The World Greets You

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Quite a few people in Edinburgh have this amazing view from their houses. It’s just on my way to work.

I can’t edit photos at work, so this is straight off of my phone in the gray morning. A full day at work, grabbing food somewhere and catching a bus straight up the hill to rehearsal at St. Giles, before the evening service at 8pm. Ah, it’s Holy Week. Our busiest time of year. And of course, I’m working on two of the three days that I need to be up at the cathedral in the evening. It’s just how it works sometimes.

But the concerts are over, rehearsals for New World are starting two weeks from today, next week I will be 25. There are some fantastic things going on. Last night we waved to our neighbour across the garden, and started to write notes to each other on paper and chalkboards, held up to the windows. Finally, we opened the windows and got to chatting across the yard. Her name is Rosie, and she’s invited us over for drinks on Thursday night. Hilarious that we had to ask her which building she lived in. I can recognize it from the back, but not how to get to it from the street. I think that’s the best meet cute: we met in each other’s kitchens, through the windows. I’ve seen her point us out to someone else that she’s with, and then they both wave to us. I’m really excited to meet her.

*

Things I’m thinking about this morning:

  • Andrew really wants to abduct the 9-year-old from your video yesterday.
  • I told him we should just have our own, and he will be just as awesome.
  • We have shortlisted the name Kilian for a middle-name.
  • Andrew asked, “Then won’t he always have to explain that he’s named after this guy…”
  • I interrupted, “This guy who is totally awesome and runs like the gods?”
  • The eldest sons of the eldest sons in my family are always named John Bartholomew, distinguishable only by their middle names. My great-uncle was John Christopher, named for Christopher Columbus.
  • While I like passing names through the family, I think I prefer gifting someone the connection with a hero of a kind, someone who is more than human, who is also partially mythic, someone through whom they can draw their own inspirations for their own reasons. Kilian might mean something completely different to my children than it does to me.
  • But the 9-year-old from the video. Amazing.

It makes me recognize quotes and passages in the books I’m reading that speak to these philosophical questions and ideas. It’s been so long since I’ve fully immersed myself in philosophical curiosity, at least on this level. I think on a smaller level, I seek out and consider questions of meaning every day, wherever I find them.

Meaning is the feeling that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives. When something is meaningful, it has significance and worth not just to ourselves, or even to our closest friends and family, but to a much larger group: to a community, an organization, or even the entire human species.

Meaning is something we’re all looking for more of: more ways to make a difference in the bigger picture, more chances to leave a lasting mark on the world, more moments of awe and wonder at the scale of projects and communities we’re a part of.

How do we get more meaning in our lives? It’s actually quite simple. Philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders agree: the single best way to add meaning to our lives is to connect our daily actions to something bigger than ourselves — and the bigger, the better. As Martin Seligman says, “The self is a very poor site for meaning.” We can’t matter outside of a large-scale social context. “The larger the entity you can attach yourself to,” Seligman advises, “the more meaning you can derive.”
– pg. 97, Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal

I agree with some of this, and disagree with some. I don’t think that our attachment to something larger in a search for meaning is necessarily always social. Take, for example, the further discussion on the next few pages of the book, about awe:

Awe is a unique emotion. According to many positive psychologists, it’s the single most overwhelming and gratifying positive emotion we can feel. In fact, neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall calls awe “the orgasm of positive emotions.”

Awe is what we feel when we recognize that we’re in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. It’s closely linked with feelings of spirituality, love, and gratitude — and more importantly, a desire to serve.

In Born to Be Good, Dacher Keltner explains, “The experience of awe is about finding your place in the larger scheme of things. It is about quieting the press of self-interest. It is about folding into social collectives. It is about feeling reverential toward participating in some expansive process that unites us all and that ennobles our life’s endeavors.”

In other words, awe doesn’t just feel good; it inspires us to do good.

Our ability to feel awe in the form of chills, goose bumps, or choking up serves as a kind of emotional radar for detecting meaningful activity. Whenever we feel awe, we know we’ve found a potential source of meaning.
– pg. 99, Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal

The last times I remember feeling this kind of awe:

  • In any cathedral, or faced with vast, beautiful architecture. It feels like it towers above me and within me, and whatever is at the core of me rises to meet it.
  • Rehearsing at St. Giles on Sunday afternoon, while tourists were walking around and wandering the building. They sat down in seats just to listen to us sing a rehearsal, not even a concert. I got goosebumps thinking that I am able to produce music of a standard that other people find really meaningful. I have the ability, the opportunity, and I am doing it right now.
  • Mountain vistas, vast landscapes. As Georgia O’Keeffe says,

the plains — the wonderful great big sky — makes me want to breathe so deep that I’ll break — There is so much of it — I want to get outside of it all — I would if I could — Even if it killed me–

After mailing my last letter to you I wanted to grab it out of the box and tell you more–
I wanted to tell you of the way the outdoors just gets me–
— Some way I felt as if I hadn’t told you at all — how big and fine and wonderful it all was–
It seems so funny that a week ago it was the mountains I thought the most wonderful — and today it’s the plains — I guess it’s the feeling of bigness in both that just carries me away–

Living? — Maybe so — When one lives, one doesn’t think about it, I guess–
I don’t know — The Plains sends you greetings — Big as what comes after living — if there is anything it must be big — and these plains are the biggest things I know–
Your letter coming this morning made me think of how great it would be to be near you and talk to you — You are more the size of the plains than most folks–

– Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz, September 3rd, 1916, My Faraway One

The first section of their selected letters, the only section I’ve read so far, is called “The World Greets You.” Amazing.

I wrote this out to you in your book of letters last night, when I was staying far away from the computer screen. Even still, it found its way here as well. Now you’ll have these beautiful phrases in multiple places.

Good morning, T.

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