To find well-be­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

Pun­dits every­where com­pete to drown us in worry. We should worry that as the world ac­cel­er­ates in com­plex­ity and in­for­ma­tion, it is ever more frac­tured and an­guished. I re­ceived a di­ag­no­sis of can­cer last year; if I were to lis­ten to the broad­casts, the con­sci­en­tious thing to do would be to worry more in­tensely. Grate­fully, on oc­ca­sion some­thing or some­one calms us down and re­turns us to san­ity.

I have a few books in my li­brary that demon­strate there is no value in things be­ing com­pli­cated when they can be made sim­ple. They are for me a type of sec­u­lar scrip­ture. Here is one that ex­plains 20th-cen­tury physics us­ing no maths above fifth grade. With a few house­hold items — a slit of pa­per, a torch, a rub­ber band — the mys­ter­ies of space, time, and grav­ity are re­vealed.

When I peek into the un­der­ly­ing whole­ness of things, I am in­vited not to worry. I wanted to ar­tic­u­late a path to well-be­ing that would, in its ar­tic­u­la­tion, pro­vide a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence of what it is point­ing to. Ac­cord­ing to Socrates, we are at ev­ery mo­ment seek­ing the good.

I wanted to de­liver the teach­ing on well-be­ing clearly, with brevity, and avoid jar­gon. For me, writ­ing with­out jar­gon is a process of say­ing, then un­say­ing, then re­say­ing an idea that won’t sit still. A word calls for more words to pin it down. This con­tin­ues un­til past bed­time, and there the com­pli­cated words lie, un­said and un­truth­ful. By con­trast, images have a forthright­ness and sta­bil­ity all their own.

I dis­cov­ered that images may some­times travel a less com­pli­cated path than words to the heart of un­der­stand­ing. The images pre­serve the sim­plic­ity in the teach­ing. When pic­tures and words are sparse, the reader fills in the blanks. I think of the clever joke, wherein the pa­tient looks up from the ink blots to ask: “Who is Mr Rorschach, and why does he paint all th­ese pic­tures of my par­ents fight­ing?” Of course, the world is it­self a Rorschach upon which we cast our fan­tas­tic sto­ries.

Words were revered in my fam­ily’s home. Those who were deemed to write or read well were true ath­letes. Those who ex­celled were demigods. As a child, I lum­bered through a sen­tence, bat­tling for word recog­ni­tion, scan­ning for the full stop that brought me re­lief.

On oc­ca­sions, an im­mor­tal would join the fam­ily for a meal. The house­hold would pre­pare for the fun by shoot­ing them­selves and each other out of can­nons. I re­mem­ber sit­ting in my py­ja­mas at the ta­ble with Vladimir Nabokov, half ex­pect­ing a halo around his head as he munched on green salad.

I ac­cepted but could not fathom this hi­er­ar­chy, this racket I had been born into. I de­clared my ha­tred for books and then strove to dis­guise my stu­pid­ity with in­tel­li­gence. It is an irony that in writ­ing a book on well-be­ing that teaches us to tran­scend the judg­ments about who we should be, the judg­ments’ grip is still felt; and while writ­ing a book for grown-ups, I wrote one a young per­son with a read­ing dis­or­der might en­joy. ‘The Well of Be­ing’ by Jean-Pierre Weill is pub­lished in hard­back on Novem­ber 5 (Blue­bird, £20)

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