Kafka Quote

“We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.”

Franz Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak

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Happiness and Anxiety

I apologize for my recent absence. I’ve been moving into school, which as I’m sure you

Albert Camus

can imagine, sucks up time. I’ve had ideas, but every time I face the page, something interrupts.

Also, I’ve been happy. I’m no teenage-angst poet or grungy expressionist, but problems often prompt reflections. Beethoven’s pain crafted chords and melodies. Edvard Munch’s phobias etched anxiety into The Scream. So no problems, no reflections. No one wants to hear a bout a “good” day.

To me, that paradox is fascinating. As Marcel Proust said in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, “Happiness is beneficial for the body but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

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Road Trip

Shortly–i.e., any minute now–I’ll be heading out on a brief road trip with friends. I’m not a “full-time traveler,” like some sporty young people these days, flinging themselves across the globe to taste turgid well water from Tibetan monasteries buried in snow and silence. No, but perhaps I’m a part time traveler.

Seneca, a Stoic I mentioned in my last post, said, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole lives traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.”

Maybe I haven’t traveled enough, but I disagree with Seneca.

I’ve traveled alone, as when I flew to England, and the sight of travelers spilled like marbles into bus terminals and airports has troubled me. I’m lost in their anonymity. The way they feel like ghosts. And the gray impersonal walls of the terminals feel alien, smeared with the presence of people passing by but never staying.

The road, at times, has a has a lonesome murmur.

But I’ve also joined the fabric of another world, building friendships and leaving traces with the footfalls and echoes of existence we all leave behind. I know one English girl has a poem I wrote while watching boats drift down the Thames. Unless she threw it out.

But I often wonder if the people I meet–like a man named Walid who worked in a cafe at Cairo–remembers my fumbling Arabic and the daily exchanges we made over the counter.

“Brett!” he’d say, smiling.

*Insert messy attempt at Arabic

*Insert correction

“How’s your family?” I’d ask.

I have a collection of cards gleaned from my travels: contacts that I haven’t contacted, businesses, monasteries. They’re reminders, but they fill me with joy.

…Well, my friends just arrived. Who knows where the road leads. Cheers for now.

Stoicism

By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.

Zeno of Citium (c. 334 B.C.-c. 262 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, depicted by Raphael. Picture from Wikipedia.

In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags,  and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.

In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”

There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.

So I converted.

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Book Review: God is Not Great

I just finished God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the recently

The cover, from Brain Pickings. com

deceased polymath, essayist, and atheist Christopher Hitchens. I bought the book after seeing it linger on shelves and cropping up in my recommendations on Amazon.com for the past year.

It’s a systematic, caustic critique on religion that ends with a plea for secular rationalism and a “New Enlightenment,” a book bound to spur controversy.

I’m no stranger to religion. After an incident involving milk and foam cups at one pre-K, my parents moved me to Gingerbread House, a Catholic pre-K in the nearby City of Syracuse.

My dad drove our blue-green Volvo each day, past the gutted factories and black windows, beneath the low bridges etched with rusty rivulets, and past the sidewalks with tufts of grass and weedy tendrils.

Among the nap-time, craft-time, and play-time typical of most pre-Ks, Gingerbread House had prayer time. Teachers took us to a low, dark chapel with clean floors and a white flame incased behind red glass. A crucifix hung in the front. Now and then, the stories of the Bible cropped up in conversation.

My memory is hazy, but Gingerbread house must have hit something. My mom said I dragged her to the chapel once, and as we stood in the silence, I shushed her and pointed to the crucifix.

“That’s God,” I whispered.

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