The Difference Between Knowing
481 · 15 April 04
I am now 37. My birthday was a recent Sunday. Belle had arranged a surprise dim sum with a few friends in the morning, and then I watched my tape of the Revolution losing their season opener, and then I practiced rolling kayaks with Greenland paddles in a pool for a couple hours, and then Belle and I went out for sushi. It was a fine day. The company I work for still gives us our birthdays off, though, so I didn't have to go to work Monday, either.
Monday was a great day. I hadn't remembered I had Monday off until Friday, so Belle and I had made no ambitious plans, and neither of us had any essential tasks to accomplish. We slouched out of bed at our leisure, and went for the hilariously token twenty-minute run/walk called for by our new gyms-are-boring-we-can-do-this-ourselves exercise regimen. We ate okra and cornmeal mush and crackly meat carvings at a by-the-pound Brazilian buffet, and then bought better running shoes at the New Balance outlet, as a sort of advance atonement for lunch. We went grocery shopping, which Belle and I do like we're some combination of agape tourists and insufferably self-amused five-year-olds. We made some more piles of things in our house that we don't need. We cooked mussels and artichokes, and ate them by candlelight, and then watched a movie neither of us thought was that great, and then curled up in bed making plans.
Tuesday I went back to work. That wasn't as good. Hanging out with Belle, doing small productive things, feels like a far better use of my time than what I currently spend my weekdays getting paid for. My company has been acquired twice over, and my useful job designing software that makes people's work lives suck less has disintegrated into a torment of endless meetings arguing about how we would decide what kind of software we and our acquirers would be jointly building if we weren't spending all our time in meetings waiting for them to talk themselves out of all the idiot ideas we've been telling them won't work for a year and a half. I keep showing up because we still may argue our way into the opportunity to do something truly amazing, on a scale we could never have aspired to alone. But it's a faint hope, compared to the oppressive likelihood that corporate inertia and earnings-forecast nausea and obsolete-paradigm myopia will just gradually exhaust us, and one day we'll give up.
I wish I were surer that we shouldn't. Even if we keep the corporation we've been swallowed by from pulping and absorbing us into their blotchy thighs, the corporations we're selling to are undoubtably just as grotesque. Our software tries to insinuate small-company humanity into large-company processes, but I don't know how successful this sedition ever is, really, and if we can't change our customers' perspectives enough that our enlightenment reaches to their customers, then we're winning instantly-forgotten battles in a long-ago-lost war.
I want to spend less time fighting irrelevant battles in hopeless wars. I hate corporate anonymity, I hate the stock market, I hate advertising, I hate the way people agree to abrogate their own humanity. I hate pedaling the machinery of joylessness. Every tiny joyful thing I do makes me hate the joyless things more. The "we" at work isn't even the one I care about. The joys in my personal life do not counterbalance the hate everywhere else, they raise my standards. I may be too young to really know what matters, but I'm too old to not have theories. Most of them will be wrong, but if I have enough of them, maybe one won't be. So as I turn 37, here are 37 attempts at a morality of joy:
1. Make all decisions as if you are yourself.
I suspect that a large amount of the world's evil occurs because the people in the position to object simply forgot that objection was an option, much less their responsibility. Do not follow an order that your instincts reject. You may not know how to live as if you are a legislator of universal law, and you may not have any way to find out, but if you can find out who you are, that's enough for most purposes.
2. Any worthwhile goal is a product of courageous individual actions.
If a plan doesn't involve identifiable people doing explicably difficult and preferably daring work, then it isn't worth considering. It might not be if it does, either, but at least you can rule out all the approaches that look free, and ignore anything nobody was willing to sign.
3. The world is big, we are small.
Boredom is a failure of imagination. If you don't wake up curious, you didn't get enough sleep.
4. Discovery is a motion, not a substance.
The last thing you learned is only momentarily valuable in itself. An instant later, it is grounding for the next thing or it is nothing.
5. Your fears are precious.
You filter out most of your experience, or it would drive you insane. The things that scare you are the ones that made it through to your awareness unprocessed. You need these contact points with the raw world.
6. Investment is a premature resignation to the inability to think of an appropriate gift.
It can't be better to give than to receive, in a closed system, but there is almost always a way in which it is better to give than to hold. If you look for opportunities for kindness, you will notice things you don't see when you look for opportunities for return.
7. You control only your efforts, not their rewards.
You're best off not even specifying the currency. The more specific your greed, the more trivially it defeats itself.
8. Your body is simple.
It responds simply to simple inputs. This is both its genius and its misconstruction. If you get in the habit of fooling it, you will lose the ability to communicate with it meaningfully. Avoid that.
9. All new truths subsume the old truths.
This is why you shouldn't worry too much about mistakes. Our passionate belief in our current insane theories is half of what temporarily ennobles the next generation of them.
10. Be every age at once.
Life is only serial in the dullest literal sense. Better to go through it in parallel. Don't just be 37 today, be 6 and 20 and 62 and 88. Remember what you once loved, and anticipate what you'll know better than.
11. Dignity is a handicap.
Don't let anybody embarrass you out of having fun. Do not feel guilty about your pleasures.
12. Do not endorse nonsense.
It's easy to think of a hundred things to say. Don't say the ones you don't actually mean. Do not demean words that you might one day need. What nobody believes, nobody should say.
13. The important mysteries aren't fragile.
Knowledge doesn't dispel them, it reveals better layers. So engage your mania in something you can do. Distant absorption isn't respect, it's slow emptiness. Learn what it takes to make things.
