Morning Advice

For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5, paragraph 1 [Trans. from Internet Classics Archive]

Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday

Today is the famous “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday. An early influence on my writing–though fortunately not on my lifestyle–Thompson’s own style is incredibly idiosyncratic.  With its own sort of caustic, violent, debauched poetry, it sings in places with rhapsodic eloquence. It can also be quite insightful.

[image from phrases.org]
[image from phrases.org]

So in honor of his birthday, here’s a link to a letter he wrote giving some advice about finding a meaningful life. It echoes his Nietzsche-like adage, “Buy the ticket, take the ride” and shows the candor and humility that characterizes some of his better writing. I hope you enjoy.

Also, happy Nelson Mandela Day. Get a peek at the Google Doodle for some moving quotes. If anything, I think both men, in their own vastly different ways, strove to criticize the hypocrisies and silences that uphold corruption, injustice, and oppression.

Wallace and Education

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.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com

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?”

Thoughts on friendship

Tonight, I go on my fifth annual road trip with a few high school friends. The six of us

From the Painting "Kindred Spirits."
From the Painting “Kindred Spirits.”

met in seventh and eighth grade making films. Now and for the past four years we’ve been going in separate places: different schools, different interests, different cities–even states.

Still, something has held us  together, for the past eight years. Sometimes, that’s hard to believe.

Dunbar’s number dictates we can only keep track of around 150 beings at any given time. If they’re too distant, they don’t make the cut and blur behind a thin haze of anonymity.

During our lives, few people make the cut. Those who do so consistently become friends.

Friendship has the rare honor of being part of “the human condition,” the seemingly universal and timeless experience that defines what it means to be human. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to outline our condition, but I imagine that friendship would be on the list somewhere.

Despite it’s prevalence, however, friendship remains a brittle obscure topic. As Thoreau opens in his essay Friendship, “Friendship is evanescent in every man’s experience, and remembered like neat lightening in past summers.” It takes place for all of us, sometimes for just a fragile collection of moments. Yet we can barely describe what makes it so essential.

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Aphorisms

Call this a sequel to my last post. I graduated yesterday, and have been busy moving, nietzsche-377x500unpacking, and processing my final weeks. So I haven’t had much time to research or write anything new.

Still, in the midst of it, I’ve been reading Nietzsche. Along with his break with Wagner in 1876, Nietzsche took leave from his post at the University of Basel. With his freedom, Nietzsche wrote a series of aphoristic works, beginning with Human, All too Human and ending with The Gay Science.

I just finished reading excerpts from the set of them.

Before these works, Nietzsche wrote essays or reflections, The Birth of Tragedy being the main example. After, his work retained this aphoristic bent, even when he resumed a more traditional essay style, as in Beyond Good and Evil. The style may owe much to the German philosopher Schopenhauer and the French tradition that predated Nietzsche, which influenced his work a great deal, but he made it his own with his sharp wit, dynamic language, and unique philosophy.

Influenced by Nietzsche, I figured I’d share a few aphorisms I’ve gathered during college. I’ve heard some, borrowed others from books, and made up a number. In no particular order, here are a few:

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A quote on love

I’m a bit too busy today to write a full post, so I figured I’d leave a quote I’ve been thinking about regarding love, especially with Valentine’s Day earlier this week. symbiosis-oxEnjoy.

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

-Dorian Sagan, in Death and Sex

Falling in Love

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall likefalling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

–Jeanette Winterson, answering why do we fall in love?” in Big Questions from Little People: and Simple Answers from Great Minds

Aurelius quote

Some advice from my favorite Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, that I ran across today:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

 

Stoicism

By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.

Zeno of Citium (c. 334 B.C.-c. 262 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, depicted by Raphael. Picture from Wikipedia.

In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags,  and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.

In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”

There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.

So I converted.

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Brokenness and Healing

I’ve been home from Egypt for about one and a half weeks. I’ve been busy setting

A few of my students in Egypt

seeing friends and family, prodded with requests for stories. “What were the pyramids like?” they ask. Or, “Did you see the Sphinx?”

I’ve also been reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and organizing loans and finances to prepare for my final year at college. Soon, I’ll be moving into campus housing, seeing old friends, and attending classes as if nothing happened.

But the transition to “reality” has been hard.

My third night home, my dad and I went out for a hot fudge sunday at a place nearby–an irregular tradition for past few years. As I ate my ice cream, the other customers walked up, laughing and buying their cones.

To me, they felt unreal. I couldn’t take my mind from the students I had taught in Egypt. Some had lost friends and family to religious violence. All had endured the throes of violent political change the past year. For some of them, justice was a truth worth dying for. Then, my thoughts turned to Libya and Syria, torn by their own violence, like the hundreds killed in the recent attack at Tremseh.

It hurt to know that a month and a half ago, I was just an oblivious American eating ice cream, too.

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