“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.” – Seneca .
. The chart above is a chart that I have recently seen reblogged on a couple of blogs I follow
Part of Love–part of what distinguishes becoming a more genuinely Loving human being from becoming merely a kinder and nicer and warmer human being (which is still a very good goal!)–is that a genuinely loving human being tends to be a deep thinking human being, one who is able to discern pure from impure, good from bad, healthy from unhealthy, necessary pain from unnecessary pain, fluff and fad from what is perennial and substantive. I look at Love as a deeper version of kindness & compassion–Kindness & Compassion with some real roots and reliability.
Charts such as the one above (and the one that follows) are aplenty on the internet–basically they’re charts that try to distinguish what is psychologically healthy from what is psychologically unhealthy. The titles may be different–“Ego versus the Soul” “Successful…
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“Parenthood is hard, whether we’re home or away or single or married or rich or poor. Parenthood is hard, not because we’re doing it wrong. Just because it’s hard. Like life. . . . I’m not sure there is a way to do it right. We just listen to life as it makes its demands and we respond thoughtfully and we remember that sometimes, the more out of control things feel the better, because the less easy it is to pretend we’re in control.” – from Momastery.com (http://momastery.com/blog/2012/03/18/enough-already/)
Is there a way to do it—life, marriage, parenthood—right?
Clearly there are ways of doing anything that are better (more appropriate or beneficial or sound) and ways that are much less than optimal (ways that are less sound, half-assed, ways that make things unnecessarily harder than they need be).
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning“
So just because the answers are hard to find, doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers.
Or just because something seems difficult to do right or difficult to get right or to do well, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done right or in an optimal way, and that it’s not worth the effort. Yes, we may reach points of diminishing returns, there may be some plateaus reached where the extra effort doesn’t seem to be yielding much improvement. But typically by persisting, by consistently exerting right effort, we usually can and will continue getting better at doing something, even though that increase may not be clear to us right away.
And just because the amount of control we have in life is difficult to eke out, doesn’t mean that we have “no control” or can’t be in control to some extent.
“Life is difficult“— this is the opening sentence to M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled.”
Once we really “get” this—once we have a light-bulb moment and get that life is hard, that it’s “a constant struggle driven on by relentless tension” (Richard Rose)—then we can get to work on ourselves and our own “whininess” and in dealing with the ways in which we contribute to our own difficulties and make life even harder for ourselves (and those around us) than it need be.
Our attitude, our habitual way of thinking (that little recording [self-talk] that goes off in our head whenever the going gets tough—either some form of complaining and “woe is me” or some form of rising to the occasion and “hmm, this is going to be tough; how do I want to define myself in this situation?”), the amount of perspective we have, our ability to self-soothe, our resourcefulness, how patient or impatient we are, et cetera, all determine whether we and our nervous system are an ally in a given situation or an even bigger adversary.
And it’s not that difficult things—life, love, parenting, self-control—become easier in their own right, it’s that we become stronger, better, wiser, more skillful.
Here’s the intro to Peck’s book—this is my abridgment and at points my editing and rewriting of it—
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth. It is a great truth because once we truly see the truth of this, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept the fact—then life is no longer quite as difficult. We’re no longer fighting ourselves, fighting to keep our blinders on.
“But most people do not fully get this truth that life IS difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, their difficulties, as if life were generally supposed to be easy, as if life should be easy.
“Live is a series of problems and difficulties. Do we want to moan about them or deal with them? Do we want to role model for our children how to complain about life’s problems or do we want to teach through our example how to rise to the occasion and solve them?
“Fearing the pain involved in facing difficulties head-on, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, attempt to avoid facing problems. We procrastinate, we ignore our problems, we pretend they don’t exist, we whine and complain, we take drugs, et cetera. The possible means of escape and distraction and self-anesthetizing are multitude.
“This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering and discomfort inherent in them is the primary basis of all mental illness.
“Since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us are to a greater or lesser degree mentally ill, lacking complete mental health.
“Some people will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid facing their problems and the suffering they cause, proceeding far afield from all that is decent and sensible in order to try to find an easy way out (path of least resistance), building the most elaborate fantasy worlds in which to live, sometimes to the total exclusion of reality. In the words of Carl Jung, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’
“But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful and limiting than the legitimate difficulty or suffering it was designed to avoid, and thus the neurosis itself becomes an even bigger problem.
“And true to form, most people will then attempt deal with the pain and problem of their neurosis by in turn avoiding it as well, thus beginning the process of building layer upon layer of neurosis.
The obvious alternative to this is the easier said than done “warrior approach” where we develop the courage and wisdom and grit and self-discipline and perspective to deal with life and ourselves directly. Again, clearly easier said than done. But just because it’s easier said than done, just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing and not something that will prove to be highly rewarding and beneficial for ourselves and those around us.
