A close friend here recommended this book. He and I eat breakfast together most mornings and we begin our days with my favorite: luke warm oatmeal, child size cartons of milk, mealy apples and good conversation. The book begins as a witty diatribe about life, hope and suffering. I don’t know if it’s the books I am choosing, what ones come in to my life, or what I happen to notice in what I am reading but wow, there is a lot of writing out there about our perceptions of emotions that plague us.
Hope is a word I hadn’t looked into much beyond the surface level definition. I did not put a lot of thought into it, deeply, until I read Mason’s writing. There are all types of narratives we place around hope, and many actions that result from those narratives. In short, when we have hope we’re looking for a better future and we think we can get ourselves to that place. The later part of that sentence needs to be there with the former for hope to exist.
Manson writes how humans think using two different brains. Our thinking brain and our feeling brain. We’re all aware of this, but it is refreshing to sit still and reflect on these two ways of thinking and how they play off one another. I can relate to this through my time before coming to Yankton. Thinking brain: okay, I need to get the house listed for rental, pack up all my possessions, put a power of attorney in place, clear out and donate all the stuff I don’t need. Feeling brain: GAHHH!! what happened, how did this happen, life is over… Oh wait, no, life is BEAUTIFUL, I need to enjoy all these moments. No wait, I am going to miss so much. I mean, ugh, exhausting. We need both of these ‘brains’ if you will. Emotions and connection are what make life worth living, but without responsibility and action, the emotional side would have a lot less to appreciate and a much more to suffer through. They can, however, battle one another and I am learning to be cognizant of which brain I’m using.
He also writes about narratives and a willingness to shed former parts of yourself (ego/identity) so you can grow into new parts. This is intriguing in that it means people have to slow down and reflect on who they are or were, how they want to grow, and who they want to become. It does not mean everything about you needs to change, but what adjustments would be worth making? There is a bit of pain in the process…you have to own up to who you are and the flaws you may now see. Yes, I think it’s fair to say I have had a bit of time to ponder that.
The book becomes fairly disorganized halfway through. I don’t think it needed to be a book as much as a series of related yet unrelated essays. They are similar in that they all talk about life, hope, and desires but they are unrelated in that I do not feel the book flows well from one section to another. It was, however, easy to stick around for more because ironically. he has a chapter where he looks at pain and pleasure. This book came into my world after I wrote about pain and pleasure. It was downright eerie to see a section of a chapter dedicated to this very concept, but I was certainly enthused at the prospect of hearing his take. It really spoke to me and what I took away is what I want to elaborate on most. He views pain and pleasure in an beautiful light – one of morality, honesty and a never ending search.
Like I previously wrote, seeking pleasure is often a short-term game. Manson writes about pain and pleasure in terms of doing what is right, for the simple reason that it is right. Simply doing what is right is the first step to moving beyond that game of seeking pleasure in all moments, because the right choice may involve pain. In terms of what we can do to improve the world, it starts with improving who we are. Similar to what Malcolm X said about battling racism – what we can all do is better ourselves, and let that cumulative effect add up.
I’ve had a change in terms of how I view the painful aspects of this experience. There has been a continuous change, but in the last month, a larger shift. The culmination of many hard lessons I’ve had to take in. One facet of this has been how pain is perceived and what we gain (or lose) when we avoid it. Pain is a constant in life – even to an unaware hedonist. I don’t say that in a sadistic manner, but in a factual one. Similar to the Stoics writing how no matter what we desire, once we achieve it, we acclimate and then want something additional. The same can be said for pain but instead of seeking more, it is seeking less. Once pain is removed, you become more sensitive to it, to suffering. So no matter how ‘easy’ life becomes, you will still find pain. Could the same be said about a prison sentence? No matter what you do to make the time easier, you’re still in prison. Having to recalibrate my barometer of what I find painful has made this time more manageable. I know that no matter what I do to make the experience more palatable (less painful) there will still be a level of suffering, so the solution isn’t to put an excessive amount of effort into decreasing the pain of it all. That’s not giving up, by any means, it’s an adjustment in mindset.
Viktor Frankl writes how people can find meaning in suffering. That’s a big task. Ask anyone how they find meaning in their life and you’re likely to get blank stares or generic answers. It is a challenging question to address. In this instance, I can’t avoid the pain of being here, or what I and everyone I care for went through. I’m in the thick of it but at the same time to live in that constantly would break anyone down. So I think frequently about the idea of pain always recalibrating, not being something to aggressively avoid. I also think of what Frankl wrote regarding finding meaning in life, one tenant of which is to find meaning in suffering. Manson wrote that “pain opens up moral gaps that eventually become our most deeply held values and beliefs.” That is part of the meaning I can find in this experience. The changes in what I perceive as important, how I assess right versus wrong, and how I love and care for those in my life, to name a few.
This quote struck a chord with me, and the moving water analogy is the closet thing I have to a river right now… This beautifully sums up my above ideas into a quote I come back to often.
“Life is one never ending stream of pain, and to grow is not to find a way to avoid that stream, but rather, to dive into it and successfully navigate it’s depths.”