to recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

The whole Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote:

To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.

I complained last post about being mentally restless and it occurred to me shortly after that the issue is one of the balance of depth and breadth. It’s not revolutionary that coming to know one thing really, really well is more rewarding than superficially all the news in all the days. But there must be both as per Bonhoeffer above — too much breadth and you waste it all by not processing, shedding it along the way because you haven’t attributed significance to it; too much depth and you lose touch with contextual reality, becoming the proverbial frog in the well. You need ledges from which to leap to understand depth, and you need the ravine beneath you to not feel trapped going from ledge to ledge, covering 1/10 of a mile in 5 hours. And those ledges, I think, should be facts rather than the pure fabrications of one’s mind.

And this, as an aside, is my infrequent issue with reading the news too much each day…to take it to an extreme, it’s like chasing fleeting fashion too earnestly — it passes, usually within 48 hours, sometimes persisting as much as 2 weeks … but it inevitably passes, while history stays.

Some people make headlines, while others make history.

I sometimes wonder about the tradeoff between reading today’s news and last century’s history. If we opt for literature instead of New Yorker short stories (nothing against New Yorker short stories…I guess that’s how modern literature is birthed), why do we opt for news instead of history books? There’s an optimal balance in here somewhere, tailored per the person and the number of hours in a day.

That said, there is also something to be said of just setting aside time to review the day’s events and draw a few conclusions; this begets massive depth points, haha, for relatively little time. It takes all of 10 minutes (unless your life is far, far more interesting than mine…or your imagination far, far more developed…both possible, but the latter less likely :]). It’s just really hard to trade off sitting still for 10 minutes to think (and note this isn’t to clear your mind…it is rather to fill your mind with all the things that have transpired since the last time you did this activity and actively try to form connections…it’s exhausting if done right) when our world emphasizes the short-term accumulation of more … but the 1-5 articles you read during those 10 minutes are nothing compared to what you can achieve with sitting still.

And as much as I gloss over it, this issue of depth/breadth also applies to people. As much as parties and group gatherings are fun (and, bluntly, time efficient), the true rewards lie in talking to people one on one. As with all things, you get out what you put in (intelligently). Something like this (via Michael Ondaatje):

There are stories of elopements, unrequited love, family feuds and exhausting vendettas, which everyone was drawn into, had to be involved with. But nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other’s presence. No one speaks of that exchange of gift and character…

Where is the intimate and truthful in all this? Teenager and Uncle. Husband and lover. A lost father in his solace. And why do I want to know of this privacy? After the cups of tea, coffee, public conversations … I want to sit down with someone and talk with utter directness, want to talk to all the lost history like that deserving lover.

By the way, I always feel a little queasy quoting things because of that Oscar Wilde comment that quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit … makes me sad. :[

Anyway, will leave you with an excerpt from Pablo Neruda (screw you, Oscar Wilde):

Por eso tengo que volver

a tantos sitios venideros

para encontrarme conmigo

y examinarme sin cesar,

sin mas testigo que la luna

y luego silbar de alegria

pisando piedras y terrones

sin mas tarea que existir,

sin mas familia que el camino.

to recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

short of breath and short of life

[warning: this is a self centered post]

“My conclusion is that [he] is one of the few individuals one meets who deeply, thoroughly, and intensely loves life and therefore, equally deeply, thoroughly, and intensely lives it.”

Sentence from one of my peer recommendations. I’m quite envious of this friend, to be honest. I’ve mentioned this before in the context of happiness, that I like life but not so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it. There are moments when I love it, days even, but for the most part, I live too much in my own head and I imagine that oblivion and thought with minimal external stimulus don’t feel that different. And I used to scoff at the sensory pleasures; after all, ideas are limitless, the senses not so. But increasingly I understand the intense, unadulterated joys of the upper range of each – the joy of looking at a shock of color, of deeply inhaling the smell of laundry, of tasting something intricately memorable, of hearing the unabashed warmth of strings flow into the cool trickle of piano, of feeling tentative fingers tracing the contours of your face. It is only during these moments when I feel like I am most earnestly, desperately clinging onto this life, when my love for it feels as intense as that of my friend mentioned above.

My recent lack of happiness (it’s not really unhappiness…or maybe I’m just in denial) occurred kind of abruptly. Just two days ago, I felt consciously at peace with everything in my life as I had only four or five times in my adult life. And then I think something caught or shifted or was startled into a new position. And suddenly I desperately craved something new, more stimulus, something intriguing to light a patch of neurons. And so I’ve been reading more voraciously than usual and thinking and talking to some about what I’m thinking.

There are two primary ways to get to new insights about oneself (and life) — searching deep within oneself, forming new connections between existing concepts and experiences, seeing new patterns; and looking outside of oneself, gathering stimulus, looking for new, fully formed thoughts and ideas and data, even just new sources of excitement and passion.

There had been a moment not too long ago when I had looked plaintively at my friend mentioned above and told him I have to do the latter, I can’t find anything else within me; I have exhausted all the combinations and permutations of the tools I already had and had to look outside for new ones. I can’t tell as clearly where I am right now. I do feel like, especially given that my mind is in the pleasant state where it is constantly voracious these days, that I haven’t looked inside myself for a long time. Every waking moment is filled with the consumption of some sort of information, may it be interactions with people, or podcasts to fill the silence … even my filler time (travel, walking, even the last few minutes between turning the light off and falling asleep) is fully optimized. That is, every waking moment is optimized for information consumption that there is no space left for information incubation or synthesis; my life is almost too streamlined. But at the same time, perhaps I haven’t been looking outside of myself in the way that is most impactful — by talking with interesting people vastly different from me. So now I’m kind of confused because the situation is something like the first instance of stagflation in that I didn’t know the two could coexist so intensely, haha. And it’s kind of pulling me in different directions, depriving me of some much-craved focus.