And one of the first ways to begin this process is by becoming more mindful of how often each day we have to deal with some life difficulty—financial, parenting, health, relationships, traffic, et cetera—and how often our emotional response to a life difficulty is appropriate and beneficial/helpful to the situation and how often it actually makes matters worse.
This was my objection to the “Don’t Carpe Diem” post at Momastery. It lacked perspective. The elderly people who were telling Glennon to enjoy even the tough stuff, were telling her that with time that difficulties wear off and all that remains is the joy.
Perhaps like childbirth.
I have to assume that for many women, the joys of being a mother far outweigh the actual pains of the birth process, thus why so many moms have more than one child—on sum, the happiness exceeds the pain.
That’s what the elderly people were trying in some manner to tell Glennon—don’t make this harder on yourself by whining about it or by having a negative attitude—”Parenthood is already hard enough, try not to make it harder on yourself than it will be.”
We can’t have kairos moments when we’re whining or being ungrateful or when we think that life is supposed to be easy.
Whenever we’re being bitchy or whiny or complaining—whenever we’re being unappreciative, ungrateful—it automatically shuts the door to kairos moments.
The two are incompatible—kairos and whining.
And the more we deal with ourselves and our own whininess—the sooner and more deeply we accept that life IS difficult—the more we open ourselves to the possibility of more kairos moments—more moments of deep appreciation, reverence, gratitude, calm, happiness, joy, beauty, truth.
There are two ways to read a book: The right or correct way, and the wrong or incorrect way. There is the way a book ought and deserves to be read, and then there is any other way than this.
Most of what is out there waiting to be read—the vast majority of magazines, books, et cetera—has been written either purely for entertainment or for “infotainment”–a quick lively/clever/witty summary of a given subject or idea. And because most of what is written tends to be lacking in depth and substance, the best way to such material is to read it quickly, without wasting much time—or life—on it. Much of what is out there vying for our reading time and attention really has little to offer other than the consumption of our time and the weakening of our attention. Most books aren’t written to be read: they’re written to be skimmed.
Many books may help us to become more clever or entertaining or witty, they may give us something to talk about with others at work or at lunch or at a social gathering, but other than that, most books really don’t offer us much in terms of helping us to become better persons—maybe a more entertaining person, perhaps a more superficially happy and anesthetized person—but not a better and wiser and more substantive person.
The same holds true for why and what to read: Don’t just read for escape or so that you’ll have something to talk about with others, read stuff that helps make you a better and wiser and more courageous and loving person.
Realizing this long ago has made reading much easier. Why read a given book (an 8 or more plus hour time commitment) if I can watch the movie (a 2 or 2&1/2 hr commitment)? Do I really have so much time left on the clock in my life that I can afford to spend much of it on reading entertaining or infotaining books and magazines? My free time is precious; reading for pleasure (light reading)—which honestly hasn’t been something I’ve done or wanted to since my preteen years reading “The Hardy Boys,” “Encyclopedia Brown,” and “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”—just doesn’t pique my interest any more. I’d much rather be spending time with my family, or out in nature practicing my photography, or out exercising riding my (mountain) bike or playing tennis. And if I need to be entertained, I’d rather watch a movie than read the book the movie was based on.
So what does all of this have to do with Active versus Passive Reading?
Since most of what is out there waiting to be read is mostly for infotainment or dissipation/escape/anesthetizing, then reading it quickly and passively (skimming it) is completely apropos. Life is too short, too precious.
But when it comes to wisdom books, advice books, poems—potential change your life type stuff—reading these sorts of materials passively is the wrong way to read them.
When we read something passively, we read it quickly, undeliberately, more or less in a way tantamount to skimming it. When we are reading passively, we are not allowing ourselves room to think, to question ourselves, to question our own reactions, to question the author, to dwell and reflect on what is being communicated to us (which may be very little).
In other words, to read passively is to read uncritically and in a unthinking manner.
To read something Actively is to read it not just critically, but deeply, and in a way that encourages and nurtures our own thinking, imagination, awareness.
When we are reading something Actively, we read it slowly. We don’t mow through 50 pages in one sitting—that is evidence enough of having read something Passively or something purely entertaining. Instead when we read Actively, we may be lucky to make it through 5 or 10 pages in one sitting. When we read Actively, we read like a tortise, not the hare; we read deliberately; we read with highlighters and pencil in hand or nearby. We stop—by necessity—every few lines or so because we have read something that is so packed with insight and revelation that we need to pause and read the sentence again, and let our mind wander over and rummage the idea, sit with it for a while, give our own thoughts time to evolve, give ourselves time to ponder and ask questions. Or we stop every few lines or so because something we’ve read has triggered in us several thoughts that we need time to jot down, journal about, ruminate over, contemplate, et cetera. There’s no finish line we’re racing towards. The journey is the destination. The development and exercising and increasing of our thinking, awareness, perspective, is what we’re after.
“The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun.” – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215
If we are truly reading something actively, we will have to stop and consider what we think, explore what we think.
