As I said in the introduction to this project, FBS is kind of a way to trick myself into reflecting on my life by using books as a proxy for introspection. In some way or the other, each of the last 3 books I’ve read (namely, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, 11/22/63 by Stephen King and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig) have provided me an opportunity and distinct vantage point from which to consider how the last few years have gone, and how I’d like the next few ones to go.
As some context, something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how I make decisions about my life: specifically, that I’m a sucker for whim and fancy. I can make long-term plans and stick to them, but I really prefer not to. Here’s my rough justification for that policy:
- Take surprises as they come. The general arc of my life has been such that most surprises were pleasant ones, and having the flexibility to quickly course correct best allowed me to take advantage of those opportunities.
- Have productive distractions. I’m pretty absent-minded and tend to drift off if I spend too long doing just one thing. By keeping a general list of todos in my head and interpolating between them whenever the mood takes me, I (mostly) ensure that my distractions are productive as well.
- Have fun. Life is just more enjoyable when you’re doing whatever seems most immediately fun.
With that in mind, there’s a particular quote in When Breath Becomes Air that really sticks with me. Kalanthi, a neurosurgeon who has developed what will turn out to be terminal lung cancer, is discussing with his wife Lucy the prospect of having a child:
Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said.
I rarely come across a line so powerful that I have to put my book down, but this did it for me. Really, it sums up how I make decisions. Don’t try to control the ineffable future, but rather what you can do with the time you know you’ll have.
This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot in the last couple of years: as it turns out, the things I want to dedicate excessive amounts of my time aren’t necessarily particularly sustainable. I spend disproportionate amounts of my time than is probably responsible on teaching, for example, and when asked why I do that, I don’t have an answer that’s much better than “I enjoy it”. What I’ve kind of realized from When Breath Becomes Air, though, is that I don’t need a better answer. It might be the case that you find something, a calling, that so absorbs you that even though it is necessarily in your life for a finite amount of time, it becomes all you do. And wouldn’t it be great if it did?
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which, incidentally, has convinced me that skateboarding isn’t cool enough and I now want to ride a motorcycle across the country), Robert M. Pirsig outlines a similar philosophy as he explains his routefinding heuristic:
Plans are indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.
There’s a lot else going on in ZMM, though, and I feel like more mulling over it is required before I can intelligently comment on its philosophical arguments. As it turns out, the book isn’t really a particularly effective reference text on either motorcycle maintenance or Zen. What it does do spectacularly effectively is use a motorcycle trip as a pedagogical tool: demonstrating how tuning the bike in the morning on a sleepy town’s sidewalk is an interplay of romanticism or classicism, or how the reticence of a rider to understand his own bike belies a deeper separation of technology and humanity. Having noticed that, I’ve tried to get into the habit of turning that probing gaze on myself, trying to see if–even if I don’t need one–there is a better answer than “I enjoy it”.
11/22/63, the only fictional book I’ve read in a while, tells the story of a high school teacher who goes back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s definitely one of the more fanciful loglines I’ve come accross for a while, but the book is engrossing and also has one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve read in a long time. That said, here I want to talk about how it answers a particularly knotty question: how much of the future should we want to control? I don’t want to spoil the book, but King’s thesis is essentially that it’s a hopeless cause, and that we can only meaningfully look backwards:
We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.
…stupidity is one of two things we see most clearly in retrospect. The other is missed chances.
That’s particularly interesting to me, because as is rapidly becoming the theme of FBS, I’m not really prone to looking backwards, much prefering to float in the winds of an unrealized and unanticipated future. Really, that’s where I differ most from these three authors: Kalanithi considers the past evidence for his model of a life well lived; Persig as the consituent components of a greater meaning; and King as the only thing we can be certain about. I’m not opposed to any of those ideas, but I think they’re far more implicit for me: they shape my heuristic of what feels the most immediately meaningful, but are never actively considered. None of these books has changed my mind about this, but has made me more aware of it. The next time I find myself possessed by nostalgia and looking back, I’ll try using one of the lenses these books gave me. You know, if it seems fun at the time.
Here’s the other thing. Each of these books is eminently quotable, and I don’t feel like I’ve done a good enough job of emphasizing that here. Here, for your reading pleasure, are my favorite quotes from each of them:
- Kalanithi, explaining why he chooses to continue to engage with life:
Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
- Pirsig, while on a hike with his son:
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winder, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
- King, neatly sidestepping a timetravelling quandary:
“Yeah, but what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?”
He stared at me, baffled. “Why the fuck would you do that?”