Exciting adventures ahead!
One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot.
Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism .
Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life.
Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.
Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!
Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:
Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.
Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.
Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.
Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.
Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.
During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think my experience constituted a state of jhana — how the Buddha referred to blissed out, immersive, “absorbed” states of mind. I was probably experiencing “access concentration“, a precursor to the jhanic states; in any case, those minutes of absorption were utterly memorable for me. I remember returning to my dorm room afterwards, late at night, and lying in bed thinking to myself: I have a new superpower.
Like many beginner meditators who experience momentary states of profound absorption and stillness, I have foolishly quested after that state in subsequent meditation sessions. On my second 10 day retreat, I craved the state of ultra concentration that I felt during my first retreat. I intently sat late at night in the meditation hall. And then, as I felt my mind ease into a deeper stillness, I told myself, “Here it comes. Here it comes. Is this it? Is this what happened to me last time?” See ya later, still lion mind. Hello, monkey mind. On my 3 day residential retreat, I never entered deep concentration, probably because of this mental chatter around wanting it.
I think I could use more practice at stabilizing the mind — without the questing and excessive effort — before I go deeper on practicing insight meditation. So I’m going to focus more on samatha over the next year or so. The samatha concentration practice involves stabilizing, unifying, and collecting the mind into what the Buddha called samadhi, or a state of concentration. With a clear and collected mind, you can begin to discern more subtle sensations, and begin to more clearly perceive the truths about your mind and reality.
I recently attended a one day retreat at Spirit Rock on samatha practice. The teacher distinguished samatha from vipassana. Samatha practice is like trying to stabilize a pair of binoculars and getting them into focus. Vipassana is looking through the binoculars in order to observe reality as it actually is.
Throughout the day, we practiced basic relaxation. “Release tension in your body. Now release a little more,” the teacher said, as we scanned each part of the body.
With total relaxation, you can begin to quiet the mind, and focus on an object of concentration — in our case, the breath. The anapanana practice of studying the breath can become quite a granular analysis. For example, we practiced:
- Noticing whether breath is long or short
- Noticing the beginning of the breath, the middle part of the breath, the end of the breath
- Focusing on spot underneath nostril where breath enters
- Counting breaths up to 10 and then starting again at 1
On the Goenka retreats, you spend the first three days doing nothing but breath awareness, so I have some practice at it. But I never understood how object-awareness connects to broader vipassana practice until now. To deepen my understanding, I’m taking an online class at Spirit Rock on concentration/samatha practice, with 8 hours of video lectures.
I want to thank a blog reader who wrote me a very helpful comment/email last year in response to my blog post about my awareness + wisdom retreat. He helped me explore the difference between samatha and vipassana. After some gentle corrections, he included this line of encouragement at the end: “Not many people have gotten as far as you have with meditation and Buddhism. You also ask good questions and have good insights. You should definitely keep up your practice. It is a rare gift.”
As I get older, praise from others does less and less for me, in terms of emotional impact. This one was different. I’ve been exploring Buddhism and meditation seriously now for about six years and the deeper I go, the more I realize the complexities of the practice. The complexity can be daunting. Hearing encouragement a year ago made a difference to me. So, thank you to Tracy. And thank you for alerting to me to the prospective benefits of a more focused concentration practice.
In the Elena Ferrante series, the narrator visits her best friend after they had become somewhat estranged. She reflects:
“I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology.
So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two!
The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs.
My highlights below — bold font is my own.
Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they…
He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.
“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.”
Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see.
In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?
“His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.”
And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged.
Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?
The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.
Shore asked him how he had become a psychologist. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” Amos said. “The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”
The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance.
People thought Tel Aviv was like New York but that New York was not like Tel Aviv.
People thought that the number 103 was sort of like the number 100, but that 100 wasn’t like 103. People thought a toy train was a lot like a real train but that a real train was not like a toy train.
