Organs

On several churches in England, one vaccination center, and our present-day constructions of our histories and our selves.

Some years ago, nearly ten, I moved to London for a year to study journalism. As I write this now, from my Saturday morning cocoon—burdened by the inflammation of heavy thoughts and the PM2.5 dust that has all week been doing a number on me, in a way grateful for those burdens, but in another merely trying to tunnel my way out of them through these words—it's clearer to me than ever both how fortunate I was to be in London back then and how little I actually belonged there.

When I think now about the privileges I've experienced in my life, that year in London is usually one of the first things that comes to mind. But privilege, a far more complex and nuanced amalgam than we seem willing or able to acknowledge or discuss lately, one that ebbs and flows and even plays host to its own cultures of demons, is not the thread I'm choosing to follow today.

On one unexceptionally gloomy day in London, I visited a humanitarian aid agency, hoping to add to my contacts and build some professional relationships that might be helpful to me in my reporting. The people I met there were kind and decent, but nothing ever came of the meeting. After I left the building, I drifted around a bit, probably wanting to burn off some of the opportunistic and exploitative feelings that often came to me when trying to do things like "add to my contacts and build some professional relationships that might be helpful to me in my reporting."

I didn't get far before I spotted a church. I don't remember why, nor did I probably know then why, but I walked inside. Maybe two or three people were visible to me, scattered about, each seated and silent and alone. I was basically agnostic at the time and remain basically so now. But these were my people, it seemed to me. Sufferers. I didn't actually know that about them, of course. It was just a sense I got. One I don't think I ever intellectualized until now. So who knows what or how much of this recollection is real, and how much has been constructed over time. I know I don't. But I'm going to continue now to do my best, as I still have those tunnels to dig.

The smell of incense was strong and welcoming and warming. As I recall, there was organ music playing, though it may have been a choir. Whichever it was, the sounds were invisible to me and coming from above. In any event, the whole of it felt good and calming, and it had been awhile since anything had felt good or calming to me. So I sat down, and uncharacteristically for me at the time, I stayed seated for what felt like a long time. There was a particular cadence in the room, one that moved slowly and gently and cleansed, healed and loved, and took me with it. I remember seeing a man whom I thought might be homeless. And I remember wanting mercy for him. I remember wanting it so badly I nearly cried. I remember loving him. These words didn't form then. They only just arrived now, by virtue of the fact, I think, that I was present then. I wasn't plotting or scheming or planning or networking. I was just taking a moment, and then having that moment, being there for it. And whatever it was, it's all that was—for a time.

Early one morning some years later, nearly ten, I was reading the news and saw a photo of Salisbury Cathedral in England that gave me pause. I don't spend much time looking with much interest at photos these days. And I almost never take any photos of my own anymore. But this particular photo drew me in, initially, because it looked like a painting. Closer inspection revealed that it is in fact a photo, one of the cathedral, yes, but also one of our present day, our big dilemma, our great condition, with the Covid pandemic front and center and filling the mammoth structure with its own complex meter.

Salisbury was recently turned into a vaccination center. As the vaccines are administered in the 13th-century Gothic building, the vaccinated (and soon-to-be vaccinated) can sit and listen to the organ play. And there is something in the intuitive understanding of the magnitude of this, of all that it encompasses, coupled with the stylized way the photographer, Tom Jamieson, painted his pictures with light, that shoots the kind of sparks that one can get lost in. And "Wouldn't you like to get away?" as those of us with embedded memories of the 1980s and of 1980s American sitcoms will remember being asked repeatedly and perhaps without understanding from that parallel universe we still carry inside us. Or rather: Wouldn't you like to be present in something more beautiful than the things that led you to it? Even if only for a moment?

I'm not going to attempt to describe Jamieson's photos any more than I already have. You can see all of that for yourself. What I will note, however, is that when I look at the photos, I feel love for the people within them, and it extends beyond the frame. Some of that love is my own. But some of it seems more communal, elusive and unexplainable, and not wholly rational, but churning away inside each of us anyway, and spreading itself out through the world in warm measured waves, there for us to enter, or not. But always there.

