Posts Tagged ‘Purpose’
There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.
Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?
— From the movie The Bucket List
I was wrong.
One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.
I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I’d used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I’d gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.
My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.
My goal would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years
But for some reason, The Verge wanted to pay me to leave the internet. I could stay in New York and share my findings with the world, beam missives about my internet-free life to the citizens of the internet I’d left behind, sprinkle wisdom on them from my high tower.
My goal, as a technology writer, would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.
A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”
This was going to be amazing.
I dreamed a dream
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back.
I was a little bored, a little lonely, but I found it a wonderful change of pace. I wrote in August, “It’s the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others.” I was pretty sure I had it all figured out, and told everyone as much.
As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
I learned to appreciate an idea that can’t be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.
Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn’t have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life. My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I’m half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I’m less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
Additionally, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I cried during Les Miserables.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
Back to reality
When I left the internet I expected my journal entries to be something like, “I used a paper map today and it was hilarious!” or “Paper books? What are these!?” or “Does anyone have an offline copy of Wikipedia I can borrow?” That didn’t happen.
For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don’t comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.
In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don’t need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.
But one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It’s something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.
In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: “Thank you for leaving the internet.” Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.
But then I felt bad, because I never wrote back.
And then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
People who need people
So the moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren’t hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a “Facebook friend,” but I can tell you that a “Facebook friend” is better than nothing.
My best long-distance friend, one I’d talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven’t spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.
I fell out of sync with the flow of life.
there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality
This March I went to, ironically, a conference in New York called “Theorizing the Web.” It was full of post-grad types presenting complicated papers about the definition of reality and what feminism looks like in a post-digital age, and things like that. At first I was a little smug, because I felt like they were dealing with mere theories, theories that assumed the internet was in everything, while I myself was experiencing a life apart.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
A couple weeks ago I was in Colorado to see my brother before he deployed to Qatar with the Air Force. He has a new baby, a five-month-old chubster named Kacia, who I’d only seen in photos mercifully snail mailed by my sister-in-law.
I got to spend one day with my brother, and the next morning I went with him to the airport. I watched dumbfounded as he kissed his wife and kids goodbye. It didn’t seem fair that he should have to go. He’s a hero to these kids, and I hated for them to lose him for six months.
My coworkers Jordan and Stephen met me in Colorado to embark on a road trip back to New York. The idea was to wrap up my year with a little documentary, and spend the hours in the car coming to terms with what had just happened and what might come next.
I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline
Before we left, I spent a little more time with the kids, doing my best to be a help to my sister-in-law, doing my best to be a super uncle. And then we had to go.
On the road, Jordan and Stephen asked me questions about myself. “Do you think you’re too hard on yourself?” Yes. “Was this year successful?” No. “What do you want to do when you get back on the internet?” I want to do things for other people.
We stopped in Huntington, West Virginia to meet a hero of mine, Polygon‘s Justin McElroy. I met with Nathan Jurgenson in Washington DC. I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline. I asked for tips.
What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible, and who can fix it.
Late Tuesday night, the last night of the trip, we stopped across the river from NY to get “the shot” from New Jersey of the Manhattan skyline. It was a cold, clear night, and I leaned against the rickety riverside railing and tried to strike a casual pose for the camera. I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.
In two weeks I’d be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.
12:00AM, May 1st, 2013
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other
My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I’ll be connected.
~ Paul Miller
It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.
~ Viktor Frankl
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with doing activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
~ Emily Esfahani Smith
I keep a journal that is actually a three ring binder. It allows me to add and remove and organize lots of materials. In the front section of the binder, I keep things I need to keep returning to, things I’ve written, or things I’ve copied, which remind me of the person I am seeking to become. In that section I keep a quote from Evelyn Underhill:
“Our place is not the auditorium but the stage — or, as the case may be, the field, workshop, study, laboratory — because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God, or at least are meant to form part of the creative apparatus of God. He made us in order to use us, and use us in the most profitable way; for his purpose, not ours. To live a spiritual life means subordinating all other interests to that single fact.”
This liberty — this rigorous, demanding vocation — to form part of the creative apparatus of God, is exhaustingly joyous. We all have some beautiful art to make, perform, or sing: words to write, pictures to paint, families to nurture, gardens to grow, lessons to teach, goods to tender, worship to give.
