Sunday, April 15, 2012

THE BURDEN OF CHOICE



I remember a small paragraph in a book created for the men’s movement.  Under the heading Don’t burden the female with choice, the paragraph said:

A woman wants a man who is decisive. When a woman asks you, “Should I wear the red dress or the blue dress?” – don’t say, “Either one is fine.” This throws the burden of choice back on the woman. Without a moment’s hesitation, say, “The red one.” After all, it doesn’t matter.

Never mind the patronizing tone. In our politically correct era, this kind of “male straight talk” is downright amusing. I loved the heading: “Don’t burden the female with choice.” Once done with the inner chuckling, I went past it to extract the treasure: AFTER ALL, IT DOESN’T MATTER. The man is not supposed to say these words to the poor choice-burdened female. But he is supposed to know the great secret, the secret that makes him strong and (mostly) silent. Thus he can give a decisive answer right away, sparing the unenlightened woman hours of agony on the cross of choice.

In the one minute it took to read this paragraph, I learned two revolutionary things: 1) choice means stress; 2) AFTER ALL, IT DOESN’T MATTER.

That last sentence kept rolling like huge thunder in my mind. I realized it applied to a lot of things that I thought mattered. But the word “thought” wasn’t the right one. I had never given it much thought. I only assumed a lot of various things mattered, without pausing to examine if that was true.

In the last two years of her life, my mother became Ecclesiastes. She started saying, “That’s not important.” It wasn’t just red dress versus blue dress, but practically everything. She knew she didn’t have much time left. “That’s not important” became her mantra, her last clarity. I can’t believe that I never dared ask her what WAS important. The answer is of course obvious: there is no such thing as THE answer. What's the most important thing in your life? As with the meaning of life, the answer is different for each person.

Even before all this enlightenment (including also the moment when a friend said, “It’s only a poem”), the question of what matters intrigued me: the mystery of it, the suspicion that it’s something different than what I think it is. I don’t know if I lived the question, as Rilke tells us to do, but I certainly loved the question. Specifically, I loved this poem by Bukowski:

it bothers the young most, I think:
an unviolent slow death.
still it makes any man dream;
you wish for an old sailing ship,
the white salt-crusted sail
and the sea shaking out hints of immortality

sea in the nose sea in the hair
sea in the marrow, in the eyes
and yes, there in the chest.
will we miss
the love of a woman or music or food

or the gambol of the great mad muscled
horse, kicking clods and destinies

high and away
in just one moment of the sun coming down?

~ Charles Bukowski, The Pleasures of the Damned

The great horse stands for the sublime, the beauty that’s the beginning of terror and could destroy us. The juxtaposition of “clods and destinies” says everything about the ultimate fate of our ambitions. Perhaps it’s only the sublime moments that matter. I knew that I would probably never have an absolute answer, but at least I began imagining myself at eighty, looking back at my life, asking what mattered. Poetry? The taste of wild strawberries? Service to others? Love – or maybe deep affection rather than love; not the excitement of romance, but tenderness?

In old age, I wonder, what will I
remember? Pages I have
written, pages I have read?

Or will one of my souls go back to
where we used to walk
on the beach, holding hands –

~ Oriana, “Praying with St. Augustine

*

But even at eighty, can we be sure we’ll know? A poet who is past eighty wrote this poem:

BORROWER 

A hesitant knock on the door.
I look out, then down.
The neighbors’ little boy,
I think his name is

Christian, stands staring at his
tennis shoes, faded T-shirt ripped
at the neck. He holds a cup tilted
at a forlorn angle, stammers,

I don’t remember
what my mother sent me for.

Standing at the blue door
of a long life,
my cup only half full,
I can’t remember either.

What did I come for?
What was it I wanted?

~ Una Hynum

**

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have some reason to believe that eventually an angel will tell us what we came here for and what we truly wanted. But no matter how long we stand there with our cup, begging for an answer, nobody can give it to us. The universal fate – with some notable but few exceptions – is that we die not knowing. But we keep constructing the story of our life as we go along, trying to put some meaning on our experiences.

