The Waiting


waiting-room - 2

My mom died from metastatic melanoma a little over 3 years ago.  She found her first lump in mid-Feb of 2009 and she died about 10.5 months later.  She lived here in town near me, we had a good relationship, so I accompanied her through the entire process-through all of the consultations, appointments, treatments, et cetera.  I was there at her bedside much of the time during her last weeks, including when she died.

I learned a lot about waiting during that time.  Most obviously, there were the many waiting rooms where I would wait with my mom before her various appointments.  Then there was the waiting for test results—PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, blood counts, et cetera.

And then there was the waiting that took place during the last couple of weeks of her life when it was clear that all of her treatment options had been exhausted, that the cancer was incurable, and the end was nearing quickly.  During that time, when I was at my mom’s bedside and she was sleeping, I would try to wrap my head around the concept that there would soon come a time when my mom would no longer be here.  There was going to be a clear and absolute division, a time in my life before my mom’s death and then the time after that.  And that time was coming soon.  It was a lot to try to wrap my head around, not just emotionally, but even intellectually.

And then one day it did indeed happen.  My mom did indeed die.  And then life with my mom ended, and life after my mom started.

I don’t have a grand philosophic point in mind as I am writing this.  Just a sense of similarity, but in a different direction.  I am waiting again, in a very turning-point sense again.  This time for the birth of my first child.  At 45-years old, my suspicion is that one appreciates this much more and much differently than when one is 25 or 30—or had this happened for me when I was 25 or 30.  45-year old me has lived more and seen more and read more and thought (and written) more—thought (and written) a lot more—than the 30- or even 35-year old me.  30 or 35-year old me hadn’t yet lost his mom, hadn’t yet had Rilke’s writings open up to him like a 3-D picture because of the ending of a particular relationship.  35-year old me wasn’t yet into photography, had only begun exploring Bowen and Schnarch’s writings on “differentiation of self,” was just starting to get a sense of what the world (and many of its inhabitants—human inhabitants) were really like beyond the façade and the veneer.

At 45-years old, becoming a first-time father means something more to me because there’s more of me for it to mean something to.

As Rilke put it, “The richer/deeper we are inwardly, the richer/deeper too is all that we experience.”  Something like that.

As I said, I have no grand philosophic insight in mind in writing and sharing this, no pie-in-the-sky Eckhart Tolle-like living in the now while still waiting take on this.  Just the simple observation that waiting for a new life has something in common with waiting for a death.  Just the simple observation that while my daily life is going on and while I am making preparations for this new member of the family, I am also temporarily in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for this latest crescendo-like turning point in my life to actually occur—this next *life-will-never-be-the-same-again-afterwards-as-it-was-before* type event, but in an opposite and much more joyous direction.  Hopefully.  Hopefully, meaning my child is not yet born, my wife has not yet gone through this labor and emerged healthy and having given birth to our son yet.  But so far, everything looks good, very good.  Any day now.  Any day now and my life will change in ways that I cannot fathom.  Any day now, and that line will be crossed—the line separating the time when I was not yet a biological father and was still waiting to become one and the time when this new chapter of my life will start.

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The only tidbit I have approaching a bit of advice is this:  Wise people think about death.  Their own and others’.  They have a realistic relationship with their own mortality and thus with others’ mortality as well.  It’s not a depressing relationship or a morbid one, but a very life-enhancing and perspective-giving one.  As in the real meaning of carpe diem—being very grateful for and appreciative of what one has, not sweating the small stuff, not going through life childishly and angrily with a hole in one’s soul that nothing can fill.

We live in a society where the concept of growth has been usurped and externalized to mean improvement and is measured in material ways—home improvements, lifestyle status improvements, social improvements (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”).  Advertising has us convinced that if we improve the externals of our situation—take a vacation, redecorate the kitchen, put on a new coat of paint, get a fancier car, travel here or there, somehow gain more attention adulation and fame—then we’ll be happier, or then we’ll finally make it—or at least get closer to this.  And for some this does seem to work to some extent and perhaps for a while.  But it’s my experience that for this strategy of roundabout self-pseudo-improvement to work, there has to be a fair amount of self-delusion and self-deception in play, as well as some sort of psychic numbing and placating in addition to the shopping and consumerism—alcohol, antidepressants, et cetera (arguably even with some people religion).

Our own mortality and fragility and brevity is a lot to wrangle with.  And at first, this wrangling can be very very unsettling—very anxiety-provoking and or very depressing and nihilisitic (life has no meaning, paint it all black)—anything but life-enhancing and perspective-giving and empowering at first.

And clearly this is where many people get caught.  We get our first brush with death—someone close to us dies, or we start being haunted by thoughts and intimations of our impermanence and cosmic brevity—and we spin out, dive headlong into a superficial life of appearances, of psychic numbing, of distractions and dissipation, of the pursuit of status and advancement and travel, of checking things of our bucket list—self-indulgent things that we think are ultimately important but that in actuality likely really won’t be.

