The Epistolary

Read. Think. Write. Repeat.

Summer is drawing to a close in this part of the world, temperatures are starting to dip, and we managed to escape the worst of both Henri and Ida (though the ground is now thoroughly saturated with water). Meanwhile, the Delta variant continues to rage, though not as much as in some other parts of the country. Still, with college students coming back and schools reopening, numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better. That being said, I’m glad to be living and working in one of the most vaccinated communities in the country and am probably going to start going back to the office, at least for a few days per week. A large part of the reason I like being an academic is being surrounded by excellent colleagues and collaborators. It’s something I’ve sorely missed over the past year and half, and it will be good to be in that environment again.

Resilience is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure

The last year has probably left all of us tired and on edge, especially if you’re living in the US. And while there’s still a lot going on (and probably always will be), it’s not possible to be working all day every day, even on important issues, without burning out. Like many things in life, being able to rest and recover is a skill that we have to learn and practice.

7 Science-backed Methods To Get Out Of Your Head

For me, one of the side-effects of being home all the time is that it’s very easy for me to get stuck inside my own head. This past year has made me realize just how much I depended on being around other people to not get lost in my own thoughts (though writing for an unseen audience does help with that somewhat). Though I’m not a fan of this article’s click-bait-y title, the points themselves make sense, and some of them are things I’ve been trying to do on my own.

The Lonely City by Olivia Lang

Talking about being home alone, I’ve been working my way through Olivia Lang’s excellent book that talks about both her experiences of living alone in New York City, interspersed with detailed histories and observations about how various people and movements in the city’s past have dealt with being alone. Lang is a brilliant writer who manages to weave together personal anecdotes, biographies and social history into a diverse, coherent whole. It’s a highly recommended read even for people who don’t find themselves in lonely cities.

Since the beginning of the summer, I’ve been mostly feeling a sense of neutrality. Definitely not unhappy, not quite happy, somewhere in between, better than ‘meh’. It doesn’t feel bad, but it does feel uncomfortable, at least sometimes. However, I suspect this is more to do with our cultural narrative surrounding happiness, than with the actual state of mind that I’m in. Culturally we’re conditioned to think that if we’re not happy, we’re unhappy, that happiness must be pursued, and unhappiness avoided (often at all costs). But I’m starting to suspect that is not actually true, and that the pursuit of happiness is in fact one of the contributing factors to unhappiness.

Thankfully it seems I’m not alone in thinking this. Psychologists like Roy Baumeister, Martin Seligman and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl all seem to agree that meaning is separate from happiness. Crucially, while happiness is fleeting and often produced by external circumstances and events, meaning is enduring, transcending both time and the self. The interplay of meaning and happiness seem to (somewhat cruelly) describe the human condition: learning from the past and planning for the future is crucial to meaning, but happiness requires being present.

Leaving aside meaning, I want to focus on the question, if not happiness, then what? Specifically, I think we often forget that there is a lot of space between happiness and unhappiness. Towards the bottom of that space, closer to unhappiness, is the feeling of ‘meh’. Things aren’t bad per se, but they’re not good either. Staying in this space for long periods of time is not good for us, and it’s worth putting in substantial effort to getting out of this state. But in between ‘meh’ and happy is a very large space where things are not perfect, but quite good. Let’s call this space ‘contentment’.

I suspect that this is a space where many of us spend a lot of our time. In this space there are lots of good things: a stable living situation, food and shelter, satisfying employment. But there are also some bad things: maybe a lack of relationships or friendships, a bit too much work and a bit too little pay, that one coworker you simply cannot stand. And while it’s perhaps worthwhile to try and change some of these things, it’s not worth spending a large amount of time and effort. Instead, a good life requires learning to rest and abide in this space, without feeling the need to be constantly moving towards ‘happy’.

Contentment is a plateau, if unhappiness is a trench, and ‘meh’ is a plain (it’s ok, but it’s humid, floods sometimes and gets swampy), happiness is the mountain range that can sometimes seem very far away. When you’re content, the air is cooler and clearer, you can see further and get a clearer view of what’s around you. But most crucially, the ground is firm and stable, you can build and settle. That’s something you can’t do either in the swamp, or on the side of a mountain. From the plateau you can take trips to the mountains, even if you need to go down into the plains sometimes. On the plateau, you can live a life.

We've had a couple days of actually good summer weather here, though we have a week of cloudiness to look forward to. I've been using the good weather to replenish my Vitamin D stores. Yesterday I ended up walking for 5 miles, got some ice cream, ate it outside and took a chunk out of my backlog of Brain Pickings articles. And that brings us to our first selection of the week:

The Woman Who Saved the Hawks

Though ostensibly focused on pioneering conservator Rosalie Edge, and her featuring in the book Beloved Beasts, Brain Pickings writer Maria Popova gives us also gives us a glimpse into the start of the conservation movement, through the eyes of Edge, Rachel Carson, and a number of both beautiful and horrifying images of birds. My long walk yesterday took me through some protected wetlands, and yes, gave me glimpses of a number of birds along the way, making this article particularly timely.

How to Find Focus

Like a lot of people, the last few years have done a number on my ability to focus. Even before the pandemic and political turmoil of 2020 and early 2021, doomscrolling, the addictive, engineered dopamine hits of social media threatened to make any kind of deep focus a thing of the past. While I'm working on improving my focus in the short time (mostly by staying offline as much as possible), this article talks about focus on longer timescales: focus (or perhaps more accurately, direction) can be a result of exploring a number of options first, and then deciding which ones are best for you.

In Times of Crisis, Draw Upon the Strength of Peace

While I've been enjoying the last few days, it's not lost on me that we live in complicated times (socially, politically, environmentally) and that we are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. These times will be marathons, not sprints, especially if we want to achieve lasting positive change, and not just survival. In that light, it's important to “put on your own oxygen mask first”, make sure you do the things needed to ground yourself and maintain your own sanity and safety. As this article tells us, there is no way to peace, peace is the way. (An Anti-Mandalorian credo of sorts?)