On Receiving Recognition: Is Attention a Good Thing?

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If you’ve ever wanted attention, this post is for you. Receiving recognition as an adult is meaningless but important. A contradiction, you say? Perhaps not. The wish for the spotlight is like a dry sponge inside of us hungering for a drenching. There are more noble human qualities. Still, attention is intoxicating and addictive. Almost everyone wants acknowledgment, except the master meditators and the Stoics.

The desire for status leads us to do awful things. Other people are used as stepping-stones on the way to greater height.  Accolades have no real value, yet we suffer in their absence. In the latter sense only — the manner in which they capture us — resides their importance. Recognition and prestige are significant on a personal level, but are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Fame benefits one person and only one; and — the joke goes — lasts 15 minutes. Not much bang for the buck.

The philosophers tell us we are misled if we seek applause, potentially even corrupted by our desire. Better, they say, to be honorable, courageous, and kind than to be well-known. Here is what Marcus Aurelius wrote:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

I now care less about getting good notices than in my youth, but not to the point of total indifference. Should I ever reach full maturity, my ego will be effaced and applause won’t matter at all. Like when I’m 400 years old.

I raise the issue since I am newly honored by receiving the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I will admit, I was pleased and amused. I know it was offered sincerely by the wonderful blogger Spacefreedomlove. I am tickled because it is one of the fun things bloggers do to entertain themselves, say thanks, increase their readership, and bring a smile. Over analysis of this writers’ chain letter? Perhaps. I am simply grateful for a small tip of the cap from someone I appreciate, as she does me, from our writings and commentary and an ability to make each other laugh and think. She is a peach.

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WordPress reminded me, a few days before, that my blog is six years old. Toilet trained, vaccinated, and ready to start first grade. Earlier in this “career” I received the Beautiful Blogger Award. 

Despite the doubtful evidence of the photo in the top right corner, I was once absolutely beautiful. Way back, I was known everywhere as a stud muffin, trailing crowds of admirers behind me. I had to fend off women with an electric cattle prod. Then I woke up.

Gorgeous or not, I’m sure one of my reasons for blogging is to get attention. Not the only reason, however. I began with the clear idea of leaving a piece of myself (or at least a few electronic footprints) for my children and potential grandchildren. I never had the talent or grandiosity to believe I would transform the world or deposit a permanent mark on the planet. Talent often fuels grandiosity, leading to a vain pursuit of a satisfying level of recognition. Vain because, like money, there are always people with more of it, leaving the seeker bummed out.

I’ve been modest in my aims, in part because I had an early awareness of my limitations, which helped me to accept some things in life. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, we all try to scratch our name on a block of ice during a sweltering mid-summer day. Unlike his Death of a  Salesman character, Willy Loman, however, I don’t care that the autograph is not inscribed in stone.

My grandiosity does extend, nonetheless, to the pleasure I get in giving an occasional speech. The neat thing about oratory is you receive immediate feedback. Even before the applause, you sense whether you quieted the crowd and won their focus. Laughter tells you about the quality of your humor. Tears report back if the heart has been touched.

Blog post feedback, however, says less and does so later. Even if you get lots of “likes” and comments, average “readers” are said to spend 96 seconds attending to a blog post. I’ve had sneezes that lasted longer. A discouraging statistic, for sure. Inner necessity drives me, but I am not indifferent to being read. I suspect I would not journal forever were the words a secret.

Back to the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The conditions of the honor required me to post the picture of it up top, nominate a few bloggers to receive the same distinction, and answer the seven questions below. First to a couple of bloggers who inspire me:

Three Worlds One Vision. Rosaliene Bacchus is a fierce defender of the dispossessed and disadvantaged, not to mention our fragile planet. She has lived in three countries on two continents and experienced more than her measure of hardship. She will not make you laugh as a rule, but may motivate you to march in the name of something good.

The Empress and the Fool. I might be the only man who reads about this teacher’s journey through the medical and emotional trial of trying to produce a baby. Her writing is lovely and she is on her way to an offspring. No newborn has ever been more loved ahead of its vault into the daylight.

Now to the seven questions I must answer:

Who is your favorite public figure? This was a tough one. I don’t admire many public figures. That said, I will give you two.

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren. A super bright, bold, sincere woman who seems to say what she believes. Should she make herself a candidate for President, I will reconsider, since that would suggest she isn’t smart enough to refrain from putting her hand in the ultimate political meat grinder. Running for President pretty much guarantees your judgment is poor.
  • Jonathan Kimble “J. K.” Simmons, the big, bad, band guy in Whiplash. He can play any role, from comic to kind to cruel. He is getting his due, at last. However meaningless, it would be difficult for him (or any of us in the same spot) not to care.

What do I like most? After removing love from the picture, classical orchestral music. Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and many others are on this lover’s list.

Do you follow trends?  I had to look up the 2014 list of trends. Only numbers two, four, and 10 rang a bell. I was afraid to find out what #6 was. I guess that answers the question.

