If no one ever read your blog, or knew that it existed, would you continue to write?
In mid-July I said I am open to suggestions for topics. That month, on two separate posts, someone proposed the above two questions. I do enjoy the challenge of combining topics.
Happiness … wondering how to be happy … is such a vast topic, a topic that even the women’s magazines, like Oprah’s, don’t tackle directly. Indirectly though, besides her articles and tone, I like how on the last page of her magazine Oprah always tells “something I know for sure.” I think a writer could only sneak up on the happiness question with many essays on what the writer knows, or better yet, with many chapters in a book, preferably a book written by a thoughtful Nobel Prize recipient, such as Bertrand Russell. Happily, it’s been done. Back back in 1930 Russell wrote The Conquest of Happiness.
It’s been decades since I read the book, but I still remember a lot. Strange, to think we live in an age when bookstores have entire sections for Self Help, yet Russell’s book is not well known. If you are interested, then I know you would like the book. It’s worth any number of modern written-for-a buck best sellers. Russell was a member of the aristocracy, with much less need for extra money or status symbols than the rest of us.
Russell was the first and only writer I have found to say that boredom is necessary for a happy life, a concept unheard of by todays text-skimming, short-attention-span, “readers” of the Internet. Too bad “you had to be there” to “get it” because Russell, despite being a minority of one, is quite convincing about people needing boredom time and some quieter pleasures.
I remember well, back when I was overly serious, reading Russell about “zest” being a part of happiness. Perhaps he inspired a chapter dropped into my favorite novel, William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. Saroyan’s book has a scene where young Homer is in an empty field, practicing his high hurdles. An old man comes over and talks to Homer, saying there’s rabbits in that field, somewhere. Homer sees neither hides nor holes, but he keeps silent, as the old man seems happy to think of rabbits. In Russell’s book, he writes of an old illiterate man who keeps up a battle against the critters. It’s an unwinnable battle, as the beasts keep multiplying like rabbits, yet the old man keeps up his zest for life, and it’s “them rabbits” that keep him going.
Back when I found Russell’s book I was desperately, feverishly, trying to get my act together. Like the youth addressed by Billy Joel in his song, “Slow down… When will you realize Vienna waits for you?” Only when I had reached Joel’s age did I realize that “Vienna” symbolized the Vienna school of expensive psychiatry, while also symbolizing a common counselor. Maybe I didn’t get counseling, but at least I was able to benefit from Russell’s metaphor. He explained how a sausage machine would run just fine… until it got too interested in studying it’s own innards… and then it would somehow not be as productive. Meaning: If I tried too hard to analyze my efforts and myself then I would not be as zestful in life, not as productive. Later I came across the biblical quote, “Can a man by taking thought add one cubit to his stature?” Again, the message of “Don’t try too hard.”
Among the folks most desperate to self-improve, or at least improve enough to stop their drinking, are the ones in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you find a classic story, which happens again and again, all across the land: Someone is desperately close to a relapse, to “reaching for the bottle.” He cries out to his sponsor, “Help!” His sponsor orders: “Start helping out after the AA meetings by folding and stacking chairs and washing ashtrays.” Such a simple thing, but the desperate man tries it… and it works wonderfully! He is relieved of the urge to drink. It works, I’m sure, besides other reasons, partly because the recovering drunk must think less about himself and more about others. When we help, when we look outwards, we are in a position to transcend ourselves. The bible again: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
As for “blessed to give,” back when I was young I noticed how one of the “strongest” soldiers I knew, during breakfast, would fetch his toast back to our table and then ask whether anybody wanted some. When I asked if he was getting himself “extra” toast for that purpose, he smiled, “Yes.” Looking back, I would have been age 20. If I were able to notice and ask, then I guess I was becoming an extra-strong soldier too. Thinking about that man, Corporal Patterson-Burton, reminds me of something I’ve often read: happiness cannot be sought directly. There’s no simple western-style cause and effect. No “share your toasted bread and you will be instantly happy.” No, something as transcendent as helping others cannot be pinned down.
You can’t control the daily weather, but as you come to “know thyself” you can at least use certain principles, some quite transcendent, to set the climate. At the start of this piece I noted it would take many essays to cover the topic of happiness. The rest of this essay is about just one principle.
Being True, for the long haul
For the last decade I’ve been thinking about the principle of being deeply true to myself. A clear example: My old best friend Susan, whom I wrote about in June in Guns, God and a Gay Mother told me, “To be gay and in the closet is to be in a constant low-grade depression… and not even know it.” And in the dark 1990’s a young man said, “I’ve noticed that men who come out (of the closet) have a certain peace about them.”
