On Identity and Hiking

I like to think myself cultured, and this means I check the news and have opinions on it, and I read books, both old and new.

One of the books I’m reading is The Seven Basic Plots, a tome attempting to not only condense stories into their seven archetypal plots, but to answer why we tell stories in the first place. Coupling this book with the daily news, which disseminates content by telling stories, drives me to an exercise less about identifying plots and more about identifying wants and needs.

Stories, of course, begin with these wants and these needs. A man needs to get home from war: we have The Odyssey. A woman wants a loving, exciting relationship. Anna Karenina. A man wants to catch the white whale. Moby Dick.

What do the news stories say about us? What is our collective story based on the headlines?

Many of the headlines are about power, and who has it and who doesn’t. Underneath this, however, and coinciding with the stratification of politics and society, is a constant need to say who aligns with who.

For thousands of years, two primary factors have helped us understand who aligns with who: religion and proximity. The former rooted a person in a specific story, with a specific understanding of what’s gone wrong and how to overcome it. Christianity points to original sin and the need for redemption. Buddhism points to our ceaseless wanting and the need to overcome it by detachment. Religion gives its adherents practices to embody, and these practices both reinforce the story and bind the adherents together.

Proximity, or better, community – whether via religion, the state, the family, or all three – gives people a chance to see themselves in the whole. Again, in the frame of story, my gifts complement the character next to me, whether brother or wife or neighbor, as we work together for the common good. This common good often meant taking up arms against the city nearby coming to attack, or sharing our bounty because we’ll need someone to share with us next year. Communities had a common destiny: what I did affected what would happen to you.

Over the second half of the 20th century, these longstanding edifices finally crumbled. They had been tottering for some time. Religion dutifully exited the public square, both pushed out and willingly setting up its own bookstores and culture apart from the mainstream, and ended reduced to the realm of personal piety.

With rising incomes and insurance, we no longer have a common destiny with our neighbors. Accompany this with advances in technology and travel, and Americans are more transient than ever – and even less bound to their neighbors and a common destiny. We are half a continent away from our families, and even the glue of water-cooler gossip has weakened as teammates work from homes thousands of miles away.

Not that I am a Luddite, or too much of one. I like the ability to occasionally work from home. Water cooler communities  were only ever the few small bricks holding this idea of a shared destiny together, anyway. They were signs of its imminent collapse.

Yet, these changes lead us to where we are today: self-formed communities based on overlap of our own personalized, individual “good.” We identify with those who identify with us and form communities as a result. This leads to the rise of identify politics – self formed communities based on identity. Identity politics have and are serving a purpose when they give voice to the voiceless. Nonetheless, self-forming communities lack the diversity and resilience of those old-time communities that religion and proximity could create, especially with the shared destinies they provided.

Today, if my neighbor goes hungry, what is that to me? This is a new phenomenon in the world.

The deeper spiritual malady behind such self-formed communities is that they lack resilience and are ever-changing. We don’t have shared stories, and when we lose our shared stories we actually lose our foundation, our roots. We don’t understand where to go or what to do: how to live out our stories.

We don’t know who we are.

This is why our news stories are hyper-focused today on who aligns with who. We lack identity. We need to know with whom we align so we can know who we are. What is our shared outcome. To put it another way, society most longs for that which it most lacks. Like a group of hikers on trail too long who cannot stop talking about cheeseburgers and pie, we cannot stop talking about who we are because we have no idea.

Presence and Waiting

This morning I played cards with my nine-year old daughter. After, we played Concentration, or Memory, or whatever it is called today. She won, so I had to do push ups. Before that, we had reviewed her math and practiced fractions.

I have thought, often, that the two traits I want to bring as a parent are patience and presence. The former is for when my two daughters bicker, or don’t listen, or generally do anything that inconveniences me. The latter is for mornings like today. I need such time with my daughter, while the younger is at gymnastics with her mother. In many ways it was a routine Saturday. But it was also an hour to play. To be present.

