Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's so easy to forget

I have, perhaps, had too much to drink this night. It's 1:42am and I have a 9:15am appointment. That would be no problem, as I frequently sleep only about 6 hours, except that I have no desire to sleep.

The night is balmy. It is not the sort of night that is common in Berkeley. I was outside and comfortable wearing only a t-shirt and shorts at one in the morning. I rode my bike home--almost 4 miles in a straight line, about 7 miles by the crooked route I rode, according to Google maps. A yellow half moon was hanging low over over the Bay.

I didn't want to get home--which accounts for the extra three miles. The moment was beautiful; I can't imagine much better. During the night I had been asked how I had come to Berkeley and why I had stayed. "The weather is always perfect," I said. But not usually perfect in this way.

I actually have a purpose in writing this--not just to talk about my night. There was nothing particularly special about my night. I got to spend some time with friends; I had, as I said, too much to drink, but the moment is essentially simple. This is not the moment for which the phase "in vino veritas" is usually applied, but there is a truth here. There is a simple beauty in the world, and, if we take a moment to step back and appreciate it, it can be a rejuvenating experience. And it is not so much that there is anything particularly special, so much as it is that you have taken the moment to appreciate it.

I was thinking of this, in particular, with respect to academic work and the way that we can lose sight of a deep appreciation and love that might have once motivated us.

I was, for a time, in a graduate program in literature. I had a great time, and was happy with a great deal of the work that I did. But I didn't fit into the culture. Partially hat was because it wasn't really appropriate in that culture to say "I am studying this work because I love it." For my master's thesis I chose a literary work that explicitly addressed philosophical questions that interested me, but still I was largely driven by my enjoyment of the work. But, as I said, it's not appropriate to say simply "this work is worthy of note because I love it." In that sort of context, it can be easy to be driven to lose sight of one level of appreciation of work.

On another level, we can find that anything that we enjoy can become work, if it is positioned that way. I play music for enjoyment, and I know, from a brief period where I was trying to earn money playing music, that it takes on a different character when you have to do it because you need the money. I have a cousin who is a fabulous guitarist, but it is his work, which sometimes interferes with his love for the music. At what point does it become annoying to teach yet another kid how to play "Smoke on the Water"? I have a friend with a 10-year old son who just started guitar lessons (not with my cousin), and his first song: "Smoke on the Water." I don't know how my cousin feels about "Smoke on the Water" today, but I know that he loved it once.

It is easy to forget the simple significance of things and their profound importance, and often their beauty as well. We can get lost in the academic trappings of the situation, and lose sight of the issues that we really cared about in our search for scholarly ways of speaking.

I was talking about simple motivations on Monday; we often can look at a simple statement of purpose or hypothesis and see it is something overly simple or something too obvious or too insignificant. But simplicity is not in-and-of-itself a problem; often it masks a subtle complexity. When dealing with such simplicity, however, it is easy to forget the fabulous significance that is often implicated.

The simplest things are often incredibly significant--air, water, love--but how easy it is to lose sight of these beauties! The better that we can reconnect our work with simple issues, the better, perhaps, that we can keep in sight, or at least catch glimpses of, the great beauty and significance that lies behind the simple statements. Many scholars enter their field out of some sense of love or some sense of purpose; How often does that sense get forgotten?

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