Cynicism and hope, earth and sky.

Last week I wrote on Twitter that even when I’m escaping, I feel like I am plotting my escape.

This evening I went running along the East River during sunset.

While following the glittering skyline, I was thinking about writing and had a country music playlist playing on repeat. I felt distracted by all the lyrics about love lost, so I started listening instead to On Being’s interview with Maria Popova, Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age.

I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. And critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. And I try to live in this place between the two to try to build a life there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.

I struggle with the feeling of both types of resignation that Maria mentions.

This morning at about 5AM while in bed and looking out the window in a different city, I watched the sun leisurely begin to appear.

I experienced the rare luxury of falling back asleep and dreamed a hundred dreams before fluttering my eyes open to the height of the sunrise. Maybe it all happened in a matter of minutes, but I felt this “uninterrupted intimacy” of that space in time. Despite the earlier pervasiveness of various worries that tend to inundate my mind, I tried hard to consciously make room and invite in the contentment and magic of the room bathed in white and orange light.

[The best of ideas] came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.

Towards the end of my run, I watched a bird in flight skim the air just above the water. I smiled. The graceful and joyous occupancy of the space and time between earth and sky.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Was it — I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know.

And finally, Krista Tippett asks “How do you measure success in any given day?” and Maria responds:

Well, once again, I am going to side with Thoreau. And he said something like, if the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers, it’s more elastic and more starry and more immortal, that is your success. And for me, that’s pretty much it — waking up and being excited and curiously restless to face the day ahead, and being very present with that day, and then going to bed feeling like it actually happened, that the day was lived. I mean, there’s nothing more than that, really.

  • Maria Popova is the one-woman show behind Brain Pickings.
  • Play the episode of On Being here.
  • Read the transcript of the interview here.

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