My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The game of life: there is no way around it.

Once upon a time (but, really, not that long ago), I think I believed I could, if I worked hard enough at it, write a poem, a story, an idea so high and wild that I would never need to write another. To put it less allegorically and less plagiaristically, I think I believed I could craft a text that could compel others to action and, if not action, at least, maybe, it might compel others to like and admire it.

I say, “I think I believed” because I don’t recall ever explicitly thinking, “If I get this sentence just so, then, people will understand, act, and admire.” But, looking back on all of it, it certainly seems like this belief was implicit in my dogged pursuit of an aesthetic and conceptual perfection that was forever just beyond my reach and entirely unseen by everyone else (my Harvey, I suppose). It is as if, it seems to me now, I worked so hard because I thought perfection would give my words and ideas super powers. Otherwise, why bother?

Once articulated, it seems like a rather childish and somewhat spooky hope for a well-read and well-travelled atheist such as myself, but you don’t have to look very far to find this hope in others. For example, the rhetoric of debate is built around the notion that arguments are expected to compel belief by the sheer force of their logic. People’s heads explode online and around the dinner table precisely because they expect others to change their beliefs in the face of arguments that are so obviously correct that any idiot should be able to see it. In fact, and to put too fine point on it, as I so often do, it could be claimed — and, heck, I am going to go right ahead and make the claim — that the hope at the heart of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism and the entire Western liberal tradition — is the hope that truth, whether accessed through faith or reason, can compel people to change their beliefs and behaviours to align with it.

And that hope, in case you didn’t know, is almost certainly wrong.

There is no property independent of people that can compel people to believe or act any one way or the other. And while there is still much to be learned about brains, beliefs and behaviours, I feel pretty confident in asserting that the key consideration, when it comes to belief formation, is going to be the people with which one identifies. Moreover, the evaluation of beliefs and behaviours will always be done by people. So, even if it turns out that we can sometimes come up with a new idea completely on our own (p.s. it won’t, but let’s pretend), the value of the idea will always be determined by people and is not intrinsic to the idea itself.

So, I suppose this is a very long and unnecessarily elaborate way of saying (as per the uzhe) what most teenagers have probably figured out — that fitting-in, ingratiating oneself to a group (ideally, one that is wealthy, powerful and beautiful) is the only path to success. If you want to be a successful anything (writer, plumber, banker), you need to ingratiate yourself to the people who determine who is or is not x, y, or z and who also determine whether or not people are a success at it. There is no way around it.

The Right Kind of Writing is Good for You. Bonus: It’s Simple!

Writing Is Good For YouI have always had the hunch that writing helps me make sense of my life in a way that’s beneficial.

It turns out I was right.

There is solid empirical research indicating that the right kind of writing can have a measurable benefit in your life. More surprisingly, it benefits you both emotionally and physically.

The good news: “the right kind of writing” is very simple to do. It also doesn’t require a huge time commitment.

This is what you need to do.

  1. Identify an emotional upheaval in your life.
  2. Write about the upheaval over four consecutive days, for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Focus on your deepest feelings and aim to create a meaningful account that makes sense of the upheaval by day four.

That, believe it or not, is all it takes.

In controlled experiments, people who used this simple exercise reported better moods, received better grades at university, missed fewer days of work, showed improved immune system functioning, and were less likely to visit the doctor.

One important caveat: don’t write about the upheaval too soon after it happens. Use it only when you’re ready.

Want to learn more? Here’s a good article.

I read about this research in two different books: The Happiness Hypothesis and Strangers to Ourselves. Both are very accessible, very enjoyable, and cover a lot of research that will be relevant to anyone who wants to make sense of an upheaval in his or her life. I recommend both of them.

If you want to explore the ideas and research in these books (and others), I can help.