If The Grass Were Greener

Idioms often express truths so fundamental that we ignore their real intent.

We say “the grass is always greener on the other side” when really what we mean is, it never actually is.

Things won’t be better by getting into that college, by getting that promotion, or by moving into that nicer house. They will all have their downsides. Yet we ignore the now and live for that future, and then say to ourselves, with a sheepish grin: well, the grass really is always greener on the other side.

Next time, say what you really mean. “The grass is never greener on the other side.”

The world becomes a different place when you know you have what’s greenest.

 

Meaning

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

— John Gardner, “The Road to Self-Renewal“, March 1994

“One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.
You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it—as some suppose—a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.
Life is an endless unfolding and—if we wish it to be—an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

— John Gardner, Stanford Commencement Address, June 1991

As a counterpoint to Gardner’s advice, it’s worth reading David Brooks’ New York Times column, “The Problem With Meaning.” David also quotes Gardner, yet disagrees with the use of the term “meaning” by cutting through much of its vacuousness:

“Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

I’m not sure I feel wholly the same as David about meaning. It might be a vacuous term, but that vacuousness stems from the fact that the term encompasses different things for each of us. We do not all find meaning in the same place, and I take that as fact. What I think Gardner manages to capture so well is the sense that though meaning might be different for all of us, it’s crucial that we first break out of the limits on our own minds in how we think about it. If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.

This Is Cycling

“There is something bizarre, yet intoxicating, in the way cycling juxtaposes these little dramas of pain and suffering amid landscapes of sublime beauty. As Nietzsche wrote in “The Gay Science”, “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

The Economist’s new lifestyle magazine, 1843, published a piece by author and journalist Tom Vanderbilt on what it’s like getting into cycling. Titled “The Long and Winding Road”, the essay deals with midlife crises to start and moves on to how a sport can be so addictive. It’s stunningly written, and comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing why cyclists put themselves through so much pain to repeatedly go up mountains.

On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves

Every so often a certain theme or idea can continue to pop up seemingly everywhere in life. It’s as if by thinking about something once we are primed to find it everywhere, and without looking or trying we will be bombarded with many riffs on the same theme for the next month or so. This has happened to me a great deal recently, especially with the idea that there is a logical flaw in how we construct our lives from our present state, allowing ourselves very little room for personal growth and change.

A while ago I wrote about how we are incentivised in daily life “to connect our dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging.” I was reflecting there on the fallacies inherent in career thinking, where we are encouraged to plan our entire lives from where we are now. But learning and growing as individuals is precisely the point of our education—were we to come out of university the same person as we began, it seems difficult to see how one was in fact educated. I was questioning why we think about our life’s trajectory as linear, instead of the likely reality that, as Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards—and there may, in the end, be no pattern at all.

I also quoted elsewhere a Wall Street Journal article on how experiences studying abroad can change and shape us. There, the authors stated that

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.”

This was a tangential point to the main one being made in the article, and yet today it is really all I can remember from it. It might be, to some, a truism; and yet for others it might be a statement of fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even been considered.

Today I came across yet another riff on this idea, a different way of putting it that draws out different components. Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is essentially a whole book related in one way or another to this idea, yet Maria Popova of Brainpickings had captured (as she always manages to do) the central few paragraphs. I want to quote two of these paragraphs in full, as I think they leave a lot to think about, especially for those of us currently being encouraged from all angles to make precisely the mistake that is being warned against.

“The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly… We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.”

“But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”

These ideas are, at their core, talking about the problems with making commitments while young, when one’s self is still unstable. The obvious solution to the need to make decisions now for an unknown future is to delay making commitments to career or work until that self is more stable. But is it ever? And if it is, is that a good thing? Delaying commitments comes with downsides, too. In a class I took last semester with David Brooks we explored the advantages of making commitments while young—where everything can seemingly fall into place, and days are lived with a far greater sense of purpose. David explores these issues of making commitments in his latest book, The Road to Character, pushing strongly the idea that commitments should and must be made early. I wonder how to align this view of life with those views I’ve quoted above, where seeking meaning or making unalterable decisions when you are not yet your “self” seems imprudent.

My final paper for the class ended up being a meditation on Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day, which raises all sorts of questions (again, another place the theme popped up) about whether and when we should make binding commitments to work or other areas of life in order to avoid wasting our days. My conclusion was, perhaps predictably, to say we need some sort of balance (in the words of a friend, “enlightened fence-sitting”). And that balance, I concluded, should lie in devoting ourselves to a number of things we love, and never solely one’s career.

That at least is the conclusion that my present self decided would be the one most satisfactory to my future self. I could be wrong (apologies, future Michael, if that it the case). But here’s the very point. Some decision must be made, even if that decision is inaction. And, ultimately, what this discussion is good for is in knowing what is actually at stake in these often quotidian-seeming decisions.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.

The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia

“To clarify, drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity. At least 4 in the top 10 on GC were in tears today. That’s drama.”

— Cycling journalist Neal Rogers on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

Stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia was when it all blew apart. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had been in the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, for the best part of the week, and had been looking unbeatable. He looked in control, cool and calm, and with a three minute lead over his nearest rival, it was said that “only a crash or major mishap” would keep him from winning the Giro.

