Getting What You Want

In (U.S.) American life, the concept of happiness has been tragically confused with “getting what you want.” No one knows exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant by “pursuit of happiness,” but insofar as he was drawing on John Locke, he understood that happiness is a complex matter, not reducible to the satisfaction of ambitions, wishes, or desires. These might deceive us, after all, and what we want for ourselves at a given moment might not be good for others (or even ourselves, for that matter). So the pursuit of happiness involves restraint and reflection.

Over time, this idea of restraint has ceded to the dogma of “going for it,” “living your dream,” and so forth, so that people often feel ashamed if they are not hell-bent on attaining that fantasy in their head. What’s wrong with you? Do you have fixed mindset or something? Why aren’t you going after your goal with everything you’ve got and more? And I suspect that there’s at least a small element of this in mass shootings. The murderer gets an idea in his head and then starts to believe that he has to carry it out, that not doing so would be a colossal failure, a life not worth living. I don’t mean that this explains the mass shootings, only that it might contribute to a much more complex explanation.

Locke wrote in his 1690 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” “God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That in this state of ignorance we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action.” Then, a little later, under the heading “The necessity of pursuing happiness, the foundation of liberty”:  “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” In other words, pursuing happiness involves suspending our desires until we have examined them closely and determined whether they will bring us to true happiness. This is an ancient concept; it can be found in the Bible, in Plato, in the writings of the Greek and Roman Stoics, and elsewhere. But only after living in Hungary for four and a half years did I see the extent to which it is missing from areas of American life.

In the U.S., if you want to do or accomplish something, you throw yourself into it with full spirit and often a certain recklessness. You believe that your dreams will come true if you let nothing stand in the way of them. Some people go about this more prudently than others, but almost everyone believes in the pursuit of goals (more than they believe in reflection upon these goals and upon the means of pursuit). In my case, this often meant that I threw money into a project, just to make it possible. I didn’t worry about whether money was coming back to me (and it usually wasn’t). That was the primary reason why my literary journal, Sí Señor, folded (and why so many other literary journals do the same): my desire to see it in existence overrode my practicality. After four issues, each of which cost a couple thousand dollars to produce, I couldn’t afford it any more. I don’t regret the journal, or even the money I spent on it; if I had been more cautious, it might not have happened at all. Still, it reflected a belief that if you want something, you go for it, no holds barred. You do whatever it takes.

In Hungary, people are markedly more cautious and hesitant—especially with money, but with other matters too. They will generally wait before making a big purchase or investment; they want to make sure they have the best deal possible and are really going to make use of it. They are likewise circumspect with dreams and plans, unsure whether they will really pan out and whether they will be worth the effort. There are exceptions and complications to this, but the tendency comes through strongly. At the extremes, it is no better than the American goal-pursuit. If you don’t take risks, you miss all kinds of opportunities; you don’t let yourself even think of projects that seem beyond your reach. Still, I have learned from Hungarian caution.

There are many questions to consider, with respect to any plan or dream: how practical and attainable it is, whether it benefits us and others, whether it can be sustained, whether something lasting will come out of it, whether there are any risks or dangers involved, and so forth. Some of this is unknowable, but at least it’s worth asking. That doesn’t mean that a plan should be abandoned if it fails to satisfy the criteria. Sometimes the riskier projects and endeavors bring great rewards, not necessarily material ones. But the questions can help us avoid needless failure and waste. Not only that, but this kind of reflective mediation will help with the steps along the way.

This applies even to areas like friendship. When do you ask your friend for something, and when not? When do you disclose something, and when not? There isn’t just one right answer. It’s a fallacy that true friends are “always there for you” or privy to “your deepest secrets.” It isn’t true that if you hold back from revealing or asking for something, you are shortchanging yourself. Friendship can have depth even without constant presence or absolute openness. People are allowed to have their own preoccupations, their own privacies.

In general, there’s good reason to relieve oneself of crushing ultimatums: “Either I accomplish X, or I’m a total failure”; “either you accept everything about me and are there when I need you, or you aren’t a friend at all.” There’s no happiness, or even pursuit of it, in these choices. The world does not and should not bend to any one person’s will.

A kind of exuberant, dreamy ambition, combined with practicality, industry, moral sense, and regard for others, would be, if not “the best way,” at least a rich disposition. How do you cultivate this? Through daily life, introspection, projects, education—and often through not getting what you want.