Anyway, conclusion is that I’m not satisfied with the current state of affairs and it seems like I need to move two levers rather than one so…I should expect to sleep even less?

And a separate conclusion to a story that I don’t feel like telling – I am so immature at times. So effing immature.

short of breath and short of life

Postscript

He didn’t know when he dozed off but the next thing he remembered was somebody shaking his arm, at first tentatively, then with increasing urgency. He batted it away and pulled his arm to his chest. The shaking stopped and then started on his other arm.

He let out something between a groan and a snarl and finally looked up, squinting open one eye. Two stared back at him solemnly. He didn’t recognize her at first. Or rather, he mistook her for—

“Serena?” The shaking stopped. The name jolted him awake and he sat up abruptly. Pens clinked brightly as they fell to the floor. Then, acrid disappointment.

“Oh.” It’s just you.

Day 109.

Three months. It has been three months since Serena—

He buried his face in his hands. Lines seared his forehead when he finally looked up. “What time is it?” His eyes shifted to the clock on the wall. 10:24.

“Shit.” Serena stepped back, startled, as he jumped out of his chair. The wrinkles in his shirt shifted and then settled back contentedly. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” Anger gave his question an edge that made Serena fold into herself. “Get dressed, we need to get you to preschool, and then I need to go to the lab—“

“Calm down, Peter, I already took her.”

He froze and spun around. Sophia stepped into the kitchen and swept a cursory glance over the breakfast table obscured by papers, coffee stains, and fast food wrappers. The corners of her mouth turned down. “She wasn’t feeling well, so I brought her back.” A pause and then a narrow-eyed glance his way. “You should take the day off and spend it with her.”

He barely glanced at Serena as he shrugged on his jacket. “I can’t. I need to get into the lab today for some prelim results and set up a couple more experiments. I’m already late. You take her for the day. I don’t know when I’ll be back, so if you could drop her off at preschool in the morning tomorrow, that’d be great.”

“Are you done?”

“Well, that really depends on how the results turn out t-“

“God, Peter, shut up.” Pink spots of anger were starting to appear on Sophia’s cheeks. “Look at this!” She waved her arms around her. “Have you done the dishes in three months? Have you washed Serena’s clothes? Have you taken out the trash? Opened the blinds? Paid the bills? Slept in a bed?”

He blinked at her dumbly.

“I know it’s hard, but you need to begin to pull yourself together. If only for your little girl.” She pulled Serena to her.

“It’s only been three months,” he stated.

“And if you were alone in this world, you can take however God damn long you pleased. But three months is a long time for a child to be parentless.” Serena tugged on Sophia’s skirt as if asking her to stop.

“I’m not ready t-“

“Grow the fuck up, Peter.” The frigidity of her words slapped him with ice encrusted fingers. A cold, heavy liquid settled at the pit of his stomach. “I’ll take Serena for the day, but mark my words, Peter. If you don’t start caring for her as you should, I’ll make sure you lose her, too.”

She then turned to Serena completely and said, “Honey, we’re going to sleep over at Aunt Sophia’s house tonight, okay? You can come play with Jasper and Janie.”

As she ushered Serena out of the apartment, Sophia turned back and held his gaze for the space of several long seconds. Don’t forget what I said.

~

“Don’t forget the things I say next.” The intensity of her gaze seared. “Promise me, Peter.”

The intensity gave way to something that resembled sorrow. “I’m going to die, Peter.” She ignored his wordless protests and pressed his hand to her cheek. It shook and she pressed harder. “Trust Sophia. She cares deeply about you, me, and Serena. Please take care of Serena. She’s a very, very good kid. Raise her to be a good person. A strong and smart and confident person. Love her as much as you love me. Tell her about me…” she paused. He felt something wet on his hands. “But don’t let her miss me. Make sure she knows that I loved—that I love—her very, very, very much. ”

She drew in a long, shuddering breath and let it go slowly. Her gaze turned away from him, towards the lavender gray rainscape outside the hospital window. She didn’t speak for a long time, so long that he began to wonder if she had fallen asleep.

“And I love you, Peter. I love you, but don’t let my love hold you captive.”

Serena said all of those things to him the day before she passed. But all he remembers now is And I love you, Peter. I love you…

~

For the first couple of weeks after Serena’s death, people admired him. They nodded approvingly upon hearing he was still going to work, were touched to hear that he was working harder than ever, searching desperately for a cure to his late wife’s disease. They brought him casseroles and macaroni and pies and fought to take care of little Serena.

He barely noticed the passing of those few weeks. Nobody mattered to him but Serena and he thought that if he could just discover the key to her illness quickly enough, all of this could be reversed. He was so close. She was so close.

On Day 24, one of his students contaminated his samples. The ones he had been working on for months, since Serena was still alive. The experiment was a wash. He had to start over. He wanted to consume the world and then let his anger and despair consume him. His student thought he was going to eat her alive. She fought hard to switch labs and, after 6 tense days, succeeded.

For the next few weeks after Serena’s death, people were afraid of him. The Peter they had known who had been so gentle and genteel actually had a monster living inside of him. Conversations died when he walked by. People moved out of his way. All the cruelty Serena had kept contained in some nether region of his heart burst forth in shards. He was an embodiment of hatred and the only term to describe him was disgusting.