To construe one’s life within such a purview provides all sorts of freedom and artistry and innovation that, in turn, yield serendipitous delights. I suppose “serendipitous delights” is redundant, but I do not know how to avoid such redundancy when employing mere words to get at the sort of delight one might encounter when in the midst of such a vocation.
It is the sort of freedom and joy that the famed runner Eric Liddel, was trying to get at when his character in “Chariots of Fire” says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Or the well-spoken commentary of Frederick Beuchner upon vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
It is the sort of gladness I have gotten to taste in working with the Tokens Show. After one of our shows that we did on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, our friend and supporter Rob Woodfin approached me afterwards and said, “You get to paint on the largest canvas.” It was a beautiful metaphor which I thought altogether apt: we have taken an old-time radio format, obviously indebted to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, mixed it with what I like to call a hospitable theology, and then upon such a variety-show-canvas paint fascinating pictures employing the skills of some of the most talented people in the world.
And the results have inevitably been serendipitous — and beautiful.
Our most recent foray at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville was just such a delight. Ah, to see Jeff Taylor continue to work his magic: if you have never heard Jeff play, you have not yet tasted the fullness of musical delights that Music City offers, a maestro at the piano and accordion, a composition genius who can mix bluegrass with classical music performed that night with four of the best string players in Nashville, and on top of all that he plays penny-whistles and squeeze boxes and mandolin and old pump organs, always pulling some new trick out of his bag of musical tricks. His weaving and creating with The Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys — themselves constituting a wealth of talent and volumes of credits there is not here room to tell — remains a thing of beauty to me.
If I remember correctly, Jeff told me years ago that he had tried to quit music twice, sold his instruments and all, until finally he accepted it was his vocation. And all who watch can see the joy of God in Jeff at his work-bench, and it is a magnificent thing to behold.
Or to listen to Vince Gill that night: by all accounts a “super-star” in the music world, whatever that might mean to you, and yet a human being who carries about with him a humility grounded in a gratitude that is beyond reproach. It is such gratitude and humility, I think, that allows him to carry about a bag of words and lyrics and tunes that bespeak the wonder and tragedy of life, the sacramental nature of life, even, like the song he shared about his brother who sought refuge at the mission, needing a place to lay his old drunk head down, being offered bread and water, bread and water, that which sustains life and saves the soul.
Were I to give a play-by-play of all the delights of that night, I would far exceed appropriate blogging column length: but I could not but tell of the joy of Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano of JohnnySwim, singing of Home, daring even to evoke the spirits of Johnny and June on the stage of the Mother Church of Country Music — such daring, I would venture, that Johnny and June would have altogether enjoyed; the harmonies of the McCrary Sisters, calling us to go down to the River of Jordan and sit at the welcome table, as The Movement had done on that hill in Nashville some half-century ago; the “high lonesome sound” of the bluegrass strains of Dailey & Vincent whose harmonies brought the crowd to their feet; Buddy Greene leading all of us in that most wonderful old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”; Brian McLaren telling us of his post 9/11 exploits to bear witness to a non-violent Jesus; Brother Preacher preaching at the Ryman; the wondrous strains of the Nashville Choir; and Blake Farmer, Merri Collins, and Charlie Strobel all taking their very funny turns at the center microphones.
What joy to form part of the creative apparatus of God.
Exhaustingly joyous, I say.
~ Lee Camp
FOR three years after the death of her adored eldest sister, Anne-Marie, Nina Sankovitch mourned by staying relentlessly busy. She felt a guilt-strafed survivor’s obligation to live life enough for two.
The mother of four sons, she signed up for PTA committees, coached soccer and a Lego robotics team, taught art appreciation classes to elementary school students, took Pilates classes and parenting classes, joined a book group and a tennis group, began kayaking, started a theater group for children in her basement and a Web site for trading books, gardened ferociously and wrote a novel (unpublished).
But in her increasingly frantic efforts to taste joy for herself and her sister, she tasted only ashes. She would still wake in the night, sobbing.
Finally, she jettisoned almost all her commitments in favor of the one pursuit that had always given her special pleasure. She committed herself to reading a book a day for an entire year.
