Been having a lot of self improvement energy lately. This happens to me periodically. I get amped, make a lot of plans, develop new systems and new ways of being, and oftentimes see really good results. I mean, I lost a lot of weight and kept most of it off for almost ten years now. Another time, I started waking up in the morning, even on weekends, and I’ve kept that up for going on 12 years now.
But oftentimes the improvements don’t stick. I intended to keep losing weight and to become thin and muscular and toned. Never happened (in part because I developed knee pain due to exercising). I sometimes go gangbusters with new diets, and they always involve giving up or reducing sweets, and eventually my fervor slackens.
Thus, even at the height of my self-improvement projects, when I’m swimming in energy and anticipation, there’s always the fear, "Is this the moment that I give up? Is this the moment when it becomes too hard?"
But that’s part of life. I used to log everything I wrote and everything I did. For four years I wrote every single day, even if it was only fifty words. For a year, I put up a blog post every single day. I used to think, this is it, I’ve found it–I just need to make sure that every single day I do the things I’m supposed to, and that’ll be the ticket to a good life. But eventually it started to seem silly and counterproductive and I stopped. My writing productivity didn’t go down, but my blogging productivity did (or maybe I should say ‘newslettering productivity’ since blogs are passe but newsletters are cool?) and the traffic on this site has never recovered.
The other day I was using the ‘random book’ feature on my Calibre content server (the same one that served up that Otto Skorzeny memoir I blogged about yesterday) and it served up Donald Keene’s <a href="Amazon.com: Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: European): 9780802150585: Keene, Donald: Books">Anthology of Japanese Literature from earliest era to the mid-19th Century. I’ve read a fair amount of ancient and Heian (10th-11th century) Japanese literature and a fair amount of contemporary Japanese literature, but didn’t know much about the period in between, so I spent some time browsing through the book. I love anthologies like this, just because they alert me to new possibilities. At the same time, I thought, ‘Shouldn’t I actually be reading this book, instead of just skimming it?" And the answer is…maybe? But on the other hand, all I really wanted to know about was the development of Japanese prose. I certainly learned a lot about the intervening eras. After the Heian era, prose tended to either be historical romances (like the Tale of Heike) or short, often fantastical, stories, like the Bamboo-Cutter’s Tale. Then in the 17th and 18th century, we see a resurgence of things that are closer to Genji–more focused on day-to-day life and realistic concerns. It was pretty fascinating! Anyway, while reading the book, I came across a few extracts from a 14th century manual called Essays in Idleness. According to this fellow, once you’re past forty, you might as well bite the dust:
Truly the beauty of life is its uncertainty. Of all living things, none lives so long as man. Consider how the ephemera awaits the fall of evening, and the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. Even a year of life lived peacefully seems long and happy beyond compare; but for such as never weary of this world and are loath to die, a thousand years would pass away like the dream of a single night.
What shall it avail a man to drag out till he becomes decrepit and unsightly a life which some day needs must end? Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.
After that age it is pitiful to see how, unashamed of his looks, he loves to thrust himself into the society of others and, cherishing his offspring in the evening of his days, craves to live on and on that he may watch them grow and prosper. So he continues, his heart set on nought but worldliness, and hardening to the pity of things.
Japanese literature is truly special. No other literature impresses us so forcefully with both the beauty and the transience of life. Other literatures expound on the vanity of earthly things and a few other literatures manage to celebrate earthly things, but virtually every work of Japanese literature contains beautiful descriptions and hints of great sadness.
Anyway, I read this passage and was like, wow, at thirty-seven I might as well already be dead! Not one hundred percent sure how I weigh that against my fervor for self-improvement, but I do find it beautiful somehow that at thirty-seven I know that all my plans will eventually fail, and that I’ll experience sorrow and failure again, and that in a year or two years or five years I’ll once more be looking for new productivity systems and new ways of occupying myself and minimizing distraction. It’s not that everything is futile, it’s just nothing is permanent. It’s like my bedside table. I cleaned it a few months ago, and then it got dirty again, and yesterday as I was cleaning it, I thought, "Wow, I just have to keep doing this. Constantly, every day or every week. There is no avoiding it. There is no system that’ll allow me to escape the necessity of just continually tidying up my bedside table."
Perhaps I should’ve learned that long before–thirty-seven does seem an advanced age to realize one needs to continually tidy up–but it’s also possible that it’s a lesson I’ve learned and forgotten many times already in my life. Perhaps if I looked back in my blog, I’d find myself writing a dozen or two dozen times, "I realized that I need to keep tidying my bedside table." The thought is horrifying–one wants to make progress, not to be trapped in continual cycles–but not wanting to be trapped in a cycle isn’t enough to change the reality, which is that things grow and fade. Nor can one embrace the idea of renewal either, because it’s precisely renewal only comes from our struggle against fading away. In some proximate way, one can work within cycles–for instance by refusing to maintain habits and positions that no longer serve–but ultimately we’re doomed to struggle.