And that’s already magnificent – that even in the most absurd circumstances, we manage to create a tiny crumb of meaning that keeps us alive. A tiny bit of love, in the end sometimes just for a houseplant, the widow’s last geranium. Do not despise the geranium. Its ability to blossom in its bedraggled condition makes it the ideal companion. So that’s my attempt at an answer to some of the huge questions: that geranium matters.


“PLAY THE PIANO UNTIL THE FINGERS BLEED A LITTLE”

You may say that the mantra “It doesn’t matter” is fine when it comes to things that really don’t matter, but what about the great decisions about education, marriage, career? According to Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice), it’s pretty much the same. Most people don’t really know what they want, so it doesn’t matter. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed. Don’t stall. Close your eyes and leap. Commit yourself and make the best of it. Your brain will later manufacture reasons to show that your “choice” was the best given the circumstances, and you will be happy with it. If the worst comes to the worst, you’ll shrug it off as a “learning experience.”  

But to complicate matters, now we have the advice that could not have been uttered in, say, the Victorian age: follow your bliss. Bliss is not hedonistic pleasure. It’s deep pleasure, “soul pleasure.” In old-fashioned idiom, that was “Follow your heart” or “follow your passion.” Some prefer to say, “Follow your intuition.” Generally, however, we’ve been so manipulated since early childhood, so governed by choices that others made for us, that it can take a long time before we know our bliss or our passion. And then it may take a lot of courage to follow it, or life circumstances may not allow it – often due to decisions made by the ignorant teenager we used to be, decisions that have determined our adult life.

And besides, there is the subversive argument flickering at the edge here: that it doesn’t matter so much what we choose, but that we choose, and then work at it with full dedication. Even if we are lucky enough to know our greatest talent, it will come to nothing unless we work at it. “Play the piano till the fingers bleed a little,” Bukowski says, with what we can imagine as a sadistic smile. But every artist knows the truth of it.

And this, ultimately, is what Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher) suggests is the only escape from the universal “vanity of vanities” – the dedication to life and work that today we’d call “engagement.” “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Eccl 9:10). 

And another wise person -- alas, I don't know the source -- said, A mind divided by choices, confused by alternatives, is a mind robbed of its power. All gods are jealous gods, but all are equally protective if they can take over completely.


There we have it: make a choice, any choice, and close the door on the process of choosing. Throw yourself into this one thing. Work “with all thy might,” for there is no work once life is over. And though the Preacher says something about putting on clean garments and delighting in the embrace of your wife, none of this is so emphatically stated as putting your whole heart into your work: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, DO IT WITH ALL THY MIGHT.”(Oh, you too, lone heart, ancient intellectual, I want to murmur to the Preacher.)

In his famous “Aubade,” Philip Larkin likewise says we are saved by work. Sometimes I say that the hope of one more sunset is enough to keep me alive, but deep down I know it’s my daily work. This too could be questioned as of no lasting value, but I’ve learned not to question, to let work be its own reward. Dedicated work was my way out of suicidal depression – not just an escape but a permanent closure on that long chapter in my life. Heaven without work would be hell for me.

But last night, as I listened to Chopin’s nocturnes, I felt such pure delight that I thought I wouldn't mind spending a century just listening to those. A century for the first three nocturnes, and then a bit farther into eternity listening to the rest. So I think that to Freud’s reply about what matters in life: “love and work,” I’d add music. Beauty in general, but especially music.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CARING AND SERVICE

“Follow your bliss” presumably fuses love and work and beauty into an overarching guiding principle. Critics jump on “follow your bliss” as an example of the narcissism that spells the doom of the Western civilization. In “For a Moment,” I confess to a moment of blindness in my early teens:

I remember, when I was twelve,
an older cousin sermonizing
about the blessedness of giving.
Standing at the portal of life, still safe,
my joy complete just looking at the river,
I exclaimed, I don’t want to give.
I want to take and take and take.

There’s no memorial to the honey hue
of that lush July, that lazy breeze
when I pronounced my heresy.
Nor to the blinding noon when I knew
I had to live on because
I had not given enough.

That “blinding noon” did not happen until I was in my mid-thirties. Only then I finally grasped the pleasure of giving, of touching the lives of others in a significant and positive way. To quote the Preacher again, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Eccl 11:1). But goodness and generosity are their own reward; they feel good in the moment.

