On this day of thankfulness I wonder if I am truly thankful. Do I show gratitude on a consistent basis? Beyond the confident facade, I have to honestly answer, “Nope”. Take a day like this where I am reminded of what I am to be thankful for. How long will that feeling of gratitude last? It very rarely sustains. Sooner or later a petty situation will bring complaints out of me. Thankfulness dissipates slowly over time.

Why?

I keep coming back to Daniel Kahneman’s line that humans are particularly skilled at ignoring our own ignorance. Keeping gratitude at the forefront is tricky because of this. Under stress my mind atrophies. Perhaps that is why I dole out lip service, especially on holidays like these. Telling myself I am grateful a couple days out of the year is easy. It puts my mind at ease – of course I’m thankful! The ignorance is working at full force.

How can we fight our ignorance and sustain gratitude? Those who seem to sustain thankfulness have something in common. They look at gratitude as a practice rather than a feeling.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius serves as one such example. My favorite book from his compiled journals, Meditations, is the opening one. Therein he notes people in his life who taught him valuable life lessons. This journaling served as a way for Marcus Aurelius to remember the people who made him the man he was. Reminding himself was a practice in thankfulness.

Whether it is journaling or prayer, sending ‘thank you’ notes or hanging with friends, I think sustained thankfulness comes from practice. You don’t achieve gratitude and then forget about it. It must be maintained over time, otherwise the thankfulness will disappear.

These kind of days should serve as a reminder to take thankfulness out of our minds and into practice.

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Crooked Timber

 

“There is a need,” Seneca writes in a letter to Lucilius, “for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

Can the crookedness in us be made straight? Immanuel Kant stated otherwise, imploring that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was every made.”

Where does this leave us?

I find one of the most useful parts of a biography is showing the crooked timber of figures we suppose from afar to be straight rulers. Far from demeaning these great people, we begin to understand that these figures are not made from the straight and narrow. They are composed of crooked timber just like us.

Reading Chernow’s biography lets me see George Washington in this way. For example, here was a man that, while taking the responsibility of commander in chief of the Continental Army, expressed reservations in accepting the position. Chernow highights Washington’s insecurity in an exchange Washington had with Patrick Henry soon after his nomination: “Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: from the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation.” Tears were noted to be in Washington’s eyes as he told Henry this. The crooked timber shows.

But it is how figures like Washington deal with their crooked timber that turns them into the rulers we set as standards for our own lives. We just have to remember that we are measuring crooked timber with crooked timber. Biographies can help remind us. 

A heavyweight champion boxer calls his trainer. It’s urgent. He needs the trainer to talk to someone who is in another room. The trainer asks who this person could possibly be. That is when the champion hesitates until he finally tells the trainer: he wanted the trainer to talk to his gardener who had overcharged the champion’s bill. This pugilist was too timid to bring up this inconsistency with the gardener. He wanted his trainer to do it for him.

This true story relayed by Eric Greitens reveals what he calls uneven courage. What the boxing champion had developed in the ring was a courage in the face of combat. That is in part what made him a champion. And yet when it came to confronting his gardener about being gipped, a social situation, no amount of courage could be mustered. Courage was not something that was distributed throughout all facets of the champion’s life.

Beyond virtues, even our vices can be unevenly portioned. Take procrastination. In a fascinating episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast, guests Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen talk about how we label ourselves as procrastinators. This implies that we procrastinate on everything. That, however, is never the case. Some commitments receive our utmost attention. It is just that others ones, like writing a dissertation or planning a party, do not. Therein lies procrastination.

Virtues and vices are generally thought of in binary terms. Either someone is courageous or she is not. But what Greitens, Burka, and Yuen expand upon is similar to what author William Gibson wrote: “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” Virtues and vices are already in our lives. They’re just unevenly distributed.

What would happen if we looked at virtues and vices in this other way?

There is a quote from an obscure sci-fi novel has stuck with me for a long time:

“It has been said that specialist is a barbarian whose ignorance is not well rounded.” 

I love the idea of developing a well rounded ignorance. It goes against common sense until you think about it. In rounding out your ignorance, you are asking yourself “What don’t I know? What could I learn more about?”

Reading is one of the best ways to develop this well rounded ignorance. I am currently reading a biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow. After reading about Washington’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War, I realized how deeply ignorant I am about it. Finding a book about the conflict is now on my radar. Even coming to consider this Washington biography was born out of ignorance. After reading Chernow’s recent (and fantastic) biography of Ulysses S Grant, I found that I was ignorant of Chernow’s other work, hence choosing Washington: A Life.

My reading list is a trail of ignorance. I gravitate towards books about things I want to be less ignorant about and in them I find even more things I am ignorant of. Repeat this cycle ad infinitum and you have a library.

Daniel Kahneman is oft quoted declaring that humans have a near infinite capacity to ignore our ignorance. That sentiment is correct most of the time. When we are reading, however, every page has the potential to confront us with something we don’t know. In those moments, our ignorance cannot be ignored. And that alone is worth investing the time and resources to read.

