To love a stranger

Love is reserved for those close to us. Boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, close family, sometimes distant family, close friends, but rarely those we have weak ties with. We treat it like a zero-sum asset, something limited, something which we can spread only so far and only amongst certain people. But is it?

I asked myself a question recently: Could I love a stranger? Someone I’ve never met, who I know nothing about? Something within me raises an objection. How can I love that which I don’t know? Something else within me raises a counterpoint. The people I don’t know are still human. They’re not all that different from me or the people I already give my love to. Which alters the question.

The question of who we love or the circumference of the circle it spreads amongst has nothing to do with the scarcity of love. Like creativity and energy, the constraints on the amount of love we can give is more about our own inhibitions than the danger of emptying the well. So really the question is, How big a risk do I want to take?

Any heartbroken teenager will tell you that love is synonymous with pain. To love someone and have that love rejected is akin to putting the soul in a blender. This is why the first pronunciation of the “L Word” in a relationship is significant. It’s a test of reciprocation. “I love you. But do you also love me?” Love is the greatest risk because it represents the most profound opening of a heart. It is the disarmament and de-shielding of a person’s very being. Such an open heart can be treated with kindness and with cruelty.

This is, in my eyes, why the love we give never goes far from home and never extends to those we don’t know. It’s too much of a risk to love without knowing the probability of reciprocation, or of betrayal. The stranger who exists just beyond the boundary of the camp fire is an Unknown. We don’t know whether he is a liability or an asset, an enemy or an ally. So we refrain from loving him.

Which makes the deeds—not the words—of the great sages—known and unknown—even more magnificent. By loving everyone and everything they took unimaginable risks, and consequently endured unbelievable pain. Their uncompromising and undeniable love represents the most supreme act of humanity that I can think of.

The unwatered flower

If I were a hunter-gatherer I’d be dead by now. My eyesight is of such quality that a sabre-tooth tiger, an angry rival from another tribe, a camouflaged cliff edge, or even my own attempts at tool-wielding could all have resulted in my demise.

This compromised vision—which would’ve killed me in antiquity—is perhaps one reason why I contemplate life without certain senses. I mean, I’ve already been told that my sight will likely get worse as I age. So is it that strange to speculate upon my response to sudden or gradual blindness? I don’t think so.

The shape of these speculations are usually jovial. I refactor blindness as a chance to learn Braille and other languages. I tell myself that I’ll still be able to do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That I’ll still weight train. That I’ll still be able to read (via audiobooks), to write (via voice-to-text software), and to have deep and meaningful relationships with people.

Some of these speculations are less jovial and consist of my contemplation of the tragedies that accompany the loss of sight, the most poignant being that I will forget the faces of the people I love. I used to think that I wouldn’t; I’ve spent so long looking at them that they must be permanently etched on the inside of my skull. Not so.

Memories—either static, like images, or dynamic, like experiences—are akin to flowers. Without consistent nurturing—in the form of recall or reaffirmation—they die. Sure, they can survive for a little while, but not that long. This really became apparent whilst I was on holiday. I didn’t forget the face of the woman I love, but it definitely started to blur in the most minor of ways. It may be my own personal defects revealing themselves, but I realised that after a month, a year, a decade, my memory of that face would fade almost entirely. I don’t mean my sense of that face, I mean my ability to recall it in excruciating detail—its shape, contours, features, movement, colours, textures.

If I’m being frank, that terrifies me. Mainly because I don’t know what to do about it. So, Molly, when I’m just gazing at your face and you ask me what I’m doing, I’ll respond by saying, “I’m just looking.” But in reality I’m trying to remember your face for a few extra days in a quite possible future.

Constant insight

There is a right time to read a book. A time when a book becomes a key for the mind, unlocking all manner of insight and avenues for further exploration. At such a time and with such a book reading becomes a truly revolutionary act, an act that makes rapid, gigantic and irreversible change in the reader.

You and I know the truth of this. We have read books that have changed our minds and changed our lives. Of equal truth is the opposite: there is a wrong time to read a book. A time when a book, far from illuminating, obscures the truth.

This raises a possibility. What if there were a book that was perfect for us at every moment in our lives? Wouldn’t that indicate a chance for a procession of constant insight? If we could read the right book at the right time, all the time, wouldn’t we be on a rapidly ascending elevator heading towards some sort of Enlightenment?

It seems far-fetched, but I suspect something approaching that is possible. The only problem is that it requires 1) the ability to decipher the difference between the right and the wrong book, 2) the willingness to stop reading the wrong books, and 3) access to a library containing all the books currently in existence.

1) is notoriously difficult. How long do we wait before deciding if a book is right or wrong? And don’t some books contain lagging insight that only becomes apparent years or decades later? 2) is simpler—we just have to break the habit of linear consumption and shake off the idea that we must finish that which we start. 3) is a resource that won’t be developed for a long time, if ever.

So, what to do? I think, at least in the beginning, the strategy is obvious. Read more books, but finish less of them.

Dealing with desire

Rene Girard has disrupted the rhythmic foundations of my thought and activity. My first interaction with his theories of mimetic desire, scapegoating, sacrifice and violence—brought about by reading a curated collection of articles designed as an introduction to his work—has me asking awkward questions about myself, the world and others. There are many things I could say about this. But the one I wish to highlight today is obvious, simple, and something which, consequently, remained under my radar. It is the differing approach to desire in Eastern and Western philosophy.