This, too, was one of the surprise discoveries I made embarrassingly late in life. When we give, we feel powerful; acting loving is the opposite of the feeling powerless and useless. Is it possible that we are wired for altruism as much as for aggression? Probably, since we are social animals. That’s why I decided that Azrael isn’t just the Angel of Death, but the Angel of Love as well. The knowledge of our common fate reinforces empathy with others. O the puzzles and complexities, the “oy” in joy. And the delicious suspicion that what matters isn’t at all what we think matters, but that it comes to pass anyway.

And here inevitably we come to the idea of “being a part of something larger than ourselves.” We automatically are a part of that just by being human. Call it the ripple effect, call it the immortality of influence, call it the mystery of human life – we sense that something larger is playing itself out. We are the instruments for that larger music.  

And we are just barely beginning to think in terms of humanity rather than a particular country, say. For me, the first stage of that larger thinking came with the casual remark by an American stranger (it’s still impossible to imagine this exchange taking place in Europe). Let me close with a poem that describes yet another of my moments of enlightenment:

AZRAEL

“Polish or German, what’s the difference,”
he shrugged, the American
who thought I was German.
“A huge difference,” I began,

face flushed with the venom of history.
Dates of battles,
marshes of blood.
I grew up in a mass graveyard.

Yet the stranger was right.

No nation is eternal.
Greece keens over the splendid
broken bodies,
Egypt sleeps in her own tomb.

Who I really was –
Polish or German,
French or Russian –
empty thrones in echoing museums.

*

On my second trip to Poland, we visited
my mother’s schoolteacher.
Ninety-four, she’d grown tiny as a child.
Her skin was peeling like old oilcloth.

Straining to see us, eyes bleached of color,
she fluttered to the oak wardrobe:
“I must put on something pretty!”
She recognized only

my cousin Yanka, daughter of her
great love. Told over and over
who I was, whose daughter I was,
she’d forget and greet me again,

looking up with such light
in those half-blind eyes
that slowly I understood:
who I was, what my name was –

echoes thinner than the soul.
When the Angel of Love and Death
stands over us with trembling wings,
no difference as she sings

another story. It’s the music
that carries us on.

~ Oriana © 2012




























Hyacinth:

The blog delicious, full of wisdom and points to ponder. I picked up a book by May Sarton, and in her intro I found this: “Here I am, willy-nilly writing poems in my eightieth  years and the reason is partly because I am a foreigner in the land of old age and have tried to learn the language. These poems are minimal because my life is reduced to essences. No more travel except across a room, dictating instead of writing a journal, a lot of meditating, looks at the sea from my window down at the end of the long field, and as always I am mesmerized by flowers on the table beside me. I live with essences with what is innermost these days because outermost is often beyond my strength. I can pay that absolute attention Simone Weil called "prayer" to a bird at the feeder outside my window or a bunch of anemones opening to show purple hearts. I have more time for being and less ability to do than ever before. So a poem that flies in the middle of the night is very acceptable."

Oriana:

That’s a beautiful description of how being physically handicapped, even in a relatively mild way (no more travel except across a room), can result in a more intense life of the mind. Also, aging makes us more aware that we will have to say goodbye to all the things we love, so we better love them while there is still time. Thus, being mesmerized by flowers and the absolute attention to the bird at the feeder. Now I must have flowers in the house; years ago I didn’t care. I must listen to music every day; years ago, I let go of music, preoccupied as I was with accomplishing – accomplishing what? I can’t even remember. Now I see beauty as indispensable. I’m not willing to live without it.

I’ve just started the habit of eating raspberries and wild blueberries – I get the relatively inexpensive frozen kind at Trader Joe’s. Years ago, the idea of eating berries every day would have struck me as an extravagance. Now I know that both health and pleasure are incredibly important.

I see now that my worship of achievement was a kind of belief in the afterlife – still in this life, but always in the future. I had to let go of the afterlife and “risk delight” in this life, in the present. 


Marjorie:


I love Una’s poem. It flows so easily. It’s so natural. But so affecting at the end. Who knew it was going there? 


Oriana:


I think it's in Una's Top Five. A simple analogy, but who'd think of it? Only a poet who already is "at the blue door." 

