Friday, September 21, 2012

who knows why or should

In my quest to read everything ever written by John Steinbeck, last year I acquired a used copy of The Log from the Sea of Cortez. In 1941, Steinbeck and his best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, mounted a nautical expedition that led them to Mexico's Gulf of California. A detail of their exploits, co-written by Ricketts, was published later that year as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.

On the evening of May 8, 1948, days before his 51st birthday, Ricketts' car was struck by a train just after leaving his lab. Ricketts held on for three days before passing away on May 11. In 1951, Sea of Cortez was republished as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Not only were Ricketts' species catalogs left out of this new edition, he received no credit as co-author.

While his name is absent from the cover, The Log from the Sea of Cortez contains a powerful tribute to Ed Ricketts penned by Steinbeck. Last May I haphazardly decided to read this appendix, simply titled "About Ed Ricketts." At the end of the tribute I found one of the most powerful Steinbeck passages I have ever read:

I have tried to isolate and inspect the great talent that was in Ed Ricketts, that made him so loved and needed and makes him so missed now that he is dead. Certainly he was an interesting and charming man, but there was some other quality which far exceeded these. I have thought that it might be his ability to receive, to receive anything from anyone, to receive gracefully and thankfully and make the gift seem very fine. Because of this everyone felt good in giving to Ed -- a present, a thought, anything.


It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive -- not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

Once Ed said to me, "For a very long time I didn't like myself." It was not said in self-pity but simply as an unfortunate fact. "It was a very difficult time," he said, "and very painful. I did not like myself for a number of reasons, some of them valid and some of them pure fancy. I would hate to have to go back to that. Then gradually," he said, "I discovered with surprise and pleasure that a number of people did like me. And I thought, if they can like me, why cannot I like myself? Just thinking did not do it, but slowly I learned to like myself and then it was alright."

This was not said in self-love in its bad connotation but in self-knowledge. He meant literally that he had learned to accept and like the person "Ed" as he liked other people. It gave him a great advantage. Most people do not like themselves at all. They distrust themselves, put on masks and pomposities. They quarrel and boast and pretend and are jealous because they do not like themselves. But mostly they do not even know themselves well enough to form a true liking. They cannot see themselves well enough to form a true liking, and since we automatically fear and dislike strangers, we fear and dislike our stranger-selves.

Once Ed was able to like himself he was released from the secret prison of self-contempt. Then he did not have to prove superiority any more by any of the ordinary methods, including giving. He could receive and understand and be truly glad, not competitively glad.

[Emphasis added]

[Photo Above: Ed with a Humboldt squid. Image from here.]

I don't know what the universal key to happiness is, but I imagine a big part of it has to with seeing yourself as you really are, not as seen through the lens of your experience, but as you really are -- and then accepting that. When you've accomplished that -- which is a difficult, fleeting thing -- it's so much easier to accept and love others.

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Want to learn more about Ed Ricketts? I do too. Turns out we're in luck. Independent filmmaker PJ Palmer recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete a documentary on Ed Ricketts and his influence on Steinbeck and other important minds of that era. The film is called For Ed Ricketts. Be sure to follow this project on Twitter and Facebook and check out the promo video on Kickstarter.

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