Or maybe our dive isn’t headlong; instead we just go along even more fervently with the crowd: no else seems to be integrating their own mortality into the fabric of their everyday decision-making, everyone else seems to be chasing after the wind in one form or the other, so why not join the crowd and chase after it too?—after all, what else is there to do in life with one’s life?

But there also seem to be those who have endured the first line and very powerful dissuaders of depression and anxiety and who instead of turning aside from a more realistic relationship with life and with their own and others’ mortality and fragility and brevity, have stuck with it, wrestled with and through the depression or fear and panic, and who have come to some deeper and more abiding sense of perspective and wisdom.

And it’s this realistic relationship with death has much to do with their wisdom, with having made them wise.  Arguably, a realistic relationship with our own impermanence, with our own brevity and fragility, is the only source of real compassion—compassion that doesn’t merely involve the limbic system, but that also includes the higher brain—the neo-cortex, the frontal lobes, our conscience and our consciousness.

When we are living in denial, when we live and love and fight and argue as if life goes on forever, we live and love without perspective, and arguably, without much depth or appreciation.  Real compassion, real wisdom, stem from developing a realistic relationship—instead of a denial-based relationship—with our own mortality and with our place is the universe.  Mortality is a lot to haul; it’s a lot to wrestle with; it can be unfathomably frightening and unsettling and disorienting, but it might just be what ultimately saves you, or lets you avoid living a life of quiet or unquiet desperation and un-appreciation.

Related articles:

“Communion”


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This is my response (slightly edited here; this is my site, so I’m a bit more blunt and direct here 🙂 ) to a comment that I received on another site in reference to a comment I left there (and that I posted here as my previous blog post “Connection”)

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why oh why does this existentialist view point make me (and all disciples of it) feel so much like jumping off a bridge, or just sitting and contemplating the knotted roots of a tree?

I think that’s how it feels in the beginning—and for a while (a year? 10 yrs? who knows; it varies from person to person) after that. I know it felt like that for me in my teens and even into my twenties. Of course, I didn’t dive headlong into it. I sort of fell into it bit by bit, as it were. Everyone else around me was doing their thing, living life in a very non-existential (blind) way. So I was on my own. I stepped—fell—into existentialism and despair little by little—and I never did it full-time. It was more seasonal and part-time. As a teen, I would have these intense excruciating experiences of my smallness—my cosmic insignificance, how infinitesimal I was, how little my life was in the scheme of things, how vast the eternity before me was and after me will be. And I would be left wondering: What’s the effin’ point? How did I get put into this predicament?

And then I would run—dive headlong into school, friendships, play, whatever would distract me and keep me from thinking these terrifying horrible thoughts. I was living in denial.

And the process would repeat. A moment—or several moments, repeated over the course of days or weeks—of excruciating intense existential clarity—and then my attempt to escape from it, to unseen what I had seen, to unthink what I had thought, to numb and distract myself from what I had realized, to get myself to forget what I had glimpsed and to go back to “normal” life.


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I would try to play games with my fears—peak at them, try to master them, try to trigger them and then calm and soothe myself, rescue myself from the terror suddenly unleashed and raging within me, the sudden turbulent whirligig of giant white-hot thrashing waves that had capsized me and was pulling me under.

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I would read or think something frightening, unleash the terror, and then throw myself into the water after myself and try to rescue myself life a Coast Guard diver. I would try to soothe myself and restore my equilibrium, get my heart-rate down.

 

And I was just a kid—just a frightened 13 or 14 year old kid at first, and then a 20-year old, then a 23-year old.

But at some point in my very early twenties, I made the choice to stop running (or at least to stop running using the ways that I had been using). No more bar-hopping, no more anesthetizing myself with sex or by trying to pick up women.

I was no longer going to live the way those were around me were living. I didn’t want any more of the insubstantial bar banter and chitchat. I wanted to have friends who didn’t look at me as if I was bat-shit crazy or as if I had “finger-banged their cat” when I wanted to talk about some existential thought I had had.

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No, John, you’re not supposed to do that; you’re not supposed to talk about morose depressing things. You’re not following the rules and playing nice; everyone else here wants to talk about the Cleveland Browns or how hot that girl over there is and how best to approach her; no one wants to talk about how life is fleeting, empty, and fragile. You’re such a buzz-kill, dude.

Needless to say, my “friends” and I soon parted way—their choice more than mine. And I was left to look for new friends. Oddly enough, I didn’t really find any live ones. But I did find some dead one, some antecedents—Peck, Nietzsche, Buddha. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had opted out of the conventional approach to life. Apparently I wasn’t so strange after all. There were others; at least, there had been a few others here and there sprinkled through history.

But were there others who were alive now?

That would seem to be a needle in a haystack type proposition.

At the very least though I had found some decent books to read; I had found at least a few minds whose thoughts resonated with me and actually seemed firmly connected to the way life actually is.

And so I read and read and read—and I wrote and wrote and wrote, as well. And eventually I started writing more than I read. And then some time soon after that my thinking took on a life of its own, or rather, my thinking came to life—it brought me to life. I had found my own voice. It was there all along, but it had been stuffed down most of the time under a lot of denial and fear and avoidance.

