Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why rest if I like to work?

The idea of rest is as old as the idea of work. All living things cycle between work and rest; expending energy and building it up again. Human rest, at bare minimum, means sleeping, of which we all, unfortunately, must do at least a little. But when most of us think of rest, it is the cessation of work and activity during waking hours. Jews and Christians set aside one day per week as a “Sabbath rest”, following the Genesis creation account in which God rests on the seventh day. In the modern world, we have extended this into the idea of a “weekend”. Still, it is easy for our weekends to become even busier than our work week, as sundry tasks vie for our attention.

Work is good and some of us are lucky enough to enjoy what we do. Work may even renew or “re-charge” us if it is fulfilling work. Is there any virtue in or need for rest, if we like to work?

I’ve come up with four pretty compelling reasons I, you, and everyone else should rest, but I must confess that rest is easy for me. When it comes to balancing rest and work, I could, as a friend used to say, “Slide a lot of bricks to the other end of the see-saw”. And, since I don’t think rest can be put in its proper place without work in adequate amount and kind, here’s a side note to all of you work-addicts this question is directed toward: You are the rats that make the wheel go round. I’m just the fat one in the corner, curled up in a bed of cedar shavings. I’m not racking up any mileage or persuading any rodent-treats to tumble down the food chute, but this is what I can see from here.

1) You will perform better if you rest. Our brains need “down time” from a task, in order to perfect it. This is all very utilitarian, I know, but it’s true. Last month, my twelve year old son was preparing his piano recital piece and had hit a wall. He knew the music by heart, but something essential kept getting lost in translation between his fingers and the keys. One afternoon I found him groaning and complaining at the piano, almost in tears. “I can’t play this song,” he told me. I offered several suggestions, all of which he shot down, getting more anxious all the time. “It’s getting worse, not better,” he said. So, I encouraged (mandated) a day of rest. He was adamantly against this and didn’t believe me when I told him it would help. But, being the good boy that he is, he moved on to something else and left those piano keys silent and cold. Sure enough, the next time he sat down to the piano he played effortlessly. He had gotten over the hump and from there his playing only improved until recital day.

2) Resting can help us realize a mistake before it’s too late. This applies to anything from a career path to parenting to a research paper to knitting a sweater. Taking time to slow down and put aside work for a while gives us the chance to re-evaluate the direction we’re headed. One thing tends to lead to another and unless we stop occasionally to assess our lives and set goals, we’ll likely end up somewhere we didn’t really plan to or want to be.

3) Have you ever noticed that relationships can’t very easily be scheduled? Good conversations tend to happen in informal environments, when everybody is just hanging around, unhurried, with no place else to be. If you can’t leave the dishes until after your friends are gone, don’t be surprised if you miss something. Similarly, as long as we keep busy and interested in our own work, we won’t notice the people around us who are hurting or needy, even if they are our friends. To love other people, we need to take time out to notice them.

4) Rest communicates wisdom to us in a way that work cannot. Rest helps us notice our surroundings and allows them the potential to affect and change us. Does it matter that I can distinguish between a female goldfinch and a male that hasn’t yet shed its winter feathers? Or that I know by a cardinal’s song that one is near, even if I can’t see it? Or that I know a certain bluebird comes around each summer and I await his first appearance with anticipation? I know these things because I’ve hung a bird feeder outside my bay window and I take time every day to watch. My four year old knows the names of the birds and we practice being very quiet while we watch. When an unfamiliar bird alights on the feeder, we look it up in our field guide “Birds of North America”. This practice doesn’t seem productive in any way, but I believe it shapes me, speaks beauty to me and in some way helps me understand the world in a more genuine way. Taking time to let the earth speak to me makes me a fuller and more compassionate part of it.

Tell me about your experience of rest and/or work. What do you think of this question? Is it difficult to balance work and rest? Do you feel that you get enough and the right kind of rest? How does the quality of the work you do affect the quality of your rest?

And now perhaps I should write a post entitled, “Why work if I like to rest?” which is much more up my alley.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What makes for good sex? Is it more than just friction?

In Laura Sessions Stepp’s recently published, controversial book, “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both”, she calls the bluff of those who have been dubbed, the “hook-up generation”, taking them to task over their very sixties assertion that sex can be easily divorced from love and commitment without significant consequences. Apparently, among young females anyway, there is little fulfillment in the life of no-strings-attached sex and one night stands, even while these same girls tout the independence, control and self-direction this lifestyle affords.

The New York Times article, “A Disconnect on Hooking Up” describes the reaction of Ms. Sessions Stepp’s critics, who characterize her book as “an odd throwback — not only retro in its point of view, but also out of sync with the current climate of high-achieving girls who are usually applauded for focusing on their careers and their female friends, rather than on finding Mr. Right.”

What Sessions Stepp purports regarding the sexual choices of today’s high school and college students, Jillian Straus says of the dating choices of “Generation X” (in this case, everyone between the ages of 25 and 39), in her 2006 book “Unhooked Generation: The Truth About Why We’re Still Single”. Ms. Straus points to several social factors driving twenty and thirty- somethings to postpone marriage, even sacrificing love for the sake of career and personal discovery, with the expectation that there will be “time for all that, later”. Rather than clarity and success in love, what time proffered to most everyone interviewed by Straus was a growing commitment phobia and cynicism regarding love. Serial monogamy—which is unavoidable where there is a simultaneous desire for companionship and resistance to commitment—seemed to encourage a belief that relationships don’t last. What’s more, it fostered among participants the impression of having unlimited partner options, which in turn led to frequent relationship dissatisfaction.