This was around the time when formerly gregarious little Serena stopped talking. It was very gradual; in fact, he wasn’t sure when exactly it happened. It was not overnight, as if under the moonlight, a wall had been erected by her five-year-old will and that wall kept all of her words at bay. No, it was a slow dying away, a slow winding down, a slow going out of business sale of words. She had simply ran out of things to say.

He noticed this on Day 59.

“Do you want milk?” To this day, he can’t bear to call her by her name. Sophia had gently joked about changing Serena’s name; he had thought about it seriously.

Serena nodded.

“Regular or chocolate?” He barely glanced up, his attention focused on the research papers in front of him and the lack of statistical significance of his recent results. What was he missing? Why are the mice still dying at a rate of one per week? Why were his papers getting wet—

With a startled cry, he jumped up and pulled as many papers off the table as possible. Serena looked up at him guiltily, chocolate milk dripping from the hand she used to pour.

“What-why-why did you do this?” He had to make sure not to scream. He jaggedly tore a few paper towels and blotted his papers before dropping a few more on the table. “Wipe your hands.” When he looked up from examining the light brown stains on his papers, Serena was crying.

He sighed. “Stop crying. Here.” He handed her a tissue. She added it to the mess of fingers wiping her face. He sighed again and finally put down the papers in his hands. “You’re doing it wrong. Here.” He knelt in front of her and wiped her face clean. Before he could get up to clean up the rest of the mess on the table, she had already wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight hug. He could feel her chest shuddering with a new wave of tears. He gingerly patted her on the back. “It’s over now. There’s no use crying over it.” The shuddering subsided to trembling subsided to stillness. He pulled her away and wiped her face again. “Next time just say sorry and we can move on, okay?”

Serena nodded. He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

She averted her eyes.

He waited.

But no words came.

He slowly became used to her silent presence.

Nowadays, other than Sophia, people have mostly forgotten about him. Heightened senses of sorrow, joy, fear, or anger can only last so long. Only indifference is eternal.

Sophia had a life and a family to take care of, so his only constant companion was Serena. At first he would put her to bed exactly at 9:00 and then return to the kitchen to work. And then she would come back out to sit with him. And he would put her back to bed. And she would come back out. And so on so forth until he eventually fell asleep over his work. In the morning she was always there next to him, sometimes on the bay window, sometimes on the rug, sometimes uncomfortably scrunched in a chair.

After several weeks of this, he gave up making her sleep in her bed. Now she sits up with him, sometimes drawing, sometimes playing idly with her stuffed animals, sometimes just watching him with the unadulterated adoration of a child. He mostly ignored her, but at times he would catch her fighting hard not to fall asleep and insist that she lie down in the makeshift bed they constructed from cushions and pillows on the bay window. And then for just a couple of minutes after she falls asleep, he would allow himself to linger over her, tracing her sleeping features with his eyes. Marveling painfully at how much she looked like her mother.

~

“Oh, no, Serena, again?” At Serena’s solemn nod, Sophia sighed and turned on her monitor. “This is the last time today, okay?” Serena nodded again, equally solemnly. Sophia hoisted her onto her lap so that she could see the screen.

“There she is. You see how much you look like her? Her name was also Serena.” She smiled down at her. The images on the screen were reflected in Serena’s eyes. “I know you’re scared you’ll forget her, but you won’t. She’s in every part of you.”

Serena tugged on her sleeve and Sophia sighed, knowing what that meant. “Your mother and your father met a long, long time ago…”

Since he was old enough to understand marriage, Peter had known he would one day marry Serena.

“Your mother had enchanted him in every way. She was the odd one in our family. Always dreaming, writing poetry, going out in the rain to recite it.” Sophia made a tsktsk sound. “She was always sick. We all thought one day she would just disappear…because somebody breathed too hard on her or something.

“Your father grew up next door and they would often play together. Nobody understood what they were playing. There were always these vast, intricate, imaginary constructs.”

“What are you doing?”

He started and almost fell into a seated position from his squat. She peered at his work.

“The roof isn’t straight, Peter. Your name is Peter, right?” He masked his bewilderment with a scowl and put down the stick he had been using to scratch the image into the dirt.

“You do it, then.”

“No, that’s boring. Let’s pretend instead we’re building a house. Oh! And this house is going to be able to fly … and travel through time! And we’ll take it first into the future and have to outrun these alien invaders…” She rambled on but all he noticed was that somewhere in the middle of creating this world, she had grabbed his hand, pulled him up, and started leading him to the playground, where the other kids were.

“You can’t just draw stuff in the dirt, you know. Some things need to be 3D … maybe the slide can be how we travel through time … and the swings can be how we fly.”

He noticed her friends giving her disapproving looks for incorporating him but she blithely ignored them. With the confidence of somebody who could construct entire universes in her head.

“They grew up hand in hand. Nobody else befriended your father. He was too prickly, too hurt by a family torn apart by bad decisions and social rejection.

“Your grandmother, my mother, eventually decided your mother had the perfect disposition and figure for ballet. Your mother loved it. And your father loved it when your mother danced. He said it was the purest form of self-expression for her and because he thought the self was stunning, the expression was equally stunning.

“But, ironically, if there was anything your father hated more about your mother, it was that she did ballet. It was the only real competition for him. It took her away from him. Increasingly. He was afraid that the more she fell in love with it, the less love she would have for him.