No more.

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why oh why does this existentialist view point make me (and all disciples of it) feel so much like jumping off a bridge, or just sitting and contemplating the knotted roots of a tree?

I think that’s just (just?—when you’re feeling it, it feels far far from “just” anything!) how it feels in the beginning—and for a while (a year? 10 yrs? Who knows; varies from person to person) after that. The first noble truth of Buddhism is “Life is suffering” (or “life is unsatisfactory”). Peck and Rilke both wrote about how life is difficult. Sartre wrote: “‘Life begins on the other side of despair.” Most people are afraid to face this—or at least to consider/ponder this. Most people are afraid to face the facts, they’d rather believe what they want to believe, what makes them feel good, what helps get them through the day; most people live behind a curtain of fantasy; and so (arguably) they never really live. Because as long as a person lives on the near-side of despair, without having faced or considered/pondered what scares them the most, they will be living a hemmed-in anxious life of avoidance, denial, and very limited awareness; they will always be preemptively excluding things from their consciousness that might frighten or trigger them, and they will turn to relationships, shopping, reading, writing, bars, football, dancing, et cetera, all as means of trying to anesthetize themselves and keep their mind occupied and from straying onto what scares the shit out of them.

And they will do all of this in a Sisyphussian attempt to make themselves feel better about their life, that it’s not as scary and frightening (that life isn’t as fleeting, that we’re not as fragile, et cetera) as they fear. Every morning they will get up and roll the rock of their particular neurosis / amalgamation of avoidance and denial and distraction up the hill. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Repeat. Always the same underlying fear driving them on. Until one day, they get brave, they get tired of rolling the rock up the hill; the weariness of their neurosis becomes greater than the threat of their fear, and so instead they start to actually face their fears. And really it’s not so much out of bravery as it is out of weariness, out of the desire to experience something different than the rock they’ve chained themselves to. The comfort zone of their rolling their rock up continually back up the hill life has become a dead zone.

But how much better would it have been to have begun from the realization that we are alone, that we are lost, that we are forlorn? How much life could have been not wasted? It was just a matter of the weariness getting big enough. It was just a matter of the weariness becoming big enough that it was more cumbersome than what it was originally intended to save and insulate the person from.

So that’s the position we’re all in. Continually rolling our particular neurotic tangled rock up the hill again, and again. And again. And our culture offers us an abundance of potential distractions and anesthetics—means of distracting and anesthetizing/numbing ourselves—Internet, 4G cell phones, books, movies, television, shopping malls and centers, pornography, drugs, alcohol, bars, restaurants, even religion. All of these can be used as means of occupying our thoughts and taking our mind off of what we most fear and what seems to hold no solution.

So how much better is it or would it be to cut to the chase and begin from the realization that life is suffering, that we are alone, to begin with despair, and to really face that, instead of always running from it and trying to avoid it? Why not try to get the pain out of the way first? Yes, of course, facing life honestly and directly may be like taking a “headlong dive into a bottomless bucket of shit.” It may indeed be like going down a rabbit hole of despair that has no end. It may be the equivalent of getting sucked into a psychological black hole. But apparently some people *have* taken the journey, some people have gone before us. And what they have to tell us is that there is a bottom to the bucket, the rabbit hole doesn’t go on forever, there is something worthwhile and even better and more beautiful and joyous on the other side of our fears and despair.

So that’s the choice we’re all faced with: red pill or blue pill. Deny reality and live in our own little fantasy worlds, believing whatever it is we want to believe—and then searching for others who share our particular peculiar version of neuroticness and have a penchant for the same anesthetants and distractions that make up our neurosis. Or start facing reality—whether out of boldness or out of weariness from the alternatives—and see who else, if anyone, we meet along the way . . . .

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You can choose to connect to people…despite the aching, droning truth that in the end, you are alone. It just feels better to share a laugh, doesn’t it? Laughing alone is the stuff of lunatics (more often than not). . . . So…we all have these new toys to communicate with. Nothing has changed, really. We are still alone AND we still have the choice not to be.”

That’s the question—do we really have a choice in not being solitary? Can we ever escape the prison of ourselves and find some real deep and lasting connection or communion with another human being? Certainly we can meet up with others who are opting to distract and anesthetize themselves in a way similar to the way we are numbing and distracting ourselves—and we can doll this up and call it “connecting.” But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call it that: I would call that level of relationship or connection an “acquaintanceship,” because two such people haven’t met and connected with each other from their core: they’ve met and connected with each other from their periphery, from their particular neurosis.

And I suppose we always have a choice in that—in connecting with people from that place—from the place or level of our neurosis, because the stuff of most people’s neurosis—the stuff that most people use in their distraction and avoidance and denial—is fairly common stuff—bars, TV, dancing, sports, fitness, yoga, meditation (most people use meditation as a way of avoiding /escaping from life and themselves, not as a means of really facing themselves and their demons and their fears/terrors), shopping, book clubs, surfing the web, hiking, “nature loving,” et cetera, et cetera—the vast majority of people seem to participate in these things from the near-side of despair, not the far- or other-side of it. And so at the very least, most people will at least have that in common—that they’re both living in denial; it’s just that the particular mechanisms or means that they’re each employing in their war against reality and suffering may differ.

