July 14, 2017
Tell me a little about your life history. Were there any particular events that were formative?
I grew up in Brossard, a suburb of Montreal. I lived at home until I was 22, and I did my undergrad while living at home with my parents. It’s hard to think of specific events that I would call “formative”. There are events that I recall but they don’t seem to be part of my formative experiences. I remember things like being part of the track team, and going to the Provincials. I remember trying to run away from home a couple of times.
The things that seem more formative to me or at least more relevant to who I am today are smaller things. For one thing, my brother and I were in a chess club when we were in elementary school. I don’t think of chess as being particularly important in my life. I do enjoy it and I do play it. But it’s the kind of engagement that I had with chess that was important. It’s rigorous and playful at the same time. It’s the kind of joy you get by working through a plan or figuring out problems that, I think, stuck with me. You can get better at it and enjoy it more, and the better you get at it, the more you enjoy it. And that’s kind of interesting.
One of the other things I did when I was young was to often go to the library, which wasn’t too far from my elementary school. So after school, my brother and I would go to the library, either by ourselves or with my mom or dad. And the books we chose to read would often be in the adult’s section rather than in the children’s. And they would almost all be in the sciences or math sections. They would be books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which I didn’t understand. But it’s the kind of books that I read — a lot of popular science books, like Carl Sagan, and a lot of math puzzle books. That was something that both my brother and I enjoyed doing. We read through them and worked through the puzzles, and that was really formative. It was like my experience with chess. It was the kind of delight you get from not knowing and then suddenly knowing — suddenly figuring it out. Or not knowing and not figuring it out at all. And then, when the solution is presented to you, it all of a sudden becomes clear. With more patience and more diligence and more thinking, you could figure out the problem and see it in a different light. And you can then see related things in a different light too. And my interest in that kind of activity continued throughout high school and onwards through university. Those were the most positive experiences during my youth that seemed to relate to what I value today.
It’s hard to think of particularly formative events exactly. There are a lot of events I remember, but most occurred when I was a teenager. But as a teenager, you make awkward gestures, do awkward things, write awkward things, and tell people awkward things. You make bizarre, awkward romantic gestures that make no sense. You get worked up about problems that don’t matter at all: what classmates think about you, if your shirt is cool or not, if your haircut is cool or not. And you care too much about who your friends are. I mean, who your friends are does matter but how cool they are, and how cool they seem to others, doesn’t matter at all. But it seems to matter a lot when you’re a teenager. I don’t know if I have regrets about those things; I think everyone makes those kinds of mistakes — well, maybe not everyone. But most people make those kinds of mistakes and they’re understandable.
I guess one thing that was really formative was the kind of thinking that I was talking about earlier, and how it permeated into other areas of my life. I didn’t just use that kind of thinking in math and chess, but I started using it for other problems that couldn’t be solved easily, ones that are more intractable — philosophical questions about the meaning of life and about how to live it. I see my approach to life as somewhat continuous with those experiences playing chess or solving math puzzles. It’s different, of course, and you don’t get the same kind of certainty about your answers.
What have you learned about life that you would want to pass along to others?
I think that approaching your life in a reflective way is really important. It helps a lot to know what your values are, to know what you care about most. You can then think about how you should live: about how your actions and words are going to reflect those values. And it also becomes easier to shape or choose what goals to adopt for your life, which may or may not be the same thing as your values. You can think about how you’re organizing your life and whether you’re doing it in ways that help you reach those goals and reflect who you are.
And you don’t really have to know what your values are with any certainty or solidity. Your values will change, and how you understand them will change. But it helps a lot to think about what they are. Because in doing so, you learn that there are lot of things that are definitely not important to you, and so you know that you don’t need to worry about them.
A lot of the things in life that bother people don’t have anything to do with the things they really care about. And so if you know what you really care about, you can just let go of all the other stuff. It’s better if you’re clear about what those values are and to what extent your life reflects those values. But even the foggiest glimpse of an idea is far more helpful than keeping your eyes closed and following every impulse and acting on any feeling you happen to have.
One of the things I think we should all value is being good to other people and being nice to other people. The writer, George Saunders, said that his biggest regrets in life have to do with not being kind enough and not extending himself enough to others. It’s not that he thinks he was mean; he just didn’t always extend himself enough and help those who were less fortunate than him. I feel the same way about my past. But, unlike Saunders, I do think I’ve been mean. And I regret those times. But I think that we all fail in some way when we’re young. I once tripped another kid just to see what it was like, and I regret that. That was mean. That was an experiment without any concern for the feelings of another.
Being a good person and being good to others is often trivialized. It’s often thought of as unfashionable, which to me is strange. But the alternative is that you should be selfish or successful, to make sure that you yourself are happy — and not worry too much about whether you’re a good person. There are tons of advertisements about how you should “take a you-day at the spa” or how “you deserve this fancy luxury good”. And I think a lot of people feel this way.
