Every so often as a teenager I would feel overcome by personal failures. This would culminate in an evening spent in recrimination and prayer as I tried to stoke the embers of idealism against the chill of disappointment. After a few hours of listening to my favorite music, I would feel renewed fiery ambition. In that spirit of fervor, I often scribbled hasty notes full of schedules and goals to guide my new life. At last I would go to sleep secure in my hopeful exhaustion that this time would be different. And yet each time I rose the following morning to look at the notes I had left myself, they seemed as foreign as if they’d been written by an alien hand. I had passed through the low valley and traversed the high peak, and both had left me unscathed. For good or for ill nothing had changed. I was as I had always been.
This was my introduction to one of life’s gaps. Life is full of these discrepancies between who we are and who we want to be. Between what we set out to accomplish and all we don’t achieve. Between our desires and our abilities. Between our ideal virtues and our real habits.
I could explain almost nothing of what I believe today to my teenage self, but among all that has been changed, replaced, superseded or lost there’s one principle that remains: don’t let go. No matter how heavy our ideals become it is better to endure the painful awareness of shortcoming than to give up and pretend it isn’t there.
In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argued for the “10,000 hour rule”, which basically says that if you want to be world-class at something then you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of practice, and the whole time you have to be aware that what you’re doing is simply not as good as what you want to do.
Ira Glass, the consummate story-teller behind This American Life, described this process with frankness and poignancy:
What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. [emphasis added]
The important thing to realize about this gap is that–painful as it may be to the aspiring artist struggling to bridge the divide between refined sensibilities and crude abilities–it’s actually vital to your development as an artist. The only way for the gap to not be there is to be as good as your aesthetic taste. And since none of us are born with any artistic skill that means that if you never feel the painful awareness of the gap you lack both skill and taste. You’re doomed to never progress.
As much as it may hurt, the gap is also the cause of the hope any aspiring writer, singer, musician, engineer, architect, or human being has for one day being truly good.
Our Own Judges
In a beautiful essay about the atonement (That They Might Not Suffer, .pdf), Mormon theologian Eugene England talked about another kind of gap:
Paradoxically, man’s moral sense of justice both brings him to the awareness of sin that must begin all repentance and yet interferes with his attempts to repent. he feels that every action must bear its consequences and that he must justify his actions to himself; since there is a gap between belief and action he is in a state which brings into his heart and mind a sense of guilt, of unbearable division within himself.
This spiritual divide is different from the more practical gap that Ira talked about, but not as different as it may appear at first. Even though Ira is arguing that with persistent effort the gap can be overcome, he doesn’t guarantee that refusing to give up will ever make you a true master. And even the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t guarantee anything like success. As Paul McCartney observed, “there were an awful lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10,000 hours and didn’t make it.”
So Ira and Malcolm and Paul tell us that if we don’t give up we’ll get better, but we might still never make it. And Eugene tells us that we can’t make it no matter what we do (“all… fall short of the glory of God“), but that if we don’t give up then Christ can rescue us. The common theme? Don’t give up. And, if we dig a little deeper, then maybe this is the message: the struggle, alone, is what really matters.
Free Will and Existence
Jean-Paul Sartre said “man is condemned to be free” and Neil Peart explicated with “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” Both of them were only half-right, however. Freedom, although our birthright, is not inalienable. Paul Bowles depicted the alternative with haunting deliberation in his 1949 classic of existentialism The Sheltering Sky. With every refusal to decide, Kit Moresby whittled away her will until, in a nihilist baptism, she was freed forever from the pain and uncertainty of freedom. She ceased to exist as a self-determining agent and became “a thing to be acted upon”. That phrase comes from the prophet Lehi who wrote in the Book of Mormon that the universe could be divided into two categories: “thing to act, and things to be acted upon.”
There is, therefore, an incontrovertible connection between free will and existence. According to Lehi’s dichotomy, to cease to be free is to cease to exist in the sense of being “a thing to act” and instead to become just part of the inanimate machinery of the universe. An ancient religious leader isn’t the only person to draw this conclusion, however, as the modern secular scientist Raymond Tallis illustrates in Aping Mankind:
[Without free-will,] you — your brain, your mind, your consciousness — are wired into the universe. And the wiring does not simply connect you to your body, or even to your immediate environment; it goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe. In short, you are stitched into a seamless flow of material events subject to the laws of nature. Your actions cannot be in any way exempt from these laws. You are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material world.
Free will itself assumes the existence of two additional characteristics: power to choose among alternatives and knowledge to know what the consequences of those choices will be. It was Frank Herbert, in his masterpiece Dune, who first impressed on me the importance of deciding to be free. He invented the idea of the gom jabbar, a lethal test the distinguished true persons (who govern themselves according to reason) from mere animal human beings (who fail to do what they know they ought to). As for the importance of knowledge, it was Socrates (whom I prefer to credit instead of Plato for purely sentimental reasons) who expressed the fundamental importance of introspection with the austere maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
Why is the unexamined life not worth living? Because it is not ours. Self-examination is a necessary first step towards imposing our will on our own unruly self, born of random genetic combination and formed by environmental factors outside our control or even understanding. By the time we become self-aware, we have already been bootstrapped into an identity contingent on a chaotic world and independent of our own free-will. It’s an origin from which no mortal can ever be wholly free, but if we fail to even attempt to assert our own identity with the tools of self-knowledge and will-power then we must spend our lifetime as a mere spectator to our own existence. We can watch in pleasurable or painful passivity as things happen to us and–using our body as mere conduit–through us. The beliefs of our parents, the opinions of our friends, and the random carrots and sticks of a complex external world acting on our evolved desires and fears provide ample stimulus for the creation of a shallow facsimile of life.