So can we really choose not to be alone? Can we really choose to connect with people?

I don’t think so. I think we *can* choose to relate to people, to try and understand them and what they are going through. But our success in that will be limited by how well (i.e. honestly, truthfully) we understand ourselves and our own motivations and struggles and underlying fears, and how widely we have lived and thought (and read—what we have read—how many wise and deeply truthful minds we have rubbed up against and wrestled with). These factors will definitely influence how well we can sympathize with others, understand what they’re (likely) going through. So the more we read and think and reflect, and the wider and more broadly we live and the deeper we become, the better able we will be to interact with understanding and compassion with others.

But as far as finding a real live soul mate or someone with whom we can connect and converse deeply and experience a deep and profound meeting of the minds, that seems to require quite a stroke of luck, because it requires that two do deep and well-self-developed souls / persons actually happen upon each other.

But the first step is developing oneself, and that ultimately means ceasing to deny reality and instead learning how to face it and ourselves directly and heroically.

“Our relationship with our deeper selves is the foundation upon which we achieve any notable communion with others.” – Bill Plotkin

The extent that we get real with ourselves and with life in general, to that extent will we be able to connection deeply and genuinely with others—but we will also find ourselves that much more alone / isolated / unrelate-able—strangers in a strange land—a very strange land, what T. S. Eliot refers to as a wasteland, wandering and wading through all of the varieties of ways that we humans have created in order to distract ourselves and buffer ourselves from raw existence.

“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

– Martin Buber

How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)


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Life isn’t easy.

We want it to be. We wish that it were.

But it’s not.

Life is fundamentally not easy.  Life is hard.

But look around and listen to people, listen to ourselves, listen to what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our inner monologues—listen as we complain, as we bitch, as we whine, as we grumble and act cranky. And even though on the surface the object of our complaining, bitching, whining, crankiness, grumbliness may seem different, beneath it all resides the same assumption—that life is supposed to be easy. We feel justified in acting bitchy, grumpy, cranky, ornery, like a jerk, because deep down we think—wish, hope, believe, hold, assume—that life is supposed to be easy. One big gravy train. And somehow right now, at this moment when we’re being bitchy or acting like a hothead, life is somehow treating us unfairly, singling us out for no good reason and giving us a raw deal. Our kids are being difficult. Our job is too difficult (or tedious). Our clients are being difficult. The other drivers on the freeway are being difficult. Our partner or spouse is being difficult. Trying to understand him or her is too difficult. And so on.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum

And our greatest desire is to make it all go away—all, meaning the difficulty of it. When people say they can’t take “it” any more, the “it” to which they are referring isn’t life but the difficult nature of their lives—the poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

But “it”—whatever the “it”—is difficult. Loneliness is difficult. Loss is difficult. Losing a job is difficult. Wrestling with our own mortality is difficult. Trying to be our best is difficult. Emotions are difficult. Relationships are difficult. Wrestling with our demons and not so savory tendencies is difficult. Chemotherapy is difficult. Rehab—rehabbing an injury or from an addiction—is difficult.

But that’s life.

Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Life is dukkha.”

Life is difficult,” wrote both Rilke and M. Scott Peck.

Love is difficult,” wrote Rilke.

Life isn’t pleasure, it’s constant struggle driven by relentless tension,” said Richard Rose.

Life is complex. . . . There are no easy answers,” wrote M. Scott Peck.

And yet as evident by the vast majority of our complaints we spend much of our time trying to live diametrically opposed to this truth—the truth that life is difficult.

We bitch and we whine and we lash out and we complain—and more importantly, we feel justified in doing so—because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, simpler than it is, a lot less messier than it is, more pleasurable and fun than it is.

And when it’s not we get indignant about it, we mumble and grumble—or worse—about it.

For example, we get grumpy and self-righteous and indignant with elderly people—if not directly, then indirectly—who dare tell us (how dare they!) to relish our time with our children and enjoy it because this too will pass. And we get grumpy and indignant not because of what they’re saying to us but because fundamentally we’re living at odds with the fact that life IS difficult. We’re living in denial. If we actually knew life was difficult, then we’d be much more likely not to sweat so many things and not lose our cool so often and so easily. But because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, because we’re living in denial, we think we are in the right and that it’s appropriate to bitch and complain about anyone who won’t sympathize with our plight whenever we’re feeling moody and give us a consoling there-there pat on the shoulder whenever we’re having a rough go of it with the kids, et cetera. We act as if our hardships and difficulties are unique and unprecedented on all the earth and thus our complaints—and our bitchiness and grumpiness—are entirely justified and appropriate. We think no parent has ever had so tough a go of it as we are having right now with our kids running amuck in the living room or in the aisles of Target or WalMart. How dare someone suggest that there might be a better way of looking at things!? How dare someone butt into our lives and tell us to enjoy these moments of parenthood because it all goes so fast!? That’s exactly what we want—for it—and this moment in particular—to go fast, to go much faster, for us to be able to go elsewhere, a place where life is easier, where we can sit down and rest and enjoy a little peace and quiet and a glass of red wine and something funny on the television, et cetera.

