Arguing With Reality (Bearing the Unbearable)

December 30, 2011 — 37 Comments

“Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? I can’t bear thinking that existence is so insubstantial, a stone thrown in a pond that leaves no ripple.” Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin

Just because you can’t bear it, doesn’t mean that it’s not the case. To think otherwise, is to argue with reality.

To these impulses, we should think like one of Lincoln’s biographers,who responding to the President’s claim that European allies seemed to care more about tiny Northern defeats than his major victories, said simply: “Unreasonable it may have been, but it it was a reality.”

Soldiers can be refreshingly full of this pragmatism. After the Vietnam War, Col. Harry G. Summers argued with a North Vietnamese colonel, and tried to point out that the US was never beaten on the battlefield. The man replied: “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”

That some thought seems unbearable—be it insignificance or unfairness—is exactly why we must struggle with it and try to. Because our opinion on it has nothing to do with whether we have to put up with it.  It’s a good metaphor for what life in this universe is: a situation we’re stuck with. We were born far along in its existence and we will die long before it changes or ends. Its conditions were created in a distant past beyond our comprehension through organic, emergent forces powerful beyond our measure. The sooner we can get over this, come to terms with it, and accept our infinitesimalness, the sooner we may be able to live properly and with perspective.

It doesn’t extend that everything is meaningless or without purpose, rather that those human notions count only in the immediate present. Your opinion. Your technicalities. Your endless objections. They have no effect. There is no grand record that you may enter them into. What you have is in front of you. What you have is what happens. Focus on that. For it is all that you control.

Total Commitment

December 23, 2011 — 24 Comments

People say things are important to them. Success, recognition, money, freedom, power, some purpose or passion. Yet what do they do with themselves?

They make their choices as if time is infinite and as if it will all be handed to them. As a young man, Bill Bradley used to tell himself that when he was not practicing, someone else was and that when he finally met that person, they—not he—would win. These people do not practice and yet expect to win. And they are disappointed and disillusioned when that doesn’t happen.

You’re given a deadline. What does this mean to you? To me it means nothing. I have my own deadlines. They are tighter and shorter. You are told that the system works a certain way. What does this mean to you? It means little to me. I have my own knowledge, my own education. I’ll learn the best way, not the way to do things. You see that most people life their life a certain way. This too means absolutely nothing. Most people are miserable, self-loathing and passive. No thanks.

When I was a 19 year old college dropout with no experience in the field I was operating in, out-working and out-producing people twice my age, I realized something. I realized that there was very little out there that was so hard or difficult that I couldn’t figure out and excel at so long as I followed my own rules and held myself to my own standards. And so I was able to do this repeatedly, from Hollywood to publishing to fashion and now to writing.

It is a special kind of freedom. It is the freedom from the tyranny of acting ordinarily and expecting extraordinary results (the definition of futility). Total commitment. This is what it takes. It’s more than just wanting—it’s making it happen.

Go and Stand on Hallowed Ground

November 27, 2011 — 30 Comments

I suppose it is a contradiction that someone like me who so firmly guards against the narrative fallacy would be such a deep believer in hallowed ground. But I am. See, those who ascribe to this school of thought simply believe that there is something to be gained from going to old places, places where people died or where great things happened. And that by standing on this ground are transformed by it.

There you can experience what Hadot calls the “oceaniac feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, to realize that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in this instance, that you can ask yourself the important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?

The battlefield at Vicksburg. The canals and palazzos of Venice. The forum in Rome. The streets of Tombstone. Old South Meeting House in Boston, the grounds of Harvard. The Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park. I’ve spent a lot of time in the American South. Part of the reason I like it is for its hallowed ground potential. Huey Long trained at the gym where I work out. As far as I know, the heavy bag I hit is still in the same place he learned to box. The building I write this in is 200 years old. How many people have passed through it? Wasted time? Enjoyed themselves?

I don’t always even need to physically step in these places or, if I do, spend more than just a few moments. I’ve driven slowly through the streets of old Birmingham, I didn’t really see why I needed to get out of the car. The thoughts are the same.

