It is truly strange how long it takes to get to know oneself. I am now 62 years old, yet just one moment ago I realized that I love lightly toasted bread and loath bread when it is heavily toasted. For over 60 years, and quite unconsciously, I have been experiencing inner joy or total despair at my relationship with grilled bread. – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Did Wittgenstein really not know he liked lightly toasted bread? He must have. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have experienced such joy and despair. Which begs the question: how could he experience such joy and despair daily without acting upon it?
It seems I’m making an awfully big deal out of toast, but it points to something very important about us humans: what else do we just accept as given, do we just tolerate, day in and day out, in spite of our strong feelings about it?
If Wittgenstein, hailed as one of the most intelligent philosophers of the 20th century, could not become aware of his tastes in toast, nor act upon them, is there hope for us, and for more urgent and life-altering preferences than toast?
We need to ask ourselves, on occasion, what are we tolerating? What habits, behaviors, or relationships do we suffer great joy or despair over? What do we just accept as given, when it’s really a choice? What about politics? What do we feel hopeless about changing? What would make us finally act upon things that matter to us?
The AA Serenity prayer focuses on this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
But it’s not just courage we need. We also grow numb. We get comfortable. We have what Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” We are conditioned by our upbringing, influenced by those around us. Along with courage, we need to also tune into our daily joys and despairs, to grow more sensitive and less tolerant, to increase our capacity to feel discomfort with ourselves, our choices, and the world around us. My favorite spin instructor has been shouting to us recently: “This shouldn’t feel comfortable!” I love that. It wakes me up to how easy it is to slip back into an easier cadence. It’s a metaphor about becoming more attuned to the things I let slip by, unnoticed.
Two good friends of mine just moved to another country to start up a new business. I find this very inspiring. If they’re “allowed” to do that, what I am “allowed” to do? What about you?