Matters of Fact and Fancy

As I emerged from sleep early this morning, an assertion about the contradictory nature of “hope,” made by Pema Chödrön came to mind. I did not recall her specific words, so I went in search of them. I found that they came from her book entitled, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

That contention seems to go against the core premise of something drilled into our minds from a very early age. Never give up hope. Yet hope is the enemy of contentment. The antithesis of satisfaction with now. The denial of acceptance that the reality of each moment is all we have; and all we ever have. Fond memories and dreams of a better future may give us temporary solace, but they also stand in the way of understanding the paramount importance of being “in the moment.” That is not to say that past experiences and optimism about experiences to come have no legitimate place in the human experience. But there is a time to accept oneself and one’s station in time and place: this moment. Even that idea is paradoxical; we do not need to approve of our mistakes and their consequences, but we need to accept that both led us to this moment. As have our past accomplishments and all the coincidences surrounding them. Appreciating ourselves and our circumstances, come what may, allows us to “relax with where we are or who we are.” The emotional conflicts that surround those concepts make difficult the process of accepting without forgiving. Perhaps that dilemma is an ever-present tension eased only by giving up hope.


Seventy degrees at 5:30  in the morning, in the waning days of July. I am grateful for that cool comfort. In a few moments, I will step out onto my deck and gaze at the forest. I may see and hear birds. If a breeze rustles the leaves of the trees, I will hear them, too. I wonder whether leaves are “conscious” of the noises they make as they rub against one another and against the bark of the trees on which they reside? Their consciousness, if it exists, must be radically different from the consciousness we experience; the consciousness we try (but usually fail) to understand. I have the same questions about soil and rocks and molecules of air. As days grow increasingly warm—or cool—do inanimate objects experience something akin to what humans feel? I understand, of course, that those objects do not have neurons that conduct impulses in the same way that animals do. But are those things “aware,” but in a different way? I keep coming back to questions that argue against almost everything science tells us: are we certain we know what “life” really is? Is it even remotely possible that humans are fundamentally like lab rats; being observed and studied by the very subjects of our own explorations? I rather doubt it. But I am willing to acknowledge possibilities that fly in the face of everything we “know.” We may know nothing; we may exist only in the imagination of a universe too immense to be understood, even by itself.

The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.

~ Thomas Wolfe ~


After a brief break to refresh my coffee—which cooled during my reverie—I am back with thoughts more mundane than mystical. I wonder whether I have ever unknowingly made a stranger feel loved, simply because I extended a kindness that, in other circumstances, I would have wanted a stranger to give to me? I want to believe I have. I want to believe I am the sort of person who, without thinking, usually is kind and considerate. But I remember too many occasions when I failed to seize the opportunity to improve someone else’s moments. And I wonder what other people really think of me. Olin Miller is credited with having said, in 1936, “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.” I will accept that most people seldom think of me. But I wonder, still, what they think when—on those rare occasions—they do think of me. Is that thought evidence of curiosity or is it the outgrowth of low self-esteem; or a lack of confidence? That sort of concern is fundamentally useless. Yet it remains a strong driver of behavior; not just mine, but, I suspect, a large percentage of the human population. I could be wrong, of course. Most people may not give a moment’s thought to what others think of them. Hmm. No, I am afraid vanity argues forcefully against the idea that people do not care how others perceive them. Vanity. Self-esteem. Or is it narcissism? Or egotism? When such matters weigh on my mind, I ultimately reach the conclusion that the opinions of only a relatively few people truly matter deeply to me. I might prefer for many others to hold me in at least moderate regard, but if they did not I would not lose sleep over it. And I truly do not give a damn what the rest of humanity thinks of me. Or that the rest of humanity does not even know or care that I exist and, therefore, never thinks of me. Or does it actually matter to me, way back in the deepest recesses of my brain? Either way, I wonder whether I am more like other people or more different from them? Not that it matters, in the full breadth and height and depth of existence.


Vanity plays lurid tricks with our memory, and the truth of every passion wants some pretense to make it live.

~ Joseph Conrad ~


Somehow, time accelerated this morning beyond its usual capacity to thrust me into the day. The clock tells me 7:00 has disappeared into the ether of history, which virtually assures that seven o’clock will be remembered for attributes it never had—thanks to the human mind’s ability to manufacture reality from moments lost to time. More coffee, first, then an attempt to force myself to do work I wish had already been done.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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