If we want to live authentically–to be free and to truly exist–we must live, as Thoreau put it, “deliberately”. We must carve out and maintain a space for introspection and decision between action and reaction, or there is no true self. Note that this struggle for self-knowledge and self-control is what matters, rather than the degree of success we have in the attempt, because it is in the mere attempt that our independent will comes into being. We are doomed to struggle in a fight we can never win, and yet by authentically attempting we guaranteed the only success that matters. It’s a beautiful contradiction with echoes of Christ’s greatest paradox: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
The gap between talent and aspiration is the opportunity to learn and improve, and the gap between our ideals and our reality is the opportunity to truly live.
Another thing to note is that all of this talk of introspection and deciding presupposes that you’ve got a set of ideals on which to base your decision. This is simple logic: one cannot be said to deliberate without a code of values upon which to base such deliberation. But if a decision presupposes a set of ideals, then how do we decide which ideals to live by? Isn’t there a fatal circularity here?
One possible response is that–akin to Simone de Beauvoir‘s quest to ground morality in objective reality in The Ethics of Ambiguity–there’s an ultimate font of all principle which can only be accepted or rejected wholesale, with all the body of moral code standing of falling along with it. Perhaps, in the end, the decision to exist entails along with it all that we need to know of eternal truth from physics to ethics. Even if such a philosophical location exists, however, it is certainly the case that we don’t start out there. In the here and now we have no solid foundation upon which to build. As Otto Neurath described it:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
There is no starting point. There is no way for us to construct a rational and consistent view of the world in a linear fashion by starting at Point A and working in neat series through Points B, C, and D all the way until we reach the end. We do not, after all, spring like Athena from the head of Zeus fully formed and ready to begin our philosopher’s quest, but emerge in fits and starts into self-awareness as we age like a person waking slowly from a deep sleep. By the time we’re aware these questions stand waiting to be answered we are already not our own, but bear the imprint of millions who live beside or passed on before us.
I want to make a crucial aside at this point. Although this indeed is a “philosopher’s quest” it is anything but mere speculative theorizing divorced from the visceral reality of friends and love and fear and life. “Pure religion” is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” and this is compatible with earnest theological speculation, not opposed to it. Genuine philosophy or theology always entails a call to action. Viktor Frankl wrote that:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
Being responsible requires a response to all the mundane problems of our friends and family and the people around us. The ideal of romantic existentialism should take us closer to and not farther from the concrete realities of our fellow persons. We must care more, and not less, about the feelings and plight of those around us. Just as we struggle towards freedom in the spite of ultimate futility, we also must struggle against suffering and misery in full knowledge that our efforts cannot ultimately save all we earnestly desire to save. We live as The Star Thrower saving one or two among millions that we cannot possibly reach, and as a result there is never a moment of real and authentic rest in this world. And yet perhaps that, too, is part of the point.
“What? It’s useless?” asks Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Begerac. ”I know,” he replies, “A man doesn’t fight to win. It’s better when the fight is in vain.” We do not strive to win, but rather we strive to be.
7 thoughts on “Mind the Gaps”
How do I get to your fiction blog from here? Can’t find a link!
Like this blog, Nathaniel. Am looking forward to your fiction blog too. Well, I feel very moved by your post, primarily because, in my life, I have spent too much time being sick, which has robbed me of numerous chances to gain an education, or to gain job experiences, travel and much more.
As much as I love your non-fiction writing (and am sad we don’t live closer so we can talk in person more often), I *really* love your fiction. So I’m looking forward to that blog as well!
Thanks for checking it out guys. The fiction blog will be at loosecanon.nathanielgivens.com, but there’s no content there yet. I’ll definitely let y’all know when it’s ready to go!
I love this:
“Why is the unexamined life not worth living? Because it is not ours. Self-examination is a necessary first step towards imposing our will on our own unruly self, born of random genetic combination and formed by environmental factors outside our control or even understanding. By the time we become self-aware, we have already been bootstrapped into an identity contingent on a chaotic world and independent of our own free-will. It’s an origin from which no mortal can ever be wholly free, but if we fail to even attempt to assert our own identity with the tools of self-knowledge and will-power then we must spend our lifetime as a mere spectator to our own existence. We can watch in pleasurable or painful passivity as things happen to us and–using our body as mere conduit–through us. The beliefs of our parents, the opinions of our friends, and the random carrots and sticks of a complex external world acting on our evolved desires and fears provide ample stimulus for the creation of a shallow facsimile of life.”
I love how you account for both free will and the constraints we start with.
Thanks, Laura. I’m actually working on a longer piece about free will and existence that I hope to have up in the next week or two. If you liked this, I think you will enjoy that one as well.
Comments are closed.