What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

I’m Skinner.

That is all I am, or will ever be. I have done many things, I am doing many more now, and I will keep doing until I die, but I’m Skinner, and that is all I can be. I am changing, and from one day to the next I will not be the same. Yet, there is something about being Skinner, I’m learning, that is deep inside, immovable, insurmountable. No matter how hard I fight against him, he always overcomes. me.

As Emerson writes in Self-Reliance

I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

Discovering what that nature is, and choosing what to become with it has been a process I was more or less consciously (and, it seems, unconsciously) engaged in since I was a child. But that process itself has changed with the years. The main change in the process is that I no longer want to BE someTHING. I was voted by my senior class as “Most Likely to Be President of the United States.” That’s a BE someTHING sort of aspiration. Life had to beat those aspirations out of me.

I had to learn how to be only Skinner and to be okay with that. More, I had to learn how to bask in my own being, to see myself as fearfully and wonderfully made, sufficient regardless of possessions or achievement or relationship or status. I had to learn, with great pain and difficulty that–

Nothing will bring you peace but yourself.

I had to realize deep within the brutal truth that most Type A, achievement-driven personalities spend a lifetime running away from, denying, denouncing–

Thy lot in life is seeking after thee. Therefore, be at rest from seeking after it.

Perhaps I thought that being something would deliver me from those biting existential questions. Having something, perhaps, would free me from the questions–where did I come from? why am I here? what am I supposed to do? where am I going? does any of it matter? does any of it make any sense at all? why do all of the answers people give me seem to be forced?

I tried having answers. I used all of my faculties of logic and rhetoric to design answers that were all but irrefutable–answers with which I could win any debate. These answers probably satisfied other people more than they ever satisfied me. Every time I have ever thought I arrived at an answer, a new doubt would creep in, a new question would appear, and I learned that I needed to stop trying to have answers, that good questions and humility were enough. I had to learn it was okay not to know.

Perhaps I thought that being something would deliver me from my loneliness, my boredom, my feelings of alienation–of differentness and otherness from people. From money to power to relationships, I have at various points had them all, and yet I found no answers to my questions, and I found no deliverance from my suffering. In fact, it was probably even worse during those times. One of my former mentors and business partners once told me–

The most disappointing moments in life are often when you get exactly what you wanted.

I had to learn that there is no comfort in possession and nothing to fear in poverty, that the human spirit is–

strong enough to withstand every storm,
gentle enough to forgive every wrong,
patient enough to wait for things in their due time,
open enough to embrace all differences,
large enough to encompass the entire range of its emotion,
small enough to admit its many faults,
proud enough to propound its genius to the world,
humble enough to betray its ignorance,
imaginative enough to build mansions in the sky,
pragmatic enough to do the work of today.

I still have to combat my anxiety, my low impulse to compare myself to others, to envy achievement, to think I’m too far behind where I should be at this stage in my life, or that it’s too late to do certain things. I know the truth that

Man is his own star,
and the soul that can render an honest and a perfect man
commands all Light, all Influence, all Fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.

I must daily check that low impulse that remains inside of me, for it causes me to regret a past that made me who I am; it causes me to

Wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.

I have been forced to accept and embrace what I have for many years known intellectually, but in a way denied in practice–that Life is Difficult, that Life is Complex, and that There are no Easy Answers; that life is a series of problems, and the only way to live with contentment is through the disciplined will to solve those problems by delaying gratification, taking responsibility, being dedicated to reality, and maintaining balance.

My life has been filled with grace–I have met people who, probabilistically speaking, I never should have met. They have become my closest friends and confidants, my fellow travelers in disturbing the universe, my community. In experiencing and living in community, I know that as idealistic and improbable as it is, Scott Peck was right when he said that “in and through community is the salvation of the world.”

Indeed, I believe if I am to do my part to sustain humanity here on earth and go beyond our solar system, scattering life into the galaxies, I am going to have to do my part to change a lot of how I live in this world with other people. I  have to transcend the old and tired false dichotomy between the individual and the collective and see that there can be no full life without other people, nor can any group long survive in health and prosperity if it does not edify each and every one of its members.

But I must avoid any hint of utopianism, deny all proposed panaceas, resist all temptation to see that there is an easy or quick way to the goal. There isn’t. There will never be. I must endeavor each day to live with the humble knowledge that the only person whose evil I can remedy is my own, imitating Chesterton in his letter to the editor of the Times of London–

Dear Sir,
Regarding your article “What’s Wrong with the World?”–I am.
Yours Truly,
G.K. Chesterton

The motivation for all of life, for enduring its sufferings, for solving its problems, for persisting through it all, can only be Love–

The will to extend myself for the spiritual growth of the Loved.

But I have learned I cannot love Humanity without loving humans

Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s own life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.

I am learning to write and speak with “I” statements rather than “we” statements, because I speak personally, from my heart, my consciousness, which is imperfect, fragmented, different from yours, different from everyone’s. Yet I do not do so timidly, I speak with all of the vigor of Emerson’s admonition that–

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.

I know that if what I speak is truly True, I will not be alone, even if I am for a time. But I can’t know, so I have to listen to Kipling and–

make allowance for their doubting too.

Indeed, I think every belief must be accompanied by a doubt, a reminder to check my assumptions every once in a while. The more sacred and deeply held the belief, the more important the reality check. It is rarely my ephemeral beliefs that have gotten me into trouble, but rather the unshakable, unquestionable ones–the big view. My friend Venkatesh Rao talks about ethos of the Fox–weak views strongly held. I’m evolving more and more in that direction every day.

Now seems like as good a place as any to talk about South Park. Strange, right? Well, I don’t think it’s all that strange. I’ve been a South Park fan since I was 17, and I laugh at all the crude, inappropriate, and offensive jokes. And *gasp* I even make those kind of jokes sometimes myself! I think South Park reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, even the things that really are serious. Matt & Trey play the role of The Joker better than anybody in our day. And really, if you can’t laugh at a fart joke, then dude, get over yourself…

Where do I go from here, then?

I want to build and reform institutions to serve the needs of people, to promote science and develop technology that brings life and stems the tide of death, creating abundance, and testing the limits of the known. Institutions that raise up the countless talents far more capable than myself and empower them to do things I know I cannot do. Institutions that seek to ask questions better, rather than provide answers. Institutions that will adapt to the challenges of the day as those challenges change through the centuries.

But most of all I just want to do good work, encourage, support, (and have lots of fun and laughs!) and travel along the way with people whose paths, by chance or providence, converge with my own, and to be the kind of friend to them that Henri Nouwen describes–

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

I want to live and love life for the Sacred Experiment that it is, a gift to be cherished, but eventually to be let go of leaving–

footprints on the sands of time
footprints that perhaps another,
sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
a forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
seeing, may take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate.
Still achieving, still pursuing.
Learn to labor, and to wait.

I’m Skinner.

Thank you for reading. If you would like to get to know me better or just say Hello, I’m only an email away skinner[at]skinnerlayne[dot]com.