Sarah Smith and living a worthy live

R.J. Snell explores the question, “What makes for a worthy life?”:

As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”

Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like TheSchool of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colachowith grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”

That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.

Can a person be successful if one goes unnoticed? We can look to C.S. Lewis’s Sarah Smith as a way to answer definitively, “Yes.” It’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to cultivate virtue and live a good life in a quiet way, and to seek out precisely those sorts of people for friendship—because when you encounter them, you encounter a way of living that’s genuinely “out of this world.” C.S. Lewis, through the character of Sarah Smith, shows us the fruits of that sort of life:

First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.

But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?”

“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”

“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”

“They are her sons and daughters.”

“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”

“Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”

“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”

“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”

“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”

“They are her beasts.”

“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

I looked at my Teacher in amazement.

“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

‘Barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day’

Fall is here, and summer is over—so here’s John Keats’ “To Autumn:”

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Twelve hours in State College

A lot of driving this weekend, from Washington to State College, from State College to Philadelphia, and tomorrow from Philadelphia to Washington—but grateful for the chance to visit Happy Valley when Penn State’s classes are in session and as as summer comes to a close.

I got in late last night, headed to 7:30am Mass at Our Lady of Victory on Westerly Parkway, then headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s third quarter board meeting (which is why I visited town), and then met up with a friend before heading to Philadelphia.

Trying out the iPhone 11 Pro’s new cameras with these photos. Nighttime photos are markedly better. I took the nighttime photos here at around 11pm last night.

Clarendon Day 10K

I ran the Clarendon Day 10K this morning, which started in Clarendon and headed downhill on Wilson Boulevard (past my old office at Court House), took place mainly on the temporarily closed Richmond Highway before ending in Roslyn.

When I was looking up races a few weeks ago for the fall, Clarendon Day stood out because I realized I hadn’t run a 10K since the Independence Day “Revolutionary Run” 10K in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania seven years ago. I signed up and picked up my race bib from Pacers in Clarendon yesterday (where there was a great guy playing the saxophone), and this morning ran the 10K. It was a beautiful morning, and a simple course, and I was fortunate to set a personal best, beating my 10K best of 2011 (7:21 pace, 45:45 finish) with a 6:56 pace, 43:06 finish. Regular running (de facto training) and regular gym time have an impact—who would have thought?

Afterwards I walked home over the Key Bridge, picked up my rental car, and headed to State College. Tomorrow is the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s next board meeting, and after that I’ll head to Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding.

Late summer sunsets

I’ve been enjoying the sunsets on my way home, typically on a Capitol Bikeshare bike, along M Street recently. These are two recent sunsets:

When you take the time to really watch a sunset (or sunrise), you can understand where poets come from. I think I would’ve been drawn more to poetry when I was younger if classes took place outside at sunset than where they really took place—within cinderblock walls.

Contemplative thinking

John Cuddeback writes on fostering leisure:

Aristotle has distinguished amusement and leisure, calling the former a kind of ‘medicine’ that causes relaxation so that one can return, rested, to more serious things. Leisure, on the other hand, “of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life.” If amusement is medicine, leisure is the center of the healthy living one seeks.

But what are these mysterious and seemingly elusive activities that are supposed to be so meaningful? Aristotle points to the ‘contemplative activity of reason.’ This phrase that might leave us a bit perplexed calls for a closer look. What is ‘contemplative activity’ and where is it to be found? Here are a few things that can help us think about this.

Contemplative thinking always implies that we ‘see’ something—with our intellect—that is beautiful, worth simply gazing upon. This gazing is more of a resting than a moving, since an insight has already come and is now savored.

For instance, one might come to the insight that so many aspects of life have been a gift—a gift that could not have been anticipated and cannot be fully repaid. This can be almost overwhelming, and it calls among other things, that we simply see this truth and rest in it.

This insight could come while observing children play, or when reading a story, or when walking in the woods. We might be alone, or with someone we love. Whenever it comes, it calls for lingering, and entering into it, and receiving it. While such insights cannot be simply fabricated or demanded, we can foster them. We can set aside times and do activities that lend themselves to their arising, and to their having a place to be received. A mindset of readiness, and of longing to see more deeply can go far.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture was one of the most important books I read in my 20s. What proper leisure looks like, and how to cultivate it, has been something I think about often, and try to bring about as much as possible.

Late summer street scene

Since our office moved into Washington in June, I’ve been walking home as often as possible—it’s about a mile from the office to home, and most of the way is along M Street. And sometimes I’ll walk halfway, then pick up a Capitol Bikeshare bike and ride the rest of the way. I did that recently, and as I was approaching the bikes just past 23rd and M Streets this is what I saw:


There’s nothing special about this. It’s a typical corner, on a typical (even unremarkable) block. Still, there’s so much going on here—the sunlight, the shadows, the color, the variety of ways we’ve shaped this particular spot.

A lot like the advice to “stop and smell the flowers,” I think similar advice holds for stopping to appreciate the view.

World Suicide Prevention Day

Leonardo Blair of Christian Post reports on the issues of suicide and suicide prevention, in light of World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m quoted in the piece, pointing out that America is taking an incoherent position on the issue of suicide prevention—discouraging some forms of suicide, while legalizing and promoting other forms of suicide:

According to the World Health Organization, nearly to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. That’s one person taking their life every 40 seconds. Studies also show that for every adult who died by suicide there might have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people. Among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, it was ranked as the second leading cause of death and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were also twice as many suicides as there were homicides that year.

As the world marked Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, suicide prevention advocates like Tom Shakely, chief engagement officer of Americans United for Life, called attention to the rise in physician-assisted suicide laws that allow terminally ill people to end their lives with a prescription from their doctor.

