Category Archives: Essays and Lessons

Battle Cry for Kindness

On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor is a fascinating book that uses disciplines of history, philosophy ,and psychoanalysis to explore the concept of kindness.  As a long-time believer in the inherent kindness of human nature (and long-suffering — I have been isolated during more than a few dinner table arguments), I was heartened by the writers’ early and consistent assertions that human kindness is indeed human nature; but so, they assert are aggression and even cruelty.  The premise of the book is that kindness as a trait and as a virtue has been denigrated and down-listed to weakness and passivity, something that works fine between mother and child but has no place in the competitive world of individual survival.  The authors wish to demonstrate that in fact humans are interdependent and the bridge between humans is best expressed through kindness, through recognizing kinship, shared interests, and mutual needs and desires.

This book is a must-read because it will set off firecrackers of thoughts in your mind, as it did in mine; certain assertions struck me as right on and perfect: that “kindness….creates the kind of intimacy, the kind of involvement with other people that we both fear and crave; that kindness, fundamentally, makes life worth living; and that everything that is against kindness is an assault on our hope.”  Certain other statements were just incredulous to me, especially those which came out of the Freudian analysis of kindness (one example:”we tell ourselves we are being kind as a cover story for the trade in sex that is always going on when we think we are at our most virtuous“), although a very profound statement came from the same Freudian chapter, that guilt is “cruelty, the extreme unkindness, one is capable of doing to oneself.”  This sentence and so many others (my copy of the book is heavily underlined) sent me spiraling into deep thinking about my own family and community, and where kindness fits in.

In defining kindness, and how it has been understood through the thousands of years of human interaction, the authors present the idea that connection between humans is underlying motivation in kindness:  “History shows us the manifold expressions of humanity’s desire to connect, from classical celebrations of friendship, to Christian teachings on love and charity, to twentieth-century philosophies of social welfare.”  Unfortunately, as the cult of the individual, combined with capitalism and competitiveness versus cooperation have all risen in influence and power in how humans define themselves and their goals, the impulse of kindness has suffered.  Although kindness is often dictated as part of a religious or philanthropic discipline, the fact that it is dictated indicates a competitiveness in the acts of kindness: how much will it take for me to get into heaven or to gain kudos as a do-gooder?  There is also a whiff of Protestant gloom in our society, the enduring Calvinist notion that man is evil, “wholly spoiled and perverted”  (the words of Martin Luther) and in need of saving.  The small, interpersonal, and nonjudgmental kindnesses have suffered, and even children become competitive and nasty.

Children and childhood are where the author’s hopes lie in reinvigorating kindness in our world. The authors use history and philosophy (Rousseau, of course, and his theories on the inherent sympathy — kindness — of children) to present the view that whether children are born kind and have their kindness positively re-enforced through the experience of having kind behavior elicit favorable and helpful responses or whether they learn kindness from  mirroring seen behavior or trying to hold onto mother’s love,  children are kind. Of course they also have capacity for cruelty but in my experience as a kid once and as a mother now, and as a sometimes teacher in kids’ classrooms, many, many children never are the bullies or the meanies: they are kind and affectionate and ebullient.  And they are kind, affectionate, and ebullient  especially if such characteristics are supported by the adults and mirrored by the adults in their lives.   As children mature, their kindness is re-enforced not only by how people react to them, but how they see people around them behaving to other people.  Children treated kindly at home and who witness kindness being shown to others, will generally be kind outside the home.

Which brings me to a notion that the authors of On Kindness never address: the notion that kindness is a respect that one person shows towards another. Kindness is an acknowledgement that others have feelings, needs, desires, ideas, and complaints.  Respect is often what is missing in modern failures of kindness. The authors do present strong arguments for kindness as a kind of respect, without actually using the word: “It is kind to see individuals as they are, rather than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.”  And later, “To live well, we must be able to imaginatively identify with other people, and allow them to identify with us.”

In my up-scale, competitive community, I see where the failure of kindness is a failure by Mr. Bigbucks to recognize that other people are just as important as he is, combined with a fear that the other person is actually MORE important than he is. Competition and self-importance nudge out respect and kindness.  When friends complain about lack of kindness, they are usually saying one of two things: they are being used (taken advantage of) for their kindness, or they are not being treated in kind with kindness: they give, and they give, but get nothing back.  Both failures of kindness are failures of respect.

