Nathaniel on self-observation
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
5:10 a.m. Last night I thought I would take a glass of wine to relax. To my great surprise, it made me dizzy when I tried to go to bed early. As dizzy as if I were drunk, dizzy as in, that whirling sickening feeling when my eyes were closed. It is sufficiently strange that I think to ask you, my friends, what is going on?
Good that you not only noticed – how could you not, though, in the circumstances – but remembered that things don’t just happen; they happen in a context.
Am I being told to stop drinking alcohol entirely? I’m not a very alcoholic person. It isn’t like I have a drink every day, or every week, or even every month.
But when you ask a question, stay for the answer.
Yes. Go on.
Usually in your life (everyone’s, we mean, not yours alone) it is a more productive question to ask what something is in aid of, than why it happened. They may seem like two ways to say the same thing, but they aren’t.
I see that, easily enough. The one is more map-reading, the other more analysis of where we’ve been. Similar activities, but a different orientation.
You will remember Thoreau saying that he had discovered that one could over-do anything, even drinking water.
He wasn’t blaming himself for having had too much water, obviously. He wasn’t gnashing his teeth, nor setting his teeth in grim resolution to reform. He was merely observing. He had done X; Y resulted. He would not do X again, as he didn’t want to de-tune himself.
He may have had a tendency to generalize rules for others from what was true for him.
Regardless if that is historically true, recognize that any observation you make (one makes) probably describes a tendency in yourself to be watched. That is, if you say it of others, look for it in yourself.
Biography as cautionary tales, eh?
Well –this could be a long discussion. Let’s at least take a step or two along the road. The fact of the matter is that mental experience is no less an education than social experience.
I take that to mean, we may learn from other people’s lives – from the story of other people’s lives – in the same way we can learn from actual observation of people we interact with in the flesh.
After all, in the last analysis (interesting phrase, that!), all experience is mental; which means, all experience is you, reacting; which means, all internal and external events are more or less the same in their effects. Or, not quite that. More like, your real life is your choosing your attitude toward what comes at you. Therefore it follows that, to the degree you are more attuned to the inner life, the greater its influence. No, not quite right, but you have it. You try, and we’ll correct if need be.
I think the nuance is, if one lives primarily “in one’s head,” like me, the majority of one’s important input will come from that world. If one is oriented primarily toward the objective, outside-world life, then that is where one will find the input. Interesting, this shouldn’t be hard to say; it is a simple concept, even an obvious one, but I am getting the sense that we still haven’t quite said it. Which tells me it isn’t as simple as I am inclined to think.
Well, the word “important,” for one thing. Is the air you breathe important? Yet it may not be noticeable.
You don’t need to tell that to an asthmatic!
No, but you see the point. “Important” is not the same thing as “noticeable,” for instance, nor is episodic the same as habitual or even constant, but you may not know the relative importance of any of them. In fact, that is a major point in itself: As we have said in other contexts, you never have the data that would be required to judge your life. But observation need not be tied to judgment, and in fact is more likely to be accurate when it is not connected to an attempt (one-time or continuing) to judge.
Whitman said something like, “I think I could live with the animals, they are so contented. They don’t weep for their sins,” something like that. Meaning, not that he did, but that he didn’t think it was healthful (let alone restful) to be among those who did. “There is not one that is respectable or discontented on the face of the earth.” Something like that. I’ll quote it if I can find it easily.
[From Whitman’s Song of Myself, courtesy of http://www.all-creatures.org/poetry, found through duckduckgo.com:
[I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
[They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.]
You see, the point that is half-eluding stating is that observation and rumination (speaking of cattle!) are key.
Are we back to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living?
Notice, he didn’t say, the unjudged life, the unrepented or un-rued life. Like Whitman, perhaps (though that may seem an odd pairing) he is saying, see your life as it passes; experience it. Analyze it, if that is to your taste, or don’t, if it is not, but notice. But notice what your life is, not what others say it is, or what they – or you – think it ought to be.
Yes, I get it. Saying “experience your life” is not the same thing as “Go out and collect experiences.” This idea of a bucket list – a list of thing you want to have accomplished before you kick the bucket – is easily trivialized. What’s wrong with your bucket list containing only one item, if you prefer, which is, “Don’t make a bucket list”?
Probably your life will not have been wasted even if you never learn to ski, never experience life as one of the rich or one of high society or one of whatever elite impresses you. Probably you may live your life fully and successfully even if you don’t (or do) drink heavily, smoke, carouse, fast, devote yourself to acts of charity, spend your days reading and your nights watching movies or taking long walks or playing cards with friends or strangers.
Why, to listen to you, you’d think we are here to be what we are and what we want to be.
Yes, imagine that. We, like you, are smiling. We, like you, are entirely serious. Your lives were given to you for you to express yourselves by continuous interaction between what you are and what comes to you. “What comes to you” will be people, or experiences, or —
No, that may be my mis-phrasing. I got what you meant: Our input may come from anywhere, objective or subjective; our task (and our entertainment, our artistic task, perhaps we should say) is to react to it, to interact with it, to continue to work with ourselves as a sculptor works with clay, to mold it to the shape, or anyway toward the shape that pleases us.
And don’t worry too much about what you bring to yourself. A little, fine; not too much. [Typing this, I see the meaning may not be clear: They meant, don’t worry too much about what input you choose to admit into your life.]
In other words, don’t over-steer.
You can second-guess yourselves right out of what you know is true and helpful.
It’s an odd feeling, this morning. I can seem to hear you saying some of these things specifically for people I don’t necessarily know who will be reading this.
That is always true, of every author and every reader, only there is no way (and no need) for those involved to be aware of it. Your 3D components are meant to relate to the world around you, which means the place and time you live in. That place and time includes records of the past and foreshadowings of the future, but it is still a definite orienting locus. So it is no surprise, and no malfunction, that a given writer or painter or artist does not know who any particular work is to have special significance for, and it is equally unimportant that any particular recipient be aware of a particular connection. Nonetheless it is there, and in a very real sense.
I was told once, and have never forgotten, that everyone who reads a book is directly connected to the author and thus to everyone else who ever reads it. And I suppose that goes for musicians and composers, for sculptors and painters, no less.
What about architects, builders, anyone who shapes the world in any way?
Meaning, the workers in factories? Farmers in their fields? Trash collectors, police, anyone?
Who do you suppose is unneeded in the world? Home economicus [“economic man,” as a theoretical construct] is only an abstraction, like homo ludens [“playing man,” I guess you’d say, or maybe “man as playful being”] or any other abstraction. You are all there, you all interact in ways known and unknown. The man who founds a publishing company, or a distribution company, or a book store virtual or physical – do they not all impact the world around them? The people who grow fruit, or package it, or ship it, or display and sell it – are they unnecessary, supernumerary, merely because you can do without them without ceasing to live?
None of these interactions need be obvious; that doesn’t make them any less important to the world. Important to the individual, important to those the individual affects.
Henry Adams certainly wasn’t thinking of me when he wrote his histories of the United States during Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations, yet they are having their effect on me, 100 years later.
No one on earth – that is, no one’s 3D component – knows or can know the effect of his or her thoughts and actions 100 years hence. The fact that the interactions are invisible is not the same as saying they are non-existent.
Well, there’s our hour, but it seems a bit unshaped. Have we been merely rambling through the grass?
If the theme of “the importance of self-observation” be merely rambling though the grass, yes.
Smiling. Okay, till next time.