franzen, kierkegaard and the silence of paternity leave in sweden

I have not read Jonathan Franzen’s new best-seller Freedom.  But – belatedly, hey, I live in Sweden – I have listened to a long interview with Franzen on NPR and read the Time cover story, and Freedom is about families, and Franzen is an insightful guy, so I kept having insights, such as “Yes!  In Sweden, parents are not trying to be best friends with their kids.  Thank goodness!”

In the Time article, the writer, Lev Grossman, wrote:

He cites — as one does — the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been …

Franzen says. “The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.”

Now, I have not read Kierkegaard – the Danish philosopher –  though I’ve read around him – you know, little stories in the New Yorker or whatnot.  And it fits in my curious journey into ridiculous high-low cultural extremes (I am reading a way too dense Thomas Mann novel right now, but am also absolutely transfixed by the Backyardigans.  I could watch preschool-level cartoons for hours, though they would all make me think of Thomas Mann – yes, it is weird).

Ever since I returned from my time in post-war Croatia 12 years ago, I’ve struggled with our modern busyness.  I can’t read bad books.  I’ve stopped watching TV.  I can’t even sit still for the baseball playoffs or a full NFL game without getting a headache.  Now that I sit in front of a screen at work, it’s even worse.

But, still, it took a long journey to Daddyland, on paternity leave, for me to truly quiet down and get past the modern buzz.  I was forced to focus on my kids’ very basic needs.  I spent many hours in parks, just watching trees and sand and playing toddlers.  I walked a lot.  I did not watch TV because I did not want my kid to watch TV.  I napped every day.

And it worked, stepping off the treadmill like this.  I came to peace with myself on many levels.  I started to really write again.  I shed this almost frantic career anxiety.  I did not learn to live in the moment as I just started living in the moment.

I think that’s in a Backyardigans episode, actually.


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