Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is called a romantic. He painted pictures of people looking out at sunsets, moonlit landscapes, cemeteries, morning mists, barren forests and ruins.
It’s easy to imagine entering a Friedrich’s painting to enjoy a melancholy meander at dusk in misty autumn stillness, to contemplate life and death, to feel the music of this mad world and wonder: Can I be wise?
The trouble with wisdom according to Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, is that it’s conformist. Wisdom can be used to rationalize participation in enjoyments better avoided or to avoid enjoyments sadly missed.
“Whatever you do, a wise man will come along to justify it,” says Žižek (I’m generally opposed to wisdom).
You could say, “What the hell!” and quote the wisdom of Horace (Roman poet) made famous by a Dead Poets Society: “Carpe diem. Seize the day! Enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe” (Phrase-finder)…
… or you could play it safe with wisdom of camel retention, “Tie your camel first then put your trust in Allah” (Daily Hadith Online)…
…or you could quote wisdom encouraging you not to worry about anything, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mathew 6:25-34).
It was Walt Whitman who said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes)” (Song of Myself). He probably didn’t realize how right he was.
There are multitudes of opposing views within each of us. It’s how we think.
David Eagleman writes, “Brains are like representative democracies. They are built of multiple, over-lapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices…There is an on going conversation among the different factions of your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior” (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, p. 107).
At its most basic, our brains are in a two-party system. One side renders decisions based on emotion (like a romantic) and the other bases decisions on reason (like a mathematician).
A person’s brain is like a bag of jelly-beans. Each jelly-bean has a flavour of thought. When you’re offered something to enjoy, factions will argue in front of a brain “boss” who listens and renders a decision about what to do.
Let’s say you’re life is going well. You enjoy yourself (for the most part), but someone comes along who has everything you want. You compare yourself and find yourself lacking. A faction of jelly-beans gets envious – Team Envy – and another faction feels ashamed for feeling envy.
When factions within your brain present conflicting arguments, what’s your brain-boss going to do?
You could turn to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who encouraged people to embrace envy. Nietzsche’s perspective is explained thus, “a great-souled person – an Übermensch – rises above their circumstances and difficulties to embrace whatever life throws at them… He recommends that we own up to envy, use it to inspire us to action, put up a heroic fight and if we fail, to mourn with solemn dignity” (Philosophy, Nietzsche).
You could turn to psychologist Mary Lamia who writes, “You may idealize another person when you are envious…When you experience envy… you have an opportunity to learn about yourself…” (Jealousy and Envy). “Negative interpersonal experiences that leave you feeling… jealousy, envy, anger, or rage can alert you to the possibility of shame contagion…Don’t be afraid to accept responsibility… Only then can you forgive yourself” (Psychology Today –Shame).
You could turn to a story about what happens when three great spiritual leaders taste vinegar:
“Confucius found it sour, much as he found the world, full of degenerate people and Buddha found it bitter, much as he found the world to be full of suffering, but Lau Tzu found the world sweet. He saw an underlying harmony” (Eastern Philosophy).
Lau Tzu said that we need to find effortless action, a sort of purposeful acceptance of the world and to make time for stillness (Lessons and Thoughts) which brings us back to Friedrich’s paintings.
Maybe all we need to do to feel absolute free enjoyment is to do what people in a Friedrich’s painting do. Go for a misty stroll alone or with another. Gaze at the moon. Sit in sunshine. Visit a cemetery. Let the jelly-beans within stop their debating for awhile. Sing a song at sunset to yourself. Uncomplicate your life and be in the world.
As Bert Dreyfus puts it, “in fully absorbed coping, mind and world cannot be separated…” or as Sartre said, “When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I. . . . I am then plunged into the world of objects… but me, I have disappeared” (Mind-reason and being-in-the-world).
So too can you enjoy this merging with the world and be wise.