Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke.

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press, March 6, 2012) 


Portrait: CCCB

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The simplest theory of human nature is that we work as hard as we can to avoid such experiences. We pursue pleasure and comfort; we hope to make it through life unscathed. Suffering and pain are, by their very nature, to be avoided. The tidying guru Marie Kondo became famous by telling people to throw away possessions that don’t “spark joy,” and many would see such purging as excellent life advice in general.

But this theory is incomplete. Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for.

Think about your own favorite type of negative experience. Maybe you go to movies that make you cry or scream or gag. Or you might listen to sad songs. You might poke at sores, eat spicy foods, immerse yourself in painfully hot baths. Or climb mountains, run marathons, get punched in the face in a gym or dojo. Psychologists have long known that unpleasant dreams are more frequent than pleasant ones, but even when we daydream—when we have control over where to focus our thoughts—we often turn toward the negative.

Some of this is compatible with a sophisticated version of hedonism, one that appreciates that pain is one route to pleasure. The right kind of negative experience can set the stage for greater pleasure later on; it’s a cost we pay for a greater future reward. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or serve as a cry for help. Emotions such as anger and sadness can provide certain moral satisfactions. And effort and struggle and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.

But many of the negative experiences we pursue don’t provide pleasure at all. Consider now a different kind of chosen suffering. People, typically young men, sometimes choose to go to war, and while they don’t wish to be maimed or killed, they are hoping to experience challenge, fear and struggle—to be baptized by fire, to use the clichéd phrase. Some of us choose to have children, and usually we have some sense of how hard it will be. Maybe we even know of all the research showing that, moment by moment, the years with young children can be more stressful than any other time of life. (And those who don’t know this ahead of time will quickly find out.) And yet we rarely regret such choices. More generally, the projects that are most central to our lives involve suffering and sacrifice…

But chosen suffering is a different story. A life well lived is more than a life of pleasure and happiness. It involves, among other things, meaningful pursuits. And some forms of suffering, involving struggle and difficulty, are essential parts of achieving these higher goals, and for living a complete and fulfilling life.

Some people report more meaning in their lives than others. In a landmark 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister and colleagues asked hundreds of subjects how happy they were and how meaningful their lives were, and then asked other questions about their moods and activities. It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning—both are correlated with rich social connections and not being bored. They are also correlated with each other: People who report high levels of happiness tend to say the same about finding meaning in their lives, and vice versa. You can have both.

The more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are.

But there are also differences. Health, feeling good and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. Moreover, the more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. The same goes for stress and worry—more meaning and less happiness.

All of this suggests that meaning and struggle are intertwined. In another study, done by the software company Payscale, more than 2 million people were asked what they did for a living and how much meaning they have in their lives. It turns out the most meaningful job is being a member of the clergy. Others at the top of the list include teachers, therapists, physicians and social workers. All of these jobs involve considerable difficulty and a lot of personal engagement.

What about day-to-day experiences? In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2019, Sean C. Murphy and Brock Bastian asked people to think back on their most significant experiences, to describe each one in a paragraph and to rank them for how meaningful they were. Participants were also asked to indicate the extent to which the experiences were pleasurable or painful. It turned out that the most meaningful events tended to be on the extremes—those that were very pleasant or very painful. These are the ones that matter, that leave a mark…

Few of us voluntarily surrender our appendages in the pursuit of a good life, but we often do seek out more minor negative experiences, in part for their transformative effect but also because we might simply want to possess these experiences later. We want to store them in memory and consume them in the future. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.” They are part of what we see as a meaningful life…

Perhaps the self-conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think a lot about how happy you are, and this gets in the way of being happy, in the same way that worrying about how good you are at kissing probably gets in the way of being good at kissing.

But another explanation is that the happiness-pursuers often focus on the wrong things. A meta-analysis by Helga Dittmar and her colleagues, published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, summed up more than 200 studies and found that “respondents report less happiness and life satisfaction, lower levels of vitality and self-actualization, and more depression, anxiety, and general psychopathology to the extent that they believe that the acquisition of money and possessions is important and key to happiness and success in life.”

Consider the work of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. In his early years practicing in Vienna, in the 1930s, Frankl studied depression and suicide. During that period the Nazis rose to power, and they took over Austria in 1938. Not willing to abandon his patients or his elderly parents, Frankl chose to stay, and he was one of the millions of Jews who ended up in a concentration camp—first at Auschwitz, then Dachau. Ever the scholar, Frankl studied his fellow prisoners, wondering about what distinguishes those who maintain a positive attitude from those who cannot bear it, losing all motivation and often killing themselves.

He concluded that the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival were those whose lives had broader purpose, who had some goal or project or relationship, some reason to live. As he later wrote (paraphrasing Nietzsche), “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure. We know from the work of Baumeister and others that a meaningful life can also be a happy one. There are plenty of people who have lives of both great joy and great struggle.

