I have been recently reflecting on the “heroes” who have appeared throughout my life as significant influences. Some of these figures are far removed by distance and time, such as great saints and writers. However, there are other people in my life for whom the appellation of “hero” might seem misplaced or exaggerated, since we both live in the same time and there is not a legacy to speak of in the same way. A better word to use, perhaps, would be “inspiration,” and this label is frequently applicable to people I encounter in my everyday life, even if based only on one particular interaction during which a person behaved in an inspirational way.
What I want to reflect on in this post is what attitude we should adopt when faced with inspirations, in any sense of the word, whether they be a hero of great fame and repute, or an acquaintance we talk to briefly at a party. I think that there is both a negative mode of response and a positive mode of response, and which one we choose has great impact regarding our ability to stretch beyond ourselves and grow in the direction of whatever has inspired us.
Is boredom necessarily a negative experience? Often we view boredom with a certain distaste or dread, which leads to the conclusion that it is not good to be bored. Yet, if probed more deeply, this distaste might reveal itself as fear, perhaps a fear of silence or the absence of entertainment.
Why do we fear silence and what about it do we fear? Since fears are often irrational, we must consider whether this is a sensible fear, and if so, whether it is worthwhile to act in obedience to this fear. I think the fear of silence is increasingly prevalent in a world dominated by noise. The more normal it becomes to live with this “noise” as our constant companion, the less likely we are to recognize the fear of silence as fear at all. It might instead be defined positively as a desire for stimulation or some more productive and efficient use of time.
Yet we are losing something inestimably important when we simply let silence slip out of the equation and repress the fear that forbids its existence. Silence can be connected to openness, to self, and to being. I want to discuss openness first. Silence necessarily involves space and time, space and time that are unfilled though they have the capacity to be filled. This can be looked at both negatively and positively, and for now, I am just going to speak about the former. Openness can be seen as negative because it is unpredictable. Something that is unfilled could become filled with anything, whether desired or undesired. Such a something also lacks a fixed structure or predetermined shape. This ties into our terror of the unknown. We constantly grasp after control- we want to be able to control and manage our lives and to do so with certainty. But silence necessarily requires that we relinquish some measure of control, that we are open to the moment that is itself open. Silence can surprise us; it can deviate from our desires.
I like to plan, and have always considered planning to be a good and worthwhile (even necessary) activity. However, the more that I think about it, the more I begin to question the value of planning and to see the matter as up for debate.
Is it good to plan? First of all, I should say that such a question is unanswerable, or that it would yield an invalid answer. To talk about the value of planning, we need to make a distinction not only between different types of plans, but between different circumstances in which planning might arise. This suggests that planning does not have an intrinsic value so much as a contingent one. Whether or not planning is good depends on multiple factors surrounding the planning process, not on the joy of the planning itself (though planning can indeed be joyful at times).
We are often told (and probably tell ourselves) that we ought to “live in the moment.” I wholeheartedly agree with this advice and am all for advocating mindfulness in an age of distraction (though I do think this advice is frequently delivered in a superficial way). On the other hand, we, as human beings, are oriented toward the future. Our lives and our selves are not split apart into separate and unrelated pieces (or moments). Identity is continuous and stretches over the course of many, many moments (too many to count). As humans we are also beings endowed with the capacity for self-reflection. We are not mere machines acting according to instinct and doing the things that have been programmed within us to do. Rather, we have the ability both to act and to think critically about those same actions, to engage in self-evaluation and to develop hopes, dreams and ideas pertaining to self and reaching towards our future life.
Looked at in this way, is it any wonder we plan? Could it even be said that we are planning beings?
We often spout off lines about the unimportance of beauty, or at least its subservience to other, greater things. We say things like, “Beauty is only skin deep” or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
But I want to ask: Is this really true?
Certainly we would say that a person who cares only about physical beauty and disdains knowledge or understanding of the interior is a very shallow person indeed. We would probably go so far as to say that they are “not a very good person at all.” However, concern for physical beauty does not necessarily align with the all-or-nothing approach. A person might care about physical beauty (in themselves and in others), though this is not all they care about or the primary thing that they care about. My question is not only, should we care about physical beauty? but also, is it possible for us not to care about physical beauty?
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and so I thought I would write a post in preparation. I suppose I could have written a piece and released it on the actual day itself, but I want to look at this holiday from a slightly different angle and suggest an idea for something that each of us could do on February 14th.
