It’s a rare occurrence to come across something genuinely transformative. Rarer still to be paying enough attention to fully realize something’s transformative potential when you find it.
As someone with a myriad number of interests, unceasingly ready to move on to the next thing simply because for me, there are so many things, I struggle with what I hear referred to often as “mindfulness.” In other words, living one’s life fully invested in each and every moment.
On a favorite radio show I recently listened to a doctor discuss the subject and what he described as our human propensity to “mind-wander.” Apparently it’s totally normal for your mind to want to wander during various, especially mundane, activities. Driving to work, for example. But that “mind-wandering” is also the source of many thinking people’s, let’s say, lack of satisfaction, because unhappiness seems too strong a word. It’s a source of stress, I’ll put it that way. Makes sense, when you’re thinking about how late you’re going to be for work or all the things you need to do when you get there for example, you’re dissatisfied, you feel a need to hurry.
Or, as perhaps a better example, think of all the times when you’re at work and thinking about all of the things you’d rather be doing, or need to be doing, that aren’t work. You probably find, as I do, it’s quite easy to wish your entire day away that way. Your entire day, every day.
If your mind, like mine, by nature tends toward a slightly morbid train of thought it’s not hard to see how that can easily turn in to the wishing away of your entire life.
Just because it’s normal to mind-wander doesn’t mean we all do it, or that we all do it to the same degree, or that we would all admit this mind-wandering causes us unhappiness. For me, however, it is the source of a great deal of unhappiness, not least because I’m hyper-aware of its easy to ignore consequences, imagining myself always as the 80-year old woman who tells a friend how she wished she would have been enjoying life all those years instead of wishing them away, waiting for what’s next instead of realizing it was already there.
So the desire to live a more mindful life has been taking the form lately of me trying very hard to focus on enjoying what I’m doing right now, whatever it is, instead of wishing for 5 o’ clock, or Friday night.
It’s also been manifesting itself in more concrete resolutions.
As a voraciously competitive reader, I’m often really guilty of only halfway reading a book, something I attribute in large part to the hurry up and finish attitude that is totally understandable considering how many books are on my reading list at all times (and ever growing I might add).
Again, totally understandable not only thanks to an obsessive personality, but also because of the nature of life in our ADD-addled 21st century.
Point of all of this is to say that my goal, one of many really, for 2015, was to live mindfully, all the time. So far, if you were wondering, it’s greatly improved my work ethic because it’s greatly improved my attitude about being at work in the first place. It’s amazing how much a sense of accomplishment contributes to continued ability to accomplish.
I’ll also give this whole mindfulness stuff credit for what I hope is only the first of many transformative reading experiences to come in 2015.
The book was The Man Within My Head, by, wouldn’t you know it, mindfulness expert himself Pico Iyer.
It’s almost stupid this book. Stupid in how closely Iyer’s interpretation of Greene’s psyche mirrors my own, and, I’m grasping for words here, but for lack of something better, how freakishly astute Iyer’s ability to explain, in the perfect language, in a way I never could, why I have consistently gone back to Graham Greene’s novels over the course of my lifetime (and in the process explain me, better than me.)
Of course the whole premise of the book is how Iyer felt that Greene was ‘in his head’ as it were as he has traversed the world in his own lifetime. It’s a memoir, utterly creative in its telling, as it uses Iyer’s interpretation and second-hand knowledge through biographies, friends etc., of Greene’s life, perhaps the most formative author in his (Iyer’s) life, to shed light on the impulses that drove him, and decisions that he made.
It sounds weird, and boring, and maybe a tad cliché, but I was profoundly moved.
In less deft hands the book and its premise could easily have trailed off into narcissism, but I think the book succeeds here almost exclusively thanks to Iyer’s ridiculously unequivocal sincerity (and I will offer the caveat, some of it is a little bit too sincere).