Ms. Sessions Stepp writes that “hooking up” (sex among young people who have only just met or are not in a romantic relationship), is the new dating. But, according to Ms. Straus, the last generation of daters didn’t fare too well, either. Even though Ms. Straus does not point directly to Gen Xers’ sexual practice as an inhibitor of love, stability and well-being, she does allow that each new dating alliance includes sex, even if the relationship lasts only a very short time.

Neither author stresses lack of physical enjoyment as a result of serial sexual partnering; rather they tackle the emotional and psychological effects. So the question naturally arises, is there more to good sex than its physicality? Is there more to it than the mechanics of “friction”? Is there more even than the compatibility of partners, “chemistry”, or mutual romantic feelings? Can sex be separated from commitment or does unfettered sex leave us impoverished in spirit, even while we express satisfaction with our free lifestyle? What are the components of good sex?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I am not at home in the only world I have ever known.

His wristwatch marked half past twelve. He fished in his jacket pocket for a pen and wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY on a cocktail napkin in neat, capital lettering. He tilted the napkin to the right, then the left, finally fixing it upside down—the words, suspended atop a phantom Ferris wheel. He swung them distractedly.

The girl behind the bar was hoping he’d notice her and had been all night. She felt silly for watching him so unabashedly, and even sillier because he wasn’t watching her. When she caught herself brushing past him, closer and more often than necessary, she blushed and hurried to the ice bin, where she wetted a towel and pressed it to her hot cheeks. In a town where each spring ushered in a fresh crop of men and each fall saw them exit with the last salmon run, girls spent years immunizing themselves against the newcomers' sweet talk, their lewd comments and gawking stares. So how was it that one evening, one of them could walk into her bar wanting nothing more than a drink, and she was immediately reduced to a school girl? She eyed his near empty glass. She should offer him another drink. Or, was that too eager? She busied herself, instead, checking on her few tables and lingering over other patrons at the bar.

Dell rubbed his face hard, polished off his drink and rested his elbows on the mahogany bar. Wanting another whiskey, he surveyed the wait staff, lazily, aware that he hadn’t noticed his server enough to remember her. He was trying to think of something: something that had bothered him a great deal four drinks earlier. It was something Mrs. Begley had said to him at the hotel. Her skirt was red, like raw sockeye salmon flesh, and it was hemmed too long for her short stature. It trailed her like a wake, but just cleared her feet in the front, where its length was buffered by an unusually large midsection. He had followed her down a fishy-smelling hall and waited while she unlocked door number 9. The color of her skirt and the way it seemed to propel her over the concrete floor like a fish tail, together with the stench of dirty fishermen and sea-sopped clothes had made him queasy. He had leaned against the door-frame and closed his eyes. That’s when she said it. She had pressed a spare room key into his limp hand and said, “Make yourself at home”.

It was many years since he had seen his family home in Iowa; the weathered porch, the bright blue kitchen with yellow paisley-print linoleum, the green shag rug in his bedroom that doubled as his pasture when he was playing Jimmy’s horse. There was the living room, with his mother’s ceramic figurines and the “new” sofa, covered in heavy plastic for fifteen years. Mom insisted this was "to keep it nice", though nobody sat on it but twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, when Dad’s bachelor brother drove Papa Burt and Nana Kat up for a visit. The town was nice enough, with hard-working, friendly folk, but Dell had never quite made it his. He used to lounge in the fork of the old black walnut tree and read Jules Verne, while the other children played. When he left town at seventeen, he told himself it was in search of monsters, more than running away from what had happened there.

That was eleven years ago. He had seen other homes. He had seen Nicaraguan women, all but widowed, barely keeping their children alive in wood slat houses with leaky plastic roofs, while their men roamed far and wide, in search of non-existent work. Those who survived poverty and unclean water died from years of exposure to toxic smoke, billowing from inefficient stoves. Mercedes had daily turned the empty corn barrel and oil jar into scant tortillas or boiled a handful of rice with a few red beans—while babies played at her feet and smoke filled her tiny shack. In time, her elderly mother coughed up a bloody lung and her little asthmatic girl turned blue for want of air.

He had seen the masses of Katrina survivors, rendered homeless in one fell swoop; vagrants now—extra bodies with no place to put down. The relief effort, of which he was part, felt like a response at least as ineffective as, and far less impassioned than, that of a man whose story was circulated among the workers. Having no means of escape, he had climbed upon his rooftop and yelled into the hurricane winds.

He had known this very town, though it had changed since he was here last. Phineas--whose mother still lived here--was quick and sure with his fishing rig, and as dependable a friend as fisherman. In the water, he was a magic so astonishing that tall tales grew of his adventures; he was the Davy Crockett of the sea. He made his home at sea, but it betrayed him at last.

