Saturday, June 6, 2009


Happy 25th birthday, Tetris! Header image is from

I've started attending some of the free concerts held at the National Gallery of Art on Sundays( These concerts are held in the West Garden Court, which seems like the worst possible place in the entire gallery to hold a concert. There's a small courtyard surrounded by trees and a large, garish fountain in the middle with a statue of two winged babies strangling a swan (It's called "Nymphs Cavorting With a Swan" or something like that, which does nothing to mitigate the aesthetic offense of the thing). Pretty much anywhere you sit is blocked either by the trees, the garish fountain, or one of the large columns surrounding the courtyard. The acoustics are nothing to write home about, either, as sound tends to bounce around and then get swallowed up in the ceiling.

However, this week the sound was totally different. The time before when we had attended, the featured vocalist was singing at full blast but could barely be heard due to the cruddy acoustics. This time, the sound of the small chamber orchestra filled the little room, you could hear every instrument clearly, and the music was flawless. The difference? The performance this past week was by the National Gallery Chamber Orchestra. This is their standing gig, and they'd adapted to the conditions, in part by putting up temporary walls around the outside of the stage to channel the sound, in part by the way they played.

As I listened to the music with my eyes closed, being carried along by it, it hit me that this was a qualitative example of the benefits of knowing your surroundings and adapting to them... a defense of taking the shape of where you're at... which of course led me to question the areas where that was and wasn't true.

It's a constant question for me, really. There are clear benefits to "knowing yourself" and playing to one's own strengths, but there is also the constant possibility of stagnation --physically, mentally and spiritually-- if you never allow yourself to be challenged, stretched and changed. Humans are adaptable and need change, but too much change is not good. So where's the balance? I guess that varies for every person, but there's part of me that wants there to be an absolute here, some guiding principle beyond that of my own physical and emotional responses to stress and stagnation.

I've kind of been riding the wave of change that's been occurring over the past couple of months. I'm changing jobs, joined eHarmony, and signed up for a membership at LA Boxing. These are all external changes in response to perceived external and internal events and needs. I've experienced something of a cognitive "brightening" as my mind adapts to the changes, but I've also been very emotional. I have not, however, been very creative. I've written some poetry for SPARK, but not much else. It's like the parts of my brain used for creativity are being channeled towards adapting to the changes and ideas of changes, and there's not a lot left over.

Not a big deal, right? But the larger question for me is how we make decisions. An easy example is the whole eHarmony thing. You take this long questionnaire, and eHarmony matches you on 27 different attributes (I think), guides you through this "Getting to Know You" process, and then releases you to get to know the person on your own. It's structured to minimize the risk of being with someone you're "incompatible" with... but what does that mean? I mean, besides the obvious (ie. I will likely not be happy with someone who is verbally abusive or unkind to animals), how much of who we are is static? Would it be a bad thing if I were with someone very, very different than me? Perhaps I need to change some areas of my life and could be encouraged by the resistance I meet from someone different.

Is it right or wrong or neutral to make choices based on what seems to "fit" us? I'm talking about the day-to-day choices, not big choices with an obvious morality angle (ie. it doesn't matter if slapping a stranger who steps on my foot on the metro would "fit my personality" [not that it would]... moral/social concerns do not permit me to do that). I'm talking about the choices of where to work and who to be friends with and how to spend our time and money. The fact is that these choices DO have moral dimensions to them, and making decisions based on what I believe is the best "fit" could lead to a subtle deadening of my moral sense, or even of my intelligence, as I cut myself off from opportunities to adapt to something that would pose a challenge.

Maybe it's a dull, or moot, or unanswerable question, but I find myself asking it anyway. What is wisdom? To choose what fits, what matches our "calling"? or to choose what will challenge and stretch us?


Mike Croghan said...

This is a really, really good question, Amy. It challenges me.

I think I'll go look for something more affirming to read. ;-)

(Seriously, I mean it - this is major food for thought. Thanks - I think.)

Ben Masters said...

I second Croghan: major food for thought. What's the balance between fitting and stretching?

Hope you're doing well, Amy. When do you move to your new job?