On a warm summer evening, the great Persian king Darius and his scribe Cyrus were walking through the palace gardens. As Cyrus was dutifully transcribing tomorrow’s tasks the king lent forward, his eye caught by a particularly striking flower. Feeling a whisper of cold air behind him, Cyrus turned, only to behold Death, his scythe shimmering below the light of the naked moon.
Before death had a chance to speak, Cyrus alerted the king frantically and breathless that he must immediately leave for Acre, he had seen Death and wished to get as far away from the palace as possible. He took the fastest horse and set off.
Confused and worried for his scribe, the king continued walking through the gardens.
The king, startled and confused, continued his walk through the palace gardens and to his surprise, found Death. Darius walked up to him,
“Why did you frighten my poor scribe”, queried King Darius.
“It was not my intention”, replied Death, continuing, “I only came to inform him that I would see him on the road to Acre tonight”.
To live virtuously, we need look no further than the garden, for it is the most steadfast and honest of teachers. Through the act of gardening, we learn humility, patience, kindness, empathy, and commitment; but likewise receive an antidote to the vices of arrogance, impatience, selfishness and hubris.
Kneeling down in prayer in front of a bed of soil to plant a seed, a seed with no promise of germination, is an act of faith. Planting a seed is a communion and celebration of life outside ourselves. Our wealth, prestige and power have no bearing on the seed; and in planting one, we cross the boundary from seeing ourselves as the centre, to seeing ourselves as a part in a much grander whole.
In gardening we learn to care. Sometimes (more often than not) we do not know what the garden needs. We can’t simply throw whatever we have at the garden in the hope that it will work (well, we can, but then gardening is more akin to gambling); we must pay attention. We must look and listen, see the signs that are before us, and heed the call. The garden, whether we enter it desiring to be one or not, requires us to be a loving partner. Not loving in the sexual sense, but loving as Erich Fromm saw it, loving as ‘reaching out…and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself’ and in the process, becoming more than oneself.
Gardening is an antidote to the self, or rather, the myopic individualism and stunted sense of selfhood consumer culture encourages us to emulate. Our society is centripetal, where everything deemed important collapses into the personal. In distinction, the garden is centrifugal, where the self moves outwards, is enriched, and then moving inwards, is enlarged, only to move outwards and repeat the process yet again.
Whereas in life I may find value in the limiting realm of personal gratification, in the garden as I tend for my lemon tree, I begin to see myself in that tree, and caring for myself involves nothing less than caring for it (and caring for it involves nothing less than caring for myself). I become enlarged by my care and identification by the things around me; the world is not reduced to me, I am increased by my identification with the world. Forgetting myself means losing myself, and then finding it in the world around me.
Through deliberate and constant attention, gardening encourages a particular type of sensitivity; to the wind, to the sun, to the waxing and waning of the moon, to the turning of the seasons, and most importantly, to the quality and nutrition of our sustenance.
Insensitivity means we are not affected; we are not affected because we lack imagination, and we lack imagination because it has never been called for. Gardening works this problem backwards; by becoming responsible for the garden, we start to imagine the current state and potential of our garden; which encourages further involvement in the garden, and as a result, a sensitivity to the needs of the garden and all that affects it.
One of the unintended abilities gained by spending a lot of time in the garden is knowing, deeply knowing, the weather. Weather apps become superfluous to a significant extent. The change in the air and the colour of the sky at sunrise are subtle indicators that we learn to discriminate through experience alone. Needing to consult our phones for one less thing and instead developing and relying on our own abilities is surely reason enough to garden.
Gardening is an antidote to the hollow consumerism of contemporary capitalism. As consumers, we are rarely a part of production and furthermore, have limited knowledge of the processes of production from which we benefit. Questions – such as how is your iPhone made, or even what is it made of and from where are the materials sourced – are basically unanswerable, and few if any, bother to ask. As a result, we become disconnected from what we own and the functioning of the economic system on which we depend.
