This holiday season has taught me the value of presence over presents. It is good to be home.
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This holiday season has taught me the value of presence over presents. It is good to be home.

-JohnA Passaro

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I feel to that the gap between my new life in New York and the situation at home in Africa is stretching into a gulf, as Zimbabwe spirals downwards into a violent dictatorship. My head bulges with the effort to contain both worlds. When I am back in New York, Africa immediately seems fantastical – a wildly plumaged bird, as exotic as it is unlikely.Most of us struggle in life to maintain the illusion of control, but in Africa that illusion is almost impossible to maintain. I always have the sense there that there is no equilibrium, that everything perpetually teeters on the brink of some dramatic change, that society constantly stands poised for some spasm, some tsunami in which you can do nothing but hope to bob up to the surface and not be sucked out into a dark and hungry sea. The origin of my permanent sense of unease, my general foreboding, is probably the fact that I have lived through just such change, such a sudden and violent upending of value systems.In my part of Africa, death is never far away. With more Zimbabweans dying in their early thirties now, mortality has a seat at every table. The urgent, tugging winds themselves seem to whisper the message, memento mori, you too shall die. In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal. Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That’s what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death. For me, the illusion of control is much easier to maintain in England or America. In this temperate world, I feel more secure, as if change will only happen incrementally, in manageable, finely calibrated, bite-sized portions. There is a sense of continuity threaded through it all: the anchor of history, the tangible presence of antiquity, of buildings, of institutions. You live in the expectation of reaching old age.At least you used to.But on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, those two states of mind converge. Suddenly it feels like I am back in Africa, where things can be taken away from you at random, in a single violent stroke, as quick as the whip of a snake’s head. Where tumult is raised with an abruptness that is as breathtaking as the violence itself.

-Peter Godwin

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Closing The CycleOne always has to know when a stage comes to an end. If we insist on staying longer than the necessary time, we lose the happiness and the meaning of the other stages we have to go through. Closing cycles, shutting doors, ending chapters - whatever name we give it, what matters is to leave in the past the moments of life that have finished.Did you lose your job? Has a loving relationship come to an end? Did you leave your parents' house? Gone to live abroad? Has a long-lasting friendship ended all of a sudden?You can spend a long time wondering why this has happened. You can tell yourself you won't take another step until you find out why certain things that were so important and so solid in your life have turned into dust, just like that. But such an attitude will be awfully stressing for everyone involved: your parents, your husband or wife, your friends, your children, your sister, everyone will be finishing chapters, turning over new leaves, getting on with life, and they will all feel bad seeing you at a standstill.None of us can be in the present and the past at the same time, not even when we try to understand the things that happen to us. What has passed will not return: we cannot for ever be children, late adolescents, sons that feel guilt or rancor towards our parents, lovers who day and night relive an affair with someone who has gone away and has not the least intention of coming back.Things pass, and the best we can do is to let them really go away. That is why it is so important (however painful it may be!) to destroy souvenirs, move, give lots of things away to orphanages, sell or donate the books you have at home. Everything in this visible world is a manifestation of the invisible world, of what is going on in our hearts - and getting rid of certain memories also means making some room for other memories to take their place.Let things go. Release them. Detach yourself from them. Nobody plays this life with marked cards, so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Do not expect anything in return, do not expect your efforts to be appreciated, your genius to be discovered, your love to be understood. Stop turning on your emotional television to watch the same program over and over again, the one that shows how much you suffered from a certain loss: that is only poisoning you, nothing else.Nothing is more dangerous than not accepting love relationships that are broken off, work that is promised but there is no starting date, decisions that are always put off waiting for the "ideal moment." Before a new chapter is begun, the old one has to be finished: tell yourself that what has passed will never come back. Remember that there was a time when you could live without that thing or that person - nothing is irreplaceable, a habit is not a need. This may sound so obvious, it may even be difficult, but it is very important.Closing cycles. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because that no longer fits your life. Shut the door, change the record, clean the house, shake off the dust. Stop being who you were, and change into who you are.

