19.6.12

{conviction}

Odd as it may sound, I've always been a bit too good at getting my point across.  I like toying with words; figuring out all the nuances of their meaning, taking note of cultural perception, and throwing out expressions with multiple meanings just to see which one people are the most likely to contextually latch onto. An inability to communicate isn't really a failing in our family, and for me in particular, I like my words to be surgical in their precision.
However, at the same time, a lack of linguistic ambiguity can get troublesome at times. When it's easy to be manifestly clear on exactly what you mean, it also means that if you change your mind the transformation is glaring. Technically that shouldn't be a bad thing. After all, the ability to admit when you're wrong is admirable, indicative of "strong moral fiber" and the like. But in the real world, where perception rules as king, things grow trickier.
People don't take kindly to those that change their minds. Take politics, where a track record is easily traceable, there are few things more ridiculed than a politician who has "more waffles than a House of Pancakes." Theoretically the ability to admit you were wrong is admirable, but, as soon as you descend into messy real life people don't like people that change their minds, and they don't trust them.
It's an intriguing issue. Nowadays we like songs that boast "Baby I was born this way" and "I'm never changing who I am." Consistency and conviction are strengths; indecisiveness and flexibility are the traits of snakes and liars. In "Serenity" a priest uses his dying breath to urge the protagonist "I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it."
This bothers me. I don't like people who vacillate, but, at the same time, there are few things that frustrate me more than those who refuse to explore ideas that may contradict what they think. (And when I say "explore ideas" I mean "seriously consider that there may be some truth to them, or at least make an honest effort to understand the thought process behind them." Not "grit your teeth and grouse your way through it.") Personally, I like reading articles that throw a wrench in my convictions, they force me to step back and make sure I really understand what I believe; it's my version of a morning sudoku puzzle.
When the Liberal Education movement was revived in the nineteenth century the ideal was to teach people to think for themselves. Education was no longer merely about teaching people how to read; it was about liberating men from believing something simply because someone "said so" and everybody "thinks so" and to teach them to evaluate what is and isn't true for themselves. When I hear professors talk about a liberal education being meant to give students an opportunity to "explore other subjects that they wouldn't necessarily study on their own" I want to throw a textbook at their heads. Aside from being a rather horrible selling point, it's simply wrong.
Studying the liberal arts is not supposed to be about checking out a bunch of subjects so you can discover that even though you thought you'd be a lawyer you've decided to instead get a degree in Medieval Literature. It's about learning how to learn for the rest of your life by producing a person who is "open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds." It is meant to teach you to have convictions because you are convinced, rather than because you are stubborn.
In the end, I think that is the way to strike a proper balance between conviction and persuasion. Quite simply, be conscious of what you believe and why, and take the time to be aware of what arguments exist in opposition. After all, "the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." You should believe things because you fully understand them, not because you read a rousing article promoting one side of the issue. "The false is forever in the lead in everything.  . .[and when] people marry themselves to the first tale told. . . no room is left for the truth."
In order to be a person of conviction rather than merely an obstinate one, you must have a full understanding of a matter; and if you don't, then you have no business arguing for or against it. The world of misinformation is made of third-hand accounts.
We are quick to take sides and so reluctant to part from them, but "maturity is recognized in the deliberateness with which a person adopts a creed."
Sources: JibJab, Lady Gaga "Born This Way," Imagine Dragons "It's Time," Serenity, "The Meaning of a Liberal Education," The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Proverbs 18:17 ESV, Baltasar Gracian.

15.3.12

Write what you know. Just start. Don't delay yourself with typos, editing, rewriting. Just write. Supposedly good reading is born from hard writing. Writing is meant to hurt. Word after painful word; at times that is the process that creates truly great writing. After all, what is the value if there is no cost?

Write what you know. Simple sounding instructions. But what do I know? And which parts of it matter? Writing to me often feels as though I am laying my mind out for dissection.  The blank page is my operating room; paragraphs are the incisions; the black characters which appear, dripping one by one down my arms and falling from the tips of my fingers onto the page, they are the blood.

Is that too gruesome? Too painful a process? Perhaps it is a bit macabre. Surely not all writing is so painful. Surely there are times when the words simply flow, or perhaps over time, the process grows easier. Not everything has to hurt.

But still, there is something about creativity; it's vulnerable and vulnerability hurts. I always grow cold when I begin to write, as though my skin is stripped raw.  Plato wished to separate the mind from the body, Whitman insisted they were inseparably entwined. There is a visceral nature in some writing that cannot be denied; when a contemplation of emotions seems to actually twist something in your heart, or a reflection of sensations seems to be tangibly traced down your spine. Complicated, human writing that has not been reduced to intellectualism is as physical and emotional as it is mental.

The writers who resonate the most deeply are those who admit that people have minds, bodies, and souls. But such admissions are hard and they are rare; because admitting all three makes us terribly complicated. It is tempting to try to simplify and endeavor to to make sense with only two of them, but in doing so we find ourselves stuck in molds that have left parts sticking out. We were not intended to operate well while in denial of one third of our composition.

To write well, one must accept that there are thoughts and feelings, both emotional and physical, and something elusively complicated that defies disregard called the soul. And all of these things bleed into each other like a Ven diagram. And like the wind, they cannot be caught and pinned down for easy inspection; they must be sensed, reflected upon, and then finally described with far too many words. Words that plumb the depths of our language and sometimes necessitate raiding the others; complicated words that need a Latin dictionary to fully comprehend the nuances of.

