An emergent system that has found an equilibrium between two polarities or opposing tensions naturally operates cyclically. Action and reflection. Day and night. Summer and winter. Youth and old age. Work and rest. Creation and consumption. The ebb and flow of an ecosystem. We only see these cycles interrupted in systems that have lost their equilibrium. Ruined or disrupted by an excess of either concentration or dispersion, they must undergo a period of sterility or chaos, respectively, to find a new equilibrium, oftentimes less complex and less rich than the one before. New levels of complexity emerge from that sterility, of course, but slowly. The extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammal life to predominate. The collapse of the Roman Empire laid the seeds for modern western civilization. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that an equilibrium, even as it oscillates, is oscillating about a fixed point.
To continue the throwback kick: an article I wrote for a newsletter in university about Don Quijote. It's fun for me to see how my thoughts and writing have evolved since then (2012), both generally and specifically about this book. I don't think I said much of anything in the article, actually, which is quite funny to me now. But I do like the ending: "While his effectiveness is unclear, his character issues a resounding challenge to us all to grapple with the reality of the virtues and ideals with we hold dear." It's increasingly clear to me that few, precious few of us live a life from principle, and we all to varying degrees participate in the timeless tradition of deluding oneself otherwise. Rather, living from convenience and expedience is the norm. For if a decision is easy or convenient, we cannot truly say it was freely chosen in affirmation of higher principle. We have only taken the path of least resistance.
If a knight is someone who "acts like a knight," then based on the results of his acts Quijote was inarguably not a very good one. While Quijote at least attempted to live a life of principle, he made the mistake of doing so in a fashion disconnected from his context and disconnected from most others- perhaps as fitting a definition of madness as any other. Any ideal can only come alive in relationship. But it did at least live in the relationship between Quijote and Panza, and perhaps a few other characters. That is something. Even if it has but lived once, then it has still lived. What, then, do we bring alive in our relationships?
Seems it is time for a re-reading...
I was listening to the radio the other day. Streaming the French culture station. I was only half paying attention, but I remember they were talking about the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. And my ears especially perked up when they compared it to one of my favorite books, Don Quijote. In fact, one of the speakers was busy making the case that, in fact, the two books are essentially the same.
When I worked at OU I began auditing an Italian Medieval Literature course. It was pretty awesome- we studied Italian classics in Italian. Because we were all excited about what we read and discussed, and just happened to be doing it in Italian, we all learned way more than we would have in a traditional language course. At least I did. I was concurrently auditing an Italian Conversation course that always left me unsatisfied, the opposite of how I felt leaving the literature course.
One of the juicer tidbits I learned in that course was the etymology of a cavaliere errante, or knight errant. Specifically the errant part. And why were knights errant in the first place?
Errare, in Italian and presumably Latin (and also Spanish, I believe), means both to wander and to err, or to make mistakes. In fact it is easy to see the common root of the English words errant and err. But why does one word in Romance languages have two meanings that seem unrelated?
The two are intricately tied together, however. To wander in the sense of a knight errant implies sauntering into the unknown and therefore taking risks. Risks mean that mistakes are likely, as well as valuable experience. Knights were errant because they had to quest, to question, to search, and could only find the answer through their wanderings. They had to live the answers and live the knightly virtues. Wandering was typically a dangerous proposition, and precisely for that reason it was also a path to unique and valuable learnings. They erred along their path, as anyone who takes a risk inevitably does. But as Joseph Campbell pointed out, "where you stumble, there lies your treasure". To wander is to err but it is the only way a knight could come into his own, prove himself, and pass from being a knight errant to a grail knight: one who has become a vessel for the infinite energies of the universe, through whose hands holy work is done. Before he could do with his hands he had to learn with his feet. With his feet he wandered and erred, learned and grew.
Or as Quijote himself put it, "who wanders much and reads much, sees much and knows much".
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
I love notebooks. Beautiful, well-made notebooks, of course, with silky paper and a pleasing design. But also cheap dollar notebooks from low-price box stores, the kind with scratchy paper and cheap binding or, worse, spiral bindings. Spiral notebooks both fascinate and repulse me.
I love them all because I love the idea of a notebook.
An empty notebook is enticing possibility. The magic of all the things one could live, learn, dream, design. It is the thought of the intimate essay we get to write for ourselves, what will be a constant work-in-progress, growing alongside the writer.