Darlene:

I love the part about the red dress versus blue dress. Women are brainwashed since childhood to think in terms of appearances, not essences, and millions get stuck in trivialities. So, OK, red dress versus blue dress -- it doesn’t really matter. What else doesn’t matter?


Oriana:

Well, if you are a fashion designer, red versus blue does matter. That’s a special case, but also an instance of how we can decide which choices matter, and at the same time break away from the tyranny of choices that don’t matter.

Self-knowledge is the best guide. A fashion designer KNOWS that s/he is a fashion designer. It’s part of the person’s essence. Now, Catholic theology taught me one thing: there is essence, and there is “accident”: the surface, the appearance. The first commandment should be: KNOW THY ESSENCE. Only then you can follow your bliss and make choices with relative ease.

Also -- and this statement has also been revolutionary for me -- if you are true to yourself, then every choice you make is a good one. Let me repeat that: If you are true to your essence, then every choice is good -- so don’t waste too much time trying to decide. That’s torment.

Darlene:

But isn’t it your unconscious that ultimately decides?


Oriana:

Yes. The decision then “appears” in our thoughts. Alas, we often waste time arguing against “first thought, best thought”: but what about A, what about B, and so on with the rest of the alphabet. No. If you are being true to yourself, often there is only one option, and deep down you know right away. If there are two or three options, and they all feel true, just take a leap and don’t look back.



Ursula:

I very interested in the question of choice. It's seldom just this or that. My husband and I have a favorite restaurant. I always order the same thing because I love it and it has never disappointed me. My husband always orders something different because he likes the adventure. In other situations, I always choose "adventure," while he makes the same predictable move.

I agree most things are unimportant but still find it surprising that so many people find "doing without" to be a form of social criticism. 

Oriana:

I started ordering the same thing even before I learned about how stressful choice is. I don’t go to new restaurants unless I have to – usually they are disappointing. I save my sense of adventure for more meaningful things.

I generally wear the same clothes. I remember the years when I felt I needed to figure out a new outfit for every occasion – what a waste of time and money.

The surprising outcome of this “stick to the tried-and-true” policy: life has become simpler, richer, and happier.

I can understand why businesses, especially those dedicated to manipulating people into buying things no one needs, might consider the anti-consumerist attitude disastrous. But I also agree with the motto: “Buy experiences, not things.” Buying experiences (and a lecture is often free or so inexpensive that I hesitate to call it “buying”) means buying memories.

Doing without as a form of social criticism? I haven’t thought of that. I thought of it as wisdom, but then wisdom is a form of social criticism, isn’t it. 

Ewa Parma:

This post is too rich to comment here, it would take an evening with a bowl of raspberries and long conversation, Oriana! 1.I love the phrase: "Do not despise the geranium", good for a poem. Details matter, microcosmos depicting macro etc. 2. you know that Freud hated music? Poor guy, so scared of monsters inside him, concentrated on work and sometimes false assumptions 3.the question of choices is strictly connected with the idea of "free will" or rather lack of it; we choose what we are determined to choose (by nature, genes etc., not by "destiny", though you may call it this name afterwards if you wish) 4.music, yes, it carries us on. I have the habit of listening to my beloved voice on the phone without understanding words and meanings, just like music -- an extraordinary experience, which I also described as a kind of joke in one of my poems 5.the final poem -- great! Thank you.


Oriana:

I have only frozen raspberries, but surprisingly good! Nothing like raspberries straight from the bush, of course, but I've lost those forever when at 17 (sic!) I "chose" America. Actually already at 15, that age of wisdom, I began preparing to live in the West -- as if I knew how to prepare!! Nevertheless, through persistent effort (probably the least efficient way), I acquired a near-perfect READING knowledge of English. You can imagine the comic errors that resulted from my literary English.

Nevertheless, I keep asking myself: did I "consciously decide" to study English with 100% commitment? Did I have any other choice, given my intensity, and my (sometimes insane) tendency to throw myself totally into a task once I have clarity about my goal?

Yes I know that Freud hated music; he'd put his hands over his ears. I love music, but I have the same reaction if the music is not under my control, e.g. someone starts playing it when I am still in my mental writing space, thinking. Music takes over my brain in such a way that I can no longer concentrate. But when I want music, it's one of the feasts of life. I almost can't believe that Mozart and Beethoven existed, Chopin, Tchaikovski -- what a miracle! So much beauty! 

