What is the solution to life? How can it be lived “well”?
“There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Full quote here.
“It is not the truth that needs people, but people who need the truth.”
— Soren Kierkegaard
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.
… I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English degree you’ll say: “Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire”; or maybe just: “Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”
–Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
Cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life–with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality–despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.'”
–Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
Painting: Paul Klee
“Why do you use this word ‘cheese’? ‘You’re too cheesy?’ Do I have anything about cheese? When you say, oh, ‘he’s being too cheesy,’ when you manifest something that it is the most important thing that we have, we become very cynical. Probably this is is defensive. You know? … I’m going to tease you on this cheesy thing, because… I’m talking to you from Switzerland, and here cheese is something that’s considered one of the most important things, you know? …So I’m going to defend the cheese itself, not as a derogatory word, but something that it is positive.”
–Paulo Coelho, On Being
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.
–Hāfez, 14th century Persian poet
The other day, coming home late from work, I was thinking about my students and how much I love them, in an unconditional way that I have never quite experienced with anyone else. When I pass by them in the hallways, or see them circled around me nestled in their desks, or when they come up and chat with me during break times, my chest warms and my hearts lifts and my stomach flutters. I am filled with this urge to help them and support them and serve them–and become a better person in order to better help them–even though I don’t get anything in return from them by doing so.
“I really want to meet and have more students,” I thought that night, “so I can teach them and help them, because every student I’ve taught I loved, and I want more students to love.”
And I realized at that moment–it’s by helping people that we grow to love them unconditionally. There is a connection between service and love. We learn to love, and grow to love others, through service.*
It’s a mysterious connection–I have not come up with a logical progression of thought as to why helping others leads to this profound empathy and attachment–but somehow, I know it’s true and I know serving others is going to have to continue to be a theme in my life.
*Just like the Jesuits at my school always said!
“[L]et us take sexual or amorous relationships: to wield power over the other in a sort of openended strategic game where the situation may be reversed is not evil; it’s a part of love, of passion and sexual pleasure. And let us take, as another example … the pedagogical institution. I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them, and transmits knowledge and techniques.”
–Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, quoted here.
Power is not intrinsically evil: both love and pedagogy depend on power relations. The question becomes: how do we bring about a world where power is wielded transparently, with justice, and in pursuit of mutual human flourishing?
Thoughts inspired by this podcast. Image is Chagall.
It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself. … No twists, no turns or hairpin beds obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. –Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
…İrfan realized that he, too, like Endymion, was terrified of perceiving his own fate. One’s fate should always remain a secret. No mortal is strong enough to know exactly what life holds, when an accident will occur, or in what guise death will arrive. –Zülfü Livaneli, Bliss (Türkçesi: Mutluluk)
What will I do after leaving college? Where will I be? How will my relationship and friendships stand when we have all graduated to the next stages of our lives? What does adulthood hold for me? Once in a while, I admit, the uncertainty of it all tears me apart. However, these passages from two different novels I have recently read–one by an Indian writer, and one by a Turkish musician-turned-novelist–reminded me that certainty is a double-edged sword.
We all need the certainty that we will be secure from violence and that our basic needs will be met. Nobody wants to or should feel uncertain that they will have sufficient food, water, shelter, access to healthcare, political rights–in short, the lower tiers in the hierarchy of needs. This is not the kind of uncertainty I will be referring to.
For a satisfying and flourishing life, it seems we need the uncertainty that comes from having an abundance of options. I could be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a writer; I could get married to be polyamorous; I could live in Mequon, USA, or Istanbul, Turkey in a house or an apartment or a camper-van–my choices are only limited by the amount of planning, research, and work I am willing to put in to make my choices a reality. The uncertainty that many college graduates and almost-grads like me experience is a reflection of this freedom of choice. How do we choose from among our many options? What if we make the wrong choice? How do we know if we have made the right one? Who should we follow, if anyone?
Getting wrapped up in our indecision, it is easy to forget that such freedom of choice is a scarce blessing. Ammu, a character from Roy’s novel, is a female divorcee trying to make her way in Indian society; and Livaneli’s Meryem is a 15-year-old girl, victim of sexual predation, and subsequently a target of communal exile and attempted murder. It is all too clear, too certain what life holds for these two women. Society has already made their choices for them.
For us, our multitudinous life choices lay open for us to choose and pursue, creating a deep sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty can be traumatic–society-as-gesellschaft brings with it a sense of impermanence, alienation, and imbalance because no one can tell us what is right and correct apart from ourselves. Making one’s own decisions is harder than letting someone else tell us what to do, but easier is not necessarily better.
In Mutluluk, İrfan becomes dissatisfied with his predictable lifestyle, but because he possesses a freedom of choice not accorded to the aforementioned women, he is able to change his life radically–leaving behind his prestigious Istanbul professorship and dull social life to buy a boat and set out to sea, as he had always dreamed. The process of making the change is stressful, traumatic, and hard for İrfan, but the result is literally a dream-come-true.
Uncertainty at first feels like an evil, but it derives from something good: abundant opportunity and freedom of choice. Too much certainty is the real evil.
Of course, I am reading my own concerns into these stories. What in fact underlies both of the above quotes is Death in the phenomenological and literal senses. Why does too much safety and certainty–having too keen a knowledge of “what life holds”–feel like a small death? Conversely, why do we need an element of spontaneity, insecurity, and even danger to feel truly alive? As Adam Gopnick puts it, “It takes more than full bellies to make fulfilled lives. Without enough to eat, life is nasty; with merely enough to eat, it feels empty. The escape from not-enough can highlight the emptiness of only-enough.”
Ultimately, why is it so important that we not know when and how we are going to die? These are questions I leave for the story-tellers to answer.
“Salads are more useful than flowers,” said the housekeeper.
“You are wrong,” replied the bishop. “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” Then after a pause, he added, “More so, perhaps.”
— Victor Hugo, Le Misérables
Is the bishop right? I think so. Useful things may give us a means to live, but beautiful things give us a reason to live. Utility is at least as important as beauty.
Top: Portrait of a Woman by Leonardo da Vinci; Bottom: manuscript of “Bright Star” by John Keats
I will sail into the future on mystery’s wings and I will not look back. … our hearts yearn backward. We long to be found, hoping our searchers have not given up and gone home. But I no longer hope to be found… Do not follow me! Let’s just be fabulously where we are and who we are. You be you and I’ll be me, today and today and today, and let’s trust the future to tomorrow. Let the stars keep track of us. Let us ride our own orbits and trust that they will meet. May our reunion be not a finding but a sweet collision of destinies!
— Jerry Spinelli, Love, Stargirl
Photo by fenk
It’s that time, those few seconds when we’re coming out of sleep but we’re not really awake yet. For those few seconds we’re something more primitive than what we are about to become. We have just slept the sleep of our most distant ancestors, and something of them and their world still clings to us. For those few moments we are unformed, uncivilized. We are not the people we know as ourselves, but creatures more in tune with a tree than a keyboard. We are untitled, unnamed, natural, suspended between was and will be, the tadpole before the frog, the worm before the butterfly. We are, for a few brief moments, anything and everything we could be. And then… ah–we open our eyes and the day is before us, and…we become ourselves.
—Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
The moments before falling asleep, as your brain is shutting down, are also illuminating.–it’s both fascinating and disturbing to see what floats to the surface when the mind’s defenses are down. Sleeping and wakefulness is a potent combination.