“The directionality and asymmetry of similarity relations are particularly noticeable in similes and metaphors,” Amos wrote. “We say ‘Turks fight like tigers’ and not ‘tigers fight like Turks.’
“It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.
A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
What Europeans often said about Americans—how wildly informal and improvisational they were—was, to her, even more true of Israelis.
Danny was then helping the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots. He’d noticed that the instructors believed that, in teaching men to fly jets, criticism was more useful than praise. They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised a pilot for having performed especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better. Danny watched for a bit and then explained to them what was actually going on: The pilot who was praised because he had flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain. Statistics wasn’t just boring numbers; it contained ideas that allowed you to glimpse deep truths about human life. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” Danny later wrote,
The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, he thought, was by studying the mistakes that it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”
Anne Treisman was on a flying visit to Harvard, where the demand to hear what she had to say was so great that her talk had to be moved to a big public lecture hall off campus. Danny left the talk filled with new enthusiasm. He asked to be deputized to look after Treisman and her traveling party—which included her mother, her husband, and their two small children. He gave them a tour of Harvard. “He was very eager to impress,” said Treisman, “and so I let myself be impressed.” It would be years before Danny and Anne left their marriages and married each other, but it took no time at all for Danny to engage Treisman’s ideas.
In very large populations, the law of large numbers did indeed guarantee this result. If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times. For some reason human beings did not see it that way. “People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well,” Danny and Amos wrote.
An old friend of Amos’s would later recall, “Amos would say, ‘People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated.’ And then he would pause, and say: ‘Except for Danny.’”
For instance, in families with six children, the birth order B G B B B B was about as likely as G B G B B G. But Israeli kids—like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would emerge—naturally seemed to believe that G B G B B G was a more likely birth sequence. Why? “The sequence with five boys and one girl fails to reflect the proportion of boys and girls in the population,” they explained. It was less representative. What is more, if you asked the same Israeli kids to choose the more likely birth order in families with six children—B B B G G G or G B B G B G—they overwhelmingly opted for the latter. But the two birth orders are equally likely.
Amos liked to say that if you are asked to do anything—go to a party, give a speech, lift a finger—you should never answer right away, even if you are sure that you want to do it. Wait a day, Amos said, and you’ll be amazed how many of those invitations you would have accepted yesterday you’ll refuse after you have had a day to think it over. A corollary to his rule for dealing with demands upon his time was his approach to situations from which he wished to extract himself…who finds himself stuck at some boring meeting or cocktail party often finds it difficult to invent an excuse to flee. Amos’s rule, whenever he wanted to leave any gathering, was to just get up and leave. Just start walking and you’ll be surprised how creative you will become and how fast you’ll find the words for your excuse, he said.
It confirmed Biederman’s sense that “most advances in science come not from eureka moments but from ‘hmmm, that’s funny.’”
Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes—which was saying something.
Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.
Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without any solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. “So many diseases are self-limiting,” he said. “They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek care, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of overprescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go to see a psychiatrist and your depression improves—you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry.”
By the end of Redelmeier’s medical training, seven years later, researchers had shown that heart attack patients whose arrhythmia was suppressed died more often than the ones whose condition went untreated. No one explained why doctors, for years, had opted for a treatment that systematically killed patients—though proponents of evidence-based medicine were beginning to look to the work of Kahneman and Tversky for possible explanations.
Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery.
The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.
A man whom no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness.
An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had been given the less unhappy ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. More interestingly, they proved more likely to return for another colonoscopy when the time came. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”
People did not seek to avoid other emotions with the same energy they sought to avoid regret. When they made decisions, people did not seek to maximize utility. They sought to minimize regret.
Why didn’t people regret Israel’s inaction? Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have.
They spent more than a year working and reworking the same basic idea: In order to explain the paradoxes that expected utility could not explain, and create a better theory to predict behavior, you had to inject psychology into the theory.
“Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle,” they wrote.
