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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

26 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Art of Timing: Alan Watts on the Perils of Hurrying and the Pleasures of Presence

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“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing.”

Among the things that made British philosopher Alan Watts not only the pioneer of Zen teachings in the West but also an enduring sage of the ages was his ability to call out our culture’s chronic tendency to confuse things of substance with their simulacra. Watts had a singular way of dispersing our illusory convictions about such pairings, whether he addressed belief vs. faith or money vs. wealth or productivity vs. presence or ego vs. true self or stimulation vs. wisdom or profit vs. purpose.

In one particularly poignant passage in his altogether soul-expanding 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (public library), Watts considers another such infinitely important duality — the notions of hurrying and timing.

Echoing Seneca’s ideas about busyness and Bertrand Russell’s famous lament“What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — Watts considers how we cheat ourselves of the joys of the present moment by grasping after the potential rewards of the future:

Just exactly what is the “good” to which we aspire through doing and eating things that are supposed to be good for us? This question is strictly taboo, for if it were seriously investigated the whole economy and social order would fall apart and have to be reorganized. It would be like the donkey finding out that the carrot dangled before him, to make him run, is hitched by a stick to his own collar. For the good to which we aspire exists only and always in the future. Because we cannot relate to the sensuous and material present we are most happy when good things are expected to happen, not when they are happening. We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come. We are therefore a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment — a formidable swarm of spoiled children smashing their toys.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s thoughts on rhythm, Watts speaks to our one saving grace in countering the momentum of this headfirst rush toward disappointment:

There is indeed such a thing as “timing” — the art of mastering rhythm — but timing and hurrying are … mutually exclusive.

Much of our perilous hurrying, Watts argues, comes from the tyranny of the clock — a paradoxical pathology all the more anguishing given how relative and elastic time actually is. Watts writes:

Clock time is merely a method of measurement held in common by all civilized societies, and has the same kind of reality (or unreality) as the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. The equator is useless for stringing a rolled roast. To judge by the clock, the present moment is nothing but a hairline which, ideally, should have no width at all — except that it would then be invisible. If you are bewitched by the clock you will therefore have no present. “Now” will be no more than the geometrical point at which the future becomes the past. But if you sense and feel the world materially, you will discover that there never is, or was, or will be anything except the present.

Presence, of course, is essential to our ability to experience the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, something Watts captures unambiguously:

For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.

Does It Matter? is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on how to live with presence, Sam Harris on cultivating mindful living, and Frank Partnoy on the art of waiting, then revisit Annie Dillard’s ever-timely reminder that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus on Our Search for Meaning and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

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Why “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” isn’t a luxury or a mere need but our existential duty.

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenged — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[...]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Reflecting on the parallels between Camus and Montaigne, Zaretsky finds in this ongoing chase one crucial difference of dispositions:

Camus achieves with the Myth what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed for Montaigne’s Essays: it places “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

For Camus, however, this astonishment results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world.

Camus himself captured this with extraordinary elegance when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.

To discern these echoes amid the silence of the world, Zaretsky suggests, was at the heart of Camus’s tussle with the absurd:

We must not cease in our exploration, Camus affirms, if only to hear more sharply the silence of the world. In effect, silence sounds out when human beings enter the equation. If “silences must make themselves heard,” it is because those who can hear inevitably demand it. And if the silence persists, where are we to find meaning?

This search for meaning was not only the lens through which Camus examined every dimension of life, from the existential to the immediate, but also what he saw as our greatest source of agency. In one particularly prescient diary entry from November of 1940, as WWII was gathering momentum, he writes:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on my highlights from Albert Camus's journals. Click image for details.

For Camus, the question of meaning was closely related to that of happiness — something he explored with great insight in his notebooks. Zaretsky writes:

Camus observed that absurdity might ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it. All too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.

Perhaps most importantly, Camus issued a clarion call of dissent in a culture that often conflates happiness with laziness and championed the idea that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. A few months before his death, Camus appeared on the TV show Gros Plan. Dressed in a trench coat, he flashed his mischievous boyish smile and proclaimed into the camera:

Today, happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it. As far as I’m concerned, I tend to think that one needs to be strong and happy in order to help those who are unfortunate.

This wasn’t a case of Camus arriving at some mythic epiphany in his old age — the cultivation of happiness and the eradication of its obstacles was his most persistent lens on meaning. More than two decades earlier, he had contemplated “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” in his journal, capturing with elegant simplicity the essence of the meaningful life — an ability to live with presence despite the knowledge that we are impermanent:

[We must] be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path which nevertheless leads to death.

But his most piercing point integrates the questions of happiness and meaning into the eternal quest to find ourselves and live our truth:

It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning comes from Harvard University Press and is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit the story of his unlikely and extraordinary friendship with Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod.

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sherwin Nuland on the Art of Dying as a Lens on the Art of Living Meaningfully

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“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it.”

