Personal Development

It’s Easier to Say Wise Things than Do Them

It is so much easier to say something sage-like and wise than to live out the implications of that wisdom. I touched on this a bit in my yearly review from last week, but it’s one of the core things that reading through this site regularly reminds me.

Doing wise things requires actually facing up to the reality of a situation and putting your base responses aside. To act wisely you must understand a situation fully, and act on that knowledge coupled with your highest, most noble understanding. And then you must take an action unimpeachable even from a great distance of time.

Part of the reason many people so love giving advice to others is that we know somewhere inside of us that this difference between speech and action is real. When we give advice, we don’t have to bear any of the responsibility for the wise action. We’re just responsible for seeing the situation clearly and having an opinion about the best way through it. The hard part of making that real in the world is left to the advice’s receiver.

I wrote last year about how gratitude is so important. I advocated for cultivating gratitude as it makes life better and easier and all that. And yet I just recently realized that I had been missing — for most of the period since that piece was published — all the small miracles in my life. I hadn’t forgotten the power of gratitude, but I only knew it in an abstract, academic way. I’d forgotten to actually live it regularly.

But living it is what life consists of. Learning to live the things you know. Learning to manifest in the world the beauty that is in your heart. There are few lines from 13th century Persian poet Rumi (translations differ) that go:

May be beauty of what you love be what you do
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground

At heart, what we must regularly remind ourselves of is this: what we love, what we want the world to be like, what we wish were true — all of it — is our responsibility. We change the world by changing ourselves. Not just in what we think and say, but in what we actually go and do in the world. It is wise action, not wise thought or wise speech, that makes the world better.

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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.

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Life

Simple Truths, Commuting, and Wisdom

Anyone who’s been reading Frozen Toothpaste long knows all too well about my theory that just about every important truth about life can be quickly reduced to a statement so banal that people ignore it. The classic example I reach for is “money can’t buy happiness”, which almost everyone acquiesces to at some level. Few people dispute the truth of the idea, and yet people run themselves ragged in dogged pursuit of money.

What I’m starting to come around to is the idea that it’s not simply that these cliches are cliches that makes people struggle to understand and and act in accordance with them. Rather, there’s a whole second level of the complexities of “money doesn’t buy happiness” that people don’t ever consider. Continue reading

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Life

Living in Retrospect

“In retrospect, it was a bad idea.” “One day we’ll look back at this and laugh.” We all understand that our views on things are not fixed forever. That looking back on things with some critical distance from our actions we’ll likely see more clearly what was going on and what the wiser course of action would have been.

I think the best way we can hope to live is to always see events as we would see them with the critical distance of a few years. The goal of a mindfulness practice, I believe, is simply to see all things with the critical distance that time naturally provides for us much too late. Such that we can use our clear vision of how things really are to act wisely, rather than on to react to what we misunderstand to be unfolding.

This is both one of simplest ideas anyone ever had, and the most difficult. It’s simple. I pretty much captured all that I can about it in two paragraphs. And yet it’s difficulty is real. Even people who’ve dedicated 20 years to mindfulness, or living in retrospect, find themselves undertaking unwise actions from time to time. Actions that they later see quite clearly were inappropriate, and could have been handled better.

Experience and wisdom are shorthand for knowing what is right to do in a given situation. They’re generally born of an ability to see parallels to a previously encountered situation from which it is understood what is likely to work in this situation. But contrary to popular belief, I’m confident you don’t really need either age or experience to know how do something well. What you need instead is a clear vision of all the factors unfolding in a situation and all the outcomes that could occur. If one, even as a beginner, can see these thing clearly they have the potential to do as well as even the most experienced experts to take the best course of action.

When one makes no effort to accurately percieve what is unfolding and what would be a wise way to respond, they only ever come to an adequate understanding through time. But inattentive centuries will hardly make you better at creating intelligent solutions to hard problems than a few weeks of careful attention from someone truly dedicated to seeing clearly and acting wisely.

I am not here to promise that you can be an instant expert in everything if you just learn to use this magical skill I’m trying to tell you about. You can’t, and it would be idiotic for me to try to convince you. But I do know that you’ll learn a lot more if you place yourself mindfully in the situation you find yourself than if you merely move through the routines of your life as if you’re anxiously awaiting some destination you’ll never arrive at.

We have so many stories, jokes, and morality plays as a culture about coming to the end of your life and realizing something about the way you lived it. But we have the capicity, rigt now in the very moment, to have the same insight and clarity that we’re so often told only death provides. Most of us are simply so pre-occupied with other things to see that we’re really not treating our family fairly. That we really don’t care all that much about our job. That there’s nothing more important than the people we choose to spend time with. This is the value of mindfulness. The value of striving to live in retrospect.

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world

The Serenity Prayer

When you look around at the world, it’s easy to be angry. There are socio-political problems all over: Darfur, Myanmar, Iraq, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Somalia… the list could go on and on. There are also the scourges of poverty and hunger that never seem to leave us. And the more mundane but pervasive problems of theft, violence, and murder. And this is not even to mention the lower-key but no less troubling problems of racism, (hetero-)sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, general carelessness, ignorance, and outright selfishness. In short, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control.

And though I don’t think anger at these things is bad–after all, these are ugly things–I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control. Any single man or woman, despite their dedication, power, and time available, cannot end any single force listed above. Even the American president–arguably the most powerful man in the world–requires a large bureaucracy and a number of allies to change anything in a noticeable way.

This is not to say that you cannot work to change things on a small scale. You can, for example, share your conviction that the rest of the world must act to end the conflict in Darfur. If you share this widely and well, you’ll probably convince at least a few others of that fact. But if you set out with the impression that you alone will end the conflict, you’ll only end up disappointed.

One of my favorite reminders of this is the Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how you feel about the Christian God, the use of the prayer by Alcoholics Anonymous, or the controversy over it’s authorship, I think everyone can learn something from it. The version I commonly hear says:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Interestingly, Wikipedia cites the original version as follows:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I think there’s a subtle and important difference between the two, but both are cogent explanations of the way one should act in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Surely other people, religious or not, have said the same thing, but if they ever said it with greater brevity or beauty, I’ve not seen it.

One could rightly critique both versions of the prayer for not being completely clear about what distinguishes between “things I cannot change” and “things I can.” That would be “things that cannot be changed” and “things that should be changed” if you use the second version. I think that “things that should be changed” is a more useful idea on this account, though it is also less clear about the distinction between what one should and should not get angry and worked up about.

Certainly, you alone cannot end racism, but it’s a problem that should change, and one you can work on. I would find it impossible to defend the idea that you should permit it. Parents shouldn’t let their kids be (overtly) racists, friends shouldn’t let friends be racists, and maybe strangers shouldn’t let other strangers be racists. But trying to end overt racism is not going to immediately end racism everywhere, and maybe racism will still remain just under the surface. But you must keep trying to change the things you can.

I think there’s a troubling possibly, after hearing this prayer, that one could begin to accept all behaviors. After all, the behaviors of others are necessarily beyond my control. But by expressing a conviction that certain behaviors should not be tolerated, I can influence how some act. Only those who will let my opinions influence their behavior will change–but I’d be changing the things I can.

You alone will not change the world, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change what you can. That is the valuable reminder of the Serenity Prayer.

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