One of the core spoilers of kindness in our world today, argue the authors and I agree, is the “enterprise culture” of “overwork, anxiety, and isolation.”  They state that our “competitive society, one that divides people into winners and losers, breeds unhappiness….People placed under unremitting pressure become estranged from each other….Sympathies contract as openheartedness begins to feel too exposed….A culture of hardness and cynicism grows, fed by envious admiration of those who seem to thrive — the rich and famous: our modern priesthood — in this tooth-and-claw environment.

As you can tell from reading this review, On Kindness is interesting, entertaining and provoking.  It covers huge amounts of material on kindness that has been produced through the centuries by philosophers, theorists, scientists, psychoanalysts, and historians.  But the authors completely miss the boat on one of the strongest proofs available that kindness is both an inherent trait and a salient desire of humans: the novel.  Every great novel is about connection (Yes!  Every single one!) and connection is the first and the ultimate kindness.  When we can connect with another person, we are extending the kindness of taking them seriously, treating them with desire and respect and affirming their own importance.  Their life has meaning to us: we show that through connecting with them, and we feel our own meaningfulness through their reciprocity of connection.  This is a theme in books from Miss Lonelyhearts (definitely a Freudian analysis of kindness) to The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Rousseau on kindness), to Little Bee (kindness as a life-saver but also real and not the “magical” and false kindness that the authors discuss in On Kindness, to Revolutionary Road (failure to be kind destroys a family: I quote On Kindness, “Acts of kindness demonstrate….that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other“).

Despite the mildness often associated with the word “kindness”, to be kind is actually one of the potent of human endeavors, one of the easiest to exercise (a little practice may be necessary) and one of the most democratic: it can be used anywhere, anytime, with any person, whether it be your lover, your child, your dry cleaner, or your mother.  Read On Kindness and think about exercising daily this most dynamic of all powers, the power of kindness.

Writing Instructions: Anne Lamott

One-third into Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, I was not happy. The advice for aspiring writers that she offers in those first chapters (subtitle of the book isSome Instructions on Writing and Life) seems simplistic and obvious (maybe I’ve just heard it or read it all too many times before) and too cute.  And what about the instructions on life?  Nada, nothing, zip.

As I worked my way through the second third of the book, I began liking Lamott and her book more. Lamott is sweet and earnest and really, really wants to convey what it is like and what it is not like to be an author.  She really, really wants all of us aspiring writers to write, and to write well, and she is trying her hardest to get us there. She also starts in these middle chapters to throw out some nuggets on how life (and writing) should be handled, all very basic and true: be genuine, be honest, be engaged, be compassionate (including towards yourself but  don’t navel gaze), don’t pontificate, expand and express. I agree with every point she makes but I’d rather have these truths illustrated by a great work of fiction (see my list of Great Books) or by an essayist who writes exquisitely (Annie Dillard) or engagingly (MurakamiAthill). Lamott is funny and cheery but her book up to this point was still more like a souped-up power point presentation for a writing class than a seriously engaging book about writing and life.

But Lamott really caught me with her last chapter.  I  loved the last chapter and I recommend reading it if you love to write.  You will find kinship and a thrill in her words, “There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding” and  will draw energy from her assertion that “Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious.  When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader.  He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”  Lamott  goes all out in this chapter and gives her best exposition on why the writing life matters,  the magic of it, and the joy and the pleasure, along with the hard work and the dispiriting moments (or weeks or months).

The difference between Lamott’s book and the books on writing by Dillard (The Writing Life) and Murakami (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) is that Lamott’s book will not be interesting if you are not interested in writing.  If you are a reader, you will love the other two books because they are a great pleasure to read, they kick you in the head (Dillard) or poke at you (Murakami) and make you think, and they do not keep you at a distance.  They really do provide insights into life.  Ironically, given Lamott’s generosity of spirit and advice, she is the most removed from the reader because she sets herself up as teacher (which, to be fair, she is) and her lessons are not about life (disregard her subtitle). If you want to learn to write, Lamott’s book is a great place to start, assuming writing can be taught, which I think it can.  But great writing cannot be taught: it is magic and comes with no instructions at all. Lamott gives writers instructions on the basic tools of writing and encourages them to go for the magic.

Lamott’s book is a lecture, at times hectoring and at times funny, but always a lecture meant to cheer on writers and keep them going with what they think is their life calling. Lamott hopes that she can lead aspiring writers to that place where they can find satisfaction in getting the job done (publishing be damned), but it is more than hope that drives her, it is the determination of the teacher to get the message through to the student.

By the final chapter, when she has her students asking, “So why does our writing matter, again?”  she makes her writing matter, by answering “Because of the spirit….Because of the heart.  Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life….When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or about life, our buoyancy is restored.  We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.”  Good writing, and quite instructive — on writing — too.

