Midweek Meditation: Wisdom from Ursula K. LeGuin

You might be hearing a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin from me in the months to come. I never go long without reading something she wrote, but I’ve read an unusual amount since last Monday, when she died at the age of 88. There is so much in her books that has shaped who I am and points the way to who I want to be next, if I just listen to it.

For example, a lot of unhappy experiences in my life have been redeemed by this thought from Shevek, the protagonist of The Dispossessed, as he reflects on the results of four years of privation: “The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.” “Even pain counts” might come as close as anything can to my core philosophy of life, this little musing still challenges me to reconsider how I think about time. There’s more for me to discover in these words.

And in these, which I rediscovered when looking for a Le Guin quote to start last week’s Board meeting and found this from The Tombs of Atuan, one of her Earthsea books: “Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.” It fit our commitment to the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and even though I had forgotten reading them, I recognized these words as conveying something that sank into my bones many years ago. I was a child when I read that book, and beginning to decide what kind of life I wanted. Her thoughts on freedom were friendly companions to me as I was coming to realize that the road I wanted, needed, to take was not the easy one.

That last phrase (“the laden traveler may never reach the end”), far from discouraging me, releases me from the expectation that I need to get to Point B in order to think of my life as successful. It encourages adventure and an attitude of discovery—after all, only some moments of life are destinations, but all of the moments are the road, so what do I want to find along the way? As Genly Ai considers, on a long journey of his own, in The Left Hand of Darkness, “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Even something as simple as this: when a character (Shevek again) who lived in a society in which all property was held in common–and thus had no buying, selling, advertisements, money, or economic inequality–visited a country much like our own, he listened to the radio, but “seldom turned [it] on after finding that its basic function was advertising things for sale.” I never tune in commercial radio or television without this line flashing through my mind and reminding me of the station’s purpose. With this ostensibly throw-away line, Le Guin helped me to see just how many of my interactions each day are sales. Not only in the marketplace, but in relationships, we are selling or buying or being urged to buy or being offered an exchange of some kind, this for that, tit for tat. If I want things to be otherwise, I need this awareness.

All of these thoughts have helped make me who I am. It’s good to have a friend like that, speaking wisdom to you through their books or music or movies. Do you have an author or other kind of artists who has become that embedded in the way you see the world?