Recommended: Jay Garfield’s The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life is the first lecture series I’ve listened to from The Great Courses and it’s fantastic. The name is maybe a little too lofty, I’d have called it “How to Live,” but don’t let that dissuade you. The lecturer, Jay Garfield, is a professor at Smith College and Harvard Divinity School and has written extensively on Eastern religions. His presentation style is efficient, engaging, and approachable. His course roams the world touching on many of the major philosophical and religious traditions in a way that gives a brief overview of each but also, more importantly, examples of where they differ in their philosophies on how to live.

In my own study, I’ve found it’s easy to find and focus on the similarities between philosophical traditions because they are what I’m drawn to naturally. I’d be hard pressed to say “this is what a taoist would do in this situation while a stoic would instead do this.” Garfield excels at giving a sort of WWJD for each of the traditions he covers. It’s in the contrasts between them that I feel the real character of each philosophy comes out.

For example, where Aristotle would say you can learn to cultivate anger, Seneca would say anger is never good and we should learn to avoid it completely. Where Confucianists would say we should focus on ritual and virtue, taoists would say that ritual marks the waning of belief and the onset of confusion.

Garfield also strikes a great balance between academic and practical. He doesn’t skimp on reading directly from source texts and doesn’t shy away from the complexities of distilling hundreds or thousands of years of wisdom into 30 minute chunks. But where condensing is necessary, he leans to the side of actionable information. It’s a symmetry that’s hard to find elsewhere.

If you’re looking for something good to listen to on your commute, and want more depth that most podcasts can offer while still getting the same casual feel, check it out. It’s well worth it.

Aesthetics and the Outdoors

Over the last few weeks I’ve had a few very different outdoor experiences in similar settings that have me thinking about the role of aesthetics in everyday life.

Experience 1: Our family backpacked a short distance to the coast and spent a couple nights on the beach. On the second day we met up with friends from work and camped they camped a night with us. We spent time hiking, looking at sea creatures, sitting around the fire talking, playing games, and cooking simple meals.

Experience 2: I met up with couple long-time friends and another guy I just met. We did another, longer hike through the forest and camped on the beach. We spent time sitting around the fire discussing our various philosophies of life, our kids and families, and the turns that life had given us and how we dealt with them. Being a group of guys, there was a fair amount of body humor but it was far outweighed by substantive conversation.

Experience 3: A friend invited me to stay at a cabin on the coast then spend the next day fishing with a group of guys that I hadn’t met. Being out on the ocean was amazing. We caught salmon and saw humpback whales frolicking in the rainy, overcast Pacific waters. This time the mood of the trip was more macho. Life and feelings weren’t discussed, the focus was on the “hunt” for the fish and on the equipment and techniques to best carry it out.

I came back from the first two experiences feeling refreshed and invigorated. The third wasn’t bad by any means, but it left me feeling relatively empty. As far as I can tell, the third experience was marred by a lack of what would traditionally be considered feminine characteristics. The physical environment was very similar for all three but the texture or aesthetics of each couldn’t have been more different.

For experience 1, there were children present. This naturally kept the tone of the trip more chill. A lot of time was spent nurturing them—teaching them about the environment they were in and talking to them about their lives. It was great to see my friends who don’t have kids taking such an active interest in my children.

Experience 2 had no women or children present but the group was composed entirely of family men. There was little in the way of posturing or machismo. It enriching to swap stories of our ups and downs in the role of providers. We talked about our other outdoor experiences, made plans for the future, talked about books and tv shows we’d all read or seen, and swapped tips for living the good life. We kept our gear and meals simple and rather than spending time focused on “doing,” we optimized for enjoyment of the natural beauty of the area. I think the best word to describe the trip would be “edifying.”

The last experience had its share of camaraderie. We celebrated each other’s accomplishments—in this case catching fish. Plenty of inside jokes were born and died. It wasn’t a physically challenging activity but there was a big disparity in terms of technical ability. I’m a fishing newbie and appreciated the guidance from the more experienced members of the group. Upon reflection though, what was lacking was any philosophical discussion of what we were doing. There were comments on the beauty of the ocean, the fish, and the whales. There wasn’t much though in terms of deeper discussion of what it means to live.

The contrast between the three trips makes me think about how to apply their different aesthetics to my non-camping life. I appreciated:

  • Slow enjoyment of natural surroundings
  • Conversations free of posturing that go deeper than surface level observations
  • Base humor in small doses
  • Minimalism with regards to food and equipment

I feel like I still have some processing to do before I’ve distilled the experiences down to anything actionable, but the contrast between them was an unexpected lesson in how to live.

A Thousand Thousand Fragments of Light

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippet is quickly becoming one of my favorite books this year. Her interview with Rachel Naomi Remen was, for me, one of those eye and heart opening moments where I feel connected with humanity in an empowering way. This is the story Remen shared:

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

When questioned about the reality of “healing the world,” she said:

I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, wealthier or more educated or otherwise different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. And to just wonder about that a little: what if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?

To me, this ties together some of the most poignant aspects of the world’s great philosophies. The idea that we are okay now—there is no need to wait for anything to begin to do good. That global change comes person by person as we become enlightened to our role in humanity.

The Myth of Staying Forever Young

If anyone understood the human condition, it was Joseph Campbell. This is him in 1949 on what he calls the ‘inverted emphasis’ of staying forever young:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un­-exercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love—which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan…

He is principally directing this criticism to men who refuse to grow up, but also to women for fulfilling the vacuum of finding good men by appealing to fantasy where reality comes up lacking. The youthful reluctance to pull away from the mother that he describes is very Freudian. At the end of life we are faced with another, this time Jungian, conflict:

What is difficult to leave, then, is not the womb but the phallus—unless, indeed, the life-weariness has already seized the heart, when it will be death that calls with the promise of bliss that formerly was the lure of love.

The purpose of these descriptions is to point out the place for myth in our lives. Myth and ritual help us to cease to cleave to our mothers when we are young, then to accept death when we are old. It moves us through life in a way that is sublimely, universally human. Without myth, we go through these transitions alone, clumsily. With myth, we are part of something bigger, part of the hero’s journey. As Campbell says, with his unique and chilling talent for language:

Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, un­predictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

That discovery, that our plight is not unique but is a “series of standard metamorphoses” should be liberating and unifying. It elevates our tribe from being the small group of people we know personally to being the human race.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces p. 10-11

special occasion dresses store