What keeps you going?
Writing these posts every Sunday fuels me up for the rest of the week. Hitting publish feels like a butterfly flickering out of a magician’s hat on a sunny day. A hot air ballon soaring upwards in an open blue sky. It is a magnificent feeling. Things that make me feel this way like writing, are easy to continue doing.
Other things, create moments of agony for me. Certain tasks seem insurmountable, and doomed to exist in the dark depths of my To Do List dungeon. The butterfly is dead, and the balloon has a slit. I can hear the air seep out. “Hiissssss” goes the gumption out of my soul.
Today, I want to share my story, about how it took me 10 years to read one unsettling novel, that led me to the word gumption. A word that holds the magical potion of life. Told first centuries ago by a Scott, and somehow went out of fashion.
It all started when a friend handed me an old, wrinkled book. I was 22. It was 2010. The book was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance.It was the first time I saw that turquoise cover that I have come to love and loathe so much.
It took me 10 years and three attempts to fully read this book, and so I am NOT recommending it to anyone. I will spare you the trouble of reading this story about a very self-indulgent and intellectually arrogant hero.
Instead, we’ll get straight to the good stuff.
The friend who gave me this book, is one of those smart people that my 22 year old self wanted to be like. He was a member of an imaginary club of intellectuals who discuss Hegel and Nietzche while sipping Cognac. I wanted a platinum membership, and reading this book seemed like a way in. Otherwise, I would not be wasting my time reading non-medical books, let alone fiction.
2010. I am 22 years old.
Motivation: I want to be part of the imaginary intellectual Cognac club.
Result: Read one chapter. Took me a good 6 weeks.
I started reading, and the story premise was cool: A guy takes his son and his best friends on a motorcycle ride across America. It is dense with deep philosophical themes about what is real and what is not. However, the narrator seems arrogant and is going on and on about ghosts and gravity, and whether they existed or not.
That seemed futile to me then. Why argue?
Ghosts are not real, and yes gravity exists.
The narrator seems to be very opinionated, self-centered and loud. He goes into dizzying debates with his friends and son. The novel is written in the first person, so you feel trapped in that narrator’s mind, with no where to stretch your feet, or hide and rest for a bit.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
"No," I say
"Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic." The way I say this makes John smile.
"They contain no matter," I continue, "and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, (ghosts) do not exist except in people’s minds."
Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?"[...] "having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind […] The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense. […]
We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own."
The book confuses me because the narrator is making both opposite arguments, and he is just ruining the trip for everyone, including me the reader. I quickly dislike the protagonist and how hard this book was to read, and was ready to put it down after six weeks of trying to get through chapter 1.
However, the last bit of dialogue caught me attention.
"Did you ever know a ghost?" Chris asks.
[…] "I knew a fellow once who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time. So go to sleep."
I realize my mistake too late.
“Did he find him?"
"Yes, he found him, Chris." I keep wishing Chris would just listen to the wind and not ask questions.
"What did he do then?"
"He thrashed him good."
"Then he became a ghost himself."
Then he became a ghost himself.
I kept thinking of that, but I put the book away…
not thinking I will ever see it again.
6 years later…
I felt a deep sadness
that did not go away.
My mind was in a wrestling game
Life felt like
a glass box
with no sound waves,
a straight jacket
with a mouth gag,
a chilling silence
in the dead of night.
Shit, I have become a ghost.
I made this realization after switching careers, traveling through countries, and doing all the things I thought would make me happy. Somehow though, my gumption tank was on empty.
My hot air balloon was free falling from the sky.
I remembered the book, and grabbed it from storage. There it was…that damn turquoise cover that I chose to abandon six years ago. It stared me in the eye, and scolded me for abandoning it all these years.
I flip once again to the first page.
The year is 2016, and I am 28.
My motivation: Healing.
Result: Read half the book.
Time: A long ass 18 months.
This time I'm reading this book searching for a way to survive a rapidly debilitating mental state. I read through 15 chapters, looking for insights despite the narrator’s many self indulging monologues and the details of motorcycle maintenance ad nauseam.