But, in the garden, you must plant the seeds, tend the soil, and cultivate the plant. While you may not know all the specifics – where are the seeds from, what trees were felled for your garden bed – you become involved in the process, and as a result, the fruits of your labour become that much more precious. You are no longer a consumer, but a producer; and as a result, the joy of consumption includes all the labour and time that came before it; home grown food may not taste better than store bought food, but it certainly feels better.
By affirming your position in the natural order, gardening offers a corrective to the intellectually deadening language of industrialisation. There is not ‘natural resources’, there is nature; not timber, trees; not pollinators, bees and butterflies; not pests, companions; there isn’t even food anymore; there is spinach, tomatoes, kale and corn. Even more so, it is not just kale, it is my kale; I have become intimately involved in the process; the type of abstract separation which industrialisation encourages is undone with the forging of bonds imbued in the act of gardening.
The garden teaches us how to be patient, loving, kind, attentive and sensitive; but its teachings do not begin and end at its borders. David Bohm explains this through his distinction of explicit and implicit thought. Whereas explicit thought is content, implicit thought is process; the former what we think, the latter how we think.
For gardening, while you may think explicitly about the state of your peas or whether a certain bed is receiving enough water; what you are implicitly doing is caring, paying attention, and being sensitive. What is interesting to note, as Bohm observes, is how both affect each other. So, if you orient your thoughts toward care, attention and sensitivity, then you are subtly, piece by piece, thought by thought, changing the very process of how you think; with each thought a feedback-loop changing the process of thought itself; meaning, how you think in the garden will bleed out into how you think outside of it. A caring, attentive, and sensitive gardener is reinforcing the neural pathways towards being a more caring, attentive, and sensitive human.
And, striving to be this, I can think of no better place to begin than in the garden.
Seen for what it is, small talk is an imprisonment of false bonhomie and an utter failure of communication. But, seen for what it could be, small talk can be an opportunity to step beyond the banal and everyday into the hidden terrain of another’s world.
But such an imperative can be intimidating, and can seem overwhelming. As a result; we may withhold talking about anything beyond the weather, where we plan to travel next year, and how our job is faring because we fear that delving into the topics we care about – the scourge of war, our apocalyptic visions of climate change, or our fraying relationship with our parents – would scare other people away. We try to stay on safe ground but by remaining so safe, are boring. Our partner, doing the same thing, likely feels the same way.
But, small talk need not be verbal imprisonment (giving new meaning to the phrase ‘jail sentence’). It could, instead, become a stepping stone for deeper discussions. For example:
‘What do you do for work’ can lead to deeper questions such as:
- Why did you choose that career? What makes it fulfilling?
- We both work fulltime, if money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing instead?
- If you could go back and pick another career, what would it be? What do you want to give to the world?
‘Did you see the news stories about the floods’ can lead to deeper questions such as:
- Does climate change frighten you? Do you ever wish you could do more to stop it?
- It’s very disempowering seeing footage of events we can do nothing to change. What do you think?
- Have you noticed how hard it is for opposing groups such as climate change activists and deniers to find common ground and speak to each other?
There are ways of broaching any topic that can be banal or unique, trite or meaningful. We can have dull conversations about death, and engaging conversations about rainbows; what matters is how deep we are willing to go, how far beyond the safe we are willing to venture.
While we may loathe small talk, to a significant extent, the onus is on us to push the conversation further. While we may feel trapped, it is highly unlikely that our partner in conversation really wishes to continue talking about the price of apples, or why Savoys are superior to Jatz biscuits. They certainly want to talk about the titillations of their mind and the depths of their heart, they may just need a little push in that direction and an assurance that they are in safe company to do so. Perhaps we could start…
The skilled conversationalist can see a goldmine of information hidden in the most ordinary of observations. If handled correctly, a comment about poor drivers on the road can lead to fruitful discussions about expectations of others, and an observation about the beauty of thunderstorms may provide fertile ground for discussions about the perverse charm of destruction. The point is that an observation, basically any observation, if we are paying attention, can be a stepping stone to another proximate thought in the other’s mind.
