Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Thought of the Day: the worth of the examined life
Little girl likes her brain. What's your opinion?
-Kent Brockman, summing up guest commentary by Lisa Simpson

I may have some bad news. The vita contemplata, or contemplative life--which I've swooned over with the sort of dizzyness that makes you start speaking Latin like that--may be overrated. I'm still fond of contemplation itself, which is in short order in modern life. The unexamined life is not worth living, pleaded Socrates to an Athens jury. The actual quote is:
To let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others ... is really the very best thing that a man can do. ... Life without this sort of examination is not worth living." link

In college, as an aspiring writer, I idealized a peaceful, private life of reading and writing, and assumed that after a hectic reporting career, I might be able to withdraw to such serene solitude as a columnist or freelancer, perhaps as a stay-at-home dad. But just three months out of college, when my Tribune internship ran out, I was a full-time freelancer right off the bat. It's been one year now, and I'm trying to take measure of one of the strangest years of my life.

My setup sounds perfect, more so than I could have imagined in college: regularly contribute features to two respected publications, the Chicago Tribune and Books&Culture, live in downtown Chicago, my favorite place on the planet, compulsively follow the New Yorker and the Atlantic, with time on the side to delve into the theology and philosophy titles lining my shelf. "Beats working for a living," as John McEnroe summed up his life as a TV announcer to David Letterman a couple weeks ago. But at the one-year mark, just before my 24th birthday, I don't know how much more I can take of this "perfect" life, nor what I should do instead. It's not just the little practical headaches; some editors never return e-mail, some Tribune checks come one solstice after a story runs. (I may be the lone example of how marriage can keep people out of poverty, as George W. Bush envisions.) The uncertainty of routine--that by-product of flexibility and independence--means I have nothing to do some days, and five things to do for three different employers on others.

That's petty quibbling--of an especially whiny sort, given the number of unemployed and bored employed out there. The real test for me, I've been surprised to learn, is having to tolerate being with my own thoughts for so long, so often. This is what I thought would be the good part. But until you have the fortune or misfortune of as many days as I've had sitting at home, ruminating, writing, depending on my noodle for company, for recreation, and for a paycheck, it's hard to imagine how unhuman an existence it can seem. I say unhuman because we were created by God to interact with other people, to converse, to have relationships, to gather, to be social. To have peace and privacy at times, too, but as a break from normalcy, not normalcy itself. Other than the people I interview by phone (and occasionally in person), the couple friends we eat out with every week or so, and my wife, it's just me sitting here typing. And although I am an introvert, this can be absolutely mentally taxing. In part because I try to do mostly "serious" reading (as much as the New Yorker et al merit the word). In part because I'm interested in, and thus occupied with, just about everything; I'm a mile-wide-inch-deep type of person, and it's more comfortable (if not ultimately preferable) to specialize in something, to have a vocational focus. In part because the change from social life with college friends to a lonelier life, now that my three roomates and I live in two U.S. states, Canada, and Africa, was abrupt and caught me off guard. In part because my wife and I haven't really found a niche with a church community yet. In part because working from home is a challenging dynamic to introduce to a marriage.

I still think I'm better off being at home as an independent writer than I would be boxed in an office and sucked into corporate culture. I know I would miss my current life if I did take a "real" job. And although I wish I was flushing out brilliant books and essays that would justify this lifestyle, I'm reasonably satisfied with both the quantity and quality of my output. Still, I feel guilty; I have the nagging feeling that I'm not doing it right. The contemplative life is supposed to yield good contemplating, but I worry that the lifestyle is instead, at times, paralyzing me, jumbling and even stalling my thoughts. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. Annie Dillard is a writer's writer; she writes in rooms with bare walls and bad views, and says the writing life, properly done, should be "colorless to the point of sensory deprivation." The reason so many writers write about their childhoods, she says, is that "a writer's childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience." From then on, writers entertain the "ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper." In this stiffly enforced solitude, with its seemingly numbing tedium, Dillard chisels and polishes words and sentences, and the result is writing that bursts off the page and transforms the reader. Philip Yancey, in his chapter on Dillard in his collection Soul Survivor, says that "people have a glamorized image of a writer's life." The truth, he says, would disappoint them. "We work alone, rebuffing all distractions, and create our own private reality, exploring and domesticating it..."

The purpose of this monastic existence is that it yields wisdom of a richness that the frenetic pace of a normal life would render inaccessible. But I've found much truth in this quote from Nicholas Sebastien Chamfort: "The contemplative life is often miserable. You should do more, think less and not watch yourself living." A wise writer friend of mine talks about getting "lost in my interior universe." He says, "If I do write, there's a sense of isolation to contend with; if I don't, there's a self-hatred ... When I put it to myself that way, the choice is clear--isolation is easier to deal with and goes away faster than disappointment with myself." Earlier, I clipped "luftmensch" as a recent word of the day; it means "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income." And while "impractical" is too small a flaw to condemn contemplative pursuits, it does make me feel guilty (boy, do I live in an industrialized society or what), even though I believe that good writing can glorify God, as Dillard does. In my case, it might just be some mild depression brought on by a blend of the biochemical and the circumstantial, or the marital discord; but solitude does not seem a recipe for pure wisdom. I'm all for wisdom in a folly-filled world, but how much does writer's wisdom make the world a better place, and how much of it is selfish individual diversion?

"Man remains a mystery to himself, and to attempt to elucidate that mystery by delving into one's mind is merely to increase its perplexing obscurity." Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons

- Article from Books&Culture: Thomas Merton and the monastic life.
- Earlier Thought of the Day: Too much cynicism?
- Previous Thought of the Day: Poe and The Matrix