Art credit: Goshawk by Alan M. Hunt.

Update: A comment from Michelle Sowey: Hi Diana, thanks for continuing your ever-thoughtful blog. Your third-last paragraph reminded me of another Kundera passage, from Testaments Betrayed, which expresses an even stronger and more uncompromising version of the idea: “…since childhood I had heard it said that a friend is the person with whom you share your secrets and who even has the right, in the name of friendship, to insist on knowing them. For my Icelander, friendship is something else: it is standing guard at the door behind which your friend keeps his private life hidden; it is being the person who never opens that door; who allows no one else to open it.”

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

How to Deal with the Void

Views of space reveal anything but a void—there’s more out there than we will ever come close to knowing—but the void I’m about to discuss is not outer space. It’s a void closer to home: the void that anyone has felt who has “put something out there” (on the internet or anywhere) and gotten no response at all. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their degree of fame. Or at least some version of it can happen. Maybe a famous person always gets responses of some kind, but some of them feel much more real than others. That, at times, can be more depressing than getting no response at all. Anyway, the void, from one angle, makes no sense. Out of the billions of people in the world, and the many millions who could potentially respond to this thing, why would no one bother to do so? What is going on? Is it the sheer overload of stuff that everyone’s expected to take in? Is it a habit of indifference? Lack of interest? Lack of time?

But the first question to ask is: Is it really a void? Most of the time, if we think about it, we realize that people have been responding to what we do, what we make, what we post. Maybe not in huge numbers, but those who do respond, do so genuinely. Waxing overdramatic and telling ourselves that “we’re talking to a void” will just reinforce the solipsism that hurts. There is often someone listening, or reading, or looking.

True, but sometimes it still feels like a void. That is fine. But aside from improving your own work and finding ways to reach more people with it, there’s only one way to respond: by cracking the void yourself, by taking in others’ work, by reading, listening, watching. Every time you do this, you give a work, and the person behind it, an audience. And in doing so, you and the work together create something other than a void.

The void does not get erased, though. It isn’t the internet, though the internet exacerbates the anxiety. On the one hand, it’s fate, and on the other, a fundamental feeling. The fate is everyone’s. We all die one day, and whether or not our own works and actions survive us, we descend into nothingness of some kind. That is true even if you believe in an afterlife. The afterlife transcends the nothingness, but the nothingness is still there. We will never come back.

The feeling is real too: no matter how full our lives are, we’re always dealing with the abyss in some way: maybe up close, maybe from a distance, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. We know that what we do matters intensely, and we also know that it does not; it will all be gone one day, and we’re just one speck in the human population, which in turn is a speck in space. The void is not just the silence from the world. The void is inside us, at the center of our knowledge and intuition.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “First Snow,” one of my favorites, has something to do with this theme, so I recommend it here, both for that reason and for itself.

So a second response, which can accompany the first, is to acknowledge the void. Instead of trying to get rid of it, laugh and cry into it, say whatever you want to it, sing into it.

And there the fun begins. Because the void is there, but it’s not the only thing there. Music exists alongside it. Maybe that’s what heaven is: the music that gleams on the edge of the void and admits anyone who hears it.

Image credit: Hubble Extreme Deep Field NASA/ESA, courtesy of Vox.

Thoughts on Privilege

Any discussion of privilege has to make room for three contrasting truths. Every society, every economy, every political system favors some groups over others in unjustified and sometimes brutal ways. It is essential to examine and address this without flinching. At the same time, the picture is more complicated than we may realize; groups are not internally uniform, nor is their external treatment; neither of these can be understood properly without a careful study of history. Beyond that, no one knows the sum total of another person. We have little idea what those around us have gone through, good, bad, or mixed. Nor are they obliged to tell us. Any discussion of privilege must respect privacy and the unknown.

Everyone’s life contains a mixture of advantages and setbacks. There is no way to calculate the sum total. That doesn’t mean group privilege, such as privilege resulting from one’s race, class, or sex, should be ignored. It can just be approached discerningly.

Privilege comes in many different forms. Some of it is accorded to us, or withheld from us, on account of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, or even looks or mannerisms. (David Brooks has a compelling opinion piece on “lookism.”) Some of it comes to us in response to things we do. Some responds to how we see the world. It’s hard to isolate the things that we received passively, through no work of our own, from the ones we and those around us had a hand in. One of the biggest complications here is that parents tend to want every privilege in the world for their children. Even if they try to make their children aware of the privilege, they would not want to take it away.

