Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being
(1999) contains a series of essays centered on a central exploration of what it means to be a human being in the world. Dillard seeks answers to the big questions that have captured the hearts, minds, and imaginations of philosophers since time began. What does it mean to live, to be? What is the purpose of human existence? Do we each make our own contributions to the world, or do the actions of one person even really matter? How do things such as art, nature, spiritual belief, thought, good, evil, and time impact our journeys here? Like all thinkers before and since, Dillard delves deep, and what she often finds are fewer answers and more questions. Ultimately, then, these findings only underscore both the glorious complexity and innate unknowability of being human. For For the Time Being
, Dillard received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.
Dillard presents the book in seven chapters, breaking each chapter down into 10 separate subsections, each examining the chapter's overarching topic. The subsections are birth, sand, china, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now. These subsections allow for a more thorough inspection of the topic, but their presence in each chapter highlights the commonality of so many of the issues that fall under the purview of Dillard's lens—issues that also course throughout every human life.
To explain her ideas, Dillard uses many unique examples. For instance, she illustrates the immediacy, urgency, and utter realness
—not to mention the sheer randomness—of birth by discussing various birth defects as described in a medical textbook. She looks specifically at a case of bird-headed dwarf siblings, wondering about their suffering, and suffering in general, and whether it has an ultimate purpose.
In another chapter, Dillard plumbs the subject of birth by following a maternity nurse around a shift at a hospital. This allows her—and us—to see birth from another vantage point, as a place where firsts are part of the daily routine. A baby's first bath, or diaper change, or dressing. Wonder is mixed with a mundane quality, a recognition of something truly special and momentous that is simultaneously something literally everyone else on Earth has been through earlier in their lives. Another one of life's puzzling contradictions: the extraordinary yet very ordinary human birth.
Suffering, of course, figures in as well; it is an obvious part of the birth process. Dillard theorizes that time is something of a gift to the suffering individual. As time passes, a painful event often lessens its grip and suffering recedes. How else to explain the choice to have multiple children, knowing the pain involved each time? How else to explain the human ability to simply cope with life's tragedies and still possess the strength to move forward? How else to explain our capacity to love and love again and love some more—knowing that love can lead to loss?
Empathy is a key aspect of understanding suffering, and this is another source of investigation for Dillard. At another point in the book, she wonders what life was like for the pre-Neanderthal man discovered in China by paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. While acknowledging the marvel of such a discovery, Dillard also questions whether one can ever truly
know this early man's life experiences. She speculates about his personal life, his job, his interests, his capacity to love. She juxtaposes these ideas against the thought of people in that same area of China—or anywhere else in the world—today, going about their lives with perhaps the same level, or perhaps same lack of, self-awareness as the pre-Neanderthal man.
In going back and forth in time, Dillard discovers the natural tension inherent in time itself. Yes, its passing assuages suffering, but it also presents a whole different type of suffering: the anxiety of the present moment. And while recognizing that anxiety, one cannot dismiss the beauty of living in the here and now and showing up for what the moment offers—even if that offering is suffering. It is all a great, interconnected web, each concept inextricably bound up with the others: suffering, time, anxiety, presence.
Not surprisingly, Dillard, like all philosophers, can provide only theories in the end. And maybe that's just as it should be. Mystery, too, is a part of the human experience. Where there is mystery, there is room to examine, to question, to celebrate. There is an opportunity for mysticism, an open space for magic. But above all, there is a reason to hope. As long as we never have it all totally figured out, we can retain the wonder necessary to life on Earth. The wonder of a newborn baby. The wonder of a pre-Neanderthal man. The wonder of a writer daring to ask bold questions and seek answers. The wonder of reading her ideas.