Wednesday, 23 October 2013

"Sea, light, and vertigo": more thoughts on wonder

On the wall next to my desk, I have a few favourite poems and quotes. I used to be able to see them while I was on my computer, but a year or so ago I switched to a stand-up desk, so now they are kind of over my right shoulder, and I sometimes forget they are there. This morning, I read a blog post about the passions that sustain our lives, and I was reminded to read a Wallace Stevens poem that's been on my wall for a while. Right under that, I have a line from Jose Saramago's masterful novel, The Stone Raft:

"happiness exists, said the unknown voice, and perhaps that's all it is, sea, light, and vertigo."

I love that line. I don't always know why I do, but I do. Today it's been speaking to me in a different way, and I'm going to try to talk about that.

I live in Canada, and I think many of us agree that North American culture (Western culture? Global culture?) can be pretty darn shallow at times. People feel buffeted by pressures to perform and produce, and find solace in consuming. (That's way oversimplifying, I know, so please don't jump on me too much, if anyone is even reading here!) For people who have decided that excessive drinking has been causing a big problem in their lives, the consumption part of this equation starts to become obvious, and obviously out of whack. So stopping the drink becomes a priority. At that point, sometimes the world seems like a big boozy carnival, one that's dangerous to step into but dull and lonely to be left outside of.

There is so much emphasis on happiness, but it's often equated with pleasure or comfort, so that when faced with the disconcerting fact of not knowing how to live, we are (bizarrely, to me) advised to eat cake, or that we all 'deserve a break,' though what that break is from, I'm not really sure. I like my sweets, and a little distraction can be healthy when you're wound too tight, but I don't see this focus on consumption as ultimately sustaining. I know about hangovers and liver health and all that, but really, this essentially doesn't seem all that different from drinking too much. It won't work for me, anyway.

And then there's another thread in our culture, linked to the humanistic psychology of the 1960s, and hippie counterculture and the self-help movement, that links back to Rousseau. Here it is understood that the world is craven and shallow, and true happiness comes from within. It makes sense that, if you are now critical of the surrounding consumption-oriented culture, you might turn away from it. There is a whole lot of emphasis on turning inward in the sober world.

But some interesting writers have raised the question that the inner world as we think of it might simply not have the resources we need to deal with the questions we are going to face. What if the person I am is made up of my engagement with the world? What if meaning is really something we share in the world, whether we even understand that or not, and it's not something I should go spelunking for in the hidden cave of myself? What if I can only find meaning through ongoing participation in the world?

Sometimes, when I have been thinking like this, I am reminded of being a bored and cranky child, admonished by an equally cranky adult to "go outdoors and play." I used to hate that! Yet these days, that's more likely what I tell myself. I ride my bike. Have dinner with my partner. Read. Go hear some music. (Another great show last night. Steve Reich drumming! Wow wow wow!) I'm not saying I don't exist, or there is no self, no me to engage with the world or be moved by people banging on drums or by Trout Lake in the morning mist. I exist. But more and more I have been wondering whether that existence is made up out of the interactions I have in the world. 

So I'm telling myself, don't fall into this introspection trap. Enough with the looking in. Look out!  Up or down or wherever, but out there somewhere. And go out into it! 

I think wonder is going to save us. And I think we encounter the wonder--sometimes in little sideways glances, sometimes head-on--when we're interacting in the world, doing things we love (or sometimes just stuff that has to get done) not when we're looking inside ourselves. Sea, light, and vertigo. If that's where the magic elixir of happiness is, we will have to step out into it. I will, anyway.

OK, that's what I'm thinking about these days. Now I have to go participate in my schoolwork! Peace and love to you all. And a little bit of wonder.


  1. Yes, I agree! We concentrate so much on accumulation and justification. I need this because. I did that because. Meh. I get bored with all the self examination. (Am I Jesse Jackson here? lol) I like what you say about deserving a break and the cake.

    I've been reading good things about spirituality and soul and being here now. It can get overwhelming and so I have to read some nonsense so I don't get frustrated or undersea, but I agree about the wonder part. To stop looking past the magic and feel the moment of it. Like the children, now, in the driveway playing batter the cans. (i.e pummeling my old seed starting cans with croquet mallets) The sound of the clattery cans. Them laughing and jeering at each other. Our Halloween lights are orange and tacky, the light of the day is almost gone. It's so good I can push off thoughts of "Time for bath!" and "Must get them to bed!" The sound of them being little for just a few minutes. Ahhhhhh.

    Thanks for all that. I like it. A lot.

    1. Thanks, Amy. I always worry when I write something I feel strongly about but might offend some people. I'm glad you are with me on this. And I love your late afternoon driveway chaos. Your kids' version of drumming sounds every bit as magical as Steve Reich's!

  2. Brene Brown has a recent pod cast about this very topic! But I don't believe she goes where you do here...and I love where you go with this post. There's only so much self examination one mind can stand.

    And this line? "At that point, sometimes the world seems like a big boozy carnival, one that's dangerous to step into but dull and lonely to be left outside of." Simply brilliant.


    1. Thanks, Sherry. I should check out that podcast. Brene Brown makes me think, and I like that she resists easy answers. And yes, the mind boggles at a mirror after a while, doesn't it? Glad you like the carny line!