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Keep Your Chin Down

November 18, 2012

By way of an apology for the dearth of posts during November, I should let you know that I have been focusing my writing efforts on a bit more concrete writing for some longer-form work. Like many (if not most) authors who set out to write a book for the first time, I have encountered various frustrations and self-doubts about whether the endeavor is worthwhile at all, and like those writers, I wonder whether the writing life is for me. I certainly have this blog if I need my intellectual calisthenics, so why bother with something that would occupy a monumental portion of my life, quite possibly never get published, and then languish in obscurity if it is even published at all? Don’t I have other, more worthwhile pursuits? Aren’t there thousands of others individuals out there seeking to make their mark on the world through their storytelling who are unburdened by another career?

These kinds of frustrations inevitably lead to questions about how anyone ever succeeds in a field as flat (to use Tom Friedman’s sense of the word) as writing. Storytelling is one of mankind’s oldest professions (maybe the oldest; sorry politicians and prostitutes), so why should I hope that this could be anything more than just a hobby? But then I wonder if this self-defeating attitude is precisely what’s holding me back from really making progress and seeing my goals accomplished (it’s a vicious cycle), and I observe the canned wisdom about quantity being more important than quality for an early writer, the power of positive thinking, The Secret©, vision boards, etc.

But as it turns out, the kind of positive visualization and thinking that gets people to get to the end zone may not actually produce the best results. Oliver Burkeman describes new evidence that shows that too much positivity can encourage sloppiness, promote irrational exuberance, induce ethical corner-cutting, and train people to be too worried about failure to cope with it when it comes. A little negativity, in fact, may go a long way toward leavening your life with a stronger desire to live in the present and an appreciation for how good things really are.

Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

Burkeman also cites various examples of tunnel vision (oriented on a goal) leading to various undesirable results, including a famously disastrous Mt. Everest expedition chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The problem with positive thinking is that the human mind is constantly and naturally evaluating its choices and options; when one deprives the mind of realistic alternatives, the mental calculus gets screwy. And when one’s choices become identified with one’s personhood (which they so often do), these problems take on existential significances. Hence Existentialism as a school of philosophical thought, which says that any preconceived goals, values or limitations imposed externally are invalid.

I may be attracted to philosophy because I almost always feel as though I am in a state of existential transition. When one is prone to question whether one’s life is being properly led, one inevitably has to question whether one’s goals are worthwhile, whether the values one lives by are moral, and whether the habits and practices one has come to adopt are consistent with one’s actual intention. Philosophy is thus the bedrock for a contemplative person wondering if his or her choices have been correct, or whether it is time to begin writing a new chapter in the book of their own life. Like the negative thinking that forces sober self-reflection, considering what leading a good and virtuous life should mean can ensure that you haven’t rationalized your way into a blithe trap set by inertia.

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness.

Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics.

Well Aristotle, if you say so. I’m going to get back to writing, even if I’m not writing a bestseller. At least I’m doing something that requires some exertion, something challenging. At least I can say it wasn’t easy.

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