So you must press where it hurts. Little value will come from the repeated dusting of the surface, you must go deeper. Delve far into your heart, mind, soul, and note what flinches when you touch it. The word 'exquisite' expresses something that is beautiful and delicate, but the origin of the term comes from the Latin of ex (out) and quaerere (search/seek); implying the notion that much of what makes a thing exquisite is in the journey and labour of finding and obtaining it.

To write something that is more than simply good it is necessary to be brave. Intellectually I can tolerate rejection... but to write something that is exquisite it is necessary for me to reach far deeper. And I am not sure if I am ready to let the world see my heart or my soul.

{sources and references in this post include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Karl Lagerfeld, Jonah Lehrer, Nancy Pearcey, Marilynne Robinson, and Jessica Kerwin Jenkins}






16.2.12

[immortality]

It is a matter of frustration to me that I will never know all the things I want to; that there is a limit to the knowledge that I am capable of possessing. Mortality has never fazed me, I have few feelings regarding my inevitable death except that I'd rather it be quick. I will live for as long as I do, and try to be the best that I can be until then. But I have moments when I wonder, wish it were possible, to imagine the vast potential of immortality.

In my mind there is a sort of heaviness to the thought. The weight of knowledge. It would be serene, I suppose, for that is how immortals are always imagined to be. Cool judgement, unruffled by rampant emotions and the foibles that are so often men's undoing. How long would a person have to live before life stopped offering further lessons to learn?

If one could be born to live indefinitely I cannot help but imagine the satisfaction of obtaining knowledge, knowing that there is no eventual, premature end-date. It is man's doom that he will never fully understand anything, for in order to do so it would be necessary for him to understand everything. What would a man be like, if he were able to eventually understand everything?

But it is a this point in my ruminations that I wonder if the human soul would be able to bear it; the lives that end; the nations that rise and then crumble into dust; the endless stream of knowledge; the experiences and observations hung about your shoulders, each a grain of wisdom forged in bitter, bitter experiences. The endless seeing and seeing, and understanding and knowing, and watching as errors are made again and again, as death, and pain, and bitter, bitter experiences are repeated over and over again. I think I would never stop crying if I were a god.

I do not think a human would choose to be wise if he were to live forever.

And yet...I falter here. I wish I could be wise; that every triumph in understanding were not dimmed by the knowledge that there is an infinity of understanding that I will always lack. Knowing you know nothing is supposed to be the beginning of wisdom, but for me, that realization feels like a betrayal that does not grow less painful with time.

The feeling never fails to catch me off guard; it's like the feeling of heartbreak in your chest, that makes you realize emotions can physically hurt. It's despair and confusion and hurt and the bleak sense of wondering what the point is to anything. I am always tempted to throw rocks at the sky and inquire dully, "is this necessary?" Christianly I know the answer, but sometimes, when I sit in the dark and think about immortality, I am dissatisfied.

1.1.12

[trees are beautiful, why don't you photograph trees?]

Dick Avery: I do what I do for a living, it has to do with supply and demand. You'd be amazed how small the demand is for pictures of trees. 
I like trees...

This realization struck me while I was outside reading (my appreciation of trees, of lack thereof, is not typically a matter to which I devote much contemplation): I have become one of those people who like trees.

In the past, trees have always been, quite simply put, trees. They're quite nice at times, but really, what kind of person sits around philosophically meditating on them? When I was twelve and saw Funny Face for the first time I loved Dick Avery's wry comment. Liking, or indeed, loving trees was something best left to those who were reaching to find meaning and pleasure in life. If you can't deal with the complexities of humans and their potential, love trees.

So you can imagine my astonishment when, all these years later, I came to the realization that my view of life, beauty, pleasure, and serenity has become, in this innocuous way, fundamentally changed. I like trees: as ideas, as objects, as a presence. All these years later I have evolved into being exactly what as a child I found odd, laughable, and mildly pitiable.

It was a disconcerting thought at first. I am of the opinion that children often possess a razor sharp insight through the ludicrousness into which adults rationalize themselves. When I notice my opinion shifting I try my best to question both myself and what caused the change. My father says that the word "rationalize" is exactly what it sounds like,  it's coming up with a "a rational lie." I hate the idea that I might methodically lie to myself out of a desire for comfort; the mere thought horrifies me.

But trees, it's rather innocent sounding isn't? I don't feel laughable or pitiable for it. I believe I am far more complex and aware now than I was at the age of twelve, and therefore, hardly in need of "reaching" to find meaning in life. I like people, both in the abstract and in actuality. There is no pantheism or worship of Gaia involved in my newfound appreciation of arbores in et ex silvis.

I simply find trees to be lovely. I could give you a long list of reasons why; they are beautiful, they are serene, they have as much variation as most people, the sound of the wind rushing through their leaves is delightful... but now I do sound silly and really none of those thing are actually part of my rational.

The older I get the more concerned I become with the thought of missing or not properly appreciating things simply because they have always been there. I get so caught up in the future, in quantifiable facts, failures, irritations, complications, and "knowing things" that I forget to stop, look around, and appreciate the exquisite things that are always there. The paintings that have been on the walls since childhood, the colour of the clouds at sunrise...

I feel that as a child I was spoiled with beauty to the point that I could discriminate against that which was every day... but now, it's been so long since I had the time to stop and study a tree, that when I finally find the time to look, I'm staggered by all the beauty I'd forgotten.

I like trees, and I'm alright with that. And I don't think I'm childish for realizing it is alright to love something simple; I think I am growing up.