We all want to move towards intimacy and sincerity. Small talk is the keyhole through which we glimpse what lies beyond in the room of another’s mind. It will remain perilous insofar as we assume conversation has to end there; but if we see it as a necessary and first step in the journey to deeper communion, then small talk won’t feel mind-numbing anymore.
If you had asked a serf 400 years ago if they found their work fulfilling, they would have looked at you in confusion; the necessity of work was absolute, the type of work was non-negotiable, and toil was considered a part of the process; a type of thinking which backgrounded Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, and to which we are to some extent rebelling.
In this current historical juncture, we look to work not only for basic survival but also for the fulfilment of wishes, dreams and desires. Survival now guaranteed, we want to find meaning.
There is already an implied problem. We think of meaning as something found, as opposed to, for instance, created/cultivated/adopted. Finding ‘meaning’ is a fallacy implying that meaning is some sort of quality existing in the ether, waiting for us to pluck it like ripened fruit.
We could (and perhaps, should) instead say we wish to find what is meaningful for me. But, such a proposition hinges on something very important: we must know ourselves.
This is the first and arguably, most difficult step in finding meaningful work. If we do not know ourselves, what gratifies, inspires and moves; and contrarily, what irritates, demoralises and defeats; then finding meaningful work will be nearly impossible. Instead, we could start by writing a list of things we like a don’t like or free-associating from something we do; but, what we first must do is start investigating ourselves, and move out into the world from this point.
Upon understanding what elates and deflates us, we run into the implied next problem: it is nearly impossible to find a job perfectly suited to us. If there are jobs which satisfy our every desire, those with these jobs are great at keeping secrets. The likelihood of finding such jobs is slim, if not infinitesimal. Upon finding what we like and dislike, we are called upon to adjust ourselves to reality as it stands. Knowing we will not find work that satisfies every aspect of our personality, we may at least find one which can stimulate as many parts of ourselves as possible.
For example, you are a talented digital artist who wishes to inspire and move people; however, you cannot survive selling prints of your work on Instagram. So, you get a job working as a graphic designer for a multinational firm. While you might not inspire people (and move them only to purchase a new commodity), you are at least speaking to an important aspect of your personality; that is, the desire to create digital art. You might, contrarily, get a job as a digital artist for fringe festivals, and while you may still need to create within the parametres of somebody else’s expectations, you can still produce digital art which inspires and moves. The point is that you can’t have everything, but you can negotiate and adjust your expectations to achieve a satisfying sense of fulfilment.
But, perhaps, the option for satisfying a sufficient number of aspects of personality is out of reach, another option is, rather than expecting more from work, we can expect less from it. If we use a smaller glass, we need a lot less water to fill it. Rather than expecting work to be emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and economically satisfying, we could settle for maybe just two, or even one. If we could sufficiently lower our expectations of what we want from work, it wouldn’t be as hard to find work ‘fulfilling’. After all, if we went into work only expecting a paycheck and nothing more, we would be considerably less afflicted with pangs of doubt and disappointment about the state of our soul. But, a silent finger point appears here. That is, maybe the problem is not that work fails to fulfil us spiritually, but instead, we feel our life is spiritually unfulfilled generally, and look to work to fulfil it.
For example, if we want to be an artist, a consolation, a helper; we could satisfy these dreams by becoming a content writer, a psychologist, a disability support worker. Alternatively, we could work our 9-5 job (with no expectations for anything more than a paycheck), and in our time outside of work write a philosophy blog, help out at soup kitchens, help an elderly neighbour with their gardening.