Dell looked, again, at the words on the napkin, as if hoping to make sense of them. He thought he’d identified his waitress; she seemed flustered when their eyes met but didn’t come to him. He closed his eyes. Eleven years…and at once he understood that he wasn’t looking for monsters. He was looking for where monsters were not. He was looking for home. In stories, the heroes—having battled the monster—returned home to great rejoicing. Slaying the monster made home safe; made home, home. But straight-forward monsters like dragons and giant squid were mere fantasy. In the world, there were only the ordinary monsters of poverty and inhumanity. Inhumanity, he had come to see, claimed poverty among its legion of psychopathic sons. Poverty could be dealt with, if uneasily. Inhumanity was unwieldy; it pervaded everything, the world over. Dell remembered the first time he’d seen a satellite image of the earth from space; it was cold and empty—unspeakably beautiful—but not a place he would instinctively call “home”.

When they finally pulled Phineas out of the tangled net, his face was contorted like something from a horror movie. Many friends, villagers and family members would tell the story of his death as a romance: a tall tale befitting a life of tall tales. They said the sea had finally claimed him, that he would have wanted to go no other way, that he was always more of the sea than of the land. One townsman even claimed to have seen him swimming in the bay, but upon over taking him, met a blue eyed seal, who looked at him, knowingly. Nobody, even the other crew members, ever mentioned his face. It was over-taken, afraid; as one surprised by treachery just before the plunge of the knife: Et tu, Brute?

Dell suddenly remembered how it felt to run the length of a corn row in the dark, with Jimmy and how he used to run ahead to lose him. He’d dart through the eight-foot wall of papery leaves, into the next row and sit, as quiet as his father sat when hunting pheasant in the brush at the far side of the crop fields. He used to watch the white moon--corn tassels like fuzzy black caterpillars, crawling on its glowing face--and listen to his brother wail. When Jimmy came up close, he could tell by the sound of his step when his foot left the worn trail and faltered in the soft mound of dirt heaped up around the plants or when he tripped on corn-stalk stubble. He could hear, too, Jimmy’s breath, labored and glitchy from running so hard and sucking up the snot running down his face. When he finally stepped back into Jimmy’s row, he did so stealthily, sidling up behind him until Jimmy felt his presence and turned around. This always scared Jimmy and Dell found his scream priceless, but a moment later when the moon shone on the boy’s upturned face, puffy and wet, he always felt a pang in his chest and would lie awake long into the night, remembering. Home, Dell decided, was somewhere in Jimmy’s face.


Dell slid sweaty hands from his forehead to his temples, pushing back loose strands of hair. He opened his eyes and stared at the waitress, without understanding her.

“Can I get you another?” She indicated his empty glass.


She hurried away, looking rattled and flushed. He shook a cigarette loose from his diminishing pack.

It used to be a show of bravery he put on for Jimmy, letting the match burn nearly to his finger before blowing it out. Now it was a reason as uninteresting as habit or as singular as curiosity. He didn’t know which and resolved not to find out. It was need, either way. He lit the cigarette and watched the match flame dwindle until he felt the quick pain of it on his finger. He blew it out.

“Whiskey, neat,” announced the waitress. She set a glass in front of him and hurried away, again.

He dragged on his cigarette, long and deep. When he reached for his drink he saw that the cocktail napkin was gone and the waitress had supplied him with a fresh ashtray.

Monday, April 09, 2007

I know when things are working--even though I do not always know how or why

This statement might suggest a thousand situations to someone else, but I have to admit it seems backward to me. Most of the time, when things are working, I don’t pay them any mind; not even a brief moment of pause to say, “Wow, this is working”. Usually, I am only aware of things working by their breaking down. I can tell when something isn’t working and then, as I try to fix the problem, I know if my remedies are working based on the absence of the initial problem.

I was brought up Baptist. It is sometimes common in religious communities to hear people praise God in prosperity but abandon faith in time of trouble. This always seemed backward to me, too. When I was ten, I wrote a poem:

The trees so green
The sky so blue
The birds are seen
The worms are, too

The sun is shining brightly
The car is running smooth
The children are all healthy
The hunting is good, too.

And then I shrug off God
I think I do not need Him
I am so smart
And I’m so good

It’s cloudy and it’s freezing
The engine just blew up
The kids all got pneumonia
The rabbits disappeared

And then I realize
That I’m dumb compared to God
I need Him to help me
And lead me along

Perhaps it’s unhealthy that I have always needed break down to shock me into awareness. But perhaps the ability to perceive that something is “off” or “not quite right” speaks to our intuitive human knowledge of truth and “rightness” or of wholeness.

I also know things are working when the desired outcome is produced. In my poem, the car presumably gets me where I need to go and there is food (apparently rabbit) on the table to indicate the hunting is good (I grew up in Michigan). I know my printer is working because I see my document spitting out of it. I know my son is listening to me because he responds to what I ask. Am I poorer because I don’t know how my printer works or why my particular words softened my son to me? Maybe. But do I need to know how or why something works in order to know that it is working? No. What does this say about us as human beings? What does it say about our ability to find truth?