When I was thinking about what to write that might suit this theme, the usual ideas came to mind: of love and relationships, of being alone and finding trust in a period of waiting, or of being with another while maintaining one’s own identity and self-respect. And yet I realized I was confining myself to topics revolving around romantic relationships, which we typically associate with Valentine’s Day. The origins of Valentine’s Day, however, do not suggest such a restriction. The holiday began in honour of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr in 5th century Rome, and associations with romantic love were not forged until the 14th century under the influence of Chaucer and his courtly circle.
In our contemporary society, Valentine’s Day seems to be defined by its connection to romantic love, or conversely, to the opposite of romantic love: that is, singlehood. We are burdened with images of romantic love, but also with catchy slogans about how it is okay to be single and how a person does not need another person to complete their life. It is probably not possible to dissipate these now tightly held associations, and I am not trying to suggest that the erasure of such links would be a good thing. But, what if Valentine’s Day did not have to be just about one or the other?
I am a creative person and have often defined myself by my creativity. But sometimes I experience what I might call creative erasure. My mind, formerly filled with ideas and dreams, words and stories, becomes a blank slate. The prior rush of passion and ambition slows almost to a still.
I think that self-definition based on the mind is a habit into which we often fall. We speak of the body, of the heart and soul, but when we attempt to isolate the most fundamental aspect of self, we tend to focus on the mind. We ask, “what is it that makes me me?” and thus confront the question of personal identity. What makes identity secure? What allows it to endure over time so that we can say we are the same person now as we were a year, a month, a week before? Perhaps we have the same body, or possess a soul that is pure spirit and so superior to matter, or perhaps our psychological experiences are the key to self-discovery.
We often try to apply the same principles to the words we find onscreen as to the words that are spoken face to face, even though we know there is a wide gulf between the two. The words onscreen are only a record of a thought once had. The message documents expression, but there is no real experience in the hard, cold display of text. Even so, we mistakenly try to glean meaning from it, to tear it to pieces until we have found the true self of the other in this little isolated fragment. But this is no more them, this is no more real, than the whispers of the world or the lists of exterior acts define our own vast ocean of self.
Presence is real. This is the realest thing there is, and there is nothing of it on the screen.
Many times we are waiting for the words to come as we would shape them, yet we are each our own in the words we would use. We must learn to grant the freedom of expression and of soul to the other.
Many times we are waiting for the phone to ring, and it does not. Yet why do we weigh ourselves down with projected rejection, simply because the other was not confined in our arbitrary, self-imposed frame?
One of the greatest indignities is to be treated as though you do not exist. Being is the most fundamental aspect of life and of self, one that precedes and is presupposed by all other aspects. To be something (smart, beautiful, kind, fearful, lonely, weak) is first and is always to be. If someone tells us, then, that we are beautiful, smart, good or noteworthy in some way, we are gratified, flattered, affirmed, perhaps happy. But if that same someone lets fall the thread of our being after the words have ceased their echo, those former words lose their meaning.
It’s hard to recall my first encounter with hockey. I have memories of watching the game when I was young. It was background noise then but in a comforting sort of way. My dad would lean forward, eyes focused on the screen, and I would glance up occasionally from my book to catch sight of the tiny figures darting back and forth from one end of the rink to the other. The rules were irrelevant to me (in other words, I didn’t understand them). I simply tried to follow the progress of the puck, though sometimes a black speck on the surface of the screen looked so convincingly puck-like that it prevented my fulfillment of this goal.
When my older brother started playing hockey, I became his number one fan. For the ten years that he played, I don’t think I missed a single game. In the early seasons, I was admittedly oblivious to much of the action on the ice. I arrived at the arena with my fully stocked bag of books. But even then, something about the rink was so alluring. I don’t know what it was about the cold hard bench or the loud echo of the boards, or the angry buzzer that announced each period’s end. I don’t know why I felt such joy as my voice blended with the other fans to give a rousing cheer, or why I waited so proudly for my brother to emerge from the dressing room after each game, his hockey bag draped over his shoulder. As my family walked to the parking lot, I had the honour of holding the hockey stick, and it was like a waving flag. I don’t know what it was, but somehow each little detail melded together until the rink felt like home and the game- the game was ingrained in my nature.
I always carry my notebook with me and I always bring my pen. There is something terrifying about the thought of leaving home without a pen. To venture into the unknown without this essential piece of self seems unwise and unsafe.
My pen is silver and cool; it has a nice weight to it as my hand glides across the page. We have been together for so long, my pen and I. I wrote my last two novels with it and other things since. I have many different pens, and yet I always write with this one when I want to access something real and true. I keep buying ink refills and when they run out, I feel slightly despairing until there is a new pack in my hand.