Sunday, September 30. 2007
Last week I helped to draft a new constitution for the UNC SKS, since we decided we might need a little more substance to back up our artfully vague statement of purpose. If you like reading procedural bylaws, you'll find it to be a gripping read. But what surprised me more was the fact that I was actually enjoying the process of writing it, for a variety of reasons:
Saturday, September 29. 2007
Our book club just finished its long, weary journey through The Sound and the Fury which, we concluded, signified nothing. So now Janet and I get to pick the next book, and the pressureâ€™s one to find a good one: not too long, completely accessibly, and not too blatantly serving of our own interests. I consciously decided not to pick anything that was explicitly spiritual, which wipes out three-quarters of my library.
Which leads me to announce The Top Books That A Book Club Could Handle:
Thursday, September 27. 2007
Ok, just one more observation about Ogilvy's Living Without a Goal, and then I'll shut up. Clearly I've milked it for all I can.
Ogilvy spends a good deal of ink examining the notion of narcissism, trying to first explain its apparent rise in our culture, and then to some extent to excuse it. This seems to be a common theme for the postmodernists, since they have this Ayn Randian compulsion to celebrate the selfish self, but still feel compelled to make it seem somewhat less demonic than it might. The editors of Wired magazine flit around this theme incessantly, trying to combine hard-nosed entrepreneurism, consumerism, and moral relativism into a vision of life in which selfishness is the new virtue and virtue the new selfishness.
Their reasoning goes something like this:
All of these observations are more or less true. And yet I'm not buying the hypothesis that narcissism is inevitable or advisable. Something's wrong with this picture.
Ok, let's start with this postmodern notion of evolving selfhood. It seems like every generation wants to believe that they're on the cusp of living an entirely new way . . . and that notion of generational specialness is usually inflated. "You kids think you invented sex," scoffs the older generation, and they could just as easily say, "You kids think you invented symbolically-comprised selfhood." Just because the nature of the economy has changed, doesn't mean that the human psyche is suddenly different. People have always comprised their sense of self symbolically. As Ernest Becker develops so ruthlessly in The Denial of Death, the life of the sentient human is, and always has been, a perpetual quest to define a symbolic self that can transcend mortality. The props have changed, but the game is the same. If anything, I would argue that our forebears were more symbolically constructed than we were; with vastly less material stuff to fill up their lives, they depended even more on the constructions of mental life and society to define themselves. So why does everyone think that the rules have changed, thatÂ "this time it's different?"
I do see a correlation between a consumerist culture and narcissism. Mass marketing has every reason to cultivate a sense of entitlement, and the perpetual creation and fulfillment of desire. Which is why I largely opt out of mass media. If we're going to blame anything for narcissism, it would not be the ever-increasing web of connectivity and communication. Just the opposite: it's the evolution of technologies that allow us to spend more and more time isolated and alone. We haven't evolved a new sense of self; we just allowed our old capacities to epathy and compassion to atrophy, cut off from real contact with real people.
Wednesday, September 26. 2007
Ok, yes, that's true. I pointed out to Kenny that his "silly ideas" are pretty common, although largely unconscious, among the majority of non-religious Americans: "There is no absolute meaning or purpose, but somehow I can patch together a life that will fulfill me. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something." I wanted to stomp on that philosophy while I had the chance, with it out in the open.
But -- true confession time -- the real reason I've spent so much time hashing this book is because it tempts me. Everyone who follows a vocation has times when they wish to God they could live a normal life like everyone else. The calling that inspires them starts to feel like a burden, a chain, an impediment to their freedom and happiness. I don't think Ogilvy's book would have gotten any traction in the first place, unless people felt (or suspected) the burden of living up to a Goal. So when a voice from some postmodernist philosopher or self-empowerment guru whispers in your ear, "Imagine what life would be like without any obligations or duties . . . what would you do?" -- don't you think we'll lean a little closer? Just to savor, for a moment, the notion of "free time," and just doing whatever you felt like doing?
It is an illusion, of course. No one forces us to do anything -- we choose every role, duty, obligation, and commitment in our lives. Sometimes we forget why we were committed to something, which leads us to think ourselves in a straight-jacket when in fact we are wearing a life-preserver. Claudia Horwitz does a pretty good business with her Stone Circles organization, catering to the burned-out activists who struggle to sustain themselves in their work. The cure is almost always some combination of rest and reflection. We let go of our work, just for a moment, examine what we really want in life, and almost always find ourselves pulled right back to the life we already living, once again choosing to accept the Work we have undertaken.