It is possible to be mistaken or misguided about the truth, but it is also possible to go mad with doubt. Six years ago, I had hit the epistemological rock bottom. I could barely read or write, much less function on a practical level. Depressed, skeptical, cynical and desperate, I asked a wise friend to help un-muddle me. I told him I didn’t know anything, for sure, and I didn’t see any way forward in pursuit of knowledge. Nothing made any sense. He said, “Try to think of one thing you do know, and we’ll go from there.”

I thought about it for a day or two. When we met again, I said, “I’m pretty sure I can put a seed in the ground and it will grow, with proper conditions. And I’m fairly sure that if I plant a bean seed a bean plant will grow and not a tomato plant.”

This was all I could muster. It wasn’t much, but it was also everything. If there was truth and order at this basic level, surely it was possible—though complicated—to discern truth about myself and my situation in the world. I had failed to trust my instincts; I assumed that because I had been wrong before, I could never be right.

What if my tendency to notice glitches isn’t unhealthy, but is part of health—a part of our ability to know when things are working? Our bodies come replete with an innate knowledge of fertile conditions for growth and are adept in signaling us to this effect. Our bodies notice glitches—areas of lack or gaps in health. Signals such as hunger or weariness indicate the need for food or sleep. If conditions are right, we can trust these indicators to have truth behind them. However, if we ignore or abuse these signals, we can throw our entire system out of whack. So I may feel hungry when I am over-fed and tired because of inactivity. In this case, my hunger and tiredness are rather more like symptoms of disease than indicators of need. But interestingly, they are still part of health, part of my immune system, shouting out that something isn’t working right. My skepticism and depression were part of my illness, but their very existence suggested an alternative; suggested that I was falling short of the right way of being.

As a funny coincidence, my printer failed to respond when I tried to print this document (editing is sometimes easier for me when I can see the whole thing at once). I clicked “print” four times before I opened the paper tray and found a jam. I removed the affected paper and straightened the rest of it, then closed the tray. I now have four copies of my document in front of me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reality Check

I've been working on another Qube Question but am awkwardly reminded each time I look at the blog that I promised to share the outcome of my inquiry into the integrity of my own life. (Why did I do that?)

It is difficult to distill. Examining myself with the question, "Do I live like that's true?" has enabled sundry observations, and stimulated thoughts of remedies as diverse as moving to Alaska, going back to school, swearing off electricity, moving into an urban area, writing more, writing less, planting a garden. I honestly think my particulars would bore you, so instead of telling you where I fall short and what I'm going to change, I want to talk a little bit about living with integrity, a word which has become integral to the discussion on this blog. "Integrity" is defined as "wholeness or completeness", and the word "integral" means "necessary to the whole". We extend this to compliance with moral standards, because in order for a thing to be whole, there mustn't be any missing parts. Our actual lives must be congruent with the idea of a right life.

Up until now we've talked about ways to stuff ourselves into congruence (habits) and we've flirted with conceptions of the original or ideal shape we should measure ourselves against. Taking the idea of integrity as "wholeness", I'm going to suggest that a true definition of integrity is more than alignment with one's personal philosophy or "world view", although achievement of said alignment would be impressive, indeed. I do believe in absolutes of some kind; I believe there are more and less healthy environments for human growth. I believe there is such a thing as proper growth or, health. Some things are true about the human condition and others are false, and it doesn't really matter how we feel about it. But personal integrity is also more elusive and individual than searching out these “health components”. All plants need light and nutrients, but in varying kind and degree.

Oliver Sacks' book, Awakenings, explores health and illness through the experiences of twenty post-encephalitic patients treated with the drug L-Dopa, during the summer of 1969. In it, Dr. Sacks notes the personal nature of disease. Illness is not a thing in itself, but rather its manifestations and character are defined by the individuality of the person. Illness grows out of our personal environment. It is an unnatural growth and becomes a weight, heavy enough to create a dent in wellness or wholeness. We acknowledge our intuitive grasp of this idea when we describe our state of health with the common phrase, "out of shape". So, while it is possible to say, for example, that I "have the flu", it is perhaps more accurate to say that the particulars which constitute "me" are interacting with (or yielding to) a particular viral strain, resulting in my being bent out of shape. The shape I manifest is similar enough to the one most other people exhibit when confronted with this same virus, so we can lump individual reactions together and call them "flu-symptoms". But, Dr. Sacks points out, “...modern medicine, increasingly, dismisses our existence, either reducing us to identical replicas reacting to fixed 'stimuli' in equally fixed ways, or seeing our diseases as purely alien and bad, without organic relation to the person who is ill. The therapeutic correlate of such notions, of course, is the idea that one must attack the disease with all the weapons one has, and that one can launch the attack with total impunity, without a thought for the person who is ill.” So, treating the flu as something separate from the individual, focusing only on eradicating it, is misguided. The flu, as we know it, never occurs outside a unique, living entity.

Integrity, like health, is a state of wholeness. I asked a friend, years ago, what she wanted to do with her life and she said, simply, "to live well". Most of us would echo her sentiment, even if we haven't formulated it in as straight-forward a way. The question which has plagued me, since, is the obvious retort to her answer: "But what is living well?" or, as we have explored, "what counts as success?" I've spent much unproductive energy and time trying to sort this out philosophically; looking for a way to diagnose and treat the disease that bends us all out of shape. And while it may be true that there is a disease, it is also true that it takes place in me; not abstractly, but in me.