I get where that comes from. A lot of us feel this pressure to do good because we see it as an external pressure. We hear it from the authority figures in our culture: our parents, our teachers, our churches. And so people never get in touch with who they themselves are. They’re just reacting to that kind of pressure: “you should do this and you should do that”; “you need to wear a tie or wear a dress”. That kind of reaction makes sense because those forces can feel confining. But being good is more internal than that. It’s more intrinsic. It’s something about your own motivations about what you think is right and what you think is good. And the idea that being a good person is unfashionable is weird, because being selfish is just as old an idea as being good. At least they’re both there in Plato’s Republic.
I think that being a good person is valuable on its own. And it’s essential to being a happy and peaceful person. Without that element, without that sort of foundation, that sort of pillar in your life about the efforts you make in trying to be a better person and in trying to do what is good or right, your sense of self-worth becomes dependent upon other people’s perceptions of who you are. And it makes you liable to insecurities and to fear and to paranoia and to caring too much about what other people think. So trying to be a good person kind of obviates the need to be people-pleasing, the trying to be popular, and the trying to have people think the right things about you. And it’s something that nobody can take away from you. It’s up to you to do. A lot of the things in our life, and a lot of the ways we measure our life and how well it’s going, depend on things outside our control. But trying to be a good person isn’t one of them. It’s one of the things we own that’s ours. And if you feel confident about your efforts, then the rest is largely trivial.
One of the things that I think is crucial to being a good person and to being a happy person is being open and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. This is something I don’t think I was taught in my family. It’s something that I worry about with them. All three of us, us children in the family, grew up to be closed off, to be very sarcastic and cynical. And I think that we learned to make fun of other people to stop other people from making fun of us. We developed sharp wits so that other people would be afraid to insult us. If we have our knives out, people know to leave us alone. So often, when we were young, and sometimes now, conversation was really just insults going around the kitchen table.
I don’t know if this is a fortunate fact or an unfortunate fact, but I think that being good and being happy requires being vulnerable so much so that you allow yourself to be broken by things that happen outside of you. And if you are broken, you have to try to be vulnerable again and again — and that’s hard. I understand why people close themselves off. But I don’t think that you can be happy, and certainly you can’t find peace, without that kind of vulnerability.
My friends are more open and less sarcastic than my family. But some of them are single and wish to find good partners. And I think their cynicism about the lack of good people to date, the lack of good men or women, makes them sort of closed off, makes them less open to heartache. So I wish they would be able to find the strength to be open to that kind of pain, which I think love and happiness require.
Is there anything you would want your wife to know?
My wife is an amazing person who has always been incredible in the regard I just mentioned. There is in her this persistent willingness to be vulnerable to the world and to others. She sees that vulnerability as a source of strength; she sees it as essentially human. What makes life worth living, if I can describe her view accurately, is the kind of vulnerability we offer to each other. It’s how we connect. And I share that view.
I don’t always want to be as vulnerable as she does. Sometimes I just want to watch TV, because being vulnerable all the time is really hard. But I am extremely lucky to be married to her. Being vulnerable with her always feels safe, always feels nourishing. And I think anybody would be lucky to have someone to share their life with who has that kind of openness. It can be hard too though, because there have been times where she’s being vulnerable and said something that made me angry. And vice versa. There’s a lot of pain in that, but there’s also transformation and change about who we are after that.
I think it was Adrienne Rich who said love requires allowing yourself to be broken by the other person, and then breaking each other, and then remaking your relationship over and over again. Or something like that. I’m sure that I’m butchering Adrienne Rich’s words, but it’s something like that or at least that’s the sentiment I think she’s expressing.
Now I don’t think romantic, partnership love is essential to happiness. But it is an amazing thing, and I do wish for it for my friends and family who are alone and want it. But if they don’t find it, I hope they can find happiness in some other way.
What other hopes and dreams do you have for your loved ones?
I guess a lot of the things that I hope for my friends and family aren’t really material. I do hope they all have a lot of money. But that’s not something I think is important, so long as they have enough. Money isn’t totally trivial. It’s a crucial part of our lives, and I don’t want anyone to be stuck in poverty and the suffering that poverty can cause.
Are there specific things that you would want your family or friends to remember?
Probably, but it feels a little foolish to think about. There’s this gap between how you want people to think of you and how people actually think of you. And almost by definition, you have no control over that gap. Being asked about how I want to be remembered feels like asking to me wonder what I can do about that gap.
But if I had to describe how I want to be remembered, then I guess it’s implicit in what I said earlier. I want people to know that one of the things I’ve tried hard to do in my life was move away from sarcasm, a tactic I used to relied on heavily for self-protection. I tried hard to find the strength to be open to pain without letting it entirely break who I am.
And here’s another thing. Most people in my life already know this, but I want them to know that I cared very deeply about what’s true and what’s good. I care a lot about thinking clearly and thinking critically. Most people know that I think the world — despite its current, apparent descent — is, on the whole, getting better. I think that the history of humanity, looking at it at large, is one of progress: of more acceptance and more diversity; of less oppression and less hierarchy. This feels less like it’s about me, but I am essentially optimistic about humanity and I want people to know that.