“…Joy makes you more intensely you.”  Isn’t that a provocative – even beautiful – thought?

It’s a line that I have not been able to get out of my head since reading it in All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.  To be fair to the authors, I am taking it out of context.  In the original passage, the authors are actually contrasting two different modes of spiritual engagement, bliss, which leads to disengagement from the world, and embodied joy, which leads to reengagement with it.  Their premise is that a fulfilled life stems from engagement with the world, which enables us to find joy and wonder in shining things, that is, things and practices that are meaningful to us.

I’ve been meaning to write about ATS for some time as it’s a remarkable book, one that could have been custom-made for this whole enterprise of switching-on.  Indeed, I first heard about it when a very well-read friend of mine, in response to my description of this research, said, “Hmm, I think you ought to read a book called All Things Shining.”  The problem has been that the book is so rich, and there is so much one could say about it, that it’s been hard to know where to start.  However, even as I was mulling this over, I read that ATS was getting released in paperback today, so it seemed that I just needed to get over it and say that if the topics I’ve been writing about here speak to you at all, then you should go out and buy it.

To me, ATS is a beautiful book because it rejects the sort of nihilistic arguments that say either that there is no meaning in the world at all, or that any meaning we can generate has to get there through an imposition of our own mind and will.  They basically say straight up that that’s simply too hard….  We are but mortal, how can we possibly hope to rise above every situation and find in it a level of meaning that makes our life worthwhile?

Dreyfus and Kelly suggest instead that the world is already replete with meaning and that the human task is to pay close attention to the nature and substance of things, and to invest in cultivating deep insight into the things that matter to us, in order to find it.  They provide some examples of this, but they also call upon readers to experiment, to see how and where they are deeply attracted to developing skilled and differentiated knowledge, because what “shines” may vary from one person to the next.  “If we are to be humans beings at all, we must distinguish ourselves from others;  there must be moments where we rise up out of the generic and banal and into the particular and skilfully engaged.”  One way of conceptualizing this is Homer’s polytheism, in which certain gods might speak to or “call” given mortals who are especially attuned to them, but however one thinks of it, one of the beautiful sensibilities here is that one finds insight, meaning and self-knowledge through engagement, not through a sort of endless exploration of the self.  This has a powerful appeal for me, and seems to be at the core of the switching-on project.

But you should just read the book.  Because Dreyfus and Kelly tell their story by guiding the reader through some of the great Western classics, you get fresh insight into the works themselves as well as coming to understand how our current sensibilities evolved.  It’s so easy to take our assumptions for granted;  understanding where they came from helps us understand the different options lives that are really available to us, options that can help us live shining lives.