So, what does it mean for me to have integrity? What if it means living in such a way as to combat or undo the effects of illness in me? In one sense, this sounds very vague; but in another, it is much more specific than I have ever been able to be with this question. What if there is an over-arching structure (or personality) to the world and my movement in it is good or bad in relation to how well I and the things I interact with can retain or gain wholeness? This opens up everything to free will but at the same time holds a firm belief in destiny. I am freed from the weight of choosing the "one right thing" but at the same time, miraculously allowed specificity. I can take a title as general as "mother" or "wife" or "friend" and make it as specific as "Rachael King".

Dr. Sacks briefly discusses health and disease in terms of design. He says, “Health is infinite and expansive in mode, and reaches out to be filled with the fullness of the world; whereas disease is finite and reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself.” Reaching for wholeness, then, involves casting out wide nets into the world to catch mystery and let it fill us; wet plaster seeping into cracks. Disease is inherently pessimistic. The illness in us wants to narrow our sights; like my description of feeling stuck in the valley between myself and the truth—it is tempting to make all the world a monolith of disease. Health is about wideness, but also about specificity, about the specific indentation of disease that we each bear. If we can call disease or immorality or brokenness what it is—a parasite deriving its shape from our individual environment—then we can learn something about the way we should live, about our individual necessity, by noticing what its symptoms are pointing toward.

When I suggested the purpose of my life may not be so different from a fish’s, I think I was on to something. We are both successful by living according to our essence. The fish does what he does because of instinct; because of his essential fish-ness, which isn’t significantly different from the fish-ness of his neighbor in the next coral reef. My essential human-ness, however, dictates not only that I eat and sleep and love, but also that I am an individual; who in this case has a weakness for pasta, sleeps with an arm under two stacked pillows, and would be qualitatively reduced without having borne children. These particular things are not essential to being human, but a terrain made up of particulars, is. Listen to Annie Dillard, in her essay, "Living Like Weasels":

…once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

...I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.

…We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft, even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Do you live like that’s true?

Over the past four months, the various Qube Books questions I have pondered, studied and written about have taken me on a personal journey. Starting with these questions, I have posed further questions to myself and to you. With your help, I have formulated the beginnings of answers and have asserted some things that I believe to be true. Particularly, in our discussion of the last question, I wrapped up the idea of success in the metaphor of growth; success being right or straight growth, which requires us to live in accordance with truth. So during this week, I’ve been wondering, “how successful am I?” In the course of this blog, I have called many things true; but do I live like these are true?

I rather quickly saw my own personal chasm—between my knowledge of the good and my embodying of it—widen and deepen, looming very large, indeed. And just at this point, I made a near fatal mistake. I embraced pessimism. The dictionary defines pessimism as: the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil. In other words, pessimism makes its home in the molten rock at the very bottom of the chasm; it does not acknowledge true good nor does it take any notice of me, clinging to the opposite canyon wall as I search and reach for virtue. My own small “descent into hell” found expression in an Email of Great Despair which I sent to my friend, who thankfully didn’t tolerate my rant and effectively shut me up. Ironically, frustration over my failure to live in accordance with truth had led me to further perjure myself by behaving as if evil were stronger than good or as if ugliness could trump beauty. I said my mistake was a near fatal one, but that is only because I have a very good friend. Pessimism, unchecked, is always fatal to thought and progress.

It is helpful to take a periodic moral inventory of ourselves; doing so can expose not only where our actions fail to reflect truth but where, perhaps we have misjudged something to be true and are unable to act in accordance with it because it contradicts the truth about us and our world. I can deny gravity until I'm blue in the face, but I will continue to set my water glass securely on the table. Or—more relevantly—I can profess pessimism concerning my actions but at the end of the day, I still kiss my sons and sing them a lullaby.

To be human is to be dignified as moral agents in this world. With this distinction, comes the responsibility to live as if we really are moral agents. On our drive to school a few mornings ago, my ten year old and I explored his breakfast table unkindness toward his brother. He said, “I don’t want to be mean to him, but it’s so much easier to do bad than it is to do good.” And in a way, it is. Life requires maintenance, in addition to advancement, if we are ever to hold or incarnate the truths we unearth. I think this is where habit training comes in; if we lay the tracks of habit, we ease our moral engine maintenance effort considerably.

In this sense, we can be “living successfully” in a way that is roughly consistent with our professed beliefs. But in another sense, there is no single moment in which we personify perfection or even success. We aren’t static beings. No matter how far we progress or how far we regress, we are always standing at the moment of reckoning; we are perpetually facing the chasm between ourselves and what is good and at any moment, any one of us may widen or narrow the gap.

Along these lines, I intend to conduct a little experiment over the next two weeks. I’m going to ask myself the double-sided question, “Do I live like that’s true?”, examining both my behavior and my assertions for short-comings. I’ll let you know what I come up with. Let me know what you think about this question and join in my experiment, if you dare.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

What Counts As Success In This Life?