An empty notebook is an invitation. It is an invitation into conspiracy, where writer and receiving vessel are complicit in the act of rebellion that is writing. In its pages a shared secret unfolds, for they retain the silence of their father trees. They keep their secrets, their only whispers being that of pen on paper.
An empty notebook engages all the senses. There is the feeling of it in one's hands. The crinkle of the stiff pages waiting to be worn in. The imaginings of what it could eventually contain. The woody smell of the unspoilt pages still beating to the rythym of its former forest. It's an elixir I could get drunk off of, were it only able to be distilled. In a way, I do drink it in regardless. How else can I explain the uninhibited dance of pen across page, the inkblots like footprints in the sand? The dance that begins so hesitantly, so delicately, as I'm afraid to sully the pristine pages with the profanity of my penmanship. But, inevitably, I do. Thoughts crystallize as they can only do on a page.
The notebook is the medium, the sacrifice, the kindling that so patiently sacrifices itself in the search for something greater than the writer. The notebook can never again be perfect once it is used, filled as it is with earnest attempts at enlightenment crammed around yesterday's shopping list. The pages, clear like a polished mirror, reflect our own imperfections.
The only thing I love as much as an empty notebook is a freshly filled notebook. There is a different kind of beauty to it, but a beauty nonetheless. Everything in between is messy anxiety and stuttering insight.
A college friend and I, both interested in product design, recently challenged each other to begin keeping a "bug list". This is an idea we'd read about in a book by some of the founders of Ideo, the famous product design firm. A bug list is where you keep a list of all the problems you encounter or run into on a daily basis. The problems that seem the most promising become fodder for later product ideas. All good products start with a problem they're trying to solve. The bigger the problem (I've heard it described as solving shark bites versus mosquito bites) and the more people who have that problem, the more impactful the product will be.
More fundamentally, the bug list is a tool to get ourselves in the habit of looking for problems to solve. Everytime we complain, get frustrated, lose something, etc. during the day we make a note of what the problem was. Or I would sit down at the beginning of the day and think of ten or more problems I had as I mentally ran through my routine or through the previous day's activities.
The nature of our challenge was to each come up with ten new problems a day for two weeks. Then we would have a call to compare and figure out the best problems we would like to solve. That's close to 300 problems we came up with between the two of us over those two weeks. Most of the ideas were shit, of course- things that couldn't really be solved with products or even software, or that were more personal problems or societal problems. Or problems that would require a multi-million dollar research team to solve, rather than two young engineers working in their spare time. Many of the problems were small problems, too- problems few other people likely saw as an issue, or that were mosquito bites that wouldn't be worth the hassle of using a product to solve. Still, we developed a short list of things we'd like to try and solve at some point.
Even if none of these ideas go anywhere, coming up with them has been a powerful process for me. I see three distinct advantages.
We use the word friend quite a bit- even to describe those who are more accurately our acquaintances. Seneca, then, provides us with a magnificent picture of who we should consider our true friends in his third letter (Penguin Classics edition). Would we censor ourselves around someone we've accepted into our hearts as a friend? No, says Seneca, and he exhorts his friend Lucilius to be as honest with his friends as he is with himself. Indeed, the letter begins addressing the apparent contradiction Lucilius presents, stating that he does not feel comfortable openly sharing what is on his mind with a so-called friend. Seneca responds, "Why should I keep back anything when I'm with a friend? Why shouldn't I imagine I'm alone when I'm in his company?" As I've found, we shouldn't- else through our dishonesty we risk losing our friend.
It turns out that the overuse of the concept of a friend, like information overload, is not a new concept. Seneca points out that the common usage of friend is really anyone we feel like we know more than an acquaintance, whereas a true friend is, or should be, much more exclusive. It's someone we trust completely, and so have no fears or misgivings about telling them or asking them anything.
One of the ironies of our existence is that the problems we face are almost never new. We typically think they're new, of course, and that makes us feel nice about ourselves. No one likes to feel stuck in a metaphysical rut, after all. Yet we're struggling and fighting against many of the same foibles and patterns our ancestors and ancients faced.
For this reason Seneca's second letter seems bemusingly familiar as he exhorts his friend to avoid a problem that seems all too familiar: information overload. To address which, Seneca advises, "So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read."