And writing and or journaling our thoughts is a crucial part of this process—the process of Actively reading or digesting something.
In fact, in my experience, once one learns to read Actively, it’s hard to read passively again—or to read things that are written to be read passively. Those faculties that develop and strengthen by reading Actively like to be continue being developed and strengthened, like to be exercised, in fact long to be exercised and used, and not wasted or numbed or atrophied by reading things meant to be skimmed and that do not reward Active reading.
When we learn to read Actively, we have given birth to something in us—to a new nexus of characteristics and capacities within us—and those capacities and characteristics want to live, want to grow and strengthen. They have a will to live all of their own, and because of that, this part of us wants to be well used and not wasted on reading books that are not full of insight and wisdom and rev
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw
This applies to reading as well. The true joy of reading is not in reading for escape and pleasure, but reading actively, for the exercise of our mind and heart and soul—for our betterment and enlarging our perspective and points of reference.
In some ways, reading is like skiing. Everyone has to start from zero, learning the basics—reading simple books, practicing skiing on the bunny hill. But once you learn to ski well, the bunny hill just doesn’t hold much appeal; you want to test and exercise your skills by skiing a trail that is more in keeping with your level of skill. And eventually you want to try your hand at being a force of nature on the slopes, swooshing down a black diamond run.
In my experience, the same holds for reading once a person has learned how to read Actively; once one has been introduced to wisdom books, other (and arguably lesser) books and materials just don’t hold the same appeal or interest.
Other posts about reading and about books that might be of interest:
You Who Are Nursing Grudges and Keeping Silly Quarrels Alive . . . The Time is Short!
As usual, the great cathedral was filled, and Phillips Brooks faced the enormous, hushed congregation as he had so many times before, Sunday after Sunday—the expectant, well-dressed congregation waiting for his weekly message.
He looked into the faces of men and women he had long known, men and women who had come to him with their problems, who had asked him for his help and guidance. How well he knew what seethed behind the pleasant, smiling masks of their Sunday-best respectability! How well he knew the petty spites that embittered their hearts, the animosities that set neighbor against neighbor, the silly quarrels that were kept alive, the jealousies and misunderstandings, the stubborn pride!
Today his message was for those bitter, unbending ones who refused to forgive and forget. He must make them realize that life is too short to nurse grievances, to harbor grudges and resentments. He would plead for tolerance and understanding, for sympathy and kindness. He would plead for brotherly love.
“Oh, my dear friends!” he said, . . . and it was as though he spoke to each one separately and alone—
“You who are letting miserable misunderstandings run on from year to year, meaning to clear them up some day;
“You who are keeping wretched quarrels alive because you cannot quite make up your mind that now is the day to sacrifice your pride;
“You who are passing men sullenly upon the street, not speaking to them out of some silly spite, and yet knowing that it would fill you with shame and remorse if you heard that one of those men were dead tomorrow morning;
“You who are letting your friend’s heart ache for a word of appreciation or sympathy, which you mean to give him someday;
“If you only could know and see and feel, overwhelmingly and all of a sudden, that the time is short, how it would break the spell! How you would go instantly and do the thing which you might never have another chance to do.”
As the congregation poured out of church that Sunday morning, people who hadn’t spoken in years suddenly smiled and greeted each other . . . and discovered it was what they had been wanting to do all along. Neighbors who had disliked and avoided each other walked home together . . . and were astonished to find how very much they enjoyed doing it. Many who had been grudging and unkind firmly resolved to be more generous in the future, more considerate of others . . . and all at once felt happier and more content, felt at peace with themselves and the world.
“Forgive,” Phillips Brooks urged his congregation. “Forget. Bear with the faults of others as you would have them bear with yours. Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious. Life is too short to be petty or unkind.” Brooks had found just the right combination of words to inspire his listeners, to make them want to get over their resentments and grudges, and patch up their quarrels. His sermon struck a responsive chord in many hearts that day; there were some who afterwards never forgot his words, for those words helped change the course of their lives, and helped bring back the happiness they had so nearly destroyed.
(Quoted in “Light from Many Lamps,” by Lillian Eichler Watson, pp. 198-200.)
Or “Get Busy Loving or Get Busy Dying”
There is no neutrality in life: every moment of our lives is up for grabs, being claimed by Love and counter-claimed by fear.
Both options, both alternatives, are present in every moment of decision—in every decision we have to make. And to try not to choose—to live in denial and pretend we don’t have a choice—is to by default choose fear.
The world is the way it is today because of a lack of love and an excess of fear and laziness—because fear has been chosen by most people much more frequently than love, and so the sum total of these choices yields a society that is the way it is. Fear is almost always—always—the easy choice, the easier way out, the path of less resistance and a bit (or a lot) more immediate relief.
