For his book Take My Advice, James Harmon collected letters from creative professionals who had carved our an independent career through art, writing, music, and other crafts. Alphonso Lingis is one of the creatives who sent Harmon a letter with advice on living life. One sentence from Lingis’ letter reads, “The ecstasy of going into the ocean, into the skies, into the rock core of the earth, into the ice is a pleasure radically different from the contentment that simmers over possessions.”
I really enjoy this quote but in my own life I fall drastically short of actually living it. I am terrible at traveling, and while I do spend a lot of time out doors hiking, running, and cycling, I have trouble stepping away from possessions and work to enjoy exploring new places. I truly do wish that I was better at planning vacations and escaping from the world I know, in order to explore new cities, majestic oceans, or different cultures.
What Lingis is saying in this quote is that if someone wants to know reality, they need to step away from their possessions, and give up a dream of making money to have more things. Reality, in Lingis’ views, is the adventure of life that includes meeting new people and cultures, challenging our body’s limits and posture, and experiencing great joys, pains, laughter, and tears. Trips into nature pull people away from the isolation of the city to connect them with the planet, and with people who live simply. The bank of memories that one will gain, Lingis says is greater than the monetary and material possessions that one obtains through a life of work and societal demands. For Lingis this bank of memories creates a special place of contentment within the soul, and allows the body to rest, while careers and material drives keep us wanting for more, and leave us in a place where we cannot be happy with what we have.
Alphonso Lingis wrote a letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two. In his letter he has a single sentence about the ocean that I enjoy, “When you go into the ocean you realize that until then you did not know the planet.” I like this quote because I am currently working on a podcast with a friend of mine about ocean science and marine biology. The show is called the Blue Pulse Podcast, and it is a great journey for me to learn more about the mysterious oceans. The one thing I keep hearing as I read deeper into the ocean is how little we understand our oceans. The oceans have been studied since the beginning of man-kind, but still so much of the ocean remains unexplored and we literally only have a surface level understanding. A popular refrain is, we don’t need to explore space, and we don’t need to look for intelligent life on other planets, we only need to look in the ocean.
The quote from Lingis speaks to me about discovering ourselves in new places. By literally putting ourselves in new situations and unique places, such as a the ocean, we are able to see how narrowed and limited our perspective is. Being around an abundance of life and strange and ancient creatures shows us how interconnected we are with all life on the planet. The oceans are great for Lingis to use for this metaphor because on land we so often act as though we know and understand our planet and our selves, but once we get into the ocean to see the inner parts of the planet that are not open to everyone, we realize how much has always been hidden from our knowledge.
In James Harmon’s collection of letters, Take My Advice, Alphonso Lingis in a section of his letter writes, “Our life is by nature destined to know life.” When I think of this quote I think about all of our questions, assumptions, stories, explanations, and understandings of life. For me it is not so much our own life that this quote speaks about, but life as in in living things. Ourselves, other people, animals, fish, plants, and bacteria. Lingis himself continues on with the quote to write about the ways we see human characteristics in animals and how we can sympathize with the life in the world around us. The quote is to me a simple reflection of man’s curiosity regarding the living world. it is a reminder that there is so much out there in the world of life that I do not know, cannot imagine, and could learn about.
I am currently hosting a podcast about marine biology, despite the fact that I know nothing about marine biology. The show is my way to explore the sea and the life within it. Learning about these animals opens ones eyes to the importance of other ecosystems and how we treat the world. By learning more about life and other life forms on this planet, we begin to feel more connected to Earth. We learn about the strange things that life can do, and it inspires us to think in ways we didn’t think possible. The more I have sympathized with and learned about the life in the ocean the more I have been able to learn about my own life, and to peer deeper into my spiritual side to ask what connection I have with life that lives so far away from the high desert where I live in Reno, Nevada.
Paul Krassner is one of the many writers who sent James Harmon a letter for his book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two. In his letter Kressner wrote about our perception of other people, and our perception of the world. In his last paragraph he wrote, “Always remember that everybody’s perception is their reality.” This speaks to me because it is so easy for us to judge someone else and their actions from our point of view. When we look at others this way, we are not taking the time to step into their shoes or make an effort to understand their lives. We cannot criticize another person for the decisions they make if we do not understand the pressures and realities in that persons life. Each person’s unique history and experiences may have driven them to make specific decisions
Near the beginning of his letter Krassner writes,”Watch yourself as though you were observing a Martian. Watch others as though they were also Martians under observation.” What Krassner is advocating for is the ability to look at a situation objectively. For him it is important that we are aware of how we live and what we do, but also aware of the way that others live. If we are able to build this awareness without ascribing every action or choice that a person makes as good or bad, then we can start to have greater control of our decisions and actions. In addition, when we view people as if they were Martians, we do not bring our previous biases into the situation to create a background story about the person, (think of how easy it is to see a lawyer in a suit and decide he is a jerk before you watch him do anything) and instead we simply observe their behavior. To me, this is a great way to begin to reflect on the choices we make to live an intentional life.
The end of Howard Zinn’s letter of advice to James Harmon for his Book Take My Advice is a single sentence with a completely new idea for me. In my life I have always felt pressure to live in ways that my parents, co-workers, employers, friends, and one day possibly children would find impressive. I have always wanted to make my parents proud and have always tried to live up to pre-set standards, and in this has had negative affects for me with extra amounts of pressure on my actions. In the last line of his letter Zinn writes, “Live in such a way that your children and grandchildren will be proud of you.” At the time that I read that I left myself a note saying, “Don’t just strive to be someone your children would look up to, but live that life.”
How I have interpreted this quote is that the important idea for Zinn is to develop an identity that does not stand of injustice, does not accept the status quo, and pushes for a life of independence that is interesting, unique, and creative. The impression of Zinn’s message is that children and grandchildren will not be impressed by stories of how one studied for years to become a lawyer or work for a large corporation to make big bucks. Nor will a child be fascinated with a story of a climb up a corporate latter that encouraged suites and sacrificing family time for weekend business calls.
Zinn’s quote is difficult to unpack and accept because striking out on ones own in a creative journey is difficult and risky in more ways than just financial. The corporate world of suites and increasing workloads for fewer employees is a path that many choose because we often find that we need to make personal sacrifices to provide a lifestyle that will provide opportunities for the rest of our family. This is the greatest challenge for me at this point of my life. I am not sure which direction to go, and how to live a life that can provide for a family financially, without taking away from the relationships that I have. I do know that I can fill my life with interesting thoughts and actions that will help me live a full life regardless of my career choices. At this point I can only strive to build my mind so that I build creativity in my free time to help me find the full and interesting life that Zinn writes of.