On Sept. 15, Maine is expected to become the ninth state to allow physician-assisted suicide, joining New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, California, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia.

“When we lose a loved one to suicide, we lose someone who belonged in our world and in our lives. We live with the unresolvable grief and trauma of the loss, even as we encourage those wrestling with thoughts of hopelessness that where there is life, there is hope,” Shakely of Americans United for Life, a pro-life nonprofit, public-interest law and policy organization, said in a statement to CP.

“At this critical time in our nation, we have to do better for all our vulnerable brothers and sisters, and recognize that if we continue to make certain forms of suicide lawful, particularly suicide by physician, we send a terrible message to some members of the human family that they are owed some measure less of suicide prevention than others. We must do better,” he added.

Trust and emotional resiliency

What’s the number one thing couples fight about? Nothing.

Kyle Benson writes at The Gottman Institute:

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, John Gottman reveals that the number one thing that couples fight about is exactly that: nothing. …

What matters is not the fight itself, and especially not what it is about. What matters is how partners respond to negative emotions in the relationship. If couples see the conflict as an opportunity for growth, they can attune to each other and increase their understanding of one another, which deepens their trust in each other and in the relationship. …

Negative events will always happen in relationships, and couples will always fight, but that isn’t what drives couples to separate. Relationships fail when the Story of Us—a couple’s history, shared beliefs, and overall attitude toward their relationship—is focused on the problems partners create, not the love partners offer, and the overall attitude becomes negative.

What couples need to buffer against that kind of negativity is a “positive perspective” on the relationship. You need to remind yourself of the good things you share in your relationship, how much you admire and appreciate your partner, and how much you accept and understand their flaws despite whatever conflicts arise from them.

However, if you have a negative perspective, you slowly disconnect, sometimes without even realizing it. …

Regrettable incidents like fights, arguments, and interactions that are primarily negative will happen in all relationships. According to our research, both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9% of the time. This leaves 91% of our relational interactions ripe for miscommunication.

While many see conflict in a relationship as a sign of incompatibility, it should be seen as a sign that the relationship needs growth and understanding. Conflict is really an opportunity to learn more about your partner. So, when it feels like you’re fighting about nothing and it goes nowhere, there’s likely a lack of understanding. Perhaps you need to discuss how to compromise and share decision-making, or how to recognize and realize deeper life dreams, or how to address core needs that aren’t being met. The fight itself—like arguing about where to have dinner—is about nothing. …

Typical conflicts are merely a reminder that a relationship is two different people working together to understand differences and love each other despite flaws. And the reason why all couples fight is that we’re all a bit different from each other—personalities, needs, likes, dislikes, preferences, life dreams—and many of those differences (69%, to be precise) cannot be resolved.

So, we fight. But that’s okay, because the trick is to learn how to fight in a way that doesn’t cause harm and that increases understanding. …

When conflict occurs in a relationship, partners need to come together to understand each other better. Often times, that means taking a step back and saying something like, “What do you really need from me?” or “What does this mean to you? Tell me more.” It also means that, before you think of a response, or before you want to dismiss something your partner says that you disagree with, you need to really listen to your partner so that you can understand their perspective.

Trust is built when there’s a positive perspective—that, despite the flaws, disagreements, and differences, it’s a good relationship and that each partner is there for each other. Those fights about nothing won’t happen as often when partners can really open up about their needs, concerns, and dreams. They know that they can work through it, even if negative interactions happen here and there. And for that to happen, couples need to intentionally try to understand each other’s perspectives. When understanding happens regularly, connection is built and a positive perspective blossoms.

I’m also thinking of Jordan Peterson’s clinical perspective, which intersects to with the question of how to “fight better” in relationships:

“Most people who trust are naive—and [to be] naive is not a virtue, it’s a fault. It’s partly a fault because if you’re naive, and you run into someone who’s malevolent—including you!—they night do you incalculable damage so that you never recover. That’s not a good thing, so you don’t want to be naive. If you’re not naive, that means you’ve been burned once or twice—or three or four times. And once you’ve been burned in that manner, well then it’s hard to trust! Because you think, ‘Well, why would I trust you or me for that matter, knowing full well that I can be betrayed?’ So then you’re cynical, and you [incorrectly] think that’s an improvement over being naive. You think you’re more mature.

How do you get out of that conundrum? This is crucial to note: You trust people because you’re courageous. It’s the same reason that you’re grateful. It’s a mark of courage. It’s a mark of commitment. … I don’t think there is any other natural resource than trust. And for trust you need courage, and not naiveté. And you’ve got to overcome your cynicism, so that you trust.”

You don’t want to be naive. You don’t want to be cynical. You choose to trust because you’re courageous. It’s a mark of courage.

Because love is an act of the will more than an expression of the sensual emotions (we choose to love, we choose to will the good of the other), we need this courage and we need to regret the critical, negative tendencies of our hearts in our relationships with other people, especially those nearest to our own hearts.

And with respect to ourselves, and our self-judgments, we’ve got to walk the same path between a false naiveté and a toxic cynicism, in order to reach a place of trust and positive perspective where a permanent sort of love and relationship continually takes shape.

Biking the Mount Vernon Trail

On Labor Day I biked the Mount Vernon Trail, picking up a Capitol Bikeshare bike from Georgetown and eventually docking it in Old Town Alexandria. I had started Labor Day at Epiphany for morning mass, spent the early afternoon reading Luigi Guiassani’s “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man” by the Potomac, got time in at Washington Sports Club, and closed out the day in Alexandria caught in rain showers.

Discovering that at Gravelly Point, along the Mount Vernon Trail, you can stand right beneath the planes arriving every 3-5 minutes at DCA was great.