“After years of chasing after joy, I finally sat down and let it come to me,” Ms. Sankovitch, 48, a tall, tennis-vibrant woman, said over coffee at her kitchen table in Westport, Conn. A photo triptych of Anne-Marie in thick reading glasses, posing in merry solidarity with Ms. Sankovitch’s son Peter, wearing his first pair, gleams from a rosewood frame nearby.
On Oct. 28, 2008, her 46th birthday, Ms. Sankovitch began the project, dedicating it to Anne-Marie, who died four months after receiving a diagnosis of bile-duct cancer, a week shy of turning 47. That last day, driving home from an encouraging visit with her sister in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch got the phone call, pulled her car to the side of the road and screamed.
In the resulting memoir, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” (Harper Collins), whose title alludes to her reading armchair of cat-clawed, faded purple brocade, Ms. Sankovitch writes about that redemptive year of contemplation. The book is also an account of her family traumas: not only the death of Anne-Marie but also the World War II murders of three of her father’s siblings. It is a meditation on grief and healing, on values held sacred by her family and the life well lived. It is, of course, a paean to reading.
“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure,” said Ms. Sankovitch, an accomplished environmental lawyer who gradually gave up practicing after she had children. Now she was seeking answers about “how to live with sorrow and how to find my place in the world.”
While the mechanics of the project could occasionally be daunting, Ms. Sankovitch found the solace she yearned for. Books like “The Laws of Evening,” the short story collection by Mary Yukari Waters, taught her about addressing loss. “The characters were past the denial stage, past anger,” she said. “They were figuring out how to go on living with loss. Everyone’s solution was different, but many used memory to cope, as proof that good things will come again.”
Diana Athill reinforced that lesson. “Somewhere Towards the End” is a memoir she published at 91. “Every day is still a new day for her,” Ms. Sankovitch said.
Sitting in Ms. Sankovitch’s sunny kitchen, as her sons, ages 10 through 17, tromp in and out of the house, and talking books with her can be just plain fun. As she trades ideas about characters, her blue eyes sparkle. She opens a worn notepad to jot down unfamiliar titles.
“I do read a Kindle on the exercise bike, but I love a real book, especially from the library or a used one,” she said. “I like knowing that other people have held it. I like reading what others have scribbled in the margins. I’ve even seen people make little grammar-correcting marks.”
Seeking safe haven in reading was natural for a woman who grew up in a family of book worshippers. Her middle sister, Natasha, had been a comparative literature professor (later a lawyer); her Belgian mother, Tilde, taught French literature at Northwestern. The year her Belarusian father, Anatole, now a retired surgeon, spent in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, he and another patient read novels aloud to each other. The books Ms. Sankovitch read to her young sons, all passionate readers, include volumes of poetry she had written for them.
Reading was a means of communication for her close-knit family, with its European formality. “My parents are private people,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “Americans are raised to ask personal questions. But I feel that if something isn’t my business, I won’t pry. Books are a shield and a way to get closer to those questions, so you can talk about taboo subjects. You can have those intimate conversations without prying.”
Anne-Marie was an art historian who loved the written word, and the sisters, unlike in many ways, often found common ground through books. “She was smarter than me and more beautiful,” Ms. Sankovitch said sadly, recalling her sister. “But I was more fearless and socially adept. She didn’t suffer fools. I’d been at dinner parties where she would up and leave if she was bored. But she was a saint to me.”
In “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,” she describes how she and other family members would bring books to Anne-Marie’s sickbed. The visits often included book chats. After her death, the family dedicated a bench in her memory in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where passers-by can sit, contemplate the surrounding blooming beauty and read.
During her reading year, Ms. Sankovitch received recommendations for books from readers of a blog she had started (readallday.org), where she posted short reviews of each book. She also drew inspiration from the deep, eclectic collection in the Westport Public Library.
“My year would have been different with a different library, in a different town,” she said. She discovered new stacks, exploring genres outside her comfort zone of novels: essays, plays, science fiction, travel.
Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she’d try to finish each book in about four hours. She still did the laundry and carpooling, reading while the boys were in school, percolating at night, posting in the morning.
She described her reviews as “a public diary.”
“They’re not intellectual dismemberment,” she continued, “but more of my emotional response to the book.”
About “Little Bee,” the devastating novel by Chris Cleave, she wrote: “We connect to those we can see and touch; we protect the ones we can. But even then, a sister can die, and you won’t even know it until you get the phone call driving home over the Henry Hudson Bridge after what you thought was a very good day.”
