I have a friend who bakes terrible bread. I’ve never tried it but supposedly each attempt is a wretched floury creation that’s too lazy to rise and too chewy to be considered foodstuffs.
Still, on any given weekend, there she is, baking bread.
I’m not going to tell you that her chewy, terrible bread makes her happy.
It’s more than that.
It gives her meaning. It is her practice.
Bread or Vodka?
After the fall of Communism, the Soviet state’s guarantees of basic security disappeared. Consumer goods flowed openly. So did crime, alcoholism, and general malaise. Outside of a small cadre of profiteers who built dachas and small armories fleecing the Russian economy, perestroika meant disaster.
Hyper-inflation wiped out what savings people had. Restructuring meant damn near anarchy outside of metropolitan Russia. Whatever cache of meaning the vision of a socialist utopia had was finally tapped.
People adapted. But at what cost? “One Russian American author once quipped that what Russians needed after perestroika wasn’t economic aid but a planeload of social workers.” (Vaillant) And while there were many material deprivations to blame for post-Soviet despair, and it is valid to question how truly the population bought into the State’s socialist aims, I cannot help but think of how disastrous it must have been for a people to lose a shared goal.
I wonder if they would have been better off baking bread.
Unlike socialist utopias, baking bread isn’t a goal. It is a practice. And a practice is goalless and indifferent.
A practice doesn’t care whether you had a fight with your spouse. Or if you are feeling particularly unworthy that day. The bread either rises or falls. The pose is either there or not.
We contend with the practice by learning to respect its logic. It will not change so we must. We don’t come to the practice with change; we come to the practice prepared to be changed.
A practice is goalless. Largely because it is ever-changing. There is no end. No final victory of the working class. No mastery of baking. In fact, it is exactly when you think that you have mastered a practice that some young upstart attuned to the imperative of change turns your world upside down.
A goal is fragile because it attempts to press the unpredictable future into a predesigned mold. In contrast, a practice readies us for the widest possible range of spontaneity. It’s indifference forces us to adapt to its logic. It’s goallessness points continually into the future. It is the foundation of a resilience far greater than the best laid plans.
So, when I think of the USSR, part of me wonders whether the whole enterprise was fatally flawed from the start. Whether it was made fragile by the commitment to a measurable goal. People could wake up and assess whether they were any closer to the rule of the working class today than they were yesterday.
When things went sour no amount of rallying cries could patch over the distance between what was and what was promised. After the vision fell apart an entire population was left holding dreams and aspirations planned in the past that pointed towards a future that was no longer there.
What the Hell am I Doing?
How to choose a destination when the journey is sure to change your desires?
Let’s make that question pointier. If, at the end of a long journey, you find yourself wanting the same exact things, was it even a journey at all? Hard to say.
Hunter S. Thompson has a great bit on this thorny problem. His take is that one ought to strive, not for a goal, but a way of life. A way of life, he thinks, isn’t shaken when you suddenly realize that your weak ankles (thanks, Mom) rule out becoming a professional line dancer.
I like that letter. But I find it difficult to differentiate between a goal and a way of life. Still, I’m left with the question of how to derive meaning.
This is my take: everyone needs a practice. If we are to grow, we benefit from an indifferent, goalless task that can reflect back to us our changing selves. A mirror in which we discover ourselves anew each day. And, unlike the physical mirror, this one doesn’t deliver only bad news post 40.
This newsletter is my practice. I’ve got grand plans for it but every week I’m reminded that they’re second to the task of writing honestly and helpfully.
It took me fifteen years to start this thing. But I’m here now and can honestly say that it makes me incredibly happy about it. Some weeks the words come easily. Others I barely fly in under the wire. No matter the experience, every week I come to the page expecting to be changed and I can honestly say I am.
So, if I have one wish for you, fellow traveler, it is that you find your practice.