The two problems were identical, but, in the first case, when the choice was framed as a gain, the subjects elected to save 200 people for sure (which meant that 400 people would die for sure, though the subjects weren’t thinking of it that way). In the second case, with the choice framed as a loss, they did the reverse, and ran the risk that they’d kill everyone. People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things.
By 1976, purely for marketing purposes, they changed their title to “Prospect Theory.” “The idea was to give the theory a completely distinct name that would have no associations whatsoever,” said Danny. “When you say ‘prospect theory,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. We thought: Who knows? It may turn out to be influential. And if it is we don’t want it to be confused with anything else.”
Then he came straight out with his own feelings about Amos getting the lion’s share of the glory for work they had done together. “I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” he said. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy. . . . I am maybe saying too much now.”
It was those constraints that Danny set out to investigate. He wanted to understand better what he was now calling “counterfactual emotions,” or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait. “The emotions of unrealized possibility,” Danny called them, in a letter to Amos.
Toward the end of his thinking on the subject, he summed up a lot in a single sentence: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”
What Danny needed was for Amos to continue to see him and his ideas uncritically, as he had when they were alone together in a room. If that involved some misperception on Amos’s part—some exaggeration of the earthly status of Danny’s ideas—well, then, Amos should continue to misperceive. After all, what is a marriage if not an agreement to distort one’s perception of another, in relation to everyone else? “I wanted something from him, not from the world,” said Danny.
But because he was Danny, he made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen. His fantasies were so vivid that “it was as if you actually had it,” and if you actually had it, why would you bother to work hard to get…
“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.”
All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme becomes bad advice.
Here’s how. Say you want to maintain a relationship with someone busy in your network. Heck, maybe you even have a specific question or favor to ask of that person. But you don’t want to seem transactional. After all, “authentic” relationships in business involve mutuality and back-and-forth and personal rapport. You don’t want to come off as having a transactional agenda. Right? Right.
So you ping this busy person in your network and ask if they want to “catch up” with you sometime for coffee: “It’d be great to see you and catch up on life. Let me know if you are around next week?”
Unless the person is already a pretty good friend of yours, the answer you often get back is… Crickets.
What happened? The random coffee catch-up meeting request is the most common “external” meeting request in the world, largely because so many of us have been trained to not seem overly transactional when we stay in touch with our network. So when we reach out to busy people, we bury our agenda and hide behind “coffee catch up” as the vague purpose of the meeting.
The problem is, busy people are busy. In fact, they get hit up for coffee catch-ups multiple times a week. They can’t take coffee catch-up meetings all day. They actually have to get real work done. So they avoid your request for random coffee.
What will catch their attention instead? A specific transaction or topic.
“I’m considering taking this job opportunity and would love your perspective.”
“I saw you on stage at a conference and had some feedback for you on the virtual reality topic you spoke about.”
“I’m hosting a conference in a month and would love to brainstorm who we should invite as speakers.”
Best case, this transaction intersects with something they’re actually interested in and would fine useful. Medium case, it lends a finite crispness to the interaction — it feels “manageable” — and the person is likely to agree to a quick call or meeting if he knows it can be quickly resolved. Worst case, the topic isn’t of interest to the person at all — in which case, didn’t you both just save time by realizing that on the front end?
Oftentimes, when reaching out to someone busy, you’ll have a specific transaction in mind plus an interest in just general catch up and general relationship building. In these cases, consider leading with a “transactional bluff.” Lead with the transactional item you have in mind, but know that you may spend 90% of the meeting — once you’re actually in the meeting — talking about whatever general catchup topics you want to cover. Maybe you spend the first 10% of the meeting on the transaction and then you switch to “How can I help you?” and the other practices that fuel long term relationships.
Bottom Line: Busy people need a reason to prioritize scheduling your “catch up” meeting. If you don’t know someone well already — this means most people in your professional network — be candid about a specific transaction you have in mind when making the meeting request.
“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard.