Violence. Money. Death. Politics. Sex. These are the themes of humanity. Nothing makes this clearer than hallowed ground of every era. To see your face in a statue and understand how little has changed since then—since before and as it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another one died. Here a cruel rich man lived in this palatial home…

Yet where are they now? Nowhere. Their works? Mostly gone. As William Alexander Percy wrote, even most extraordinary individuals like his father, “who warmed and led and lighted our people,” are barely remembered. Their name and deeds will be soon forgotten. And ours, which pale in comparison to theirs, will too. What does it matter if “soon” means tomorrow or 1,000 years from now? This is what hallowed ground can teach us.

We are left only with first principals: be a good person; do what you love. Contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up and be happy with that. On hallowed ground,  we can channel the energy of the accomplishments of the people who came before it, the passage of time having long stripped them of their vanity, and direct it properly in our own lives.

Of course, it is possible to take the wrong lesson from hallowed ground. Like Caesar, weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander, that’d he’d conquered fewer nations in the same amount of time. It should not spur our ambition, but chasten it. It is a flash lesson in humility. We are put in our place, and yet at the same time, left with a sense of the magnitude of possibilities.

We read the biographies of great men and see similarities in ourselves. We see a plaque for a division that fought and was slaughtered, and it might pain us to know that we’ll likely never warrant even a generalized marker like that. We fail to realize all of these events are just blips on the larger radar of life. The difference in posthumous recognition between Ulysses S. Grant and an infantryman means nothing to either of them. And in turn between Grant and a greater general—Ghenghis Khan, let’s say—matters less still, even though one’s achievements echo louder and have for longer than the other. All dead. All trod upon by you and I today.

Take comfort in that fact. That decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennia earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt the same things you feel, struggled with the same thoughts. They have no idea that you exist, but you know that they did. Embrace the power of this position and learn from it. It is an exhilarating moment, let it propel you.

Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, because it helps you reconcile yourself a bit better with the mundane. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain today, and that anyone can go and—to quote Murakami—breath death into their lungs like a fine dust. Breath it in so it becomes a part of you. Do it as often as you can, whenever you can: go and stand on hallowed ground.

Missing the Point

November 22, 2011 — 46 Comments

Running to train for a marathon is like being a good person so you can get into heaven. The means is right but the end is all wrong. You glorify a bogus God.

For this plug in any sort of exercise, spiritual or physical. And for marathon, you can plug any of the pointless competitions, recitals, readings, exhibitions and other bullshit forms of external validation that we try to graft on to intrinsically valuable pursuits.

Getting up and going for a run everyday doesn’t need to be “justified” a few months later by competing to finish an arbitrary number of miles in a certain amount of time against a bunch of other unhappy losers. No, you run because keeping a healthy body and clear mind is part of your job as a human being. Because it’s a commitment you made to yourself that you’re obligated to keep no matter how tired, how busy or how burn out you feel. In other words, it’s practice—proof of your ability—in always having a little bit extra in you.

We slap these things on because we want to ruin them. We are afraid. We are afraid of making ourselves the project. So we trivialize it with some meaningless goal. This way it’s not our responsibility or our burden, only some activity we engage in. It’s an obligation with an expiration date. We’ll never have to question why we do it, why it’s the right thing to do, because there is a nice big easy answer: the race, the Bible, whatever.

And then we wonder why it never fills the void. Then we die and realize there is no heaven and that we missed the entire fucking point.

Be a good person; Do what you love

November 10, 2011 — 36 Comments

I no longer remember who said it to me, but I can still hear the words. “Do what you love. Be a good person. Those are your only two jobs in life.”

In practice:

First, to be fair and honorable. To make mistakes and know it—and forgive them. Don’t slow down traffic or recline your seat on airplanes or any such other make-the-world-worse, externalizing nonsense. Know others and think of them often. Pick up the check whenever you can. And try to do these things with one word in mind: unconditional.

Being good at something is not sufficient reason to do it for the rest of your life. But loving it is. Work on the things that make you stare out car windows or not even hear someone say your name repeatedly. The things that make you forget what time it is. Be certain that what you do for hobbies and vacations are not the gasps of a suffocating man but your common breath. Learn how to love many things, simple things, and it’s even easier to do them all the time.

Frankl reframed the now cliche question of “What’s the meaning of life?” to one that we answer instead of ask. We’ve been asked this by life, he said, and we must answer with our actions. The way to do this, in my view, is simple: be a good person; do what you love.