The other thing that strikes me when I look at the photos is the sense that I'm looking into our future and seeing our past. Our history. This moment in it now. Maybe it's because the photos look almost like Renaissance paintings. In any case, I can't tell if what I'm seeing is accurate. Is that really us in there? Have we earned this compassionate and beneficent depiction of us? Is all the love and equality we talk endlessly about even real, even attainable, or is it just another story we like to tell ourselves, about ourselves, from our alternating planes of bigotry, to appear in our ego's best light, and to get though our days? Will we ever actually be the people we might hope to be remembered as, or are we all just taking selfies for posterity? Our blemishes concealed. Our morality secondary. Our true progress and effectiveness damned.

Brian Leli, February 2021


Salisbury Cathedral (One)

Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

His Power, His Beauty, His Dread

Our society seems obsessed with the outer state of our fellow humans. This comes at their expense but also at ours. If we claim that the sum of another is what constitutes that person materially—race, resources, physical power—what is it that we’re missing?

This surface-level thinking underpins racism. It reduces a man to his external features or circumstances, and in the words of Baldwin, represents “the denial of the human being, his power, his beauty, his dread.” Even more presciently, Baldwin wrote that “white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

This is a psychological, spiritual assessment of human beings. To transform external, systemic structures that teem with racism, what is needed is for folks to see the whole human being with all of her complexities, idiosyncrasies, and intricacies.

If instead we reinforce a shallow dogma of racial essentialism by describing black and white people in generalizing ways, I fear we will mainly spread alienation that leads to insecurity, the stymieing of fellowship among peers of different races, and an atrophying of the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. A loveless wasteland provides fertile ground for racism to take root.

Chloé Valdary, The Boston Globe, February 2021

Effective Altruism

June 21, 1994. Kigali, Rwanda. Two months into one of the most horrific genocides the world has ever witnessed, James Orbinski manned a small Red Cross hospital, a tiny wellspring amid a moral wasteland.

The problems in Rwanda began to build up decades before, when the early Belgian colonialists had decreed that, of the native population, the minority Tutsi were racially superior to the more numerous Hutu. Under this regime, the Tutsi assisted the colonial rulers while Hutu were used as forced labor. This situation changed radically in 1959, when the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a Hutu republic and Rwanda became independent of Belgium. But things did not get better. The country’s new leaders imposed dictatorial military rule and harvested the little wealth the country had for their own ends. Many of Rwanda’s Tutsi fled to neighboring countries as refugees, and the country soon became one of the poorest in the world.

As the prosperity of the country declined, the Hutu’s resentment toward the Tutsi grew. As time passed, the extremist ideology known as Hutu Power, explicitly based around racist anti-Tutsi principles, gained popularity. By 1990, Rwanda’s leaders had begun arming Hutu citizens with machetes, razor blades, saws, and scissors; a new radio station had been set up to broadcast propaganda and hate speech; and attacks from the Tutsi refugee army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, were being used to catalyze fear among the Hutu populace. By 1994, anti-Tutsi sentiment reached its zenith. On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president was assassinated. The extremist Hutus blamed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, giving them the perfect opportunity to initiate their long-planned genocide.

By the time Orbinski found himself at that Red Cross hospital, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi had been killed. The UN was stalling, not wanting to admit that a genocide was happening, and had provided almost no support. Only a handful of nonprofit workers remained in the country. Later in his life, Orbinski would become the president of Doctors Without Borders and accept the Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf, but at this time his role was simply to provide care for those who needed it, and with so many casualties, what could he do? He later recalled:

There were so many, and they kept coming. Patients were taped with a 1, 2, or 3 on their foreheads: 1 meant treat now, 2 meant treat within twenty-four hours, and 3 meant irretrievable. The 3s were moved to the small hill by the roadside opposite the emergency room and left to die in as much comfort as could be mustered for them. They were covered with blankets to stay warm and given water and whatever morphine we had. The 1s were carried by stretcher to the emergency room or to the entrance area around it. The 2s were placed in groups behind the 1s.

I cannot comprehend what it was like for James Orbinski to see so many in pain at once and know he could help so few of them. I can only be thankful that I will never witness suffering of that magnitude. I imagine you feel the same.

