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.

John Steinbeck: This is What I Am About

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And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck

The Spirits of Christmas

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I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! —Ebenezer Scrooge

John F. Kennedy on the Highest Duty of the Writer

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“It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” — John F. Kennedy

The Other Side of the Hill

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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David French

Very recently I celebrated my half century mark. Yes, the kid finally turned 50. Being a guy who loves books means memorable events naturally remind me of memorable phrases in literature. This occasion reminded me of a passage in John Buchan’s memoir:

Sir Walter Scott had a pleasant phrase for middle life; he called it reaching the other side of the hill. It is a stage which no doubt has its drawbacks. The wind is not so good, the limbs are not so tireless as in the ascent; the stride is shortened, and since we are descending we must be careful in placing the feet. But on the upward road the view was blocked by the slopes and there was no far prospect to be had except by looking backwards. Now the course is mercifully adapted to failing legs, we can rest and reflect since the summit has been passed, and there is a wide country before us, though the horizon is mist and shadow.

At this point in my life, I no longer feel I have anything to prove or anyone to impress for that matter. It’s a nice feeling. I still have goals and dreams to be sure, but there’s less worldly ambition to them and more a feeling of what contribution can I make and legacy can I leave. My hope now is that I can offer something truly valuable to those around me and those on the ascent. I’m hoping I can offer that most important, but sometimes difficult, lesson in life: a sense of perspective.