Primer on Living: The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is an intense writer, and a generous one: she writes as she counsels others to write in her book The Writing Life, “spend it all, shoot it play it lose it, right away every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a late place in the book, or for another book; give it all, give it now.”   In every essay collected in The Writing Life, she gives with her hands thrust forward and wide open: it is with blazing but focused ardor that she shares her acute observations and ideas in words, sentences, and paragraphs that are crafted and perfected, never sloppy but never restrained. Sometimes she goes over the top (“I was scarcely alive” — after a day of intense writing) and (“I wept on the shore in fear” when she sees big, green-tinged waves) but her exacting requirements — that she capture the essence and truth of what she wants to convey — excuse, even justify, the hyperbolic state she reaches in her writing.

The Writing Life is not a book to encourage writers. The faint of heart will back away from the writing life as she describes it, one of self-sacrifice and self-absorption and with little underlying importance (“Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?” ) or return (“many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.”) And yet the impulse of writing she understands and underscores and holds holy: “There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

What Dillard abhors is writing for the popular appeal (the dumbing down of writing): she makes a wonderful argument that “the people who read are the people like literature” and “the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep –the more likely people are to read it.” She is talking, of course, about true readers, those who “are not too lazy to flip on the television; they prefer books.” (One look at the best seller list shows there is a lot of money in writing the books that draw the TV crowd — and Dillard would respond that the profit motive is the lowest incentive, and least likely to bear fruit, of the writing life). She concludes by stating, “I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.” Dillard holds no punches and delivers the truth straight up like she sees it, with words that are crafted, perfected, and crystal clear.

When she describes the internal engine of writing, she captured, for me, the essence of how it feels to write: “The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpates the dark muscles as horses, feeling for something, it knows not what.” What is hoped for — what I strive for — is that the writing that comes out of such sensations can then be honed and polished, to deliver, in the end, truth and beauty. We all feel deeply but only great writers can “isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts“; only they can “magnify and dramatize our days,…illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness,….press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel their majesty and power….”

Much of what Dillard shares in The Writing Life applies to any life that requires engagement, whether it be one of mothering, lawyering, teaching, building, temping, or trucking, and it applies to loving anyone who is in that life with you. In life and in love, be fully engaged, be exacting of yourself but also free and open to sharing: “the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

In her final essay, an homage to a stunt pilot and an exploration of what it is that drives us to create beauty and explore limits, Dillard offers a quotation from the French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, “Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe” to underline her point of going farther, deeper, and closer, to understand life. For me, the point of Chardin’s words, and of writing, and of life itself, is to make connections with people and ideas, and that even when one can reach understanding or happiness or relief or joy on his/her own in “separation“, it is only through communicating that understanding that we can we find “deeper penetration” (connection again) with the universe of humanity. It is through the connections we make that we create lives that are satisfying but not static, fulfilling but not complacent. As Dillard makes so clear in The Writing Life, life is about giving and receiving, both in abundance.

No More War: Captain Paul K. Chappell Sees How

Captain Paul K. Chappell of the U.S. Army writes a very persuasive book with his Will War Ever End? A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century.  Comparing the tolerance of war to the tolerance of slavery, serfdom, and subjugation of women — all of which are now almost universally deemed unacceptable and unthinkable– Chappell argues that through peaceful demonstration to governments and global re-education of people, we can see the end to war in our lifetime.  Halleluiah, I’m on board.

In this slim volume, Chappell manages to pack in clear reasoning and solid support  for his multi-part argument, drawing on sources as diverse as Socrates, Einstein, Smedley Butler (at the time of his death, he was the most decorated marine in U.S. history), and Martin Luther King to buttress his points that: war drives people insane; the biggest problem of every army is how to stop soldiers from running away;  being loving allows us to be brave; cooperation is the key to our survival; unconditional love builds an indestructible bond between people; we have a stronger instinct to posture (scare away) than to kill; fury motivates us  to protect our loved ones; hatred is always painful; unconditional love is inherently joyful; and unconditional love is stronger than hatred.  All this points add up to a common sense conclusion that war can be eradicated given our fear of violence, our hope for preservation and survival, and our capacity for love.