However, there is a way in which Orbinski’s situation is similar to ours. With so many casualties coming in, Orbinski knew he could not save everyone, and that meant he had to make tough choices: whom did he save, and whom did he leave to die? Not all could be helped, so he prioritized and engaged in triage. If it were not for that cold, calculating, yet utterly necessary allocation of 1s, 2s, and 3s, how many more lives would have been lost? If he had made no choice—if he had put his hands in the air and claimed defeat, or if he had simply tried to treat whoever came in first—he would have made the worst choice of all.

The reality of our world is such that, if we want to make the world a better place, we must make choices similar to those of Orbinski.

Suppose you have money you want to donate to charity. If you donate to Haiti earthquake relief, you help disaster victims. That means you have less money to fund antiretrovirals to fight HIV in Uganda, or to help the homeless in your hometown. As a result of your choices, someone is made better off and someone else is not. Confronted with the choice, you might be inclined to give to all these causes: make more room in your budget for increased charitable giving or divide your donation among several causes. But your time and money are limited and you cannot solve all the problems in the world. This means you need to make some hard decisions: Whom do you choose to help?

Exactly the same problem arises for our use of time. If you have a spare couple of hours per week that you’re happy to dedicate to helping others, how should you use them? Should you work at a soup kitchen? Join a mentorship program for troubled youth? Organize fund-raisers for your favorite charity? Again, there are far too many problems in the world and not enough time to solve them all. We need to prioritize.

Orbinski’s situation was more salient than ours, since the potential beneficiaries were there in front of him, crying out for help. The fact that he had to make a choice, and that not choosing would itself be a decision, was inescapable. That we are not directly confronted with the competing beneficiaries of our charitable efforts and donations may lead us to take our situation less seriously than we would if we were in Orbinski’s shoes, but it makes the situation no less real. There are literally billions of potential recipients of our help. Each one is a worthy beneficiary, someone who has real problems and whose life could be made better by our actions. We therefore need to make decisions about whom we choose to help, because failure to decide is the worst decision of all.

Effective altruism, at its core, is about confronting Orbinski’s dilemma and trying our best to make hard trade-offs. Of all the ways in which we could make the world a better place, which will do the most good? Which problems should we tackle immediately, and which should we leave for another time? Valuing one action over another is difficult both psychologically and practically, but it is not impossible. In order to make comparisons between actions, we need to ask: How many people benefit, and by how much? This is the first key question of effective altruism.

William MacAskill, Doing Good Better

A Framework of Abundance

The worst thing a business or school can do is alienate its employees or students by treating people as political abstractions and making them feel insecure. Instead we ought to be asking ourselves how to create conditions that lead everyone to flourish. What is needed is an antiracism training rooted in a framework of abundance, not a framework of scarcity that puts white people into the reductive category of oppressor and black people into the equally reductive category of oppressed.

I believe the key to fostering spaces of diversity and inclusion is to teach people how to make peace with their human condition. This requires a spiritual practice that will help people wrestle with flaws, vulnerability, fear, mortality, and the infinite gifts that human beings bring to bear in the world. It means helping people think in terms of complexity instead of caricature. It means helping people develop a capacity for empathy and compassion for both themselves and their neighbors.

Chloé Valdary, The Boston Globe, February 2021

Salisbury Cathedral (Two)

Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

The Rib Is the Shell

On downtime, democracy, and stoking the embers of curiosity.

There won't be any classes next week at my school. The students will sit in their assigned stuffy rooms taking midterm tests all day and week. They already took my test, however. So this week became an in-between one for us, one that brought with it the rarity of downtime, at least during our 50 minutes together. Since the focus of most of my classes is speaking and listening—and because I am a purveyor of democracy, and devout stoker of the embers of curiosity—we took a vote: karaoke or Netflix.

Such votes, as you might have already guessed, are crowd-pleasers. They also keep me on my toes, and allow me opportunities to have my own embers stirred.

The Netflix quotes below are ones that did just that during our class hours this week. The Fiona Apple song is one that I snuck into one of our karaoke sessions (I'm forgetting why now, but I love the song and lyrics, and it probably occurred to me that all the saturated colors and interesting phrasing might stand a chance at holding the students' interest between nauseatingly colorful and catchily phrased (mostly English-language) K-pop videos). The other two quotes are ones I pulled from my free-time readings, and my doleful reverence for democracy.