Speculative metaphysics aside (meaning, are we born loving and fear is something we learn? Or, are we are born afraid and fallen and love is something we learn? Or, are we born either a blank slate or a genetically pre-wired chaotic mixture of the two?), by the time we reach adulthood, fear is our first responder, our default. By the time we’re adults, most of us have taken enough hits in life—been mutilated, either somewhat or a lot, by either love or, what is more likely, a lack of love—that we’re naturally a bit flinchy and flighty and avoidant and shy of others and life. At some level, we’ve gotten the message—life is uncertain, those around us are weak and selfish and cannot be trusted, we have to look out for number one, life is suffering, and so we unwittingly join in the landslide. We’ve gotten the message, but only the first part of the message. And because we’ve only gotten the first part of the message, that dooms us for a while to walk and wander and get lost in the dark and make matters unwittingly worse for ourselves—and for those around us—and to teach them also that life is uncertain, people can’t be trusted, love isn’t real only fear is real, et cetera. And so the vast majority of us enter into adulthood ironically “like senseless children,” shrinking from suffering, but unwittingly loving and nurturing its causes. (Shantidava). In other words, we curse the effect, but unwittingly continue nurturing and seeding its causes.
Again, by the time we reach adulthood, fear—playing it safe, going for comfort and safety, is almost always our first choice, our default. It becomes a first instinct in most of us by the time we’re adults. Fear has been learned. It’s our reflex, our natural inclination—to play it safe, to self-preservate, to opt for comfort, to try and be settled, to avoid stress and difficulty. Fear requires nothing of us, just that we do what is easiest. Love, however, is an active power; it requires something more of us; it is something that requires effort and extension on our part if it is to be put into play. Real love costs, takes effort, requires us to go beyond ourselves—
“Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you. I kept thinking, if love does not shatter you, you do not know love.” – Ken Wilber, “Grace and Grit,” pg. 396
Fear may hurt us also, but it hurts us less at first, which is why people choose it; but it hurts or costs us more down the road, especially in terms of our sense of self-respect and self-worth. Fear costs less, requires less, devastates us less, is easier, is safer, is more immediately gratifying and stress relieving, stretches us less. But fear is also a living death. And so what fear does—its invisible cost to us, its down the road expense to us—is that it contorts us, shrinks us, closes us down, weakens and cripples and mutilates and withers us. we live, but we’re barely breathing, we’re pent in, living in fear, barely a live, living just to make it through the day safely and without having to face ourselves, ourselves deepest fears, whatever might overwhelm or trigger us or break us. We’re alive—barely—we’re surviving, but we’ve said yes to fear too often so that is now our master, and we’ve said no to love so often, that we’re no longer really alive inside; we’re dying on the inside a slow miserable death.
Again, every moment of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed either by Love or by fear, by what’s best in us or what’s worst and weakest in us, by what is healthiest and most sane in us or what is unwell and pathological in us. It is up to us to decide which of these two alternatives—love or fear, God or the devil—to put into play.
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.
“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.
“To be the other means madness, horror, fear, self-crippling, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.
“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” – C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87
Love is the only alternative in life that there is to fear. There is no third alternative. There is no thesis – antithesis – synthesis when it comes to fear and love. Fear and laziness lie at one end of the spectrum, and love at the other; and in between there’s really no middle safe or neutral ground. Whatever safe space we might try to carve out and claim in the middle sooner (usually) or eventually reveals itself to have also been fear all along.
Love is God’s (or the Universe’s, if the word God is offensive to you) answer to fear. And as such, love is almost always the harder course—the difficult right instead of the easy wrong or wrongs. Often when we’re making decisions and we’ve given into fear (amygdala hijacking), we get caught up a find ourselves in the midst of a chain reaction of bad decision-making—one bad decision after another—and we’re no longer sane or in our right mind. Instead, we’re running on autopilot, compounding one mistake with another, compounding one decision made out of fear with several more, and only making matters worse, much worse. And all in the name of fear—because we’re too afraid, too ashamed to admit our mistakes, we’re too ashamed to admit to them, to face them and to face the consequences. Pride (fear) has taken over our life and is running the show in spite of us. Just as is the case with lying—meaning as soon as we tell one lie, we soon find ourselves needing to tell 20 more in order to keep the first one in play—so too it is with fear: once we make one bad decision out of fear instead of love, we soon find things snowballing out of control all around us and we find ourselves making more and more (bad) decisions out of fear, out of what’s worst and weakest in us, in order to keep the first bad decision in play. We may curse the effects, but we continue nurturing the cause. Translation, we continue sabotaging ourselves—and hurting those around us.
The obvious right and decent and loving and mature thing to do would be to come to our senses and go back to the first mistake, admit our mistake, make our amends, and quit making things worse for ourselves and those around us.
But pride (our fear of looking foolish, our fear of feeling ashamed or embarrassed) will compel us to give our word again and again and dig in our heels in order to avoid having to do what is right and loving and sane—and scary!