In brief, Girard theorises that desire is triangular. An object is not desired for its desireable-ness, but because someone we admire desires it. Desire is not spontaneous, he says. The three points of this triangular model are “Self”, “Model” and “Object” and it is what gives rise to an escalation of violence. Because we desire what our model also desires we are destined to come into conflict when we both strive to attain the same thing.

An obvious question, then, is what to do with the knowledge of this triangular desire? Eastern philosophies—Buddhism, in particular—advises the dissolution of desire. A sufficient clarity of perception allows a person to burst the balloon of desire, refactoring the objects we lust for as useless and damaging to our quest for serenity. Buddhism says that if we look close enough, for long enough, and with enough candor, desire dissolves. This is the Eastern stance. The Western stance doesn’t seek to dissolve all desire, but to leverage it. It seeks to shift its focus from something “bad” to something “good”. For example, Christianity advises its follower to imitate Jesus Christ, to hold him in mind and to desire to be like him, to live as he lived. The dangerous energy that desire can inspire is thus turned to a good cause.

I don’t think one strategy prevails over the other. Both are valid and effective, so perhaps the best method is to leverage both. Stamp out harmful desire in your personal life using Eastern methods and re-orient desire in your commercial life by deliberately choosing an ideal person as a model, for example.

God is alive

Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead. Due to the Enlightenment, to the march of Reason, it was thought that the population at large no longer had faith in a Deity. Science showed us where to strike and we drove the stake into the heart of Religion.

In part, this is true. My own generation, for the most part, are not even God Acknowledging yet alone God Fearing People. But in other ways, this is not true. Consider this from Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic:

“ ‘We don’t have gods where I come from,’ said Twoflower.
‘You do, you know,’ said the Lady. ‘Everyone has gods. You just don’t think they’re gods.’ “

Perhaps God didn’t die? Perhaps he or she just changed the nature of their manifestation? Our Gods may not be linked to Christianity, to Judaism, or to any other religion, but they could come to us through other routes. For some Progress could be a God. So could the Ideal Self. The Powerful could be a God, as could the Famous, or The Community, or the Corporation, or the Nomad.

A God is defined not by its aesthetic form, but by the ways in which we show devotion and faith and the sacrifices we make. So what do we devote ourselves to? What do we have an unshakeable faith in? What great sacrifices are we willing to make and for what purpose? Answer these questions and your God will reveal itself.

Ritual scaffolding

I’m on holiday and under no obligation. Because of this I’ve found it easy to switch between activities. I’ll do some writing in the morning, then have breakfast and swim before doing some more writing. I’ll read for a bit, then take a walk, then read some more. I’ll do nothing all morning then in the afternoon work on the structure of a novel. Contrast this with my patterns of activity when I’m at home. Short-form and longform writing is something I only ever do in the morning. I never chop up activities up into small chunks. I’ll do one block of reading, one block of editing and one training session.

Because writing is a Major Activity, because movement is an Important Thing, because updating the Archipelago and doing my “Review, Plan, Reflect” exercise is a Weekly Process, I am much less flexible. On holiday, the usual rituals and routines I’ve developed and fall back upon are defunct. I’m in a different place, existing at a different tempo, surrounded by different people. What works there don’t work here. At home, rituals and routines enclose my core activities, lending them an aspect of sacredness and meaning.

What does this tell me? First, that ritualisation and routinisation, whilst enhancing performance, also hinders fluidity. Similarly, less ritual and routine around activities may make high performance harder, but it has tremendous benefits to flexibility. So perhaps a sensible strategy is as follows. In the early stages—I’m thinking the first few years—create great scaffolds of ritual and routine. Then, once a certain level of competence and consistency has been achieved, once you know what it feels like to produce good work at a good rate, begin to remove the scaffolding.

Think of how we build structures. The scaffolding is a temporary apparatus that allows us to build straight and true and have safe access to a structure whilst it is still under construction. But once the building is stable and in its final stages, the scaffolding is taken away. It no longer serves an aesthetic or practical function. Ritual and routine is like that. An aide to building, rather than a permanent part of the structure itself.

Low resolution reading

The Interface Envelope is about how we interact with video games, and in it James Ash describes the concept of “resolution”. Naturally, it has connotations relating to optics—the information transmitted through a thing’s appearance. But James Ash uses it more to describe a player’s ability to interact with an object and to describe an object’s relationship with other objects in its environment.

For example, in a first-person shooter game it’s often necessary to move through a building. The items that player encounters can either be high or low resolution. If the player comes across a table, but cannot interact with it—climb over it, stand atop it, shelter under it, move it elsewhere—then the table is low resolution. If the player can do all these things, as well as break off a table leg and use it as a weapon, the table is high resolution.

This concept of resolution is revelatory for me, if only because it puts a name to the aversion I’ve found I have to reading digital books. Sure, I love the portability, the ease, the searchability and the other benefits of digital texts. But I find them hard to interact with. When I read a physical book I always have a pen in hand. I write next to the text, fold pages down, flick forwards and backwards. All these activities are possible with digital books of course, but they feel dampened, robbed of their vitality in some way.

For me, consuming books digitally is a low resolution way of reading. Consuming physical books offers more resolution to me, so it is this that I will continue to do.