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.

Practical Philosophy

“Turns to So Many Shades of Grey”

One of the things I’ve started to believe is that it’s very hard to trust people who profess everything with confidence. They know their team will win, they know you’ll pull through, they know everything will work out fine. The also know that a company is great, a person is a hero, and a cause noble.

The reason it’s hard to trust this level of certainty is pretty simple: reality cannot hold it. The world made by human society is many things. But it is not a clean and transparent system in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve, turns out to be exactly what they presented themselves as being, and achieves exactly what they set out to do.

One of the things that annoys young people — generally in their teens and early twenties — about older people is how washed up and apathetic the elders seem. One of the things that annoys older people — those comfortably ensconced in the quiet understanding of advanced age — is how certain and energetically wrong young confidence can be.

If you stay in it a long time and pay attention, you’ll just come to accept and expect that human societies aren’t meritocracies, that right doesn’t always win, and that some times unexplainable and infuriating things happen. This is the nature of the human experience of reality. This is the human condition.

Now I should clarify a few things: there are plenty of young people who aren’t too certain, and plenty of older people who are. Not everyone learns and understands at the same rate, and some people are so desperate to believe unreal things about the world that they simply never learn its nuance.

Another thing that this whole argument — that “what once was black and white turns to so many shades of grey” — can lead people to is a kind of self-satisfied nihilistic apathy. And again I don’t think that’s either necessary or appropriate. I believe deeply that to really change reality you must deeply understand it. I also believe that nuanced understanding and nihilistic apathy aren’t complimentary, or even related. Nihilistic apathy comes from a misreading of nuance for irredeemable brokenness. Nuanced understanding sees that things are never completely broken, nor completely whole. (Relevant: a recent essay about optimism without delusions.)

To change things well, you must really understand them. Where you see anything as a simple story of good vs evil, or black vs white, you’re probably missing something. Look really deeply at the story and chances are good you’ll find some nuanced coloring in there. And while it can be frustrating and disorienting to discover the white turned grey in the short term, it’s the color of truth. And the stable understanding of grey reality is so valuable I guarantee it’s worth it.

Practical Philosophy

The Hidden Power of Acceptance

Most people think of power as assertive and domineering. That power rides up to the world and forcefully changes the way that it flows. Sometimes, power does look like this. And it’s undeniable that this kind of power is the most visible and compelling.

But as many martial artists know, there’s a lot of power in taking the way the winds are blowing and modestly intervening to better align it with your interests. While the traditionally powerful fighter will stride confidently into the ring and forcefully throw punches at will, a clever and skilled master in any of a number of martial arts will seize this as a great and powerful opportunity. When the opponent is assertive and driving the fight, a defender aware and knowledgeable of what the attacker does is able to take advantage of the weaknesses his style exposes.

Acceptance of the opponent’s style is powerful in fighting because it allows you to turn a fight from a one-on-one affair into a two-on-one match. Me and my opponent’s aggressive style against my opponent. There’s a reason martial arts movies love to tell this story, and a reason we keep needing to hear it — we still don’t really get it.

We continue to insist that we know the way to do things in the world, and that way is to set a course and push valiantly in that direction until we succeed. And that can and does work at times. But it works only when it’s got all the luck of the world flowing behind it. When it (more typically) fails, we think that we’ve failed. But the failure’s root cause will likely be that we allowed ourself to completely ignore the way the world really is.

To many, especially stereotypically Western, mindsets, acceptance is something that weak subservient people have to learn. This mindset leads to the belief that world is led (or should be led) by those who have the ability to dominate and change present conditions. But even the most strident person can probably think of at least a few times when acceptance would have helped.

Acceptance’s power lies in its lack of denial. Where the domineering mindset may well have to fights two fights — against both reality and it’s actual fight — simultaneously, a wise acceptance constrains the problem to its own fight. By accepting, respecting, and taking full view of reality as it is right now, acceptance allows one to start from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. And by working with reality, acceptance has a lot of power.

I’ve used this quote more than a few times on this site, and it’s been a defining one in my life. But I always return to it because it’s so accurate. Henry Miller:

Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.

The power of acceptance is that it removes from play all those hidden corners of reality that can defeat you. By accepting everything you can see and sense fully, the world as it is becomes yours to change. By denying any facet of reality, the world is yours to slowly and blindly fight against. The choice is yours, but I recommend acceptance.