-Paulo Coelho

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The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages.As John Cheever said, the main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.Work is disappointing. In spite of all the talk about making work more creative and self-fulfilling, most people hate their jobs, and with good reason. Most work in modern technological societies is intolerably dull and repetitive.Marriage and family life are disappointing. Even among defenders of traditional family values, e.g., Christians and Jews, a certain dreariness must be inferred, if only from the average time of TV viewing. Dreary as TV is, it is evidently not as dreary as Mom talking to Dad or the kids talking to either.School is disappointing. If science is exciting and art is exhilarating, the schools and universities have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of rendering both dull. As every scientist and poet knows, one discovers both vocations in spite of, not because of, school. It takes years to recover from the stupor of being taught Shakespeare in English Lit and Wheatstone's bridge in Physics.Politics is disappointing. Most young people turn their backs on politics, not because of the lack of excitement of politics as it is practiced, but because of the shallowness, venality, and image-making as these are perceived through the media--one of the technology's greatest achievements.The churches are disappointing, even for most believers. If Christ brings us new life, it is all the more remarkable that the church, the bearer of this good news, should be among the most dispirited institutions of the age. The alternatives to the institutional churches are even more grossly disappointing, from TV evangelists with their blown-dry hairdos to California cults led by prosperous gurus ignored in India but embraced in La Jolla.Social life is disappointing. The very franticness of attempts to reestablish community and festival, by partying, by groups, by club, by touristy Mardi Gras, is the best evidence of the loss of true community and festival and of the loneliness of self, stranded as it is as an unspeakable consciousness in a world from which it perceives itself as somehow estranged, stranded even within its own body, with which it sees no clear connection. But there remains the one unquestioned benefit of science: the longer and healthier life made possible by modern medicine, the shorter work-hours made possible by technology, hence what is perceived as the one certain reward of dreary life of home and the marketplace: recreation.Recreation and good physical health appear to be the only ambivalent benefits of the technological revolution.

-Walker Percy

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Youth was the time for happiness, its only season; young people, leading a lazy, carefree life, partially occupied by scarcely absorbing studies, were able to devote themselves unlimitedly to the liberated exultation of their bodies. They could play, dance, love, and multiply their pleasures. They could leave a party, in the early hours of the morning, in the company of sexual partners they had chosen, and contemplate the dreary line of employees going to work. They were the salt of the earth, and everything was given to them, everything was permitted for them, everything was possible. Later on, having started a family, having entered the adult world, they would be introduced to worry, work, responsibility, and the difficulties of existence; they would have to pay taxes, submit themselves to administrative formalities while ceaselessly bearing witness--powerless and shame-filled--to the irreversible degradation of their own bodies, which would be slow at first, then increasingly rapid; above all, they would have to look after children, mortal enemies, in their own homes, they would have to pamper them, feed them, worry about their illnesses, provide the means for their education and their pleasure, and unlike in the world of animals, this would last not just for a season, they would remain slaves of their offspring always, the time of joy was well and truly over for them, they would have to continue to suffer until the end, in pain and with increasing health problems, until they were no longer good for anything and were definitively thrown into the rubbish heap, cumbersome and useless. In return, their children would not be at all grateful, on the contrary their efforts, however strenuous, would never be considered enough, they would, until the bitter end, be considered guilty because of the simple fact of being parents. From this sad life, marked by shame, all joy would be pitilessly banished. When they wanted to draw near to young people's bodies, they would be chased away, rejected, ridiculed, insulted, and, more and more often nowadays, imprisoned. The physical bodies of young people, the only desirable possession the world has ever produced, were reserved for the exclusive use of the young, and the fate of the old was to work and to suffer. This was the true meaning of solidarity between generations; it was a pure and simple holocaust of each generation in favor of the one that replaced it, a cruel, prolonged holocaust that brought with it no consolation, no comfort, nor any material or emotional compensation.

-Michel Houellebecq

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