1. Bae
2. Benedict Cumberbatch
3. Turnt up
4. The booty
5. Yik Yak
6. Man buns
7. Kimye
8. Normcore
9. “Frozen” mania
10. Ice Bucket Challenge

What do you do when someone gets angry?
If I’m on my game, I wait. As I ponder, I’m trying to decide what part of the rageful message I can agree with, thereby getting on the other person’s metaphorical side of the table. Confrontation is out. I slow things down and make sure my emotions are in check. If none of this helps, it is best to suspend the discussion for another time or walk away.

What have you loved most?
Without question, my children and my wife, as unlike as those loves are. How remarkable that a thing named love takes such different forms as the love of a spouse and of a child.

Do you have causes?
The Zeolite Scholarship Fund, a college scholarship program I began with seven of my high school buddies in the year 2000. We are in the process of closing down. Everything has a beginning and an end.

What quality do you admire most.
I learn more from those who are honest, critical, and direct with me than those who are kind. Honesty — including honesty with oneself — takes courage and risks disapproval and the loss of recognition. Many self-interested souls get plaudits, but the honest whistle-blower gets forgotten if he is lucky, despised if he is not. Truth-telling integrity is a thing more important than the status I mentioned at the start. So let us finish where we began, although I hope the topic still resonates after you read this. The words are those of T.S. Elliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

On Reading and Writing: Motives Behind the Words

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My books are patient. The wait for me to read them. They can’t be aware I take them seriously, but I do.  They are “the chosen,” whether purchased or on loan. I imagine you might hold the same attitude toward reading. You are reading at this moment. Finer things to read exist, but since I tend to write about serious matters, I’m guessing you must be a person of substance who, at least some of the time, reads books worthy of being read.

What I said is presumptuous. By “worthy of being read,” I mean they offer value ranging from amusement to knowledge to a different slant on life to a profound emotional experience. A book not worthy of reading, from my perspective, would teach you to fashion a homemade nuke or corrode your soul or quickly be forgotten.

The book obviously doesn’t care how fast you read. The author is grateful regardless of how much time you take. Nor must you absorb many books to be a “serious” reader. Rather, you approach the task of reading with a sense of responsibility to the author and yourself. He or she took time and you give yours. You suspend uncertainty whether the work will reward your effort. Indeed, many serious readers turn the pages more slowly than those who are less attentive to the words, their subtleties of expression and meaning; the way the syllables lead from one to the next, how they sound spoken aloud, their cleverness and beauty or blunt force.

I have read a few books more than once, both close in time and decades apart. The truth of the saying, “Too many books, too little time,” begs the question, why might I repeat myself? Sometimes I’ve done so to master a difficult text or to remind myself of important ideas, often to learn more deeply. The latter statement refers to non-fiction and fiction, prose and poetry. I was on my third time through The Iliad and The Odyssey when these poems opened themselves to me (and me to them) thanks to wonderful teachers leading discussions with intelligent classmates.

Books are dangerous. People ban them or burn them. German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in 1821, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people,” as they did in his homeland over a century later. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, takes place in a society in which books have been forbidden and “firemen” search them out and set them aflame. The title refers to the approximate auto-ignition point of paper. Until the mid-twentieth century the Catholic Church discouraged independent Bible reading by congregants. The Scripture was interpreted for them by clerics. Free thinking (and reading) is not encouraged by any group authorizing only a single understanding of a text, whether religious or secular. In parts of today’s USA, some look at you askance if you peruse the The New York Times.

Books can change the past, quite a neat trick. By saying so, I mean our personal past or the historical past can be reinterpreted because of a book. Psychotherapy is often about reframing the past and then changing oneself in the present due to a new perspective. Indeed, your interpretation of your personal history ought to shift in any life, partly because of a changing vantage point as you age and life experiences that alter you. You are no longer the same individual. A book alone can be enough. As Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

Writing and reading are friendly enemies. To write well you must read good writing. But you must also do the writing. The two activities compete for your time.

Conventional wisdom tells us we write out of inner necessity. This is not always true. University professors are expected to write to win tenure and spread their work within the community of scholars. They, in turn, are expected to immerse themselves in the important contributions to the field. Thus, in the domain of scholarship, any worthy writing also creates an external necessity for other scholars, who are soon required to read the essential thought of colleagues.

Numerous serious wordsmiths try to prove something, to draw attention and approbation for their point of view. This can be simple grandiosity, but not when the author is motivated by the search for truth or a wish to improve the world. Most write for today, a few for an imagined posterity.

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Reading has multiple motivations, as well. The classics must be read if you wish to be an “educated person,” at least in the classical sense. Thus, Plato, for example, can’t be ignored. We were all required to read in school, often things we found distasteful or difficult. All of us read as part of making our living, even if it is a book of instructions on how to run a machine. And there are readers who read out of inner necessity, as was the case of a friend whose father died early, and promised himself to become a physician so that he might prevent deaths in others.

Writing and reading can be both compelling and compelled, driven — as if time is running out — which, of course, is always true. Paging our way through a volume can also be a distraction, a way to get lost or sheltered from the outside world. Reading is a simple pleasure, too, or a method of transporting yourself to another place and time without moving from your chair. In this sense it is akin to travel and can open new worlds to inspection.

