Category Archives: Confucius

Not a Diet, A Lifestyle

home-5d75bad805b9382457be8d50231b6e95I hoped growing older might dry-up the appetites that beset me, that age might turn me into a wizened old gentleman for whom asceticism is natural—like breathing—and that air, and maybe some water and crackers, might become the only essentials to my continued existence. In short, I wanted to slowly and imperceptibly (and painlessly, please) grow happy as a monk. After decades of daily struggle with blind, ignorant yearning, can’t my brain finally win?

This summer, I’ve been counting calories. I was reasonably healthy before, not medically overweight or (chronically) immoderate in my eating. Being attractive isn’t even essential to men of my age and circumstance. Yet I see young, muscular males walking about and note their ubiquitous presence on television and the internet, in magazines and advertisements looming over the city. This imagery is enough to remind me of my inadequacy. Sure, my brain knows those expectations are artificial. Very few men look that way naturally, without rigorous physical training—or photoshop—and I might not desire weight loss without such clear messages about the importance of thin.

The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BCE) made a distinction between xing and wei. The immediate aspects of existence fall under xing, which describes human nature at its most basic, including all the desires—he says bodily satisfaction, comfort, and prominence are chief—linking us to other animals. Though not exclusively evil, our xing needs training and channeling by our wei. Wei is artifice, the deliberate and conscious acknowledgement that our spontaneous whims must be controlled if we hope to cultivate proper habits. Wei is the first step toward virtue, as trying to be our best selves won’t happen naturally.

Something Spartan lurks in his philosophy that appeals to me. To get what you truly desire you must overcome your desires. If thin is good, make peace with eating the number of daily calories dictated by your current weight, your age, your activity level, and your goals.

Though it’d be easy to call Xunzi a Hobbesian cynic, his belief in our capacities over our proclivities is idealistic. For example, we may desire skill in painting, writing, and music because it brings us prominence, but we train as artists because of wei. We exercise those skills conscientiously and diligently knowing that, if anything of universal value is to come of them, we must find willpower and self-discipline. Anything requiring effort ultimately separates us from our xing. Desire created our goals, but artifice expressed their best form. Unlike Mencius, another prominent Confucian, Xunzi doesn’t believe we can do much with our basic appetites—xing isn’t good and is never good—but it can be overcome. Wei will supplant xing.

Yet, I suspect any distinction neatly dividing overlapping human impulses. I have questions: If we all have the capacity for wei, does that make it natural or artificial? What about wanting to have the best wei on the block, where do you put that impulse? Xunzi’s appreciation of the war between nature and artifice as the key struggle of existence seems right, and I’d love to believe wei will win. But can the brain and body ever make peace?

Xunzi’s answer was his faith in “approval,” by which he meant the heart’s decision to do what’s best, even if it opposes our appetites. According to Xunzi, we inevitably settle on what we should do and not what we want. Because health is the greater good, I sacrifice to achieve it… putting aside, of course, that vanity isn’t healthy.

The creation of “approval” helps assure Xunzi that proper behavior can exist without squelching natural desires. When “approval” takes over, reason—or, in my case, calorie counting—won’t dominate for long. We don’t develop habitual denial without training, but, to Xunzi, it becomes a part of us. Eventually, doing right requires neither thought nor effort. I WILL embrace 1500 calories before adding in extra for time on the elliptical.

Really? So far, my experiment suggests Xunzi is delusional. Granted, ours is not an age of self-denial, but it seems the gap between what you want and what you get will always be obvious. How can you act against your nature without knowing it? How long does it take to forget you’re acting against your nature?

I’d like to reach that stage tomorrow.

I battle my xing mightily, I do, and right now I’m bravely conserving the planet’s food resources for others. I cast aside spontaneous needs in favor of conscientious retraining, even though I’m probably old enough not to give a shit. But where do I find “approval” and how will I know my heart, and not Calvin Klein, is behind it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask these questions, but I’m not thinking straight. Truth is, I’m very hungry.


Filed under Advertising, Aging, Ambition, America, Confucius, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Xunzi

When Winter Arrives

chicago+at+dawnTwice a week, I find myself here at my laptop considering what else I might possibly have to say. It isn’t work exactly—so far, the crop yields—but it’s daunting. Often I wonder if I’m using my thoughts properly, whether they have a purpose other than expression.

As I write, it’s dark. The streetlamps preside over a still and empty block and, though I’m safely inside, it looks cold out. The branches shed leaves weeks ago and, where their reach crosses patches of sky, they are frozen in place, no wind to stir them. They aren’t waving but standing. The sun won’t be up for another hour, but a hard blue is already dawning, and it will be a beautiful day, the uncomplicated sort, without rain or any of snow’s ambiguous varieties.

