Objet petit a

Objet petit a

I’m not qualified to post this. I’m not even writing from my best state of mind. But this feels… important.

There’s a concept introduced by… I want to say Lacan, and so I will… called “objet petit a.” It sounds fancy, and it was created by a modern-day philosopher, but trust me. It’s accessible.

It literally means “small object A.” Except the “A” is intentionally in lower case, in order–according to Wikipedia–to look like a mathematical constant. Philosophers… so insecure about their discipline.

The idea as I understand it (poorly) is this: the thing that keeps you going. The thing that drives you. The drive itself.

And not in a good way (I think…).

I learned of it a few years ago, listening to Pete Rollins in one of his several podcasts or podcast appearances. He described the person–the workaholic–who pushed themselves too hard day after day, who neglected their physical needs, their spiritual needs, their family and friends, in order to work so hard so that they could “earn” their vacation—their week-long visit to Las Vegas, or a Sandals resort, or whatever in which they binged on alcohol, “wild” behavior, or whatever they thought they needed to do for that week to “make it all worthwhile.” That week—that abuse they probably did to their body, their bank account, their soul—that’s the “little a.” The thing that drives them to work the long hours.

It’s really easy to judge. Sandals? Really? Or Vegas? Or Comic-Con? Whatever doesn’t make sense to you. But we all do it. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post. I don’t have a lot to add to this conversation, in no small part because I’m not a modern-day philosopher. But I feel, at the moment, like I get it.

I’m in group therapy at the moment. I’m also in couples’ therapy and individual therapy. I might sign up for 1 to 27 more (weekly) therapy sessions if I can get my insurance company to cover any of it in a reasonably timely fashion. In my group I get to hear some people bare it all, when they’re trying really hard to figure it all out. They might be insightful, they might not. They might be talented or not at human psychology. They may or may not be religious, spiritual, aware, or generally decent. But I’m seeing them trying, and doing it out loud. And I’m noticing more and more that it’s all the same game.

I have not read the Upanishads (yet). I don‘t think I’ve read all of the Christian Bible. I’m way overdue to re-read The Prophet. But I feel confident in lumping them all together, at their best, in describing the human condition in the same way. You’re going to have a life. It’s going to be shorter than you want it to be. If you’re any good at it, it will be shorter than those around you want it to be. And the number one problem you’re going to have, really, is being there. Really being there–being here. Not being distracted, or distracting yourself. The most important thing at any given moment in your life is going to be enjoying that given moment, and sometimes everything in that moment will act as a distraction. The scariest thing will always be that it could all be taken away at any moment, and yet you will so often allow any silly run-of-the-mill distraction—a worry, an excitement, a labor—to do exactly that: take it all away for the moment.

If you’re spending your whole day trying to figure out how to buy more heroin, it’s pretty easy for all of us to say, “You’re doing it wrong.” What we miss is that we’re doing the exact same thing with our own personal distraction.

If you’re working 80-hour weeks in order to keep your high-paying job so that you can keep your family in their huge house in the nice part of town so that two or three times a year you can all go skiing/surfing/boating and spend some “quality time” together for 2 out of 52 weeks a year, you’re doing the same thing. The heroin and the ski trip are basically the same object petit a. They’re the carrot on the stick you’ve set up for yourself. They’re all you can see, dangling in your figurative face, all that motivates you, all that distracts you from what really matters: the HERE and NOW. We distract ourselves from the present by chasing the thing on the stick.

Please know that I’m not judging you. I feel you. I do it, too. There are so many things that will work as your objet petit a. The next promotion, the next fitness goal, the next iPhone, the next sports car… hell… even the next cardboard box delivered to your doorstep (sometimes regardless of its contents). These things aren’t evil, but real evil is visited on you if you forfeit the here and how for them.

Being alive, being a human who is alive, being aware of your life and its relative brevity, being vulnerable… it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s so tempting to exchange being truly present for the dopamine hit of the new thing, the objet petit a, but that is evil itself, the very root of all evil. You could work a few more hours tonight and make a few more dollars and be able to afford a trip to a really fancy place with your family… or you could help your kid do some fractional math (or help your partner do the dishes or walk your dog or whatever it looks like for you).

That’s why Ram Dass, The Buddha, Jesus, and most of their crew all have catch phrases that boil down to ”Be here now.”

Being here, now is the thing you’re going to remember in 10 years, even if it’s just helping your 4th grader figure out how 5 friends can share 3 apples.

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