Essays and short stories, but more often books, can feel quite personal. The author seems to have written for you in particular, not you as a random, unknown bookworm. Of course, rarely is a title inscribed with you as an identified target. Readers are usually wanted, but, unless you are a scholar or, say, a music critic, you don’t always aim at a particular audience. You are grateful for any audience at all.

Once you put ink to paper, however, things can change. If a line of followers forms, even a short one, a fractional part will communicate with you. You acquire a bit of knowledge of a few such people by virtue of their comments as well as the way they turn a phrase. If you give public readings or friends read your words, you also get to hear some of their reactions. Inevitably, your writing becomes more personal (assuming it is not scholarly work) and you begin to scribble with a particular, less anonymous group in mind. So, in a sense, dear readers, I am writing for some of you, not just a generalized you.

One exception to this is the diarist, who writes things designed never to be read by anyone other than himself or herself. The page becomes not only the surface upon which an individual places the words, but the only external “audience” for the words (if one can say that about paper).

In any writing worth doing, you are going to read and reread so many times in the process of composing and editing that you are a more attentive audience than almost anyone else who encounters your creation.

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I am always a little mystified when people finish books about truth and beauty, find them engaging, and go forth living their lives as if unaware of either one. Put differently, books can be transformative and enlightening, but come with no guarantee. The old joke about therapy applies here:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The creation of a book takes a lot of work, something of an understatement. By comparison, generating these blog posts is easy. People can spend a decade or more writing a single book. Their dedication, obligation, or compulsivity is quite extraordinary. I wrote a novel (unpublished) 34 years ago. I finished the same night my first child was born. Two births within 24 hours, the human one by far the more rewarding and wonderful. That said, the novel proved a therapeutic task, working out some remaining issues from my childhood, so it was not in vain. I can tell you, however, that sending chapters around (ultimately) to be rejected by all who took a look was a punishing task. After a year of this I rendered my own verdict on the process and the product and decided I wasn’t the author of the “Great American Novel.”

I once thought of compiling the dozens of oral histories I’ve completed of Chicago Symphony members into a book. The then-President of the CSO was on board with the project. I found, however, I took more joy in doing the interviews than in the idea of transcribing and editing them. Nor did I want the obligation of having to create the work, which I would have acquired if a publisher gave advanced approval. Once you must do a thing, it can turn an action done for pleasure into an oppressive weight on part of your body. For myself at least, weight-lifting is exercise I do twice a week in my basement with barbells and dumbbells, not the heavy effort of fashioning a scripted tome. Thus, the recorded oral histories live in the CSO Archives, and on occasion are excerpted in the books of others. You can find a few quotes from them in my essays.

I began writing these posts for two reasons. The foremost was to offer something of myself to my children, something they could choose to consult either while I was around or at some future time when I wouldn’t be around. And, as you probably guessed, I wrote out of inner necessity, as I did in other formats at earlier times in my life (especially for publication, about music and baseball). Ironically, I did more composing of psychological reports than any other type, but while this was satisfying it was also part of my vocation as a psychologist. Therefore, much was done out of external necessity, as well as the gratification obtained in the act of understand and communicating the results of my psychological examinations. Now, however, I write for a larger audience, some of whom I’ve come to know a little or a lot. I am happy to hear, from time to time, that the blog does good for people who read my words and spread my scribbles.

Finally, a couple of good quotes about books:

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (Oscar Wilde)

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

The first photo is my wife, Aleta, taken in college by an anonymous admirer. It arrived in her mail box without identification. A Child Reading by Candlelight is the work of Richard Peter for Deutsche Fotothek. Ghandi Writing (1942) comes from Ghandiserv.org/ The last two images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok

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The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same glass differently.

Let’s think of the glass as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now look at the goblet again and ask not if it is half-empty or half-full in terms of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question.

What will you do with it? What will you do with whatever is inside the glass?

Here is an example of how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64 in 1945, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be further enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death-bed that he had hoped to leave the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” still occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

He could have said that he wanted to leave an empty glass rather than an empty trunk. The point is that he wanted to expend everything he had inside himself on the job of life. Spill it all out. Use it all up.

Bartok  believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself; his responsibility to his fellow-man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give; to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him and those that he had developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not only because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They create or recreate because they cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different from the attitude of those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heroes, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate their model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It rejects the withdrawn self-protection that insures that we will miss-out on what we really want; the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced,  the life that might have been, “if only…”.

Bartok had no choice in his failure to “leave with an empty trunk.” He composed one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia that killed him. It wasn’t for lack of trying that his “trunk” was still full of creative ideas.

The rest of us don’t have the same excuse if we leave life with some part of the best of ourselves held in abeyance — at least not yet. Why? Because we still have time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our trunk with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, that goal was to empty it of the things that were internal. Many are torn between the two. A life of consumption or a life of creation. Clearly there is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have had the time to have done more, not consumed more.

I can think of worse philosophies of living.

This post is a reworking of one I published about four years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.