Alack, Murphy’s law. The riders crested the first major climb of the day, the Colle dell’Agnello, in heavy mist, entering France from Italy. And then, a major crash and mishap. Kruijswijk misjudged his speed, entered a corner too fast, had his balance wrong, and couldn’t recover. He crashed hard into a bank of ice, flipping over his handlebars and landing heavily. He immediately leapt up, and put his hand to his helmet in disbelief. For the first time in the entire Giro, Kruijswijk looked anything but calm and collected, which was unsurprising after what was a very heavy fall. He struggled to straighten his bike and put his chain back on, eventually managing but having to stop again a few yards later as something was still clearly wrong with the bike. His rivals all passed him and accelerated to build a lead. By the end of the day, Kruijswijk would cross the finish line almost five minutes after his nearest rival on the general classification, losing what had seemed a practically secured maglia rosa.

Was it fair that his rivals took advantage of a crash? Social media was divided on this very point. The consensus seemed to be that this was not so much misfortune as misjudgement. Descending is a part of cycling, a skill like those that had put Kruijswijk in the pink jersey in the first place, and he was found wanting. That’s what bike racing is all about.

Esteban Chaves cried as he crossed the finish line knowing he would wear the pink jersey the next day. Vincenzo Nibali cried as he crossed the line, winning the stage after a few tough days of poor performance. Alejandro Valverde was disappointed as he fell off the podium positions after losing so much time to Nibali. And Ilnur Zakarin, who had been performing wonderfully during the Giro, ended the day in hospital after a brutal crash on a descent.

Such was the drama of a single day’s cycling of a 21-stage grand tour.

Neal Rogers’ tweet above perfectly captured the day. It captured why fans had cried, too, seeing an injured, shaken, embarrassed and oh-so-disappointed Kruijswijk cross the line. He had to ride past thousands of fans on the rest of the day’s stage. There was no hiding for him, and he had to face both Esteban Chaves, the new holder of the maglia rosa after the stage, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, the stage winner and ultimately the Giro winner. Raw emotion all around. These may be incredible athletes, but they have emotions just like anyone else.

That’s why sport grips the imagination in a way that movies seem these days not to. We know the ending of a movie before its done; they are so formulaic and scripted by Hollywood and other industries. In sport, it isn’t over until it’s over. Tears are real, as are the full range of human emotions in a single day—pride and excitement to begin, embarrassment and disappointment to end.

All this, playing out on some of the most beautiful and poignant mountains in the world. The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity. It is drama, but in that drama is some central element of being human.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing

Apology for IdlersI wrote recently of my experience learning how to do nothing. The essay came out of my experiences after being involved in a high-speed crash during a bicycle race, and receiving a concussion. For the next two weeks the doctor’s orders were to have cognitive rest, to literally do nothing—no reading, no phone, no computer, no intense conversations.

What I should have done during that period, however, was have someone read to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers.

While writing my own essay, I struggled with how to refer to “doing nothing”. I ended up referring to it as both doing nothing nothing—to be differentiated from doing nothing singular, which is lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram—as well as daydreaming.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is writing about doing nothing singular. And through doing so, he discusses how to escape the cult of busy—which is not so new a phenomenon after all—as well as why we should all take time to be idle. He touches also on the purpose of education and how it can come about as much through idleness as through books and classes, as well as the traps of living your life in pursuit of others peoples’ measures of success.

“Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”

He is careful to point out that doing nothing is not always preferable to doing something; but his task is to point out its advantages at certain times.

“The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be eat to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

We so often think of reading a book as doing nothing and relaxing, but Stevenson complicates this idea. His version of doing nothing requires escaping altogether the notion of productivity, including consuming knowledge. This is one answer to the conversation I had with a good friend about whether we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it.

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallot, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bust and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thought.”

Idleness—those “vivid, instructive hours of truantry”—is the best education we can get. In an echo of the character Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which was published just four or so years before his essay), Stevenson hilariously enlists Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting a young truant to illustrate the point:

“”Hey now, young fellow, what dost thou here?”

“Truly, sir, I take mine ease.”

“Is not this the hour of the class? and should’st thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?

“Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”

“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Is it metaphysics?”

“Nor that.”

“Is it some language?”

“Nay, it is no language.”

“Is it a trade?”

“Nor a trade neither.”

“Why, then, what is’t?”

“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.”

Idleness, in itself, can be a vital education in the “art of living”:

“Many who have ‘plied their book diligently’, and know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry, stockist, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life. Many make a larger fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them—by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living?”

Stevenson wrote this essay in 1876. He discusses exactly the “cult of busy” that so many, the New York Times included, have taken to be a modern phenomenon, and explains how idleness is a way out of the trap. This is perhaps his most important passage of the essay, dealing really with how people choose to live their lives.

“Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desks or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

Stevenson warns all students of the dangers of filling your life with so much busyness that you cannot focus on what is really important. He explains how conventional success is determined in society, and why students should be sceptical of that image.

These people “Have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train… This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.”

Stevenson ends with a warning to all who are young on what they might be giving up by pursuing a single measure of success through continual hard work, books and study. In practical terms, this is a comparison of different education systems—those that focus on work twelve or more hours a day, versus those that focus on life and practical skills—as well as a plea for taking time off to discover your own standards of success.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

Stevenson’s essay is an important one to read to see through the day-to-day traps and vanities of work and productivity. It is an extreme view, but Stevenson himself admits that; his purpose was not to persuade anyone of complete idleness, but to present the other side of the story that young people are so rarely told. His ideal is a middle way between productivity and idleness—and in that way, we would be able to ensure that our productive time is spent on activities whose ends we actually want to be pursuing.

 

Thanks to my friend Tamara for recommending the collection of Stevenson’s essays.