Instruments of Self-Exploration

IMG_1120Over the past few days my wife and I have been painting my book room and boxing up books. A lot of books! Anyway, my wife, having superior organizing skills, and an app for that, scanned bar codes and marked boxes so it would be far easier to find a particular book later on. Of course, I slowed the progress. I would go along handing her book after book and then suddenly stop mid stream. I’d stare wistfully at a book and begin to thumb through it, rereading underlined passages, remembering the thoughts and feelings I’d had when I had first read it. I know, just pathetic. Looking at all these books I started wondering, just for a moment, what my love for books and reading over all these years had really done for me.

As I stood there wondering, of course, I reached for a book I’d read (about books and reading) that just happen—naturally—to be right in front of me. I opened it and the first passage I’d underlined in pencil read:

We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences. Let me say, right off, that I believe a work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty, whether through words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements. But it is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding. In this way, the humanities encourage the development of our own humanity. They are instruments of self-exploration.

— Michael Dirda, Book by Book

I like the way Dirda worded the above passage. At best, all a love for books and reading can do is encourage the development of our own humanity. It’s up to each of us to allow that to happen. And that, my dear reader, is the project of a lifetime.

Sunrise on the Beach

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(Photo by Jeff Wills, August 24, 2018, Myrtle Beach, SC)

Even on vacation I rarely sleep past 7 a.m. Decades of being up at o-dark-thirty for work have worn some solid grooves. And, truth be known, whether by habit or disposition, I love the early morning.

So while everyone was still asleep this morning, I was up and out of our vacation condo walking down to the beach. The time was around 6:30 a.m.

Walking along the access path, through the dunes, and out into the open beach at this time in the morning has a spiritual feel to it. It can feel like you’ve entered some sacred space, some verge, between two worlds. (I suspect a yearning for this religious feeling is partly why some people love to live near the beach.)

Usually there are other fellow supplicants on the beach at this time in the morning. There are joggers, meditators, shell hunters, couples and individuals walking, and all of us, it seems, in a solemn silence, our souls mesmerized by the sound of the surf and the gentle, caressing light, of the emerging sun illuminating that infinitely awe–inspiring horizon.

In Front of One’s Nose

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George Orwell

In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me during times I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved, it “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife reminds me that I tend to run deficits in my attention budget. So I have work to do myself.

Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. I know I certainly do. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of belief to see things differently, which would disturb their world, overturn their settled opinions. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with some friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not an option. Better off to talk about the weather instead.

It has taken me many years to realize that not everyone, heck most people actually, aren’t interested in a search for truth, beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in a sensible position—especially in politics and football—for that matter. I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable and that type of higher level, deeper, thinking, can be “a bit much” as my wife says. But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment. Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get people, early on during their educations, emotionally invested in the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James put it, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.

So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.

Those Cherished Walks in the Snowy Woods

Whenever we have a good snow I love to go for a walk in the woods. Walking in the wintry wonderland has always calmed and refreshed my soul. It’s a therapeutic activity. This love for walking in the snow started when I was a kid. We’d get a good snow and school would be cancelled, so I’d usually play in the snow half the day and then sometime after dark I’d go out and walk in the snow. I can still remember those nighttime walks in my old Virginia Beach, Virginia, neighborhood. No one would be out but me. There was a alluring peace and stillness in the thick, frosty air. It was a tranquilness and calm enticed by the gentle sounds of falling snow, the low roar of the wind in the tree tops, and that icey crunching sound my boots made as I stepped in the virgin snow.

Back then I didn’t have woods behind our house, but since 2001 I’ve had acres of woods to walk in when the snows came. And in some ways it’s even better now, because most of the time since, say, around 2014, I’ve had a little partner. My youngest son loves nature and, like his dad, loves to walk in the snowy woods. We had a good snow on January 5th and the temperatures have been frigid, so we’ve had 2 good days where we’ve taken some time to go for a walk together in the wintery woods. These walks with my son have been special. It’s just the two of us walking and talking and helping each other hike through the woods. “We’re a team, dad.” “Isn’t this beautiful dad.” “It’s so calm and peaceful out here, dad.” “Love you dad.”

These are walks I will always cherish and remember.

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My Partner with His Walking Stick

We all have to dig…from time to time

I remember Mark Twain using a shovel as symbolism to describe the need for checking one’s conscience—seeing if it’s still there under all the inevitable compromises and accumulating weight of life. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but roughly speaking it could be stated as follows:

I handed him a shovel.

“What’s this for?”

“Your conscience. Go dig for it.”

When I first read it I chuckled at the simplicity and blunt straightforwardness of it. I liked the metaphor. Twain was being humorous, of course. But humor can be one of the best ways—via the backdoor of laughter—to communicate a simple, but sometimes resisted, truth about ourselves or others. The idea of digging deep down to find the moral and spiritual ore is an archetype of the ages. Like most everyone I know, I have to find the symbolic shovel and go excavate from time to time…I hit rock periodically, break the damn thing, and have to get another shovel. They can break easy you see, and so the digging can be tiresome and frustrating and sometimes I throw the damn shovel in the bushes and storm off.

But, like all of us, I know the digging needs to be done, has to be done, from time to time, if I’m to keep my soul and not lose my way. And so I always keep a shovel near by and try never to let life’s weight get too burdensome before I go digging and clearing out the excess around the core.