Perhaps the issue is not that work fails to meet our expectations, but rather, we expect so much from work. If we could take work in its proper context, we would see it is only one part of life, and as such, expecting it to satisfy all of our desires as foolish, overly-optimistic and dangerous. We would benefit from putting far less significance on work, and more on everything we do outside it.
A blank page can be for writers (including yours truly), both paralysing and debilitating. Signalling a potential waiting to be realised, it is likewise unlimited potential, potential without direction; any decision taken closes down others which could have been made in its stead. To the extent that a blank page signals absolute freedom, it likewise signals absolute uncertainty. Will this be the right way to start? Now that I have come 73 words in, is it too late to go back, to start anew, to return to the ungerminated seed which prompted this piece?
A blank page on a computer is a vast tundra of meta-visual space, glaring, naked, brutal white. Nothing here, nothing yet…
Transcribing another text onto a blank page is no difficult task; I know where to begin and where to end. But, for what it makes up for in certainty, it loses uniqueness, creativity and genuineness; so too with living. Mimicking will ease the pangs of uncertainty, but it likewise empties life of meaning; because we aren’t writing our story, we are writing someone else’s.
The blank page confronts us with a deeply existential problem. For every decision we make, there are decisions we do not; and for every decision we do make, we narrow the range of future possibilities. What’s frightening is not making a decision, but the implicit thought at the back of our minds that asks: could another decision have been better? Within this question is captured the most difficult task of writing indeed, but also of living itself.
When discussing his creative process, Android Jones remarked on an internal movement relevant to all art, including the art of living. He observed that when confronted with a blank canvas, he didn’t think too much about where or how to begin; he simply began. Anywhere was as good a starting point as any other, he observed; with other aspects, dimensions, and forms following from this starting point. While a canvas physically has a central point, for him, the philosophical centre could be anywhere.
For life, what is of paramount importance is not whether you decide to become an electrician or a fountain pen salesman, it is the very act of deciding, of acting, and from this, seeing new directions, colours and forms for your life to take. To endlessly ponder how to begin an essay is to wait until the computer battery runs out, only to find you haven’t written a word. The poorly written essay can be improved, but there is nothing to change on an empty page.
It can be debilitating to be faced with a blank page, empty canvas or unlived life. How to know what to do, where to start, what direction to take? The essence here is that any point is as good as any others, in a way, choosing the ‘right’ place matters less than the very decision to ‘choose’; that is, begin writing, drawing, acting and from this, all else follows. I did not know how this essay would unfold until I got to the end, and so it is with life; once I began, it became clearer what I needed to do. Did I start in the right place with the right words? Once you get to the end, you see such a question begins to matter less and less.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
This poem, penned by W.H Auden, is located in his chapter on history. It could have gone under another chapter but didn’t. I believe this was no mistake; because loving, with no guarantee that one be loved back, is a tale told throughout time. Dealing with the disorienting imperative of loving a universe insensitive to our wants and desires, this poem is an elegy to the unrequited and perhaps vastest love of all. The indifference of the stars to our wonder and admiration is the triumph of the human heart – loving with no demand for us to be loved back.
Looking in the mirror, you probably say to yourself in particularly self-hating moments that you aren’t normal. Everyone else seems able to hold down a job, maintain emotional equilibrium, and manage healthy relationships; it is you, and you alone, who are singularly cursed to abnormality. If only you could change, be different, be normal…
But, of course, this type of thought process is myopically narrow. You have no idea about the destructive storms raging within the hearts and minds of those around us; you merely assume because their outer appearance is calm, their inner experience must be too (imagine how you must appear to those around you).
But, other people aren’t as normal as you might imagine. You can tell when more than one person watches a video on topics like No One Is Normal by the School of Life or Am I Normal on Ted Talk; we all feel, deep down, a little bit like imposters, a little bit like sickos, a little bit ‘not-quite-right’.