Again, love is the antidote to fear, the only antidote there is. And the course love will prescribe for us will almost always be the more difficult and honorable course, the course that keeps our heart open, that forces us to face our fears, to develop and strengthen our conscience and moral courage by pressing us to face up to our wrongdoings and admit to them and make real amends with a truly contrite heart (and not just try to talk our way out of whatever mess we’ve made for ourselves by having giving into fear). Love—real love—almost always involves some form of self-extension—walking the extra mile, going beyond our current limitations and maladaptive patterns and extending ourselves for the sake of what’s best in ourselves and what’s truly best for ourselves and others (and what’s truly best for ourselves and other is usually being a luminous example of personal responsibility and accountability and human goodness).
The reasons we don’t extend ourselves in life and love are because of fear and laziness, comfort and ease and safety.
Fear and laziness are deeply interconnected.
Our fearfulness—our unfitness for life and sense of shame and self-loathing or low self-worth—increases each time we cut corners, each time we take the easy way out, refuse to put forth the effort (read: we’re too lazy to challenge our own comfort and anxieties) that real strength and mental health require. We may not immediately feel the increase in self-loathing each time we choose and rationalize the easy wrong over the difficult right, which is why we so often take the path of least resistance—because we think we’re getting away scot-free with being cowardly; but that short cutting will have a deleterious effect on us down the road in the form of wounding even more deeply our sense of self respect, and thus the respect we have for others. (Self-respect and our ability to respect and love others is deeply interconnected. If we fundamentally do not respect ourselves and know how to lovingly guide and parent and correct ourselves, then we will not respect others; the same disrespect we display for ourselves we will treat others to as well.)
Again, there are only two choices in life—and there’s no neutrality in this: either we choose love or we choose fear. Either we take the time to get God’s (or Love’s or truth’s) side of the story, or we don’t and we act out reactively and automatically on our default of fear.
God’s side of the story will almost always be the more difficult side of the story to hear and emotionally digest, because it will be the side of the story that implicates us, indites us, that puts the focus on us, that shines a light on us, that doesn’t let us blame others or make excuses. It will be the side of the story that shows us objectively (or from above or a bird’s-eye vantage point) what we are, our own part in things.
And we will likely not like what we will be shown of ourselves; we will not like what we see of ourselves.
“[T]he light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were shameful and unloving. For everyone who does evil, unloving, shameful things hates the light and does not come towards the light, but instead hides from the light so that his or her deeds may not be exposed. But whoever lives truthfully comes to the light so that his deeds may be seen clearly. . . . ” (John 3:19-21)
We will be shown our weakness, our badness, our sins; we will feel ashamed; we will want to run from God, from light, from truth; we will want to surround ourselves with distorted mirrors—with people who will say nice things about us and only show us what is easy on the eyes in us. God’s—or truth’s—side of the story will almost invariably feel like a wrecking ball being taken to our life, demolishing all of our pretty little lies and self-deceptions. Which is why God’s side of the story is so seldom consulted—it’s too painful, too devastating. It’s easier—that word again!—to use softeners and spin our lives and tell stories—pretty little fictions—about what’s happened to us and how we’re the victim; it’s easier to stay asleep and live in denial; it’s easier to avoid truth rather than face it. It’s easier, easier, easier to choose fear and avoidance over love and courage.
Each of us has death breathing down our necks, but most of us are trying to avoid facing this by playing our little games of denial and distraction and dissipation.
“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. Instead we let ourselves be distracted by nonsense, terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We’re eaten up by nothing. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don’t live up until their death. They don’t honor their own lives, they piss on their lives. They shit them away. Dumb fucks. They concentrate too much on fucking, movies, money, family, fucking. Their minds are full of cotton. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow their culture without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can’t hear it. Most people’s deaths are a sham. There’s nothing left to die.”
– Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors have taken over the Ship (1998)
Again, each of us has death breathing down our necks, but most of us are trying to avoid facing this terrifying reality by playing our little games of denial and distraction and dissipation—by trying to lose ourselves and tranquilize ourselves with the trivial, with lesser pains and worries.
“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” ― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”
“The Christianity of the majority consists roughly of these two notions, which might be called the two most doubtful extremities of Christianity: first of all they saying about “the little child”— that one becomes a Christian by being like a little child, that such is the kingdom of heaven; and the second is that of the thief on the cross.
People live by virtue of the former, and in death hope to reconcile themselves with the example of the latter.
That is the sum of most people’s lives and Christianity, and properly understood it is a mixture of childishness and crime.”
– Kierkegaard, in “The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard,” pp. 222-3.
We’d rather live like children or criminals because the alternative to this—the cure—is worse than the disease. We’d rather live with the disease and live diseased and spread our disease around, and live as a petty grubby responsibility-abnegating little egos, than walk upright and live as human beings, as psychological and emotional adults.
In life, we have to choose a master, we have to choose something to submit to: either love or fear, truth or our own ego.
Again there’s no neutrality in this.
We cannot choose to submit to nothing. We have to submit to something. Either we do so consciously or by default.
Either we submit to what’s best in us or by default we will end up submitting to what’s worst and weakest in us.