What some people call privilege, others call blessings; yet the two words have profoundly different connotations. Blessings come from God or from unnamed sources; they may be earned or unearned, but a person is supposed to see them, give thanks for them, rejoice in them. Privilege, on the other hand, is a distinctly secular concept. It comes from the world, not from God, and while one can feel grateful for privilege, it’s generally considered wrong to rejoice in it, because it comes at someone else’s expense. The goal of at least some discussions of privilege is to change the system of distribution.

But privilege is only partly objective. Two people in near-identical circumstances can have opposite views of their fortune, and their views can change considerably over time. This does not erase the circumstances themselves, buf it adds a twist to them.

Once you have identified some privileges and inequalities, what then? Efforts to rectify the latter can have terrible (or, at best, mixed) consequences. Social justice movements can be myopic, ignoring some of the injustices in their midst. Take, for example, the teaching profession in the U.S. In many parts of the country, teachers and their unions have succeeded, over time, in securing higher salaries. But in return for these raises and new salary scales, they have agreed to do additional work, such as daily meetings, hall and cafeteria monitoring, regular parental contact, detailed documentation of everything. The job can be so exhausting and packed that it leaves little time for what should be at its heart: thinking about the subject matter and considering how to teach it. The privilege of the higher salary comes at the expense of contemplation. Here in Hungary I have a drastically lower salary than I would in the U.S., but I have considerable freedom and flexibility (as well as a curriculum, mind you), which allow me to do my work better. I would not exchange that for more money. Teachers should be paid more here, much more, but we should be careful about what we agree to give in return.

Discussions of privilege should involve the following questions: What do we mean by privilege? How might our view of it be limited or distorted? How much do we know of another person’s privilege or lack thereof, or even our own? What are we hoping to accomplish? What might be some unintended consequences of our efforts? Who is “we” here? Such questions, if taken up boldly and thoughtfully, would deepen the discussion and action.

Passover and Advice to Self

We’re heading into Shabbat and then Pesach (Passover), which, like Yom Kippur but in a very different way, asks for introspection. In particular, the question comes up year after year, in synagogue services and at seders, in relation to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim): What is your personal Mitzrayim? What is something from which you have been liberated, or wish to be liberated? Another aspect of Passover is the outward look, toward liberation needed in the world. I often felt uncomfortable discussing both questions: the first was too private, the second (sometimes) too formulaic and pat. But this year I have been thinking of something that applies to both inner and outer life.

If I were to give one piece of advice to my past (or even present) self, it would be this: “Don’t worry about what people think of you. Do worry–to the extent that worrying helps you–about how your actions affect others.”

First I have to clear up that point: Worrying can be helpful sometimes. It allows you to ruminate over something, which in turn may bring you some kind of clarity. Often, through the worrying, you figure out an internal or external response. Worrying gets destructive, though, when it’s frivolous or leads nowhere.

But so much of my worrying, throughout my life, has been about inconsequential things: a slightly awkward conversation; a moment when I was just a little more blunt than I expected to be, or a little less so; a vague feeling that something somewhere went wrong. Sometimes I have carried that worry for days or longer. Sometimes I have even worried about the worrying itself.

On the other hand, certain worries have been right on target: about hurting someone’s feelings, or neglecting some responsibility, or going too far with one idea or another. This doesn’t mean that the worrying was always needed, or needed indefinitely, but at least it drew attention to something important.

How do you sort out the important from the unimportant? That’s a project that never ends. But once it begins, it brings some relief. Some things really don’t matter. In particular: the awkward moments where no harm was done, just things did not feel perfect. Things don’t have to be perfect, and human beings are a bit awkward by nature. Nature itself is awkward, wriggling in and out of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover to those who celebrate them, and a happy weekend to all!

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

It is here! Peruse it with abandon, and leave a comment if you wish! I have copied my Letter from the Editor below.


Folyosó began in the spring of 2020, when school in Hungary had gone online in response to COVID-19. After a brief interlude of in-person classes in the fall, we have been back online since mid-November, with ongoing hopes of returning to school. During this time, students have written essays, stories, short scenes, contest entries, and more; this issue features some of these winter fruits, along with Lilla Kassai’s art.