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne wrote in his timeless meditation on death and the art of living. And yet in the half millennium since his day, we’ve made paltry progress on coming to such nonchalant terms with the reality of death. We are still profoundly unprepared when it strikes our loved ones and paralyzed by the prospect of our own demise. Our discomfort with “the idea of a permanent unconsciousness in which there is neither void nor vacuum — in which there is simply nothing” is what surgeon, bioethicist, essayist, and Yale professor Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) explores with astonishing wisdom and sensitivity in his soul-stretching 1993 book How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter (public library) — a dimensional treatise on death and an effort to “demythologize the process of dying,” fusing philosophical reflections on its most universal aspects with the specialized complexities occasioned by the six most common disease categories implicated in modern death.

But Nuland’s hard-earned professional expertise, his life’s work in medicine and understanding the human condition, is merely the byproduct of his unforgiving personal brush with death — Nuland lost his mother to colon cancer a week after his eleventh birthday, a tragedy that shaped his life. “All that I have become and much that I have not become, I trace directly or indirectly to her death,” he reflects. This book itself was written less than a year after Nuland lost his brother to the same disease that had claimed their mother’s life.

Nuland writes:

Everyone wants to know the details of dying, though few are willing to say so. Whether to anticipate the events of our own final illness or better to comprehend what is happening to a mortally stricken loved one… we are lured by thoughts of life’s ending… To most people, death remains a hidden secret, as eroticized at it is feared. We are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find most terrifying; we are drawn to them by a primitive excitement that arises from flirtation with danger. Moths and flames, mankind and death — there is little difference.

[...]

As with every other looming terror and looming temptation, we seek ways to deny the power of death and the icy hold in which it grips human thought.

Throughout history, he observes, our strategies for ameliorating that icy hold have varied, from mythology to humor to religion, but the past few decades have given us a wholly new phenomenon, one he dubs “modern dying” — a sort of packaged experience that takes place at the hospital, where we try to artificially enact the ancient ideal of ars moriendi, or the art of dying. Reflecting on his extensive work with dying patients, Nuland considers the impossibility of that ideal in a modern context:

The good death has increasingly become a myth. Actually, it has always been for the most part a myth, but never nearly as much as today. The chief ingredient of the myth is the longed-for ideal of “death with dignity.”

[...]

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity. I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die… Only by a frank discussion of the very details of dying can we best deal with those aspects that frighten us the most. It is by knowing the truth and being prepared for it that we rid ourselves of that fear of the terra incognita of death that leads to self-deception and disillusions.

And yet despite lamenting the illusory mythology of dying with dignity, Nuland’s perspective is ultimately an optimistic one, reframing the source of dignity in death rather than denying it altogether, and doing so in wonderfully poetic terms:

The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope that we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.

But our greatest act of hope in dying, Nuland argues, is the dissolution of our illusion of separateness. He writes:

The real event taking place at the end of our life is our death, not the attempts to prevent it. We have somehow been so taken up with the wonders of modern science that our society puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It is the dying that is the important thing — the central player in the drama is the dying man: the dashing leader of that bustling squad of his would-be rescuers is only a spectator, and a groundling at that.

Reflecting on the commonly documented medical fact that the dying can often survive for weeks beyond their prognosis, sustained merely by the hope to live until a specific moment of significance — a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s graduation — Nuland calls to mind Rilke’s famous lines of verse (“Oh Lord, give each of us his own death / The dying, that issues forth out of the life / In which he had love, meaning and despair”) and considers the true source of hope:

For dying patients, the hope of cure will always be shown to be ultimately false, and even the hope of relief too often turns to ashes. When my time comes, I will seek hope in the knowledge that insofar as possible I will not be allowed to suffer or be subjected to needless attempts to maintain life; I will seek it in the certainty that I will not be abandoned to die alone; I am seeking it now, in the way I try to live my life, so that those who value what I am will have profited by my time on earth and be left with comforting recollections of what we have meant to one another… Whatever form it may take, each of us must find hope in his or her own way.

Nuland turns to the heaviest burden in dying, the feeling of regret over “conflicts unresolved, breached relationships not healed, potential unfulfilled, promises not kept, and years that will never be lived.” But even in this despairing proposition, he finds an unlikely and rather beautiful source of hope. Subverting Viktor Frankl’s famous formulation of the oft-repeated idea that we should live each day as if it were our last — “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” Frankl wrote in his spectacular memoir about the search for meaning — Nuland finds consolation in a heartening mirror-image interpretation:

Perhaps the mere existence of things undone should be a sort of satisfaction in itself, though the idea would appear to be paradoxical. Only one who is long since dead while still seemingly alive does not have many “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and that state of inertness is not to be desired. To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.

He returns to the hard ideal of ars moriendi, now enveloped in this newfound softness:

Since human beings first began to write, they have recorded their wish for an idealized ending some call the “good death,” as if any of us can ever be sure of it or have any reason to expect it. There are pitfalls of decision-making to be sidestepped and varieties of hope to seek, but beyond that we must forgive ourselves when we cannot achieve some preconceived image of dying right.

But perhaps Nuland’s most salient point has to do with the necessity of death as a force of nature’s forward momentum — an idea partway between evolutionary theory and the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, with a touch of Alan Watts. He writes:

We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.

In that sense, the dignity of death is indeed the dignity of life, and our only responsibility in dying well is having lived well:

The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives. Ars moriendi as ars vivendi: The art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them. Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.

How We Die is a timelessly wonderful read in its entirety. For a necessary counterpart, see Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful memoir of grief and learning to live with loss.

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