And then, one day, I read and I get it.
As the hero and his friend drive their motorcycles across incredible imagery, all they can do is bicker and fight about various topics. They forget about their dream trip coming true, and focus on being right.
It becomes clear that the difference between them, is what this book is actually about. It is about the grand debate between scientific (Classical) and emotional (Romantic) ways of thinking.
So this is where it gets interesting…and a little strange.
At one point, as if his monologues aren’t enough, he meets his own ghost “Phaedrus” and the book turns into long conversations between the narrator and…yup…himself.
Together, he and his ghost debate rational and emotional states, and which one is true or false. The inner monologue gets more fierce, and the narrator’s mind turns into a wild Savannah. The ghost starts taking over the show. He’s loosing it. He lost it. He is admitted to the psychiatric ward.
And finally there is a big realization. All the fighting with each other was all in vain.What really mattered was the state of “Quality” and that it is all about the small moments that energize us whether they are rational or emotional.
These quality moments are the place where our rational and emotional selves can coexist.
That is where I found it:
Scottish in origin,
and lost over the ages
“I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.
A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.
Robert M. Pirsig
That word helped me ask the right questions about my life.
What was I doing with my time? How do I want to feel when I wake up? What matters to me about my job? My partner? My health?
I was like a caterpillar noticing the tiny little wings on its back.
The word GUMPTION actually healed me somehow.
I dropped the book again after 18 months of trying to get through the rest of it.
I felt complete.
Four Years Later…
Six months before the pandemic, I got fired from the most “secure” job I had, and at the same time needed to move back to Egypt to be with the person I loved. Big changes, big moves and by the first weekend of the Pandemic, I was married and helping my wife move books from her parents place.
We stumbled upon her university books, and there it was, at the top of the batch, staring me in the eye.
The fucking book.
Robert M Prisig.
We meet again….
The turquoise cover had been torn and the brown first page with the title lay barren and begging to be turned.
It wasn’t just classical vs romantic,
Biden vs Trump,
Black vs White,
Mask vs no Mask,
Men vs Women,
etc. etc. etc.,
I realized why I could not read
the whole book earlier.
2010 wasn’t the year for it.
Now I could see the book reflected out,
onto the world around me.
We had collectively,
lost our gumption .
2020. 32 years old.
Motivation: Make sense of the crazy world I am living in.
Gumption levels: High enough to finish this damn book (10 years after my first attempt!)
I picked up the book again. I read the whole thing in about eight months this time. As I read the whole description of classic and romantic ways of thinking this time, I reflected on the 2020 political and cultural debates.
I started straight from the Quality chapter, and this time I got gripped by the inner duel between the narrator, and his alter ego “Phaedrus”. I recognized his pain then, and for the first time, I could feel empathy towards the asshole protagonist. He was in a full fledged war with himself. His ghost was now ruling the real world.
Which one of them was the real ghost? That became a very real question towards the end. I really felt for the guy. I realized that the reason why I hated him….is because I hate the part of myself that he reminded me of.
In the years before, I had enough nights where I’d beat myself up with my thoughts. Punch, Punch, Kick, Punch. The protagonist and Phaedrus were locked in that kind of eternal rational and emotional bleeding game of death.
One of his selves had to die, so that the other could survive.
I can’t remember how the book ended, but it left me with an important thesis:
Mental health struggles can be healed by changing the conversations that we have within our own selves.
It took 10 years of life experience, to make that book a quality and life-changing read for me. It took 10 years to have the right amount of gumption to even get through it. Would it not be ok to give anything I want to achieve all the time it needs to make sense and raise my spirited?
Today I realize the burden that I put on myself and how I burn myself out. Today I realize that writing brings me gumption. Not publishing, not selling books, not even critical acclaim. These are all side effects. The very act of sitting, and crafting stories, sentences, and paragraphs, fills up my tank.
Thanks for being here. What fills your psychic gas tank? What makes you more of a ghost? What dims your light? What fires up your spirit?
So many questions.
Luckily, we have next Sunday,
Leave me a in the comments if you had the gumption to make it all the way here!