In second grade my class spent what I remember as weeks studying maple syrup production. For a boy in coastal Texas, the subject felt curious—trees bleeding their sap, the children gathering buckets, the boiling and steaming vats, the sleds and snow, the faded illustrations of harvest celebrations with people so swaddled in coats, hats, and scarfs they were only blobs of ink. I knew no other liquid crops, nothing so hidden in reserve, nothing so latent.

Late December begins Chicagoans’ withdrawal. Thus far uncharacteristically mild temperatures mean people wander as they usually do—and they have shopping to do. But wind will inevitably deliver weather to discourage going out. I’m ahead of the fronts by sitting and staring out the window. Whatever the weather is today, I’m not ready for it. I’ll have another cup of coffee and put aside my real work for a while longer.

My own sap barely flows this time of year. A maple tree must want to keep its life—why would it sacrifice its essence?—and I need reserves to sustain myself in this sometimes terrible world. The news brings fresh calamities, the worst parts of humanity amplified, and it makes me think maybe a miserly soul is the only sure protection. Confucius said that, even in safety, a prudent person doesn’t forget potential dangers or forget that ruin awaits everyone. “When all is orderly,” he says, “he does not forget that disorder may come,” and a sensible person is thus sustained.

But I don’t want his solution—it hardly seems possible to hibernate and at the same time guard a sense of imminent danger and readiness. Something in me needs to be safely home, to quiet my anxieties and obsessions. Here I am telling you so, but I worry I’ll run out of words if I don’t keep some thoughts to myself, if I don’t keep to myself sometimes.

The L never stops rumbling down the block when I write. I just stop noticing, and now I notice cars cross the intersection. Early light draws defined shadows. The streetlamps will blink out soon. People and dogs have begun walking by again. I will have to stop typing and rejoin a life where others want words from me, but my seasons of rest seem too brief. This time of year I think I could be content sitting with silence as company, that I might never speak again if I can’t find peace now.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Apologies, Chicago, Confucius, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Winter, Words, Worry, Writing

Desperately Yours,

Somehow, without noticing, I’ve become someone’s version of a habitual writer. Most of my life, I’ve envied writers who pull weathered notebooks from satchels and leaf through crowded pages to find clean space. They add a page in place of bowing toward Mecca or kneeling at another station of the cross. Maybe hypergraphia packs those journals, daily reiterations of “I must write,” but their zeal has always seemed unattainable to me. My journals are moleskins of scrawled fragments written in a Starbuck’s line just before my turn arrives or three sentences I’ve managed to compose and memorize on my walk to work.

Then they become posts like this one that, according to a colleague, make me habitual.

I’m not. I’ve known true habitual writers. David Lehman, a poet who taught in my MFA program, endlessly extolled the daily poem. He urged his students to find some time every day to assemble the assembable as a poem. Some of Lehman’s daily efforts have a Frank O’Hara “I did this, I did that” appeal, and I had endless admiration for the devotion of his students…and all his other converts. Fiction students talked about their daily poem, as did non-fiction students, and people simply associated with the program. A college student who bussed abandoned dishes in the cafeteria paused to scrawl another couple of lines.

What were his daily poems like? Perhaps they were genius. Real habitual writing—the sort that expects no end but daily practice and commitment—readies you for another day of writing, and that readies you for another and so on until, one day, you reveal just how much genius ten thousand hours creates. But waiting is my worst option. I’m going over the physical proof of my book right now, I’m on number 265 on this blog, 145 on derelict satellite, but as much as I’ve written, I still consider myself an “occasion writer” in need of an assignment, a task, a deadline, a product due to roll from the factory and ship. A habitual writer is perfectly happy if this page seems more for the writer than the reader. He or she can forget what a reader is. I never forget.

Confucius said that all people would be the same except that their habits make them distinct, and, to Confucius, habits become the best picture of who you are. A person is known by his or her bent. I’m sure Confucius means we should have habitually high standards, but I worry I’d have no standards at all without this public compulsion to show up for our scheduled appointments. Confucius touts the transmutation of habit into being, the steady development of movement into muscle and soul memory.

My writing ways are less like a daily game of solitaire and more like the guy who, earbuds in, cavorts to a discman on the steps of a fountain across from my school. A solitaire player hopes each row falls-out perfectly, and perhaps expects against hope for the day cards will move without his or her hands. The discman and I are desperate.

As much as I admire habitual writers, perhaps I’m better off desperate. Every essay ends with, “What if that’s the last one? What if I’ve said all I ever need to and can’t think of a single word to add?” For me, fear beats habit, and something tells me I need to be afraid, that this chain I’ve been adding to all these years isn’t a chain at all, but a series of links, barely touching, only impersonating a chain.

What I really fear is that, if I become a habitual writer, I’ll be too happy. And soon too lazy. And soon too silent. The desperation keeps me dancing.

Nothing against Confucius, but I’d like to believe Edith Wharton when she said, “Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, Confucius, Essays, Identity, Laments, Thoughts, Voice, Writing