Archive for January, 2012
A few years ago I read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, which talks about, among other things, assumptions hidden in plain sight. At the time it made an impression on me because it was passionate, wise, and came at a time where I was really confused about things and needed something to hold on to.
The other day I read a David Brooks editorial about what character traits make Presidents successful. I have no idea if I agree with the arguments but one characteristic jumped out at me: according to Brooks, great presidents have “an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause.”
That comment reminded me of the Kenyon college address, because that’s exactly the kind of assumption hidden in plain sight that Wallace was talking about. To see yourself as a temporary instrument of God is a kind of basic assumption that colors your entire perspective of reality. Do I see myself as an instrument of some higher power? What do I see myself as?
It’s very cold outside right now. When I’m walking around, I generally want to get indoors as soon as possible, and I feel vaguely threatened by the whole situation, the fact that the environment I live in is actively conspiring to physically destroy me. I walk fast, and when someone gets in my way my default reaction is to feel like they’re an obstacle, a threat to my existence. It’s a seismic shift in perspective to turn around and see through some other lens.
I consider myself an atheist in the sense that I think it’s important not to believe things for social reasons. I think a lot (although not all) of “God” talk is people looking around and saying “well everyone else seems to think this is true, guess I should think it’s true too,” and therefore perpetuating a set of tribal creation myths down through the ages. However I think when I take that same skepticism and point it at the scientific, materialist view of reality, it feels just as unreal to me. The honest answer is that really I have no clue about the big questions — what is consciousness, why does the universe exist, how can clods of dirt feel like they have souls. It’s a blank, a blind spot, the eye trying to see itself.
When I try to feel an answer instead of think an answer, “God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause” feels right. “God” can’t be person — i.e. all the yucky ego individuality of someone with their desires and preferences and opinions — but what I do get is a feeling of a vast, unknowable creative energy trying to enter the universe, and the opportunity, if I’m able, to become an outlet of that energy, a point of intersection between its total abstract non-particularity and the living breathing stuff of life.
These are easier thoughts to have on cold days. On warmer days, there is this whole conventional universe that rises up. I almost can’t start describing it because it’s so omnipresent in every single thought I have that it’s impossible to sort out. But I can see it externally: for instance, the sitcom “How I met your mother.” The characters in that sitcom live in a safe, enclosed world, with predictable rules, certain given aspirations (find a life partner and settle down), a rotating collection of fixed scenery, and a shared set of values. I’m picking “How I met your mother” in particular because that little universe is fairly similar to the conventional universe that I happen to live in. Not identical, but close enough that it hits home. The amazing thing is how completely it saturates my mind, to the point where everything I perceive is interpreted through that lens.
Cold days remind me that there’s stuff that lays outside of all that. There are some basic facts of human existence, namely that we are frail, easily destroyed biological creatures living fixed lifespans and oftentimes in competition with reality and each other for the necessities of life, that are incompatible with the plots of “How I met your mother”. I also recently read this blog post about war, which is really sick and weird and points out exactly the same thing, that the reason people value war, that it’s so hard to stamp out the glorification of violence altogether, is that when you stack the realities of war up against conventional existence, even though it is worse because there is pain and loss, it’s intrinsically more compelling, because it can have the effect of breaking people’s lenses and letting them see the world with fresh eyes, even though the world they see with those fresh eyes is one of horrors.
Anyway I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this. I had a taste earlier today of switching perspectives, of what it feels like for my individual pleasure and happiness not to be important and instead finding that being a vessel for greater creative forces to move through me is what’s important. I think I would like to be there more often. It’s hard and scary, though, because there’s such a tendency to revert, and because it’s infinitely more terrifying to live outside of convention. But also it’s so much more joyful and peaceful and happy to feel for a moment that really at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what happens to me, to feel flat words like love and compassion and kindness actually take on three dimensional weight when they are for once put in their proper context, which is that life is wild and dangerous and difficult and very very real.
Last night I dreamed I was having a conversation with a ghost. Just some random girl who I don’t know in waking-life. She was pretty hot, actually, which I found a little weird, even in the dream. I forget exactly why I was talking to her… I was on an assignment to do something, and she knew information I needed, but it turned out she was dead so I went over to where her body was decomposing and she showed up and we just started chatting about stuff.
I remember having the distinct thought at one point in the dream, “I don’t want to die.” It was a little-kid thought. The thought that I think everyone has at some point in their childhood when they get the memo that someday they will end up as a rotting pile of animal matter, when they try to wrestle with what it feels like to be dead. I remember as a kid trying to imagine what it would be like to not exist, and getting scared and frustrated because of the impossibility of imagining the absence of my own consciousness.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m thinking about all of this right now, but I think partly it’s because I’m reading The Book of Not Knowing which is by this Zen-inspired martial artist about seeing past all the false layers of the mind and having direct experience of our “true nature”. In other words, really questioning and not taking anything for granted and seeing what’s there.
