There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture. As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business. Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.
It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance. And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.” A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values. But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values. What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.
If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant. In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you. Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives. They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in. And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.
Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual. One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self. “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.
It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities. As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours. And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be. If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else? In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes.
Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality. But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing? Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?
Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort. Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness. You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable. Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt. Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.
You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.
A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.” Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.” This was in 2008 or 2009. My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.
I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards. By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future. I was going to travel across an ocean. I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done. And I was going to outlive everybody I knew. As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.
It’s amazing how quickly life can change. You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do. This is the market where I shop. This is the person I live with. These are the faces I see as I walk down my street. This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind. This is me. For the moment, at least, this is me.
And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change. Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it? But you won’t know how to answer. You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant. You won’t know how to recognize yourself. You’ll be a survivor. And nobody actually ever wants that. The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.
Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime. In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience. I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either. Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that. Is that good?
I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things. And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that. I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window. There’s a lot going on everywhere you look. Sometimes, it’s hypnotic. Sometimes, it’s beautiful. Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time. The world is too much. It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational. We’re the ones who make it matter. But do we really?
I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often. If they’re good, you’ll know too much. If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money. If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid. And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid. A fortune teller is like a bad pizza. You paid for it. So you’re going to eat it. You might feel disgusted afterwards. You might not want to talk about the experience. You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again. But you’ll probably be back.
It’s how magical things work. It’s how art works. You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex. And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting. It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring. You write scathing things about it on your blog. You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back. But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum. So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time? Of course you do. Want to know the future? Just let me shuffle these cards.
I took piano lessons as a kid. I was very serious about them. My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university. He was a lot like Mr. Rogers. He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor. He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life. And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano. I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him.
I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos. He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away. Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature. There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star. All we had to do was listen. And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.
Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.” It contains these lines:
I my companions see In you, another me. They seeméd others, but are we; Our second selves these shadows be.
And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery. Fabulous. The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly. Our second selves these shadows be. The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below. Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius. I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes. Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.
All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe. One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning. By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down.
In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane. The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past. Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you.
You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful. You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else. You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world. You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers. That is a truly horrible fate. Do you want to win this game? For your sake, I sincerely hope not.
Looking at photos of relatives from the early 20th century, I’m struck by how incredibly normal they look, how I could walk down any street and see the same faces. Such an insight comes easily since I live near the locus of my ancestral lines, but I think it’s a realization one could have anywhere. Stare into the faces of passers by and you will see many physical and psychological reflections of yourself, as if the genetic mirror were shattered, replicating the same fate, the same consequences, the same inner struggles across continents and generations.
Someone once said that all wars are the same war, that all short stories are just one long story, and that all people—no matter how diverse or alien they may seem on the surface—are actually one life and one humanity engaged in one struggle playing out simultaneously in every heart and mind. Being a gifted dancer, Michael Jackson once put it like this: “Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the Creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on.”
This is the 2000-year-old concept of Nataraja, the image of Shiva as the cosmic dancer who dispels illusion and reveals a higher truth. As part of the dance of time and space, forms rise and fall—in the microcosm of the individual mind and in the macrocosm of all creation—but the dance itself, the maelstrom of change, remains constant as an expression of something else, something beyond the perception of transient things. The ancient sages and priests of the Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir regions first portrayed Shiva this way around 6 C.E. in temple statues and paintings, depicting a true, eternal, changeless Self that is simultaneously immanent in every person and transcendent in the ubiquitous I AM.
Ram Dass, in Polishing the Mirror, expresses this when he writes, “The only thing you really ever have to offer another person is your own state of being.” Or whatever you offer to others, you are also confirming and offering as part of yourself. This posits an equals sign between people, not an arrow, a plus, or a minus. Is there anything new under the sun? Ecclesiastes says no. Read enough literature and I think most people will be inclined to agree: we find meaning in another because that meaning resonates in ourselves. Yeats wrote that ultimately it is not possible to distinguish the dancer from the dance. Repair the shattered mirror, the broken and limited perception of others that sees them as irreparably isolated from us, and a higher octave of meaning is revealed. We are isolate. We are also one. And, in our ultimate oneness, “we” and “are” and “one” cease to have any meaning and the truth of existence becomes evident.
Pay attention to your ancestors, to their lives, to the things they did and said. See yourself in them as one being. Then see yourself in others, in everything. Look past the superficial trivia that limits your understanding and obscures the truth of the matter: assumptions about linear progress (originally post-Enlightenment / Victorian but now, with our current STEM fetishism, solidly reductive materialist and technocratic) depend on an unexamined and distracted mind. There is no new thing under the sun in any meaningful sense. The are only forms, rising and falling, being born and dying.
