A metaphor for the “well-lived life”
When Michelangelo started carving David from a block of marble, he had nothing but a vision. Over years of labor and artistry, he removed marble from that block, and turned his vision into reality.
This process of carving — saying yes to some parts of the marble, and no to other parts — strikes me as a great metaphor for a life lived consciously and artfully. When we enter this world as babies, we are multipotentiate, like blocks of virgin marble. Over time, we whittle down the marble block of our lives, we become something.
I used to have a lot of dread about this whittling process. In college, I wrote this poem:
Ode to the Unambitious
The arrow of your life is not locked, yet
Thoughts within your mind still freely swim
The key to make you speed has not been turned, yet
You look up at the tall plants as a seed
You have not been pressure-packed and shipped, yet
There is no single place you want to be
Wishes that stream out from you have not been capped, yet
There is no need for practicality
You stand above the helpless souls
Who kick their way to some small goal
My friend, you watch the arrow sway
And delight at the directions
Looking back on this poem, I see several dysfunctional views within it.
There’s contempt in this poem for people who commit. My college self looked at his ambitious classmates as purely selfish careerists, “kicking their way to some small goal.” Some of them probably were. But among them were also the Michaelangelos of the world: engaged and joyful people, working hard at the things they loved.
Also, there’s an attitude somewhere between hoarding and Peter Pan Syndrome.
Hoarders hold on to material things for the sake of safety, because letting go is scary. But, if your house is to become beautiful and alive, you have to say no to certain objects from your past that no longer serve you.
Living in a state of eternal childhood — where all the doors are perpetually open — is impossible. The arrow of time marches relentlessly forward, until death.
The singer Jeffrey Lewis puts this beautifully:
Your looks are gonna leave you
And your city’s gonna change too
And your shoes are gonna wear through
Yeah, time is gonna take so much away
But there’s a way that you can offer time a trade
You gotta do something that you can get smarter at
You gotta do something you might just be a starter at
You better do something that you can get better at
Cause that’s the thing that time will leave you with…
You have no choice you have to pay time’s price
But you can use the price to buy you something nice
Something you can only buy with lots of time
So when you’re old you’ll blow some whippersnappers mindJeffrey Lewis
At the end of life, I think it’s better to have created a life of beauty, a life that will “blow some whippersnappers mind,” than to have stayed in an undifferentiated state. It’s better to die having become a David than to die having stayed an uncarved block of marble.
Updating my view on commitment
I have a teapot that I find very beautiful:
To produces such a fine piece, it must have taken the potter years of training to develop her talents. One day last year, I nestled this teapot in my hands and felt into the love and hard work that the potter must have committed to along her path. I visualized the lineage of artisans who developed the necessary techniques: gathering clay, throwing it with a pottery wheel, bending bamboo. I was in awe.
Seen through this lens of art and beauty, commitment is not just something for the purpose of “productivity”; it’s something that can make our lives more beautiful, can make us feel more alive, can make our souls sing.
Last night, I went to a sound bath in an old bank building. It struck me how beautiful the building was. Everything, from the wallpaper in the bathrooms, to the mandala on the ceiling, showed artistry and love. We rarely see such care and commitment in our buildings these days. This makes them cheaper, but less beautiful.
People 1,000 years ago walked among squares with marble sculptures, domes, stone arcades, and past village churches with gardens kept by the clergy that lived there. As a matter of life, some walked through what constituted art on the scale that people today, even very rich people, may never experience. Penthouse decorations are a poverty compared to a peasant walking daily under the stone arcades to the marketplace, or children witnessing daily the blacksmith work magic with iron and flame. Modern art is a forgettable trinket compared to the ancient man’s solace of cathedrals and temples. Their creators, his own ancestors perhaps, were long gone, and yet the works remained and worked upon him, as they work upon some of us still.Simon Sarris
I recently read an essay by David Perrell which makes the point that that commitment can unlock value in our lives. For me, “beauty” is a more inspiring word than “value,” so here’s my tweak on Perell’s mental model:
This brings me to the question: if commitment is so great, then why am I so afraid of it?
The answer: I have unconsciously held onto a fairly regressed view of what commitment means, a view that says:
Commitment means becoming just like everyone else, giving up my dreams of making the world a better place. If I commit to things, I will become boring, a selfish conformist, another soul-dead company man living in a box made of ticky tacky.
What this view gets right is that making choices is indeed scary because we can’t know their outcome. The root of the word “decide” is caedere, which is Latin for “to cut” or “to kill.” The pain of “killing off of possibilities” brings up a part of me that wants to hold onto everything, because it is afraid that if it lets go of some things, it will be left with nothing.
But if I want to make my life into a beautiful sculpture, I will have to cut off swaths of marble and discard them. Hoarding objects and experiences, and the related state of being addicted to novelty, will not lead me to a life of beauty. It will lead to a hoarder’s house, shallow relationships, and notebooks full of ideas that have never been tested in the world.
Committing to sculpting the marble block of my life into a specific vision will take a leap of faith. It’s scary because I don’t know if the resulting piece will be beautiful.
But I know that refusing to commit to things out of fear will definitely not lead to beauty.
I’ll close with this quote from Perell:
Whatever your tolerance for commitment is, raise it.
If today you’re comfortable committing to something for two hours, try committing for a weekend. If you’re comfortable committing for two weeks, then raise it to two months; once you’re comfortable with two months, raise it to two years; and once you’re comfortable with two years, raise it to two decades. It’s okay to start small. All big things do.
Except that I want to change the last line slightly:
It’s okay to start small. All beautiful things do.