Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I went out for a walk tonight, just up my street. It's curious: as terribly familiar as I am with the other side of Oberer Gaisbergweg—the German mouthful that is my lane—I had never walked more than two hundred feet uphill. Partially this is because it's quite steep and things tend to flow down; on top of that, I think I've never gone that way because it never seemed ripe for possibility the way going down into the city does. But tonight, I climbed.

Like I said recently, it's getting to be fall in Germany. The trees are magnificent shades of red and brown and orange, the air is crisp, and people are waking up as the cold creeps in. I love fall, and it's been a spectacular few days (I'll post photos soon, somewhere). But tonight it was utterly dark and windy as I meandered up the way, and to my surprise I discovered that at the end of my street there's a path into the forest of the Gaisberg. Having no flashlight on a moonless night and less than 10% battery left on my phone, it was naturally a perfect idea to wander into a forest where I couldn't see anything around me and was more or less ascending by feel. What could be wiser?

I don't think it's a surprise to anyone reading this blog when I say that faith has been very deeply on my mind for the last number of years as I've tried to mull over what I know and don't, and what I don't believe and do—and crucially, how apparent dichotomies between what I know and what I have been raised to believe should somehow be reconciled. It's a big part of why I came to Germany. It's a big part of why I haven't been active in the Mormon faith for the last year and change. It's a big part of who I am.

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. — RenĂ© Descartes

It's not an easy place to be nor a light thing to say. When addressing it with ecclesiastical leaders at BYU there was always the quick and oft-repeated question of my personal behavior that turned me away from open dialogue. It felt so disingenuous, the notion that my questions must be because of moral failings, and not that I could simply be a person living correctly who was looking for answers to deeply personal questions of faith. Why would my being open about trying to believe instantly bring into question my character? If anything, I felt like it ought to solidify it. And to their credit, some treated it as a valid and necessary process towards faith that must happen if one is really seeking to find answers about the tricky parts of life. But ultimately, I felt like it was a tacitly forbidden topic when surrounded by so many people saying so confidently "I know."  How could they know? What did they really know? What am I missing?

As I wandered into the black forest (on the boundary of the Black Forest), I turned back to this topic and realized right away just how appropriate it was to be musing on doubt when walking through a place where I was sure to die, or worse, be killed. Ostensibly because of wind, but really because of serial killers hiding in trees, there were branches and things falling all around me and I had no way of knowing my path nor my destination as I trudged up that steep hill. That's not to say that it was bad, but it was an effort — and a curiously exhilarating effort at that (though I felt like I was letting Heisenberg down, knowing neither my position nor speed). At one point I thought I saw a light ahead, but it turned out that it was a distant helicopter I was walking towards, and fortunately I realized that before I fell to ruin where the path curved up the hill.

The great thing about musing on faith and doubt in the dark on a steep German hill with no lights nor cell service and no moon and a narrow path and crevasses and wind and trees looming and only the fear of being eaten by drop bears propelling you is that it gives very visceral physical form to the idea of seeking truth, in much the same way as Nephi's vision may have directed his way. By sheer luck (may one use that word when writing about faith?) I had remembered this quote from E. F. Schumacher only shortly before:

…through all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled…we do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended — the power of love …Divergent problems, as it were, force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation. — E. F. Schumacher

First of all, that quote is awesome. Secondly, I think it very really and deeply portrays why it's crucial in life to try to reconcile the opposites that bug us, or, as Descartes hinted at, to allow doubt to play its role. Indeed, Ambrose Bierce takes it further when he said "who never doubted, never half believed. Where doubt is, there truth is — it is her shadow." I hope and believe that there's tremendous value in accepting questions we may have. Coming from a Mormon background, I have questions about the history of the church and its leaders. I have questions about the existence of God. Some days I have questions about the existence of me (but then I think, and all is well). 

It was doubt I felt as I walked up the hill, both in the physical sense and in the meta-spiritual way that was all the more poignant in the darkness. Robert Service advises us in no uncertain terms to Carry On! when we're desolate in deserts of doubt, but is that the right action? Climbing, I could wonder if I was going anywhere at all, and I did have the very nagging feeling that if something went wrong it could be a while before someone discovered me. And taking the analogy further, the same could be said of my spiritual well-being if I persisted too long with these questions.

I'm so glad for the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Weston:

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief. Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief. The truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure. 

Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth. — Robert Weston 

It's only recently in this journey that I've come to some sort of realization that doubt and faith may work together as "opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled." It seems to me now that there may or must be a third way between proclaimed knowledge and disbelief, where I can say that there are things that I don't understand—but that that is okay. That my asking questions is not only what makes me human, but is also what brings me closer to the divine, as I try my best to go forward each day with whatever faith I can muster. It gives me hope, and makes me glad. I may not know; instead, I can do as Lessing said and make sincere exertions to get to the truth. He said that it is by that pursuit that a man "extends his powers" and finds his "ever-growing perfectibility," which is such a glad thought. Maybe it's okay to strive and to seek and not to yield, even if this life isn't about finding. It's tension that makes us strong.

After walking for nearly six hours—or maybe twenty minutes—my dark and scary wood suddenly gave way to a beautiful view of the glimmering city below, perched on both sides of the peaceful Neckar river. And just as quickly all of this seemed to snap into place for me. It was peaceful up there, with the stars and quick clouds overhead and the faint sounds of people below. Life, with all its challenges, is most excellent, and it seems that the search for truth is one of the best fights there is. And while it's an uphill battle trying to reconcile faith and doubt, I feel like I'm on the right path.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Radical Simplicity.

This is a post on function.

I'm back in Germany, which means that I'm back—after a delightful wedding and a jaunt to Park City—to the daily grind of being a productive student. Ha. It's around 5AM, and thanks to the addling effects of jet lag I'm awake, and thinking about things that I want to change in my life in order to be better at studying, and generally just better at living. And for me, I think a key to that is radically simplifying what I do, when.

There are, I think, three principle steps I need to make to better change my focus from the banal to the effective:

  1. Taking care of myself
  2. Reducing distractions
  3. Underscheduling my time
Essentially, this post is supposed to be a guideline for specific steps that I want to take to be more focused—because the economics of behavior dictate that we'll sort of fall into a lowest-energy orbital in the decisions we make, the obvious goal of any system of improvements should be to reduce exposure to those lesser options. Remove them as choices and you can't choose them. 

It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom. - Aristotle

I read some time ago that it's very intentional that television ads at 6 AM are for BMW and Charles Schwab and that ads at 11 PM are for china dolls and Oxi Clean, in easy payments: whether someone considers themselves a night owl or not, virtually everyone is more effective in the morning. A similar spin on the same idea was this Chinese proverb quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: "No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich." It's easy enough for me today, with jet lag; making it sustainable could be a little more challenging.  With early rising, I'm also going to aim for at least eight hours of sleep a night, with nine hours blocked away being preferred.

Because I'm usually pretty good at exercise, I'll address that less here. It's simple enough to say that everyone out to aim for at least two to three hours of exercise a week, whether that means brisk jogging or killing themselves in cyclocross.  It keeps you happy and healthy, helps manage weight, improves focus and mental acuity, and even promotes cool things like the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor—and besides, happy people just don't kill their husbands. 'Nough said.

Discipline is the training which makes punishment unnecessary. - Pat Conroy

Now it's time for honesty as I get to point two: how much time do I spent per day on Facebook, Reddit, Quora (how ironic), computer forums, shopping sites, and other online time-killers? And how many times a day to I glance at my phone to see what's new on any one of the myriad communications channels there? Between social networks, email, and messaging, there are currently 12 different ways for someone to contact me on my phone — and counting the fact that it's a phone puts me up to a baker's dozen. That's insane, and that with hours of cheap browsing are unsustainable activities in an effective life. So I need to think on how to reshape the way I incorporate them into my school time: perhaps simple elimination of phone usage, and limiting email checks to thrice a day could be an answer. And then I can hit up Reddit after 5, when everyone is awake again anyway.

I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. - Fred Rogers

Getting to the heart of it, the most important part for me will simply be to reduce the number of items I focus on to ensure that I'm not overbooking myself and losing the thread of important activities. Double majors have become the new undergrad degree in terms of impressiveness, and we're encouraged to tack on as many extracurriculars as possible, but what does that really show? In some sense, it probably shows that we're spread pretty thin. For me, the things I really care about are pretty narrow: school, learning some programming (next up, Python and advanced Excel), cycling, and experiencing Germany. Everything else is noise, roughly speaking.

The nice thing about narrowing things down is that it largely eliminates the stress of time, it promotes focus on the things that ARE important, and it leaves time for creativity and wholesome leisure—important things that fall too quickly by the wayside, and things that make people happy and whole.

I guess none of this is really news, and maybe none of this is even relevant for anyone else, but it's important for me: I waste too much time, and I could take better care of myself. I need to reduce the number of things I'm involved in, and focus on core competencies where I can improve. Radical simplicity is the key. Less is more.