Outward Bound Ideas
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- Name: Bookgleaner
- Location: The City, On the edge
Saturday, December 20, 2014
DEC. 12, 2014
“CHRISTMAS is at our throats again.”
That was the cheery yuletide greeting favored by the late English playwright Noël Coward, commemorating the holiday after which he was named. Less contrarian were the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
Which quotation strikes a chord with you? Are you a Coward or a Coolidge?
If you sympathize more with Coward, welcome to the club. There are many more of us out there than one might expect. A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans were bothered “some” or “a lot” by the commercialization of Christmas. A 2013 follow-up confirmed that materialism is Americans’ least favorite part of the season.
Call it the Christmas Conundrum. We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity, yet the season’s lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold. The underlying contradiction runs throughout modern life. On one hand, we naturally seek and rejoice in prosperity. On the other hand, success in this endeavor is often marred by a materialism we find repellent and alienating.
On a recent trip to India, I found an opportunity to help sort out this contradiction. I sought guidance from a penniless Hindu swami named Gnanmunidas at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Hindu temple in New Delhi. We had never met before, but he came highly recommended by friends. If Yelp reviewed monks, he would have had five stars.
To my astonishment, Gnanmunidas greeted me with an avuncular, “How ya doin’?” He referred to me as “dude.” And what was that accent — Texas? Sure enough, he had grown up in Houston, the son of Indian petroleum engineers, and had graduated from the University of Texas. Later, he got an M.B.A., and quickly made a lot of money.
But then Gnanmunidas had his awakening. At 26, he asked himself, “Is this all there is?” His grappling with that question led him to India, where he renounced everything and entered a Hindu seminary. Six years later, he emerged a monk. From that moment on, the sum total of his worldly possessions has been two robes, prayer beads and a wooden bowl. He is prohibited from even touching money — a discipline that would obviously be impossible for those of us enmeshed in ordinary economic life.
As an economist, I was more than a little afraid to hear what this capitalist-turned-renunciant had to teach me. But I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.
“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”
This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.
The assertion that there is nothing wrong with abundance per se is entirely consistent with most mainstream philosophies. Even traditions commonly perceived as ascetic rarely condemn prosperity on its face. The Dalai Lama, for example, teaches that material goods themselves are not the problem. The real issue, he writes, is our delusion that “satisfaction can arise from gratifying the senses alone.”
Moreover, any moral system that takes poverty relief seriously has to celebrate the ahistoric economic bounty that has been harvested these past few centuries. The proportion of the world living on $1 per day or less has shrunk by 80 percent in our lifetimes. Today, Bill Gates can credibly predict that almost no countries will be conventionally “poor” by 2035.
In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.
In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.
In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction. But how to do it? Three practices can help.
First, collect experiences, not things.
Material things appear to be permanent, while experiences seem evanescent and likely to be forgotten. Should you take a second honeymoon with your spouse, or get a new couch? The week away sounds great, but hey — the couch is something you’ll have forever, right?
Wrong. Thirty years from now, when you are sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, you’ll remember your second honeymoon in great detail. But are you likely to say to one another, “Remember that awesome couch?” Of course not. It will be gone and forgotten. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is physically permanent stuff that evaporates from our minds. It is memories in the ether of our consciousness that last a lifetime, there for us to enjoy again and again.
This “paradox of things” has been thoroughly documented by researchers. In 2003, psychologists from the University of Colorado and Cornell studied how Americans remembered different kinds of purchases — material things and experiences — they have made in the past. Using both a national survey and a controlled experiment with human subjects, they found that reflecting on experiential purchases left their subjects significantly happier than did remembering the material acquisitions.
Countless studies show that doing things for their own sake — as opposed to things that are merely a means to achieve something else — makes for mindfulness and joy.
In one famous experiment, college students were given puzzles to solve. Some of the students were paid, and others were not. The unpaid participants tended to continue to work on the puzzles after the experiment was finished, whereas the paid participants abandoned the task as soon as the session was over. And the paid subjects reported enjoying the whole experience less.
FOR those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable. But for those of us blessed to be above poverty, attachment to money is a means-ends confusion. Excessive focus on your finances obscures what you are supposed to enjoy with them. It’s as if your experience of the holidays never extended beyond the time spent at the airport on the way to see family. (If you’re thinking that’s actually the best part, then you have a different problem.)
This manifestly does not mean we should abandon productive impulses. On the contrary, it means we need to treat our industry as an intrinsic end. This is the point made famously in the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, where work is sanctified as inherently valuable, not as a path to a payoff.
And finally, get to the center of the wheel.
In the rose windows of many medieval churches, one finds the famous “wheel of fortune,” or rota fortunae. The concept is borrowed from ancient Romans’ worship of the pagan goddess Fortuna. Following the wheel’s rim around, one sees the cycle of victory and defeat that everyone experiences throughout the struggles of life. At the top of the circle is a king; at the bottom, the same man as a pauper.
Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” uses the idea to tell of important people brought low throughout history: “And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously. And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.”
The lesson went beyond the rich and famous. Everyone was supposed to remember that each of us is turning on the wheel. One day, we’re at the top of our game. But from time to time, we find ourselves laid low in health, wealth and reputation.
If the lesson ended there, it would be pretty depressing. Every victory seems an exercise in futility, because soon enough we will be back at the bottom. But as the Catholic theologian Robert Barron writes, the early church answered this existential puzzle by placing Jesus at the center of the wheel. Worldly things occupy the wheel’s rim. These objects of attachment spin ceaselessly and mercilessly. Fixed at the center was the focal point of faith, the lodestar for transcending health, wealth, power, pleasure and fame — for moving beyond mortal abundance. The least practical thing in life was thus the most important and enduring.
But even if you are not religious, there is an important lesson for us embedded in this ancient theology. Namely, woe be unto those who live and die by the slings and arrows of worldly attachment. To prioritize these things is to cling to the rim, a sure recipe for existential vertigo. Instead, make sure you know what is the transcendental truth at the center of your wheel, and make that your focus.
So here is my central claim: The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices above. Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel. It might just turn out to be a happy holiday after all.
I never finished my story about Swami Gnanmunidas. Before I left him that day in Delhi, we had a light lunch of soup and naan. I told him I would be writing about our conversation; many Americans would be hearing his name. He contemplated this for a moment and, modeling nonattachment, responded simply.
“Dude, do you like the soup? It’s spicy.”
Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing opinion writer who is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 14, 2014, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Abundance Without Attachment.
142. ‘One for the Books,’ by Joe Queenan A Review
‘One for the Books,’ by Joe Queenan
By LIGAYA MISHAN
Published: January 25, 2014
By Joe Queenan’s reckoning, in his 62 years of life he has read at least 6,128 books. Should he continue to read at his current clip (100 to 200 books annually), he calculates that given natural life expectancy, he has only some 2,138 books to go. The clock is ticking, he warns, for him and for us all. If that makes you want to abandon this review immediately and grab the nearest Dostoyevsky, no hard feelings.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
By Joe Queenan
244 pp. Viking. $24.95.
Queenan, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, is a famously dyspeptic humorist and self-proclaimed “sneering churl.” But in “One for the Books,” a gathering of essays, parts of which appeared in these pages, he is mostly in celebratory mode, writing of his love of literature. It is a stalker-ish love, in which he reads everywhere (at wakes, during Jerry Garcia guitar solos) and anything (Pamela Anderson’s “Star: A Novel,” Geraldo Rivera’s memoir), and in spare moments fetishistically rearranges his personal collection of 1,374 tomes by height, thickness and author’s nationality.
While hardly monogamous — he always has at least 15 books going at once — Queenan is a wholehearted lover, surprisingly vulnerable to the slightest volume, as ready to give himself to a novella about a cross-dressing Mexico City hairdresser as to “Northanger Abbey.” He will slog to the end of even a turgid, minor work by a beloved author, so as not to seem ungrateful.
Fortunately, given Queenan’s particular skill set, he finds plenty in the book world to sneer at, too. On the cheapskates who frequent secondhand bookshops: “People should consider it an honor to pay full price for a book by Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood.” On reviews containing the adjective “luminous”: “I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle.” On the futility of book clubs: “Good books do not invite unanimity. They invite discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.”
He refuses to read novels in which the protagonist attends private school (so long, Harry Potter), or books written by fans of the Yankees, a group that turns out to include Salman Rushdie. And he reserves particular scorn for readers of e-books, who, he argues, “have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives.” A person housebound with an infant might disagree. A person lying in the dark next to the aforementioned, now finally, blessedly sleeping infant might consider the conjuring of “Wolf Hall” on a beautifully backlighted iPad a wonder passing all wonders.
And what of book reviewers? Queenan, a formidable reviewer himself, complains that we are “too darned nice.” Let me note, then, that “One for the Books” is a shaggy specimen, and could have done without the mock Amazon reviews from previous centuries or the litany of fake Lincoln titles and Kinks autobiographies or the mock book-discussion questions.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to be charmed by Queenan’s enthusiasms. He bemoans never finding someone willing to talk about the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (I am!), and admits to never finishing — and never wanting to finish — “Ulysses,” an old nemesis of mine that I once attempted to destroy by wedging it under a jack to change a flat tire. (It haunts me still, with its oil-stained pages.)
When Queenan was young, books were an escape hatch from life in a Philadelphia housing project “with substandard parents,” including a father who “used books the same way he used alcohol: to pretend that he was not here.” Now they are a way to rage against the dying of the light. “As long as we have these epic, improbable reading projects arrayed before us, we cannot breathe our last,” he writes. “Tell the Angel of Death to come back later; I haven’t quite finished ‘Villette.’ ”
Ligaya Mishan writes the Hungry City column for the Dining section of The Times.