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.

Standard
Productivity

“The Space to Be a Person,” or Why You Need Slack Time

Call it idleness, slack, non-action, pausing, or just plain “doing nothing.” Whatever you call it, too frequently today it is skipped, degraded, and seen as a less than noble use of time. The United States of America — where I was born and have lived all my life — is especially known for its “never slow down” mentality.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in my annual review that I’d spent a long period of the summer suffering at the hands of (self-imposed) outrageous work requirements. And during that period, when I was taking ever less slack time and ever more time ostensibly working, I started to find myself more frustrated, frustrating, and most of all just wishing I had some time. “The space to be a person” was the phrase that echoed through my mind for months .

What “the space to be a person” meant to me then, and still does, isn’t about physical space — though that matters too — but about the sense of space afforded by time when there are no expectations of you and no tasks you’re supposed to be doing. In that kind of space, you really can just be. That’s one of those things that people frequently regard as new-agey and very “woo-woo,” or just simply vapid. But the difference between doing something and simply being is undeniable if you pause to consider it.

When you’re just being, you’re (forced to be) in contact with what’s actually going on. You’re made to feel that you’re restless or bored or whatever. You’re also, with that space, hopefully able to take some time to get intimate with that feeling and learn (or at least experiment with) how you can be and work with it effectively. And that stuff matters.

What’s more, slack time is time when you can pick up a task that hasn’t been done but should have been. A time when you can finish off that thing you were hoping to do earlier, or work ahead on that thing you anticipate being a time-crunch coming down the pike. But the important thing about slack time is that  you don’t have to do any of those things. It is fundamentally this allowance and possibility for a whole array of different tasks, doings, and non-doings that makes slack time so valuable.

When your time and life is scheduled end-to-end and you’re just barely able to do in a day or a month all the things that you have to have accomplished in that period, you feel like you don’t have space to breathe. And any small setback can easily accrete into a catastrophe that’ll throw everything else out of alignment.

Slack time is, in many ways, the ultimate wealth. Slaves never had it, because while they had periods where they weren’t working they weren’t free to do whatever they wanted with that time. And today, people forced by economic conditions to work two full-times jobs surely know better than most of the softer middle class the value of slack time. Throw in a houseful of kids and, well, this 20-something bachelor can’t even imagine.

But to the extent you can claim it, I really think you must build some slack time into your life. Hopefully regularly and in volumes high enough to really allow you to feel into it. An hour a day isn’t bad, but a few days of nothing per week is really the sweet spot. It lets you be yourself better, fulfill your responsibilities with more ease, and really be in contact with what your life is actually like.

Standard
Practical Philosophy

An Appropriate Response

There’s an old Buddhist story about an eager student asking the Zen master to distill the core teachings down to their very essence. The student was expecting a few dozen words that he’d not understand, but instead that master said simply, “An appropriate response.”

I think that’s something worth aspiring to. “An appropriate response.” To respond appropriately to whatever situation you find yourself in. In many ways, I see showing up as an exercise is always providing an appropriate response for the person you’re showing up for.

There’s also some substantial heft hidden in the idea of an appropriate response. It’s superficially simple, but one needn’t look hard to find places where the specifics of an appropriate response become unclear. The Nazis are knocking on your door and asking if Anne Frank is inside (she is). Is the truth appropriate? Is a lie better?

One thing that’s surely required to be able to offer an appropriate response is to know with clarity and certainty what is actually going on. If you understand the Nazis as the bad actors history now considers them, you’d behave differently than if you saw them simply as well-meaning agents of the local law enforcement.

Accurate perception of reality is where most people drop the ball on being able to provide an appropriate response. It’s certainly where I most often go wrong. It is in thinking that I understand something I don’t, or where I just don’t know a crucial thing that others do that I find my response to the world going wrong.

I forget that other people have different goals than I do and get angry that they aren’t acting in accordance with mine. I forget that my friend is doing their best, even when it sometimes looks like they aren’t trying.

But even without gaps in your understanding of the present it’s still not clear. The ethical dilemmas of life are hard, even when you’re not missing any of the facets of reality. This is what makes the idea of “an appropriate response” so simple and yet so complex. To offer one you must know both the entirity of the situation to which you are responding, and the wisest course through the mire of the present reality. It ain’t easy.

But it’s precisely because it’s so slippery and hard that an appropriate response is a good life-long target. Why it’s a sane place to put your highest aspiration, and to frame the entirity of your spiritual or religious life in terms of it. It’s real, important, and difficult: “an appropriate response.”

Standard
Practical Philosophy

Seeing Through Nouns

Nouns are a part of speech most people understand, and they’re common across all human languages. And yet we know of very fews nouns that aren’t simply an aggregate of a number of other nouns. Further, those aggregates of other nouns are, by the very nature of their compound-ness, temporary.

