Learning Life

Life, I think, is a Sisyphean feat of learning. How ever much knowledge and self awareness is gained, the universes inside and outside your skin are infinitely larger and more nuanced than can be truly understood.

At times this is a great awe-inspiring comfort; the world is magnificent in its oldest senses. There is boundless, limitless wonder to behold and embrace.

At other times, and especially on gray January mornings, it casts a pall on the small life which has been accrued. Time is meted out in the dissatisfaction of Unfinished Things, never-ending lists and dwelling on the could-bes of tomorrow. While there may be a silver lining of Hope in there somewhere, the horizon is mostly big, dark cloud.

This morning has been one of the latter days.

Awake with a jolt at 4am, full of petulance at other people’s foibles and raw from the wear-and-tear of small stressors. A total waste. And now a backache to boot.

And so, a cup of tea and some ponderous, expansive reading are putting me to rights. I’ve mentioned the enlightening Brain Pickings before, but today two recent essays are the twin-stars which light my path:


The musings of Daniel Gilbert, on the ill-advised trade of pleasing your future self by denying your present self succor.

This is not a rebuttal against the famous and oft-repeated marshmallow test, where self-control and discipline reap future rewards (also known as Compound Interest for Toddlers).

Rather, he explores the idea of unknowable — if you are going to change between now and the future, and you undoubtedly are, can you really guarantee you’re making a world in which that stranger can be happier or more fulfilled?

The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor’s witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps… In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.

Taken from his book, Stumbling on Happiness, and here quoted from Brain Pickings, Gilbert looks at how we balance happiness and expectation. How we build for later, and how our current visions of the future may be hindering our future selves.

I like this idea. The hopefulness of embracing uncertainty, in admitting I can’t know best, and in saving a little sanity for the now-me in the process. Because the now-me is in a bit of a guddle already.


On the flipside, I revisited Parker Palmer’s meditation on embracing and seeking out our Inner Wholeness

Taken from an overview of a longer work on the subject, here Palmer looks at how our insides and outsides get divided in the routines of normal life. For protection or self-preservation, out of fear or denial, if our innermost self isn’t present (or welcome) in daily life, where does that leave us? Half-trapped and all akimbo.

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

And similarly, embracing the fallibility and mess of being yourself. No one is the persona projected by mommy bloggers and Gwenyth Paltrow. (Not even themselves.)

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

A hopeful thing, which I don’t do justice here in my rushed morning routine. Her perspective is refreshingly empty of self-help holisticness but true in that special way which respects the idea of a soul as something intrinsic and idealistic, essential to the human condition, without the mumbo jumbo of religious righteousness or judgement.


 Ann Lamott just puts it out there. On Smallness and People Pleasing

And when you’re two cups of tea and a morning of essays and blogging into your day and should have left for work ten minutes ago, a bonus kick-start. A writer writes of writing, and lucidly, but for me one line zings to the heart of today:

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?


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