In 2012, Email Doesn't Have to Suck

by Ben Carter

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those [ties] are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Email is the modern railroad. For many, a convenient tool to communicate with loved ones turned quickly into a primary source of nagging oppression and dread. We have stopped riding it and it now rides on us.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Last week, I wrote (probably too much) about my big edit. I had initially anticipated including a section on email because email contributes more to our collective sense that we are “drowning in clutter” than any other aspect of life in the developed world in 2012. More than cabinets full of paperwork, more than overflowing bookshelves, sports equipment, computer cables. More than anything else, email clutters our existence.

But, I couldn’t really make the subject fit into that essay and decided that email is worth its own, separate discussion anyway.

Developing a better relationship with email and cultivating a quieter inbox is probably the single best thing you can do to get a quieter mental state. [1]

Later in this essay, I’m going to offer a few tips, tricks, and tools for you to consider using to process the flood of emails and quiet your inbox. However, and this is important nothing—no application or service—will save you if you do not first develop a healthier perspective about your email and redefine your relationship to it.

For this work, this work of deciding how much authority you are willing to cede to your inbox over your time and attention, there’s nobody better than Merlin Mann. Merlin chafes when labeled as a “productivity guru” and for good reason.

As Merlin explains in his foreword to David Sparks’s excellent book, iPad at Work, “productivity gurus” often profit by peddling the false notion that what you really need is a better way to work. Better tools, better processes, etc., etc., etc. That is, they convince you that if you just had this one thing, THEN you’d be able to write that novel. This is not true. What you need to create a novel is not a better word processor but the willingness to sit your ass down and type. And suck. And come back again tomorrow.

What we all really need to do is to work hard at the things we love and occasionally—only occasionally—look up from that work, look around briefly, see if there’s anything available that will help us work better, and then get back to work.

I hope this essay will be one of the only articles you take time to read about email because, frankly, you shouldn’t have time to read many more. (So, I’ll try to make this one good.)

With all this said, Merlin’s hour-long talk at Google about email, called Inbox Zero, is now canonical and required viewing for anyone wanting to develop a healthier relationship with their email (and, really, anything that is going to consistently demand more of your time and attention than it probably deserves).

Because our time is short, I will only say that I think it’s worth your time to decide how much of your life you are willing to give to email. And, I think it’s worth a small investment of time to get marginally better at email. (Seriously, stop reading this and watch Merilin’s talk.)

Okay, let’s talk about some basic moves you can make that are going to improve your email game significantly and give you a quieter inbox.

1) Probably the best way to get a quieter inbox is to get fewer emails. I’ll admit it: I am borderline crazy about not signing up to receive email from companies or organizations. And, if I accidentally do sign up and emails start hitting my inbox, I click the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email[2] almost every time. If the sender doesn’t have a heartbeat, it’s probably not landing in my inbox.

Sometimes, giving an email address is unavoidable. Consider setting up a dummy email address for all the dummies who want your email address. One that you use only for commercial transactions.

On the topic of getting fewer emails…let’s talk about spam. Look, it’s 2012. We’ve beaten spam. If you’re still using an email provider that allows spam through, that’s on you. I run all of my email addresses through my gmail account. Yes, Google is getting creepier, but I’m willing to put up with creepy in exchange for massive storage and bombproof spam filtering. For a less creepy service, check out

I want to go through a few more basic moves you can make, but keep reading to the end for some ninja moves to get a quieter inbox.

2) Turn notifications off in your email client. Whether this is Microsoft Outlook, Apple’s, Sparrow, a web-based email provider, whatever.




Allowing the distraction of a ding or a pop-up is inexcusable. Your work is important. Stop allowing email to interrupt it.[3]

3) Use rule-based filtering to send listserv emails directly to a separate folder or folders. That stuff does not need to be in your inbox.