On a recent trip to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, I stood transfixed before the circular, floor-to-ceiling tank at the entrance to the exhibits. It’s a lighted tank, full of tropical fish. A bright yellow fish, about the shape and size of a large, vertical pancake, swam lazily near the glass. I bent over, aligning my eye with its eye. I waited for some sign of recognition, if not from the fish, then from within myself; we are both the stuff of earth. The fish waggled its tail and turned, unresponsive, from me. I watched it pass into a mesmerizing conglomerate of fish. A heaviness descended on me; I was tired, but almost giddy, too; depressed, but also anxious. I turned to my friend beside me and said, “Why? What does it all mean?”

An Australian Lungfish at the aquarium has been on exhibit since it arrived for the Chicago World’s Fair, in between the two world wars. It sits, hardly moving, near the bottom of a shallow tank, as it has done for 74 years, while men and women have lived and died and loved and fought; faced failure, loss, disillusionment and, sometimes, success.

Humanity, as a species, is purpose-driven. We want to do something, but also to know why we are doing it. What use are we to our selves, to others, to the world? This is why we don’t exactly love the menial things like washing clothes or dusting bookshelves. These activities don’t seem to “get us” anywhere; they simply maintain a state of being. Standing there in front of the tank, I saw the entire life of a fish as consisting of the maintenance of a state; that of existing. A voice in my head fairly screamed, “But what is the point of existing?”

Several years ago, I had the—dare I say—pleasure of being depressed at the same time as a friend. We sat side by side in front of a small, dimly lit fish tank. He told me he’d heard that fish-watching is therapeutic for depressives. I could only work out that it must have something to do with water and “gentle” movement. I’m wondering now if it doesn’t work (if at all—sitting silently with an understanding friend goes a lot further, I think) in a more unexpected way. The fish does not pursue purpose. The fish doesn’t fail or succeed in anything, except most basically; it either procures a meal or it doesn’t; it escapes being prey or it doesn’t. And the life of an aquarium fish is even less purposeful, since it has no need of eluding predators or finding food. Yet, the human being, watching the fish, cannot help but look for ways to assign meaning to its meanderings from one side of the tank to the other or at least, to recognize how very different she is from a fish. If this is insufficient proof of genuine meaning, it is at least sufficient to demonstrate that human life is a series of purposeful actions directed toward attainment of a goal (or goals), which will result in a status change or an improvement; a growth. Accomplishment of these goals, we call success.

But what counts as success? Must we always achieve our goals in order to be successful? What happens when the pursuit of a goal leads you to conclude that you should abandon it? Have you failed? I read a fascinating paper, once, exploring the idea of “sunk costs”. The example accompanying this explanation of the term is that of a pre-paid theater ticket, in the event that it is non-refundable and the buyer no longer wants to see the movie.

...[T]he ticket buyer can choose between the following two end results:

  1. Having paid the price of the ticket and having suffered watching a movie that he does not want to see, or;
  2. Having paid the price of the ticket and having used the time to do something more fun.

Let's say I went to the theater and pre-bought a movie ticket for later in the evening. On my way out the door, I ran into a friend, who assured me that the movie in question was a tremendous waste of time, and also invited me to a dinner party at her house, the same night. If I do what I want to do, my original goal of seeing the film will remain unaccomplished. However, had I not pursued the goal and paid the price of the ticket, I would not have bumped into my friend, nor been invited to her party. I need to accept the ticket price as a sunk cost and leave it behind me, where it properly lies. If we are too rigid about accomplishing our goals, we will experience dissatisfaction and failure, as surely as if we make no goals at all.

A definition of success seems more nuanced than "the accomplishment of a goal". Must the goal come to fruition in order to achieve success? As a writer, a reasonable goal may be to get published, one day. The pursuit of that goal will certainly make me a better writer and hopefully be of some interest to my friends and family. But what if I never find someone willing to publish me? Does this mean I am not a successful writer?

How do we determine when we are being successful? In other words, on the road to a goal, at what point can we say we are “having success”? I came across a definition of success as,

“Doing what you said you would do, with ease." (Maria Nemeth)
I guess the "ease" part is put in there to imply that “things are working” and you are, therefore, “experiencing” success. This seems ridiculous to me. Many successes are a hell of a fight, and we don’t know until the last minute that we’re going to win.

Building disciplines into our daily lives, which become habits and then mature into character—as we talked about in a previous discussion—will equip us to achieve our goals. But what if we uncover a fundamental personal deficit? William James made this bold statement,

"There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man's lack of faith in his true self."
I can see how that statement may be inspiring (to me it is only depressing), but it simply isn’t true. We sometimes make honest mistakes and other times, we misjudge our capabilities. There is more than one way to fall off the side of a cliff, and lack of faith is not the most usual. So perhaps the important part in success is fixing on the proper goal, in the first place.

Albert Einstein, by all accounts very successful, said,

"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value."
When we think of what makes someone “valuable” in her field or in his relationships, we see it is those with integrity who are valued. If we love a thing and do it as well as we can, perhaps that is success?

How about Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of success?

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded."

It certainly wouldn’t do for a fish.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What are we trying to do when we wear clothes?

Blue jeans. Running shoes. A little black dress.