Either we consciously choose and submit to love and let it be our guide, let it be our chief influence in life (what is the loving thing to do? What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? et cetera), or we live blind, asleep, and go with our default, submitting/surrendering to self-preservation, fear, playing it safe, being lazy, being petty, lying to our self and others, thinking only of ourselves—and let those things be our master and guide (misguide) and lead (mislead) us to ruin and self-loathing.
Again, we have to submit to something. We have no choice in this.
Either we submit to order or by default we will unwittingly let chaos reign over us. Either we choose the rigors of mental health or unwittingly we will let whatever pathology and illness we carry within us have its way with us. Either we dedicate ourselves to truth or else we soon find ourselves falling prey to all sorts of falsehoods and lying to ourselves and others and living a lie.
Either we begin with the end in mind and get busy grasping the fact that there’s nothing we can cling to in life, that everyone we love and depend on will one day leave us or die us, or we on them, for we too owe a death. Or we get busy living a life of denial, living badly, living defensively, living pettily and blindly, looking for any port in the storm, always quitting, always running away, hurting others and ourselves in our flight from ourselves and fears, always being exploitative, deceptive, never being grateful, always being just another troubled guest darkening the earth with our presence.
Either we get busy loving or we get busy dying.
Either we start asking what would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? What does God want us to do? What would M. Scott Peck, C. S. Lewis, Albert Schweitzer, Saint Francis, et cetera, do, and we start learning to walk upright and live with real love. Or we fail to get God’s side of the story and we live in fear, running away from the full intensity of life and mental health and back to comfort and familiarity and dependency, we run away from what frightens us, exposes us, would force us to tangibly grow and extend ourselves.
We have to choose a master: either love or fear. And again there’s no neutrality in this. We have to submit to something.
And not to choose is as bad as choosing fear, because neither of those two alternative leads to love, to mental health, to waking up, to a life of real dignity and self-respect.
And that’s the real meaning of the Christmas season—how the story of redemption and waking up plays out in our life—or if it even gets played out at all. Or if we live childishly and console ourselves with the idea that we’ll reconcile with God on our deathbed and in the meantime live childishly, uncourageously, pettily, hiding out from life and God and truth and life.
That’s the reason for the season, how this—”He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30)—plays out in our lives, if it even plays out at all. He must increase, I must decrease. “He”—meaning truth, our conscience, Love, courage, goodness, wisdom, self-control—”must increase,” and “I”—meaning what’s worst and weakest in me, my laziness, my self-preservative tendencies, my narcissism, my emotional immaturity, my fear of feeling ashamed, my capacity to do shameful things, “must decrease.”
Am I up to this? Or do I want to waste my life away numbing myself, avoiding my one great love, hiding from truth, reality, God, death, whatever threatens to overwhelm, whatever is inevitable and unavoidable and will one day have the upper-hand on me?
Get busy loving or get busy dying. That’s the message of the season. He must increase, what’s worst and weakest in us must decrease.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
Christ—something Godly, something divine and full of goodness and virtue and Love and wisdom, don’t get caught up in the semantics—wants to be born into us this season, it wants to take root and grow in us. And we must allow it—we must not remain virgins and noncommittal in this sense. Instead we must court it, we must avail ourselves to it, we must in some way participate in our own redemption or awakening. And it will likely be difficult, because detoxing from a life of fear—from a life of consistently surrendering to fear, anxiety, low self-worth—those dark shouters within us—will be difficult. It will be difficult because such a way of life has left us weakened and even more afraid and feeling unworthy and timid of the light. It’s incredibly difficult to awaken—it takes immense work and clarity and self-honesty. It’s difficult to change our stripes—meaning, to alter our patterned ways of maladaptively reacting and not dealing well with life and stress. If it were easy to do these things, then everyone would be doing it, and people would much stronger and wiser and more loving, and society would not be what it is today—full of apathy, shallowness, distractions, consumerism, and either seclusion at the one end or superficial disposable relationships at the other end. The reality is is that truly waking up is difficult—immensely, heroically difficult. But this difficulty cannot be an excuse for us not to try and not to try our best and not give up (on ourselves and life), because too much is riding on this—namely our own psychological and spiritual growth and health.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it. . . .” (John 12:24)
Either we get busy loving or we get busy dying. Either we get busy loving—doing what is right, doing what is loving, stretching ourselves, dying to our maladaptive and unhealthy self, dying to what is worst in us, dealing with our ego and defenses and narcissism, dying to our maladaptive patterned ways of dealing with stress and fear—or we might as well get busy dying—living shallowly, running, walling up inside, lying, hiding, hiding out from life, hiding out from love, not allowing him—what is divine and best in us—to increase, and not allowing ourselves—what’s worst and weakest in us—to decrease.
I am a safety-first creature.
Of all of the arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”
To my nature, to my temperament, yes, this argument appeals.
But not to my conscience.
If I am sure of anything, I am sure that Christ’s teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.