4) Develop a task management system[4] that will allow you to read an email, determine the action you need to take as a result of that email, place that action in the task management system, and archive that email. In other words (and stated negatively, which I know is sort of frowned upon by psychologists if you hope to change a person’s behavior) STOP USING YOUR INBOX AS A “TO DO” LIST. If I have to explain to you why this is insanity, you clearly have not taken my advice to watch Merlin’s talk about email and do not deserve further explanation from me.

Regarding archiving: I wrote at length in the essay about my big edit about how any taxonomy you create in life should be commensurate with the likelihood that you will need to retrieve information from the classification system and how quickly you will need to retrieve that information. And here’s the thing, in 2012 search functionality in every major email client is so good that my classification system consists exclusively of a folder called “Archive”. That is, the only question I need to answer before I can decide where an email goes is, “Is it possible I will need this email again someday?” If the answer is “Yes”, it goes in my archive folder. If the answer is “No”, I press “Delete”. (If you use Apple's and decide you want/need a higher level of organization than an "Archive" folder, consider MailTags as a solution. Combining MailTags with the developer's Mail Act-On program supercharges Apple's 


I’ve had this system in place for over four years and have never been unable to find an email (or thread of emails) I needed within 30 seconds of searching. I know people—smart people—who devote their valuable—very valuable—time and attention to dragging and dropping individual emails into a complex taxonomy of folders and subfolders and sub-subfolders. This is madness. Stop the madness.

5) Designate specific times of the day to read and process email. Spend the rest of your time on actual work[5]. If you fail to corral email into specific, designated chunks of time, it has a way of creeping into the rest of your day and taking over. You know what I’m talking about. I have to admit, I’m not as good at this as I want to be. Yet.

Notice that I’m not saying, “ Only check email when you arrive at the office and before you leave work”. Or, “ Check email at the top and bottom of every hour.” Your job is different than my job and you have to determine for yourself the maximum amount of time you can spend away from email and not get fired. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. For me, depending on the day, the maximum time away from email is probably once every hour.[6] If you have the kind of job where you need to be constantly checking email, maybe consider finding another job because that’s no way to live.

Consider adopting the Pomodoro Technique to avoid the temptation to dip into your email.

Ninja Moves

As I’ve already explained, the real ninja move is deciding that email will not dominate your life. The real ninja move is putting email in proper perspective and in its proper place given our ultimate job as human beings to love one another and make life better for everyone.

How much is our constant attention to email promoting that mission?

Within the understanding that no service or system will develop the proper perspective on email for you, I have recently discovered a couple services that are worth mentioning because of how well they work to quiet your inbox.

I started using a few months ago as a way to unsubscribe from tons and tons of email lists to which I had become inadvertently subscribed. You give them your email address, they look at your emails, determine what companies and organizations are sending you emails, and provide an easy interface from which you can massively unsubscribe. Then, for the lists to which you decide to remain subscribed, consolidates each one of those individual emails you would have received into one daily email digest.


The service is free.

About a month ago, I heard about a service called SaneBox from Brett Terpstra (Terp! Stra!) on Mac Power Users. Basically, SaneBox works by only allowing email into your inbox that it thinks is important. Everything else goes into a folder called “SaneLater” for you to check at your leisure. Out of the gate, the algorithm SaneBox has developed works beautifully to determine an email’s importance. During the first two weeks, I think I needed to move one email from the SaneLater folder to my Inbox. (And, SaneBox watches these actions and refines its algorithm based on how you treat your email.)

SaneBox is a great service. It dramatically reduces the incoming traffic to my inbox so that I can process my inbox (when I check it) much more quickly and get back to work. Then, when I check my SaneLater folder (once a day or so), I can quickly scan to see what happened on Facebook and Twitter, see if an email got put in the SaneLater folder that shouldn’t have (it didn’t), and check my digest of mass-mailing emails. This digest lands directly in my SaneLater folder; within SaneBox twice removes me from most of email’s bullshittiest bullshit.