Start paying attention to this. Start asking, Who am I? Start asking, Who is it that asks, “Who am I?” Go deep, beyond the forms. You are not those things. Get to the point where you can perceive the dance always taking place, the energy of creation itself, which is expressed as movement, as change. This is also synonymous with the highest, emptiest, most profound form of awareness. That is what we are.
“After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, Awareness alone remains – that I am.” – Ramana Maharshi
Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?
My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.
But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.
I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.
“I’m, uh, reading.”
“Why do you do this to yourself?”
“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”
I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.
There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.
Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.
If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.
I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.
Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.
I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.
Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”
That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.
What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.
These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.
So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. I can’t stand my own mind.
—Allen Ginsberg, America
If there is such a thing as a formula for success in life, it might go something like this: don’t complain, get results, and watch your back. Notice I said success, not happiness. We can determine metrics for success relative to a given line of effort in a given context—even if such achievement must therefore be contingent and temporary. Still, we can develop certain best practices for success within those parameters. But we have no idea how to determine happiness.
Since 1964, smart people have agreed with Paul that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy love. Clever people (who probably like John’s “Watching the Wheels” a lot more than anything on A Hard Day’s Night) say you may not be able to buy love, but you can certainly buy the conditions most favorable for finding it. However philosophers, especially mathematicians and rhetoricians, respond that “favorable conditions” mean very little when dealing with a binary (love / not love). And playing even-money odds is still a losing game. In other words, correlating a certain quantity and quality of conditions will not necessarily cause a particular outcome. So put your raggedy wallet back in your pants, eh?
Thinking you can beat the system by “bettering your chances” is sloppy, unnecessarily mystical, and prone to failure. It also happens to be in our nature and one of the emotional drivers of post-industrial culture. Part of us may be secretly relieved that we can’t buy love in a Tokyo vending machine, but an even deeper, more pathological part assumes there’s some morality always-already implicit in winning.
We despise the weak, the downtrodden, the unfortunate. We’d prefer that our Bentley be polished by a former office manager recently hoovered into the service economy, not by the mentally ill bearded man who’s been sleeping in the bus station. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for feeling this way. We know what we like, even if all of heaven’s angels think we’ve grown into monsters.
Max Weber identified this justification-by-success 111 years ago when he wrote that:
the peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 16-17)
In our present economy, this pathological faith seems to have mutated into an ethos blind to pervasive redundancy, obsolescence, dehumanization, and systemic violence so toxic and transpersonal as to make one long for a time machine. No one actually believes he or she is secure anymore or will be in the foreseeable future. No one believes (or even likes) the baby boomers, but everyone wants to believe what they say about things naturally improving.
We could argue that western economic systems have been in decline at least since the state of the “special relationship” in the Reagan / Thatcher administration. The modernist concept of empty-at-the-center radiant socioeconomic decay is now a legitimate way of describing our post-modern reality. Gordon White puts it well in his book on chaos and economics: “By refusing to adjust your strategy from the recommended life offered to the baby boomers forty years ago, what you are saying is that you have every confidence in the system; the current challenges are just temporary, and someone will come and sort it all out for us” (The Chaos Protocols). Right. I have yet to find someone willing to identify this messiah without having to listen to incoherent bellowing about making America great again.
So maybe if we’re not as successful as we think we should be, we can at least remind ourselves that we are trying to avoid being completely evil, that the morality of winning is a hollow and damaging ideal, and that we’re doing our part to bear witness to this:
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round, I really love to watch them roll, No longer riding on the merry-go-round, I just had to let it go.
Personally, I’ve done what I could to disconnect from what a professor of mine once called the “cant of success,” but I still get suckered by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and four-hour work weeks and the undergrad-in-communications-level presentations on TED and Big Think. I still read too many articles about “lifehacking” designed to make me a more efficient self-propelled office mechanism. But I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, too. Like, America:
America why are your libraries full of tears? America when will you send your eggs to India? I’m sick of your insane demands. When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world. Your machinery is too much for me. You made me want to be a saint.
I want to be a saint, but I’m afraid. I want to love everyone, but I’m afraid. I want to tell the truth, but I’m worried that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I worry that we are all actually perfect and have nowhere to go. As a real life saint once said to me: “There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to achieve.” This breaks my heart a little bit more every time I think of it.