14. Our world is a machine we operate together.
Pay attention to how it works, and help out where you can. We get one score for all of us, not each of us.
15. When in doubt, seek variation.
In general, weird and obsessive and exhausting and byzantine and incomprehensible are promising flaws. If you find something you don't understand, look for three more like it and try to figure out how they believe they differ.
16. All moral actions are movements along the axis from survival to Art.
We are chemistry, aspiring to poetry. Freedom from want is not the end of this axis, it's the zero-intercept. Social progress replaces labor with expression. Wisdom refines utility into beauty.
17. There is a dream universe we enter in stories.
Its dimensions overlay those of space and time, but stretch in their own directions, and their geography is as revelatory to explore as history or land. Our stories are our abstractions of our selves and souls.
18. Learn to witness moments.
Our erratic trajectories pass through instants of perfection, and we can learn how to carry their images with us into mundane time. Photographs and memories can isolate truths. Insight is a function of selection, not completeness.
19. When you run out of new ideas, try some old ideas.
Probably you should have tried them first. Ideas don't wear out nearly as quickly as they go out of fashion.
20. Details matter.
The details reveal the difference between knowing what the goal is and knowing why it is the goal.
21. It's better to disagree with somebody on one big issue than to disagree on all the little ones.
Coexistence doesn't require unanimity, just that you understand what mistakes you can tolerate other people making.
22. Never begrudge anyone's playfulnesses, least of all your own.
There are many things worth taking seriously, but very few of them need to be taken seriously all the time. And fewer still can be taken seriously all the time. Anything you can't think of a joke about is probably more complicated than you realize, or less.
23. Money is simple.
At least, it should be. It is a counter for deferred barter. If you treat it this way, it will cause you less grief. Take it in return for your sincere best efforts, spend it on other people's good work. Try not to reward anybody for cynicism or crap.
24. Don't try to capture anything that's happy where it is.
Sometimes you can't take it home with you. Sometimes you'll waste your visit trying.
25. There is no such thing as silence.
There are just the noises you choose, and what you live with in their absence.
26. Things become worth loving by being loved.
Good things are improved, mundane things are distinguished, and sometimes even bad things can be redeemed.
27. Love what you want to love.
Let every doubt convert to its benefit. Find an obsession with its own language, and learn at least three things that can't be said in any other tongue.
28. Independence begins inside.
All productive defiance starts by confronting your own weaknesses and ironies and past surrenders. All mistakes can be at least halfway undone, and most halfway undone mistakes will unravel themselves the rest of the way.
29. Savor your pain.
Hurt is an impetus to change. Anything that can't hurt you probably can't help you much, either.
30. Loneliness is an acid.
There are things nothing else can eat through faster, but in general, introspection is preparation for better shared experience, not a substitute for it.
31. When in doubt, simplify.
If nothing else, you'll end up with a simpler problem, but often the complexity was the problem.
32. If simplifying doesn't work, complicate in a new way and then try again.
Complexity is the raw material out of which simple truths are carved. Sometimes you really need to start over with a fresh chisel and a bigger rock.
33. Lead yourself into temptation.
Be the person you would call first for an adventure, not the one you ruefully plan around placating. Don't let your wise ideas crowd out your weird ones, or vice versa. The things you would never do conceal things you would love, and the things you will never do aren't half as interesting as the distractions that keep you from them. Digress, divert, detour.
34. Earn your own trust.
Second-guessing yourself will cut your best quests short, and bleed the fun out of your most inspired fantasies. Knowing you can rely on yourself is the foundation for all durable relationships with others. Extroversion as a cover for self-doubt is alluring but ultimately toxic.
35. Joy suffuses.
Its contours are easiest to perceive when it's most distant, most imperceptible when you are immersed in it. How sure are you that you haven't already found it?
36. All success begins in failure.
Fear of failure is the enemy of all progress. There's no point fearing the inevitable. Terrible art is the necessary context for greatness; amateurism is the foundation for the appreciation and definition of achievement. The things you're bad at are ways waiting for you to grow.
37. Love is the power.
Love is the affirmation that joy is possible, the recognition that joy is the goal, and the force that shapes atoms out of matter that isn't even there. Love is the animus and the magnetism and the spark and light. God emanates from inside of us. The more you love, the more you are capable of. The more we love, the more we can change. The more stubbornly we love, the more inexorably we transcend ourselves.
Does any of that help? I don't know if it helps me, so obviously I can guess even less about you. Some of those might be the precepts by which I live, but some of them are probably Hallmark drafts. Some of them are the evasions that keep me from quitting my job and following some braver, truer path. Some are why I will, but procrastinate. Some are undoubtably wrong, some are redundant, some are contradictory, some will forgive evil. I may have overlooked nine of the real top ten, and am lucky if I didn't miss all ten. You turn another year older without any great click, and one night's Romanticist free-association is hardly a scripture, barely even a testament. But I don't know any better way to do this. Forgiving evil is the best way to face it. One theory before bed, another in the morning. Any system is better than no system, because a failed plan can be abandoned, but a good system is possible, and much, much better than a bad one. Not all movement is progress. Joy is real, and neither physics nor poetics will keep you from spiraling away from it in every second of inattention. Only you can do that. Only you can hold yourself responsible, only you can require yourself to live years and days and moments worth dying after.
So maybe I'm not asking that much. Once a year, one theory for every candle. And if none of them burn for very long, in the end, they don't have to.