SaneBox charges $4.95 per month for its service.[7]


It’s worth it.

I know, you are so used to not paying for things on the internet, but here are two things to consider. First, services that you don’t pay for with money, you pay for with your eyes. If you’re not the customer, you’re the product and the company’s business model likely involves advertising to you (Google and Facebook) or monetizing you (Instagram). Second, businesses that don’t make money don’t stay in business. Services that you don’t pay for can go away. Fast. I do not want SaneBox to go away. It has dramatically improved my email game.

*   *   *   *   *

Email is awesome. I’m glad I grew up in a time before email and lived until a time when email became commonplace because we truly live in a miraculous age. At the beginning of email, it was a miracle. I specifically remember sitting in a computer lab in Madrid, Spain in 1997, emailing my family, and staring in slack-jawed awe at Hotmail. Then, email became a burden and a bane because we hadn’t developed the tools—psychological and technological—to relate to email in a way that wasn’t insane.

That is no longer the case.

It’s 2012: email can be a miracle again.

  1. Outside of, you know, actually cultivating mindfulness through a dedicated meditation practice. But, that sounds like a lot of work.  ↩

  2. Quickly, let me say this about people and organizations who send out mass emails without offering the recipients a way to unsubscribe: they are awful people and awfuler organizations. When I receive a mass email that does not contain a way to unsubscribe, I usually respond with a TextExpander snippet that allows me to type “;unsubscribe” that then expands to read: “Please unsubscribe me from this list. You really should put an ”unsubscribe“ link on any emails you are sending to an email list. Just a suggestion: You may want to look into a MailChimp account for sending out email blasts. It’s free for lists of up to 2,000 people and you can send up to 12,000 emails a month. Good templates, too.” I sort of think it’s everybody’s job to make everybody else a little better, or at least a little more considerate, about email.  ↩

  3. This directive includes removing the red badge that screams at you from your iPhone’s mail app: “You’ve got four messages waiting on you! What are you doing enjoying lunch??? YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” I’ve turned off the badge and I’ve turned off “push” behavior on my phone so that my phone is only checking for mail when I go to the mail app.  ↩

  4. Again (as I explained in My Big Edit, I use OmniFocus for a task management system, but that’s because I’m awesome. You’ve got to get a system that works for you. Reading Getting Things Done is not a bad place to start.  ↩

  5. Yes, I am aware that for many of us, email is actual work. That is, part of our jobs is to check and respond to email. But, unless you work in customer service as an online customer service representative, it’s probably not your entire job.  ↩

  6. In reality, it is probably much longer than this. Very rarely is something so urgent that it needs my attention now rather than perhaps three to four hours from now.  ↩

  7. Full disclosure: if you use any of the SaneBox links in the body of this post to subscribe to the service, I get a small credit for referring you to the service. Like, 5 bucks. So, just assuage concerns that I'm recommending this service because I want some sort of kickback rather than recommending it because it is awesome and it works, here's a link to SaneBox that won't give me a referral credit.  ↩

Showing Up

by Ben Carter



At work, I feel like a fraud. Five years after passing the bar, the civil justice process is still daunting, and each decision–no matter how minor–seems fraught with peril. Should I call or should I email? What if they ask a question I don’t know the answer to? Do I need to comply with this request for production of documents?

This is why jobs are awesome: they make us do things that terrify us. I swear, if I didn’t have a mortgage payment and too many animals to feed, I would not get anything accomplished. The only reason I’m going to build up any competency and expertise as a lawyer is because I have to. I have to show up every day. I have to take the depostion. I have to do the research and write the brief. I have to negotiate and settle my client’s claim. I have to go to trial.

Look, I would love to be the guy who said, “I don’t have to go to work, I get to.” “Every day is a joy.” And, to a large extent, that’s true. I have been very, very fortunate to have only law jobs that I thought were important jobs, worthy of my time and attention. They were fun–interesting, not drudgetastic–and I got to work with really, really smart people.