I'm going to end it here on this air-polluted northern Thai morning, as I have another Saturday class to run off to and teach, and because most of my writing energy for the week already went to my latest piece for The Better Being Experiment. I hope you'll consider reading it, and perhaps subscribing to the newsletter and/or sharing it with others.

Brian Leli, January 2021


January 27, 2021

In testimony yesterday, the acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington told the House Appropriations Committee that at least 65 officers filed reports of injury after the January 6 attack. The chair of the Capitol Police officers’ union, Gus Papathanasiou, put the number closer to 140. "I have officers who were not issued helmets prior to the attack who have sustained brain injuries. One officer has two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs. One officer is going to lose his eye, and another was stabbed with a metal fence stake," he said. One officer died of injuries sustained on January 6. Two officers have since taken their own lives.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American

Debating

Debating is an ancient Buddhist ritual where one monk will make an argument to another. It's then the task of the seated opponent to refute the position. As well as practicing Buddhist philosophy, it helps the young monks quash their ego by not letting them get attached to their personal viewpoints.

Tales by Light, S1:E3 (Himalaya)

We're Nothing

There are two questions that get everybody. The first one is: Where did we come from? Where did we all come from? How did we get here? And the other question is: Are we alone in the universe? If we were to discover evidence of life, or stranger still, something alive on Mars today, it would change the course of human history in the same way astronomy has humbled us in the past. The Earth is not flat. We are not the center of [the universe]. The Sun's the center of it. Wait! The Sun's not the center of it. We're just one more sun in this galactic disc. And we're not the only galaxy! We're not by any means! We're just these specks on a speck orbiting specks in specklessness. We're nothing. Yet, we can understand that.

Bill Nye, The Mars Generation

And the Heart Is the Yolk

Every single night
I endure the flight
Of little wings of white-flamed
Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine
Percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze
That's where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can't fit the feelings in
Every single night's alight with my brain
What'd I say to her?
Why'd I say to her?
What does she think of me?
That I'm not what I ought to be
That I'm what I try not to be
It's got to be somebody else's fault
I can't get caught
If what I am is what I am, 'cause I does what I does
Then brother, get back, 'cause my breast's gonna bust open
The rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk
I just made a meal for us both to choke on
Every single night's a fight with my brain
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
So I'm gonna try to be still now
Gonna renounce the mill a little while and
If we had a double-king-sized bed
We could move in it and I'd soon forget
That what I am is what I am 'cause I does what I does
And maybe I'd relax, let my breast just bust open
My heart's made of parts of all that surround me
And that's why the devil just can't get around me
Every single night's alright, every single night's a fight
And every single fight's alright with my brain
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything

Fiona Apple, “Every Single Night,” The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

January 28, 2021

Former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Robert Grenier noted yesterday in the New York Times that the United States is facing a violent insurgency and should apply the lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency to head off political violence. Grenier notes that the nation must insist on criminal justice, tracking and trying those responsible for crimes. We must also return the nation to a fact-based debate about issues.

Crucially, Grenier noted that it is a national security imperative to convict the former president and bar him from future elective office. “I watched as enraged crowds in the streets of Algiers, as in most Arab capitals, melted away when Saddam Hussein was ignominiously defeated in the Persian Gulf war,” Grenier wrote. “Mass demonstrations in Pakistan in support of Osama bin Laden fell into dull quiescence when he was driven into hiding after Sept. 11. To blunt the extremists, Mr. Trump’s veneer of invincibility must similarly be crushed.”

In all my years of studying U.S. politics, seamy side and all, I never expected to see the name of an American president in the New York Times in a list comparing him to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But then, I never expected to see an American president urge a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn an election, either.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American

Ions

On George Saunders and the Russians; plus warm lights, conflicts, and comforts.

What follows is something I've written about before. But as with all things moved in torrents to the past, they often shift and change by a few degrees over time, in perfect accordance with all the ways we do. Little lights appear from the distance and shine themselves on shadows we didn't know existed.