Easy, easy, easy. That’s our heart’s deepest desire—wishing things were easier, wishing that life wasn’t so (as in sooooo) difficult.

It’s been remarked (fairly often) that for we humans, one of the biggest pains (or difficulties) we have to deal with is the pain (or difficulty) of a new idea. And the idea that life actually is fundamentally, inescapably, and unavoidably difficult is at some point in each of our lives both a new and a painful idea. It comes as a quite a shock to us that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be that easy.

So what do we tend to do with this new and disturbing idea? What are we who have been raised and groomed on the assumption that life is supposed to be easy and that it can almost always be made easier to do with this idea that perhaps life actually is quite difficult?

Do we accept the idea with grace and equanimity? In other words, do we accept it easily?

Of course not.

If life is difficult and if accepting a new and potentially disturbing new idea or paradigm (way of looking at things) is difficult, why should accepting it and living in congruence with it be easy? Obviously acceptance too should be difficult—something quite difficult.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economics, Peace and Laughter” (1971), p. 50.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and accepting that life is difficult, versus proving that life is not difficult, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

And for the vast majority of us that attempt at proof goes no further than our daily litany of complaints, laments, “why me?” moments, and frequent “ugh!” and “arrghh” and other much less civil not to mention much less printable yet sometimes quite colorful expressions and outbursts.

Life is difficult. And so is learning not to whine so much about it and become impatient and overheated—that too is difficult. It’s easier to live in denial and bitch and complain and vent and lose perspective and forget (deny) that life is difficult and messy and oftentimes requires a lot of effort and work and sacrifice and grit. Accepting that life is difficult—and learning (developing the self-control and perspective) not to whine and bitch and complain and take out our foul moods and weak-mindedness (ultimately that’s what it is, after all) on others—is not easy; it’s difficult—very difficult.

But—but—once we accept—actually, once we begin accepting more and more (because more often than not acceptance is not some grand pie in the sky moment, but a bit by bit, inch by inch, turf war) that life actually is difficult, once this becomes our mantra, once this becomes what we more and more tell ourselves or realize when our children or our partner or life is stressing us out, the paradox is that life becomes a bit less difficult. (Because we’re no longer making things even more difficult for ourselves than they already are through how we react to life.)

If our first thought in the morning was “Life is difficult. I’m ready for another difficult day. I want to rise to the challenge of my life and do my best and be my best. I wonder what difficulties and challenges I will be presented with today. I wonder what opportunities for bettering myself and others I will find or create amidst these difficulties?” that would set our hearts and minds in the right direction.

“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

But this way of thinking is likely the farthest thing from most of our hearts and minds first thing in the morning.

More likely we’re unconsciously hoping for an easy fun day.

Yet if we can begin by at least considering the idea that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be easy— and that if it were, we would never become who we’re supposed to be because we would never have cause to get stronger or wiser, and instead we would atrophy, soften, and become spoiled—if we can begin considering this and keeping this a bit more in mind, then perhaps life might paradoxically become a bit easier for us.

And not only might life become a bit easier the more we extend this realization and acceptance into different facets of our lives and live increasingly in alignment with it, life also might become proportionally a bit more joyful and wonderful. Because instead of our minds being bogged down so often bitching and complaining and wishing that life were easier, we would free up more space in our minds so we might actually enjoy (or embrace) life and some of its messiness and unease a bit more.

It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where George decides to be celibate for while his girlfriend (Louise) who has mono recuperates. . . .

[At Jerry’s apartment, George is sitting on couch, watching Jeopardy and playing with a Rubik’s cube while Jerry is talking to him.]

GEORGE: What is Tungsten or Wolfram?

ALEX TREBEK: We were looking for ‘What is Tungsten, or Wolfram’.

JERRY: Is this a repeat?

GEORGE: No, no, no. it’s just lately I’ve been thinking a lot clearer. Like this afternoon, (To television, “Jeopardy” is on) what is chicken Kiev, (Back to Jerry) I really enjoyed watching a documentary with Louise.

JERRY: Louise! That’s what’s doin’ it. You’re no longer pre-occupied with sex, so your mind is able to focus.

GEORGE: You think?

JERRY: Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows whole lettuce head) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce)

GEORGE: Oh my God. I just remembered where I left my retainer in second grade. I’ll see ya. (He throws finished Rubik’s cube to Jerry and he exits. Kramer enters)

So too it is with us. The space between our ears is for rent. And most of us unknowingly rent it out most of the time to what amounts to the lowest bidder—the path of least resistance, that part of us that wants life to be easy and simple and complains vocally whenever it isn’t. We live in an increasingly easier era where more and more things are being made easier, more convenient, more fun, et cetera. More and more of us are searching out ways to lose weight easier, to have more efficient and easier work-outs that will yield maximum results, to be able to eat more and more gluttonous sweet and or fatty foods without the consequences to our bodies.