But, those jobs were also terrifying. More often than not, I had no idea what I was doing.

I had to do it.

I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream that I didn’t pay attention in law school, that I’m really not as smart as you think I am, that I shouldn’t be trusted with X1.

If I didn’t have to show up every day, I wouldn’t. I would seek the comfort of things I know I’m good at: laundry and petting animals.

I think God understands this about us. I think God knows that if we didn’t have to work, we probably wouldn’t ever be worth a damn. 2

Work is showing up every day.

If you want to get good at something, it has to be your job. You have to do it every day. Have to.

If I got to wait around for inspiration and expertise and confidence… Well, I guess that’s what purgatory must feel like.

I think this is what Wendell Berry’s character, Jack Beechum, meant when he said “If you’re not in debt, you’ll never be worth anything” in The Memory of Old Jack. 3 He meant that we are weak. We are fearful; and the only way we’re going to do something–something amazing, something worthwhile, something that risks failure–is if we have to.

In some ways, I think our challenge is figuring out ways to make what we want to do well what we have to do every day. Some feel-good thinkers will give you the exact opposite career advice: Find a job you want to go to every day. Follow your bliss. That’s fru-fru hogwash.

You know where my bliss leads me? To a living room filled with laundry that needs to be folded and a big TV broadcasting the NFL.

In retrospect, I think this is one of my best skills: finding work that scares the crap out of me. Deep down, when I am most honest with myself I will admit: I want to become a great attorney. That only happens if I go to work every day and risk failure. I have learned that expertise is not magic. It’s showing up and risking failure. Again and again and again.

It’s not pleasant, it’s terrifying.

It’s the only way.

It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do.

Every day is a new day. To fall on my face.

This is how you get good. 

  1. Where “X” is an opinion on the constitutionality of Kentucky’s educational system, a reckless driving trial of a Palauan cement truck driver, negotiating a plea deal for a Bangladeshi (falsely) accused of receiving stolen property so that he could remain in Palau rather than face deportation, a constitutional challenge to Palau’s prison conditions, a multi-agency, county-wide response to the foreclosure crisis, a legal brief in a multimillion dollar suit alleging negligence on the part of Kentucky’s largest law firm, a presentation about foreclosure defense to 250 skeptical attorneys. ↩

  2. This phrasing is fraught with potential misunderstanding. I am not saying that our worth in God’s eyes is tied to the work we do on Earth. I think God has made it abundantly clear that our worth is our worth, no matter what. Whether we like it or not. Further, the phrase “worth a damn” is not meant to imply that God finds inaction or laziness damn-worthy. Rather, all of this is to say that my utility to others on this Earth, my ability to seek justice for them in our civil justice system, is directly related to being compelled to show up every day whether I want to or not.  ↩

  3. Not an exact quote. If you know the real quote or can find it, please use the “Contact” page to help me correct this. ↩


by Ben Carter

I will do almost anything to avoid writing. Here are a few things I do to avoid writing:

  1. Scoop cat poop.
  2. Organize the pantry.
  3. Go for a run.
  4. Call somebody.
  5. Watch TV.
  6. Sweep.
  7. Vacuum.
  8. Mow the yard.

But, recently I have stripped all that away by waking up early and making time to only write. Yet, sometimes I find myself still not writing. Here are the things I will do in front of my computer to avoid writing.

  1. Explore different blogging platforms.
  2. Explore potential functionality on my own site.
  3. Add or subtract current functionality from my site.
  4. Check and see if anyone talked about my last essay on Facebook or Twitter.
  5. See if Apple’s is still sub-par (yes), and see if there are any other mail clients that I might use instead of the Gmail web interface (there aren’t).[1]
  6. See if Safari is still slower than Chrome. (Yes.)
  7. Answer email. Admittedly, this is one of the better things I could do in front of a computer instead of write, but this makes it even more insidious because it is so much easier to convince myself to write emails not essays. [2]
  8. I’m going to tell myself that working on links and photos for already-written essays is just as important as moving the cursor.
  9. Pay bills.
  10. Read my RSS feeds.
  11. Update my OmniFocus lists.
  12. Update my hours and mileage.
  13. Explore new text editors.

Just now, between typing #4 and #5 of the “things I do at the computer to avoid writing” list, I literally spent 15 minutes researching Disqus and trying to decide if I wanted to replace the commenting functionality native to Squarespace with Disqus. That’s right: while writing about what I do to avoid writing I did the exact thing I know I’m inclined to do to avoid writing.

I spent most of my evening yesterday moving BlueGrassRoots from Tumblr to Squarespace. Yesterday morning, I spent most of my writing time trying to add Google Analytics site monitoring to the Tumblr site I abandoned 12 hours later.

This is what I do: I fiddle. Since starting this site, I have worked with no fewer than six text editors (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, nvAlt, Byword, WriteRoom, TextEdit) and taught myself a (very easy) new syntax, MultiMarkdown, for writing on the web. All of this exploration has been fun and it actually helps me get stuff done quicker, more elegantly, and with less friction. But, that’s what’s so dangerous about it. Because it helps me write, I can convince myself that it’s time well spent.

It isn’t.

I am very good at telling myself that all of the stuff that supports the success of my writing is just as important as writing.

It isn’t.

Things that are important:

  1. I write when I’m supposed to write.
  2. I keep pushing the cursor across the screen.
  3. I continue to try to say true things, especially when I’m scared to.

Merlin Mann (from whom I am basically plagiarizing [3] this entire essay), says that you are always exercising a muscle. Whatever you do, you’re either practicing #winning or practicing losing. When I fiddle, I’m exercising my fiddling muscle. I’m exercising my Muscle of Failure.

That’s what’s so dangerous about all of this. It’s not that I just burned 15 minutes of my morning writing time looking at commenting platforms for my stupid blog. It’s that practiced burning 15 minutes of my writing time on something inconsequential. That I did it this morning makes it that much easier and more likely that I will do it tomorrow.

Pretty soon, I’m not a writer but a fiddler.

This is why I have an entire document devoted to a completely unpublishable inquiry into the many and various ways that I suck. I figure, if I can’t think of anything else to write about, well, there’s always that. I’m sort of the world’s preeminent authority on that topic. Though, I’m sure Erin could also write a pretty compelling piece on the subject, as well.

When I’m writing about how much I suck, at least I’m exercising my writing muscles, not my fiddling muscles. This is more important that I can tell you.

Look, we all have things that we wished we did. Play the guitar more, spend more time with the kids, budget, go to church, call Mom, smoke more cigarettes with friends[4], take more photographs, get organized. These are all worthy goals. But, they’re also the sort of things we can carry around guiltily for the next three years. They’re the sort of things that can make us feel like out-of-control failures with no agency in our own lives.

When we feel like we should be doing something but do not act on it, we are exercising the inaction muscle. We are practicing feeling awful about ourselves and our abilities.

It’s like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Here’s my advice (to myself): If you can’t take action on something now (whether it’s because you’re afraid, overcommitted, uninterested, whatever), put it on your calendar to review two, six, twelve months from now: “See if there’s space in my life to pick up the guitar again.” Then, move on. Continuing to feel like you should do something is making it harder to ever take action on that thing. Seriously, let it go. If you don’t, that weight is going to grow in your hands and drag you to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Your lungs will burn and the only light will come from a fish that will eat you alive.

Let it go.

Practice doing, not wishing. Practice moving the cursor to the right. Even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared.