The first time I came to the Thai city where I now live and have a wife and a house being built on land in a village near rice paddies and train tracks, I was utterly alone, living in a tiny apartment in which I opted out of basic comforts like refrigeration and air conditioning, and the basic discomforts of socialization. It's how I'd designed it: Leave the U.S. Go somewhere I don't speak the language. Don't speak the language. Write, read, walk the streets at night, and do whatever else was required of me to sustain this way of living for a bit longer, as long as it took.

It was 2013 and then it was 2014, and I remember vividly sitting many nights in a fairly frenetic restaurant near the river and weekend walking street, reading short stories on my iPod Touch. I didn't have a smartphone or a desire for one. And the only thing the iPod really offered me was the ability to read books via the Kindle app. Looking back now, I can't recall reading anything for the whole of that time but George Saunders stories. That's not to say that I didn't, in actuality, read anything else; I imagine I probably did. But those things, I can only guess, must not have shone their lights on the hidden (and not-so-hidden) shadows I'd carried all those miles to sit alone and scour. So my mind, carrier pigeon of the future that it is, at least in my imagination, either discarded those other texts or put them into a subconscious storage bin somewhere, perhaps to be of use at a later date. I'm no expert. But I think this is basically how it works.

Those days for me were largely about reconciling my desire to be almost athletically alone with my conflicting desire to have deep and intimate connections with others. And it occurs to me only now, via writing this and the various occurrences that have led me to write this, that things haven't really changed that much. What has changed is not the desire but the degree. I've had to sacrifice some degree of aloneness to make room for some degree of connection, and (now, subsequently) I sometimes have to tilt the other way.

In a few words: I've had to find balance.

In a few more: One must, I think, at least dip a toe in the waters of balance, and allow for a diversity of life and living, in an effort not to overburden oneself with any one thing or view or way of being. One can do this in part by ridding oneself as much as possible of absolutes and sureties, and opening oneself up to the swells of nuance and wonder and discomfort. One can even, with varying degrees of care, allow such things as refrigeration and smartphones and other people into one's life.

Sitting in that restaurant with my George Saunders surrogates all those years ago—the same restaurant I ate at last year with my wife, and her family and mine, who'd gathered uneasily in those precarious early days of this uncaring pandemic to attend our wedding—warm lights did shine. I was alone, which I wanted to be, but also often depressed and lonely and feeling adrift, which I didn't particularly want to be, and those stories rushed into me full steam ahead, like paramedics of the soul, administering unalloyed care and comfort.

In doing so, I now know, they opened windows in my mind. Those windows were the source of the aforementioned warm lights. And those warm lights thus produced the thrust needed to open more windows.

Earlier this week, between reading chapters of a book I'm reading now for a book club I'm involved in, I started squeezing in chapters of George Saunders' new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which he dissects seven of the classic Russian stories he's been teaching in a creative writing MFA program for twenty years. "Hearing" his voice again, for the first time in a long while, the same warm rush, or maybe a distant cousin, from that special place in the past made its immediate return. And so the circle goes. A breeze blows and a window opens and a light shines. And a light shines and a window opens and a breeze blows.

Brian Leli, January 2021


We Begin

Over an actual semester we might read thirty stories (two or three per class), but for the purposes of this book we’ll limit ourselves to seven. The stories I’ve chosen aren’t meant to represent a diverse cast of Russian writers (just Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol) or even necessarily the best stories by these writers. They’re just seven stories I love and have found eminently teachable over the years. If my goal was to get a non-reader to fall in love with the short story, these are among the stories I’d offer her. They’re great stories, in my opinion, written during a high-water period for the form. But they’re not all equally great. Some are great in spite of certain flaws. Some are great because of their flaws. Some of them may require me to do a little convincing (which I’m happy to attempt). What I really want to talk about is the short story form itself, and these are good stories for that purpose: simple, clear, elemental.

For a young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach. All of the bedrock principles of the form are on display. The stories are simple but moving. We care about what happens in them. They were written to challenge and antagonize and outrage. And, in a complicated way, to console.

Once we begin reading the stories, which are, for the most part, quiet, domestic, and apolitical, this idea may strike you as strange; but this is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.

[...]

We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era, bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts. We’re about to spend some time in a realm where it is assumed that, as the great (twentieth-century) Russian short story master Isaac Babel put it, “no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?