I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you have to be all-in on absorbing the minutia of Knausgaard life. I was. I enjoyed the endless micro-details, and the occasional thought-bombs — or longer meditations — on life, parenting, relationships, death. There are moving passages on fatherhood and his struggle to balance having a family with his professional ambitions as a writer. He writes compellingly about his craving for his own father’s approval — and the damage his alcoholic father wrought on his own emotional stability.
There are countless reviews online of a book that has become beloved by so many in Scandinavia and in the States. Here’s one summary of the “movement” that is the My Struggle series. My Kindle highlights are below.
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.
While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.
Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.
The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born.
[When his kid stuck out her tongue.] There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy
For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides.
As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I then speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right. Not until the evening when they are asleep and I am sitting wondering what I am really doing is there any room for the insight that she is only two years old. But by then I am on the outside looking in. Inside, I don’t have a chance. Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall, where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume. I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.
Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards.
Looking back on this, I find it striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children.
And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn’t have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought then that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you, and are then hurled back.
If Heidi sleeps in the car we go to a café with Vanja, who loves the moments she has alone with us and sits there with her lemonade asking us about everything under the sun: Is the sky fixed? Can anything stop autumn coming? Do monkeys have skeletons? Even if the feeling of happiness this gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps even, at certain moments, joy.
And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure.
I do everything I have to do for the family; that is my duty. The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that. My epitaph might read: Here lies a man who grinned and bore it. And in the end he perished for it.
Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.
Until now, I thought, observing the crowds circulating in the concourse below. In twenty-five years a third of them would be dead, in fifty years two-thirds, in a hundred all of them. And what would they leave behind, what had their lives been worth? Gaping jaws, empty eye sockets, somewhere beneath the earth.
…after the previous year’s success I was suffering from child hubris, I didn’t need to learn all the lines, everything would be fine, I had thought, but standing there, affected I suppose by my father’s presence, I could barely remember a line, and our teacher prompted me all the way through a long play about a town of which I was supposed to be the mayor. In the car on the way home he said he had never been so embarrassed in his life and he would never attend any of my end-of-term shows again. That was a promise he kept. Nor did he go to any of the countless soccer matches I played in as I was growing up, he was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home matches, and I didn’t react to that either, I didn’t even consider it unusual, for that was the way he was, my father, and many other fathers like him, this was the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, when being a father had a different and, at least on a practical level, a less comprehensive significance than today.
Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings. Not even the worst grief leaves traces; when it feels so overwhelming and lasts for such a long time, it is not because the feelings have set, they can’t do that, they stand still, the way water in a forest mere stands still.
He had been enthusiastic and warm, but there had also been a sharpness about him, it didn’t surface often, but when it did I had considered it evil. He
The days from which these incidents are drawn were countless, the bonds they created between us indestructible. The fact that he could be more malicious to me than anyone else changed nothing, it was part and parcel of it, and in the context we lived, the hatred I felt for him was no more than a brook is to an ocean, a lamp to the night.
He had told me often that Dad had totally crushed his self-esteem on a number of occasions, humiliated him as only Dad could, and that had colored periods of his life when he felt he was incapable of doing anything and was worthless. Then there were other periods when everything went well, when there were no hitches, no nagging doubts. From the outside, all you saw was the latter.
“Thank you,” I said, gathering the items and leaving. The desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical openness and gentleness than lust’s more usual form, which of course is rougher, more acute, a kind of contraction of the senses, lasted all the way back to the house, but it was not in complete control because grief lay all around it, with its hazy, gray sky, which I suspected could overwhelm me again at any moment.
But then the tiredness hit me. Suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. Suddenly I could barely lift my arms. The thought of having to undress was unbearable, so I lay back in bed with all my clothes on and descended into the soft, inner light. Every tiny movement I made, even the stirring of my little finger, tickled my stomach, and when I fell asleep the very next second it was with a smile on my face.