Walker Percy identified the solution long ago in his self-help satire, Lost in the Cosmos: "The cure for depression is suicide." Once you have seriously considered checking out permanently, you realize that every day on this planet is a day you've chosen to be here. Suddenly everything that was a burden becomes a gift, and you walk a little lighter.
Tuesday, September 25. 2007
I wasn't quite done flogging James Ogilvy for his various rhetorical sins in Living Without A Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life. As you may recall, Ogilvy's central theme was that living with a grand overarching Goal was ultimately dehumanizing because it reduced the person to being a functionary, a cog in a galacticÂ mechanism, which would ultimately be dreary, constraining, and repetitive. The alternative, he thought, would be a life lived artistically, for its own sake, which would be full of freedom and beauty.
You can see the bias very clearly: engineering = mechanical = lifeless. Art = Beauty = Freedom. This is, as far as I can tell,Â the attitude of someone who has never actually built a thing in his entire life. Engineering -- the organizing of elements into a system that can do something -- is hardly a lifeless endeavor. It takes enormous creativity to start with an end in mind, and then concoct an unlikely array of components to all work smoothly together to that end. Effectiveness is hardly a binary affair, either, but rather becomes more and more subtle. The mathematicians and engineers will speak of elegant solutions versus clumsy ones, inspired solutions versus cliched ones. To the non-engineer, that watch or computer program or mathematical proof may appear to be "lifeless." But that's just because they lack the imagination to see the life within it.
So, what is Ogilvy really saying, when he dismisses "engineering" a life instead of artistically "creating" one? He is saying nothing at all, other than revealing a rather clumsy and unsubtle bias against things he doesn't understand. Striving toward a goal is not without its own art, its own creativity, subtlety, adventure, and joy. That I put all my capacities towards a single end does not in any way limit the number of lives I can lead . . . if anything it allows one to live deeper, as the goal pushes us beyond the bounds of our imagination, into lives we never even dreamed possible. Or, as St. Paul put it: "In slavery to Him is perfect freedom."
I imagine Ogilvy would not disagree with me, but just claim my argument to be his own. "Yes, engineering becomes alive, becomes free, the moment it becomes art!" Ahh, but he would only be sealing the fate of his original argument. His distinction between mechanism and freedom has dissolved, unmasked as an incomplete metaphor. Both the engineer and the artist are revelling in the moment-by-moment beauty of their respective crafts, both alive to the process of discovery. The man who engineers his life to serve a Goal is undiminished, while the artist foresaking the Goal is the one who might find himself at a loss.
Monday, September 24. 2007
Just lately I keep having dreams in which I'm am confronted with awkward truths. This morning I dreamed I was at some kind of small party, with people who were mostly strangers to me. I told a few jokes at the expense of the church, for some reason . . .Â I think I was trying to come off as scandalously honest in a friendly way. But some earnest-looking fellow comes up later and shows me some magazine article about a priest doing something cool. I can tell that he's man of simple faith, who felt obliged to speak up when he felt his religion was under fire. So suddenly I'm reversing tack, and start speaking well of the church -- how they provide order to otherwise squishy religious sentiment, how they get a lot of good done with the money they corrale, etc. Then someone on the other side of the room, a middle-class-looking Latino man, asks me, "So . . . how often are you in church?" An awkward silence falls of the room, and I feel like I'm smoked out again. I want to say, in that same scandalously honest way, that I haven't been in a church for years, apart from the obligatory wedding or funeral or baptism. But, for some reason, I can't, and every one is looking at me, waiting for an answer.
So, doctor. . . what is your exegesis? I don't think it's specifically about "to church or not to church," althought that has been a question that is facing my family at the moment. Do you go to the church with the familiar ritual and mysterium tremendum, but with a theology you can't abide, or do you go to the UU church which offers nothing to either offend or inspire? With options like these, it's easy to stay home on Sunday morning . . . or continue forging my own spiritual communities, as I've done my whole adult life.
No, I think this one is something different. Something about the cognitive dissonnance in general . . . I feel like I'm constantly in a position of trying to explain myself to others, and the moment I open my mouth and try to describe what I believe, I inevitably find myself feeling like a hypocrite. Can my life possibly stand up next to the descriptions I espouse? I talk of intensity, and live in a bubble of comfort and security. I talk of accepting myself completely, and find a bundle of anxiety that is not content to rest. Every pole of every description fails me, and I simply cannot say what I mean.