Who knew that this problem existed even when books were scarce and had to be meticulously copied by hand. And yet, in the ensuing millennia, with all our technological prowess and abundance of information, we've yet to come up with an adequate philosophy for processing, valuing, and integrating knowledge.
Ever notice that Question has the word Quest in it?
As it turns out, I certainly wasn't the first to notice this (link to articles). Quest and question both evolved from the Latin verb quaerere, meaning to seek or to ask.
What a beautiful affair! That means that etymologically, to quest and to question are the same fundamental activity. And I'll argue that to quest(ion) well is to engage equal parts wonder, curiosity, humility, and audacity and to let that search act upon us and shape us.
I will admit it: I love reading too far into linguistic coincidences like this. Yes, it's almost certainly a coincidence that the words quest and question both evolved from the root quaerere. And yes, it's also a lot of fun to invent reasons for what that might mean for us. If the imaginative flight is more than just whim and entertainment and actually teaches us something useful and interesting, all the better.
To quest and to question each implies the other. The questioner embarks on a quest to answer their question. Answering a truly profound, creative, or apt question can easily become quite the voyage across ideas, beliefs, disciplines, and even places. And any good quest begins with asking the right question. If we can't ask the right questions, the answers and treasures we'll find won't be the ones we need. A question frames and informs the entirety of the search that is to come. Asking the best possible questions can mean the difference between finding the symptoms and finding the cause, between superficiality or profundity, between the idiomatic and the universal. Indeed, the quest-taker must question everything he holds dear: who he is, what he seeks, what he is leaving behind. Otherwise he could never have taken the decision to strike out from home in the first place.
Home- a place of comfort, from whence the quest(ion)er must part before they can find the growth they seek. It could be a physical home a pilgrim leaves behind or a mental or spiritual home, a metaphor for the comfortable beliefs and certainties we hold about ourselves and the world that will be challenged by our search for our boon, our answer. To quest(ion) is to voyage outside of our narrowly circumscribed bubble, home, or comfort zone and to let the mysteries, hazards, and surprises beyond shape us and grow us.
We use different language to describe manifestations of the same fundamental process, that quaerare mentioned before. Indeed, the same qualities are needed to be fruitful in both questioning and questing: a certain dissatisfaction with the status quo and a curiosity for what's out there. Otherwise the quest(ion) would never begin. Comfort with ambiguity and a dedication to some higher ideal are both needed (truth, for example), lest the quest(ion) be abandoned mid-journey. In both cases, the quest(ion)er seeks some boon: new knowledge, new powers, enlightenment, whatever it may be. In both cases equal parts humility and audacity are required to finally acquire and integrate the boon: audacity to make it that far, and humility, born from having been humbled, to surrender to an answer that is probably greater and more awesome than us. To quest(ion) is to seek something beyond ourselves. That search carves into us, like the form gradually emerging from marble or wood, worked by an expert hand. If we are sufficiently carved by the circumstances we may get a glimpse of the terrifying hand doing the carving- terrifying as all things greater than us are.
Quest(ion)ing is serious business and always an intensely spiritual one at that. Images of Socrates come to mind and his unfaltering quest for truth, his relentless need to question everything, though it cost him his life. What else could he do? Nothing less was at stake than his very conception of himself and his reality. He was a philosopher, and a philosopher was to face death stoically. To flee death would be to flee before the circumstances that would affirm his very identity. We face the same struggle in our daily quest(ion)ings. Are we ready to find the answer, the great boon, and ultimately affirm ourselves? Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, points out the perils that await the spiritually unprepared adventurer, told through the story of Actaeon. While hunting, he accidentally happens upon a grotto where the goddess Diana and her nymphs are bathing. Infamously chaste, Diana is furious that a mortal has happened across her secluded bathing spot. Actaeon doesn't last long before the chance sight of such divine beauty. Diana turns him into a deer, and he is killed by the very friends he was hunting with.
Perhaps this is because, as any good traveler knows, it's how you get there that matters. The value of a quest(ion) is in how we find the answer, not in the answer itself. The trials and tribulations of the quest transmute us into the person who can stand, humbly and audaciously, before the divine. Without that spiritual fortification, we are as Actaeon, succumbing to fear, anxiety, surprise, and despair.
Rainer Maria Rilke said,
"...be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future."