An impeccably dressed man. An elderly lady in a housecoat. A woman in a business suit. A twenty-something college student dressed in charity-shop threads.

A half-naked child with a bloated belly stares out from your television screen. A half-naked woman pouts for the camera, hoping you'll run right out and buy that Racing Red lipstick she’s donning. African children sport faded Nike t-shirts and bare feet. An overweight teenager wears a midriff and low-riders. A six year old girl dresses like a beauty-queen.

Whoever we are, our relationship with our clothes is, at the very least, an intimate one. As the only species on earth that both needs and desires additional covering for our hides, what we wear and how we wear it is a basic part of human life on earth. Some protection from the elements is necessary for our survival. But for all of human history, we have treated the making or purchasing of our attire as something more like an art form, involving careful craftsmanship and aesthetically pleasing design. Today, the ease and economy of manufacturing has put innumerable styles and fabrics at our fingertips. We all need a coat, but do we need a closet full of them? We need a solid pair of shoes, but ten or twenty pair? Clearly, we are trying to say something about ourselves, with the clothes we wear. What do your clothes say about you, anyway?

For ages, clothes have served as social signifiers, denoting such things as class, wealth, marital status or age. In today’s western society, these distinctions are fading. Is that woman twenty-five or thirty-five? It’s sometimes hard to tell. Are we losing something by blurring the lines? Gaining something?

One of the most obvious uses of clothing is to hide our nakedness. Stripping of the clothes is often synonymous with the stripping of pride. It is a form of intimidation and torture. The Seattle Times covered the story of an anthrax scare which required everyone within the potentially toxic zone to strip and be washed down. Even in the face of so grave a threat, a reluctant few refused to undress. The article was titled, “We’d Rather Die than Take Our Clothes Off”.

At the opposite extreme, Naturists advocate nudity as the natural and therefore, best clothing. They say it’s all about erasing the barriers between people of different social classes and about accepting yourself for who you really are. Are those of us who prefer wearing clothes, unenlightened—or worse—vain? Naturism reacts against the gnostic idea still prevalent in parts of our society, that the body is inherently shameful. Are they right? Is wearing clothes always a sign of shame? Or is there a certain metaphorical protecting and reserving or even—in direct contrast to the idea of Naturism—a reverencing of ourselves that takes place each time we pull on our clothes?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

You knew it was wrong, so why did you do it?
This question is loaded with ideas and directions to take conversation. The image implies we are more likely to engage in wrong acts under the condition of anonymity or privacy. It also reminds me that some moral lapses are socially acceptable, some are joked about in friendly company, and some, a person will be shunned for. But regardless of the act and which social mores it offends or agrees with, each individual has personal convictions as to what is right to do and what is wrong. So, why would anyone choose to do wrong?

To get a simple, straightforward approach to the question, I asked my two sons, ages 12 and 10, to respond to it. Son Number One said, “If I know something is wrong, I don’t do it”. That's an incredible answer. If I didn't know my son, I might think he was being smart or trying to please me with his answer. But he is telling the truth. Son Number Two, who my family fondly (I hope) says is the male version of me, had this to say: “Because doing it feels better than not doing it”.

Both of my sons desire something good. However, the older one is able to stand above his immediate situation and determine that obedience is a higher good than pleasure; his younger brother is stuck in the pleasure spectrum and sees only that one pleasure is greater than another—eating a candy bar (his example) feels better than going without; and apparently also feels better than pleasing his mother, who asked him to save the chocolate for after dinner.

Socrates claimed, rather provocatively, that “no one errs willingly”. In this view of things, my younger son simply does not have sufficient knowledge to direct his will toward the right thing. And this may be true, depending on how we define “knowledge”. However, from a practical point of view, most of us experience a sense of divided desire which sometimes leads to our choosing against our own knowledge of what is right.

Why do we do this? Looking back on times I chose to do what I knew was wrong, I would have to say, "I did it because I wanted to”. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, answers this question essentially the same way I did, when he quotes Woody Allen’s justification of his affair with the daughter of Mia Farrow, his then romantic partner. Allen said, simply, “The heart wants what it wants”.

And that is really the final answer. But it’s complicated, because my passion extends to things other than my own pleasure. In fact, I care very little for my own pleasure, in the grand scheme of things. I would lay it aside for many nobler virtues; including truth, justice, compassion, beauty, and love. I would tell you my passion for these things is much greater than my passion for pleasure or safety or comfort. So why am I sometimes willing to cast them aside for momentary and incomplete satisfaction?

My mother says I was a “strong-willed child”. Parents often say this with a chuckle, as if it is an exasperating but endearing quality in their child. I wonder: Can a little girl who does only what she pleases be said to have a strong will? Isn’t her will actually weak? Isn’t she enslaved to her passions and unable to command her body with her will? What is the human will and what role does it/ should it play in our choices? Can we strengthen our will? Can we weaken it? And what makes it so difficult for some of us to put the candy bar away until after dinner?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It matters what I do in this world - But I have trouble seeing why.

My three year old son is standing behind me, singing a ditty to himself. It goes like this:

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

It’s sledding time

He’s putting on his snow boots while he sings. He doesn’t stop to ask, “But why does it matter that I’m going out in the snow?”

