Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
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Writerly Routines

As I’ve alluded to in a past post, routine can be central to writers, or creative people in general. In an era that values efficiency and innovation–where so many want to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs–anything that encourages these traits gains an immediate capital.

[image from dorkboycomics]
[image from dorkboycomics]

For one, it can ease the strain required to enter the creative mode. As some research shows–so eloquently elucidated by John Cleese–one needs a space in time and place to innovate. Stuck with daily stresses, the creative mind can stagnate by worrying over the necessary pitfalls and backtracks required for the creative process. A set hour and a closed door pushes that stress outside.

Making set time also forces one revisit similar issues for an extended period. This helps to inspire seemingly sudden insights that actually occur through long-term reflection, the “slow hunch” as writer Steven Johnson puts it. Doing something everyday keeps one foot in the creative enterprise as the rest of the day unfolds. One never knows what may trigger the insight–a new task, an observation, or help from a colleague–but if one is miles away from an issue, they may never notice.

And at the most basic level, a routine keeps one disciplined by encouraging habits. In a reductive sense, a productive routine is nothing but a series of productive habits, i.e. of heavily ingrained actions that one does with little to no thought. If authors write everyday at 6:00 a.m., it becomes habitual. They keep writing then, regardless of other circumstances, just as one may brush one’s teeth before bed.

That said, breaking a routine can also be affective. While some thinkers, like Kant, were heavily routine and disciplined, others thrived on ambiguity and sprawling, uncertain days. Sometimes travel can be a handy catalyst, too. With it, one breaks from the daily perspectives and concerns of the routine. As one of my friend’s puts it, “Journey outward, journey inward.”

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The Creative Brain

The Creative Brain

I’ve been out of town since Friday, so I haven’t been able to write much. But one of my friends came to the rescue and sent me this link to a fascinating article. It is a fun, but informative and insightful look at the human brain at its most creative and touches on similarly aligned issues, like the link between genius and madness.

While a little long for a quick read, it is well worth the look.

John Cleese and Creativity

As I have a few other writing projects taking up my time and creative energy this weekend, I haven’t gotten around to writing a worthwhile blog post. Instead, enjoy a lovely lecture by Monty Python’s John Cleese explaining the difference between the “closed zone” of everyday life and the “open zone” of creative expression and how to encourage the open zone–as best as one can.

As one can expect, Cleese sprinkles his clear explanation with humor, so at the very least, you’ll learn how many folk singers it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Enjoy.

What does it mean to be happy?

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.happiness

“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.

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New semester

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.

[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/]
[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/%5D
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.”

It’s happened to me a dozen times. To people I know. To people I don’t know, but see peppering the gym this time of year, then slipping away like a trial product that never goes big. According to a recent study by the University of Scranton, used by Time and Forbes, only about 8% of those who try a resolution say they usually make it.

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.

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What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason

We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.frowny-face

If anything, emotions make life interesting.

But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”

Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government. 

Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions. 

Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.

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Solitude and Loneliness

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. Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog

“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.

But what’s the difference?

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