To quest(ion) means to live the answers. It's the journey, not the end. It is to leave behind the comfort of home and all the baggage we carry: old mental schema, perspectives, identities; and to venture forth in search of an ideal- be it truth, beauty, adventure, or anything in between- armed with only our curiosity and courage. In doing so we approximate ourselves towards the universal and the infinite, and let that act upon us and change us. To quest(ion) means surrendering to the process and loving the questions and the unresolved parts of our life and the overwhelming ambiguity of it all.
The point is not to find the answer but rather to find the answer magnificently.
Nobody likes feeling anxious. Me least of all. Yet here I was, sitting in a bar, nervously sipping a diet coke (I wanted to be sober) as my trembling hand automatically brought the glass to my lips every three seconds. The source of my anxiety? That I had made it my mission to go up to a beautiful girl and tell her she was pretty. It was something I'd never done before and it scared the bejeebus out of me. And it was symptomatic of a deeper problem: I felt, and still feel, fear and anxiety at the idea of flirting with a pretty girl, period.
Sure, I'd gotten better. In fact, I was barely able to have a conversation with a girl until I was 17 or 18 or so. Back in 9th grade I heard that one cute girl liked me. It should have been the easiest thing in the world- "Hey, I like you too. Want to hang out in the cafeteria at lunch?" Or whatever 13 year old kids do on dates. I have no idea, I wasn't going on dates back then, so don't expect me to know. Anyway, what did I do instead? I avoided her for the rest of the year. I was a real charmer back then, let me tell you. I no longer avoid girls that like me, hence my assertion at the beginning of the paragraph that I have, in fact, improved. But I also just seem to stumble into my relationships, without any intentionality on my part. If I see someone I like, I can sometimes talk to them but not in a way that lets them know that I like them. I'm often friend-zoned by girls I liked, or worse, flat-out ignored because I never actually engage or connect with them, and when I do, I'm too nervous and uptight to be myself. Each time I move somewhere new, I struggle to meet new people and make new friends. Which is a huge problem by itself because I love travelling and exploring new places.
Back to me at the bar, though. As I sipped my soda, I knew which girl I wanted to talk to: a bewitching redhead sitting on the couch behind me. I just had to get up and go talk to her. Easy. Just stand up and talk a step towards her and the hardest part is over.
An hour and two diet cokes later, I was still frozen at the bar, unable to move. I might as well have been chiseled out of stone.
Talking to her shouldn't cause so much anxiety, fear, and distress. After all, what harm could possibly occur to me as a result of chatting up a pretty girl? But obviously my body was trying to keep some part of me safe from some danger, even psychologically. Ah yes, the ego.
We have a certain way of seeing ourselves and our relationship to the world. Our ego, our identity. It gives a sense of narrative to our lives. It is how we define ourselves. And in a crazy, unpredictable world, that definition can be a bedrock of stability. But that also means that we don't want to touch that bedrock, even to build something magnificent in its place, to build a palace or a cathedral. We don't want to see that bedrock cracked or damaged in the least. The ambiguity and uncertainty of having our fundamental beliefs about ourselves challenged is often too much. Our mind wants to protect itself. Our ego wants to protect itself- even if it means forsaking what we most desire and dream about. As a result we feel anxiety, one of the ego's chief self defense mechanisms.
Rollo May wrote an entire book about anxiety and our relationship to it (among other things) called Man's Search for Himself. Anxiety as May defines it is a particular and acute form of fear towards something that threatens our very existence "or to some value we hold essential to our existence". Which sounds great, since danger can hurt us. But anxiety makes no distinction between physical danger and psychological danger, where we merely risk a bruised ego and a hit to our status. But where did that ego come from in the first place? Do the values it so dearly protects allow us to fulfill our unique potential? Or, more likely, is it psychological baggage we've inherited and have never questioned? The ego writes the scripts we play out on a daily basis and the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are. These narratives seem useful because they let us connect with others and categorize the world. But we end up falling for our own fiction and believing it. And it is, ultimately, fiction. Can the absurd, happenstance world we live really be so easily understood as we would believe in listening to our own stories? To believe in a God means to accept that full understanding always eludes us and is for the Divinity alone, while an atheist must just as readily admit that the narratives we tell are a man-structure bolted on to a series of cosmic coincidences. Yet still we're attached to our fictions. Anxiety and its various manifestations- despair, loneliness, and the like- threaten to overwhelm us should we ever question our fundamental narrative. We've retold them so many times (even if only to ourselves) that they have ossified, weighing us down like rocks in the sea.
