Worthy Thoughts and Unworthy Thoughts
I’ve been on the road for the past three weeks. That’s never good for me. Though I’ve seen a bunch of friends I wanted to see and done a lot of stuff that needed to be done, I find myself (right now in the United lounge at JFK) flagging and faltering. I can’t work when I’m traveling. The toll it takes is on my spirit. Unworthy thoughts pile up, unalleviated by worthy ones.
I don’t know about you but when I wake up in the morning, all kinds of incendiary crap is rolling around in my head. Grievances, complaints, bitching to myself. I work myself into a lather over perceived slights and imagined injustices. I just got an e-mail this morning, out of the blue, from a guy who wants me to send him 30 copies of War of Art for free. Should I waste even one milli-second of my time thinking about this? But instead it’s rattling around in my brain like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. Why? Because I’m not working.
I’ve been taking classes back home in Mussar (pronounced moo-SAHR), the code of ethics and spiritual discipline developed by the Kabbalistic rabbis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The teacher is Rabbi Mordecai Finley. He talks a lot about “the upper realm” and “the lower realm.” The upper realm is our higher nature, spirit/heaven/”neshama”/the soul. The lower realm is that ball bearing clattering around in my skull.
I wake up in the lower realm. That seems to be my default setting. I have to claw my way out of it. Here are the ways that work for me: love, physical exercise, service, generosity or kindness to others. And work.
One of the reasons I like Hemingway so much (above and beyond his fiction) is the dude’s attitude toward his work. Have you read the past two weeks’ posts—the Hemingway/Plimpton interview from the Paris Review, Spring 1958. I imagine I’m irritating quite a few readers by running that stuff, but I love Hemingway’s attitude. He’s hard-core, he’s old school. He’s a seeker and an ascetic and a true servant of the Muse.
What I like most about Hemingway’s mind-set is that he shoots for the stars. He’s trying really hard to be really good. Say what you will about him, the guy changed fiction writing in the 20th century. He’s up there in my mind with Gershwin and Picasso and Blind Snooks Eaglin. But even the rest of us, who aren’t going to get there … we need to strive like he did.
Labor toward excellence is an antidote to the lower realm. The lower realm is mediocrity. It’s ego. It’s stuck-in-the-self. It’s petty. It’s self-concerned, self-absorbed and self-obsessed. The upper realm—forgive the cliché—is truth, beauty and justice. It’s a guy beating his brains out to write one good declarative sentence.
The lower realm is belief in instant gratification. The lower realm is distraction. The lower realm is shallowness. It’s Resistance; it’s ego-centeredness. It’s all those forces, internal and external, that keep us earthbound, timebound and ball-bearing-bound. Like Hemingway, I need to write one decent sentence. I need to think one honest thought. On the road these past three weeks I’ve been stuck in airports watching Good Morning America. Please.
I gotta get back to work.