I’ve read a number of people who argue that the basis of personality, the seat of the “ego”, is fear of non-existence. That most of everything we are most of the time is this vast unconscious edifice built up to insulate our minds from the realization we have as children that our entire universe, everything we can conceive of, will come to an end in a shockingly short period of time. In Donnie Darko, the message Donnie receives from the rabbit is that the world is ending in 48 hours. The world doesn’t end from our vantage point, but it does from his. Who says our perspective is the correct one?
One of the ways we deal with this disturbing fact at the center of our personalities is by telling stories about the future. Here’s mine: “Someday, if I do the right thing and work hard, everything will come together and I’ll have everything I ever wanted and I’ll be happy.” Kind of lame, actually… in the old days, most people’s stories were about eternal bliss in heaven, which is much more imaginative and ambitious (in my story, I still haven’t explained why I won’t die!)
Oh you can’t get to heaven
(Oh you can’t get to heaven)
With peanut brittle
(With peanut brittle)
Because the Lord’s own teeth
(The Lord’s own teeth)
Will break a little!
(Will break a little)
Oh you can’t get to heaven with peanut brittle because the Lord’s own teeth will break a little, I don’t wanna grieve the Lord no more!
The problem is that these stories have a dark core, because at least somewhere in my mind, I’m thinking, “what if it ain’t so? what if I work hard and then get hit by a car? What if I never get there?” This is why people don’t like atheists.
Anyway, this is the truth behind cliches like “live for the moment.” It’s not that it’s all fun and happy and dancing panda bears in the here-and-now, or that you won’t have to put up with the consequences of your compulsive <insert-vice-here> in the future, it’s that really, right now is all there is. Life is just a succession of right nows, right up until the last one. I dunno if this actually changes anything practically. I still have dreams, and I feel like as much as those dreams are about wish fulfillment, they’re also about doing what I love, pouring out all the talent and grace within me before they shut out the lights. In a sense it almost makes things more urgent. If you have a song to sing, better start singing it or you might not get a chance to sing the last note.
Why do people like skiing?
I just got back from a ski trip. It was cold. We had to stick chemical warmers in our gloves and boots to keep our extremities from going numb. Ski boots chafe and bruise. Lift lines are long, and chairlifts are agonizingly slow when the wind is slowly eating the skin off your face.
I drove for five hours and paid exorbitant sums for lift tickets and overpriced resort food in order to have this experience. Whenever one of my friends suggests a ski trip, part of my gut groans, oh god, no, why this again?
Lugging the heavy gear around, impatiently waiting for my friends to catch up (or scrambling to fasten all my various clasps and straps while they waited impatiently for me), the only thing driving me forward was a burning impatience to get on the slopes, a mental voice chanting “let’s go let’s go let’s go.”
When you’re actually out there, it’s scary… there are people trying to collide with you, your skis vibrate and your too tight boots suddenly feel incredibly wobbly, the slope is always icy (on the east coast) and the run is always over too soon, just when you were really skiing it well it’s done, wait, I want to try one more mogul, but then it’s back on line again.
Even so, in those too brief moments there’s a sensation worth trekking out to the slopes for. It’s not adrenaline, which you can get much more cheaply, say by crossing the street in New York in front of a taxi. It’s freedom: the sensation of creating art against resistance. It’s the temporary full-on existential battle of your will against the environment, an experience that no longer exists in our sanitized child-proof homes and workplaces. It’s the reassertion of humanity, the statement that against the cold, the slope, the obstacles, the limits of your own body, you can learn to manipulate these forces and create a vision of your own design, yourself cutting graceful lines back and forth down the mountain.
Human minds are designed to take the chaos of our environment and create art. That’s what we do. At any and every moment where we aren’t being challenged by our environment in some way, we’re degrading from what we are. Most every day challenges are mental and social, because the physical world has become so utterly tamed. It’s kind of sad that we have to create artificial theme parks like ski resorts to briefly remember what being human with our full bodies, not just our minds, feels like. We’re victims of our own success, perversely paying for what our ancestors got for free.
Of course, we rarely actually die while skiing, so maybe we have the better deal?
One year ago on New Year’s eve I was home in California with my parents, my brother, and his girlfriend. Someone (probably my brother) made a joke about how I was the fifth wheel and how I should get a girlfriend too. I remember thinking, “you know what, screw this. I’m sick and tired of being alone. I’m going to celebrate New Year’s next year with a girl on my arm or else, damn it.” Or something to that extent.
Well, as of midnight two nights ago, I was alone, in my apartment, cleaning my room. Oops.
Yeah, so New Year’s resolutions don’t really work. They don’t really work at all. The reason they don’t work is that when you want something, and it’s as easy as telling yourself, “Okay, let’s do this now”, guess what, it’s probably already done. How many people need to make a resolution to eat a piece of chocolate cake that’s sitting right in front of them when they’re hungry?
