“Saying no to the inevitable is one of the few precious ways our own species redeems itself from oblivion—or at least tries to. For mortal creatures, on a slow-dying planet, in this ocean of space, there’s really no other option.”
Archive for the Words to live by Category
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”
You can also read the essay here.
“[P]robably each generation has different things that force the generation to grow up. Maybe for our grandparents it was World War Two. You know? For us, it’s going to be that, at a certain point, we’re either going to have to put away childish things and discipline ourself about, ‘How much time do I spend being passively entertained, and how much time to I spend doing stuff that isn’t all that much fun minute by minute, but that builds certain muscles in me as a grown-up and a human being?’”
David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
It’s something that was driven home by a line I came across in the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences, which notes that in 70 years of life we can take in about 185 billion bits of information. That information, in turn, makes up our consciousness.
“It is out of this total that everything in our life must come–every thought, memory, feeling, or action,“ writes, Mihaly Csikszentmihahyi, “It seems like a huge amount, but in reality it does not go that far….an individual can experience only so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; It is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of our life.”
For the last few years, I have been allowing a torrent of information into my mind, mostly via the Internet. Much of it good, and much of it important. But at some point you have to choose. I’m nearing 40 and according to Csikszentmihahyi, I have less than 90 billion bits left, and I have wasted too many already.
The internet is a powerful tool, but sometimes I feel like it is hungry for my mind, and up till now, I have been giving it too much, doing too many things online that up add up to nothing. As a result, I’ve had this gnawing unease, like I was sliding down some scree slope of trivia, like my mind was a balloon with a million tiny holes. Until reading that passage, I didn’t know exactly why.
So in a small but significant gesture–a finger in the dike–I’ll be spending each Monday this year offline. There is plenty of other work to be done (that used to be all we did!) and if there is anything urgent, there is a jurassic piece of technology on my desk called the telephone.
As far as I can see, this may be the only way to wrest back some control over the content and the quality of my life, and over my mind. This year, I want to remember how to lose myself in things again. I want to regain the focus that has carried me so far. And I don’t want to waste time on distractions, because I have too many things that I haven’t done yet.
So with that, I wish you all the best in the new year.
See you on Tuesdays.
“I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent. . . .Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.”
I answered our door around noon and found a pretty young woman and a portly, middle-aged man standing there.
“Can I read you a few passages from the Bible?” she asked.
I used to sell door to door myself, so I’m a sucker for the rap. “Sure,” I said.
“Know this,” she read, “that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here, for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful….” The list went on. When she finished, she turned to me. “Does that sound like the times we’re living in?”
I looked at my disobedient, unthankful three-year-old standing behind me. “Sort of,” I said.
She handed me a brochure and urged me to be vigilant. The end times, after all, were nigh.
All this reminded me of a spat I had recently with some commenters on World Hum, who accused me of “sheer arrogance” and suggested I was a poorly read, hopelessly naive “modern day Candide.” The argument was about whether globalization is a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing. But underneath that disagreement ran a darker existential angst, of the kind that has dogged humans for eons. People have been predicting the end of the world since the world began and liberals are no different in this regard than conservatives. Tom Junod pointed out in his brilliant review of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us in Esquire. Either way, our sins are the root of the evil, and the cause for society’s inexorable demise. Belief in humanity’s decline is not the sole province of those awaiting the rapture.
It was a similar strain of thinking that I ran into in trying to argue against mistaking “change” for “end” as so many people do. Every generation thinks they are witnessing the end of their civilization. And in a way they are, since every generation reinvents its culture the same way they reinvent its language.
Yet with so many quality of life indicators improving these days, it seems sad to me that so many people think they are declining. In the 1990′s, the murder rate went down 20%, but 2/3 of people thought the number of murders was “soaring,” according Barry Glassner in his book, The Culture of Fear. Since that book came out 10 years ago, the news cycle has only gotten more relentless, and the fear deeper, and a new edition looks set to come out next year.
Is life getting worse by the day? A few years ago, I walked through a 200-year-old graveyard in Boston, I was shocked at the ages when people died. There were children. There were people in their 20s and 30s. And there were just a few who’d made it into their 70s or 80s. Today we all expect to make it there. Is our era more violent than ever? No. A recent article by Steven Pinker points out that we live in a much less violent era than humans have ever lived in. Are our kids in more danger than ever? No. Lenore Skenazy points this out on her blog and in a in her new book, Free Range Kids, which argues that the dangers facing kids are the same, or less, than they’ve ever been.
The main question this raised for me is why we have such a hard time enjoying our successes, and why imaginary dangers and potential failures cloud our days. After all, we have lengthened our lives. But if we just use all our extra time to worry about how terrible the world is, what kind of trade off is that? As Horace said, “Remember you must die whether you sit about moping all day long or whether on feast days you stretch out in a green field, happy with a bottle of Falernian [wine] from your innermost cellar.”
Or, as Art Buchwald put it, “Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, it is the only time we have. “
“Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?” Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.”
Not long ago, a study came out showing what wise men (like Thoreau, below) have been saying for some time: Experiences are a better use of your money than things. A survey of 154 people found that the benefit from spending money on an experience lasted longer than a thing, which faded after 6-8 weeks. “As nice as your new computer is,” the story quoted study author Ryan Howell as saying, “it’s not going to make you feel alive.”
Other studies have shown similar results, and it’s something those of us who have been lucky enough to live and travel abroad hear often: “Man, I wish I would have done that.” Not that it makes life a big bowl of cherries, but when you’re looking back, the things you did will surely bring you more pleasure than the things you had. Mark Twain may have said it best: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”