Chappell recognizes that government leaders decide on war (and the machinery, including private business, behind government representatives) and not the people.  By letting government know that we will not take war as a choice any more (he uses the suffragette movement, the work of Ghandi, and the Bonus Marchers after World War One as inspiration) and by educating people as to the truth of his five-part argument above, war can end both in terms as how it is tolerated and as how we view it as inevitable.  War is not inevitable, it is as much as choice as enslaving a whole people based on race, and that choice can be turned around.  Chappell points to the Enlightenment as the first major event in human history when accepted modes of government and how people should be ruled/governed were rejected and the now internationally accepted concepts of freedom of self-determination, liberty of choice, and individual human worth were proclaimed.  He calls for a second Enlightenment, one that recognizes man is not violent by nature and therefore doomed to war, but is instead inherently preservative of life, especially of human life (he does understand that by labeling the enemy as less than human, war mongers succeed in promoting war).

Coming from a West Point graduate, Iraqi war veteran, and current Captain in the U.S. Army, as well as being the son of a man who fought in Korea and Vietnam, this argument is especially moving and doubly-heartfelt.  He knows whereof he speaks and his knowledge and his words are powerful.  He ends his book with clear and strong indictments of war from past soldiers of valor, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, Ghandi, and  Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Chappell is working on the follow-up volume to this book, Peaceful Revolution, a guide on how to re-think the question of war and eliminate all war mongering.  I look forward to following his noble battle to end all battles and I will be one who joins in spreading the message: war can end in the 21st century.

On the Pleasure of Reading William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating is a sometimes charming, sometimes  mind-bending, and always intelligent collection of essays by this free-thinking, humanistic, and very exacting nineteenth century philosopher.  He makes no big-blown arguments. Instead, all his essays build incrementally with well-drawn points (supported by his wealth of knowledge of literature, ancient and contemporary, and of history) to create a solid and convincing conclusion.

Hazlitt is charming and contemporary when writing about a boxing match he attends outside of London (it was like reading one of the best “About Town” pieces from the New Yorker, only longer).  He is sincere, quietly angry, and inspiring in his pieces “On the Spirit of Monarchy” and “What is the People?”.  He is thorough and sweeping, profoundly human and completely convincing (actually, I found him always convincing) in his essays “The Indian Jugglers”  (in which he dissects mechanical versus intellectual facility and defines as genius the beauty that comes when the facilities are joined, as in great painting) and “On Reason and Imagination”.  In that essay he makes a beautiful argument for the commonly shared traits in mankind being best recognized not in sweeping statements or generalizations but in a profound exposition of the individual:  “if we are imbued with a deep sense of individual weal or woe, we shall be awe-struck at the idea of humanity in general.”   A resounding argument for the importance of the novel in understanding the world at large: the novel takes a particular set of characters, puts them in a bit of the world, and from that individual experience, we learn about the powers and failings of humanity.

He is positively on point in his piece “On the Pleasure of Hating”, in which he argues that it is human nature both to hate and to identify with the badness in others (“everyone takes part with Othello against Iago… reading Homer, [do we] generally side with the Greeks or the Trojans?“).  It is our own self-knowledge of the undesirable lurking within us (why are we not perfectly good?) that leads us to chase and to hate what we see as bad: we are self-loathing, self-castigating, but look outwards to inflict the punishment for our own inadequacies.

Hazlitt recognizes that hate is unquenchable but he does offer as an antidote that we recognize it, inside and out.  In knowing it perhaps we can exercise some dominion over it.  Otherwise, “pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands; it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.

Forrest Church: Preaching Love and Awe

Forrest Church’s Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow is a fine book.  Church has thought deeply and fully about death and how to prepare  for it, and has good advice on making the most of life. He began this book in response to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and the mixture of sermons and essays serves his readers well in presenting his most profound and heartfelt thoughts on life, love, and death.

For Church, love is the antidote to death: love lives on, the love we give and the love we get: “Not only is our grief when someone dies testimony to our love, but when we ourselves die, the love we have given to others is the one thing death can’t kill.”  Church believes that Christ was reborn at Easter not literally but through love, his love (shown by his forgiveness of those torturing him and his willingness to die), and the love he had engendered in his followers through his example (that lived on as Christianity). Church says the grief we feel when someone we love dies is a testament to the love we have for them and from them, and is a sacrament of love, a shared proof of its existence.

Church also believes that our being alive at all is such a miracle, we should be grateful:  “Consider the odds… Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception….the odds were still a million to one against your being…and that’s just the beginning of the miracle.  The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations.  Going back ten generations, this miracle must repeat itself one thousand times ….one and a quarter million times going back only twenty generations… And that’s only the egg and sperm part of the miracle.  Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty…and there were tragedies around the globe...”  The fact of existing at all is a miracle not to be taken lightly.