So many of the things we take for granted—plumbing, refrigeration, microwaveable foods, drive-thrus, automobiles—were things that were unknown and even unimaginable to previous generations

And the dark side of it is that not only has all of this convenience and ease and abundance made life easier for us, but it likely has made us softer—another difficult idea to consider and accept.

“Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names . . . the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railway, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier. . . . You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as others, undertake to make something harder. . . . When all combine in every way to make everything easier and easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the easiness might become . . . too great.” – Soren Kierkegaard, in “A Kierkegaard Anthology,” ed. Robert Bretall, pg. 194.

Yet as we begin to more and more accept that fundamentally life is not easy, things begin to shift inside for us. Instead of the part of our mind that is grateful, kind, loving, and that finds joy in life being relegated to a few tiny slivers of lettuce while the rest of the head is obsessed with assuming life to be easy and trying to make things less stressful and then spinning out and complaining whenever they aren’t, things begin to shift, the balance of power begins to shift within us. We begin to find our sanity. Life isn’t easy. We’ve been to see that we’ve been duped; we’ve been lied to; life was never supposed to be easy or simple or uncomplicated. And so the assumption that life ought to be easy no longer runs the show, is no longer our fundamental operating assumption and guiding thought. Instead more and more parts of our brain (more and more pieces of lettuce) are freed up to begin more deeply appreciating more of the little things in life that we’ve been missing and overlooking for so long because we’ve been mistakenly assuming that life was supposed to be easy!

Life is difficult. Write this a thousand times. Try repeating this to yourself a thousand times a day. Make this your new ground zero. Say it to yourself whenever the kids are trying your patience or your partner is getting on your last nerve. Life is difficult. Or “this too shall pass.”

In doing so—in realizing that life is difficult—it frees our minds up for more kairos (or vertical or soulful) moments of appreciation and wonder and gratitude.

The more we live expecting life to be easier than it is, the more we will miss these potential moments of real peace and perspective and grace.

“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 15.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”– William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” Chapter 4, “Habit,” pg. 126.

Life 101


The Ideas of the Shipwrecked” – Jose Ortega y Gasset

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

…….

Dragon-Princesses” – Rilke, August 12, 1904, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden (from “Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 8; this is my combination and paraphrasing of separate translations by Stephen Mitchell and M. D. Herter Norton)

To speak of solitude again, it becomes clear that at bottom this is not something that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. But that is all.

Yet how much better would it be to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes are used to resting on would be taken away from us, there would no longer be anything near us, and everything far away would be infinitely far. It would be as if a person were taken from his room, without any preparation or transition, and placed on the heights of a great mountain range; he would feel something of the sort: an unparalleled insecurity, an abandonment to something inexpressible that would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces. And what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses!

This is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly, and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, extraordinary imaginings and strange new sensations arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.

But it is necessary for us to experience that too.

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can. Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.

That human beings have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.

To say nothing of God.

But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we don’t think we can cope. For it is only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude anything, even the most incomprehensible and enigmatical, who will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we think of the existence of an individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners. And we have little reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is likely not against us. If it has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses in all likelihood belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien may become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps many of the dragons in our lives are actually secretly princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So try not to be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. So why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions might be doing inside of you?

……..

And this is my slight paraphrasing of something else Rilke wrote in “Letters to a Young Poet” (in letter no. 4, I think )–

I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. And try not to be too overwhelmed in your search for answers, many of which probably could not be given to you yet at this point, because you would not be able to really live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Practicing the Art of Losing: Are You a Good Sport in Life or Just Another Troubled Guest Darkening the Earth?


Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins

Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” – Robert Cody

Yes: Have the courage to truly live and love; anyone can die and live a life that looks like a living death. 

Life is about loss. Loss—at least some losses in life—are inevitable. And most of us naturally try to live our lives in ways that minimize our losses and our potential for losing the things and people that are important to us. And in doing this, we try to create a sense of permanency, or, put another way, a sense of being in control. If we’re going to have to lose things, we’d much rather lose them on our terms than on life’s terms. We’d much rather have some sense of power, some say in when and how we lose something, rather than experience the complete and utter helplessness and vulnerability of having life simply take what we love away from us, and do so forcibly, and realizing how utterly powerless and helpless and small we are in the scheme of things. We don’t want to be stripped or violated by anyone or anything, including life itself. Yet this is just what life will surely do to each of us so long as we insist on trying to live and love on our own terms instead of life’s.

And so our natural reaction is to fight this, to try to hold on, cling to our desire to be in control, to hold on fiercely to some sense of power and say. And in doing so we run the risk of losing some of our humanity and, what’s worse, becoming inhumane and callous to others.

