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Don’t Try (Week 37 of Wisdom)

Charles Bukowski, today known as a celebrated author, found success in his fifties. In his twenties, he wrote hundreds of short stories. Two of these were published, both of which barely sold any copies. This was during a time when Bukowski traveled across the U.S, and worked several blue-collar jobs. Years later, he nearly died from a bleeding ulcer. But Bukowski worked hard and while he nearly gave up writing, he was persistent until he finally found an audience that appreciated his work. .

A quote that he is known for is “don’t try.” and yet these words do not seem to be congruent with someone who never stopped trying, even though he was met with failure, repeatedly.

“Too many writers write for the wrong reasons,” declared Bukowski. “They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with the bluebells in their hair… When everything goes best, it’s not because you chose writing, but because writing chose you.” Bukowski didn’t decide to be a writer; nobody actually dedicated to a pursuit ever had to decide which pursuit it would be.

“We work too hard. We try too hard,” Bukowski writes, “Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. Looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.” He may have meant, as the video’s narrator puts it, that “if you have to try to try, if you have to try to care about something or have to try to want something, perhaps you don’t care about it, and perhaps you don’t want it.” And “if the thought of not doing the thing hurts more than the thought of potentially suffering through the process, if the thought of a life without it or never having tried it at all terrifies you, if it comes to you, through you, out of you, almost as if you’re not trying, perhaps Bukowski might say here, try, and ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way.’”

Through this correspondence, we learn that for “don’t try” to be intelligible, we must slightly alter our understanding of what it means to try.

Bukowski never tried, according to his own definition (that is implied in his letter), he just followed his impulse. To try, means to make an attempt to change the state of nature (either the nature of the world, or your own nature). The person, who is by temperament, artistic and creative, and yet devotes his life to number-crunching is someone who is trying to change themselves. The person who wishes to appear on Forbes is trying. But Bukowski eventually realized that it is useless to try. It is much better to simply be who you are and expect nothing from it, to maintain a stoic attitude till the end.

It is hard, to take heart from this story, because while it is great that someone who had such a difficult life finally got recognition, it is clear that as practical advise, one who follows their instinct or passion may never achieve such success. Indeed, a great talent like Bukowski, almost didn’t. One must imagine the countless other writers and artists and entrepreneurs who live their lives trying to be successful in their craft and failing, and in the end, with very little to show for it.

And herein lies, I think, the deeper message. And it is one that will only be accepted reluctantly. It is not your choice. If you have a proclivity for writing, there is nothing you can do to stop yourself from writing, regardless of whether you are successful or not at it. And if you do not have a natural proclivity for it, then no matter how much you try, it will not stick. At some point, you will grow weary and stop writing altogether.

So “don’t try”, means “don’t worry”, because at some point, the answer you are seeking will reveal itself to you. That is, don’t worry about any choice you would have to make, because the choice will be made for you. That is what he means when he says, “writing chooses you” and not the other way around.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity

The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, there is a similar message, and it is “don’t care” which is similar to “don’t try.” To not care, means to not be attached to a particular outcome, and to not try, means to not force things. Both messages are essentially the same, in that they favor the passive over the active. They seem counter-intuitive and that is why such a message is great at grabbing your attention. It is because you are so used to the opposite message, you are used to “don’t just sit there, do something” while these messages are saying, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

This echoes the distinction between Western and Eastern civilization, and the metaphorical lateralization of the brain, which is covered in The Master and His Emissary.

But more importantly, this is an idea that clearly, many people are starving for, and are drawn towards. Being programmed, from infancy, to idolize hard work, and overachievement, of attaining goals that are considered socially valuable, the modern adolescent and young adult is inevitably disappointed by the world that they live in, because they discover two painful facts. One, that the promised goods of society are not that good or satisfying. And two, that they, as professionals or individuals, cannot be anything they want to be. It feels as if, just as Alan Watts has written, some kind of delicate ruse was played on everyone, a double-blind game – and it is only discovered many years later, and in some cases, never.