Some of you may think it doesn’t. After all, what real change will come about because of my son’s small footprints in two inches of Michigan snow, or the sled-marks etched into the snow-dusted hill, as he inches his way down it? Perhaps as soon as this afternoon, his marks will have melted away.

The Israelite King Solomon, known for his profound wisdom, put it this way:

Generations come and generations go
but the earth remains forever...
There is no remembrance of men of old
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered by those who follow

The earth will not remember me; even my progeny will forget me when I have gone. When I dwell on this, I begin to wonder why it matters if I wash the dishes today, or just sit here and let them pile up. Other than making my life stressful when it comes time for dinner, does it really matter?

I wrote the following, over a year ago:

I'm forever trying to get at the thing behind everything we do: I get up in the morning so I can fix and eat breakfast, so that I have enough energy to clean up after it; and I wash up after breakfast so I have clean dishes for lunch, which I prepare and eat so that I have energy to clean up again. I launder my family's clothes so we have clean ones to dirty again. I go to sleep so I can get up again. I'm spending my life—all of it—raising my children, so that they can grow into adults who spend their lives raising their children, who in turn, will spend their lives raising children of their own.

Arguably, I was in a pretty bad place. I don’t think everyone winds up in this type of existential quandary. It has never occurred to my mother that someone might ask the question which I find on my tongue many mornings, as I roll out of bed: “Why does it matter what I do, anyway?” I am small. I am one person. And sometimes, even when I intend good, evil results; people get hurt.

Those of us who ask this question probably have in common the experience of faded dreams, broken hearts and repeated failure, with a history of disproportionate romanticism (though we will gloomily deny it). A box in my garage holds the evidence: impassioned, yellowed pages covered hastily in ink; the landscape of a heart bursting with energy and naiveté. In those days, I believed in positive change and imagined it could be set into motion, like dominoes, just by doing the right thing. These letters sit in my garage, year after year, and yellow further.

I did not lose faith, overnight; it was a long process. I could tell you battle stories. And you could tell me yours. But somewhere along the way, we chose to believe in a world that mocks our thirst for meaning and offers no justification for perseverance in doing good. And so, we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t see why it matters what I do”.

This is an existential conundrum, and here is why. To be human is to act. If I question the meaning of human action, I am questioning the meaning of existence; yet, it is I—an existing, acting being—who question. The questioning itself is action and by engaging in it, I am assuming it matters whether or not I ask the question. To be consistent I should go further and ask, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters what I do?” And, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters if I ask why it matters what I do?” As you can see, this quickly dissolves into absurdity.

With this in mind, the answer to the question, “why does it matter what I do?” may be simply, “Because I am human and I exist”. As an entity, I act upon other entities. As a human entity, I act within the context of human values. At this point, we can talk about human morality; where it is derived from, if it transcends time and culture, and what a moral conscience is, and we will likely have varying opinions.

But let’s keep it simple for a moment. Why does it matter that my son is prancing around the yard in his snow clothes? Listen: It matters because it is beautiful. It matters because it is pure action born of will, without pretension; and it is exactly what he was made to do. As adults, we are more complex versions of our child selves. Our reasoning powers should be stronger and our moral compasses more precise. Part of honing these skills is asking the existential questions and, as we explored in the previous post, this can lead to a fuller understanding of ourselves and the nature of life on earth. But we can come up short or with the wrong conclusion if we begin with wrong expectations or assumptions. One of these assumptions is that a gesture must be grand and its results measurable, for it to matter.

In the film, “Blood Diamond”, an African priest who has devoted his life to saving child-soldiers from the violence of war, has a pivotal conversation with the film’s main character, diamond smuggler Danny Archer, who is having an existential crisis of his own. It plays out something like this (my paraphrase):

Priest: I used to think that people were basically good, but some of them did bad things. Now it isn’t that clear. What about you, Danny, do you think people are basically good or bad?

Danny: I think they are just people. It’s what they do that makes them good or bad.

Priest: I agree. A moment of love, even in a bad man, gives his life meaning.

Predictably, the movie’s end finds the self-interested Danny embracing such a “moment of love”, at great cost to himself. It is a good story. It’s beautiful, redemptive. I cried.

I believe strongly in what the priest said. But it struck me, as I glowered around my house lamenting my inability to do something that really matters—like moving to Africa and helping the Poor—that I am still nursing an unrealistic, overly-dramatic idea of what it means to do something that matters. What if speaking gently to my child when I am angry gives my life as much meaning as would throwing myself in front of traffic for him? Late-hour redemption stories are a very small portion of the whole. They make for great movies. But most noble hearts are built one moment at a time, stretched out across the years.

We have just begun a new year, which sets us thinking about what we do and why it matters. Some of us have made resolutions; some of us are too jaded to make them. I have made a few, and I do hope this next year will see me become a more gracious human being. That probably won't happen dramatically or all at once. But it will happen if I keep choosing "moments of love" and, as difficult as it is, persevere in doing good—because I can and because it is what I was made to do.

Tomorrow won’t serve up the same soup du jour that sits in front of me today. So for now, I'm going to clasp a cold, tiny hand and head out to lay some boot tracks in the snow.