I disagree with very little of what Church offers on the importance of both gratitude for life, and of manifesting love through our life and through death. But the lessons he offers, and all of the advice he gives, I’ve received through literature, through poems, novels, and short stories, and I find literature a much more persuasive teacher.  Church preaches and literature demonstrates; Church sermonizes in folksy, warm language and yet literature offers me real people in real situations facing up to death, living life, or running in fear from both, and I learn from reading about them (without even realizing it until the book is over ad I sit back and think).  Church himself says that he learned how to live not from his parents telling him the right and wrong ways to do things but by showing him, though their own lives.  He uses illustrations about the importance of living fully, with gratitude and acceptance and awe and joy, but he is preaching.  Good fiction evokes reactions from all my senses, and from my heart and my brain.  I learn more from fiction; I learn deeply because I am using all my senses.

So I recommend literature as the path to find the truths of how to love, live and die.  But there is nothing wrong with following Church’s mantra, which he repeats throughout the book, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”  Go with whatever works to bring you to that place of awe, gratitude, love, and wonder, no matter where you are in your life, or at what point you find yourself when facing death.

Lectures and Lessons of Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka, writer, poet, playwright, and political philosopher, and winner of The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, wrote Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World in 2004, a collection of lectures that he gave in London in 2004.  The lectures were his response to what he sees as the commencement of a new kind of warfare, where everyone is a potential enemy to be shot down and there are no sanctuaries.  He is referring to the terrorism of random murder, beginning with Libya’s on-board bombing of Pan AM flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, followed less than one year later by the on-board bombing by Libya of a French airliner over Niger in 1989,  and continuing with the Beslan school siege which led to the massacre of 186 children, and marching on to the World Trade Center mass murder of over 3700 people by Al Queda terrorists.  “From Niger to Manhattan, the tail of fear had stretched and broadened to engulf the globe, warning its inhabitants that there were no longer any categories of the involved or noninvolved.”

Reading these lectures was difficult and demanding, but well worth the effort of my determined concentration and at times necessary (for me) back-tracking and memory-refreshing of events Soyinka refers to that I had forgotten about or never knew about.  Soyinka puts together a strong argument for what I already believe: that fighting religious terrorism with government-sponsored military efforts that punish the innocent only underscores the fear (and the fact)  that no one is safe and there is no sanctuary: we are all potentially face to face with an enemy who says, as Soyinka states, “I am right; you are dead.”   Instead of a dialog of “I am right; you are wrong but I can live side by side with you without murdering you”, the world divides itself into “with us or agin’ us”.  “Terror against terror may be emotionally satisfying in the immediate, but who really wants to live under the permanent shadow of a new variant of [the cold war’s] Mutual Assured Destruction?

Soyinka argues that between formal states of government, dialog, with concomitant responsibility to both participate in the dialog and commit to its conclusions, is possible and should be pursued. He cites the “Dialog of Civilizations” supported by the United Nations which has led to many meetings between differing states as to how to foster tolerance of different religions and cultures: “the globe needs to saturated, almost on a daily basis, with such encounters.”  Soyinka also believes in the efficacy of formal UN meetings and accords, with failure to meet responsibilities under accords resulting in full sanctions.  He puts forth Iraq’s willingness to allow UN inspectors to continue inspections in Iraq prior to the US invasion and questions the invasion given Iraq’s irregular but nevertheless present compliance.  So do we all, now.  The United Nation’s program was working, it turns out, in its goal of preventing Iraq from building nuclear weapons.

But what to do about the quasi-states, the Al Quedas, the terrorist organizations that lack boundaries, have no definable government, and cannot be held accountable for actions?  The power source for such organizations must be approached: the disenfranchised, the miserable, the ones for whom human dignity has been lost through destruction of their homeland, delegitimization of their statehood, intolerance for their religion or culture, and the accompanying and pervasive and pernicious forces of fear and anger.

Soyinka starts with the premise that “the assault on human dignity is one of the prime goals of the visitation of fear, a prelude to the domination of the mind and the triumph of power.” By promoting human dignity, we can weaken forces of terror.  We have to work to eradicate poverty, promote education and fight illiteracy, protect civil and human rights, and prevent disenfranchisement of any group within a country. He believes that by according tolerance of religious and cultural differences to all people and fully condemning without fear of political correctness or fall-out, all those who use religion hysterically and violently and divisively, we as a global community can provide a bulwark against terrorism.  “The banner of morbidity appears to have been hoisted all over the world.  To take it down, the world must act in concert, and with resolve, but must also embrace or intensify a commitment to the principle of justice that ensures that the dispossessed shall enjoy restitution, and the humiliated are restored to dignity.”