The only time that resolving is actually useful is when a) you know exactly what actions you need to take, and b) the only thing in your way is inertia. This is actually the case reasonably often in life, but the kind of stuff that crops up around the resolving time of year only sometimes fits into that category. For instance, let’s take the perennial favorite, “lose weight”.
A) Most people don’t know what to do. They think, okay I should eat less and let’s try to run 30 minutes a day, but that won’t work well.
B) Even if that did work well, there’s more than inertia in the way: there’s time management (how do I get that thirty minutes a day?), impulse control (how do I make my future-self do what my present self is saying, instead of doing what it feels like in the moment?), and monitoring (how do I actually know I’m eating less? Am I being truly objective?), all of which are challenging problems that require some amount of skill to solve.
In my experience, most positive changes don’t come from applying more discipline or will-power. Rather, they come from new insights. For instance, for a long time I was telling people that I was writing a philosophy manifesto, and before that, for a long time I was dreaming about writing it. This year I actually finished it (it sucked, and I feel great because now all those ideas I had are out of my head so I can start thinking about new stuff). The thing that turned it from a pipe dream to an actual written document was the realization that the various barriers I kept running up against such as “I don’t know what to say next” or “I have writer’s block” or “I’m not in the mood to work on it” or “I’m not feeling inspired” were all rationalizations of an underlying fear of making it a reality, and that whenever I just forced myself to sit and type whatever I could think of, after thirty minutes of agony or so I actually started to make forward progress.
Resolving can be damaging, because if you resolve and then don’t succeed, it damages your trust in your ability to follow through, and reinforces the difficulty of the problem you’re trying to solve. So let’s resolve to stop resolving so much. As a substitute, my suggestion is reflecting. What went well last year? What went poorly? What would you do differently if you had to do it again? What lessons did you learn? If some resolutions naturally arise out of that, so be it… but no need to force them.
This year I stopped working on The Funscape, co-founded KeywordSmart, and then as of a few weeks ago quit KeywordSmart to start a new company. I made some new friends and ended some connections with old friends. I finished my manifesto. A lot went really right in all of that and a lot went really wrong. Some of my major takeaways:
- Cut losses fast. I spent too long in situations, both personal and work-related, that weren’t working for me. It’s hard to see it when you’re in it, because there’s good and bad to everything, but when you step back and ask big picture, is this really healthy, is this really what I want, is this flowing somewhere or is this stagnant water, and the answers are “no”, hit the eject button. This is a carry-over from last year, where I stayed at my hedge fund job longer than I should have, but this year it really hit home for me the degree of pain this causes. I feel literal physical grief for the fact I wasted years of my life sticking around in relationships that weren’t healthy. I don’t want to do that anymore.
- If you’re not passionate, it’s not worth it. KeywordSmart is a great company and I’m confident that it will continue onward to be successful. I left, though, because personally, it’s not life-or-death to me whether or not it succeeds. Up front, I didn’t think that level of deep commitment was necessary, but I’ve been learning that any tough challenge that you can’t fully compartmentalize as a “day job” is only worth it if you really, really want it. I ran into this problem last year too, at my hedge fund job: it wasn’t just a job to me, but it also wasn’t something I deeply cared about. That’s an awful space to be in. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in being purely mercenary: you go in, you give a defined amount of effort to the best of your abilities and with pride in your work, you collect your paycheck, and you peace out. But if the goals are at all ambiguous, if you’re responsible for bringing something new into the world, then that’s not a day job and unless you have a motivator for doing it that comes from somewhere very deep inside of you, it’s not going to be worth it.
- Just sit down and do the work. See above re: my manifesto.
- Connect with humans. I spent too much time this year making friends with the characters in my favorite TV shows and not enough time making friends with the ones walking around in real life. This came home to me a few days ago when some of my good friends were just hanging around talking and I realized how much external perspective I was missing out on, how much bigger the world is than it exists in my own imagination, and how the only way that I can access that bigger world is by interacting with other people who will show it to me.
- Create space. This one is tentative, it’s my theory on what I need to do so that next New Year’s, I do actually have a relationship. It’s the Bruce Lee “empty your cup” thing; you can’t get something new without getting rid of the old stuff you’re hanging onto. Two nights ago I cleared a lot of stuff off my bookshelf, various books and mementos. I still like / care about a lot of them, but I decided it was time to put them aside, shelve them as a memory, and clear up the space for new things to happen. Emotionally, dating and connecting with people requires a lot of compassion and a lot of willingness to experience new things. The only way of having that is to take all the old emotions, all the sadness I feel, all the anger, all the reasons and stories and stuff I’ve clung onto, and let go of it. I don’t want to start dating someone right now, was my realization. I still have too much clearing-out work to do.
That’s the other problem with New Year’s resolutions: if you don’t pay enough attention to where you’re really at, sometimes you set the wrong goals. It feels a lot better to set the right goals, and that only comes from listening rather than speaking, not resolving but reflecting.