We are unintentional solipsists, forgetting that other people have internal worlds and are suffering just like we are. We would do well to remember that everyone wears a mask. If you think other people are completely normal, you’re just an emotional wreck and psychological freak, I guarantee others are surely thinking the same thing about themselves when they see you. Do you smile for a photo even if you feel dead inside? How do you know others aren’t doing the same?
You aren’t the only one who has driven down a road and thought ‘I could drive onto the sidewalk and hit 20 pedestrians right now if I wanted to’, you are not the only one who has been at the top of a tall building and thought ‘I could jump off right now’, you aren’t the only one to have an inappropriate sexual thought about a friends partner, and you aren’t the only one who might sniff, scratch or taste a weird part of their body. The only difference between you and other people is you know all the weird, messed-up and frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses you’ve had. Not knowing them in others doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
It might not be normal (whatever that means) to cry at a cartoon movie on Netflix, but that sensitivity is what makes you such a great listener and artist. It might not be normal to disdain eating meat, but that empathy is what makes you such a great friend. It might not be normal to want to spend nights alone instead of going out, but that dedication to your internal world is what helps you maintain emotional equilibrium. What might be weakness and weirdness in one setting becomes a defining strength and a sign of character in another.
Trying to be normal is an attempt to ‘fit in’; to become a part of the background, the wallpaper; to be an unassuming and invisible brick in the wall. In a weird way, it speaks to a desire to delete a part of ourselves in order to deal with the pain of being ourselves. But, this type of partial suicide will never rescue ourselves.
Saving ourselves begins when we realise that everyone is weird (in different ways, to different degrees); you’re not normal, no one is.
To the Ancient Greeks, one of the essentials of the good life was keeping everything in proper measure.
As a part of this, Greek tragedies portrayed man’s suffering as a result of him going beyond the proper measure of things. So did Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s noble vice was a quality in his protagonists (Othello, Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) that went beyond the proper measure; Macbeth was courageous, but disproportionately so, to the point where he killed the king and brought about his own demise. In the Shakespearean and Ancient Greek sense, measure was not utilised as a means of comparing size or distance, but rather, attuned to an understanding of the harmony and essential relations between things.
An insight into measure can be found by way of etymology. The Latin ‘mederi’ means to cure, and is also the root of the modern word medicine, reflecting the view that health is contingent upon a proper measure, or balance, of the inner harmony among parts. Cancer, being a proliferation of cells without limit, is a sickness, because it is growth without proper measure according to the functioning of the body. ‘Moderation’, one of the key virtues of the Ancient Greeks, derives from the same root, again speaking to the rule of ‘not too little, not too much’ and implying an inner harmony among parts; meditation too, is “weighing, pondering, or measuring of the whole process of thought” in order to bring about an internal harmony. So, physically (medicine), personally (moderation) and psychologically (meditation), measure was seen as key for a balanced and harmonious life.
The Greeks understood all human qualities: avarice, cowardice, selfishness, contempt, and violence; as well as generosity, courage, selfless, and kindness as potential human virtues; a worldview that stands in stark opposition to our own. The caveat? Each became a virtue when properly (or ‘proportionately’) measured.
We can better understand words by tracing their lineage. To help understand ‘measure’ it is useful to understand another Ancient Greek term, proportion, or, as they would have said, ratio, a word from which our modern ‘reason’ derives. For the ancients, ratio was relevant to understanding the nature of things and the proportions of relationships. So, to take an earlier example, cancer is problematic because it exists out of proportion to the growth of the rest of the body, and its disharmony results in mismeasure that requires medicine, or ‘remeasuring’ to bring everything back into harmony. Or, courage is fine, but when courage exists out of proportion to context (such as rushing head-on into a battle without a plan), it creates danger and requires a ‘remeasuring’ to be put in its proper place.