In ending the lectures, Soyinka drew upon his knowledge of the religion of the Orisa from the Yoruba, and still widely practiced in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean: this religion does not recognize a spiritual division of the world.  “Its watchword is tolerance,  belief that there are many paths to truth and god-head, and that the world should not be set on fire to prove the supremacy of a belief or the righteousness of a cause.”  When innocents die, as they always do in cases of terrorism and in blunt force responses to terrorism, it is as if the world is set on fire.  Soyinka offers a way to put out the fires, eradicate the sources — the kindling — by addressing problems endemic to those areas of the world where young terrorists are growing, and by offering an alternative of dialog to those who would participate, and leaving the killers to smolder away and burn out, by themselves.

Is Soyinka an optimist?  Definitely, but also a pragmatist, offering the worth of human dignity as so deep and so universal that we can all recognize it, we can all work to further it, and we can all condemn those who would take it away from anyone of us.

Seventies’ Style for Today

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey is a wonderful artifact of the seventies.  It is completely lacking in irony and chock-full of zen insight; it is also refreshingly optimistic about the possibilities for all of us to play better tennis and enjoy a better life.

I liked this book a lot.  Gallwey gives some good advice on tennis and he makes sound connections to life lived off the court as well.  Much of what he says will sound familiar to anyone who has read any zen-based guides on concentration, meditation, and focus.  Stay in the moment, relieve your mind from worrying about the past or the present, let yourself be fully in the present.  How to do that?  Focus on something in your present moment, the seams of the ball coming toward you, the smells of the freshly-mown grass, the sound of your child’s voice — and when all else fails, focus on your breathing.  Nothing is more present than the in and the out of your constant, rhythmic breathing.

Gallwey talks a lot about visualizing and feeling the correct way to do something, even actually doing the swing or the serve and watching your arm as you do it, feeling where your racquet is, visualizing where you want the ball to go.  Then he advocates letting your body play without thinking about where everything is supposed to be (arm, feet, swing) and just letting your body do what it feels is right.  Let go of trying to control, trying to remember every little thing you are supposed to do.  But do keep your eye on that ball, don’t let that go: focus.  Thank you, Yoda, I think I’ve got it.  But you know, he is right.  Letting your body play and your mind enjoy gets you to better tennis.  Or at least tennis that is more fun (more on that later).

Gallwey made excellent points about the issue of competition that really resonated.  I always have trouble beating people (other than my husband, I love when I rarely beat him and I always try very hard to beat him — at tennis.). With others, especially friends, I hold back. As Gallwey points out, we think when we are playing that we will feel good (validated) if we win; the corollary is that our opponent will feel bad (devalued) if she loses.  As Gallwey says “[t]here would be no problem with competition if one’s self-worth was not at stake“.  Or the self-worth of a friend, which we don’t want to damage; we support our friends.

Gallwey advises us to throw out the idea that any intrinsic value of inner worth will flow towards the winner and away from the loser: it is just a game and the best games are ones where you play hard, you play your best.  When the game is over, you will feel tired but satisfied, no matter what the outcome. “It is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest  possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him.  Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.”  The victory is in rising, in playing hard and then reaching across the net for the handshake, no matter who won.

PARENTS out there: if your kid wins a baseball game or dance competition or spelling bee, you have not won the best parent award.  At best, you have taught  your child to compete with engagement and enjoyment (congratulations!); at worst, you are creating someone who equates winning with self-worth (then your should read Gallwey’s book).

Now to the best part of The Inner Game of Tennis, the chapter where Gallwey lays out the different types of tennis players, warning that  “that this guide not be read as an exercise in self-analysis, but as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing tennis.”  It is also a surefire guide to having fun while living.  Too many people do not have fun. Period.  Ever. On court or off.  Although times are rough right now, most people I know don’t have to worry about clean water, basic medical care, decent schools, or imminent homelessness, and  so we really should be able to laugh and relax, without the aid of cocktails or internet liaising or whatever.  We should be able to have some fun and not take ourselves so seriously.  Why do we screw ourselves up?

According to Gallwey because we are always trying to measure up, to prove ourselves, to be of value, and to be better than someone else.  Gallwey says, and I paraphrase, relax, chill out, set your own goals and reach  them for your own satisfaction.  Then he does something truly amazing: he makes reference to Jonathan Seagull!  Do we all remember Richard Bach’s Jonathan Seagull?  Are we back in the seventies? You bet we are and it is not such a bad thing.  “Like Jonathan Seagull, are we not an immeasurable energy in the process of  manifesting, by degrees, an unlimited potential?….We are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment…the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define my identity, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match.”  Or before you lost your job or before the value of your house fell through the floor, or after you won the big bonus or scored the big deal.