At least, that's the mood of the dream. I may not be making much sense, as I'm trying to write with eyes half-closed and still lingering in that memory of the dream. And it's probably better that I not try to analyze the other dream, the one in which old SKS students are resentful vampires emerging from the night, while I blast them with pretend silver bullets from my finger . . .
Sunday, September 23. 2007
Empire of the Sun was released in 1987, my first year at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, which is probably why I had absolutely no memory of it coming out. I was too immersed in my own traumatic coming-of-age to notice anyone else's, especially in the movies. Which is a shame, because I could have used that kind of story at the time. Instead I got Ferris Bueller's Day Off, another movie about youthful audacity, but without any of the sublime depth that Christian Bale brought to his debut film about a young British schoolboy struggling to survive in Japanese-occupied China during World War II.
I can't say enough good things about Empire of the Sun. Like many other avante garde films, its about theÂ Western bubble of wealth and comfort being shattered, and innocents being flung out into the struggle for survival that is typical for most everyone else on the planet. But the subtlety of treatment is awe-inspiring; even for a screenplay writer of Tom Stoppard's magnitude, and a directorÂ of Steven Spielberg's fame, this is remarkable. They just don't make movies like this anymore.
Consider the film's patience. Most movies today, if they want to demonstrate the horrors of war, move quickly to the violence and dwell there intermidably. But SpielbergÂ eschews most of the direct violence, and instead patiently soaks you in the horrors of uncertainty, deprivation, and lonliness. Not even Tom Hanks' desert-island struggles in Cast Away can compare to the hunger and thirst that dogÂ Jim Graham, and the utter humiliation of an animal-like scrabbling after food.Â Amidst the turmoil of the war, Jim struggles to construct an identity for himself, desperately cobbled together from the rubble of his former life and the people he encounters. He learnsÂ hard-nosed pragmatism and self-serving ambition from Basie, an American merchant-marine so charasmatically creepy that only John Malkovich could possibly play him. But Dr. Rawlins helps him to cling to some British decency and higher learning, and Mrs. Victor's motherly ministrations keep him from completely forgetting the childhood that was ripped away from him.
The movie becomes a study in the plasticity of identity, and how the raw emotional power of people and events shape us more than ideas or philosophies. As a result of his fractured experience, Jim is loaded down with contradictions. He struggles against his Japanese captors but is in love with their fighting planes and their fierce sense of honor. HeÂ tries toÂ take care of everyone in the POW camp, grabbing extra potatos, stealing soap, working in the hospital . . .Â but displays ruthless pragmatism in his struggle to survive, and will even swipe a little girl's marbles to continue his horsetrading around the camp. He salutes the kamikaze pilots in tearful joy as they fly off to glorious destruction . . . and minutes later he is cheering the American B-51 fighter-bombers leveling the Japanese airfield. The human psyche, organically trying to construct a consistent vision of the world, will strain and crack under the weight of so much horror. And yet . . . something about Jim's life, and Life itself, resists all contradictions. He witnesses all the horror and the beauty of the world, andÂ even in the face of constant loss and overwhelming destruction, continues to grasp at goodness.
For reasons I can't even fully articulate, Empire of the Sun feels like a quintessentially SKS film, something I would recommend every college student watch. Like Apocalypse Now, it moves through questions of life and death, civilization and depravity, good and evil, with an organic vitality and intuitive truth that defies pat explanations. It would be dead wrong to call it "uplifting",Â and yet it is hauntingly sublime.Â
Tuesday, September 18. 2007
An SKS member sent me this email recently.
From:Â Â Â Â (name withheld)
To:Â Â Â Â Â Â (names withheld)
What if our quest to live an exceptional, extraordinary life is just another ego-game, an attempt to /be/ somebody or something rather than just a nobody or nothing "special"? Do we really have to suffer to live a conscious, meaningful life? Can struggle and suffering and always working toward a goal (even an admirable one) be a "box" that we get stuck in? Do we really have to have goals to avoid mediocrity? What exactly is mediocrity and why is it so bad? Why is there "nothing worse than being ordinary?" Will we ever reach the Goal and not have to struggle or suffer anymore?
I feel lost.
I would like to help this person.
What should I tell them?
Here is part of my reply:
C.S. Lewis advised that you need to pay careful attention to the way people use the word "just". Can the "quest to live an exceptional, extraordinary life" be another ego-game? Absolutely. Is it "just" another ego-game? No, I don't think so. There are motives beside ego that drive us to do what we do, especially in the Work.
