Wednesday, 4 November 2009
stay in line. stay in step. people
are afraid of someone who is not
in step with them. it makes them
look foolish t' themselves for
being in step. it might even
cross their minds that they themselves
are in the wrong step. do not run
nor cross the red line. if you go
too far out in any direction, they
will lose sight of you. they'll feel
threatened. thinking that they are
not a part of something that they
saw go past them, they'll feel
something's going on up there that
they don't know about. revenge
will set in. they will start thinking
of how t' get rid of you. act
mannerly towards them. if you don't,
they will take it personal. as you
come directly in contact face t' face
do not make it a secret of how
much you need them. if they sense
that you have no need for them,
the first thing they will do is
try t' make you need them. if
this doesn't work, they will tell
you of how much they don't need
you. if you do not show any sadness
at a remark such as this, they
will immediately tell other people
of how much they don't need you.
your name will begin t' come up
in circles where people gather
to tell about all the people they
don't need. you will begin t' get
famous this way. this, though, will
only get the people who you don't need
in the first place
all the more madder.
you will become
a whole topic of conversation.
needless t' say, these people
who don't need you will start
hating themselves for needing t' talk
about you. then you yourself will
start hating yourself for causing so
much hate. as you can see, it will
all end in one great gunburst.
never trust a cop in a raincoat.
when asked t' define yourself exactly,
say you are an exact mathematician.
do not say or do anything that
he who standing in front of you
watching cannot understand, he will
feel you know something he
doesn't. he will react with blinding
speed and write your name down.
talk on his terms. if his terms
are old-fashioned an' you've
passed that stage all the more easier
t' get back there. say what he
can understand clearly. say it simple
t' keep your tongue out of your
cheek. after he hears you, he can
label you good or bad. anyone will
do. t' some people, there is only
good an' bad. in any case, it will
make him feel somewhat important.
it is better t' stay away from
these people. be careful of
enthusiasm...it is all temporary
an' don't let it sway you. when asked
if you go t' church, always answer
yes, never look at your shoes. when
asked you you think of gene autrey
singing of hard rains gonna fall say
that nobody can sing it as good as
peter, paul and mary. at the mention
of the president's name, eat a pint of
yogurt an' go t' sleep early...when
asked if you're a communist, sing
america the beautiful in an
italian accent. beat up nearest
street cleaner. if by any
chance you're caught naked in a
parked car, quick turn the radio on
full blast an' pretend
that you're driving. never leave
the house without a jar of peanut
butter. do not wear
matched socks. when asked to do 100
pushups always smoke a pound
of deodorant beforehand.
when asked if you're a capitalist, rip
open your shirt, sing buddy can
you spare a dime with your
right foot forward an' proceed t'
chew up a dollar bill.
do not sign any dotted line. do not
fall in trap of criticizing people
who do nothing else but criticize.
do Not create anything. it will be
misinterpreted. it will not change.
it will follow you the
rest of your life. when asked what you
do for a living say you laugh for
a living. be suspicious of people
who say that if you are not nice
t' them, they will commit suicide.
when asked if you care about
the world's problems, look deeply
into the eyes of he that asks
you, he will not ask you again. when
asked if you've spent time in jail,
announce proudly that some of your
best friends've asked you that.
beware of bathroom walls that've not
been written on. when told t' look at
yourself...never look. when asked
t' give your real name...never give it.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete ...
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Or if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...
If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."
· Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio