Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Art of Living: Learning, Loving, and Laughing

Happy New Year, Nobody in Particular! 

            It’s been far too long since I have written to you. I hope that you, your family, and friends had a wonderful holiday season and that this letter finds you ready to once again turn the page. Erin and I are glad to leave 2013 behind; it was definitely one of the more challenging years in our lives, and we are eager to see what further positive changes 2014 will bring. And while it was a trying year at times, it ended on a hectic yet great note with my youngest brother-in-law, Ross, getting married on his birthday last Saturday. There’s nothing quite like a wedding to remind us all about what is most important in life: learning, loving, and laughter. A good marriage is ultimately about these three ideals in equal measure: that in marriage we will learn and grow from and with each other; that successful marriages are founded on a love that seems to deepen with each passing day; that some of the best moments in marriage are when a couple can laugh with (and sometimes at) each other and together.
            Even beyond the context of marriage, though, I think these three ideals are perhaps the most important aspects of life, which I hope to explain with this letter. I think they are not only universal ideals to be espoused with words, but are crucial aspects for a life well lived. Much of what I have tried to put into words by writing these letters over these last few years has been an attempt to suss out what it means to live life well. When I first began writing these letters three and a half years ago, I used the metaphor of sculpture. We are all carving out our life’s work, our great masterpiece or “magnum opus” with the choices we make. Those choices determine who we become over time in our journey through life and, ultimately, what our magnum opus looks like.

            To an outsider, I am quite confident that my work-in-progress looks weird. I’ve been deeply influenced by philosophy and religion, both of which have profoundly shaped my worldview. Like Michelangelo who saw the sculpture inside the rock and tried to carve it in a way that would release the image contained within, at the core of who I am I know there is a philosopher who is endlessly questioning and curious about life along with a religious mystic who has realized that this life (both mine in particular and all of existence in general) is an incredible gift that is never to be taken for granted. Because of this, most people think I am just flat out weird. And sometimes it’s difficult to explain my rationale for the way I live because words fail to describe what I feel inside my heart and mind. Just the other day at the wedding, my now sister-in-law’s brother said to me, “So, I hear you’re the health freak.” Now, I don’t think I am a health freak; I think what I have learned has affected me for the better and I try to eat healthfully most of the time because as far as I can tell this will be the only chance I get to live life the best I can.
            This focus on living life well has brought me to somewhere I never expected to be just a decade ago. I am an extremely happy and grateful person, and a large part of that has to do with my relationship with Erin specifically and all of my relationships with other people generally. Writing these letters has helped me discover something about myself, and for what it’s worth, I hope that they have helped you in some small measure, NIP. I know that the frequency with which I have written the letters has fallen off during the last year, and this is due to a few reasons: first, 2013 was a struggle. Some of the events of that struggle were detailed in the letters of last year, but overwhelmingly the struggle that ensued only led to further personal growth and closer relationships with Erin’s side of the family; second, and perhaps more importantly, I began to feel as if these letters weren’t offering anything new or fresh. It seems as if I was beginning to retread old ground that I had already covered; third, I think the older I get the more philosophical and mystical I become, and I need to find a different outlet for that (and if you’re interested in joining me on this new adventure, please be sure to check out this letter’s post-script). Though this will not be the final letter, I will probably only write them on occasion moving forward rather than trying to write two letters every month as I used to in years past. For what it’s worth, the final three sections of this letter will be a distillation of what I have gleaned through this process since beginning these letters.

             As I mentioned in the beginning, a good marriage is about three critical components: learning, loving, and laughing. I also personally believe that these are the essential elements to “the good life,” as philosophers for centuries have called it. This isn’t to say that one must be married to have “the good life” or anything like that; perhaps my ideas just happen to coincide with the fact that I have a great marriage with a very special woman. It is truly difficult for me to separate the causal connection(s) and I don’t know for sure if my marriage has brought about these changes in me, but either way my relationship with Erin has played a significant part in my overall development as a human being. With that said, please allow me to explain one final time as to why these are the three most important ingredients for a life well lived.


            I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I am a nerd’s nerd. I have a restless, unquenchable thirst for learning. Whether technical or practical knowledge matters not, if it is something that I do not know or understand I probably want to learn more about it. If I had a role model, it would easily be Socrates, the ever-curious wanderer who was the gadfly of Athens, always questioning, questioning, questioning. As I approach the middle years of my life, I believe I finally understand Socrates—if not as a person, then at least as an archetype. All this questioning in the long run doesn’t get you answers, it only gets you more questions. And that’s where the real learning begins. The real learning is in knowing the only one thing that Socrates told us we were actually capable of knowing—nothing. This is the heart of wisdom, and also, I think, the heart of humility. Thinking that we know everything breeds hubris, which makes us small and makes our lives small and petty; thinking that we know nothing not only breeds humility but a sense of wonderment as well. The endless questioning that brings this out in humanity is akin to our childhood when we were ceaselessly fascinated by every aspect of life. By cultivating this childlike curiosity, we open ourselves up to the inherent beauty all around us. To paraphrase the religion scholar Huston Smith, the greater the sea of knowledge, the longer the shore of mystery. The more we try to learn about ourselves, others, the universe and everything within and beyond, the more we realize that the art of living is based on learning.