Who am I to say what is good or bad? The bad parts are as integral to my life as the good parts. Sartre said that, and I think I agree. I’m told to want certain things. I feel like I have desires and pains. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to accept that desire and pain are both are necessary for a full life. This, too, breaks my heart in unforeseen circuitous patterns.
Because I know happiness will remain as distant and ephemeral as the next world, until it comes.
Other ways of asking this question are: what do we live for? What is our highest value? What is the foremost goal of our lives? When will we know if we have reached it to satisfaction? When will we know that reaching it is no longer an option? And then what will we do?
Everyone has the power to choose the self-determined life because the choice is internal.
I believe that we all determine the objectives of our lives. We can make ourselves subservient to the values and definitions of others. Nevertheless, the root decision is always ours to make somewhere, sometime in life. It is an internal act. It takes place in the mind and in the heart.
Choosing to live according to someone else’s rules (if only by default) may allow us to avoid a degree of painful awareness (and perhaps continue on in a kind of bovine simplicity until old age or circumstances end us), but self-determination is a far more dynamic and dangerous prospect.
When we consciously and deliberately identify what we believe is our highest value—when we do so with a broad and deep understanding of the public and private forces that have shaped our worldview over time—we are able to make rational empowered decisions that may seem terrifying and even arbitrary to those still in the cattle car.
Self-responsibility necessitates self-atonement.
We become responsible for our decisions, for the immense degree of inner freedom that comes with self-determination. We are in charge. We are the author of our success or failure. And if the ship sinks because of our choices, we are obligated to make amends somehow. This is true atonement—not to an imaginary deity or to a social expectation, not to another person who has power over us, but to ourselves, to our personal ideals, to the values we have chosen, to the personal definitions we have written. We owe it to ourselves to atone because only we can pay for what we’ve done or failed to do.
Otherwise, we admit that we were never truly serious about mastering our lives. We accept that we are running away in shame; that we are untrue; that we have failed to grasp what is at stake. We embrace our essential weakness as a definitive attribute. We admit that external forces have dominated us after all. And we place ourselves below the aforesaid thoughtless cattle who voluntarily gave up control over their lives. We had the power, but we were not equal to it.
Atoning for failure affirms nobility and strength of character. The opposite is also true.
One option is noble (I will atone for my failure and thereby restore myself and the universe—I am what I say I am and the actions I took, even if they were misguided, still carry meaning). The other is ignoble (I refuse to accept responsibility when it is inconvenient or painful to do so—I am a hypocrite and therefore false).
Just as only we can make the necessary sacrifice, only we can determine the sort of sacrifice that should be made. However, I believe that we know in our hearts what form of atonement is needed. It doesn’t require much deliberation. For example, in the Hávámal, Odin speaks of the sacrifice of himself to himself in order to acquire the Runes (symbolizing true wisdom):
I trow I hung on that windy Tree nine whole days and nights, stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin, myself to mine own self given, high on that Tree of which none hath heard from what roots it rises to heaven. (137)
He would rather be wise than comfortable. He voluntarily suffers in order to transcend the limitations imposed by circumstances. In this sense, self-sacrifice (especially in the sense of sacrificing to restore oneself, to make oneself whole again) is a heroic, godlike act. It is superhuman in that it upholds the primacy of one’s will / word. This is troth in the ancient sense.
In short: if I have determined the course of my life, I will accept the outcome. I will correct my failures just as I enjoy my successes. And I will do so honestly—with the wisdom (the realization of authentic experience) that comes from the trothof who I have decided to be. I am my own redeemer. Iwill act in accordance with my word and it is from this that I shall be known. It is with this that I shall transcend my own limitations and restore the world.
“Without noble purpose we are nothing.” – Frank Herbert
Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system. But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched. Therefore, writing is subversive. Writing is Occupy Consciousness. Writing is black magic. It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap. And we can go there together.
When I was in graduate school (for 12 years altogether–what was I thinking?), I had a rigid uncompromising attitude toward my own deadlines. I had to meet them, even if it meant allowing the rest of my life to collapse.
Not surprisingly, putting myself in this do-or-die frame of mind often resulted in exactly that: my physical and emotional health would suffer. I would have fulfilled my responsibilities and I was often extremely successful in those narrowly defined areas, but I would feel cheated because everything else would be wrecked. I’d have to begin rebuilding my life after every major work project. It was exhausting.