  1. Srsly, people, Google has had the “Send and Archive” button for years now. It can’t be that hard. Make it so.  ↩

  2. Writing emails early, beyond clearing out your inbox, has the added benefit of putting a timestamp on the email that says to the recipient, “Seriously, what are you doing with your life?” Wait, maybe when people get emails from me at 4:30 in the morning they are thinking, “Man, what is he doing with his life?” I’m going to have to think about this.  ↩

  3. I’m not even really kidding about this. There is a good chance that every single sentence in here is a direct quote from something he said somewhere.  ↩

  4. Note to self: those days are behind you, Ben, and they’re not coming back.  ↩

Wendell Berry's "The Nature Consumers" and the Roots of Distraction

by Ben Carter in

This fall, my friend Tim is teaching an English class called “The Contemplative Life” to his high school seniors. We discussed the class during a round of frisbee golf and I promised to send him an essay by Wendell Berry called, “The Nature Consumers.” I sent him that essay and this:

Tim, here is a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Nature Consumers.”

I read this essay at the exact right time at the exact right place. It’s the summer before I start at Davidson and I’m in Tennessee working as a camp counselor at the camp I went to as a kid. That spring, I had read all of Berry’s novels and short stories and created a genealogical history of his fictional town in Kentucky. But now, it’s night. The kids are asleep.

As I’m reading, the crickets chirp and nocturnal mammals rustle leaves just outside the cabin. The wind sifts through the trees. The camp’s lake is not far away; not too far to walk down for a solo swim under the slivered moon.

As a camp counselor, one of my responsibilities was to give a devotional to my campers each night. I used this essay as one of my devotionals the night after I first read it. This is what I did: after they’d brushed their teeth, I took my campers down to the lake, down to the dock where I taught swimming each morning. During the morning and afternoon, the lake was filled with sometimes-terrified, sometimes-stoked kids–swimming, rope-swinging, canoeing, diving. It was loud. Someone was always shouting, blowing a whistle, splashing. But now, at night, the kids whisper as we creep down to the dock, down where the night sky and the stars were framed by dark trees all around and where the creek frogs burp and chirp at water’s edge.

I read them the passage on page forty-one as we lie on the dock looking up at the stars.

It is maybe most of all that silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential of terror in it. It raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks a man what is the use and the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going. In it the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to him, the lives of water and trees and stars surround his life and press their obscure demands. The experience of that silence must be basic to any religious feeling. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head, one must bear a greater burden of consciousness and knowledge–one must change one’s life. If one has nothing in oneself with which to respond it would be unbearable. If the silence within the man should be touched by the impenetrable silence that ultimately surrounds him, what might happen to the thin partition of flesh and possessions? How might they have to be looked on then?

I read the passage about the boaters being unwilling to confront all the “old answerless questions of origins and ends” and then, together, we sit or lie down in silence for a long, long, long time. Pressed by obscure demands.

I think, in retrospect, it was the fact that we were together that allowed us to be silent. I never realized that until now. And, not to digress too much because this is not my main point, but I think silence is easier when it’s with other people. Sure, there’s the awkward silence, but I’m talking about a group of people being intentional about silence: Quakers, monks, zazen…

Over the summers, I read this passage to fourth graders, sixth graders, seventh graders, and sophomores. Regardless of the age of the boy, the passage seemed to resonate with something inside of him. We were all—for the most part—very privileged kids growing up in cities all across America who lived very busy lives. One of the things that was most valuable for me at the camp were all the opportunities that were built into the fabric of camp life that offered us a chance to reflect, to be still, to be quiet.

We had campfires every Friday night and Vespers every Sunday night where we’d sings sad, mournful songs and watch the sparks dash out of the fire and upwards. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” still haunts me. We would have church service by the lakeside every Sunday morning and watch the wind wave across the water. And, on campouts on Tuesday nights there was certainly time for Capture the Flag and for boyish hijinks, but it seemed like many times the night ended with quiet conversation, all eyes turned towards the glowing embers of the fire.