“He proposed to her when she got recruited by the Royal Ballet. As if once and for all proving to ballet that he had the upper hand.”

“No, Peter, I can’t do it.”

He gaped at her. Nowhere in his plans had he imagined she would say no. Sure, the butterflies in his stomach sometimes teased him with whispers of that possibility and he would sometimes play along, but he had never earnestly believed them.

“I can’t do it, Peter. I just got recruited by the Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet! Let me just do this for a few years. And then I’ll return to you.”

Something heavy settled on his chest. If he moved too much, he was afraid it would crush him. So he held very still.

“I will definitely return to you.” She held his gaze as she pulled him up to standing, closed the box, and guided it back into the inner pocket of his jacket, right next to his heart. “Please keep this safe for me,” she whispered. He wasn’t sure if she meant the ring or his heart.

“So he waited. For one year, then two, then three, then four, then five. And then she returned to him. Not too long after, they married and had you.” This was always where she stopped the story. Silence settled over them and the objects in the room like a thin layer of dust. “You’ve always wanted to try ballet like your mother. How about we give it a shot today? You’re a big girl now.” If the brightness in her voice didn’t shock the dust away, Serena’s wide-eyed enthusiasm did. Sophia smiled and stood. “Come, we have some of Janie’s old leotards—oh…Peter.” She froze. Serena ran over to hug his leg.

“How long have you been here?”

He ignored her question. “I’ve never heard you tell that story before.”

Sophia thinned her lips. “She asks for it all the time.”

“Is that so?” The question was directed to Serena, who nodded shyly. “You should hear it from me, you know. I was there.” For a second it looked like he regretted making the offer but the cloud passed and his expression cleared. “I have all of today – what would you like to do?” She looked back at Sophia who looked surprised and pleased.

“We were going to have her try on some of Janie’s leotards. Five is a good age. We can start enrolling her in some pre-ballet classes like what Janie did.”

Peter stood up. “Okay, let’s see it then.”

Fifteen minutes later, the two of them emerged from the bedroom. Serena, beaming, curtsied, almost fell over, righted herself, and then jumped around a bit more in endearingly awkward, clumsy movements.

“She’ll get better after lessons,” Sophia laughed.

“Yes, I’m afraid she will.” He sighed and glanced at Sophia. “Ballet will take her away from me just like it did her mother.”

“But she’ll come back.” Peter didn’t reply. She studied him silently. The mist of a dream clouded the clear-cut irises of his eyes. And for a second, it looked as if he was living in his head, re-experiencing the violent extremes of joy and tragedy. He blinked and seemed to return to the present, his heart heavier and more solemn.

“I have always wanted to ask…what exactly was your relationship with little Serena like when her mother was still alive? I’d heard things from Serena, of course…” Sophia trailed off, hesitant to probe more.

Peter swallowed. The movement in his neck was deliberate, exaggerated, and briefly shifted the ecru shadows across his skin. He looked away from her, out the window, at the laburnums and their frantic, uncontained beauty. He seemed to hesitate, but the poppies nodded gaily at him in the breeze and he took that as encouragement.

“I was jealous of her.” Sophia didn’t know how to respond. There was a latent darkness in his statement, a hint of swirls of black and gray and red, a faint rolling of thunder. Minutes ticked by. When Peter spoke again, his entire expression and tone had changed, as if in the silence he had communicated with a greater being and found solace in his words. “But now all I have is her.”

~

He carried Serena home that night, her head nodding gently upon his shoulder, her frame heart wrenchingly angular and self contained. The rise and fall of her breaths mingled with and muddied the rise and fall of his footsteps.

He tucked her into her bed and paused for a moment. In the darkness, he only saw what he wanted to see.

There was a time … and maybe that time encompasses now, when he would have happily traded Serena for Serena. He had implored whatever god would listen for this. Please, I’ll do anything. I will happily give up my child, all my future children, for a chance to have her live again—

The memory was painful. The memory is painful. The present is painful. Yes, the present is still painful. He might not be offering up that prayer anymore, but he wasn’t sure what his response would be if the option were presented to him.

His heart was too narrow, narrow and deep. There is a known quantity of love in it. He had loved Serena so much that there was none left for anything else, not even himself. He smiled to himself ruefully, almost cruelly. A sort of contained cruelty.

“When two people meet, Peter, in any semblance of significance, neither can go away untouched. Souls are too flimsy to survive even the briefest flirtations without losing or gaining something.”

She had said that one night during some of her last days. “Mine had touched yours, probably too violently, and left it shuddering in wonder or ecstasy or pain – I can’t tell. I’ve learned to be more careful, but it’s too late. Too late to realize that souls are wounded as much by pleasure as by agony.”

Mouth dry, he replied, uninspiredly, “Wounded isn’t the right word.”

When she spoke again, he thought she had changed the subject. “Please, please take care of Serena.” She turned to look at him imploringly, her eyes glassy. “I don’t know if it’s too late, but please love her double. Take all of your love for me and for everything else in this world and give it to her.”

He didn’t bother to tell her that all of his love for her was all the love he had.

He closed the door quietly after him, walked back to the kitchen, and fell back into his chair with a long sigh. He held still for a moment, savoring the sensation of empty lungs before drawing in another breath. The sweetness of it surprised him. His body still clung hopefully to life.

He leaned forward and tried to rub the tiredness and grief off his face before looking at the next paper in his stack. Hopeless. Or at least a long journey. A very long journey to a solution, a cure. Many, many years too late. His eyes flicked up as Serena climbed into the chair opposite him, clutching her Crayola set to her chest.

