Word-finding, like archaeology, requires a special touch. A method focused by years of effort and input both designed to give the brain (or the hand) the ability to map out and follow to perfection the best possible path. You dig too hard, you lose track of the sentence, fracturing and thus destroying the meaning of the passage like you would crack a fossil; you dust too gently, and you’re stuck with nothing of more than passing interest. Which is to say, nothing more than the dust itself.
For archaeologists, the training tends to stay more regimented: a college program featuring hands-on work, then apprenticeships, then methodically working one’s way up the hierarchy in digs. For producers of language, the training shrinks down to the personal. It involves the constant, almost gluttonous digestion of written material – selective only to a degree: the gourmet should be savored, but the bad stuff has its place.
But they both share a central necessity: upkeep. Dulled eyes can miss the signature glisten of fossilized prehistory; an errant mind will unravel in a turn of phrase. And nothing so blunts a sharp edge than a life of comfort.
Our generation has enjoyed a brand of comfort unparalleled in the world’s history. We are the recliners, the coddled, the children for whom the once-implausible, if not impossible luxury of immediate satisfaction became commonplace. We get our information at a speed rivaling – and often outpacing – our own brainwaves, our TV on demand. The connection between work and goods has never been more invisible, and the emphasis on work itself never lighter.
It’s the sort of comfort that dulls broadly, removing quietly and stealthily from a generation the drive to create and the willingness to fight to make it happen. It’s the sort of comfort that makes us now ask, Can happiness, comfort and creativity all breathe in the same space? Or does one – maybe, do two – of the other forces have to give up their supplies of air so that creation can suck in a full breath of oxygen before embarking? In the long run of artistic and professional achievement, the answer has been, largely, no. For greatness to arise, a base state of desperation and unease appears to have to precede the ascent.
E.B. White, before he became staff at the New Yorker and wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, more or less called Grand Central Terminal home. Hemingway lived in a tiny flat in Paris with his wife, spending little to no money on anything, although he made an exception for the ponies (until he got real good – then he made his money there). Orwell started his writing career at Wigan Piers in England, which was then — and largely remains now — nothing more than a sudsy pit. MLK wrote perhaps his finest work from behind bars. The examples span genres and media: Jonathan Larson was crammed into a flat the size of a SmartCar in the East Village when he wrote Rent; Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, told me that he had to work two jobs during the first years of the brewery, just to feed his family.
Comfort, as far as personal elevation is concerned, is a dangerous thing. In much the same way that perpetual winning in sports clouds a team’s ability to recognize its own shortcomings – the ones that may prove ultimately to be their undoing – comfort and security provides men* with a toxic sense of well-being. They sate hunger, quench the thirst for more. In an effort to stay in comfort’s good graces, men are quick to slam shut the mental doors that hold it in.
The status quo is thus embraced. Questions about truth, reflection about one’s own self and one’s own life and certain, less immediately beneficial passions, are pushed aside. To maintain a state of comfort, everything beyond that central concern becomes superfluous. To the end of keeping up a milquetoast, bland sense of happiness, taking a risk to achieve something of lasting greatness has no place.
Happiness and comfort, too, have become confused in American life. To defer back to Aristotle – which seems a firm enough thing to do – happiness exists as state of ‘soul in accord,’ as the realization of our own abilities, longings and potential. For him, happiness exists when we flourish and fall in stride with The Good. He includes nothing in his definition of happiness about accumulation of goods or other trappings, the likes of which produce the feeling of comfort. In fact, he writes that those externals cannot truly be factored into happiness because of their essential transience – we can quickly be stripped of our wealth and our prestige.
And that transience, of course, places those agents of comfort in great demand. When achieved, comfort is clung to – by nature, comfort implies a reticence to change. Imagine yourself in a chair: in an uncomfortable position, you feel compelled to change; once you hit that comfortable arrangement, you stay. There are enough ass indents on this country’s couches to make this point by themselves.
As such, comfort removes the mandate of creation – and more, it strips from men the will to finish the job, as important as the inspiration itself. One can want to create, one can even try to create, but both aren’t enough. Without completion, none of that matters – a thought without expression dies on the vine. A building that goes only halfway up is forever derelict.
Comfort provides a cushion, notice that if the quest isn’t accomplished, there’ll be a fallback. In an environment of comfort, failure is always an option. Not great, public failure, but the millions of little daily failures – failures of effort, of conscience, of soul, of courage, of perseverance – that together conspire to make a life nothing beyond unremarkable.
Men are allowed to cut themselves some slack, to wait for the ghostly apparition of the The Right Time; they give themselves the luxury of Letting Inspiration Strike instead of fighting, battling to improve their lot and leave proof that they did exist. And when men in comfort allow themselves to wait for their Muse to whisper in their ears, they’ll do nothing but wait, going to their graves with nothing but years of extinguished dreams and miles of slack cut.
*Men, for the sake of this essay, refers to both genders.