Yet anxiety must be confronted and reconciled if positive change is to occur and we are to grow as men, women, and humans. One of the May's phrases that has stuck with me is that "anxiety, like fever, is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress... anxiety is evidence that a psychological or spiritual battle is going on." Anxiety only occurs when we are physically or psychologically threatened. Since real physical danger is so rare today, anxiety for a Westerner in the 21st century almost certainly signals psychological danger to our existing conception of ourself. That "danger" arises from dissonance between two different choices: one that validates the existing narrative, and another that challenges it. We want to be healthy but also want that cake. We want to meet women and be charming and likeable but don't want to be rejected (and be put in a situation where we clearly weren't liked). We want to be honest and just, but could use the money and no one is looking anyway.
Like a fever, no one wants to feel anxiety. To fight it or avoid it, however, is to ignore the signs our own body is sending us. Anxiety is a warning flag that we wave to ourselves whenever a choice we're about to make is fundamentally a choice about who we are and what we value. It exhorts us to choose carefully and mindfully. Anxiety is the cognitive dissonance between who we are and who we want to be, the clarion that calls us to plant our flag on one side of that dividing line or another. That pretty girl makes me nervous and anxious because feeling rejected by her would challenge my view of myself as a charming, likable guy. Or I'll feel stupid when I don't know what to say and I'll have to reconsider how witty and intelligent I really am. Or on a meta-level, I like the certainty of these beliefs about myself. Putting myself in a situation where they can be challenged means being in ambiguous, uncharted terrain, and that is scary to someone (like myself) who has those beliefs. All this validates my current ego-identity construct. Chatting the pretty redhead up puts a tiny hairline fissure in these beliefs, because I've acted in spite of them.
How do I reconcile my incongruous actions with my old beliefs? The easy thing for the mind to do is to find new beliefs that fit the actions. Not all at once, of course. But sustained action over time means the fissure grows larger and more unstable, until it is impossible for our mind to ignore- it loves a nice, clean narrative too much. So it invents a new one in line with our recent behaviors. Motivation follows action, in spite of early anxiety, not the other way around (and in the absence of anxiety). Aristotle was right when he said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Perhaps we can come to accept a healthy level of anxiety as a badge that we are working on the tasks truly important to our actualized selves.
I'm not saying confronting anxiety is always the right choice to make- only each of us as individuals can make that decision based on our individual circumstances, despite the many voices we have to filter through who would tell us how to live our lives- parents, friends, peers, governments. But we do have to recognize that by bowing to anxiety or working past it we are affirming a certain conception of ourselves and a certain set of values.
To take this idea even further, anxiety can be seen as a primal plea from our depths to live up to our ideal selves and the values we would hold dear. Anxiety isn't something to be avoided at all costs but is rather a reminder to live up to our highest conception of ourselves, and to take the action that affirms our higher self in spite of our attachment to our current identity. It is an opportunity to step into a new identity, to transform ourselves and be reborn; just as the seeds of the Italian Renaissance (literally rebirth) grew out of the anxiety and uncertainty of one of the most rapine epochs of European history (just look up the infamous Cesare Borgia, a man known for his cruelty in an era known for its cruelty, to see what I mean).
Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning tells us that we're being questioned by life every day, and that each one of us must answer for our own lives, responsibly and freely. Emotions like anxiety and fear may be the most pressing questions of all to answer. These answers must be lived, because the questions are asking us who we are and what we value. Our lives are an answer and an affirmation, one way or another, whether we choose them consciously and courageously or let circumstances select them for us. If change is truly what we desire, then we must be willing to follow Rumi's advice:
Destroy the house to find the treasure chest
Then, when the treasure's found, you may invest
In building there a palace even more
Sumptuous than the one there was before.
I'm thinking of all this (I'm not really sure what I think until I put pen to paper or words to screen) because I am in the process of wrestling with it. I'm not writing about what I think of anxiety and fear but rather what I'd like to think of anxiety and fear, and all the potentialities that perspective permits. That redhead I wanted to talk to? After an hour I finally found the courage to talk to her. I breathed deeply and counted to three, turned around, and took a step towards her couch...
Which was empty. My indecision, like a howling wind, had snuffed out the tiny flame I'd lit, the hope that maybe, maybe this time I would be different.
...sees much and knows much