Who would choose a wife or a friend—or even a dog, if it comes to that—in this spirit, on the basis of such prudential grounds—i.e. because the security, so to speak, is better? (No one gets out of here alive. Everyone owes a death; everyone we cling to and depend on and love will die on us if they don’t leave us first. Everyone dies. Everyone. Including you. including me. No one gets out of playing that final scene. And no one gets out of losing those around who they love, except by uncourageously living as a recluse and living a life that is a living death.)
Christ did not teach and suffer so that we might become even more careful of our own happiness. If a person is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloved whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not seen.
We shall only draw nearer to God not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in love, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; by throwing away all defensive armor.
If our hearts need to be broken—and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break—then so be it. Hiding away our hearts for fear of their being broken, is like hiding away a talent in a napkin and burying out back, and for much the same reason—because “I knew that thee wert a hard man.”
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; live a nomadic hermitic life and run constantly from the full intensity of life and love and the demands that psychospiritual growth and mental health will make on you. in short, lock your heart up safe in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; rather, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
– C. S. Lewis (adapted from “The Four Loves,” pp. 120-122.)
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
To me this is the clear message of the season: the choice between love and fear, between heaven and hell. Hell is easy, it requires nothing of us except retreating, quitting, giving in, running away. Do that enough on a long enough timeline and invariably we will find ourselves waking up in the midst of a living hell. We won’t need to wait till we die for hell, we’ll be living in it right now.
But the way of love—the way out of fear is much more difficult and demanding—and rewarding! “Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” – Milton, “Paradise Lost”
For me this is the clear message of the season—this choice we are each faced with: the birth of something divine and noble in us and whether we allow and court this, or whether we impede and abort this and choose fear over love. The easy route (the path of least resistance), or the more arduous path of growth, self-respect, Love, truth, meantal health. The cure—which may well at first be more unnerving and terrifying than the disease, the malignancies of the ego, whcih by now we are familiar with and at least know—or the unfamiliarity and fear and trembling of the disease and detoxing from our maladaptive self-criplling cure?
“What does man want?—A quiet life or to truly work on himself?
“If he wants a quiet life he must never move out of his comfort zones, because there, in his usual roles, with his usual repertoire, he feels comfortable and in control, at peace.
“But if he wants to work on himself—if he truly wants to awaken—then he must destroy this sort of peace. Because to have both together—comfort and truth—is in no way possible.
“A person must make a choice.”
– Gurdjieff, paraphrased from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 240.
He must increase, I must decrease. Truth must increase, falsity must decrease. Transparency must increase, buffers and self-deception must decrease. Right effort must increase, wrong effort and laziness must decrease. Mindfulness must increase, mindlessness must decrease. Perspective must increase; blindness, discursiveness, dissipation, distraction must decrease. Light must increase, darkness and shame must decrease. Courage must increase, timidity must decrease. Facing ourselves must increase, hiding from ourselves and life and light and truth and surrounding ourselves with safe and distorting mirrors must decrease. Our conscience must increase, being ruled by feelings of shame or fear of feeling ashamed must decrease.
“I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Do you want to waste your life living in fear, always shrinking from life? Or do you want to live a more Loving and noble life where you made something of yourself by participating in your own redemption and overcoming what’s worst and weakest in yourself? Love—real costly love—must increase, fear and avoidance must decrease. No one gets out of here alive. Everything will be taken from us at last, if not sooner. Life is a process of being continually stripped away.
Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
And twice in that life I have been given the choice:
As a boy . . .
. . . and as a man.
The boy chose safety.
The man chose suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.
( – from the motion picture “Shadowlands“)
“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan
“The Truelove” – David Whyte
There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,
and how we are all
preparing for that
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,
so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
“Last time I saw you, I said that it hurt too much to love you. But I was wrong about that. The truth is it hurts too much not to love you.” – P.C. Cast
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
And it is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for (and suffering for) the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ “vere latitat“—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself—is truly hidden.”
– C. S. Lewis, From the essay “The Weight of Glory“
“For human beings, there is only really the possibility of making a choice of influences; in other words, of passing from one influence to another. It is impossible to become free from one influence without becoming subject to another. All work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you wish to subject yourself, and then actually falling under the influence of or submitting wholly to this influence.” – G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 25.
There is no neutrality. There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. One is complete submission to God (or to God’s will, or the Tao, or the Dharma, or Truth, goodness, virtue, Love). And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other. As C. S. Lewis put it, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” (“Christian Reflections,” p33). Every moment of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.