Life is suffering. Suffering is inevitable; we do have a choice, however, to suffer conscious and deliberately or accidently and to no end. I have tried living both ways. For myself, I found the frustrations and humiliations of the Work were preferable to the lurking anxiety of having no transcendent meaning at all. The only path out of needless suffering is through consciousness. That's the only reason being "ordinary" is so bad -- the "ordinary" person is unconscious, and therefore doomed to suffer needlessly.
Can suffering be a "box"? Absolutely. Just because you're suffering, doesn't mean it's meaningful. We're not masochists (at least, I hope we're not). But don't feel like your way of life is any less worthwhile just because it creates suffering for you. Nobody said this was gonna be easy.
Do we need goals to avoid mediocrity? All my experience says, "yes, absolutely." There are good things that can happen spontaneously, without any conscious effort or direction, and it's important to recognize those things and take advantage of them. Some of the best things in life (especially spiritual experiences) are happy accidents. But you can't bank on that. You still have to focus your energy in order to become "accident-prone".
Mediocrity is merely being less than you could be, not living up to your full potential. Is that so bad? From an absolute perspective, no: God's love for you is absolute and unconditional. From a relative perspective, yes, mediocrity is a problem. At least, it's a lot easier to accept your limitations when you know they are the limitations of your nature, and not the limitations of your desire. You owe it to yourself to do the best that you can; after that you let it go, and accept what happens.
Will we ever reach the Goal? I wouldn't work so hard, were it not for people telling me that yes, it is possible to have your questions answered, and to experience the peace which passeth all understanding. That doesn't necessarily mean that all relative suffering goes away -- but it does mean you can reach a state where it doesn't really matter to you.
Just pay attention, and have faith that what dies in you will be reborn.
Monday, September 17. 2007
Let's start with Ogilvy's primary thesis -- that devoting one's life to a Goal is slavery, reducing one's life to a mechanistic procession of tasks. He would contrast that with "the artful creation of the self in real time, without a blueprint or a plan" -- presumably, a life that does not have a central theme or goal.
I run into this sort of thinking all the time, because most spiritual teachers are pushing in the opposite direction. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and whole soul, and whole strength . . . " -- that's a pretty unambiguous call to focus on the highest things. Nisargadatta, among many other Indian sages, speaks of "earnestness," the sincere, serious, and resolute desire for spiritual realization. When asked about prayer, Richard Rose said, "Your whole life should be a prayer. And if your whole life was a prayer, it would be answered instantaneously." The spiritual wisdom of the ages, across religious traditions, is emphatic that this process requires the focus of a lifetime.
But the moment you start talking about work, and focus, and intensity, and commitment, everyone in the room starts to get twitchy. As much as people say they want to transform their lives, very few are really interested in significantly altering the way they live. It is only a matter of time before someone starts talking about "balance," as if spirituality should only occupy only a small portion of our lives, and optimally be offset by a few hours of prime time television. If you confront that notion directly, people will confess their fears: "Gee, all this talk of commitment makes the spiritual life sound really dry and boring. We're worried we're not going to have any fun anymore."
What can I say? It's simply not true. Every person I ever met who had singleness of purpose for any reasonably worthwhile goal was not dry and boring, nor did they seem to lack for fun. In fact, the very lives these people are afraid to wish upon themselves are exactly the sort of lives they like to watch on TV -- people living intensely, battling demons, saving the world, hunting down a killer, questing after an elusive truth. Sometimes even those characters lament the lack of balance in their lives -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer wishes she could be an "normal girl", Detective Benson wishes she could get through an entire date without rushing off to save another innocent. But we wouldn't love them nearly so much if they did achieve that balance. We watch their uncomfortably intense lives with jealousy, wishing we had something in our lives worth so much sacrifice.
Nor does focus inevitably lead to flat, homogenous experience. Just the opposite -- the people who are focused on a goal tend to have more varied experience, not less. Their passion drives them to draw inspiration from new sources. Michaelangelo, the prototypical Renaissance man, was passionate about one thing: sculpting. But that focus led him inexorably into great achievements in anatomy, architecture, engineering, painting, and poetry. Great entrepreneurs -- people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates -- have an consuming passion for their businesses, but it tends to make them talk to more people, about more subjects, than ever before.
If anything, it's the "balanced" life -- a life lived with no particular focus or direction, beyond its immediate and obvious goalsÂ -- that looks pale and flat by comparison. Rather than being liberated by perfect freedom to create "artistic" lives, the vast majority of such people seem to just slump into routine and mediocrity. Ogilvy seems to assume that a mechanistic life is something imposed by super-egoic goals, and that freedom is our spontaneous nature. I see things more like Gurdjieff -- that people are by nature mostly mechanical, little more than clever animals, and it takes a special act of will to find true freedom.