If you’re familiar at all with Greene’s stories you probably are aware most of all of his character’s complex and deep-seated ability to, for the most part, live their lives constantly acknowledging their flaws and only occasionally be consumed by them.
His characters are beautifully tragic; the lovers in The End of the Affair, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American being just a few.
I was always aware of what I would describe as Greene’s ability to create a very human empathy in and for his characters for the reader; building characters who were magically so real and yet too good to be real at the same time, I just never would have been able to tell you exactly what it was about Greene, or about his characters that could inspire this in his readers.
I came away from Iyer with a lot of thoughts, but perhaps most importantly I came away with the notion that Greene’s prescience lies in Greene’s lifelong struggle with Greene.
He saw things in himself that he hated, hypocrisy being perhaps tantamount to the worst, and therein lay his ability to create profoundly relatable characters; his writing serving more or less as a way of exorcising his own flaws, although Greene more than anyone would have known he could never truly be rid of them.
Iyer noted Greene’s opinion that “the things we do are more telling than merely the things we claim to believe” and his own very human struggle to be honest, really and truly honest (which is stupid hard if you’ve never tried), with himself, inspired in him a profound sympathy for sinners of all kinds. Side note: It’s probably not a coincidence that so many of Greene’s sinners are adulterers, having struggled his entire life with fidelity.
Iyer also noted Greene’s astute acknowledgement, of “all the ways we can fail to understand one another.”
I have to stop using the word profound but it’s the best word to describe what seems like Greene’s innate and otherworldly ability to acknowledge his failings, as well as those of others, yet retain a love for, and faith in, humanity, as well as the ability to celebrate our small triumphs over sin.
According to Iyer Greene wasn’t a religious man, per se, something it’s easy to see in his characters, but it’s also easy to see he kind of wanted to be. He never rejects religion, that’s certain, he lives in the in-between place so many of us live in; recognizing the ideas of sin and salvation playing out around us all the time, yet never reaching a true “faith;” another way of saying it is that he had the “emotional” but not the “rational” basis for religion.
Iyer’s assertion that Greene maintained the intensity of faith yet “refused to stake out the easy ground of a nonbeliever” is paramount in his work, perhaps no more –so than with Scobie who struggles viscerally with sin and faith.
Greene like so many of us, lived his life hyper-aware of the frustration inherent in never really knowing anything for sure. Always feeling “much of the anguish of religion but little of its joy.”
Iyer also elucidated for me Greene’s role as “the caretaker of that part of us that feels we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around.”
His struggle with faith is mirrored in myriad additional philosophical struggles Greene would deal with throughout his life, the “craving of knowledge,” as it were, that only some of us have. Something which is occasionally an asset, but is most of the time better described as a burden, refusing its bearer happiness. The curse of knowledge, in a manner of speaking.
But for me, the most profound element of Greene’s novels, the aspect that moves me the most, is the overwhelming empathy he feels for humankind.
His ability to acknowledge each of us has only a provisional point of view, in tandem with a deep understanding of, if not satisfaction with, the self, and a life-long struggle with knowledge, and a lack thereof, refused Greene the gratification of answers, and thereby, the absolution which goes hand in hand with the knowledge of good and evil.
“In our fallenness lies our salvation.”
I’ve felt acutely for many years all of these things; a struggle with the rationality of faith, the surprising difficulty of being honest with yourself, painful communion with the struggles and pains of others and the irresolution inherent to an overwhelming craving of knowledge.
Reading Iyer’s take on Greene’s novel was like reading a diary of my own, albeit far more beautifully written. I was once removed from Greene here, as if Iyer was the person within my head.
I’m so very grateful for having found the book, although I am now no more at peace than before, perhaps even less so, feeling more than anything else as I finished the book, an acute sense of what I earlier called irresolution. It was a reminder that these things I (and I’m sure many others) struggle with, will never be settled. I’ll never be at peace, which is a hard thing to come to terms with.
But hey, if Greene can do it.