Puncturing Your Bubble for Kindness

You live inside your head. It’s fundamentally true: try to define who you are without including the large mass behind your eyeballs and you’ll flounder. But for most of us, most of the time, we live inside our head in a more casual sense. We’re caught up inside the machinations of our neuroses, missing most of what happens in the world.

The pattern is so common I may not even need to tell you about it. For a while, you’re paying attention to the things unfolding around you. And then one of the things you’re observing triggers some path in your brain — a memory, a latent idea, a thought — and you follow that path for somewhere between one millisecond and thirty minutes. Then you snap back to observing the present reality.

This pattern builds our bubbles. I’ve spent a great deal of time inside the bubble of my worldview. This bubble is more than just a given set of well-trodden mental paths. It is the environment around that, populated by all the triggers and loops that can pull you onto these well-worn paths. That environment defines borders around itself to keep safe.

Black and white photo of child hidden in fearFor me, one of these borders was that strangers were scary, complicated, and unworthy of my time. This was different than the quixotic “stranger danger” about which children are warned. And this wasn’t, though it may have had similar results, some kind of deep fear of social contact and an inability to cross the border. For me it was an unwillingness to give most people the metaphorical “time of day”; a deep conceit that defined most of the world as unworthy of my time and concern. So most people “in my life” were well below my radar.

Retrospectively I’d guess that it was safer for me, and my self image, to disregard people who might later shun me than to hope for something from them and not get it. It’s not the worst imaginable coping mechanism, but I don’t recommend it. This personal bubble with sharp boundaries, learned after years of training, is one of the primary reasons that I find kindness to be difficult.

People weren’t allowed in my bubble unless they’d proven to me that they were interesting and worthy of my time. It allowed me to conserve tremendous amounts of time and energy in the short term, but it closed me off to tremendous possibilities and powers that come with being open and kind as you move through the world.

The puncturing of the bubble that isolated me from the world has been a slow and on-going process. I’d say I’m wearing away at the bubble that makes it hard for me to be kind rather than that I can or am ever likely to remove it entirely.

But to be as consistently kind as I aspire to, I have to get through that bubble. It’s essential to be available and in the world to be kind to the people in it. It’s a slow process, but I think leaving the bubble makes a big difference.

Your bubble may be different. Maybe you don’t even have a bubble. But if you ever find yourself stifling an impulse to engage with a person you see before you, there are few better questions than “Why?” Why am I closing down? For me, the protective bubble in which I’ve lived so long is regularly the reason.

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.


On Graduation

One month ago today, I graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The ceremony was rather large and anonymous. This was not unexpected: commencement ceremonies are rarely the intimate gatherings that perhaps they should be, especially not at a large state school.

Though I could go on, I prefer to discuss the event’s significance.

There has always been, it seems to me, some quasi-religious rite-of-passage aspects to graduation or commencement ceremonies. Whatever age, they are spoken of as dividing lines. Mundane events painted as crucial turning points. There is only before and after. You are a fundamentally different person, you are constantly told, and after this you’ll be treated according to this new system. The life you knew is dead, the life to come will challenge you, shape you, change you in ways you simply cannot understand.

I graduated from the sixth grade in 1998. For a second, I believed them. I believed that Junior High School was massively and importantly different from elementary school. But I soon realized: though we no longer had line-leaders, we were still doing the same thing. And maybe the building was bigger, but the people were about the same size as they had been three months before.

I guess part of this rhetoric of change is a fundamental outgrowth of the fact that the first graduation ceremonies were important. They were likely adaptations of medieval rituals brought inside the hallowed halls of some long forgotten French of English building. To distinguish men from boys.

Today there can be differences with graduation. Having decided that I need no more book learning (I’m sure my use of that phrase would convince some otherwise), this is an important dividing line in my life.

But it is not for all. Many go one, whether by choice or inertia, to study still-longer at universities. Keeping themselves from the new reality that graduation introduces them to.

But if the commencement ceremony really signifies a change, if it is really the path into independent adulthood, it cannot be the end. That change, that path, if there is one, is a slow and arduous path. The change may have been introduced, but its reality has hardly arrived.