Yes, forever this question if we truly choose anything. Probably not, but having a strong sense of having chosen our goal, however deluded our notion of choice may be, can be helpful in continuing to motivate us to work toward that goal. Some cognitive illusions may be beneficial.

Freud was wrong about so many things, but he did say something ahead of his time: all cognitive activity is unconscious. Only some of it is communicated to the consciousness. Thus we are spared the pain of slow deliberation. Nevertheless, sometimes the mechanism of “intuition” -- another name for behind-the-scenes neural processing -- fails and we find ourselves faced with the “agony of choice.” What can be more pathetic than a woman in the throes of agony because she can't choose which lipstick to buy! And there she stands for 40 minutes or so, idiotically wasting time over something that simply doesn't matter.

Fine, the reader may say, but do we ever know what really matters? I suspect that if there if there is a significant miscommunication between our unconscious (the true "decider") and what we proclaim on the conscious level (never mind that no one can really define consciousness), the brain will act to straighten things out. True, as Una's poem points out, some (most?) people cannot put in words what is most important to them. But when we look at their actions, we can get some idea. // To return to what Obama said -- "I wear only gray or blue suits" in order to eliminate the burden of deciding about trivia -- I don't think he has any idea how revolutionary this is -- how women in particular are stuck in trivia -- and the way to accomplishing anything means eliminating decision stress. // Isn't this wild, that even if we only "think" that we decide, this experience of trying to decide can cause enormous stress and drain our energy? Yes, that's why shopping is so exhausting. That's why I learned to buy pretty much always the same thing, wear the same clothes, go to the same restaurants and order exactly the same thing, etc -- saving my energy for things that are more important to me. 

Ewa:

I laughed about shopping because I do the same and as seldom as possible. Choosing is exhausting. And when you think of it in broader context, i.e.choosing your partner or profession when you are only 18, it seems clear that you don't choose at all. It just happens to you.

 
Oriana:

It is a horror, to think that the teenager you were did things that may be still blighting your adult life, decades later! I had a lot of forgiving myself to do, and what helped me tremendously was not only the excuse of having been young and foolish, but also the perception that I did not really have a choice, given my circumstances and my lack of knowledge of what it's like to be an immigrant, or what America is like, not just its obvious dark side, but precisely the trivialization of life through consumerism and being forced to be more consumerist, e.g. in California you MUST have a car, or you can't get anywhere, and having a car means maintenance, means insurance, means buying a new one every so many years (I drive mine into the ground). I never knew how much I loved streetcars! I never knew how much I loved the simple life that we used to lament about, calling it "shabby," "gray," etc.

I perfectly understand those “failed” immigrants who leave after a few months, saying that life in America is too complicated. They get frazzled by having to learn about personal banking, car maintenance and car insurance, all kinds of other insurance, all kinds of choices they never had to make before. It’s overwhelming. It’s stressful beyond belief, if you didn’t grow up within the culture, gradually learning how to cope and still be able to enjoy life rather than being mired in expensive trivia. 


Ewa:

The terror of consumerism is invading Poland and I try to avoid the beast as much as I can. I hate to see more and more malls being built around me, teenagers and families spending all their time in them; no friendly parks or city centres, even the new railway station in my town is a mall with shops and cafes, where you have to come in as there are no benches to sit and wait. We are not citizens any more, just clients.

Oriana:

I saw the beginning of that already back in the nineties. I saw the the advertising billboards, and thought that the face of Karl Marx, for instance, with that picturesque beard, was not the horror to look at the way a toothpaste ad is. Call me crazy, but Karl Marx was family, and there was something funny and wonderfully anachronistic about his presence; a billboard advertising lipstick is in a way a greater lie and that kind of consumerist propaganda is more harmful.

When I came to America, it wasn’t militarism that bothered me most; it was precisely advertising. I thought, “Capitalism made America both great and ugly.”

Imagine if in Kraków a huge mall wound around the city instead of the beautiful park of Planty.

