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nothing is edgier than earnestness
edgelords try to be edgy, the earnest simply *are*
Advance notice: this essay meanders. It sets up some things that don’t resolve as nicely as I would like. If I were to spend more time on it, I would structure it more coherently so that it meanders less, and make sure to tie up every loose end. But I’m making the decision to publish it as-is. YOLO.
"And that's how we measure out our real respect for people – by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate – and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.” — Ted Hughes (1930)
It’s worthwhile to try and get the big questions in life at least somewhat right. And I think maybe the biggest question is: how should life be lived? How do we spend our precious time on this Earth in a way that is meaningful, such that we don’t regret our lives at the end of our days?
This is a question to be lived out (shoutout to Rilke) rather than answered with decisive finality. It’s a dynamic “problem”, and so the answer is necessarily dynamic, too. The precise details will vary tremendously depending on the context. But if you twisted my arm and demanded an answer, I’d say “Earnestly! Gloriously! With Zest and Gusto! Focus on what you want to see more of!” And- well, I have a lot more to say beyond that – I’d want to talk about relationships, creativity, curiosity… but all of those are details, and details have a way of becoming tedious, irrelevant and even oppressive when the fire in your heart goes out.
So for me, Rule 1 has to be: as best as you can, tend to the flame and keep it alive. Stay earnest.
How? Hold that thought…
“My dear, in the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” ― Albert Camus (1954)
The opening sentence in the preface of Ray Bradbury’s Zen in The Art Of Writing (1990) goes, “Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it.”
He proceeds to describe how the criticism he endured from his friends led him to tear up his beloved Buck Rogers comics, and how a month later he decided that they were idiots, and rushed right back into collecting. He goes on to ponder in awe at the courage of that child, for resisting peer pressure, and says, “I love that nine-year-old, whoever in hell he was. Without him, I could not have survived to introduce these essays.” Bradbury had a deep reservoir of earnestness within him, which he persistently tended to over a lifetime, and generously shared with the world. I consider myself a beneficiary of that love that Bradbury had for his childself, because reading him describe it helped me get better at doing the same for mine. And really quickly I want to gesture at how productive that earnestness is. He published over 30 books, close to 600 short stories, and consulted on screenplays and tv scripts. In his obituary, The New York Times called Bradbury "the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream." And for all of his lovely writing, one of his quotes that sticks with me most is: “Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.”
It’s a little strange for me to revisit Bradbury’s book as I write this essay, because I can see very clearly now, years later, how much I directly adopted his framing as my own. I used to stumble through a janky potpourri of half-baked reasons whenever anybody asked me why I do what I do, but now I find it elegant and truthful to say, “I promised a kid I would do it.” (The kid was me.) Of course, there’s then the followup question of, “Well why did you make that promise?” And we return to ideas of earnestness and zest – because this is what makes my heart sing, this is what makes me feel like life is worth living.
I don’t actually feel like I have much choice in the matter. Yes, I can neglect my writing for a while, but if I go too long without it I start to feel a deadening of my spirit. It actually affects my literal experience of reality – I find that I enjoy everything less, including things like walks in sunshine. I find it harder to be present in my relationships. There is a subtle buildup of muscular tension in my entire body. And a lot of it goes away when I finally sit down to get a substantial chunk of writing done, even if I don’t necessarily publish it.
I sometimes think to myself, this is silly, I should just Not Be Like This. Why do I hold my spirit hostage? But I haven’t quite found a way to transcend what feels like a material reality for me. It would be like trying to transcend being hungry or thirsty, am I holding myself hostage by needing to eat? And as I write that down, it cracks me up to note that, well, some people have certainly tried fasting-induced transcendence! There’s even a major world religion where almost two billion people do it for a month every year. And I did find it to be an illuminating experience to experiment with a little fasting, to be honest. It helped me break out of my stale patterns of eating without thinking. I think it’s similarly always worth stepping away from your work from time to time – even and especially the work that feels like Your Important Vocation. Because if your work is Important, then it’s doubly important that you periodically look at it with fresh, clear eyes and not fall into a numb routine. Not all routines are numbing, of course, some can be the opposite. It boils down to how you do it, and you are the final authority on the truth of your own experience.
All of that to say, having revisited my thoughts and feelings on the matter, I think it’s reasonable for me to continue with “writing and publishing are good for my soul, and when I haven’t done either in a while, I start to feel dead inside, and I ought to evaluate that.” Maybe this will change someday. Probably not, but life can always surprise you. We’ll see.
I find it interesting to think about how reading Bradbury led to me adopting a frame that helped me better nourish my own earnestness. How many frames have I adopted for myself, other than his? There are so many, that it might be wiser to invert the question. What frames could I possibly have that aren’t remixes of other frames that I’ve found compelling? I think about this whenever I run across a Calvin and Hobbes strip. I am so much like Calvin in so many ways! How did that happen? Did I look at him as a child and think, “That’s a cool personality, I’d like to adopt that!”? Or did I see myself in him, and that’s what resonated, that’s why I kept reading?
It feels like a difficult to answer nature-vs-nurture question. I’m reminded of Michael Jackson saying about James Brown, "When I saw him move I was mesmerized... right then and there I knew that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." Would MJ have become who he was if he had never encountered James Brown? Maybe, maybe not. Part of me wants to believe that creativity will find inspiration wherever it can, but I also know that, historically, great creativity tends to be clustered in remarkably narrow ranges of time and space – which is slightly depressing because it suggests that individual genius is prohibitively difficult to attain, but it’s also inspiring because it suggests that we might be able to increase the amount of creative genius in the world by simply finding creative people and introducing them to each other.
There are stories like this everywhere. In fact, any time you see anybody do anything wonderful, do a little digging and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll learn that they were inspired to do it because they saw somebody else do something like it. And yet, critically, you’ll notice that not everybody responds the same way to everything. A group of schoolchildren might be brought to a museum, or a play, and most of them might think “that was alright,” some of them might think “that was pretty good,” but sometimes for one particular child, the right colors and sounds come together in the right way in that moment in time that is permanently transformative. It catalyzes some magic within them – with some ingredients that must’ve been within the child – and that child may then go on to do wonderful things in that domain, that for some reason their peers weren’t similarly inspired to do.
It’s also interesting to note that… inspiration, while somewhat subjective, isn’t completely random or arbitrary. People who do great work tend to disproportionately inspire a lot of other people, even if no one person necessarily inspires everyone. Not everybody loves Calvin and Hobbes, but it’s completely unsurprising to me that if you google “top 10 comic strips”, C&H features prominently on practically every list.
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Writing an essay about earnestness does feel a bit futile, in the way that all writing feels a bit futile – because I have so little space to tell you everything I have. If I could, I’d like to sit down and watch you read as many Calvin and Hobbes comics as you can bear, and if you for some reason don’t like any particular one, I’d want to say, “no, no, keep going, you’re going to find something that resonates with you, surely!” If you simply had all of my life experiences, read all of my favorite books, watched all of my favorite movies and tv shows, go through all of my influences, talked to all of my friends, and spent a bunch of time reflecting about it all, you’ll surely see it all just as clearly as I do! But I can’t realistically expect anybody else to do all of that, so there’s this act of compression that I have to perform, and while part of me is excited to try, another part of me is resentful about it, and another still despairs at the futility. And I bring this up I guess to say that earnestness is not totalizing. Camus’s invincible summer is not all he had, it was within the midst of winter, chaos, hate, tears. Earnestness isn’t infinite, endless joy, it can be the tiniest of flickering sparks. That can be enough.
Earnestness can get ugly, or sometimes even dangerous, which is why it gets suppressed.
Here’s a bit of earnest rambling about some of my creative process, before I “get to the point.” In an essay about earnestness, this isn’t a digression *from* the point so much as it is a demonstration *of* the point. The point, if you insist, is that earnestness is potent, meaningful, joyous, and even lucrative. But it’s also complex, difficult and fragile, which is why it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as it ought to be.
When I sit down to write something, it’s often because I have something on my mind that I want to make sense of. Sometimes there’s something specific I want to say to other people, sometimes there isn’t. It’s all quite messy and unclear. When I’m just listing out a bunch of observations, questions, hypotheses and so on, it flows easily. But at some point I tend to encounter some resistance, and that’s usually when I’m in conflict with myself about what I even mean. I started writing this essay on earnestness in a fit of passion because a friend asked me about it. I hammered out a substantial amount of a draft in one sitting, and then I went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I hoped that I would be enthusiastic about putting down some finishing touches.
But I wasn’t. I felt the resistance. My mind started to supply me with rebuttals, contradictions, disagreements, likely misinterpretations. “You can’t just write an essay about why earnestness is so great,” my inner critic says. “That’s an incomplete and unrealistic picture.” And this is the challenging part, because it’s tempting here to think, “Oh well, this is too complicated and messy, I should just give it up.” And sometimes that’s partially the correct answer. Sometimes it’s wise to leave it in the drafts to simmer for a longer time (So it’s “give up for now”, not “give up forever”. Important distinction!). But as a creative, if I notice myself doing that repeatedly for months and months, I know that it means there’s something not quite right about my process. To become better at my craft, and also to solve for distribution, it’s necessary that I publish something from time to time. And sometimes I don’t wanna! And I’ll try to honor that. But earnestness as a creative for me means showing up at least a little bit every day, to ask myself how I’m doing, what I feel like writing, what’s on my mind, what’s next.
So. My inner critic says “This isn’t good enough.” And my job is not to ignore it, but to listen, and inquire. “Alright, what would make it good, enough, then?” And I get to, “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. You have to at least talk about the dark side of earnestness.” And… yeah, I can do that, absolutely! Earnestness can manifest as stubbornness. It can be abrasive and headstrong. It’s almost intrinsically naive. It can manifest as obsession, even ugly, needy selfishness sometimes. And even at its absolute best, it can be a threat to existing social norms. It can be a lot to deal with, which is I think is why a lot of people end up suppressing it. There have been times where I felt some regret and even resentment towards myself for my own earnestness. There have been times where it got me into trouble, and worse of all, there have been times where it led me into blundersome moves that hurt people that I cared about. Even without the imposition of external social and status regulations, I think it’s possible for us to dim and extinguish our earnestness all by ourselves. “This is what happens when you let yourself dare to be hopeful about something,” I found myself thinking bitterly when my long-awaited flight to New York City in April 2020 had to be cancelled because of a global pandemic. “If you don’t hope for anything, you can’t get hurt.”
Ouch! It still hurts! But after a period of grieving (very privately, too, because I knew that lots of other people were going through much worse), I reminded myself: I would much rather be disappointed from occasionally not getting what I want, than living a small life where I refuse to allow myself to want anything. And honestly, that’s an easier one. What’s harder to talk about are the relationships that I’ve soured, and feel responsible for. I once criticized a friend from a place of earnest “surely you’d want to know if you’re wrong!” posture in 2011 or so, and she never talked to me again. It broke my heart. For years I’d periodically agonize about what I had done wrong. A decade later I think I’ve come around to… anybody can leave at any time for any reason they want, and I respect that. I’d like it if we could actually talk about our conflicts as mature adults, but if for some reason that’s not an option, I respect that too. It’s sad. There’s a lot of sadness in living, and a path of earnestness is a path of grieving. I’m tempted to tie this one up in a joke, maybe involving the phrase “grief-maxxing” somehow, but the truth is that it’s sad. That’s how it goes.
I do think that earnestness ought to be tempered, intelligently, and open-heartedly, with discipline. But remember, the whole point of discipline is to allow earnestness to flourish, safely, non-destructively! There’s a bunch of media that captures this symbolically, where characters with superpowers are challenged to learn to manage those powers artfully. X-Men: First Class and Avatar The Last Airbender come to mind. But despite the wonderful progress we’ve made culturally, there are still many people who fall for a very short-sighted, fear-driven model, which is that you have to impose tyranny upon yourself, beat yourself up over your mistakes, and not allow yourself human weaknesses like having hopes and dreams. I think that’s really unfortunate for a multitude of reasons. One is that it’s such a sad way to live. Two is that it’s not even all that effective at achieving goals! You’re much likelier to achieve your goals if you’re able to cheerfully work hard at them without being cruel. And three is, people who are cruel to themselves typically end up being cruel to others. And maybe here is where I’ll get to the edgelord stuff.
Quick(?) sidenote on edgelords and status quo soldiers, the resistance against the earnest players
In writing this section, I had a sudden burst of clarity: earnest live players encounter resistance not just from edgelords, who seek out conflict for conflict’s sake, but also from status quo soldiers – people who are averse to change. If there’s interest, I might expand this into a separate post.
Why bring up edginess at all? What does it mean to be edgy? I think, ideally, edginess should be creative. You’re pushing boundaries, you’re at the cutting edge of some domain, you’re surfacing novel insights, perspectives, feelings. You’re shaking things up, for the better. I define an edgelord as someone who is compulsively drawn to conflict for conflict’s sake. You know, the kind of person who feels compelled to “play the Devil’s Advocate” in every imaginable scenario, thinking they’re providing a valuable service to the world in doing so. And I will acknowledge that sometimes that can be a valuable service. But it matters when, how and why you do it. And this is something I think most contrarians tend not to think too much about, because they’re often convinced of the intrinsically noble role of their position. As a general principle, if your position on things can be picked out very easily, predictably, it’s probably worth being suspicious of it, because you’re basically running a simple script, and if nothing else, maybe consider that you might soon be easily replaced by a GPT-4 bot, coming soon to a Twitter timeline near you. :p
I talked earlier about how earnestness gets suppressed. Sometimes a person who has lost the ability to focus on what they actually want, can become superficially motivated by the social activity of attacking other people for the imperfections in their utterances. It’s a fairly hollow form of nourishment, but hungry people without good food will eat anything they get. And it gets messier. People who have suppressed their own earnestness will consistently get upset at seeing displays of earnestness from others. “How dare you go after what you want? Don’t you know that that’s not allowed? Don’t you know that you’ll get burned for it? Somebody is going to give you shit for it, and today unfortunately that somebody is me. I’m just doing this for your own good really, because sooner or later you will see for yourself that earnestness is a bad strategy.”