(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

[...]

To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.

Throughout, I’ll be offering some models for thinking about stories. No one of these is “correct” or sufficient. Think of them as rhetorical trial balloons. (“What if we think about a story this way? Is that useful?”) If a model appeals to you, use it. If not, discard it. In Buddhism, it’s said that a teaching is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” The moon (enlightenment) is the essential thing and the pointing finger is trying to direct us to it, but it’s important not to confuse finger with moon. For those of us who are writers, who dream of someday writing a story like the ones we’ve loved, into which we’ve disappeared pleasurably, and that briefly seemed more real to us than so-called reality, the goal (“the moon”) is to attain the state of mind from which we might write such a story. All of the workshop talk and story theory and aphoristic, clever, craft-encouraging slogans are just fingers pointing at that moon, trying to lead us to that state of mind. The criterion by which we accept or reject a given finger: “Is it helping?”

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain


P.S. After I started reading George Saunders, I started writing fiction, mostly unsuccessfully. Here’s a short story I wrote a few years back that came to mind both while I was reading Saunders’ new book and writing this letter.

Ions

There was a small man in a small town who’d been feeling off and managed to convince himself that he’d lost an electron. So sure was he that he visited an art store and purchased high quality paper and a set of black Sharpies with a wide range of tips for producing different line widths and drafted MISSING signs. Then he went to the general store and bought materials for making wheat paste and carried them home in a bucket with various other adhesives and began that afternoon posting the signs. People stopped and looked at him strangely and he knew that what they must have been seeing was the loss of his electron, the monster therein and not his real person. In the evening he posted a photo of one of his MISSING signs on all of the most popular social media networks. He included along with the photo a brief plea for help that while displaying no emotion did little to mask his distress. After posting his posts he ate a dinner of white rice with nothing else and read a short story from one of the Russians, whose work had begun resonating with the man instantly upon gaining an understanding of the source of his otherwise baffling state: the disorienting loss of a mere electron. In his sleep that night the man dreamt of traveling a world made only of electricity. In the dream the man was not a man but a part of the electricity. The rest of the electricity it would therefore follow would have been made of other men and women no longer men nor women, as well as the charges of organisms previously animals and trees and so forth. The part of electricity the man had become saw the images in its dream as a bat might see them, which is to say that it saw them in monochrome. In the hours that the man slept the electrical charge came to the realization that it was in fact the result of an electron gain rather than a loss, which did much to explain the negativity of its charge but also made a great fool of the small man and his postings and signs. In the same nocturnal hours the negative charge’s post on the single most popular of the social media networks received seven Likes, one Love, and two Hahas. It also prompted one concerned email from the man’s mother, who’d commented as well on the negative charge’s post with a series of question marks, a comment which itself received three Likes. But it didn’t see any of these things. When it awoke the following morning it did not get out of bed. It did not open the curtains or turn on the lights or look at its computer or phone, which were also now but other elements in the electricity it wanted only to stay away from by staying wrapped in and silent and still and alone inside of. But from under its host’s covers and their manifest conduit in space, it moved through more of the Russians and their charges and peculiar statics, wherein travels a steadied resilience that hums not separately from life’s more comedic cruelties, but rather precisely and peaceably within them, as was the case with the small man who’d mistaken his electron gain for a loss, which, as well as his own debilitating darkness, brought a muted laughter to the whole of the land.

Systems

On rigor + persistent mental training + the continued chance allowance of one's otherwise misspent heartbeats.

As I mentioned in my previous letter, I've been giving a lot of thought to what makes human beings better. For some, this will probably seem like a ridiculous point of departure, one with answers either too obvious or too elusive to warrant pursuit. But I don't think it is. At least not yet. And if I do ultimately reach that conclusion, I will at least be able to more clearly explain why. Right now, I have only my intrusive thoughts and feelings on the matter. Some of them are presumably valid and rooted in experience or evolution. But others are just vague impressions that found their way, somewhere and somehow, into my roving bag of chemical fireworks. And because I, like you, am in no small part this crude and idiotic carrier of aging human components, I am also inexorably cracked and fallible. And so it seems reasonable to me to suppose that I'm probably wrong about a few things in this life, perhaps even a small galaxy of them.

