There is no moving up. There is movement, movement from one stance, one position in life to another, but there is not a ladder to climb. I live in a place where most people have not crossed the threshold into Western life. People live here in houses they build with their hands. They cook on open fires. They do not have running water or electricity. I do not think such a life sounds cozy. It sounds hard. But I spent 38 days outside last summer, hiking many, many hundreds of kilometers mostly above the Arctic Circle, and the liberty of that trip has spoilt me. I cannot imagine even spending another summer in a hotel room.
The uninitiated chase the comfort and apparent ease of my lifestyle. However, the treasure is not in the trappings, nor is the pleasure. I tell students who come to see my studio that you can’t feel important by buying important things. You feel important by doing important things. Doing important things isn’t a one-off. It has to happen all the time. It isn’t possible to purchase a “higher” plane of existence. This is the secret of both God and the devil. God wants everyone to know. Evil wants everyone to think that even though the first Rolex, the first car, the first house, the first wife did not make us happy, the next one will. It’s absurd. It takes very little wisdom to understand, at least in theory, that more is not better.
What elevates is crucifixion. You are stuck heading sideways like a crab, when you long to transcend, to soar. The difference between a horizontal life and a vertical life is not money, or luck. The difference is God. Magic, deep pleasure, profound liberty are the core of a crucified life. The opportunity to enter that life is confoundingly counterintuitive. The activities, the choices that are the least attractive are often the doorway. I used to think of my running as a cross to bear, and then I realized the absurdity of my pride. My running is the exit strategy. For 90 minutes I push myself to run 12 kilometers, Monday through Friday. I do not succeed because I am superior. I succeed because I want the liberty that comes from walking through that door. It would be mighty convenient to stroll through the door before the 90 minutes is over. But that’s the secret. I can’t. It is categorically impossible. I am unfit, I am in no spiritual condition to enter unless I choose to get there using the avenue provided to me.
Recently I actually fell asleep on a raft in a resort pool. I used to marvel at the thought of such luxury. It’s not the quality of the hotel, nor the pool, that made me sleep. It was the quality of my rest. The pool itself was so small that my son could have, if he’d wanted, leapt clear over it without landing in the water. The hotel, if you want to call it a hotel, consisted of a few open air bandas in Kilwa, Tanzania. At night you have to sleep under a net to avoid the mosquitoesThe secret ingredient to pleasure is work. Yet another secret of God and the devil. Evil perpetrates the idea that insatiable desire for play, for luxury, for retirement, is our right, and that we just have to “get” there. There is a collateral unture idea that if you work hard you get to play hard. But usually how this translates is that people who are utterly consumed by greed feel an incredible lust for huge, expensive toys and experience. Those things are glamorous, but they do not feel good. Impossible. You can’t get there, to that high, at all if you haven’t worked first. Without real work, a person is unfit for leisure, for play.
There is a family recipe I make at Christmastime, as do my two cousins on the opposite sides of the globe. It’s a linzer tart recipe, and there is one difficult ingredient in the crust, which takes two days and a shitload of almonds to make: candied citron. In times when our living situation prevented me from getting citron, I’ve tried to candy citrus rind myself, and I’d tried many substitutes. But the minute I bite into the crust on Christmas Eve, I know it’s wrong.
Fitness for the mountaintop experiences of life is independent of income and luck. The desserts in life come from the deserts in life. You want manna, you have to bind yourself to actions, choices, routines that deliberately, and by definition inconveniently, divert you from your attachment to your dignity, your private, your comfort, and your delusions of what a nice, smart, attractive person you are. We all know the difference. If it tastes like work, it’s work. If it looks like work but plays to all our strengths, it ain’t work. So if it is incredibly satisfying play that you seek, you have to enter through the doorway that looks like misery.