Recently someone presented an idea that blew my mind a bit: in reality, there are no nouns. There are bits of energy assembled and masquerading as nouns for periods of time. For some things — as fruits of a tree — this illusion is very short. The period of time during which an unharvested apple or plum remains an apple or plum is no more than a few months. So while we see the atoms of an apple taking that form for a while, we’re also well aware that it’ll form a brown sludge on the ground where it fell if left untouched.

Most bugs are living, flying things for a mere matter of days. All the parts of a fly — the eyes, the legs, the body, the wings — are combinations of atoms that will be a living corporeal creature for a few weeks. After that, they may stay together — unworking — for a few months. But eventually they’ll get processed through the digestive system of a frog, or decompose, or something else, and all those atoms will become other things.

Some things last for much much longer. Our sun has had the form we call by that name for about 4.5 billion years. But before we would have identified it as a star or our sun, all the atoms in it existed. They just hadn’t joined together into the unit that we recognize. We’d think of them as free hydrogen atoms floating near each other; the accretion of them into a cluster of mass sufficient to be recognized as a star, and to give off the energy of a star, and have the physical processes of a star, took time. But the atoms were there before. The sun, as all things, is a process that we identify much more than the concrete entity we can mistake it for.

Literally nothing that we know of in this world is permanent. Flowers, people, rocks, and planets: all of them will, in some period of time, cease to be those things we recognize them as today. There is nothing so certain as change, and the fact that things aren’t what we mistake them for.

Realizing that nouns are really just temporary assemblages that came together and are currently in the process of “verbing” that noun is a clarifying new lens through which to see the inherent ephemerality of the material world we inhabit. Nouns are comforting and useful — try to communicate effectively without them… — but when we forget that they’re not real, we set ourselves up for heartache.

Most people understand that nothing lasts. But we also forget it. A lot. And that’s why remembering the non-existence of nouns is useful. It brings us back to the reality that there are no nouns. The material world is really built out of very slow verbs.

Standard
Life

The Long Game of Kindness

Living creatures, by their nature, find it hard to think, plan, and act for the long term. For millennia life on this planet has survived because it acts, first and foremost, to do what it is best for it in the short term. This near-term greed allows living creatures to keep being alive, and that’s really their most important quality. Anything else they may or may not accomplish is secondary.

As I’ve been spending time thinking about why kindness is so difficult to do on a consistent basis, one of the things I’ve realized is that it has little benefit in the very short term. Surely there is some small short-term glow after an acknowledged kindness, but even that is rather fleeting.

And almost necessarily, to be kind you must also give up something else of value to you in the act. Whether it’s time, energy, money, or all three, kindness is never free. Definitionally, an act that is kind cannot serve your short-term self-interest. If it did it wouldn’t be an act of kindness, but of greed.

Kindness can have tremendous benefits in the long term. When it comes back to you, if it comes back to you, it’s almost certainly in the form of someone making for you the same trade that you made initially. They forfeit some short-term energy, money, or time so that you can have a better day, year, or life.

Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from your kindness.

And it may be the case that you kick off a chain of kindness that doesn’t affect you, but has a positive effect for others. And while such a chain could come back to you, it’s never certain to. If it does, it will almost never do so immediately. Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from any single act of kindness.

That is one of the central obstacles to kindness. As we move through the world, we’re characteristically short-sighted. We’re focused on the next activity, obligation, or event and not on the longer term questions of what will help others and ourselves to feel better and more satisfied as we move through the world.

We’re far more likely to bask in the warm glow of a received compliment than ask ourselves how we can increase the likelihood that we and others can bask in such a glow more regularly. While giving unprompted compliments on a consistent basis is almost certainly the easiest way that you can receive them regularly (people love to bounce compliments back) it’ll almost never cross our minds.

This shortsightedness has served living creatures well for thousands of years. But it makes kindness harder. The best way we can cope with it, I think, is just to be aware of the tendency. Awareness in itself doesn’t change anything, but it makes it much easier to see and change your behavior around this misplaced focus. If practiced regularly, awareness can shift your attention to the longer-term.

Another idea is to keep a memory vault of all the good that’s come of kindnesses you’ve done. Kindnesses done for you, or even those you’ve witnessed and felt were commendable can help. This vault may be light at first, and can be hard to fill, but remembering the long-term good that has resulted from short-term sacrifice can be a powerful way to be more aware of and ready to do similar kind actions.

Kindness is a long game. Maybe the longest of all. That makes it really hard for us bumbling myopic humans to do it all that well. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth learning to do. And well.

Standard
fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.

Standard