Loss in life is inevitable. But we’re not humble enough and honest enough to admit this and face this; we’re too afraid to put ourselves through getting acclimated viscerally to this truth. We don’t want to be wounded and scarred like this. Yet think about it: Live long enough and you’ll lose both your parents and all your grandparents, you’ll lose friends, family members, acquaintances. People die. You’ll also lose jobs and loves and friendships, perhaps through your own fault, or perhaps through no fault of your own. But because these losses happen sporadically—”into every life a little rain must fall“—because these losses happen infrequently enough, in between typically much longer stretches of not losing anyone or anything, that allows us plenty of wiggle room in playing our games of denial with ourselves and life. Life—by not defeating us more and more frequently and soundly, by not kicking our butts more and more often and severely—is making it too easy for us to indulge our neurosis (our avoidant tendencies) and play our little games of denial and self-deception and turning away with reality.

Hear the cry of the woman at the hour of giving birth, see the struggle of the dying in their last minutes and days, and then tell me whether that which begins and that which ends like this has been designed for pleasure.” – Kierkegaard

.

One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

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The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we too would become strong, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Life is about loss. About being defeated more and more decisively. This is the source of our humility–it’s what keeps our ego in check.  If we are not being defeated regularly by life–by wrestling with what is extraordinary and eternal in life–we run the risk of becoming soft, spoiled, tepid, weak.  Those little victories of little things make us small, we get too comfortable expecting that life will (almost) always take place on our terms, and we get out of shape in terms of the bigger questions and concerns and taking losses in life. 

But losses in life are inevitable.  And so as such, much of life is really about learning to lose either well or badly. This is the fundamental position we have to decide on in life: to learn how to lose well—with dignity, with some semblance of grace and perspective; or to lose badly—to lose like a child having its favorite toy taken away, to hide away, wall up, feel sorry for ourselves, pitch a fit, spin out, insulate and isolate ourselves, become “control freaks,” and begin shutting down inside and dying while alive—to begin reducing life to survival and staying safe and comfortable (the path of least resistance) rather than growing and enlarging ourselves and learning to live and love on life’s terms.

Everything and everyone will be taken from us. Nothing lasts, nothing will endure; all is vanity. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everything and everyone drops to zero. In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead. We’re impermanent, brief, fleeting, and fragile—so very fragile. We learn to live and survive alongside what can kill us. This is just the basic lay of the land in life; it’s what we’re each innately up against.

And most of us are not very good sports when it comes to dealing with this. Most of us are not very good sports when it comes to losing. We lose badly. Throw tantrums. Act out. Even become vicious and hurtful—”hurt people hurt people,” they torment others because they are unable and or unwilling to metabolize on their own all of the torment they feel, so they spread it around, literally forcing everyone to feel and mitigate their pain. What it comes down to is this: we’re bad sports because we’re afraid, because we’re not humble, because we have things backwards in life—we expect certainty and security and ease where there is actually little to none. Losing terrifies us, and in doing so, usually brings out what’s worst in us. It reminds us of the truth of our situation—that fundamentally life is about loss, that there’s nothing and no one we can cling to; that life is a perpetual groundlessness: we don’t know why we’re here, or for how long, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we have to use to lessen our fear and terror and sense of helplessness are the stories we’ve been told—some passed down through generations; and the stories we invent and tell ourselves.

Our everyday mind has it all wrong, has it backwards. We think that life is supposed to be much more safe and secure and certain than it is—much more. And that’s what makes us asleep, blind, living in denial—that we have things backwards, that we insist on trying to have things our way when it comes to the big questions—”what is extraordinary and eternal.” We each know at some level what the truth is, but because it terrifies us and because we don’t want to fully feel and face all of that and go through getting acclimated to it, we deceive ourselves and typically hurt others in the process of making our fast getaways from reality. We think that loss should be the exception, not the rule—which may well in fact be the case in the beginning, when we’re young; but as we grow older, we begin experiencing more and more losses, seeing those around us die—grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents. And at some level we begin suspecting that we’ve been duped—that life doesn’t go on forever, there’s a ticking clock—a ticking clock for each and everyone of us—and there’s only so much time on it. And this terrifies us. This terrifies the hell out of us. But this new information, this new reality, comes smack up against what we first learned about life, and so it tends to be very difficult for us to wrap our minds around it and integrate it, because deep down we think—and desperately hope—that life is still supposed to be pleasant and safe and secure and cozy. And we desperately clinging to this hope. Because the alternative is too terrifying. We can’t handle the truth. The truth is too dizzying, too overwhelming, too unsettling. We much rather live badly and live as if permanence and security and happiness are things that are owed to us. We’d much rather believe in a God wants us to be happy, that wants us to have a good time here on earth and not have to suffer. . . .

