through, in order to “complete it”, and so remove the mind’s need for one more ruminative, how-does-it-go spin.

And this is ultimately why, on another sunny, almost-spring-like day, having completed the next few paragraphs, even with the realisation that there is much more to be said on this topic, I will put down the laptop and step back into the garden, trowel in hand to once again take care of the unforbidden.

Unforbidden tidying, unforbidden weeding, unforbidden decluttering of a space which reflects back to me just how cluttered my own forbidden internal realm sometimes is. Yet in sticking with these unforbidden projects, until the experiential Cycles in which they lie are good-enough complete, something good is being done.

How could it not be good, as we carefully if somewhat laboriously tend to our unforbidden tasks? Attempting to knit together techne and telos, aspiration and conduct, all the while hoping that some of the “organismic balance” that we crave and need, that delicious sigh of job-done, game-over relief, is finally restored.