Saturday, January 18, 2014

'Tis the gift to be simple

“You must simplify your life,” exhorts Sertillanges in the first part of Chapter III. To his 21st century readers, Sertillanges would shout all the more because we are enmeshed in an ever more complex web of technological obligations. Three of Sertillanges suggestions from this chapter will help us in our quest for the True.

1. “Slacken the tempo of your life.” In other words, reduce the number of social obligations that you voluntarily engage in. Of course, these obligations take time and therefore reduce the time you have available for study. On a deeper level, though, Sertillanges is concerned about “display and dissipation,” which are “mortal enemies of thought.” Display, or concern for the way one is perceived by others, leads to vain thoughts that can distract from one’s true purpose. Haven’t we all left a conversation wondering, “What did they think of what I said, or how I said it?” The thought can last a moment or it can distract for hours in some cases. While this sort of thought may seem inevitable in life, we should minimize the occasions in which this could happen. Dissipation is difficult to avoid in large group conversations because many people speak from many different directions and the focus is not on the True, but on the next witty comment.

What is to be avoided is not all or even most social activity. What is to be encouraged is recollection and order in our desires relating to these events. For instance, if a party is coming up on Friday, is this what our thoughts and desires revolve around all week? An intellectual ought to value his work, which is nothing less that a quest for the True, more than any particular party.

Along with reducing the number of actual social obligations, it is necessary to reduce the number of virtual obligations - Email/facebook/whatsapp, etc. Each person’s situation is quite different here, but this is a rich area for simplification. How many social networks do you belong to? Do you need to belong to all of them or to any of them? Is every email that flashes onto my phone an occasion to stop what I’m doing? There’s much more to say here and Sertillanges warnsthose who are skeptical of guidelines in this area: “you think, what would be the good of laying down rules? That is a mistake.”

2. “Obey your convictions, not mere custom.” This suggestion is helpful when the needs of your body clash with prevailing cultural norms. You may find that drinking with dinner leads to poor sleep and poor output the next day. To your courteous explanation your friends respond, “Come on! It’s just a little wine. After all, we’re celebrating the three month anniversary of Steve’s new apartment!” Stay sober, my friend.

Or, you may find that as Sertillanges recommends, you need to exercise every day. Or, that on some weekend you need to go hiking to get some fresh air, but you should go alone. Or, whatever. The important thing is to realize that your convictions will conflict with custom.

3. “One must not think and write for money.” Our motive in the quest for the True should be truth and nothing else. “Truth serves only its slaves.” It’s not enough though to simply recognize intellectually that we should be motivated by truth. We must also organize our life to prevent monetary motives from creeping in. Simplification helps this by reducing the amount of stuff that we need. And, if we need less stuff, then we will need less money. And, if we need less money, then we will be less tempted to work with money as a motive, since our monetary obligations won’t overwhelm. Also, with fewer needs, we will have money available for what furthers our work: books, furniture, vacations, classes, etc.

Check out this video for some artistic inspiration and an answer to where the title of this post comes from.  The video is from a show called Blast!, which is awesome.  Stick it out to the end, its worth it!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sleep well, work well

Sertillanges’ chapter on “The Discipline of the Body” had such an impact on my life over the last few months that I will tell a quick story that confirmed to me the importance of the body in the intellectual life, which is Sertillanges’ main point in this section.

On November 24th, I began my grad school personal statement in earnest, since the GRE on the 23rd had prevented me from beginning until then. For six days, I dutifully kept a schedule of writing that would have made Sertillanges proud: six hours of writing, daily exercise, plenty of sleep. On Saturday, November 30th, my discipline slipped and I stayed up until midnight to make sure that I could send a draft of my personal statement for review to my friend Steve, who was guiding me through the personal statement. Sunday, I was up even later sending in my first application. And, Monday I turned in another application and worked a normal amount.

The following two days, I attempted to continue working on my next applications without success. Every five minutes, something important just seemed to keep coming up. I realized that I needed a ¨weekend¨ to recover from eight days of intense intellectual activity and my inability to concentrate was confirmation of this fact. Next day, I sat down in earnest to work on another essay, only to see clearly that I needed to spend time deciding whether or not I should visit some of the grad schools that I was applying to before the end of the term. Friday I spoke to a professor in my field about my applications and left the meeting convinced that I should apply next year to the remaining schools on my list because my application would be much stronger. Then, I spoke to Steve and I told him my plan.

¨One year is a long time,¨ he said patiently.

¨Well, how about skipping the application to University of Blah. They require a separate essay, which I haven´t started and can´t do in three days.¨ I conveniently hid the fact that I hadn’t worked on this essay in four days because everything else seemed so important.

Without contradicting me, he suggested that we look at the professors at the University of Blah to see if they would be a good fit with my proposed research plan. Of course, they were a good fit and I proceeded to write the extra essay with relative ease despite my previous reluctance. A little encouragement went a long way.

So, on December 10th, I turned in my two-essay-application to the University of Blah and had a moment to reflect on the frustrations of the past few days. The takeaway was clear: lack of sleep causes lack of motivation. This is not a big surprise to anyone, especially Sertillanges, but it is a point worth keeping in mind when we fears, doubts and anxiety creep into our work.