            Learning doesn’t just mean reading books and watching documentaries, either. I think the most important lessons are the ones we learn in everyday life. While I’ve probably read more than 100 books since starting these letters, none of those tomes helped me become who I am in this present moment more than the daily interactions with my beautiful wife, other members of my family, my students, my friends and coworkers. None of those books taught me more than taking time out each day to spend time in mediation and prayer. Sure, I loved reading them and they certainly all contributed to my personal growth, but none more so than the reciprocity within each relationship with which I am blessed. The most important idea to remember about learning is this, NIP: it never stops. Learning is a lifelong process. If you’re not learning, you’re probably not living, at least not to your fullest potential. You don’t have to necessarily be a bookworm to learn. Just as all teachers will tell you that different students have various learning styles in school, this is just as true about life. But you can’t be passive to be a true learner, you must be active. Always be open to learning in each and every moment that life presents. You will not always get it right (I know I haven’t), but if you are patient with yourself learning will have a profound effect on you.


            I have no idea where I would be if Erin hadn’t rescued me. I really believe that. That she rescued me. She saved me from myself, from what I was becoming. It’s almost as if she picked me up and spun me round and set me back down in a completely different direction. This isn’t to say that I didn’t love other people in my life before I met Erin, but looking back on it now I don’t think I loved other people as much as I could have. I’ve mentioned in previous letters how my views about love and marriage were undoubtedly marred by my 11 year old psyche that didn’t know how to process my parents’ divorce, and this left me doubting myself when it came to love. The relationships I had for close to the next 20 years were all stepping stones that led me to Erin, that led me to truly understanding what love is. And now I know because Erin came along into my life. She was the missing piece that completed the entire puzzle. And though she was only one piece, it was almost as if she was the central interlocking piece that held the entire thing together. Every day at the end of my meditations I pray. The culmination of my prayers is always the people for whom I am grateful: my family, my friends, my students, and most important of all, my wife. I am especially grateful that she not only taught me I am worthy of being loved, but that I have the capacity to love, something I doubted gravely during my teens and 20s. Now I do my absolute best to love everyone freely and openly. It has brought immeasurable meaning and satisfaction to my life, and I wholeheartedly believe that the greatest gift we are given within the gift of life itself is relationships with others. It’s great to be alive; it’s even better to share that with understanding with others.

            So what is love, then? Love is our highest calling. Every single major world faith in its own way espouses this ideal. By trying to love others and ourselves as best we can, we continue to open ourselves up to life much in the same way that learning does. But whereas learning is the purview of the mind, love is the heart’s domain. Love is also a challenge. It’s a challenge because it constantly demands that we give the best of ourselves to others. Love is a give-and-take balance of sacrifice. There are moments in life when we are called to give, but there are equally moments when we must have the wisdom to accept the love and support of others as they sacrifice for us. This balance is never easy, and I am still trying to figure it out for myself. But in trying to get my metaphorical footing, I have learned to love deeply because of Erin. Just when I think I couldn’t love her any more, I wake up the next day to discover that I do. Love makes me want to be the best husband I can be, and this has helped me to try to love others honestly and unconditionally, has helped me try to become the best person I can be.


            This may be the easiest yet most difficult aspect to learn simultaneously. It’s easy in the sense that it’s hard to not laugh. Unless you’ve got the absolute worst sense of humor as a human being, then I am quite sure you have laughed before. I try to laugh a lot. Laughter usually brings joy (not all types of laughter are equal; people can laugh while being incredibly cruel to others, for instance), especially if the laughter is genuine and sudden. When I was younger, I prided myself on trying to be a bit of class clown because I liked to make others laugh. I think this is the easy type of laughter, especially when you’re making others—including yourself—the butt of the joke. This laughter has its place in life, but this isn’t necessarily the type of laughter I am talking about. The more difficult laughter is learning to laugh at yourself.

            As Erin or just about anyone who knows me well enough can tell you, I can be an intensely serious person. I like to think I have what the Romans called gravitas. This is a good quality to have, but as I grow older I am starting to discover that I don’t need to take things so seriously all of the time. As challenging as 2013 was, the one aspect I will take away from last year is that sometimes all we can do is throw up our hands and laugh at the minor absurdities that life throws our way. Some of them are undoubtedly of our own making, others the products of sheer circumstance, but some (perhaps even many) need to be laughed away. To varying degrees, humans have an uncanny ability to turn molehills into mountains as cliché as that may be. Laughter takes the edge off, helps us relax and better assess a situation calmly and more deliberately. Increasingly over the last year, I laughed more and more at myself. Some of these bouts of laughter have been in front of others and when they inquire I just smile and speak about how silly I am. The most important thing to remember is to not take every single aspect of life seriously, especially yourself. Life is too short to be serious all of the time. We must have fun, too. And sometimes fun just comes gift-wrapped in the form of laughter when we realize how silly our seriousness can be when it’s uncalled for in the moment.

            So, this is where I am currently in life, NIP. I am trying my best to live well, to be as authentic a person as I can be, and doing it by constantly trying my best to learn, love, and laugh every single day. I am excited about the prospect of how the rest of my life will unfold over the years, and I sincerely hope that you are too. I will be sure to write again, though the letters may become different in tone as I continue to grow. I thank you for reading and being part of this amazing journey through life with me, and I honestly wish you and yours a healthy, prosperous 2014 full of bounty, blessings, and a few surprises to keep you on your toes (and hopefully laughing).

Keep living, learning, loving, and laughing, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. – If you are like me and like to really ponder what life’s all about, please consider checking out my new blog, “What’s Up, Soc?” My hope is to post a short blurb about what I was thinking about that day along with questions to consider. It will be nothing like LOETONIP insofar as length of letters and the infrequency with which I have written them over the last 12 months or so. If anything, I hope to bring everyday philosophy to the masses and in the process learn from the shared dialogue of the participants. I’m starting today, so come on over and check it out at

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