“Look what I’ve done to you.” If she heard him, she didn’t respond. A dark blue crayon skated jerkily across construction paper. “Your mother would kill me if she knew.” He swallowed a sigh and watched her draw. A house emerged, then a lawn, flowers, three figures – two and an angel.

“The roof isn’t straight.” He suppressed a smile and relived a memory.

“The roof isn’t straight, Peter. Your name is Peter, right?”

“The roof isn’t straight, Serena.” And then he reached over the research papers in front of him to help her fix it.

Postscript

fear makes us feel our humanity

A long time ago a friend asked me, in the type of conversation that only happens post 2am when one or both parties are too tired to be inhibited, what I feared the most. I was cocky enough to draw a blank so I asked him to answer first. He said he was most afraid of not living up to his loved ones’ expectations. I thought for a moment and concluded that no, I was not afraid of that. In fact, no meaningful fears came to mind. I mean, there’re many things of a different calibre that I’m afraid of — being in the apartment alone after dark, horror movies, anything with more than four legs…but if we started going down that path, the conversation would degenerate and end in a litany of annoyances.

I never thought about the topic again, until recently.

Fear, I think, occurs when you simultaneously care deeply about something and feel like you have little to no control over it. The more you care, and the less you feel like you have control, the greater your fear. I had no fears about not living up to my loved ones’ expectations because I felt like I had a good idea of what those expectations were and a good amount of control over whether or not I lived up to them. Clean.

With this understanding, I only fear three things right now — 1) losing my mother, 2) losing my grandmother, and 3) losing my co-founder. Care deeply, no control.

An interesting juxtaposition is why my own death is not on that list. For one, it feels more controllable. I am better able to control my diet than I am my mother’s diet. It also has no known aftermath. That is, unlike the deep sense of loss after one of the above, oblivion/heaven/or hell is supposed to come after death; there appear to be no emotional consequences.

So then there are two ways to increase fear in your life (and the opposite to decrease)– care more deeply about more things or feel less in control. I assume the latter is not often a conscious decision. The former is much more interesting.

Am I basically saying you should care about as few things as possible? Nah, the better interpretation is to be wary of things you care deeply about but feel like you have no control over. Because the alternative isn’t to fill your life with things you don’t care much about but rather to fill it with the pursuit of things you care deeply about that you also feel like you have some control over (perceived or otherwise).

The sad part, I think, is that those things that you care deeply about but feel you have little control over are usually relationships. And the things you care deeply about and feel you have substantial control over are usually goals. And the scary deduction — it’s relatively easy to recover from setbacks in the latter because of the sense of control; it is extremely difficult to recover from complications in the former because of the sense of helplessness.

fear makes us feel our humanity

where happiness fails, existence [is] a mad and lamentable experiment

Promised Dan Ariely notes to follow in next post…want to spend a bit more time making them coherent.

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for quite a while recently especially since leaving Goldman, going on vacation for a month, and coming back to work full time on MainStreet. There’s a lot to cover about all of the above, but a few things jump out due to their recent mindshare. The underlying theme of this post is that everything (fine, most things) compounds.

As Einstein famously said, the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. Most obviously this applies to money, which is common enough knowledge that it doesn’t need to be explored here. But what else compounds? I’d discovered in high school and through college that success compounds. One success leads to the next, until there seems to be an unfair distribution of successes. Each successive success is easier than the last.

Only recently upon entering the startup world did it occur to me how equally true this law is for intelligence and happiness. The former scares me because I feel like I’ve missed out on so many of the early investments in it; I look back and can see multiple dominant alternatives to the things I did. But at the very least, right now, I’m at maximum intelligence investment and the rate of development is breathtaking. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do something that stretches you to your intellectual maximum, especially early on.

The last thing that compounds which I want to spend the majority of discussion on is happiness, because it came as the least intuitive to me. For as long as I remember, I – and I think a lot of those like me who make up the audience of this blog – have always given happiness a back seat. That’s not to say this sub group is made of martyrs but rather that there is a mentality that if my unhappiness is the only cost to a general betterment of mankind, then so be it. A lifetime is short. One person’s unhappiness and sacrifice means little in the grand scheme of human development.

In some ways this is extremely self aggrandizing, no? Who am I to believe that my exhaustion of will to do this one thing for humanity will yield enough impact to justify its cost? Upon further examination, I realized that the underlying presumption wasn’t just that I could change the course of human history but also that my happiness was worth very little. Upon sharing this, a mentor had rebutted that nothing great can be achieved with little happiness because happiness is such a necessary component in the fuel for meaningful action. I heard but didn’t listen.

There are two reasons for this lack of homage to happiness – 1) that I’d never experienced a substantial lack of it and 2) that I’d never experienced it in such excess. The first reason came to mind easily. I had never been truly, desperately unhappy before until some time in the last 2 years and it was at that point when I realized how useless I would become if I stagnated at the nadir.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I became aware of the existence of reason number 2 – that I’d never experienced for prolonged periods the upper bounds of happiness…had never seen just how much being so euphorically happy can improve one’s mental agility, physical stamina, and fascination with the seemingly quotidian objects and people that define one’s life. I hadn’t understood that at this level of happiness, it feeds upon itself and begins to compound.

