Practical Philosophy

This is Water, This is Water

I’ve got something to tell you: you are living your life right now. Life is this thing constantly (and often without our noticing) unfolding in moments of banality as well as profundity and wonder. There isn’t some place or time when we arrive and suddenly discover what living is. It won’t suddenly feel perfect and pristine and flawless just like you’ve always dreamed “living” would be.

You are living right now the beauty, miracle, and drudgery of your life. The thing that artists glorify, spiritual traditions hallow, and the dying regretfully wish goodbye is this thing we’ve been in all along. The mythical magical thing that is the beauty of life is the water we’re swimming in. This is water, this is water.

That’s a reference to a story you’ve probably heard before. If you’ve not, here it is: two young fish are swimming along. They cross paths with an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish keep swimming a ways, and then one stops and says to the other: “What the hell is water!?”

Or there’s an old Far Side cartoon. Three cows in a field, when suddenly one stops, pauses, and exclaims “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!”

What these vignettes are pointing to is the thing we started with. There’s no magical place or time at which we arrive. There is no magical point where everything shifts and we’ll finally be clear and perfect and blissful and able to say “now this is living.” This living thing is instead going on all the time. It’s right here, flowing on while we’re too busy to notice.

To really live life, you must remember that that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it now. You’ll be doing it tomorrow when you pick your daughter up from soccer practice. You were doing it last week when you walked into the monthly meeting you dread. And two years ago when your father was in the midst of that health scare. And on that idle Tuesday of your school days when you just hoped the teacher wasn’t going to call on you. The banalities of life are, if seen clearly, filled with profound, awe-inspiring magic. When you’re distracted, they’ll all just pass you by.

I was inspired to write this by remembering my favorite speech of David Foster Wallace’s life, his commencement address as Kenyon. So it’s fitting, I think, that I give the late man the final word:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.


What Is Love?

Love has a number of forms. There’s the love of a parent for their child. The love of friends for one another. The love of two people who are committed to each other romantically. The love of a keeper for their dog, cat, or other animal. But all of them, I think, have something in common.

Quite simply, love is the recognition and appreciation of what is beautiful in another. And just so there’s no confusion, what is beautiful in another is not only their form. It includes their actions, feelings, pain, and quirks too. Everything can possess beauty, and when we love something we’re perceiving its beauty.

One of the keys to my spirituality, if not the whole of it, is figuring out how to love everything. I want to love the flowers and the clouds and the birds and the rocks. And I want to love the beautiful celebrity defamed on the cover of the latest tabloid, and I want to love the defamer working at that tabloid. I want to love the victims of crimes, but I also want to wisely love the perpetrator.

When you really love something, when you fully see and appreciate what is beautiful about it, you want to what’s best for it. You want it to never suffer unnecessary harm, you want it to be safe and happy, you want it to get what it wants. In some sense, you want it to be protected.

And these second order out-growths of the pure thing that is love are where people get confused. For times in my life I believed that to love was to worry. That to report to your child that you really were concerned about their safety because you didn’t know where they were or how they were doing was to love them. But it’s not. That worry actually blocks the pure love which is the appreciation of what this person is and thinks is appropriate for them to do.

Don’t get me wrong, to love is to care for. And sometimes to care for is to take action to protect. You don’t care for a criminal by blithely allowing them to continue to commit their crimes. You care for a criminal and protect him from harm by teaching him why in a just society he cannot continue to commit such crimes. You don’t care for a family member prone to self-harm by allowing them to continue to do so. You care for such a person by helping them move beyond the pained psychology that makes them feel that self-harm will solve any of their problems. But you shouldn’t think that those caring actions are the substance of love, they are merely a result of it.

People get tired out by what they think love is. They get bored and frustrated with it. The idea that they could love something they don’t like feels wrong to them. But typically, they’re misunderstanding the substance of love. They’re thinking it’s about something — fealty, commitment, worry, etc — that it’s not.

You can love a lamp. You can love a dirty rug. You can love a dangerous predator. You can love your father. You can love them all — see all that is worthy and good and praiseworthy in them — and still know what they are. Love is not transformational. Love is not a reciprocal relationship. Love is not a conditional state. Love is just the purest expression of appreciation that we know how to talk about.


Art as Art

I was a alerted to a new facet of my reality after taking a breather while reading my old review or the documentary Born into Brothels. And it’s essentially this: I have little or no interest in a piece of art as a piece of art. I think this gets to the very core of my dislike of fiction, my apathy toward almost all visual art,  my lukewarm response to poetry, and my antipathy toward the mockumentary genre. (Kenny, if you’re curious, is the one exception that proves the rule on that last one. That one worked its way into my heart.)

I have a deep and abiding interest in real factual human stories. If there’s one thing that’ll dependably make me weep or shaky with ecstaty, it’s a well-done presentation of a real person encountering real things. What I noticed in reading my Born into Brothels review was that I said almost nothing about how the documentary works as piece of art. The mechanics of its making, the composition of the photography, the pacing of the narrative, none of those were relevant to me. What I concerned myself with was the twin moral imperatives of a documentarian to document and of a person who can help to do so.

It’s possible to read my inability to appreciate art as art as a moral failing. Similar to my conversation aversion, it’s doubtless led to consternation among those who know me and don’t understand my problem. And I’m sure that there’s something to be said for the ability to appreciate art as art.

