Navigating Stuckness

March 6, 2014

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

All we have in life is our time. People struggle after success. They hunger for fame, fortune, and power. But in all of these things, the same question exists — what will you do with your time? How do you want to spend your days? As Annie Dillard reminds us, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

I’ve followed the work of Jonathan Harris for a while now, always admiring him for using the internet in exceptional ways which amplify our humanity. I think I first found him through his project We Feel Fine, an important reminder that there are real, feeling people on the other ends of the data tubes. And I regularly return to his Cowbird project, a tool for collecting and telling stories, whenever I need to get out of my own head for a while. And yet, as often turns out to be the case, Harris’s singular success and impressive body of work have been the result of a messy, sometimes baffled journey, a journey which I’m so glad he’s shared in this recent essay, Navigating Stuckness, because like his work it’s full of wisdom and humanity.

From the start, he’s deeply honest about falling into the trap, perhaps common for successful people, of playing to an audience instead of for himself:

My insights felt increasingly superficial, and though they made me sound clever and witty, they didn’t do much to help me be kind.

I love the unquestioned assumption here that the point of learning is to make one kinder. It traces back at least as far as Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, having a good spirit, as the ultimate goal. For in the end, all we have are ourselves, our souls. I’ve been trying to get into the habit of asking myself “Is what I’m doing right now making me any better of a person?” and with uneasy frequency the answer turns out to be no. Much of this is the compromise of work: I get paid—and thus am I able to eat and sleep beneath a roof—because I do things of value to others, not necessarily myself. But this isn’t the only model for work. I admire and aspire to the alternative approach Harris takes:

Often, I use my work as a way to steer my life in a particular direction. I’ll identify something I want to change about myself, and then I’ll design a project to help me do it.

This has to be the ideal work-life balance: not that work and life should be opposed in equal measure, but that they should be integrated into the project of soulcraft. And indeed, it sounds like it worked for Harris:

At first, Today was a wonderful addition to my life. I found myself becoming more aware of the world around me, more capable of connecting with others, and better at identifying beauty.

Until it didn’t:

More and more people began to follow along, until an audience of several thousand strangers was observing the intimate details of my everyday life. This began to be a burden. The project took on a performative quality; …I found myself plundering the relationships in my life for material, often with damaging consequences. I began to feel like a spectator to my own life, unsure whether to document it or simply to live it.

But then, when he stopped, he learned that while the project compromised some of his relationships, it created and nourished others:

I received over 500 responses from people all over the world, telling me how much the project meant to them, and thanking me for doing it. Most of these people I’d never heard from before. One woman in the UK said the project had kept her from killing herself, because it gave her hope each day to keep going. Many people said they’d never written before because they never knew what to say, but that my daily story was their favorite part of each day.

Things are complicated like that. I was one of those for whom Harris’ daily story was a gift. It would arrive in my inbox in the middle of the day, often interrupting some dreary task or delicate act of email diplomacy, and remind me that the world is bigger than my world, that life is more than just my life. To this day, I find that perspective the best kind of gift, one which I struggle to give myself as often as I need it.

Harris’s essay crescendos with advice from the most improbable of places:

This fall, in a toilet stall in Burlington, Vermont, I saw this scrawled on the wall:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. The world needs more people who have come alive.”

When I ask myself that question, “Is what I’m doing right now making me any better of a person?”, it’s often when I’m worrying over some truly insignificant detail or reading some forgettable piece of mind-candy on the internet. But as Harris reminds us, our attention is precious, and we must treat it as such:

We have these brief lives, and our only real choice is how we will fill them. Your attention is precious. Don’t squander it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t let companies and products steal it from you. Don’t let advertisers trick you into lusting after things you don’t need. Don’t let the media convince you to covet the lives of celebrities. Own your attention — it’s all you really have.

Of course, I’ve said that a lot of things are “all we really have”–our time, our souls, our attention–but I suppose the point is that they’re all just aspects of the same one thing.