But what is so heart wrenchingly distinguishing about happiness, as a close friend just pointed out, is that unlike the other three, it has immeasurable positive externalities. Put more bluntly, happiness – unlike success, money, and intelligence – doesn’t just compound within the individual but rather – inexplicably, illogically, utterly sublimely – compounds in every person that individual touches, and not just in one direction — happiness collectively compounds and its power is augmented not just by the magnitude of its source but also the number of nodes that it reaches, the number of other people it infects, each simultaneously amplifying and dispersing the essence.

This truth has been addressed time and time again in fables to modern fiction but had never truly hit me beyond my logical understanding. Why? Because I realize that up until recently, I never felt like I had excess happiness to give away. Isn’t that shocking? It was not until near the end of my 23rd year on this planet that I first felt a consistent overabundance of the stuff, so overabundant that I couldn’t not share it. And the impact on those around me, both newcomers and old friends, is marked.

All because of this decision – this rash, illogical, completely blindly optimistic decision – to pursue what I love. To have my life be, for once, an absolutely accurate reflection of what I value.

So, as my co-founder Neeharika so confidently and poignantly proclaimed in her first blog posthere we go; it’s the beginning of our next adventure. And in addendum – let’s enjoy it, learn from it, and, in the process, change the world.

where happiness fails, existence [is] a mad and lamentable experiment

his talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. at one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless

This has been one of my favorite quotes ever since reading A Moveable Feast. In fact, I’m not a Hemingway fan and this is the only line I enjoyed in the book. It continues to strike me with its poignancy…

I’ve been battling for a while with the issue of why I find it so difficult to write more to this blog at certain junctures in my life. My impetus for writing comes from having interesting thoughts, so really this issue has been more insidious than just not posting to a blog – it’s a fundamental question of why I seem to be having fewer interesting thoughts. And so I deconstructed the process.

Four pieces – inputting, processing, evaluating, and outputting, wherein especially the middle two steps can be iterative.

1) Inputting – exposure to and retention of intellectual stimulus. This is usually in the form of real or imagined experiences (say, through reading). I view this as entirely external to what is already in the mind; this is fodder for the mind to take and process. We inevitably filter based on exposure, perception, and receptivity/retention (imagine a funnel – exposure is all input available to us, perception is all we perceive of the input available to us, and receptivity/retention is what is left after what we have perceived has been filtered by our priority system). The key factors here are 1) scope of exposure and 2) open-minded curiosity to seek, perceive and be receptive. Both pieces require energy.

2) Processing – personalizing and building upon inputs. I view this as entirely internal to the mind. Inputs are aggregated with previous inputs to synthesize and analyze, hopefully spawning new insights that were birthed within the individual. The unique subset of experiences and contexts this individual has leads to the birth of this personalized epiphany. This is active as well. Without this, inputs stagnate into oblivion or are outputted as facts, with no value add between the original input and the output other than the possible value detractor of having been filtered by your brain. Oh, I read this article today. Haha. The end.

3) Evaluating – figuring out if the insight is good enough to share. I think the cause of problems in this step is almost always contrived because I think that the mind’s selectiveness about good ideas only increments with the mind’s ability to come up with better ideas.

4) Outputting – conveying the thought in your preferred format. This is a skill that needs to be developed as well – may it be speaking or writing or…whatever else? The clear, concise, and effective conveyance of ideas.

So the core value of this above are the interesting thoughts and to fundamentally impact that, the two levers to pull are 1 and 2, which can compensate for each other to a degree. You can process each input fully to make up for fewer inputs up to a point. Then the superficial ways to impact the process is with 3 and 4 – to lower the evaluation bar or to output a lot of fluff and try to pass off the fluff as substance (I view outputting and skills associated with it much as I do finance – it reallocates value/conveys value rather than creates value – the maximum value it can bring forth is the core amount of value there is, in the thought or in the capital, no more than that).

Sigh, same conclusion as last time, but I guess with more “scientific” backing…problem still lies in number 1 :[

2 other things–

The first one is tangentially related to my last point above – I’ve been “struggling” for a while now with identifying the purpose of beautiful writing. Over and over I am bombarded (esp in business contexts) with the aphorism that one should write to the level of a 6th grader – said another way, write to be understood by the average American. : P Ethnic slurs aside (lol), I had previously mentally dichotomized this as speaking (generally for easy consumption) and writing (ideally perused over … even though I know you’re not perusing) but this is an inaccurate dichotomy. Instead, I think it is more accurately segmented as the utility of language versus the art of language.

The purpose of language is to convey content … a story, facts, a viewpoint, so I suppose for language to be used most effectively, it should be like good design – imperceptible. But for those of us that fell in love as much with the tool as we did the purpose…does that mean all we have left to resort to is poetry? I was pretty indignant upon first realizing this especially after looking through some reports indicating our nation is, even at grades 11 and 12, still generally reading at a 6-9th grade level (but then again I didn’t really see good examples of a grade 12 level book…). So I guess on the spectrum – pure art is similar to poetry; it exists for its own sake. The rest of writing is like design…every element should serve a purpose. If you use words beyond a 6th grade level it should serve a worthwhile purpose. If you insert punctuation haphazardly or not at all, it should be for a purpose. It can be justified…for the conveyance of ambiance or mood…though I subscribe more to the philosophy that the human imagination is more powerful (and personalized) than any author’s facility with words and syntax, so perhaps for most writing it is still better to err on the side of Hemingway.

Sigh.

The last topic that has been preoccupying me is the divider that we and most of our society puts up between personal and professional. I have no qualms against not mixing personal and professional (in fact, I try to be an avid practitioner of it). I have 2 specific issues against it – the first is the belief that bad judgments in one should not be considered when evaluating future bad judgment potential in the other; the second is the silo’ed prioritizing of commitments in one or the other.

