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.

Good Literature Makes the Reader “Move With” the Characters

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:

It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The results of character bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of, their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.

Looking Past the Petty to What Matters

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What Truly Matters

I cannot recall ever having an inferiority complex. By that I mean I don’t recall ever experiencing a sustained feeling that someone else’s greater natural or acquired status, intellect, talent, or abilities, in any way, diminished me—that because I was not so endowed, I must be made of lesser clay. That’s not to say I haven’t felt envy from time to time, or that I haven’t felt inadequate for some task. I certainly have. Knowing my limitations, and accepting them where I must, seems to me the better part of maturity and happiness.

On the flip side, I have experienced some people who have a developed superiority complex. I’m sure you know the type, they have the air of someone who wants you to think they’re naturally superior. Candidly speaking, while many people are, I’m usually not bothered by these people. I’m actually rather amused…and curious.

The snobbery of wealth is typically hollow and fake, there’s usually not much depth there. You find out quickly in conversation. There are no spiritual or mental qualities worth admiring in money snobs. And typically speaking, they’re terrible bores, because they’ve got big pockets but not big minds or souls. The snobbery of beauty is, well, skin deep only. We may find the snobbery unattractive and off-putting, even if we can’t help but admire the beauty. But there usually isn’t much beyond their looks. We’re immediately reminded of the meaning of the phrase “high maintenance.”

A truly cultured and refined intellect or artistic sense…now that’s something different. The snobbery is bad and, yes, off-putting. But unlike the rich or the beauty snob, the intellectual or artistic snob may have something to truly offer, beyond mere show, if their conversation is interesting and insightful. Their snobbery, in part, may actually in some ways be justified. Not in the class sense or “I’m superior than you” sense, but in the “I’m unique” sense. I have no problem recognizing and admiring superior minds. I’d like to think engaging these minds is good for my own. If you’re an avid reader, especially of the Great Books, you’re use to getting past the ephemeral and detritus of human folly and admiring the enduring gems of wisdom and art. If we seek a life of depth and meaning we cannot get “caught up in the thick of thin things.”* We must move past that to what truly matters.

I should note. I’m not saying that being a snob in any way is a good thing, because it’s not. I’m just saying that some self regard may be deserved, even if most of the time, I find, it usually isn’t. I’m saying that sometimes truly gifted people may be a snob, but I don’t let that distract me from enjoying and learning from an engagement with their mind—which is the only part of them you can truly learn anything of lasting value. I can look past the petty, even inwardly laugh at it sometimes, to recognize something unique and take from it those gems that edify my own mind and soul.