The quixotic intensity of the project did not surprise those who know Ms. Sankovitch: she seems hard-wired for the full-bore experience. When tennis elbow threatened to forfeit her daily match with her husband, Jack Menz, a Manhattan lawyer (their home sits on two acres, including a clay court), she switched to her left hand, playing poorly but gamely. As a young associate at a Manhattan firm, a position demanding 16-hour days, she was focused and efficient, largely because other priorities called, including books. She would skip lunch and close her door to read for pleasure.
Once, while biking, recalled Stephanie Young, a friend from Harvard Law School, Ms. Sankovitch mentioned that her father advised “everything in moderation.”
At that, Ms. Young laughed. “Nina doesn’t do anything in moderation,” she said. “While she was telling us this, she was eating her sixth FrozFruit bar.”
As Ms. Sankovitch began to emerge from grief during her year of reading, her husband said the impact on the entire family was salutary.
“Nina had such a serenity,” Mr. Menz said. “And part of it was that the pace of her life was just slower than everyone else’s. We had fun dinners, because you’d not only hear about what our guys did during the day, but Nina would talk about the new characters she had just read. I’d watch Giants games with our son Michael, and she’d be there, but reading. We just gave her that space.”
Now, Ms. Sankovitch’s own readers have written her, saying that her memoir has become their handbook about how to read through grief.
“I am so happy that what I found in books, someone else might have found in mine,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “It’s all back to Anne-Marie, what a tribute to her.” She is thinking of writing a new book, based on letters from the late 19th century that she found in the family’s former Upper West Side brownstone.
And she is still reading. Last November, she proposed that she and her husband tackle “War and Peace” together. He somehow set it aside.
Naturally, Ms. Sankovitch finished. But not until January.
Some books are just not meant to be read in a day.
Lots of people have hobbies. Some people collect old coins or foreign stamps, some do needlework, others spend most of their spare time on a particular sport.
A lot of people enjoy reading. But reading tastes differ widely. Some people only read newspapers or comics, some like reading novels, while others prefer books on astronomy, wildlife, or technological discoveries. If I happen to be interested in horses or precious stones, I cannot expect everyone else to share my enthusiasm.
If I watch all the sports programs on TV with great pleasure, I must put up with the fact that other people find sports boring. Is there nothing that interests us all? Is there nothing that concerns everyone—no matter who they are or where they live in the world? Yes… there are questions that certainly should interest everyone. They are precisely the questions this course is about.
What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.
But when these basic needs have been satisfied—will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else—apart from that—which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.
Being interested in why we are here is not a “casual” interest like collecting stamps. People who ask such questions are taking part in a debate that has gone on as long as man has lived on this planet. How the universe, the earth, and life came into being is a bigger and more important question than who won the most gold medals in the last Olympics.
The best way of approaching philosophy is to ask a few philosophical questions: How was the world created? Is there any will or meaning behind what happens? Is there a life after death? How can we answer these questions? And most important, how ought we to live? People have been asking these questions throughout the ages. We know of no culture which has not concerned itself with what man is and where the world came from.
Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.
Today as well each individual has to discover his own answer to these same questions. You cannot find out whether there is a God or whether there is life after death by looking in an encyclopedia. Nor does the encyclopedia tell us how we ought to live. However, reading what other people have believed can help us formulate our own view of life.
Philosophers’ search for the truth resembles a detective story. Some think Andersen was the murderer, others think it was Nielsen or Jensen. The police are sometimes able to solve a real crime. But it is equally possible that they never get to the bottom of it, although there is a solution somewhere. So even if it is difficult to answer a question, there may be one—and only one—right answer. Either there is a kind of existence after death—or there is not.
A lot of age-old enigmas have now been explained by science. What the dark side of the moon looks like was once shrouded in mystery. It was not the kind of thing that could be solved by discussion, it was left to the imagination of the individual. But today we know exactly what the dark side of the moon looks like, and no one can “believe” any longer in the Man in the Moon, or that the moon is made of green cheese.
A Greek philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago believed that philosophy had its origin in man’s sense of wonder. Man thought it was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions arose of their own accord.
It is like watching a magic trick. We cannot understand how it is done. So we ask: how can the magician change a couple of white silk scarves into a live rabbit?
A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.
In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.