Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to achieve success…

[As with so much on FCA, this is a first draft. I want to let it stand right now as is, even though I realize it needs some reordering and alterations. Oh, and I am impishly aware of the irony involved in posting this essay on a blog, an irony which I think you will appreciate once you read it.]

I have often struggled with maintaining my focus in my studies and writings. I have polymath tendencies, if not polymath abilities. The same goes for my spiritual life, of course, but that is not as difficult to "manage" sometimes as my academic efforts, if only because my life in Christ, no matter how poorly and hypocritically I may live it, is fundamental to every other "project" in my life. So let me confine myself in this post to those "first-place secondary" concerns of mine, reading and writing. It is my hope that you can find merit in this post even if those activities occupy you much less than they do me.

How have I learned to ignore the temptation to read every latest book on every topic that "interests" me? How have I learned to know when one project or line of thought demands more attention and other projects must be sacrificed? How do I know which questions should occupy me more than others? How have I learned to prioritize my reading from amongst the heaps and heaps of unread books lurking in every corner? How have I learned to toss out the chaff of personal ambition and hold onto the grain of true success and value?

The truth is, I have not completely learned how to do any of these things. But I have gradually learned ways towards learning such skills. I believe the key to sorting through success and pseudo-success––that is, discerning away from a vague feeling of narcissistic, look-what-I-did! "accomplishment" and towards a clear sense of sacrificial fruitfulness––is knowing those whom you want to see your success. You have to know your audience, as the writing gurus say. The fact is, not every one will like, or even be interested in, most of what you value, believe, produce, say, or effect in this life. So why do we have this hyper-democratic sense of being "important" in the eyes of "the world", when those enormous eyes for the most part don't even look our way?

To be more concrete, I will say that one of the greatest aids to my efforts as a writer is having an increasingly clear sense of whom I actually hope reads and enjoys my "stuff". Instead of wanting "people" to read my "stuff", I find it tremendously motivating and sobering to consider one particular essay, even one small aphorism, as written on behalf of one particular person, perhaps in light of one conversation we had or in order to address one passing question he posed. Creativity can be no more general, I would say, than love. It is a truism, because true, that he who loves "people" very often ends up hating this person or that as messy, concrete obstacles to the all-consuming vision of a beloved but faceless human family in the sky. It is just as nonsensical to say I love my family when I actually hate Uncle Fester or don't even bother to keep in touch with Auntie Em. Because my creativity is, or should be, an act of love––an ongoing process of offering my vision of the world as beloved in each particular by God––I cannot be as vague about it as those who love "everybody" or write for "the people". The problem with loving everybody is that nobody is 'everybody'; only somebody is a somebody and, once you grasp that, nobody is a nobody. The same problem extends to writing, which is a form of communicating. Talking to everybody amounts to talking to nobody. Only by consciously desiring to talk with somebody can I hope to succeed in genuine communication qua communion. If I penned every essay from now on in the hope of keeping a family member in the Church, or of bringing an old classmate into Her life, without even reflecting on how "relevant" my works are to "contemporary society" or how heavily decorated they are with the reigning baubles of academia, it would be a mental provincialism best called holy love. It would be success on a human scale.

This perspective is valuable in my studies as well, although it can be reversed, since I, as the reader, am often the one being spoken to. When I shuffle through my books, trying to decide which is next, I must ignore the intellectually hedonistic temptation to read "everything", since, to read everything is very much a good way to read nothing. Information overload is not only a cognitive, but also an aesthetic, problem. By giving greater value to the volume of books and words you read than to the content and quality of those words, you end up trivializing everything in a haze of "data". The painting becomes the canvas. Only by valuing certain books and authors more than others, and, let it be plainly stated, only by rejecting, ignoring, marginalizing, and even, in a certain way, loathing certain books and authors, can we ever really build an inner world of knowledge from the information we imbibe. When we consider buying and reading a book, we need to ask ourselves frankly, bluntly, do we even care what this person has to say? Do we genuinely believe adding some book's contents to our inner world will be of any use to our larger concerns, and, more important, to our endeavor to pass something along to those whom we love? These questions, and others like them, are stud-finders in the walls of information in which we live. By tapping along those walls with parsimonious hand, we can find solid objects beneath the welter of noise, which indicate a hidden inner structure of the world; we can, as it were, hear the world by reflecting on whether what we see immediately is any real value for us and for the few concrete persons we are privileged to know in this life.

We need questions like this simply because the modern world is designed, to an almost diabolically astute degree, to trigger our inborn biological impulses and to smother our own values in such a way that every somebody becomes one indiscernible piece of everybody. And as any ad-man knows, everybody is the best customer in the world. (This is why the enormity of cloning has just as much to do with the way it makes fetuses into useful bullshit as it has to do with the way it will make each person a replaceable "person model" for the demands of the bullshit market.) We need to ask ourselves questions like this at every turn––what am I really doing in this coffee shop? why am I flipping through this arcane, academic manual on hairsplitting? why am I really belaboring the conversation with my "opinion"?––because they are spades with which we can stay above the immense waves of bullshit spewed forth every moment from every mouth and mind on the planet, including our own. And, as I think some readers here will recall, I mean bullshit in a very technical sense, taking my lead from Harry Frankfurt (cf. this post).[1] Bullshit is the mortar we use to build our houses of straw. No wonder so many lives stink and crumble. Bullshit is the mortar we use to build up our ego-castle higher than the next guy's. Bullshit is everything we think should be true, since it fits in so nicely with our apathy and agenda. There is a long tradition of taking religion as bullshit in this sense, but that tradition is its own kind of bullshit parade, too. We are covered in bullshit, and we enjoy it for the most part, because it allows us to blend in so well with everything else and "everybody". The more bullshit you have, the greater seems your success. It seems, however, that true success means going naked.

