The Kenwood Press
: 03/15/2020

Making an effort

Jim Shere

As we ease ourselves into our soothing routines, we like to assume things will go well. And yet, the mind is sometimes distracted by uncomfortable thoughts that we quickly dismiss – if we are able. No need to worry, we tell ourselves; everything is in place, and things will work out once again, just like before – or will they? Despite the comfort of our faith, our times do seem dangerous.

We prefer the pleasures of convenience, and feel entitled to leisure. We resent the awkwardness of having to wake up to life’s crises. Still, we suspect sometimes that our comfort may be a delusion, and our thoughts that things will continue to work out are only assumptions, not facts. The fact remains that the future must always be uncertain. In ancient maps the lands that lay beyond what was known were designated Terra Incognita – unknown lands. Here, it was said, “there be monsters.”

Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist and onetime bad boy of Glen Ellen, advised a friend to address the harsh events of life with heroic effort. He began with that famous line of Shakespeare’s: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” He went on to say “indeed, that is the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives.”

I would add that – like it or not – we are confronted by that choice every day, between the ease of denial and the effort of resolve. Nature abhors a vacuum, and something is always happening while – like schoolchildren watching the clock – we long for recess. However, the only rest we can have is the rest of our lives, which will certainly be filled with activity and adventure. Adventures always take effort and, though avoiding them is tempting, the ease we feel entitled to belittles the meaning of life.

We want so much for life to be easy, to be able to rest from the incessant parade of one thing after another, but there are no gaps, no coveted lacunae – no places where things do not exist. Great human institutions, such as democracy and marriage, take great effort, it’s true; but they are always worth the effort. People who drift toward the unconscious life of convenience tend not to want to think much – yet if we do not think, we cannot realize.

I’ve written before about becoming a witness of our circumstance rather than a victim, about working to gain the clarity of perception and presence of mind to respond to situations deliberately. And, incidentally, taking responsibility for what is happening – not taking advantage of the situation, bending events to a personal benefit rather than to the needs of the community. This is the difference between the self-serving politician and the selfless public servant.

The sense of self must be nourished to survive, which takes conscious effort. To be fed by the food that we eat, we must work to produce the enzymes that make their nutrients available – and to be informed by the information that we read or hear, we must produce the curiosity and consideration that gets at what is meant by what is said. This takes effort, more effort than the passivity of being distracted or entertained. 

Einstein said this: “if science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.” If art is to be more than simply entertaining, so science must be more than simply interesting. We are deeply moved, and changed for the better, by working to find the personal significance of an artistic event or scientific fact. We have to look deeply into what is being said to learn what we are being told, for the substance is always hidden beneath its surface appearance. 

In both disciplines, science and art, the willingness to explore the unknown, to enter the wilderness that embraces this walled city we call civilization, takes effort and courage; this makes for significant discoveries. Otherwise we will continue to live with routine superstitions about the monsters that lurk in the dark, and the things that go bump in the night – and we will continue to divert our attention from what inconveniences us to what entertains us. This is addiction – addiction to the convenient life, and to a meaningless, deracinated one.

Acronyms easily become words – such as FBI and CDC – and what they once stood for is easily forgotten. The purpose of abbreviations is clarity and convenience, and although they are especially useful in discussing particular issues they often slip into a jargon among specialists that mystifies the value of their work for the rest of us. Once shortcuts are discovered they quickly become favorite thoroughfares; and the road not taken is thought too long and difficult, though it may lead to a more meaningful life. 

The Sonoma County General Plan provides for something called Heritage Roads – though implementation of the program has been shelved. These are the county lanes whose curves and climbs are not graded and straightened for safer and more convenient travel. Such roads are instead to be taken for an intimate experience of the land. They ask to be occupied and inhabited, winding through a landscape that invites our exploration, and nourishes our imagination. There are no monsters in this terra incognita, only the occasional bicyclist or intrepid untamed creature, who remind us to slow our pace and live in the moment. And so, we are offered a nourishing banquet, not fast food.