Visualize your game, Gallwey says, and then let yourself live it, enjoying it all the way.  Great advice from the seventies. I say we all give it a try here in the 21st century.

Hornby on Books

Yesterday I read Nick Hornby’s book, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt.  It was recommended to me and I liked it.  But it is not a book that most people would enjoy reading. Sure, it is funny and sometimes there are great insights but basically it is a book of one-liners or one-paragraphers and only a real book lover — crazed book lover — would want to read through it.  The book was not even written as a book, it is a compilation of columns Hornby wrote, and those columns were meant to be digested quickly, laughed over, and maybe a few interesting and provoking thoughts thrown out there would be absorbed.  And a few great book recommendations picked up (I added six more books to my list of definite-reads over the next year).  I’ve already read Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (one of the favorite books of the last century) and have no desire (I fear it might kill all my desire, after reading Hornby’s assessment of it)to read The Dirt by Motley Crue.

Hornby ‘s writing is funny and self-deprecating, quirky and zipping off on tangents here and there, but the only place in the whole book where I felt his love for books and for reading was in his wonderful introduction. He is right on when he says, “One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.”  Yeah — I agree!  Reading that is hard work is reading to put away for another day, when it might not seem like hard work.  Or just put away, forever. Caveat:  reading that is hard because it is making you see something you did not want to see, I say that you must sit there and read it and figure out why it is bothering you!  You will learn something from that book, that self-examination.

Speaking of self-examination, what is truly great about reading and Hornby does not mention this (how could he miss such a vital aspect of reading — how?) is that reading is a way to STOP looking down into your own soul and instead look over into someone else’s.  And that glimpse off to another person and world, or a deep intense stare into another’s navel, is a break that your own self needs — your navel needs ignoring while you go off and enjoy some one else’s problems and pleasures for a change.  We all know reading is an escape — why doesn’t Horny mention it?  I forgive him because of his advice at the end of the intro: “Read anything, as long as you can’t wait to pick it up again.” Of course — and of course I have a caveat to that: don’t read trash.  It will trash your brain and seal it closed tight, instead of blowing it wide open.  But more about that later.

I identified with what Hornby was doing — writing about the books he was reading every month– because that is what I am doing here on this site and I wanted to see how he went about doing what I am going about doing.  He is a writer and I am a reader, and I figured there would be a difference on how we would approach the review of what we read.  And there is a difference: other than in his introduction, Horny is not writing about loving books. Or about needing books and wanting to understand what makes a book great and why it is important that a book is great.  In fact, Horny argues that whereas no bad can come from reading, no good can come  either.  I disagree with him on both counts.

Reading trash is not good for you.  Formulaic romances, mysteries, and thrillers, and any novels that follow a set regime of format, character, and style create a pattern of expectation in readers that leads to undisturbed and conformist perceptions of what life is all about.   Even when the life portrayed is completely wacko or sicko, unbelievably sexy or depraved, these formulaic books (standard type characters and situations) coincide with popular ideas and prejudices, and jibe with current acceptable notions of how life should be. And books –ART — should disturb settled notions of how life should be.  Because there is no one way that life should be.  The broader the range of ways to live that we can experience — genuinely experience through genuine portrayals — the better.  We can have whole new vistas of experience through books, paintings, sculpture, music, movies, (and conversations about these events with a diverse bunch of people), and our brains and our hearts benefit, becoming bigger and broader,  more accepting and more compassionate, and best of all, more open to life in all its varieties.

Real life is portrayed in great books: no matter how extraordinary the elements and the details, the genuineness of the writer brings to the reader a recognition of humanity, of the humane and of the evil and of the chances for redemption or not.  Great books give us real life where mistakes are made and we don’t get what we want and we suffer and cause suffering but where we also experience joy and even ecstasy and peace and contentment — that is what great literature presents.  And by seeing our humanity reflected, we see our possibilities.  Great good does come from reading great books.

Maybe the difference is not that I am a reader and Hornby is both writer and reader; maybe it has more to do with the fact that I am American and he is English.  He notes the huge difference between American fiction and British fiction, summing it up as “Don’t Abandon Your Dreams” (the message in American literature) and “Abandon Your Dreams”  (the message in British literature).  Maybe I am the optimist, sure that books can make the world a better place and maybe Hornby is the pessimist, counseling us to read for pleasure only, and to forget all the rest of it.

