The How to Live chapter this week was very short and quite and unusually thin on ideas, namely, how Montaigne fell out of favor with the once idolizing Romantics because of the tremendous value he placed on being ordinary and temperate, and his irritation at the poet Tasso whose excesses of passion had seemed to have driven him to the insane asylum.
Chapter closed out with an excellent quote by Rebecca West a man chose to read:
“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”
The man were drawn to this poetic capture of their warring natures, and reported though that they thought they’d moved further in Montaigne’s direction of valuing — and cultivating their desires for calm stability, for being more ordinary, having seen the bad consequences of reckless excesses. Prison, not surprisingly, makes it hard to be what Montaigne probably meant by ordinary, since what’s ordinary there is deformed by so many forces. The book group has been a haven where it’s possible to be ordinary, that is, calm, reasonable, and reflective, without paying a high price. These reflections made a nice bridge to our discussion of gratitude.
Before we launched the discussion of the chapter I asked the men to say, if they were comfortable doing so, one thing they were grateful for, and to weigh in on the notion of gratitude, whether it required an object (to which or whom one is grateful) and whether or how it is different from a feeling of happiness or pleasure. I mentioned the recent studies that (allegedly!) show that expressing gratitude systematically and regularly enhances the grateful person’s well being. They laughed as I teed up the question this way because they know how I feel about the results of positive psychology’s studies of pro social behavior (skeptical, if not scornful). The example I was curious about was, say, walking out last Sunday morning when it was a temperate 40 and the sky was mostly and deeply blue: what’s the difference between feeling pleasure when contemplating those feelings — the warmth and the beauty — and feeling grateful that they are so (or that you experienced those pleasures)? One man, an intellectual anarchist, said that he thought that gratitude is always aimed at an object, and that it made no sense to feel or express it unless that object/subject produced the think in question on purpose for you. Another member of the group (the “Savages!” person) quoted the Bible “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjustalike.” by which I guess he meant that we should all be grateful for the rain and the sun and the blue sky. Anarchist replied that you could take the same fact to show that the universe is indifferent to us, to which he added “Then again I am a psychopath.” He has said this a few times before, which I always took to be a jokey way of saying that he’s been *called* that, but for some reason last night the thought first occurred to me that … Then again they wouldn’t clear him to be in the book group if he were. One hopes.
Someone took that example by the horns and made an excellent case that feeling grateful is different from feeling pleasure at the sight of the blue sky. If nothing else you had to attend to the feeling and the sky and their connection differently.
First, someone said that he was grateful to the CO who in reply to his question about where he was headed — to a book group meeting — said “Good for you.”
A Native American member of the group said that he starts every day expressing gratitude for many very particular things, because it is part of their culture. He draws a lot and noted that he writes thanks to whatever it is he’s drawn: the bird, the tree, the bunk on the back of each picture. He jumped off from there to talk about how grateful he is to us volunteers who come week in and week out, rain or snow storm, year round, and through the summers, for no pay and no glory. (I include the rhetorical details because he did.) And for the book groups, where it’s the one place he is treated with dignity, as if his ideas and voice matter, and where he has made friends with no strings attached. For example, he could lend a book to the new guy without worrying about what that act of kindness might cost him down the line. And not for the first time he expressed the most gratitude of all for having become a reader. Many in the group echoed what he said, down to the smallest closing remark that was almost painful for me to hear by someone who said he was grateful that he could start the day by saying Hi (raising his hand in a wave) to someone he knows from the group whose work in the yard had their paths cross early every morning on his way to get his insulin shot.
How did that quote play out during class? Did anyone comment on its darker theme? It reminds me of Augustine, too, who comments on his own desire for self-destruction in his Confessions.