Now, I’ve learned to make time. I have more deadlines than ever, but I take an attitude of mastery instead of servitude by saying, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.” I’ve found that this nearly always makes me more efficient. By giving myself permission to remain whole–a whole person–I am no longer a slave to some external timetable.
On those rare occasions when my work is late or when unforeseen complications lead to a less-than-desired outcome, I’ve learned to say, “So be it; I’m human; I’ll fix it now and do better next time.” Sometimes, this means comping work, spending extra time to make things right, or taking some other loss. But we might just call that the price of sustained excellence. It’s easy to operate at the top of one’s ability every now and then. It takes moderation and self-control to stay in that state of optimal performance long term. It takes a sense of balance and the maturity to recognize the value of personal wellness.
This was a hard lesson to learn, since I am “up in my head” most of the time, planning and scheming. I also have an over-inflated sense of responsibility linked to the need for me to see myself as a high-functioning player in every situation. I grew a lot when I admitted to myself that I had these Type-A traits.
Now I breathe, relax, and make my demons work for me instead of being tortured by them. I think, when we accept the need for balance, we’re accepting life instead of the deadening supposition that our worth is defined only by what we produce in certain narrow categories.
Recently, someone wrote to me wanting to know how I could support myself doing what I do. It was a legitimate and sincere question that nevertheless had undertones of skepticism. The writing life? Really? Just admit you’re flipping burgers in the back of some cantina, why don’t you. And my answer was that I really am doing this the way I say I am. It’s not impossible—hard sometimes, but never impossible. The bottom line is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in life.
So why the incredulity? Why the outrage? I think it stems from the ingrained assumption that leading a responsible, hard-working life is at odds with fun and satisfaction. When I worked in law, my supervising attorney used to say, “Sleep is for the weak” and “If you’re smiling, you’re not working hard enough.” I hated that and I suspect that such traditional attitudes about work and life begin with western religious assumptions about what we’re here to do and where we’re headed—assumptions many of us would rather do without. It’s also hard not to see a telling interface between this aspect of conformist culture and consumerism.
Then again, I firmly believe that once we start making small decisions about what we want, once we start saying no to the bullying mechanisms of conformist culture (see Office Space for a great hilarious treatment of this), the way we see the world begins to change. Things we thought were dull and boring begin to reveal hidden dimensions. Fears evaporate. It’s like learning to swim: at first, we sank like stones but then we learned to see the water differently and we were able to do something amazing: float weightlessly. Sure, I love college teaching, but I love it primarily as something fascinating in itself, not as a support system or security blanket. I don’t have any fear of the non-academic life. I’m still a writer no matter where I am.
Moreover, I find it interesting that we are encouraged to assume that there is a fundamental disconnection between the mundane and the extraordinary in our everyday lives. Why is this? And why do we support belief systems dedicated to showing us how monotonous and empty our lives can be?
As someone who has spent a good amount of time in academia as well as making a living doing somewhat unconventional self-directed things—freelance writing, teaching fiction writing online, editing, even surviving for a while in college as a professional tarot card reader—I’ve come to recognize the inherent strangeness and fluidity of so-called normal life.
As the linguist, Patrick Dunn, has written, we might legitimately see the world “not as a constant interaction of immutable laws—although often and in may ways it is—but as an ever-changing interaction of arbitrary and constantly shifting symbols.” Realizing that we have a considerable degree of semantic control over our lived experience should make us pause and ask why we are living the life we’re living. Shouldn’t it?
Thinking about this has opened a lot of doors for me, doors of perception, doors of experience. When I ask what is the meaning of life? I only hear the echo of my own voice. And I used to think that this meant life was essentially meaningless. But I don’t think that anymore. Now I suspect that looking outside myself for an answer is tantamount to expecting a fixed meaning from some immutable hierarchy of values. All cosmological assumptions serve power in some way and very few of them are in place to empower or enlighten the individual.
Now I tend to agree with Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” The echo that comes back is the answer: the meaning of life is in the act of interpreting it. And so I think again about everyday life, about the experience of being alive in a dance of symbols and interlocking value systems. It’s incredibly strange to see life this way—to drop the ancient fictions associated with fixed categorical thinking and instead see experience as a matter of Will to Meaning, of interpretation.
After I sent a response along these lines to the person who asked me whether I was really, truly, honestly living the writing life, she followed up with: “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re not famous yet?”
All the dogs in my neighborhood know me as that guy with the cookies in his pocket. When the balance of my life is behind me, what will I care about: that my name wasn’t a household word or that I was able to say, life means THIS!