“It’s a bit like buying wine in a restaurant,” I said. “If you’re not a connoisseur, I mean. If you’ve got a lot of money you take the second-most expensive. If you haven’t, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest. That’s probably the way it is with coffins as well.”
…as tears flowed down my cheeks without cease, for Dad, who had grown up here, he was dead. Or perhaps that was not why I was crying, perhaps it was for quite different reasons, perhaps it was all the grief and misery I had accumulated over the last fifteen years that had now been released.
Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
“Jump out of the plane on my count, at 5. Ready?” the sky diver instructor says to you, a nervous first-time customer, crouched in a tiny Cessna plane flying 10,000 feet above the air. You are pulsing with adrenaline. Wide eye fear.
“Ok,” you say, unconvincingly. “Ready.”
The instructor kicks open the door to the plane. Air rushes through the open door and the aircraft rattles a bit in the sky. Fear turns to panic, as every fiber of your body — everything evolution has taught you — says to not jump out of an open aircraft.
“1, 2, 3…”
Then, on the count of 4, the instructor jumps the gun. You think you have one more precious second to change your mind. But he’s already pushed you out the airplane. And away you go. This way, there’s no time for you to change your mind at the last minute.
Although I’ve never sky dived, I’m told this is not an uncommon technique to use with first-timers who sometimes experience last minute panic cop-outs.
And it reminded me of a great insight from an acquaintance, delivered on summer day a couple years ago in Berlin.
I asked him if he felt ready to have kids when his wife gave birth. He replied, “I wasn’t ready. But we were almost ready to have kids. Almost ready. You’ll never feel fully ready.”
This is a truth in so many things, isn’t it?
Don’t start a company when you feel ready to, because you’ll never feel ready. Start a company when you feel almost ready.
Don’t marry your boyfriend or girlfriend when you feel ready, because you’ll never quite be sure. Marry him when you feel almost ready — when you’re almost sure he’s the one.
Don’t take the job that you feel fully prepared for. Stretch yourself. Push yourself. Take the job you feel almost ready for.
“Almost ready” is similar to The 80% Rule persuasion hack. Ronald Reagan argued that you don’t need someone to agree with you 100% for them to be “with you” — you just need them to be with you on 80% of the issues. That’s usually enough for them to pledge their support.
The 80% Rule applied to yourself would mean you don’t need to be 100% sure of a decision for it to be the right decision. You need to be 80% sure — or, almost ready.
Otherwise, if you’re lucky, a coach or mentor will be around to interrupt your deliberating and doubt and procrastination — and push you out the airplane before you realize what’s happening!
Great opening paragraphs in this review of Joshua Ferris’s story collection:
It is late on a spring afternoon in Brooklyn. Sarah sits on her balcony, sipping a glass of wine, gazing down at the neighbors laughing on their brownstone stoops. A mystical sort of breeze arrives, one of “maybe a dozen in a lifetime,” tickling the undersides of leaves and Sarah, too, who now finds herself restless with longing for something new, for anything but the same old thing. Her husband comes home. “What should we do tonight?” she asks. “I don’t care,” Jay says. “What do you want to do?”
As most battered and seaworthy veterans of relationships eventually know, this is not the best response to a mate who feels herself to be in a sudden existential quandary, who, anointed by a breeze, is looking for something more than just another late-night superhero movie and familiar takeout sandwich. Bad though a spouse may be who dictates the marital laws, equally awful is the passive partner who simply goes along for every ride.
In that vexed, trembling fashion begins “The Breeze,” one of several standout stories in Joshua Ferris’s new collection, “The Dinner Party,” a magnificent black carnival of discord and delusion. Richard Yates once published a collection called “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.” With 11 stories of its own, “The Dinner Party” might comparably have been titled “Eleven Kinds of Crazy.” Coupledom, in particular, is shown to be a nearly hallucinatory proposition, involving those alternative realities commonly known as husband and wife, who suffer veiled and separate lives side by side, breathing in squalid proximity “the stale tenement air of married life,” as Ferris puts it.