Thoreau on the interconnectedness and meaning of life

Umbrellas in the rain by Ed Yourdon via FlickrHow can severe disappointment provide meaning?

Sometimes when life disappoints us severely, it is hard to imagine what Viktor Frankl means when he says that people who survived the concentration camps expected it all to make sense in the end.

“How?”  we wail.  “How could that ever make sense?”

I suspect what we are crying is that “No, I won’t let it make sense.  Because to make it make sense is to say it is OK and I cannot say it OK that you killed my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my cousin.”

Possibly to have faith in the universe feels disloyalty and we prefer lack of faith to lack of loyalty.

Loyalty is a good thing and loyalty should be honored and celebrated.

Life is often unfair

But life does disappoint, in big ways and small.  Often we feel very profoundly that life is unfair.

I am not saying we should do nothing about unfairness.   Not me.

But the writers like Thoreau point us to another way forward.

First, look at the interconnections of the world.  See the whole picture. Loyalty is part of that picture.  Put it in.

Then, decide what you think.

Thoreau’s dilemma of a rain day

This is Thoreau writing about a rainy day at Walden when he elected to be a subsistence farmer so that he would have time to read and write.

His beans are important to him.   He became a farmer to have time, and the weather is throwing out his plans, challenging the very raison d’etre of his project.

He needs his beans too.  Otherwise he will starve.

But nonetheless he brings first the outlook of a contemporary quantum physicist.  Everything is connected. A rainy day may be disruptive; but it is not an insult thrown at us by the universe.

It is a invitation by the universe to bring ourselves into a more connected relationship with everything around us.

Thoreau on a rainy day

Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness.

While enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.

The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.

Though it prevents me hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing.

If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the lowlands, it will be good for the grass of the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me.

Sometimes, when I compare myself to other men, it seems as if I were more favoured by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of – as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.  I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me.

(p. 114 of the 1927 edition of Walden)

Poets advice for surviving the financial crisis

In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Dante in the Inferno

Mid-life crises, sudden loss, tragedies, and world-wide financial crises are certainly different in degree, and different in content.  But they have one thing in common.

They are unpleasant to experience.  We feel that we have lost our way.  And we have a vague yet pervasive feeling that there isn’t a way and that we were mistaken to believe that there is.

David Whyte, British corporate poet, explores this experience in poetry and prose, and uses stories and poems about his own life to illustrate the rediscovery of our sense of direction, meaning and control.

Using his ideas and the ideas of philosophers and poets before him, we are able to refind our balance, and live through the financial crisis, meaningfully and constructively.

Come with me!

David Whyte has a 2 disk CD, MidLife and the Great Unknown.

If you get a copy of his CD, I will listen to it with you.  And we can discuss it online?

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Positive psychology on despair and world conflict

To arrive is scary.  What will be our journey, if we are already there?

As I’ve watched the supersonic work pace of Barack Obama, I’ve also been annoyed with the curmudgeonly spirit of many commentators.

I believe they are scared.  Not because of anything Barack Obama may or may not do, but because Barack Obama may be the person we all want to be.   If it is possible to be articulate, poised, present, warm, honest, then we don’t have to be scared, hesitant, insecure, insincere and most of all ‘outsiders’.  We can just ‘be’ and ‘be accepted’.  To arrive is scary.  What will be our journey, if we are already here?

Don’t let disappointment be an excuse to delay arrival

Nonetheless, I was very disappointed by the bombing of Pakistan.  Sending an unmanned drone into a civilian building seems to me a murderous act.  How can we defend this?  I would like this to stop.

We want what we don’t like not to be

My emotional reaction to this event follows a spiral that, I believe, is quite common when ordinary people follow politics and world events. I read the reports and I felt disgust.  Then I felt judgmental.  And then I wanted to reject what disgusted me.

And when reality does not cooperate, we sulk

But the source of my disgust is in power (and popular).  Rejection is not an option open to me. So, I felt down and dejected.  Feeling that there was nothing I could do but endure the undurable, I withdrew, at least emotionally, and felt alienated, despondent and dejected

Curmudgeonly behavior is a mark of esteem in UK but it is “wet”

It is very likely that many people who express a curmudgeonly view are going through a similar process.  Something specific disgusts them, and they allow that one point, important as it may be, to allow them to feel despair about all points.  Positive psychologists call this ‘catastrophizing‘.   We go from one negative point to believing that we lack control.  Not only do we believe that we lack control on this issue, we go on to believe that we lack control on other issues too.  And we don’t stop there.  We go on to believe that we will always lack control, to the end of time.  In other words, we feel that what has gone wrong is persistent, pervasive, and personal.

So what am I going to do?

Put the strength of my feeling in words

Well, this issue is important to me.  I am sickened by the bombing of civilian targets.  I am ashamed it was done.  I leaves me uncomfortable and embarrassed and feeling that our condolences are woefully insufficient.  I don’t even know how to express this adequately.

Be a player

But it is also wrong to write off the hope that has come to the world.  One day I may be in a position to influence decisions like this.  And if I am to open a conversation with influential people, I need to be informed, and much more informed than I am now.  So I will become so.

List specific small things that I can do

And for now, should I meet my MP, who is a UK specialist on the conflict in Afghanistan, I will ask him.  I will tell I am unhappy and that I want to know more.  And though the whole matter makes me want to throw up, I will listen and learn.

Stay where the decisions are made

If we want the world to be as we wish, we cannot pick up our toys and go home every time we don’t like something.  I am afraid the art of politics is to be where the decisions are made.  Sometimes we have to stay and engage.

Stop the decline into ineffectiveness

Positive psychology does not say that the problems of the world will go away.  But it does help us not sink into despair and become ineffectual.

Come with me!

  • Is there something that makes you angry and fearful?  Are you overgeneralising from one issue, thinking it is ‘persistent, pervasive and personal’ – catastrophising?
  • If you put aside your general despair and remain in the forum where decisions are made, what do you need to do to become more effective at influencing our collective decisions?
  • And having thought this through, can you see a way that you may be able to influence events in future?