With those words, naked and everybody, in mind, let me cite Friedrich Nietzsche at some length:

A traveller who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. … But what is it that compels the individual human being to fear his neighbour, to think and act herd-fashion, and not to be glad of himself? … In the vast majority it is the desire for comfort, inertia––in short, that inclination to laziness of which the traveller spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are timorous, and what they fear most is the troubles with which any unconditional honesty and nudity would burden them. Only artists hate this slovenly life in borrowed manners and loosely fitting opinions and unveil the secret, everybody's bad conscience, the principle that every human being is a unique wonder; they dare to show us the human being as he is, down to the last muscle, himself and himself alone…, that in this rigorous consistency of his uniqueness he is beautiful and worth contemplating, as novel and incredible as every work of nature, and by no means dull. When a great thinker despises men, it is their laziness that he despises: for it is on account of this that they have the appearance of factory products and seem indifferent and unworthy of companionship or instruction. The human being who does not wish to belong to the mass must merely cease being comfortable with himself; let him follow his conscience which shouts at him: "Be yourself! What you are at present doing, opining, and desiring, that is not really you."

––as cited here in W. Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre.

Only by being naked among your fellow man will you make any true contact with them. Caked in a cloak of comforting bullshit––the emperor's real new clothes––we are unable to feel and touch, much less see, any-one in the monochromatic foulness of most of what passes for life. Escaping bullshit very often means saying you couldn't give a shit about the latest gizmos and fads, and realizing others don't really either. I may sound like a foul curmudgeon, but I am only trying to be a cynic in the best sense of the word. A cynic––Greek for 'dog'––barks warnings and rejects most of the world he sees around him, only because, being so much lower than everyone else, he can see up under the bullshit cloaks people wear, and wants to let everyone know things would be a lot better naked. Having cited Nietzsche at such length, it may seem an inescapable conclusion that I am secretly a Nietzschean in Catholic garb. But no. Even Balaam's ass could prophesy, so I think it is no small wonder Nietzsche did too from time to time (cf. the work of Merold Westphal if you don't believe me!). Nietzsche execrated the herd-like customs of his age, as I do in many ways (is anything more herd-like and au courant these days than the snappy "new atheism", which is really just the old atheism having a midlife crisis?). The difference between Christian cynic like myself and Nietzsche, is that he eventually succumbed to his freewheeling nihilism (the words cited above were penned in 1874 and Nietzsche died in 1900) and came to see life as bullshit through and through, whereas I believe glory lies beneath the dung, while I am constantly learning to succumb to hope and see the world as better the bullshit it wallows in. Another key difference is that Nietzsche claims the best way to navigate through life's bottomless bullshit, is to make clubs out of whatever bullshit you prefer and knock others down beneath you, that you might ascend the ladder of bullshit in a way that blinds you to anything but your own über-bullshit (at which point it would no longer smell), while I claim the best way to get free, is to be strung up on the Cross and cleansed in the Blood. I am not a Nietzschean, but I am a pessimist, at least in light of the difference I read that exists between an optimist and a pessimist: the optimist thinks the world couldn't be any better, and the pessimist fears he might be right. By barking, cynicking, at the world's bullshit, as I find myself doing in this post, I am being pessimistic in a gloriously optimistic way: there is life, indeed, there really only is life, after bullshit! Be cleansed, be naked!

What has all this bullshit to do with my earlier comments on value-based, person-oriented reading and writing? By asking yourself how much of your desire to write X, Y, or Z is motivated by a desire to sound smart, or make a point, or settle the issue, etc., you may find yourself wondering just how much bullshit is motivating you. And by asking yourself not only how much bullshit a certain book seems to hold in its pages, but also how much your "interest" in it or "need" for the book's "input" is powered by a subconscious geyser of bullshit bubbling within you, you may find the freedom to put the book back on the shelf and listen instead to the person at your side. Be ruthless in ejecting the bullshit from your life (as if "your" life meant much at all when divorced from the people that occupy it or the Person who provides it). And do this by ruthlessly valuing a handful of people you respect enough to listen to, love enough to argue with, and believe really need to hear what you are trying to say. Find the few people about whom you can really say, "I hope she reads THIS! I really want to share THIS BOOK with him! I want to mention THIS idea to her! I want to ask THIS question of him! THIS is a person I want to learn from!" Not only will those outside this (surprisingly small) circle not care what you have to say or ask, but also you yourself probably don't really care what others have to say to, or ask of, you.

While I have drawn from my own experiences as a scribbler bookworm, I believe my cynical, humiliatingly personalized, anti-bullshit program of success applies to most, if not all, other pursuits (just alter the verbs appropriately, from, say, reading to formatting a spreadsheet, or from writing to replacing lightbulbs in the kitchen). Success among a band of irreplaceable hobbits, wizards, elves, and dwarves, or mere succession in the great stinking chain of Everybodyism? It is your choice. My only method is this: Do not love the world; be clannish and love those few, feeble figures you find around your life's campfire. Do not love people; love people with faces.

[1] Frankfurt puts it this way:

"It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—–this indifference to how things really are—–that I regard as the essence of bullshit. … Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

My point, and Frankfurt's, I think, is that bullshit can be pedaled for gains in power, influence, or sheer magnetism. Bullshit is okay as long as it works and as long as nobody has a great enough interest in the truth to see how much is bullshit. A liar knows he is wrong, whereas a bullshitter doesn't know and doesn't even care. This book, Bullshit and Philosophy will tell you more.

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