Another example: Steven Pressfield was non-happy for years until (from memory) one day, with dirty dishes piling up in the sink, he dusted off his typewriter and at last started writing some pages. All Steven’s pages that day went into the garbage, and it would be years before his efforts were publishable, but… now his life felt fitting and peaceful. And it was suddenly easy to wash the dishes, too. I think Steven was in a low-grade depression until he answered his calling to be true to his noblest, deepest self. You can read all about it in his book The War of Art. For me, his book has been life changing. (If you read it, please don’t feel Steven thinks you “have to” do the mystical part, not right away, because I don’t think he does)
When I say, “A writer writes” I mean you earn feeling like a writer by your actions and efforts, even if you are never published. Van Gogh, deep inside, was an artist, although he never sold during his lifetime. Emily Dickinson, I’m sure, quietly thought of herself as a poet, although she was never published while alive. They found her collection after her death—and now her poetry is classic. Surely it is by our diligence that we are happy. There is a reason why lean animals in the wild are so beautiful: We were never meant to be pampered in a safe cage, we were meant to strive, each to seek his own meaning in life. For mystic readers, here is a link to Steven Pressfield and his successful rich friend talking about directing their whole lives to following a “pole star.”
As for me, among close friends I am a journeyman practitioner of Zen-stuff, but publicly I’m too embarrassed to be mystical on the page. That said, although the first chapter of Sting’s autobiography is mystical, I totally skipped it, but then I devoured word for word his realistic chapters. I thought, “Wow.” Living in poverty for years, Sting kept up his truth, his craving for learning music. Did you know he used to play in a weekly house band? Did you know that out of a sense of responsibility to the regular patrons he wrote, practiced and performed one new song every week? —Unlike the house band of my youth—No wonder he became a good songwriter. Meanwhile, I started cranking out “an essay a week” a few years before I read Sting’s example. Back when the entire blogging world was saying “you need to post daily to have worthwhile reader stats” (statistics) I knew daily wasn’t for me: I wouldn’t get any better at my craft unless I sweated for about a week on each a piece. Besides, my topics required longer pieces than what the bloggers were doing, back then. So I was ignored. Like Van Gogh, I wrote on my own terms, not to the blog world’s expectations. It takes some grit to work hard while being ignored, but it’s worth it.
“Being ignored” leads to the opening question of: Would I still write if I were unread? Would I still be transcending myself by thinking of helping others, by expressing and creating? My roommate told me, after he helped put on a world Martial Arts tournament here in our little town, “You don’t practice to go compete, you go compete to help your practice.” Yes, and my practice of writing isn’t solely to go get published, of course not, but I ask: Would I have the grit and courage to keep practicing my art, unread, to reach publication quality? Yes. My truth is: I must write, and I’m a hopeful optimist. Napoleon said it first, “Courage is like love, it needs hope to sustain it.”
Recently I found a TED-talk on “grit” linked in a post about her own grit by a young lady, Little Rivkah. She’s a published manga/comic book writer/artist. I’ve been following Rivkah’s work for years, since she was newly an adult, living on her own. I think Rivkah has “true grit.” I met her once, at a comic-convention; I liked her. On her “grit” post she observes the price of her daily diligence of improving her craft, a price that includes turning down jobs that would interfere with practicing her art. I can relate. I told her I believe in her.
As for me, decades older than Rivkah, it isn’t painful at all to produce my art knowing I may be in a rocking chair before I am publishable, because: A true life is a good life. Besides, this gives me chance to quote my favorite painter, August Renoir: When asked why he kept painting despite really awful arthritis he replied, “The pain passes but the beauty remains.”
In closing, here is a piece that Emily Dickinson must have felt a zest to write, about helping others:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~ I thought of the phrase “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him” when I saw tufts of deer hair caught in tree bark.
~I like Renoir because of his human warmth and nice pretty colors. How nice? You won’t find his paintings on any book cover of classic literature! He is like a dead favorite novelist: It’s such a pity I won’t find any new pieces by him.
~My local big box bookstore has Self-Help near the front; I found Russell’s book way in the back, over in the Philosophy section. I also found a small shelf of essays, a shelf not important enough to be labeled.
~Did you know how Sting got his name? He showed up for rehearsal wearing a striped yellow and black sweater. My impromptu fiction at my weekly freefall group is striking, a couple peers have asked, “Have you been published?” And I say, “Yes, but I haven’t been published for money since the 20th century, for feature articles.” … I won’t go back to features, but I may be ready, after this weekend, to turn my disposable man-hours towards fiction. Hence in July I asked for final essay topics. At my book-lover’s convention, starting at one o’clock tomorrow, everybody will be stinging their pens to notebooks, buzzing up high with excitement over fiction and poetry.
~The first essay I ever read that combined two topics was In the Shadow of Captain Bligh where Hugh MacLennan combined the world of Captain Bligh with the world of classical composers. I found it in the basement as a child, and it quite delighted me. The piece was not to compare and contrast, but to explain each world, and make a point. So few essays are like that. During high school, while being taught to dislike the very word “essay,” as being so much academic dust, kids are taught to only appreciate mono-topics, never a montage. Unless they escape to film school. As a grownup, if I want to read double-topic essays then I have to write my own.