All my anecdotes over twenty years of poor writing conclude with overwrought sentences of revelation and/or triumph. Scroll through the archives here and you can witness me try repeatedly to extract a profound conclusion or seismic change from stochastic tribulations. And so, I find my writing style to be annoyingly egocentric, and incompatible with a change in my philosophy, one that bends toward though hasn’t arrived at, nihilism.
Our human brains want, they thirst for, they need these confusing events of our lives to mean something. All of the restrictions, the death, the uncertainty, stress, loss, awfulness of the 2020 pandemic must mean something, right?
This human problem is not new. Here’s David Hume, summarizing Epicurus from, like, 2,300 years ago:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is
not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is
malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence
So let’s sidestep the Epicurean theology and try on a grossly simplified premise: bad things happen for no reason. It’s hard to accept, isn’t it? Part of you rejects it at face value. But you MUST grapple with it before you decide to take it as true or build up a giant, complicated worldview rejecting it.
What’s more, serious trouble arises when we try to make all the bad stuff mean something.
Step 1: something bad happened.
Step 2: let’s make it meaningful!
It can’t always be done.
Cognitive dissonance clouds our thought when we retell the story of ourselves to ourselves by basing it all on a manufactured, post hoc dramatic plot line. Things stop making sense when we constantly fight to force the main character (inevitably, ourselves) to emerge stronger from every vicissitude.
Bad things happen all the time. They happen to good people. They happen for no reason. Then, nobody learns anything or becomes any better whatsoever after they happen.
If I had any kind of advice to myself (is that even a thing?), I guess it would be this:
Imagine the arc of your life takes place on a small boat. Not like dinghy small, but also not a giant ship with its own center of gravity. A bit smaller than one of those fancy yachts where you can distract yourself from the fact you are on the open sea. On this boat, you always know and feel the swells of the ocean. The boat’s passengers are you and those you love. You can turn the screws, tack a bit in one direction, try to catch a current. Maybe you will. You know small changes now create big, unknowable changes later. You also know how small and vulnerable you are out on the open ocean.
You know you could exhaust a lifetime of energy planning and tacking toward a current you hoped to catch.
These days I’m having trouble thinking that tacking and planning are particularly important. My instinct says they are, but my logical brain says they aren’t. Sometimes one wins. Sometimes the other. The thing is, my loved ones are right there on the boat. I drag them with me when I chase currents. I suppose we all do.
So I feel something akin to acceptance of the vastness of the ocean rather than a resignation or succumbing to Fate.
All is big, we are small.
There are costs to trying to do things, and problems thinking we can do everything.
There are problems thinking we can do nothing.
We have been told for decades that the banks and the
people who work at Goldman Sachs and Fidelity and hedge
funds none of us have ever heard of are smarter than us,
that they deserve to be rich, that they should be the
ones who pull the levers on the economy, that they should
decide which companies are good and which are bad, that
they should be the ones who help make financial
regulations. All along the way they have gotten
fabulously wealthy and we have been stuck with stagnant
wages, record consumer debt, and financial advice that
tells us to wait until we are old to retire.
Once the Capitol was cleared, the solemn assurances that
“this is not who we are” began. The attempt at
self-soothing after such a traumatic event is
understandable, but it is delusional. Was Charlottesville
not who we are? Did more than seventy million people not
vote for the Inciter-in-Chief? Surely, these events are
part of who we are, part of the American picture. To
ignore those parts, those features of our national
landscape, is to fail to confront them.
One reason I love this power plant so much is because
there’s no reason it had to be built with all these
intricate details and grandiose architecture. It’s just a
power plant, after all; all it had to do was create
electricity. I think that demonstrates a fundamental
change of philosophy in the way we construct the world
To me, the world is feeling more and more disposable.
Everything is created as cheaply as possible, and it is
simply a means to an end. But, when Port Richmond station
was built, the builders thought they were constructing
something that would serve future generations for
centuries, and when we’re creating something permanent,
it’s only natural for us to want to inject art and
creativity and craftmanship into it. It’s part of what
makes us human — and that’s what lacking from so much of
what we build today.
There’s a time in your life when you’ll be striving, reaching, seeking. Every new subject, every new interest, every new person will crackle with the possibility of sparking and bringing alive a part of you that you didn’t know existed. It’s the kind of ride you’ll know you’re on when you’re on it. It needs no label. And what’s more: by definition, you’ll enjoy it. It feeds the ego. For most, it occurs in late teens, early twenties. For some, it’s delayed by loss but ignites later in life, when there is time and space. For still others, tragically, it never happens.
You’re going to go go go. You’re going to push push push. You’re going to do things, that, when you look back on them, seem superhuman.
Fire burns hot, but it consumes. You’ll burn days, nights, entire semesters, money, connections, friendships, loved ones, girlfriends, boyfriends, with fire. And you must, because you’re forging your tools, and you are casting the alloy of your Self.
You’ll be burning fuel — how much do you have? How much time, how many friends? Don’t throw everything in; this needn’t continue forever. Because after a fire, you build.
To grow a garden, to go out and pull the same weeds and add the same water each day, trading your time, your boundless possibility, for the kind of hope for gentle weather that a gardener must have — that’s building. To have a child, to change the same diapers and make the same food, trading your time, your boundless possibility for the kind of hope for a gentle universe that a parent must have — that’s building. The plant grows up, the roots grow down, and building requires a commitment to sameness that you must freely choose. Only if you wish.
Know when you’re burning, and know when you’re building.
“I must honestly confess that I go through those moments
of disappointment when I have to recognize the fact that
there aren’t enough white persons in our country who are
willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Anaheim, 1968
“We were partially liberated and then reënslaved.”
Although black people had been fighting for freedom “for
more than a hundred years,” the only thing that was
“explicitly certain is that the struggle for it will
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Carnegie Hall, 1968
“Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of
his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human
life and human beings which I have always been reluctant
to make,” [James Baldwin] wrote. “Incontestably, alas, most people are
not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human
being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them
as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself
against the disasters they’ve become.”
“Essie, I’m going out to vacuum the gutters, and I want you to have your jams on when I come in.”
And I have never sounded more… ADULT… in my life.
Honestly, if you had told me seven years ago I’d be talking about pajamas and gutter vacuuming, I’d have said — whose pajamas, and I don’t have any gutters NOR any interest in gutters. Life moves pretty fast.
The power that is American policing has conceded nothing.
Black men and women are still dying across the country as
police unions continue to codify policies designed solely
to shield their officers from accountability—such as
rules ensuring that officers who kill can’t even be
interviewed by investigators about it until their victims
have been dead for days.
In the days since one of their
own killed George Floyd, many American police officers
have shamelessly brutalized the protesters whose chief
demand is that the police stop brutalizing people.
A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how
merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable
cruelty people treat each other.
The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon
and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other
people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made
no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the
gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as
who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But
God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that
tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love
was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were
we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why?
Something very sinister happens to the people of a country
when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply
as they do here, and become as joyless as they have
become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of
white American men and women, this inability to renew
themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes
the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any
conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The
person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for
reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a
person interposes between himself and reality nothing less
than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes,
furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it
(is unaware of so much!), are historical and public
attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than
they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white
people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and
inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these
people is more real to them than their uniforms.
The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this
country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling
white men may be to hear it.