Does God want us to suffer?
What if the answer to that question is yes?
See, I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy.
I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved.
He wants us to grow up.
We think our childish toys
bring us all the happiness there is
and our nursery is the whole wide world.
But something—something—must drive us out of the nursery
to the world of others
and that something is suffering.
– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

Wrapping our minds around the inevitability of death and loss is no easy task; it’s like learning a new language—a second language, and at that a very foreign and difficult to master second language. Our first language is one of permanence, security, safety, gratification, being taken care of; it’s what we speak naturally and it speaks to what we seek naturally. This new language, this second language—the linguistics of loss, grief, impermanence, uncertainty, death—conflicts directly and deeply with much of what we first learned of life and with what we most desire from life: happiness, permanence, comfort, pleasantness, goodness. But learning to speak this new language well is essential if we are to grow up and learn how to truly love. Not only that, if one is to truly master this second language—and so to grow and learn how to truly love—it will not be enough just to learn to speak it fluently, we must learn to actually think in it—our very thinking must drip with the language of loss, impermanence, death, suffering. All of this must happen if we are to successfully grow up—i.e., put away the things of childhood, that is, overwrite and replace what we first learned of life—our first impressions of life—that life was supposed to be pleasant and happy and safe, that we weren’t supposed to get broken and deeply wounded here, that we weren’t going to have to change our thinking deeply and radically and fundamentally.

Christianity calls this paradigmatic shift, this complete and irrevocable figure-ground reversal in our way of looking at life—as life being something fleeting, impermanent, transitory, uncertain, mysterious, terrifying, immense, overwhelming, instead of something permanent, cozy, happy, safe—a “metanoia.” A metanoia means a radical change of heart and mind, a dramatic shift of one’s life direction and orientation away from the self and narcissistic gratifications (vanity) and permanence, to impermanence, uncertainty, mystery, transcending the self and our conditioning, and living and loving on life’s terms, not the ego’s terms. It is a complete conversion and epiphany rolled into one.

It is clear that when we are still operating according to the idea that life is supposed to be more safe and secure than it is, that we’re not supposed to be broken and deeply wounded here, that not everyone dies, everyone leaves, everything burns, everything is vanity, then we live badly. We are, in essence, refusing the term’s of life’s loan to us. And when we live like this—in refusal—our power in life lies in distancing—in putting up walls and pushing away unpleasant and difficult and immense realities—and people—and keeping these people and things at arm’s (or more, much more) length. It’s how we feebly try to keep our sanity, our equilibrium—an equilibrium that, truth be told, is not worth keeping, because it comes at the expense of us crippling and warping ourselves; it’s the equilibrium of childhood; it’s one based in weakness and denial, of approaching life in a way that is intellectually dishonest, instead of honest. What we most fear will happen to us will indeed one day happen to us, it will get the upper hand on us, so why wait? Why waste life in the meantime, trying to run from life and reality?

The only real foundation for happiness that we can have in life comes from facing life as it is—in all its majesty as well as hideousness and terrifyingness—and facing ourselves as we are, our weaknesses and strengths, and being honest with ourselves—and others—about these, and then heroically trying to overcome them. The only real happiness in life comes from learning thoroughly that what threatens us or most frightens us yet does not kill us or reduce us to a vegetative state and the fetal position is what makes us stronger and wiser and better human beings. There’s no strength to be gained in avoiding and denying what is inevitable and what will one day have the upper hand on us. In fact, denying what is inevitable its rightful place in our lives is the surest way to cripple ourselves emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. We must be brave—we really have no choice in this. To only be partially brave means to unwittingly consent to allowing ourselves to be crippled. To only partially face the truth means to still lie to ourselves and others. To grow up means to choose suffering, it means to say YES to life—to the full intensity and mystery of life, the full catastrophe of life, and not live as a frightened pygmy. But to choose safety repeatedly means to say no to life, to say no to growing up, to instead choose a slow form of psychological suicide, a living death, the ego and its fear-based ways over living and loving on life’s terms.

Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
Twice in that life
I’ve been given the choice:
As a boy . . .
and as a man.
The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.

– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

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There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” – Alan Paton, “The Challenge of Fear,” in Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, pg. 46

Dungeon” – Rabindranath Tagore

He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into
the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand
lest a least hole should be left in this name;
and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Dostoevsky

.

Hell is self-chosen. Hell has only volunteer residents. The reality is that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, as Lewis wrote. Hell is the suffering of being unable—or unwilling—to extend oneself and to love, to paraphrase Dostoevsky. Hell is being trapped from the inside because of oneself inside one’s neurosis or illness and being too afraid to truly love and be loved. It is to be a prisoner, locked within the dungeon of oneself, one’s ego, where the only purpose left in life is to fiercely defend one’s freedom to stay locked inside one’s prison cell. Hell is to be too afraid to risk being vulnerable, open, intimate, to afraid to risk living and loving on life’s terms instead of the ego’s manipulative and self-serving terms. Hell is to prefer the suffering of being unwilling to love to the sufferings involved in loving anything or anyone (after all, they may die or leave you or reject or betray you). Hell is to prefer the sufferings inherent in running away from the full intensity of life and backing down from the full catastrophe of living to the sufferings inherent in living and loving on life’s terms. Hell is to prefer the sufferings and crippling one brings upon oneself rather than the sufferings inherent in waking up and truly living.

The Choice of Books


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.

And necessary.

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.