We proudly present our first international contest, for which students wrote pieces about imaginary inventions. The jury (Judit Kéri, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, Edit Göröcs, and I) had a difficult time ranking the ten finalists; while we eventually chose winners, we are delighted to publish all ten pieces here. It was an honor to receive entries from the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul, as well as from many Varga students; we hope to bring the two schools and others together for an online Folyosó event this spring.

For the scenes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students were supposed to start with something in the play and take it in a surprising direction. The scenes published here—Áron Antal’s “Something Even Stranger,” Gréta Tóth’s “A Midsummer Night’s Gestalt,” Gergely Sülye’s “As from a Voyage,” Dorottya Turza’s “The Surprise of the Century,” Dávid Csáki’s “Let Him Roar Again,” Bertalan Szegi’s “Act 1, Scene 1,” and Zsófia Szabina Gávris’s “A Nice Article”—abound with wit, emotion, and surprise.

This is also the first time that we feature writers from Class 9.B (which I teach once a week); I have been impressed with this class’s imagination and look forward to publishing more of their work.

The winter issue does not include any writings from the Orwell project, but we may publish a few of them in the spring. For this project, Varga students joined with a class of tenth-graders at Columbia Secondary School to read and discuss Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a great experience; you can read much more about it on the project website.

Some of the pieces in this issue grapple with difficult problems: isolation, introspection, death and grief, political vanity, and disillusionment; others delight in books, friendship, everyday mishaps and mistakes, and visions of the future. The issue’s overall spirit brings to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“: not just the famous lines

It is right it should be so 
Man was made for Joy & Woe 
And when this we rightly know 
Thro the World we safely go 

but much more. In this issue you will find a procession of experience, thoughts, questions: from Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho’s essay “The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary” to Hunor Gangel’s “From Late to Early”; from Gergely Sülye’s “Transformation” to Lili Forgács’s “The Truth”; from Sándor Tor’s “Is This the Future?” to Zsófia Vona’s “A Dream Come True”; from Sándor Szakács’s “Challenging Times” to Adél Mihályi’s “Personalities”; from Bettina Czékus’s “Arbya” to Eszter Aletta Hevesi’s “The Story of Gen E”; from Tamás Takács’s “Michael the Caterpillar” to Botond Vass’s “The Shelter.”

We wish you good health, happy winter reading, and many returns! As ever, we welcome your submissions and comments.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

The Privacy and Publicity of Religion

Each religion, in its different ways, has both communal and private dimensions; its believers will have different proportions of the two tendencies. Some people take part in a religion primarily for the social aspects, some for the solitary. Judaism emphasizes the communal, but it is not only communal, just as some branches of Christianity, while placing great emphasis on solitude and privacy, do not live in these alone.

Degrees of privacy do not necessarily correspond with degrees of observance. A person can be highly private about religion but also highly observant, or highly private but barely observant at all. All of the combinations not only exist but are needed. In all the possible variety, the greatest danger comes from excessive certainty and self-pride, on both the believing and the nonbelieving ends. The variety helps to mitigate the certainty.

Do we know that God exists? We have no empirical proof of this; faith is different from knowledge. Do we know that sacred texts are true and divine? Again, we have no empirical proof. Yet we believe strongly, one way or another. Those on the opposite ends–those who say the Bible is perfect and divine, and those who say it’s a bunch of rubbish–will likely disparage each other. Those profane atheists who deny the True Way! Those wacky religious fundamentalists who don’t live in the actual world!

But all of us probably need people who are more observant (or believing), and people who are less so, than we ourselves are. (Not that it’s always a question of “more” or “less”–but this imperfect framework will do for now.) From those who are more observant, one can learn a great deal about centuries-old wisdom and practices; from those who are less so, flexibility and openness.

Once, in the U.S., I was in an awkward situation, in a Shavuot all-night study session. I was sitting next to someone who was at the synagogue for the first time, and new to Judaism. She was eager to start learning Hebrew and liturgy, and asked me if I could recommend any resources. I named a few, which she began to write down. Then I saw three rabbis looking intently at me.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a holiday; you aren’t supposed to write on certain holidays (including Shavuot and Shabbat), nor are you supposed to encourage it. They were looking at me because I was the one they knew. Then one of the rabbis approached the woman and gently asked her not to write.

