LESSONS IN CANDOR

Some years ago, I was briefly a student in France. Of innumerable conversations and encounters there, this memory stands out: being informed that “only simpletons and prostitutes smile at strangers.” He who declared the dubious adage meant to teach me how I was being perceived. My smiles were the outward manifestation of a then-rare feeling of bounty, so needless to say it wasn’t a welcome lesson.

Whether my would-be tutor was well-intentioned or mean-spirited is a mystery to me. With the willfulness that has preserved me through hard times, I continued to smile when moved so to do, or when trying to lift myself from a low place. (Science now demonstrates that engaging those facial muscles lights up the brain in positive ways—et alors, monsieur!) A seed of self-consciousness was planted, however—its coating bitter when swallowed and its fruit not infrequently, too.

Indeed, taking an inventory of my life thus far, I could publish a whole seed catalog of poison-berry tree varietals. I mean, couldn’t we all? Heirloom and GMO both. I long to call to account a professor who once disparaged me, condemning me as pretentious for describing a philosophical project and ethical inquiry of mine—the likes of which fill the history of letters and earn the lavish attention of scholars.

Why did he fault me, where he might have praised another? Was I too enthusiastic, too unguarded? Candor can be punished as naïve, and sincerity too often bears a competitive disadvantage in life. But my project here is not to contemplate his rhyme and reason; I’ve since learned other lessons. Though encouraged by ancient East and modern West to have no regrets—rien de rien—I grieve for times when I failed to reveal myself to someone who mattered to me, trying to make myself invulnerable. I didn’t start out that way; I developed the reflex for my own protection. Now I’m trying to reeducate myself, and mindfulness helps.

I think I’m learning from mindfulness that a great part of vulnerability is not being seen in my truth so much as being shaky in what that truth is. “Know thyself,” is the old Greek maxim; despite preferring it on principle to the Buddhist concept of “no-self”—I believe that the self exists and furthermore matters as such—they actually work well together. Tuning in to my actual experience (as a being among beings), versus any intellectual constructs of the same (as an ego with its isolating tensions), gives me a feeling of greater stability. When I meditate several days in a row, even for five minutes, I notice the difference. I find a steadier voice with which to speak—a voice more truly, less abashedly, my own.

EMBODIMENT

A quiet space—that’s what I aspire to create with these words, with this page. A space that’s absent the grotesqueries of commerce. No cartoon bunch of bananas vibrating in the margin, begging to be clicked, making threats about “belly fat.” No “before and after” photos meant to terrify us all about the natural course of time and bodily change. Nothing flickering, nothing exploding, nothing exploitative.

If people are diverted by base content online, it is perhaps in part because the visual clutter and speed of media induces a state of stress that actually impairs the higher functions of the brain. In a recent article about affective computing,* Raffi Khatchadourian noted, “The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self.” One of several reasons that I’m not on social media is that I don’t wish to see my relationships monetized, even marginally. Given the scarcity of time in the average day, the fact that you are reading these words is a tremendous gift to me; the gift I hope to give in return is a space of reprieve. If you feel that, and appreciate it, then we have connected—a beautiful thing.

Speaking of beauty, I’ve just seen a documentary that is pure gorgeousness. Ethan Hawke’s Seymour, true to its subtitle, is an introduction to the pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein, a man who chose an integrated self over greater fortune and fame. Unlike so many documentaries these days, inflected by the ADHD influence of music videos and reality TV, this film is thoughtful, well-ordered, and humane.

And it contains a number of moments of sweet surprise. When the Beatles appear, mouthing lyrics to besotted fans; when a gospel choir silently sways and claps; when Maria Callas mutely delivers an aria—those moments of rapture are captured and woven together by Mr. Bernstein’s hands moving over the keys. Tears stung my eyes, to feel gathered that way into an embrace. I screen upwards of 100 films a year, for work, and value almost none of them. I love this one. Mr. Bernstein seems to communicate such stillness and integrity that I felt my own character groping for new depths in response. Is there, in life, a better measure of success?

* “We Know How You Feel,” Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, January 19, 2015