Two books, that have appealed to the masses of young people around the world (the modern capitalistic world is no longer limited to the West), and have spoken to these problems in a direct way are 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson. The first book is about finding meaning in life through the voluntary adoption of responsibility, and the vehement rejection of nihilism. The latter book is about accepting the fact of one’s limitations, and only working towards things that really matter. On the surface, both books seem to be different in that Peterson promotes activity, while Manson calls for passivity. But, both books are similar, in a fundamental way, in that they contradict the conditioning of modern society.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson doesn’t call on his readers to merely adopt responsibility, but to do so by finding out what is meaningful. Carl Jung, the psychologist and mystic, who was deeply influenced by Eastern thought, is probably the thinker Peterson refers to the most. To find out what is meaningful, according to Peterson, is not go through an active search, or even a process of trial and error. It is not a series of steps that one follows, and it is not scientific. It is a highly intuitive, right-brained process (metaphorically), where one tries to decipher the messages of the unconscious, it is a venture inwards rather than outwards.

In Peterson’s words, the answer you are looking for will be revealed to you, almost mysteriously. To understand why this is important, we must understand what he is not saying. He is not adopting the rationalistic Freudian position, by saying that man is characterized by such and such urges, and must therefore plan his future in a way that compliments his basic nature that is already known to him. That would be the Western, scientific approach, which calls on the individual to outline an external goal that is important and socially necessary, and to figure out how to navigate towards that goal. But the goal itself, is something that one simply decides. There is no conversation that is happening between the conscious self and the unconscious self. In other words, “Don’t Try”, because the answer you are looking for will be revealed to you in time. This also is expressed in Peterson’s “watch what people do, not what they say.”

In Mason’s book, the message is to let go of your presuppositions about the world. Most likely, you will fail at most things you do, and the only guarantee that you will be miserable is if you expect too much from society, or from yourself. This addresses the two problems I discussed previously. Peterson does so in a different way, by inverting the question. Instead of expecting something from society, you should work towards finding a meaningful way of adding something valuable to society. And as for yourself, you should, instead of acting like a tyrant to yourself, seek to understand what you deeply desire and make sure that you incorporate this into your conscious self. Manson’s approach is straightforward and blunt. Peterson’s approach is more clever and subtle (ironically). Peterson subverts the problem of individual inadequacy, by reframing the question.

“Is it that you are not getting what you want, or is it that you do not yet know what you want?”

Peterson’s neat trick, is thus, to change the nature of the existential questions that the young adult faces in the modern world. Instead of thinking that the world owes you anything, think about your own shortcomings and how you can give something back. And instead of being distressed by your personal failure to fulfill your potential, know that you are extremely limited in your abilities, and that you are probably desiring the wrong things.

Manson’s solution to the first problem is that the world is mostly bad, so why expect anything good from it? And to the second question, his answer is to focus on fewer desires, and to not be so attached to them.

Both ideas contain undertones of Eastern thought, and I believe that is why they radiated with a Western audience. Both authors were able to provide something that was missing. In previous decades and centuries, the existential question, at least in the Western world, was taken care of, to a large part, by Christianity. There was an overarching framework that imbued each individual life with value, despite whatever hardship that might be endured. In modern Western society, the Christian framework is nowhere near as ubiquitous or dominant as it once was. Yet, the answer to these existential questions have been tackled by other traditions, and perhaps, it is the exotic nature of these answers that come from the East, their unfamiliarity, that grants them social legitimacy. And the fact, that on a practical level, they work.

To not try, and to not care, or rather, to try less and to care less, is a way of mitigating for the neurotic impulse to constantly do more than what is doing – a tiring urge that will inevitably break down the psyches of most people. To look inwards rather than outwards, to take responsibility for others rather than to expect others to take responsibility of you, is a useful idea, for the health of the psyche. Many psychoanalysts, as discussed in The Discovery of the Unconscious, have recommended work as the remedy to neurosis, for example.

But more importantly, it is the bringing back of the the locus of control to the individual that is the key to healing an injured psyche. There is nothing more empowering than the ability to have control, and nothing more destructive than fatalism. But a crucial distinction must be made. There are two kinds of fatalism, there is personal fatalism (I have no free will), and external fatalism (I cannot change anything in the world).

One of the main reasons for the anxiety of the modern individual, is equating the two kinds of fatalism – because the world cannot be influenced by me, I am powerless. What Peterson and Manson try to do is to resign the individual to only one kind of fatalism, and that is external fatalism. “While it is true that you cannot change the world, you at least can change yourself.”

Bukowski’s message, “don’t try”, is similar. To try, again, means to expect that one can make make something conform to one’s expectations, “I can try to be become a writer.” But this means, on a practical level, that one must get published to become a writer. To not try, means to resign the illusion of control, and to simply follow one’s own nature. “You are free to write, but don’t expect to become rich or famous from it.”

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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