Looking back, I know those quiet times provided me the space I needed to become that man I’ve become. So, I want to encourage you and thank you for offering your students the opportunity and challenge of confronting all of the old answerless questions we so often and so willingly avoid.

It seems to me that any inquiry into the contemplative life has to engage two questions. The first: “What are the external factors that prevent us from pursuing contemplative life?” While I think it is important, strategically, to be able to identify the external forces pulling us away from contemplation and mindfulness, the answers to this question seem mostly uninteresting.

The second question is: “To what extent do we seek ourselves to avoid the contemplative life and why?” The answers to the second question are so much more important and so much more interesting. What is it within ourselves, what’s that piece of us that seeks to create noise and distraction from our own existence? This is what “The Nature Consumers” is about.

For me, the miracles of modern technology—radio and Twitter and cell phones and two-hundred channels of television—are simultaneously a problem and not a problem. They certainly add to the distraction. But, they are not the distraction. They’re not the reason humans seek distraction; they are simply tools of the distraction. In other words, these electronic miracles are the objects to which our psyche clings as it desperately attempts to avoid paying attention to some pretty uncomfortable questions. They are the symptoms and not the cause of our dis‑ease.

And I think that’s what’s so important about “The Nature Consumers”: it refrains from what could be a pretty tired refrain. That is, it avoids giving modern humans a pass because “modern life is so much more noisy than life has been for previous generations.” That fact is undeniable and it’s also not the point. Humans are not distracted because of modern life. Modern life is distracting because humans want to be distracted. I say this as a man who cares deeply about sports teams I’ve never met who play sports I’ve never played.

We have yet to come up with satisfactory answers for very difficult, very uncomfortable, and very offensive questions. These are the questions Wendell Berry poses in “The Nature Consumers.” “What is my life for?” “How am I supposed to exist in relationship with the Earth? With my family? With the community of human beings?” “What are my responsibilities?” “What happens when we die?”

If you sit not for very long and are quiet for not very long these questions will confront you almost immediately. Death is the ultimate cognitive dissonance–a dissonance our minds are bent upon and yet incapable of resolving.

Further, this isn’t the only intractable dissonance we face. We are precariously situated as a society: our human existence unbalances our natural systems. Our individual existences embody and often renew all of the inequality, injustice, and oppression of human history. These dissonances are growing, not resolving. The questions posed by these facts—the same questions confronted by previous generations—get more uncomfortable, more pressing with each passing year. The harder these questions get, the more inclined humans will be to quit trying to answer them. (And I think the act of trying to answer them is important, even if the questions are unanswerable. In fact, I think the act of trying to answer an unanswerable question, that struggle, is the answer.)

This is why the class you’re teaching is so urgent: the less mindful we are of how we are to relate to each other and to the natural world the more out of balance our relationship becomes with other people and with other species. We are caught in a vicious cycle and the only way to extricate ourselves from it is to train a generation of people to exist comfortably with very uncomfortable questions. Because the questions are so uncomfortable we run to distraction. Until we have humans able to tolerate the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings these questions will generate, we will never be able as a community of people to answer these questions and, most importantly, to act on their answers—incomplete and uncertain as those answers might be.

To summarize, I think all I’m trying to say is that the distractions of modern life are the logical consequence of our inability thus far to answer hard questions. We should see the trappings of modern technology modern life for what they are: symptoms and not causes. Until we can get to the underlying dis-ease we all feel and wrestle with and strain against, until we can humble ourselves to our own mortality, we will always yearn for distraction from the tragedy of our condition.

We will die and history, one day, will forget us all. Fashioning empathy and compassion and love in the face of an apparently futile endeavor is hard. It’s painful to know the beautiful things and places and people we love so earnestly will again pass again into nothingness. But, this is the only work that matters: learning how and why we must work to love one another despite and because of our finiteness. This is the work of being human. How can we live with and live out the futility, ultimately, of that love?

Is it too much to hope that we may one day rest within that love?