The Ancient Greeks, therefore, would have been bemused by questions such as ‘is lying wrong?’ or, ‘is it wrong to steal?’ because for them, lying or stealing; courage and meekness, were not moral absolutes; all morals and virtues existed in a totality proportionate with each other. Sometimes, lying is wrong, but if Germans came to your door in 1943 to ask if you knew any Jews, while you had some hiding under your floorboards, the Ancient Greeks would answer here that lying is not wrong; because the lie is indeed proportionate to the context. They understood that virtue was not predicated on a particular quality (like courage, truthfulness, strength), but on the relationship of this quality to other qualities, and to the context of the human who possesses them.
This notion of measure undergirded many aspects of Greek life. Measure was crucial to understanding harmony in music (measure as rhythm, proportion of sound intensity) to the arts (with ‘the Golden Ratio’ providing the clearest example). Measure went beyond the moral to inform all aspects of daily life; which is something which we have sorely lost, with words like ‘measure’, ‘proportion’, and ‘ratio’ used in a mathematical and strictly external sense.
So, when Protagoras said ‘man is the measure of all things’ we shouldn’t look at him as saying ‘man is the highest form to which all things should be compared’, but rather as saying ‘reality is not independent of man, and his insight should be in harmony with the reality in which he lives’. This implies clarity of perception and seriousness of thought. Measure or ‘moderation’ encapsulates how the virtues should work in harmony with each other to bring about a coherent whole. Man isn’t the measure of all things in the traditional sense, measure is an insight created by man to understand life.
We do, luckily, have modern re-workings of these older concepts. ‘Putting things in perspective’ is one such example. To ‘put something in perspective’ implies nothing less than taking a step back and seeing how one thing relates to another in the hope that, with the new vantage point, we will be able to fit something in, or adjust its magnitude, so that we regain a sense of inner balance or harmony.
To live ‘virtuously’ as the Ancient Greeks would have said, requires us to dissolve the fragmentary nature of our thinking whereby we say certain qualities are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’. Instead, we must see that our beliefs, values, and ideals are like ingredients for a delicious recipe, and for it to turn out right, we must put add these ingredients in the right proportion. Living well is a balancing act, one we must be constantly attuned to. As Socrates understood, the examined life is the beginning of the virtuous life.
‘We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear’ writes Katherine May in her work Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. We imagine ‘our lives to be a long march from birth to death in which we amass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty.’ But, this is simply one way to look at life.
Our lives are not linear, they are cyclical. We do not rise to crescendo and then collapse into nothingness; rather, our lives are a series of peaks and troughs, twists and turns, blooms and decays. We are not born and then die; rather, we are born and experience multiple deaths and rebirths along our journey of becoming. We can look to nature as a teacher here. Like a tree,
We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
Winter for a deciduous tree is not a period of death, but instead, a period of letting go of the old to make space for new growth. The dropping of leaves is not an unfortunate accident for the deciduous tree but a necessary part of its life cycle; and so it is for us. Depression causing us to despise our very bones, anxiety attacks leaving us unable to leave the house, and mental illness rendering us unable to communicate with close friends are not signs we are deformed and defected, but rather, are processes of what Katherine May calls ‘wintering’, whereby old parts of ourselves’ are ready to be let go to provide room for something new.
The dropping of leaves by a tree is called ‘abscission’. Occurring on the cusp of autumn and winter, it is ‘part of an arc of growth, maturity and renewal’. While leaves are dying off from the tree, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem of the leaf and the branch: this is the abscission zone. Over time, this zone halts the flower of water to the leaf, where it withers and falls off. Yet, ‘even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring’.
We think we’re seeing the skeleton of the tree, a dead thing…
But if we look closely, we see the tree is already in bud, waiting for the turn of the seasons to bloom once more.
Even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring.
The cyclical nature of the seasons is a mirror to the soul. We experience periods of vitality and exuberance, only to have them followed by periods of despair and defeat; but these moments are not aberrations or deformities, but stages in a cycle, providing the space for us to retreat, rest, and recuperate, before entering the world once more, a little older, a little wiser, and a little more mature than before.