The other resonant idea is one of waiting. I read Psalm 130 this morning, that ancient poem where the writer declares that he will wait (assuming the writer was a man in that patriarchal society) more than watchmen wait for the morning.

This waiting: there seems to be few stronger metaphors for life. We live in a waiting place. I think of how I’ve waited this week at my work: on interviews, on timelines outside of my control, on others’ priorities. I flew to Indiana and waited at airports. And I’m the sort of man who is oriented to the future: I am excited by what is next, by what will happen. What is happening is less exciting than the opening of possibility.

For the religious, as I am, this waiting is for the divine to act. But even without religion, we find much of our lives waiting. And in the meantime, we fill our lives with purchases or rich food and drink to forget that there is something to wait for at all.

Good waiting has, according to the ancient poet, an aspect of watching. An aspect of seeing the gradients of light each night, from astronomical dawn to sunrise itself. We watch for the subtle gradations of light and movement. There is, in other words, a presence to it.

Of course, patience is also necessary.

I wait today for a thousand pricks of light to burn into red and reveal the sun itself. I wait for the girls to go to bed so I can watch a movie with my wife. I wait for a new hire on my team to come through, for a trip to Florida we have scheduled, and this morning I waited for my workout to be over. (I lifted weights this morning, or as I prefer to call it: uncomfortable counting.)

The waiting is formed of patience and presence. I think of how these two traits I want to show as a parent may be traits of living a good life. Patience in the divine and slow movement, the unhurried change in the night sky. Presence to remain there, to find places not where I can escape to the internet, a magazine. But to practice math with my daughter and play cards, before she gleefully climbs onto my back and commands me to do push ups as my punishment for losing.

Notes: The Sun Also Rises

Longing. Throughout the pages, even the epigraph, we’re reminded of what’s been lost. We see in in the expatriate Jake Barnes, who’s told by his friend Bill:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You have around cafes.

Jake is cut off from his home. He’s cut off, too, from being a man in the traditional sense. We don’t know his exact injury, but we are told a war wound has caused his impotence. So, he becomes a man in the expatriate sense, spending his time talking and not working, obsessed by sex though without any means of release. He passes from cafe to cafe, lost.

It’s pain that drives him back to a memory, a fragment of longing. After he’s punched in the head he walks back to the hotel:

“Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed. I had never seen trees before. I had never seen the flagpoles before, nor the front of the theatre. It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game. I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it, and I walked up the street from the station in the town I had lived in all my life and it was all new. They were raking the lawns and burning leaves in the road, and I stopped for a long time and watched. It was all strange. Then I went on, and my feet seemed to be a long way off, and everything seemed to come from a long way off, and I could hear my feet walking a great distance away. I had been kicked in the head early in the game. It was like that crossing the square.”

Pain does not simply remind him of his past; it pulls him into the presence to see things anew.

Hemingway’s great restraint is never to name the longing, the lostness, never to go into soliloquies about the pain of Jake, but to narrate. He gives us dialogue and action, and the prose itself is lean and athletic. There is no navel gazing, only the rush of events, and the longing for that which has been lost.

Conflict…

In the best stories, the conflict is clear. I think of a writing teacher’s admonition: “Clarify the conflict, but complicate the motivations.”

Many of the self-help books and podcasts, and the ideas you see in early January about setting resolutions (and limiting goals) leading to short-lived goals, are about this one idea. Clarify the conflict.

#writing #conflict

The idea of someone

I find it much easier to love the idea of someone than the disciplined work of loving and listening, of caring for someone when they have the audacity to contradict, or disappoint, or bore me.

The writers who attend to this foible of human nature, whose characters are a bundle of paradoxes comprising a whole, are the writers I want to emulate.

#writing, #human nature

A line will take us hours…

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
“Adam’s Curse,” 1st Stanza, W.B. Yeats
#writing #readings