Sunday, September 16. 2007
One of the books to surface in my mother's new library was James Ogilvy's Living Without a Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life. I picked it up because the title seemed to echo the same theme in Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big LifeÂ -- that perhaps weÂ would be better off without a super-ego constantly berating us to be somebody.Â Perhaps it was striking a nerve, too. I had been a champion of living for an overarching Goal (spiritual liberation) for most of my life, and here comes some smarmy postmodernist telling me I've got it all wrong. Well, I'll show him.
But Ogilvy was neither the New Age fluffer-nutter nor the totally square scholar that I half expected him to be.Â The bookÂ had a favorable testimonial quote from Jacob Needleman on the back, and flipping through the chapters I found epigrams from Dante's Inferno and Nietzsche -- not your ordinary self-help citations. And I loved the way he launched into the book, talking about his own experience of unexpected freedom in being suddenly Goalless after getting kicked out of prep school. He was tackling genuinely important philosophic questions with an existential directness that was right up my alley. I borrowed the book from my mom to take home: "I don't think I agree with him, but I definitely need to figure out why."
Ogilvy's thesis is that not having an overarching Goal for one's life is not necessarily a bad thing. "All around me I see people pursuing various grand overriding Goals: Wealth, Love, Fame, Religious Salvation, Social Justice, Self-actualization, Wisdom . . . I have come to believe that a life enslaved to a single Goal, no matter how noble, becomes a mechanism rather than an organism, a business plan rather than a biography, a tool rather than a gift." His fundamental critique of Goals (with a capital G, to indicate "life mission" instead of mere "objective of action") is that they undermine freedom and compromise the present moment: "This book is about designing life artistically rather than engineering life mechanically. Artistic design calls for freedom and spontaneity where engineering builds upon the laws of mechanical necessity. Many of us use Grand Goals to deny our own freedom. We allow ourselves to become slaves of our Goals. You know the story. Get up in the morning. Go to work. You confront the tasks in front of you. You experience each moment as a means to the next. One job leads to another. You become the tool of your tasks. This is slavery, not freedom."
Hmmm . . . ok. I can see how fixating your life on a really lousy Goal, like Wealth, could quickly become mechanistic and lifeless, so it's a fair critique at that level. But I'm not sure Freedom is necessarily a value that trumps all others, either. Personal freedom, if you turn it into an idol, if you allow it to trump all other human values, can quickly turn into genuine Evil. I don't think Ogilvy is calling for us to reject morality to embrace our freedom, a la Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, but his philosophy needs to tread carefully if it's going to extol freedom. Complete freedom can be just as empty as complete slavery.
So how does Ogilvy address overarching Goals that transcend the mundane -- things like spiritual transcendence, or moral Goodness? Sadly, he doesn't. He doesn't even give them the chance to compete: "I take it that both God and Karl Marx are dead, and that the passionate pursuit of religious salvation or political revolution is now a quaint relic of the past." Cue the Sesame Street sad music: "Wa-wa-wa-waaaaaaa." Dude, that's lame. You can't claim to have laid all Goals low, and then sideline the biggest players of the last two thousand years.
Whenever Ogilvy gets within spitting distance of genuine spirituality, his arguments waffle or just disintegrate outright. In his discussion of Buddhism and Zen, he pretty much agrees with the notion of non-attachment and sees it as justifying his notion of "Goallessness". He gives a rapturous description of mystical union with the universe, but then through some bizarre vision makes it the result of Howard Hughes' narcissism. When heÂ creates theÂ character of Lila to illustrate the limitations of Goal-oriented living, she is a pathetic caricature who tries to live according to a higher ideal but continually fails, flitting from one life-orienting goal to the next. Again, I call foul: if you're going to critique a philosophy, you need to take on its best representative, not its worst. Try taking on Mother Teresa, not some dishrag who dropped out a cult.
It's going to take me a few more posts to completely pick apart Ogilvy's arguments. I think it's worthwhile, because I think he's in the right neighborhood, even if he muddles the details and draws the wrong conclusions. His critiques of many Goals are excellent, and his call for a more subtle form of thinking (what he calls "artistic") is admirable and worthwhile. We are on the same team, really; anyone who calls upon individuals to think hard about the kind of life they want, and who works as hard as he does to find a way out of the darkness, is a kindred spirit.
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