Grant

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe…”

At the end of his life, Ulysses S Grant reflected on the end of the Civil War in his Memoirs. His meeting with the defeated Robert E. Lee at Appomattox serves as a surprising portrait of the man:

“What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know…Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter [of surrender], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Grant did not condone Lee’s cause yet still felt deep empathy. There was no need to rub victory in the face of the fallen. As Robert Chernow expressed it in his wonderful biography Grant, “celebration seemed cheap and tasteless after so many years of epic bloodshed.”

Move forward to the end of WWII with V-J day (Victory over Japan). David Brooks’ Road to Character starts with a reflection on a radio program called Command Performance, a variety show for troops during the war. The episode Brooks writes about was on the day after V-J day.

“What can you say at a time like this?” Bing Crosby says at the start of the program. “You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run-of-the mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over…Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.”

Each of these examples show a joy of victory. And yet there was something more than a touchdown celebration taking place. Grant felt “quite jubilant” after the surrender and then “sad and depressed” meeting the Lee, a fellow American and a defeated man trying to keep it together. The Allies of WWII win a war that, David Brooks writes, “had been such an epochal event, and had produced such rivers of blood, that individuals felt small in comparison.”

Here was victory suffused with solemnity. Here was an attitude that channeled deep empathy for the defeated, even if their cause was morally baseless. It eschews the fact that conflict had to arise in the first place. Duke Wellington expressed this best: “next to a battle lost, there is no spectacle more melancholy than a battle won.”

This attitude is a part of what David Brooks refers to as “a culture of self-effacement” where “‘Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else'”. I wonder if there is a way to channel this attitude in other facets of life where conflict arises, where there are apparently winners and losers, where it is easy to gloat over your victories at the expense of another’s setback.

Calvisius Sabinus

Calvisius Sabinus, the Roman who anticipated Google: having servants memorize poetry for him “so that he can be cultured while having nothing in his head.”

In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca tells the story of a wealthy Roman who suffered from a terrible memory. He could not recall the names and deeds of Ulysses, let alone Achilles. What did he do to solve this problem?

“[H]e spent an enormous amount of money on [servants], one of them to know Homer by heart, another to know Hesiod, while he assigned one apiece to each of the nine lyric poets.”

These servants were at his beck and call. Whenever the moment required a quotation, he would have a servant recite one, repeating it himself. These repetitions were often botched by the wealth Roman, often “[breaking] down half way through a word.” The man thought he solved his problem, “quite convinced that what anyone in his household knew he knew personally.”

Are we, like this Roman, all too convinced that anything our smartphone knows we know personally? 

GW Notebook

Entry from Washignton’s diary, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Biographies are not only monuments to great men and women. They also serve as doorways to elevated modes of living. This occurred to me as I read Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. At one point, Chernow highlights Washington’s prolific note taking. From the condition of his soil to the amount of lighting at a party he attended, Washington catalogued numerous facets of his life in notebooks.

This habit, however, was not an extraneous quirk. “Washington’s contemporaries recognized,” Chernow writes, “that this compulsive note taking, this itch to record his every action, went to the very essence of this well-regulated man.” Could this note taking have also played a role in regulating Washington’s inner life? Let’s look at a specific example.

Gambling was one of Washington’s moral struggles early in his life. Later on he would master abstinence from gambling, referring to it as “the child of avarice, the brother of inequity, and father of mischief.” One way we know of this personal struggle is by Washington’s cataloguing of his gambling expenses.

Chernow asks an interesting question about these records: “One wonders whether this detailed list simply reflected Washington’s compulsive record keeping or whether it was a way to monitor a perceived moral failing.” What role did note keeping play in Washington conquering his gambling habit?

Answering such a question may be out of our reach, but I think there is a way to look at Washington’s record keeping as, again, more than a compulsive habit. Note taking can be a way to monitor moral failings. Our inner life manifests in our outer life. Vices are not only thoughts we have but things we do. In Washington’s case, Greed manifested through excessive gambling. So why not nip these vices in the bud as soon as they appear?

We feel guilt and want to improve. It is just that this enthusiasm might occur for a day or so. Then we falter, going back to our bad habits. This cycle repeats itself ad nauseam. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman wisely wrote, we have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Without a means of pinning vices down, they continue to flutter in our lives untempered

Note taking pins these vices down. Washington could see his gambling in writing, documented on a certain day costing a certain amount. The struggle with this vice could never leave Washington’s thoughts because he documented it every time. Such specificity allowed Washington to observe his vice like a specimen. From there Washington could act accordingly until mentions of gambling disappear altogether from his notebook, a sign of the vice conquered.

Note taking is a popular practice to maximize productivity. We plan out our professional and personal lives with notebooks. But I wonder if, with Washington’s example and countless others, we can come to also use our notebooks to plan out our inner lives.