“We love the things we love for what they are.” ― Robert Frost
Having just read that the essayist and regular for the The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, was leaving the magazine, I thought it appropriate to link today again to a favorite piece from him, Solititude and Leadership, which originated as an address to West Point plebes in 2009.
Before an audience of future Army officers who for better or worse will be a part of a rather large and famous bureaucracy, and who will be obliged to follow rules as well as to think independently, Deresiewicz argues for the benefits of learning to be alone with one's thoughts, saying that such a willingness was crucial to an ability to inspire others to follow.
Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that 'he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.' Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
"Finding your own reality" does not mean engaging in make-believe, but discovering, with enough time and honesty - and very often at a personal cost - what it is you think. While Deresiewicz is critical of the near constant din in this always-on world, knowing what one thinks does not mean being free from media, digital or otherwise. Every experience is a mediated experience.
But it does mean, for example, lowering our guard enough to be vulnerable when the source of information is a friend breaking some hard news, or when habits become self-destructive and the stories we tell ourselves begin to sound like rationalizations. Friendship, as Deresiewicz goes on to point out, is also a form of solitude, a kind of cooperative (self) exposure, essential to our development as people with distinct selves and thoughts to match:
That’s what Emerson meant when he said that 'the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.'
Making a name for oneself does not mean meeting others' expectations, but living long enough in the question to find that "new direction" that is authentically yours. Because by tuning out the clamorous pinging for a period of time, or by relying on someone that has rewarded your disclosure with her constancy, you will find that solitude in all its variety has worked a kind of magic. Others follow. They lean in.
While the Deresiewicz essay contains a reference or two that will date it, I hope you'll find it as valuable as I have.
Even though we're now discovering that the "universal solvent," water, exists in unexpected locations like our own Moon, why would finding microbial life below the surface of Mars or in the underworld oceans of Europa not necessarily be an encouraging development?
In the latest in the IdeaFestival's "Five Questions" series, we talk with Lee Billings, author of "Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars."
From a brief description of why the subject is so interesting to him, to the significance of finding the bio-signatures of oxygen and methane in the atmospheres of other worlds, to his sobering recollection of his biggest surprises while writing the book, Billings touches on the following eternal question.
Are we alone?
My favorite part of the interview begins at about the four minute mark when I ask him about what surprised him most. Billings talks movingly about two things. One, we sentient self-referential beings are able for the first time to locate and examine other planets for their suitability for life, and yet, and yet - his emphasis, not mine - we aren't making the commitments to do so. Kepler, launched in 2009, suggests that planets orbiting other stars are a common feature of the universe. But the future for space-based terrestrial planet finders, for follow-on spacecraft, is sadly an uncertain one. Two, the nature of what he calls "deep time" is simultaneously profound and unsettling. Were, for example, all of Earth's history compressed into one 24 hour period beginning at 12:01 a.m., the appearance of humans would have occurred just over a minute ago, and our 21st century moment would be a mere second or two before midnight.
So why would finding other microbial life nearby one nondescript yellow dwarf in the Orion Arm of a single spiral galaxy, itself one of billions, be such a bracing discovery? It's because simple life may be common. It's because intelligent life may be rare.
Creativity Requires Connection - To People, Not Devices
Art is not about communication. It's about communion. Rafael Lorenzo-Hemmer, IdeaFestival 2013
Let's hear it for getting real about the time we spend staring at screens instead of living our lives in three dimensions. Robert Lanham writes that while we're peeking at our phone, our stories too often grind to a halt.
On average, people spend 119 tedious minutes staring at their cell phones each day (and that's according to a UK phone provider). That's 43,435 minutes annually. Thirty days a year. The month of June. Sure, a portion of those minutes is spent doing useful things. But most involve time-killing activities like playing Bubble Safari or pinning photos of cronuts to our Pinterest walls. It’s a substantial chunk of the year for our plot lines to stand still....
...Where do we start? Anyone can tell you that brief detoxes and binge-and-purges diets don't work. So here's a novel idea, if we're truly ready for the backlash to begin, let's do something revolutionary! Let's try a restaurant without reading what JimBo67 thinks about the tacos on Yelp. Let's skip that important article 'Who's Cuter, Boo or Colonel Meow?' If someone forgets the name of an actor in some dumb movie, let's just let it go. Let's skip taking that old timey-looking Instagram pic of our navels. Let's show up at a bar, alone, without a phone and talk to that girl or boy who approaches us, curious, because we're not staring at a screen. Do you need to be on call 24/7? Sure—if you're a brain surgeon at a veterans' hospital. Guess what: you're not.
One of the reasons I've begun putting the phone away, especially on the weekend, is that I've come to realize that this glass diversion, like all idols, never calls me outside myself. Like Lorenzo-Hemmer, I'm of the opinion that the point of the creative act is to bridge divides.
In the past decade or so, we've sorted ourselves into areas of interest, into little digital communes, and now, thanks to our phones, we never have to leave the confines of our individual world views. I know I don't leave mine often enough. But as Louis C.K. points out in this video, also posted by Latham at the Awl, these diversions excise shared emotions from our everyday lives, exchanging the here-and-now for One More Thingtm. It's no wonder a certain anxiety sets in. Despite my best efforts, I invariably return to the thing at my fingertips out of impulse, habit, addiction.
The sad truth is that I don't need information. What I need is meaning.
What Louis C.K. intuits, what Oliver Burkeman is saying when he's critical of positive thinking and happy talk, what Francis Spufford identifies as HPtFtU (yes, Google it) in his recent book, what Maria Konnikova suggests when she talks about actively attending to, what Lorenzo-Hemmer knows while creating his art, what Tom Chatfield says so well in this essay at Aeon - is that while the torrent of information never ends, the need for meaning is always present. Like many people, I continually fall into the trap of thinking that One More Thingtm will piece together the factual puzzle and solve the whole damn mystery.
But you know what? Solving mysteries requires detectives - and for fewer answers, more questions and a willingness to just be for a while.
One of the reasons I enjoy working with the IdeaFestival is that, by design, it operates from different ground. The thing that inspires, completes the puzzle, provides meaning can arrive from any direction or discipline. As the festival founder Kris Kimel points out, we don't do tracks. The happy surprise comes during those moments throughout IdeaFestival week when I realize the connection I made wasn't the one I was seeking.
This One Minute Physics video describes three possible, if highly improbable, ways to travel through time, including building your very own wormhole to tunnel between life events.
It might just come in handy the next time you're conflicted about the dinner or office party at which you've found yourself, cornered by that person rabbiting on about the time he spent in Bali or the merits of soy as a protein substitute.
Yes, I know. The parts will be insanely expensive, and with the possible exception of Jor-El, no one can budget for the kind of energy you'll need to keep the tunnel open long enough to make your escape. Because if that baby closes, you and I know that it's game over.
May I suggest, instead, that you offer your best wishes to the host and politely decline her invitation? Just summon the wherewithal to smile and follow it up with these words: "No. But thank you for thinking of me."
The secret to time travel, of course, is that we already do.
Have a great weekend, everyone. See you in the future.