Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Bent on Ascent

While attempting to devote a day of my life to Russellian concepts of proper names in the south towers of the Main Library--as is always the case--I happened to look over at the books lining my desk.  I've always noticed the extensive collection of Descartes, Freud, or what have you settled deep within these tiny niches, but I had always assumed these books to be outside my realm of interest, without even giving them a second look. 

A few days ago, I gave one book that second look and haven't stopped thinking about it ever since.  
No, this isn't going to turn into some deranged love story between me and a pile of tree shavings.  Nor is this going to become a book review (at least under the typical assumption: that the reviewer has read the book).  On the contrary, this is simply a story about "Human Happiness."  

Such was the title of that fateful book, written by a man of the name Blaise Pascal.  Why was I so drawn to this particular book?  Well, it's not because I'm a Pascal enthusiast (I'd never even heard of the man before this) or because I'm attracted to clean white book covers.  Little substantial ever derives from such unchecked zeal or manifest eye candy...if you want to call it that.  What I've found is that most of life's persisting rewards arise from the little things you could have easily forgotten--that friend who moved away, that event you attended on a whim, that book you almost didn't open, that momentary reflection you thought purely distracting or irrelevant.

While I did not take this twist of fate so seriously as to drop Russell and his proper names in favor of an engrossing day or even hour with Pascal, the first page alone sparked a bolt of indefatigable lightning in my mind.

A few excerpts from that page:

1. "If we are too young our judgment is impaired, just as it is if we are too old."

2. "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical."

3. "Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science."

Overall, Pascal encloses "Man's Condition" in three simple yet telling words: "Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety."

I include these snippets not to insist that our visions are hopelessly lacking as 20-somethings or to knock hard core physicists who spend not a morsel of time contemplating the meta.  Instead, I reference these tidbits to shed light for all my readers on what constantly taunts my conscious and therefore motivates the majority of my self-improvement measures.

Understanding number 2 is of particularly appeal to me, as my happiness seems to hinge on my careful mitigation of a constant overabundance of thought.  Simply put, my sanity rests on not thinking too much.

Perhaps this tendency to overbook my head flows from exactly what Blaise proposes: overarching human caprice, dissatisfaction, and apprehension.  Or maybe I think excessively simply because I'm young and have everything in the world to worry about, quite literally.  The truth of the matter is Pascal wasn't right about everything, at least when I consider my own personal experience.  True, boredom too often wreaks havoc on my continually under-stimulated mind, leading to superfluous musings, and inevitably anxiety, lest those musings materialize.  But I wouldn't say this mental earthquake ever results from inconstancy, in other words, a habit of being fickle.  Quite the opposite, my rumination often results entirely from a proclivity to dwell on intellectual fodder well past its expiration date.

So how does my philosophical fanaticism relate back to Pascal and Human Happiness?  Many would argue the connection lies in a contrived connection between happiness and blissful ignorance.  Indeed, it seems on first impression that the turmoil and illness plaguing the world would be much more bearable if we were incapable of noticing it.  But would such negligence really make us happier?  Not in the way I define it.

How refreshing can the simple pleasures in life be when we've had no exposure to incredible hardship?  How rewarding ring our triumphs when we've never felt failure?  These are the questions that haunt me yet also move me toward ascent.

Certainty is nothing without doubt, and pleasure is nothing without pain.  It's not the other way around, and it's not one or the other.

I've asked myself more often than not whether the people whose "privilege" has precluded everything but a paper cut or whether those who accept reality for what it is rather than what it might be are truly happier than me.  What I've come to find is that true happiness is a process and a solution, whereas artificial happiness is just the solution.  Satisfaction comes not from knowing all the answers, but from finding some of the answers, if only a handful.  There's something beautiful about putting yourself out there, unafraid of failure, yet aware that if you do fail, you'll be this much closer to realizing what true contentment looks like.

As Pascal so duly noted, the happiest are those who know not how to make diamonds out of graphite, but how to make mountains out of mole hills.  And there's something so moral and resilient about that.

Think about it. ;)

Dress: Now 50% at Topshop via Nordstrom.  Bow Tie (worn in hair): ASOS (old; similar here).  Tights: Buy 1 Get 1 50% Off at Express.  Shoes: Banana Republic.

All photos by Sean Su.

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