Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.
“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.
Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.
I moved back into school today to start the next semester. A new semester has always had more of a “New Year” feeling than actual New Years, since school provides a ready-made change of scenery and lifestyle.
That said, I try not to treat “resolutions” like “revolutions.” Often, this time of year–especially the first week or two at the start–gets annoying. Everyone has a hundred hopes, impossible plans, and vague outlines, all aimed at turning them into a new person. I respect the hope and spirit that goes into this, but as with many things, the hope outshoots the reality. Would-be gym-goers, dieters, meditators, and volunteers slump back into their old habits, like a well-worn couch, and lose momentum until “next year.”
Other research has different numbers, but the conclusion seems pretty clear: resolutions don’t come easily.
One thing that may hamper our ability to reach our goals is an inherent limitation to self control. Recent research seems to indicate that we can only use so much self control before we succumb to temptation. Or, at the very least, we get more likely to succumb. That pizza, ice cream, and beer hits us much harder after a long day at work.
Sometimes we even rationalize it, saying “Well, I worked hard today and kept up my diet, so I deserve a little something.” The psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who studies willpower, critiques this particular tactic that she calls “moral licensing” in an interesting video.
Moreover, moral licensing and limited self control aren’t the only things that impede resolutions. The stubborn resilience of bad habits, our inability to visualize future selves, competing priorities, guilt-saturated procrastination, and more set strong roadblocks between us and progress.
I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.
With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’
As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.
But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.
As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.
This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.
Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”
Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.
This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:
[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
‘This is water.’
‘This is water.’
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.
As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.
Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.
Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”
I’ve been stuck lately. It happens to all of us. Now and then, we feel like Dante, who opens his Divine Comedy in the midst of an existential crisis:
IN the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct. . .
Fortunately, most of us don’t need to walk through hell and purgatory before we reach the heaven on the other side. And we don’t need to need to wander between dream vision and sleep, gradually learning how to “do well” like William Langland’s protagonist in Piers Plowman.
But what these texts from the Middle Ages note remains true: sometimes we lose our momentum. Like a turtle pushed out to the center of a frozen pond, unable to gain footing and reach the shore again, we feel lost, adrift, and powerless. Sometimes, this makes us stiff and wooden. As Albert Camus writes in his essay “Return to Tipasa“:
A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.
Indeed, sometimes we really do need to come alive again.
I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.
Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.
A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.
I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.
Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.
Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.
Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:
I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight A fair field full of folk · found I in between, Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, Working and wandering · as the world asketh.
Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.
The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.
In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.
I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.
Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.
My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.
There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.
For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.
Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.
Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.
In 1841 a little-known English poet escaped an asylum and wandered back to his childhood home in the farmland of Northamtonshire, convinced that he was married to a woman who had died three years earlier.
The poet, John Clare, said that separation from his childhood home–its fields, cottages, and the small taverns where he worked–had made him increasingly alienated from his own self. His later poems reflect his fixation. In one he claims that he was once Shelly and Lord Byron. In his most famous one, “I Am,” he reflects on his isolation:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed.
Isolated and unknown, Clare clings to the few activities, memories, and passions that adhere to his fragmented self. This raises an important question: Who is this “I Am” Clare speaks of, separated from his roots? Who is an I? What is a self?
A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella.
“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”
I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time.FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”
We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.
And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.“
Sometimes, when I’m tired or lost I look at old writing. It reminds me where I came from, what has always mattered, and where I ought to go. Today, as I struggled to write a blog post, I sorted through old files and notebooks.
I found this, a reflection from fall of my junior year. It was a hard semester, as I’ve referenced before, but it many ways, it set my foundation. In the midst of that darkness, I found my passions and insecurities. I found my self.