– M. Scott Peck, abridged and adapted from “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi
“Snoop” – “What your stuff says about you”
“Bookshelves” – “What your books (or lack thereof) say about you”
“One sure window into a person’s soul is his or her reading list.” – Mary B. W. Tabor
I have about 7 or 8 bookcases (not bragging), averaging about 5 shelves per bookcase, in my house, all loaded with books. I must have accumulated thousands of books by now. Mostly psychology (Peck, Fromm, Becker, Bowen, Schnarch, Maslow, James Hollis, William James), modern pop-psyche and self-help/self-improvement (Jim Rohn, Neale Donald Walsch, Tolle, Don MIguel Ruiz, James Redfield), philosophy (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau, Sartre, Camus, Alain DeBotton, Ken Wilber), poetry (Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Jack Gilbert, Roger Housden), religion (C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhert), spiritual (Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa, Krishnamurti, Rumi) books—basically all “how to live well” books.
For me the only reason to read a book is for what it has to say about “how to live well.”
And perhaps how to die well.
“I went to the woods because I wished
to live deliberately, to front only the essential
facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.” – Thoreau
If a book doesn’t speak in some way to this, then the book is for me the equivalent of bound toilet paper (“Californication“). I can get entertainment in a more encompassing and interesting form from a movie or a TV—I get the sights, sounds, dizzying special effects, the full-blown sensory overload, et cetera. I profoundly do not care about Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, Stephen King, or anything that can be translated fairly decently into a movie. And I am profoundly indifferent to whether the book was or was not better than the movie. Life is short; I’ll gladly wait for the movie—even if the movie isn’t as good as the book—and I’ll shaprne my mind reading something of substance in the meantime. Who cares whether the book or movie is better; I’ll never know because I’m never going to read the book! Books that can be made into movies are at best intellectual training wheels—stuff to read before moving on to the “right effin’ books” (“Good Will Hunting“). And at worst they’re voluntary mind rot—the equivalent of a steady diet of potato chips and fried foods and soda to the mind. Or they’re the equivalent of running your head into a wall. Repeatedly. The vast majority of books are an escape—a way of self-numbing and or distracting and dissipating oneself.
Some people claim that it is okay to read trashy novels because sometimes you can find something valuable in them. You can also find a crust of bread in a garbage can, if you search long enough, but there is a better way.
Don’t just read the easy stuff. You may be entertained by it, but you will never grow from it.
The book you don’t read won’t help.
It isn’t what the book costs; it’s what it will cost if you don’t read it. Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a book.
– Jim Rohn
“Altogether, I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t startle us and grab our attention like a blow to the head, then why bother reading it? So it can make us happy? For God’s sake, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all! Books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, write for ourselves. What we need are books that affect us like a disaster, like the death of someone we love. We need books that make us feel like we’ve been banished into a desert far from everyone, books that hit us like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers.
What does our contemporary culture amount to? There is nowadays, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men and women really have little or no acquaintance with the best books. And as for the recorded wisdom of mankind—the ancient classics and Bibles—which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them. Someone who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best books of the last few centuries will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it.
Any man will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; yet there are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; —and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.
There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature. Yet most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia (or Edward and Bella), and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth, but oh how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on, et cetera, et cetera. And all this they read with saucer eyes and erect and primitive curiosity, but without any improvement, that I can see, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.
I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him—my next neighbor and I never heard him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words. But how actually is it? His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper. – Thoreau, adapted and slighty modified from “Walden,” chapter 3, “Reading“
If a book doesn’t bring us more to life or help make us wiser or suggest to us how to live better, then why read it? To be entertained? At a certain point, to read to be entertained is a waste of time and gray matter, it’s a voluntary dissipation of one’s finer faculties. (And a mind is supposedly a terrible thing to waste.)
I keep all of my books. I tend to mark up most of my books—highlighters, pencils, dog ears, bookmarks. The better (wiser, more profound) the book, the more marked up it gets. I don’t buy a book unless it stands a fairly decent chance of getting marked up one way or another, meaning some books I will tend to find kinship with and will mark up in that spirit, whereas others I will disagree with (sometimes vehemently) and will I argue with or refute and annotate in that fashion. But either way, both offer me something to think on and cut my teeth intellectually on (“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Books—good books, the right effin’ books—can and do perform that mental saw sharpening function). Most people read too quickly and not critically and mindfully enough; they don’t really examine the material or their own thoughts—or even give themselves and their own thoughts time and space to develop—
“The purpose of a (really good) book . . . is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different grace than the one the author suggests you might be needing.” – Thomas Merton, from “New Seeds of Contemplation”
And the wiser and more profound the book, the more this is true.
I don’t consider a book to have been properly read unless it’s been thoroughly annotated and highlighted. Annotating—writing your own thoughts either in the margins or putting down the book mid-paragraph or mid-sentence and journaling your own thoughts—and highlighting and dog-earing are the equivalent chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing. And even if a book has been well annotated and highlighted, it may need to be read again. And again. And re-annotated and re-highlighted. (And all of the previous highlighting and annotating will serve to show you what you missed or overlooked [or weren’t ready for] the first [or even second] time you read the book.)
Most truly worthwhile books don’t become intelligible until we have enough life experience to bring to our reading of them. And even then we need to read and re-read them critically, slowly—all the more so the more depth and experience and wisdom they have packed into them.