I can just imagine what Hornby would say about my one book a day project: nothing very good.  He seems to be speaking directly to me when he writes, “If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul?”  That is what I do — I sit and I read and I absorb.  Writing about what I read is what helps the absorption rate enormously.  I’ve always read voraciously but now I am really thinking about what I read, not just reading for the pleasure of the words but also reading for the agony of figuring out why I like a book or why I hate it, or what this book has to show me. The reading is the pleasure, the writing is the hard work, but together, the two make this the best year ever.  My year of reading one book a day.

Consider Sinning

What better to do on Valentine’s Day than consider the seven deadly sins?  Love is of course a virtue but other emotional states associated with Valentine’s Day — envy (her boyfriend got her roses), pride (my boyfriend is way hotter), covetousness (I want two boyfriends), gluttony (it wasn’t that big a box of chocolates), sloth (store-bought valentines this year), lust (no explanation required here), and anger (you didn’t bring home chocolates or roses!?!) — are the big seven deadly sins.

So I was excited to read the Common Reader Edition of The Seven Deadly Sins, a compilation of essays by seven authors on the seven sins. Excited not by the sins but by the authors chosen, especially W.H. Auden, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Angus Wilson.  These guys must know a thing or two about sin, I thought to myself. Any great writer explores lust, pride, and anger in their books; any writer I’ve ever known experiences envy and gluttony and, although calling it writers’ block, sloth.  But the essays turn out to be a mixed bag: maybe these writers do know about the sins but judging from a few of the essays, these writers forgot a thing or two about writing.

It is interesting to see that a new afterward has been pinned on to this edition (the original publication came out in 1962; the “A Common Reader Edition” came out in 2002) which offers apology for the essays, stating the authors’ “arguments are rambling, the authors assert things and don’t tell us why, they are full of prejudices and unexplained quirks.”  I couldn’t have said it better.  Nevertheless there are good pieces in the book, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s very funny bit on gluttony  (he is  best known as a travel writer and he must have eaten his way across the world with all he knows about food) with its great line that gluttony’s “physical penalties may be the heaviest but it is the sin that leaves us with the lightest deposit of guilt.”  Yes, I know: not a layer of guilt but a stubborn layer of fat (is stubbornness a sin?  Is my fat sinning against me?).  Also, Cyril Connelly’s short story illuminating covetousness to an extreme degree is pretty funny.

Edith Sitwell’s piece on pride is the best of the pieces, and well in keeping with her famous quote (not used here): “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”  And Dame Edith argues that having pride in yourself, rightly or wrongly, is very necessary to survival.  But she does caution that pride plus flexibility (admitting you are wrong when you are wrong) is necessary to prevent the virtue of pride from turning into the vice of stasis and immovability.  In other words, flip-flopping is a good thing, at the right time.

But none of the  authors really get to the heart of the matter, which is what is sin, after all?  If one feels envy but gets over it and doesn’t insult anyone in the process,  if Jimmy Carter limited the lust to his heart and didn’t allow any spillover to the loins, if I am a total and complete glutton at Christmas (and will pay for it through July), if we as a country are proud of having a new and hopefully honorable and decent President, what harm is being done?  I posit that “sin” is an action that is harmful and hurtful. Not that sloth, as it is practiced on a large scale when humans fall down in front of their TVs for hours at a time, is not harmful (and surely the opposite of sloth, working eighty hours a week and blackberrying through vacation, that’s not good) but is it sinful?  Killing and torturing and raping are sins.  The rest of it, even lying and cheating and disrespecting what others have done for you, and disdaining life and rejecting friendship: these are the lesser sins.  Caveat, and it is a big one:
acting in any way at all to promote your own personal economic gains or religious objectives at the cost of other people’s lives, which is a form of killing after all, is a SIN.

But does defining and delineating what are the deadly sins matter unless we believe in hell?  To find out the answer to this question, don’t bother reading the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins. Read the books I’ve tagged as great books.  The books will show you, in genuine and living color, what happens when sins are committed, the prices paid by everyone in the room (metaphorically speaking) for the sin, its pain and damage spreading like ripples from a triple-bounced stone across a pond.  Try Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American SlaveThe Master of PetersburgA MercyRespected SirThe Emigrants. But these books are not all doom and gloom: there is humor in envy, anger, gluttony, covetousness, and lust (of course!), when done with the right touch, as in The English MajorThe Crying of Lot 49The Tempest TalesDeaf Sentence, and the perfect The Elegance of the Hedgehog.