And, I have to kinda begrudgingly admit… there’s something impressive about the persistence of this memetic ecosystem. A person whose earnestness was fragile to begin with, can be bullied into submission, and then recruited into the ranks of edgelords (and status quo soldiers) who volunteer to patrol the commons and discourage earnestness wherever else they can find it. And, just as how most human creativity is expended suppressing creativity, you’ll find that there can be quite a sick gleeful enthusiasm about the suppression of earnestness.
I don’t really enjoy writing about this. There was a time a few years ago maybe where I might’ve been invigorated at the prospect of fighting a Holy War against the edgelords. But I’ve come to realize that that would be playing into their frames. They like the tedious debates that go nowhere. They enjoy wasting your time, they feed off of it. The best way to fight an edgelord is actually to ignore him and to focus your time and energy on what you want to see more of. It can be worthwhile to note his points of disagreement privately, and address them in the course of your work. That way they become your unwitting collaborators. Everybody wins.
I’ve conflated some stuff here that I think I might expand on and delineate in another post. In Singapore, where I’m from, I’ve found that earnestness is often discouraged from a place of defeatist cynicism. It’s not really about edginess, it’s in fact more about conformity to the prevailing social order. There are a handful of edgelords around, but they don’t really have much power or influence.
Anyway I guess the thing I really wanted to say in this section is that earnestness surfaces novel and nuanced edges in a domain-independent way. If it’s good to be edgy, then being earnest is the best way to do it. The edgelord is always lagging behind his model of where the edge is, and finds that the earnest player- who isn’t constrained by that model- gets there first. Because, cheesy as it sounds, the earnest player is following his heart, and there is a “lower latency” there. They’re in tune with themselves. There’s no need to think. If you just do what you love, and you get good at it, you will eventually become “edgy” without even necessarily meaning to. Even being visibly happy can be a punishable offence amongst the miserable. My wish for you, if you want it, is that you choose to try and be happy anyway.
Part of what I hope to do is to encourage people to be more earnest.
Because it makes for a more lively, interesting, creative, delightful world. But I don’t want to force it on anybody. I especially don’t want anybody to feel bad about not being earnest enough. Earnestness simply doesn’t work like that. You can’t guilt or shame or bully yourself, or anybody else, into living more freely. Perhaps you’re born with some amount of earnestness in you, and however you are is how you will be. Maybe. But I do think that there are people who remember being more earnest, and who wish to be more earnest, and I’m here to try and fan those flames.
Here’s a poem I wrote 12 years ago that I am still very proud of. Parts of it are janky and maybe overwrought, but I think that’s part of its charm. It wouldn’t make sense for me to try and edit it to be better, It’s a passionate young man dreaming about living a glorious life, and every time I chance upon it again I find myself fired up to want to live up to his ideals.
A friend once told me that one of the best things I did for him was just ramble excitedly about life when we met for coffee while he was feeling depressed, he said that he found my enthusiasm infectious. It makes me laugh to think about it because I don’t remember it at all. I debate with myself internally about whether or not it’s worth telling my readers about the mixed feelings I have about my own writing process, the state and quality of my own essays. The truth is that I’m dissatisfied, I’m always somewhat dissatisfied. That’s part of what makes me relatively good at what I do. A part of me wishes I could work on this essay for many more hours and make it truly excellent. But I don’t want to do that. And this is where we get to some of the compromises involved in “do what makes your heart sing”. Does this essay make my heart sing? Somewhat! I’m glad that it’s substantial and it feels truthful! I know it feels incomplete, but I’m okay with that, I even have a whole essay coming soon about working fruitfully with incompleteness!
Sometimes earnestness means being okay with things being less-than-perfect, and saying that’s alright, let’s go with that for now, and let’s do better next time. It’s taken me a long time to learn this. I’m still learning. It’s a question to live out, not something to be answered with any finality. And by doing that… that’s how I keep my own flame alive. You tend to it a little bit. And you let yourself be okay with what happens. And you try again tomorrow.
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