In any event, I can't think of a better way to spend my time than trying to be a better person. And by my time I of course mean my life. Time's sum total. My days are already filled with other things to do. My few goals for the year that I noted in my last post are just the ones that were most prominently on my mind on that particular morning. There are others, and each heartbeat is yet another tick of the clock, so there simply won't be enough time for them all, I know. But the beauty about spending one's time trying to be "a better person," my definition of which will unfurl and grow as my exploration does, is that it's just another layer to be applied over everything else. It doesn't take away from anything. And it's my view that it should actually add to most things. It should make one's own existence fuller, while also making one's involvements in life more advantageous and effective, in turn making one's surroundings also fuller. It should be a positive-sum game emerging from one's rigor + one's persistent mental training + the continued chance allowance of one's otherwise misspent heartbeats.

I'll start the definition there. But I'll be continuing it and my exploration of this topic at The Better Being Experiment. So please subscribe to that newsletter if you'd like to follow along, as I intend to keep it separate from Think List moving forward.

Only loosely related to my writing here, I encourage you to listen to Tim Ferriss' recent conversation with Jerry Seinfeld on his systems, routines, and methods for success (below). I didn't have the time this week to transcribe the parts that resonated with me most. But I found plenty of useful nourishment in it and plan to give it a second listen. So, if you're at all able and interested, please take a one-point-five hour break from your troubles and crack it open.

Brian Leli, January 2021


Jerry Seinfeld — A Comedy Legend’s Systems, Routines, and Methods for Success | The Tim Ferriss Show

The Better Being Experiment

On setting goals and the measurability of being "better."

I woke up this morning to a message from a friend, in which he'd shared his New Year's resolutions and asked about mine. I don't typically make New Year's resolutions. But after being repeatedly exposed last year to convincing evidence suggesting the benefits of writing down your goals, it seemed like the right thing to do. So after an early-morning cold shower, followed by some early-morning hot coffee, this is what I came up with.

  • Do some form/combination of meditation, yoga and breathwork daily, and work to make advancements in each of these practices (e.g., do a 10-day meditation retreat).

  • Start doing some kind of cold therapy, which will likely involve making some expensive purchases, or some inexpensive ones plus loads of ice.

  • Introduce something totally new and different into my fitness regimen (e.g., Muay Thai).

  • Be more mindful and empathetic, and less reactive and outwardly moody, in my day-to-day.

  • Take greater control over what I eat by preparing my own food as often as possible and eliminating things like sugars, processed foods, vegetable oils, faux health foods, etc.

  • Keep a food diary.

  • Go deeper into exploring methods for monitoring different aspects of my health, and tracking my improvements and progress (or lack thereof).

  • Grow my online teaching business: first, by enrolling more students, and second, by expanding the courses to include things beyond just ESL (e.g., creative writing, literature, essay-writing, etc.).

  • Start a second online business doing something that I find value and meaning in and am inherently drawn to (e.g., clean air, clean food, clean mind, etc.).

  • Make an effort to live more scientifically, which to me means living each day as though it's an experiment in being a better and more proficient human being; observing and recording the data, and determining from it what worked and what didn't; and ultimately making adjustments based on that data and evidence, rather than my inherently dumb and wounded feeeeeeelings.

  • Write about the above here.

  • Spend at least 30 minutes each day teaching myself Thai with the goal of being significantly more conversational in it by the end of the year.

  • Be more compassionate and less of an asshole to the people I love.

  • Be more compassionate and less of an asshole to the people I don't love, but be careful not to overdo it.

  • Be helpful to others without burning myself out doing it.

  • Sit in chairs less.

  • Be more specific and realistic in my goals.

What about you? What are your New Year’s goals/resolutions? I’d love to hear them.

Lastly, on the Better Being Experiment front: while being a “better” person is clearly and inevitably subjective, I think there are certain universal qualities that make people better, and I think there are ways to measure those qualities and their effectiveness in making a person “better” (or “worse,” or neither). I’m working to get my head around all of that right now. But I’d love to consider some thoughts not born in my own head. So, if you’re so inclined, please do share your thoughts on what qualities you think make human beings better.

Brian Leli, January 2021

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