I assume we’re leery of the first because the separation of personal and professional lead us to feel like we should not have known about the personal transgression (or act of superior judgment) in the first place and should not be factoring that aspect into our decision. But I can’t imagine that a person chronically lying to her spouse about her affair doesn’t gain some additional experience in lying and doesn’t also lower the moral threshold she has regarding lying. Conversely, somebody who champions the education and early mentorship of his child probably has a similar attitude towards people junior to him in the professional sphere (unless, and I suppose this is unfortunately quite common, the person vilifies work). Anyhow, point being that I think factors in the one should influence one’s evaluation of this person in the other (how much you weight it is at your transgression…but I don’t think the weight should be 0). Too taboo to publicly talk about though so keep the non zero weightings to yourself…haha.

And finally the second issue – why do we prioritize professional and personal commitments differently? Oftentimes the former gets higher priority because there are more immediate and visible consequences. Sometimes people go out of their way to prioritize  the latter – maybe because we’re so used to the eclipse of personal by professional that one needs to communicate an absolute prioritization of personal first to achieve equilibrium? I think the goal is equilibrium, at least with respect to already made commitments (assuming your value of one or the other is already fully manifested in the number and intensity of commitments in one or the other) – they should be weighted equally because they are all commitments to other individuals (or yourself). This is a particularly important lesson for me – to prioritize (and be on time for…and not flake on) personal appointments as much as I do professional ones…soo sleepy.

his talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. at one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless

be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself – and thus make yourself indispensable

Emerging is when you use a platform to come into your own. Merging is when you sacrifice who you are to become part of something else.Merging is what the system wants from you. To give up your dreams and your identity to further the goals of the system. Managers push for employees to merge into the organization.Emerging is what a platform and support and leadership allow you to do. Emerging is what we need from you. Seth Godin

.
Ironically enough, his first memory of her was one defined by sound. He had awoken that day, certain that some disturbance had been the cause of his pre-dawn waking but unable to recollect what the disturbance was. He stilled his breathing and listened, but could discern nothing other than the unperturbed white noise of the central heating broken only by the staccato chirps of predawn larks.
.
And then he heard the noise again – the slight shuffling across the floorboards outside followed by faint murmurs from at least two voices drowned out by a sound diffusing “shhh.” And then silence; the white noise had faded away from his consciousness, earmarked and monitored by some nether region of his brain; even the larks seemed to be holding their breaths. But there was nothing more to be heard, and slowly, he drifted back under the thin, brittle boundary between consciousness and sleep.

.

When he woke again, it was light outside. The stiff, perfunctory chirps of larks had mellowed out into contented warbles. He again wondered what woke him but this time didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “Why won’t you answer me? Are you too good to answer me?” He could recognize Mia’s shrill voice at any time of day, in any state of wakefulness. He sat up and swept  a desultory hand through his hair in one fluid motion before swinging his legs off the bed and padding towards the source of the noise.

Half of the scene was as to be expected. Mia had her hands on her hips and the posture of a tigress whose tail had been stepped on. Her blue eyes were trained unblinkingly on the rude perpetrator as if at any moment she was ready to go for her throat. The offender, the other half of the scene, however, was a surprise. He didn’t recognize her but noted that her clear-cut gray eyes were focused on some far more interesting, invisible point behind Mia’s head as if, if she wished it, Mia could disappear as easily as any figment of her imagination that had outstayed its welcome.

“Well?” The new girl’s eyes refocused on Mia’s face. “Well, aren’t you going to answer me? Were you raised to be this rude?” The new girl’s eyes shifted again from Mia’s face and she seemed to swallow a sigh of forbearance. “I asked you very nicely the first time what your name was-hey! Where do you think you’re going?” Mia’s expression went from shocked to outraged to some strange mixture of the two. The new girl had turned around in the middle of Mia’s sentence and started walking away. And despite all of Mia’s blustering, her bark was very much so worse than her bite; she stood as if frozen by shock. “Hey!!” she said again, as if repeating the word a few decibels higher might prompt a reaction.

“What is all this commotion?” Mia spun around in surprise.

“Sister Alice – that girl…”

Sister Alice looked up. “Oh, you mean Clara.”

In the arc of her peripheral vision, Sister Alice also spied him and smiled, a gesture that seemed to serve more to clue Mia into his presence than to greet him. Mia looked embarrassed.

“Be kind to her, Mia – she just arrived early this morning and is still adjusting…”

The rest of what Sister Alice said faded away from his consciousness as he turned to look in the direction in which Clara had walked. With a start, he saw that she had turned back around and was staring straight at him. He met her gaze and was rewarded by her looking down and away. She seemed to consider something, decide against it, and turn and walk away.

“…Also, Mia, dear, Clara is mute. She can’t help not responding to your questions.” Sister Alice patted Mia’s shoulder and gave her a small nudge. “Now go wash up. Breakfast is in 10 minutes.”

He turned to go get ready as well. “Oh, Evan, a moment, please.” He turned back to her. “Keep an eye out for Clara, okay? She is very, very … special.” He could tell that wasn’t the word she wanted to use.

“Special?”