Human motivation is a lot richer than many people, including many psychologists, believe. The point was nicely made by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.” He described a society of stability, control and drug-induced happiness—a society that sacrificed everything else for the goal of maximizing pleasure. Near the end of the book, there is a conversation between Mustapha Mond, the representative of the establishment, and John, who has rebelled against the system. Mond argues heatedly for the value of pleasure. He goes on about the neurological interventions being developed to maximize human pleasure, how convenient and easy it all is, and he concludes by saying, “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

And John responds, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” There is no better summary of human nature.

[Read more…]

Walking. Beneath the Plimsoll line of conscious control.

4:26 a.m.

Dark Sky app: 48º F. Feels like 42º F, with wind gusts up to 27 mph. Cloud cover 95%. Light rain forecast in one hour… and, then, 100% cloud cover.

I slide on hoodie, with down jacket on top. Tuk over the ears. And out the door.

I ease into the front seat. Lower back, to hamstring, to thigh to left knee, sizzles. With both hands on the steering wheel, I close eyes, clench teeth, inhale, and wait for lightning to pass. I shift in seat, right, then left, then up straight, trying to locate the pain-free zone. Can’t shake it. I fire up the ignition, and drive.

With a sliver of time, a narrow window for light, I need to hustle. I slide out of the front seat, gingerly place right foot, and then left foot on the ground. I stand for a moment and wait for pain to subside. A few deep breaths, and sizzle settles to simmer, and its go-time.

390 consecutive days, like in a row. My morning walk at Cove Island Park. Backpack. Camera. And I’m off.

I walk. [Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

—  Mary Oliver, from “Consequences”, Dream Work


Notes:

  • Quote Source: WeltenWellen.
  • Photo: DK, Daybreak. 6:36 am Jan 29, 2021. 13° F, feels like minus 4° F, wind gusts up to 38 mph. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.

Sunday Morning

The day after the waxwings appeared at my birdbath, I found one of them, its flock long gone, panting on the driveway below a corner of the house where two windows meet and form a mirage of trees and distances. When I stooped to look at the bird, it lay there quietly. Though I could see no sign of injury, I knew it must be grievously hurt to sit so still as I gently cupped my hands around it to move it to a safer place in the yard. It made a listless effort to peck at my thumb, but it didn’t struggle at all when my fingers closed around its wings, and I didn’t know what to do. So much beauty is not meant to be held in human hands.

~ Margaret Renkl, from “Masked” in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss 


Photo: Livescience.com

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Softest of mornings, hello.
And what will you do today, I wonder,
to my heart?

– Mary Oliver, from “Softest of Mornings” from Long Life:  Essays and Other Writings


Notes: Poem (via litverve). Photo by nilay eren with (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Don’t turn your head.

Keep looking at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.

And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.

– Rumi, in It’s Not All in Your Head by Tony Giordano

 


Notes:

  • Photo via Mennyfox55. Quote: Thank you Beth @ Alive on All Channels
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

we bought den lille shoes

“Why didn’t you adopt a child?”

“We pursued it, certainly. And twice came close—people gave us baby clothes, the bed with sides, we bought den lille shoes. But both times fell to pieces. A mother can change her mind, you see? But to come so near—and then not. The disappointment is extravagant.” This he stated in a flattened voice like a wall built hastily to conceal ruins.

~ Leif Enger, Virgil Wander (Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2, 2018)

 


Notes:

What are you going through?

All around me were strangers. I knew no one. And as far as I knew, no one had any idea what I was dealing with….As I turned away and stared at the Pacific Ocean through the little window from my seat on the plane, I was left with a bunch of grief and two big questions. What burdens are all the people on this plane carrying? And how would I treat them differently if I knew?

~ Carl Richards, from “Ask Yourself This: What Burdens Is That Other Person Carrying?”

 


Post title and post Inspired by: “I remember reading some works of Simone Veil, a French woman who lived in France during the war and she said there’s only one question worth asking anybody and that question is, “What are you going through?” ~Leonard Cohen, From Leonard Cohen interview With Stina Dabrowski (Thank you Make Believe Boutique)

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Poetry isn’t a cure, and it isn’t a miracle. It won’t jump your car’s dead battery or fix your leaky roof. It won’t feed your baby or save your dying grandmother. But there are words, phrases, whole poems that—in the grimmest, loneliest, most shattered moments of my life—have offered me a lozenge of light.

Anndee Hochman, in “The Poem Chooses You” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine


Notes:

  • Photo: Sean Mundy via A Quiet Life Quote: via Lines We Live By
  • Prior “Lightly child, lightly” Posts? Connect here.
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

 

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