You know what is a good armor against that: Buddhism. It’s against desire, particularly greed. Now, I think having some desires is natural and healthy, but the artificial desires that commerce tries to create need to be opposed. There is an anti-consumerist movement here, marginal but it exists!! In the hotbed of capitalism, anti-consumerism does exist! The voice of reason dares to say: Buy less. Save the planet. Be a human being first, a consumer last.
 

Ewa:

Kraków has already been devastated by a big mall in the centre between the market square and the railway station, called Galeria Krakowska. Because in Poland malls are called "galleries", you know? What a trick. You feel noble and distinguished in such a place when it's not called just a supermarket . . . you are the chosen one. Yes, CHOSEN. To spend your money there. I avoid such places as they remind me of Inferno and make me tired and irritated after 15 minutes. I was raised in the good old times (yes:) when there was nothing to choose and you were happy to get anything. And then the hell of massive goods everywhere began. So, in this aspect socialism with its poverty was as good as Buddhism perhaps: it taught you to want nothing.


Oriana:

Love your Inferno analogy. I guess the malls would be the Circle of the Wasters. The massive, pointless excess (whatever happened to the phrase “vulgar excess”? It needs to be reintroduced). You are invited to become a Waster.

Before I actually experienced capitalism, I assumed that everything taught about it in school was mere propaganda. And in a sense that was true, i.e. what we were taught was inaccurate, because the emphasis was on how capitalists exploit the workers: the fat capitalist with a cigar in his mouth, his boot on the back of a worker. But it’s not the exploitation of the workers per se, true as that may be in Bangladesh. The repulsive feature of capitalism in rich countries (and Poland is getting there) is the pressure to buy things you don’t need, and to waste a lot of time and energy (ultimately more important than money) choosing those useless goods whose production is also destructive to the earth.

I likewise acquired no taste for consumer goods. Instead, I acquired a taste for good books. During my first trip to Poland, imagine my horror when I discovered that my former nearest bookstore in Warsaw had become a shoe store.

You know, I was so naïve that for years I didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase: the American Dream. Finally I dared to ask, and was told that it was the dream of becoming rich. And people actually didn’t understand that I had no such motivation. I worked part-time jobs so I’d have more time for reading and writing. It meant  being poor -- but only in the financial sense. Intellectually, I was a millionaire. 


Glo (from New Mexico) sends us this pictorial comment about the change in priorities with age:




Scott:


The images you find are astounding; they need to be compiled in a book. You know I enjoyed the poem about the sailing ship and the sea – it brings my youth back, like 'John Marr'. And the comments in the reply about the bird feeder of course hit home too (no sign of my woodpecker this weekend, I pray he was at other feeders and staying away from cats!)

Simplicity is sooo key and just like your berries I must have my coffee every night. I have three writing projects am working on and more planned, a trip for every month this summer (one to Florida, one to the beach and one to the mountains).

For me, the key is to be working on something, an event to look forward to long and short term, and a totally unrealistic goal that you know you will never finish. For me, it is to find out the name of every Nantucket whaler that ever sailed from that island, the names of the crew, and where they are buried....and lay a flower upon the grave.' 'But Scott, not only does that make NO practical sense at all but it will be absolutely impossible to carry out.....' I know… and that's the total quixotic beauty of it.

Oriana:

During my second trip to Poland, I read in some casual source this piece of priceless advice: when you wake up, always have something small planned for today, and something big long-term. I love what you say about that distant and impossible goal. The first time I had a serious goal in my life was in my teens: it was to master English to perfection. It was a practical goal, given the transition ahead of me. I worked very hard, and that’s how I discovered that what I love best is working hard toward a goal. “You are a fanatic,” my mother said, and she was right.

The problem was that at 95% or so, I felt I was done. What remained was tedious, daily pronunciation drills, and I had more urgent things to do. So essentially I achieved my goal, and was left with a vacuum. Until I dedicated myself to writing, it was terribly painful. With writing, the goal became infinite. You have to combine interesting content with a lively style. Mastery is like the horizon . . .

Shipping records are fascinating. Here is what a friend discovered and sent to me (“snow” is pronounced “snoo”; it was a cargo sailship with a storm sail; Snow Oriana was bound for Cadiz! That's probably the port of "Tarshish" we find mentioned in the book of Jonah)




2 comments:

  1. Oriana, I am inspired profoundly by your poetry. Thank You.

    ReplyDelete