In the moment, I was mortified, but I realized that the rabbis were not trying to embarrass either of us. They simply needed to maintain the expected practices in shul, for everyone’s sake. After that incident, I came to realize that this prohibition against writing on specific holidays is upheld by Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but not necessarily by Reform. In addition, I saw that even within Conservatism, individuals differ widely in their practices. Once in a while, on Shabbat, one person might give another a phone number, or an email address, and the other person would step outside, or at least out of the sight of others, to write it down. Some write on Shabbat and other holidays, but not when others are looking. Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily; it can be seen simply as respect.

But even within a shul, you have those who wouldn’t even consider writing on a holiday, and, on the other end, those who think it’s absurd not to write if you wish to do so. There’s a distinction, moreover, between private and public practice: there are those who justify writing in private, but not in public.

Why does Jewish rabbinic law prohibit writing on holidays? The reason is that writing constitutes a type of creation, which is a form of work. Torah explicitly and repeatedly prohibits work on Shabbat and specific other holidays; rabbinic tradition interprets writing as work. Creation is work in that it brings something into existence that was not there before. The holidays cannot allow for work; they are meant for worship and rest. This has profound meaning and challenge at once. It takes tremendous discipline, but it opens up into beauty. Honoring this in its fullness can be a lifelong project and more: the project of generation upon generation.

On the other hand, there are reasons to question this prohibition. In the case above, where a newcomer has come to the shul, it feels awkward to say, “Yes, I can give you resources, but you shouldn’t write them down.” Or: “If you come back next Shabbat, I’ll give you a list I have prepared in advance.” There are many other times when writing might be both reasonable and helpful. I was surprised, at my (European Progressive) shul here in Hungary, so see people taking notes during Shabbat study sessions. At a basic level, it makes sense; if you are studying something, don’t you want to try to remember it? True, some people remember better when they just listen (I am one of those), but others are greatly helped by being able to underline, jot down words, and so on.

Back to the question of stepping out of view to give someone a phone number: If we do these things in secret, doesn’t this obscure the situation? If people are actually writing, shouldn’t they do so openly, so that others who write know they aren’t alone? Maybe it’s time for a reassessment of writing, especially in the internet era, and during Covid, when it’s a way for people not only to keep in touch, but to lay out their thoughts, to come to terms (or not) with the world.

On the other hand, the public and private questions are truly separate. What you do in public (at shul, for instance) must take into account the expectations and rules of that particular public or community. What you do in private has to do with your own conscience and standards. This is why the private aspect of religion is so important; it allows you to follow what you truly believe, while also participating in a larger whole.

My own beliefs are ambivalent. On the one hand, I see reasons, both sacred and practical, to refrain from writing, and from numerous other activities, at specified times. In our incessantly active world, where we’re expected to be doing, doing, doing, a sacred time for stopping can bring deep restoration. It is extraordinary that Judaism explicitly builds and protects this time. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the taboo and its effects: the guilt, the shame. Some of my best writing happens when I have a stretch of time before me, not when I am caught up in the rush of the week. For the first forty-nine years of my life, Shabbat wasn’t even a concept for me. Since my shul-going days began, I have sometimes written on Shabbat, when the ideas were there and I didn’t think they could wait; when I had a pressing deadline; when I wanted or needed to contact someone; or when I had so much teaching preparation to do (preparing lessons, commenting on students’ writing) that refraining would have put undue pressure on Sundays, leading to exhaustion at the start of the teaching week. That said, when I had left Columbia Secondary School to write my second book, I deliberately structured my writing week so that Shabbat could be dedicated to shul, reading, and relaxing. I loved that rhythm–and had plenty of time for writing, since the weekdays were devoted to it.

I do not think God, if there is one, would condemn me for writing on Shabbat or any other time, unless I were writing mean and vile things. Yet I also believe that the day of rest is a gift that asks something of us not in return, but in response. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath comes to my memory again and again.

Back to the beginning: the public and the private, the greater and lesser degrees of observance, all offer something, for the simple reason that no one has the complete answer, not for others or for oneself. I brought in the example of writing because it affects us all and because it illustrates how perspectives and practices can differ, even among people together in a room. People inevitably judge each other to an extent; this results naturally from setting standards for oneself. But judgments can come with questions. In a world overfilled with certainties and dogma (just as it is overfilled with activity), perhaps the questions should come first: and first among these, the ones we ask inside the soul.

I made a few minor edits to this piece, in several stages, after posting it.

Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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