Since I keep saying it, I should probably be clear about what I mean by “art as art.” Seeing art as art is staring up at the Sistine Chapel and being interested only in the brushstrokes that made it, the picture it presents, and how that strikes you on an emotional level. When I look up at the Sistine Chapel I’ll likely experience some sense of awe (I got one using this approximate), but my mind quickly races to grapple with issues like the reason it came to exist, what its existence means, and what it means that we hold it in such reverence. The technique doesn’t interest me, the intricacies of its creation strike me as mere oddities, and the realities of the visuals strike me as rather banal. In short, I can’t appreciate it for merely what it is.

Life interests me. Fascinates even. But the creations of people who aren’t so fascinated by it to be held in such awe that they want only to document it have always struck me as odd. I just feel like I’m watching deluded people try to entertain other deluded people.

Deluded may be too strong. Sleeping or blind are more accurately what I mean. People driven to create art are usually those who feel the need to make something beautiful or pure or simple. They aim mostly to distill, simplify, and make understandable. I see the irony of doing this, but it feels appropriate to communicate this better with some lyrics from Connor Oberst. The Bright Eyes song Bowl of Oranges ends:

…if the world could remain within a frame
Like a painting on a wall
Then I think we’d see the beauty then
We’d stand staring in awe
At our still lives posed
Like a bowl of oranges
Like a story told
By the fault lines and the soil

It’s not that I don’t think people creating things with the goal of helping others to see the beauty, majesty, hurt, tenderness, etc that underly the weave and weft of the cloth of life is useless or silly. It’s certainly not. If I write for any reason it’s to learn how to convey knowledge of those things better than I currently can.

But what is true is that what they produce is much less interesting to me than what they meant by it. I’d rather consider the artist than the work as it sits before me. Perhaps this is actually how most people respond to art, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, so I did.


OPW: “Testimony” by Rebecca Baggett

I want to tell you that the world
is still beautiful.
I tell you that despite
children raped on city streets,
shot down in school rooms,
despite the slow poisons seeping
from old and hidden sins
into our air, soil, water,
despite the thinning film
that encloses our aching world.
Despite my own terror and despair.

I want you to know that spring
is no small thing, that
the tender grasses curling
like a baby’s fine hairs around
your fingers are a recurring
miracle. I want to tell you
that the river rocks shine
like God, that the crisp
voices of the orange and gold
October leaves are laughing at death,

I want to remind you to look
beneath the grass, to note
the fragile hieroglyphs
of ant, snail, beetle. I want
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse, the ruby-
throated hummingbird, the humpback
whale, the profligate mimosa.
I want to say, like Neruda,
that I am waiting for
“a great and common tenderness”,
that I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.

(via Mary Grace Orr)



DWQCanadian Geese

“What a fool?!” thought the old man, seeing a young man coming up the path. He wasn’t looking out at the pond. He seemed to see little more than his feet and the dog that would sometimes wander away from him.

“What a fool?!” thought the young man. This grandpa had stopped on the path, put down his walking stick and is taking out his binoculars. Binoculars? There’s nothing to see here through binoculars. Just some geese floating around on the surface of a pond. More of a puddle really.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, this young man doesn’t know the beauty of all that’s around in this park. He doesn’t see the beauty of a recently thawed pond. Or of Canadian geese chasing each other around. If I’d been smart enough to pay attention while my eyes were good I wouldn’t have to be standing here now, large binoculars on my eyes letting me make out the geese clearly.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, some old people don’t mean to be so careless. Maybe he doesn’t mean to block the path. Perhaps he’s just forgotten where he is, and that he’s making it harder for others to walk by. Maybe if he knew, he’d move out of the way, or better yet, keep walking.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s young and self-assured, certain that the world is his for conquest and nothing more. He may sometimes notice beauty, but he probably quickly blinks and hopes it will disappear. The young have no time–or think they have no time–for stopping and paying attention to little things, like the geese on this pond.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s old and ornery. He’ll probably just think that I’m an ignorant young man who can’t be bothered to walk around him. He’s probably doesn’t care where he is; probably thinks that he’s old so the rules don’t apply to him. After all, he probably always walked to school, up hill both ways, in the freezing snow.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he’s taking a look at this pond and these geese. And though he may not be getting everything from it, he’s probably getting something.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he knows that he’s in the way. Maybe that’s the point. Trying to get me and others to take a second and look at what he’s looking at.

“It sure is pretty, this world.”

“It sure is.”

OPW, poetry

OPW: “The Future”

Today on Other People’s Words, a beautiful poem by Wesley McNair called “The Future.”

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life’s sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It’s not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn’t want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived—the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn’t know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman’s laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

OPW, poetry

OPW: “Beside the Point”

Today’s “Other People’s Words” is a poem about what’s really important. It’s called “Beside the Point” by Stephen Cushman.

The sky has never won a prize.
The clouds have no careers.
The rainbow doesn’t say my work,
thank goodness.

The rock in the creek’s not so productive.
The mud on the bank’s not too pragmatic.
There’s nothing useful in the noise
the wind makes in the leaves.

Buck up now, my fellow superfluity,
and let’s both be of that worthless ilk,
self-indulgent as shooting stars,
self-absorbed as sunsets.

Who cares if we’re inconsequential?
At least we can revel, two good-for-nothings,
in our irrelevance; at least come and make
no difference with me.