Sister Alice smoothed her skirt and stood a little taller. “Nothing for a twelve-year-old to worry about, my dear. Just help her along since she can’t speak. Now you too. Go wash up – you have 5 minutes.” And without giving him time to edge a word in, she turned and marched towards the dining hall.

task for tomorrow – respond to comments :]

be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself – and thus make yourself indispensable

self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice

  • what the chinese want – extremely insightful, verified by my mother (from eddy)
  • wanted this book after reading the review but felt if the sneak preview was so fluffy, what does it say about the book? blegh

The topic of how bad (shall we say evil?) human beings can actually get came up twice in recent conversation and somewhat indistinctly in reading through Siddhartha (FINALLY. I’ve been meaning to read this book since high school). Firstly with a close friend who – I forget the exact conversational context – opined that most people are not nearly as bad as we sometimes paint them to be. The second was this last weekend as we cycled through stories of people by whom this person thought she had been wronged. The conversation meandered to the conclusion that all of these people were not inherently bad because at one off moments they displayed childlike naiveté that was endearing or comical (ly endearing). And in Siddhartha with its foreign belief in the circularity of time and the conclusion that one should not look upon anything with only the present in mind but rather see within it (and appreciate it for) its past and future. Which leads me to think that 80 or so years is too short an amount of time to truly become evil (for most…though like in all subjects, there are varying levels of aptitude, I suppose).

The evil that I’m talking about implies intent and malice, a focus on the perpetration of evil. Maybe I’m being too forgiving in my definition because it excludes the main cause of harmful acts – selfishness … not prioritizing another matter higher than one’s immediate desire … errors of omission made in haste. I think (but perhaps I’m naive) that it is rare for somebody to put aside this emotional bias towards the self and decide dispassionately, deliberately to wrong another person – that is, to make a decision to be evil based on intellect, fueled by the disentangled, undiluted venom of all of one’s negative emotions. Because the skill to disentangle one’s emotions so absolutely is something very difficult to master in a lifetime without a laser focus on the development of it. In short, I think we’re all fumbling toddlers for the duration of our time on this earth and most wrongs can probably be viewed in that light – as a fumble rather than a stab.

In juxtaposition with what I think takes more than a lifetime to develop above, there is a bad habit (to put it lightly) that I think develops all too quickly – the ability to filter (efficiently). I understand the evolutionary reason behind it and appreciate certain perks resulting from it; I like being able to wake up when I hear my name but not otherwise, for instance : P. But not so much when it comes to filtering ideas or, worse, people.

When we were younger, our filters were still being formed – everything seemed interesting, everybody seemed best friend-worthy. As we age, we accrue experience, we draw statistical conclusions from said experience, we apply these conclusions to make predictions about the future based on sparse or perceived data in the present. And slowly but surely as the tepid water kills the frog, our outlooks become more and more parochial until one day we find ourselves resistent to everything we said we would avoid becoming resistent to – new technologies, new music, new people in our lives. Better to see it early and leap out of the pot than come to the realization one day 20 years from now when you find yourself listening to Adele, muttering self righteously that the music nowadays is too dissonant.

This broader conclusion stemmed from a disheartening conversation a few weekends ago about how, as time passes, our chances of falling head over heels in love lessens (we can discuss whether or not love really exists another time…) because our filters increase in number and become more stringent. Simply put, we filter out chances to fall head over heels in love before they happen more and more efficiently as we get older (if we let this illness progress…). Similarly, this applies to all of the aforementioned things, too – ideas, experiences.

But how does this mesh at all with my call for focus several posts ago? I suppose this is just a call to realize the encroachment of this filtering and to filter intelligently going forward – maybe taking a more Buddhist thought pattern and attempting to see in it not only its present form and how that form calibrates against your past experience but also the past that has led it to its present form and the future its current trajectory is propelling it towards. (I’m not actually Buddhist, but I think it is interesting because several of its precepts are so divergent from my Westernized view of the world).

Final topic also came up as a side remark from somebody – that some virtues, like patience in particular, can only be developed through the practice of it (i.e. be careful when you pray for patience…). A long time ago when recruiting first began, a coworker had asked me why I was recruiting when I was not seriously considering any of the options. I had cavalierly responded that I liked the feeling of motion. Said in more bluntly foolish terms – I would rather be moving, even if in the wrong direction or in circles, than to be standing still. And I remember saying that to her almost arrogantly, as if implying that at least I was moving and doing something rather than sitting and wringing my hands, as if regression or senseless expenditure of energy and time was better than being patient and having the guts to say no.

Impatience is a more devastating flaw than people give it credit for (I think sometimes in the US it is viewed as a peccadillo or even the byproduct of a virtue – being a go-getter). Maybe because of the greater flaw that it is usually a symptom of – perfectionism. Why are most people impatient? Putting aside our societally driven ADHD and desire for constant stimulation, what makes people impatient? Impatient for what? Some perceived better time in the future when certain things in one’s life are more fully optimized. Aka made perfect.

In this way it ruins not only the journey (if we skip all the sights we can get to our perfect destination more quickly) but also the destination – which inevitably will be disappointing because the human imagination deserves more credit than it gets … and that disappointment then translates to setting one’s sights on something else or disillusionment exacerbated by bitterness from missing out on parts of the journey for a worse than imagined destination.

Applied on a more micro scale – as I heard in a recent lecture – practice does not make perfect but rather more practice, so stop expecting to have every endeavor turn out to be either perfect or an utter failure too painful to look at much less analyze. Sometimes sketchbooks are more interesting than what made it into the museums.

Another difficult to write post, mostly from lack of practice…but finally eked out through the veil of my impatience…though more subpar than usual. :[

self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice