On the Quarter-Life Crisis

On the Quarter-Life Crisis

From College to Chaos

In the modern world, there is a certain existential dread that comes with being in your twenties. Certainly this is true in my case.

This dread creeps up on you in the years of struggle, confusion, and setbacks that many encounter after graduating university. There are many reasons for this.

One is that college simply does not prepare you for the so-called “real world.” In college, you know what you have to do, more or less. Every class has a syllabus. Every major has a list of required courses. You know your GPA and how many credits you need to graduate.

College lacks some of that uncertainty and ambiguity that life—particularly life as a young adult—so abundantly possesses. There is a clear direction forward and it’s already been charted out for you. You know where you’re going and what you have to do to get there.

Another big difference is that college life is fairly egalitarian. Somebody might have a cuter boyfriend, a higher GPA, a richer dad, or whatever, but in the end you’re all just students. As a consequence, envy doesn’t have very much scope. Not that college students don’t get envious, but there are far fewer things, and less serious things, to get envious about. You don’t scroll through your newsfeed and see friends bragging about promotions, proposals, babies, and paid vacations.

There’s one more big difference: nothing you do in college is potentially a big commitment. The biggest commitment you have to make is what to major in; and even that is only a commitment for four years or less. Your classes only last a few months, so you don’t have to care much about professors. You are constantly surrounded by people your age, so friendships and relationships are easy to come by.

Then you graduate, and you’re thrown into something else entirely. Big words like Career and Marriage and Adulthood start looming large. You start asking yourself questions. When you take a job, you ask yourself “Can I imagine doing this for the rest of my life?” When you date somebody, you say to yourself “Can I imagine living with this person the rest of my life?” If you move to another city, you wonder “Could I make a home here?”

You don’t see adults as strange, foreign creatures anymore, but as samples of what you might become. You are expected, explicitly and implicitly, to become an adult yourself. But how? And what type of adult? You ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Yet the more you think about what you want, the less certain it becomes. It’s easy to like something for a day, a week, a month. But for the rest of your life? How are you supposed to commit yourself for such an indefinitely long amount of time?

Suddenly your life is not just potential anymore. Very soon, it will become actual. Instead of having a future identity, you will have a present identity. This is really frightening. When your identity is only potential, it can take on many different forms in your imagination. But when your identity is present and actual, you lose the deliciousness of endless possibility. You are narrowed down to one thing. Now you have to choose what that thing will be. But it’s such a hard choice, and the clock keeps ticking. You feel like you’re running out of time. What will you become?

The American Dream

A few weeks ago I was taking a long walk, and my route took me through a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Big, stately houses with spacious driveways, filled with expensive cars, surrounded me on all sides. The gardens were immaculate; the houses had big lawns with plenty of trees, giving them privacy from their neighbors. And they had a wonderful view, too, since the neighborhood was right on the Hudson River.

I was walking along, and I suddenly realized that this is what I’m supposed to want. This is the American Dream, right? A suburban house, a big lawn, a few cars and a few kids.

For years I’d been torturing myself with the idea that I would never achieve success. Now that I was looking at success, what did it make me feel? Not much. In fact, I didn’t envy the people in those houses. It’s not that I pitied them or despised them. I just couldn’t imagine that their houses and cars and their view of the river, wonderful as it all was, made them appreciably happier than people without those things.

So I asked myself, “Do I really want all these things? A house? A wife? Kids?” In that moment, the answer seemed to be “No, I don’t want any of that stuff. I want my freedom.”

Yet nearly everybody wants this stuff—eventually. And I have a natural inclination to give people some credit. I don’t think folks are mindless cultural automatons who simply aspire to things because that’s how they’ve been taught. I don’t think everybody who wants conventional success is a phony or a sell-out.

Overwhelmingly, people genuinely want these things when they reach a certain point in their lives. I’m pretty certain I will want them, too, and maybe soon. The thing that feels uncomfortable is that, in the mean time, since I expect to want these things, I feel an obligation to work towards them, even though they don’t interest me now. Isn’t that funny?

Equations of Happiness

One of the reasons that these questions can fill us with dread is that we absorb messages from society about the definition of happiness.

One of these messages is about our career. Ever since I was young, I’d been told “Follow your passion!” or “Follow your dreams!” The general idea is that, if you make your passion into your career, you will be supremely happy, since you’ll get paid for what you like doing. Indeed, the phrase “Get paid for what you like doing” sometimes seems like a pretty decent definition of happiness.

Careers aren’t the only thing we learn to identify with happiness. How many stories, novels, and movies end with the boy getting the girl, and the couple living happily ever after? In our culture, we have veritable a mythology of love. Finding “the one,” finding your “perfect match,” and in the process finding the solution to life—this is a story told over and over again, until we subconsciously believe that romantic love is the essential ingredient to life.

Work and Love are two of the biggest, but there are so many other things that we learn to identify with happiness. Having a perfect body, being beautiful and fit. Beating others in competitions, winning contests, achieving things. Being cool and popular, getting accepted into a group. Avoiding conflict, pleasing others. Having the right opinions, knowing the truth. This list only scratches the surface.

In so many big and little ways, in person and in our media, we equate these things with happiness and self-worth. And when we even suspect that we don’t have them—that we might not be successful, popular, right, loved, or whatever—then we feel a sickening sense of groundlessness, and we struggle to put that old familiar ground beneath our feet.

Think of all the ways that you measure yourself against certain, self-imposed standards. Think of all the times you chastise yourself for falling short, or judge yourself harshly for failing to fit this self-image you’ve built up, or fallen into a dark hole when something didn’t go right. Think about all the things you equate with happiness.

Now, think about how you judge your good friends. Do you look down on them if they aren’t successful? Do you think they’re worthless if they didn’t find “the one”? Do you spend much time judging them for their attractiveness, popularity, or coolness? Do you like them less if they lose or fail? If someone else rejects them, do you feel more prone to reject them too?

I’d wager the answer to all these questions is “No.” So why do we treat ourselves this way?

Is it the Money?

There’s no question that the quarter-life crisis is partly a product of privilege. It takes a certain amount of affluence to agonize over what will be my “calling” or who will be “the one.” Lots of people have to pay the rent; and their work and romantic options are shaped by that necessity. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, your anxiety is more practical than existential. This thought makes me feel guilty for complaining.

But affluence is only part of the it. The other is expectation. Many of us graduated full of hope and optimism, and found ourselves in a limping economy, dragging behind us a big weight of college debt. Just when we were supposed to be hitting the ground running, we were struggling to find jobs and worrying how to pay for the degree we just earned. And since many of us had been encouraged—follow your dreams!—to study interesting but financially impractical things, our expensive degrees seemed to hurt us more than help us.

This led to a lot of bitterness. My generation had been told that we could be anything we wanted. Just do the thing you’re passionate about, and everything will follow. That was the advice. But when we graduated, it seemed that we’d been conned into paying thousands of dollars for a worthless piece of paper. This led to a lot of anger and disenchantment among twenty-somethings, which is why, I think, so many of us gravitated towards Bernie Sanders. Our parents had a car, a house, and raised a family, while we were living at home, working at Starbucks, and using our paychecks to pay for our anthropology degree.

For a long while I used my sense of injustice to justify my angst. I had the persistent feeling that it wasn’t fair, and that went back and forth between being angry at myself or the world.

Nevertheless, I think that, for most middle class people, financial factors don’t really explain the widespread phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis.

I realized this when I started my first decent-paying job. I wasn’t making a lot of money, you understand, but I was making more than enough for everything I wanted. The result? I felt even worse. When I took care of the money problem, the full weight of the existential crisis hit me. I kept asking myself, “Can I really imagine doing this forever?” I thought about my job, and felt empty. And this feeling of emptiness really distressed me, because I thought my job was supposed to be exciting and fulfilling.

This was a valuable lesson for me. I expected the money to calm me and make me happy, and yet I only felt worse and worse. Clearly, the problem was with my mindset and not my circumstances. How to fix it?

From Crisis to Contentment

Well, I’m not out of it yet. But I have made some progress.

First, I think it’s important to take it easy on ourselves. We are so prone to hold ourselves up to certain self-imposed standards, or some fixed idea of who we are. We also like to compare ourselves with others, feeling superior when we’re doing “better,” and worthless when we’re doing “worse.” Take it easy with all that. All of these standards are unreal. You tell yourself you’re “supposed” to be doing such and such, making this much money, and engaged at a whatever age. All this is baloney. You aren’t “supposed” to be or to do anything.

Bertrand Russell said: “At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view.” He’s right: There is nothing magical about the age of thirty. There is no age you pass when you don’t have to worry about money, about your boss, about your partner, about your health. There will always be something to worry about. There will always be unexpected curveballs that upset your plans. Don’t struggle to escape the post-college chaos; try to accept it as normal.

Don’t equate your happiness or your self-worth with something external. You are not your job, your hobby, your paycheck, your body, your friend group, or your relationship. You aren’t a collection of accomplishments or a Facebook profile. You’re a person, and you have worth just because you’re a person, pure and simple. Everything else is incidental.

If you want to be rich, famous, loved, successful—that’s fine, but that won’t make you any better than other people. It might not even make you happier. Don’t worry so much about putting ground under your feet. Don’t fret about establishing your identity. You will always be changing. Life will always be throwing problems at you, and sometimes things will go wrong. Try to get comfortable with the impermanence of things.

Don’t look for the “meaning” of life. Don’t look for “the answer.” Look for meaningful experiences of being alive. Appreciate those moments when you feel totally connected with life, and try to seek those moments out. Realize that life is just a collection of moments, and not a novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

These moments are what bring you happiness, not the story you tell about yourself. So you don’t have to feel existential dread about these big Adult Questions of Love and Work. It’s important to find a good partner and a good job. These things are very nice, but they’re not what give your life value or define you or make life worth living. Treat them as practical problems, not existential ones. Like any practical problem, they might not have a perfect solution, and you might fail—which is frustrating. But failure won’t make you worthless, just like success won’t legitimize your life.

One last thing. Stop caring about what other people think. Who cares? What do they know? Be a friend to yourself, be loyal to yourself. Every time to judge yourself, you betray yourself. In a thousand little ways throughout the day, we reject our experiences and our world. Don’t reject. Accept. Stand steadfastly by yourself as you ride down the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, flavors, colors, sounds, mistakes, accidents, failures, successes, and petty frustrations that make up life as we know it.

On the Meaning of Life

On the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?

Most thinking people, I suspect, ask themselves this at least once in their life. Some get rather obsessed by it, becoming existentialists or religious enthusiasts. But most of us deal with this question in a more foolproof way: by ignoring it. Indeed, when you’re enjoying yourself, this question—“What is the meaning of life?”—seems rather silly. It is usually when we feel depressed, anxious, frightened, nervous, or vulnerable that it arises to our minds, often with tremendous force.

I do not wish to delve too deeply into dubious psychoanalyzing as regards the motivation for asking this question. But it is worthwhile noting down why we so persistently ask it—or at least, the reasons why I have asked it. Most obviously, it is a response to the awareness of our own mortality. We are all going to die someday; our whole existence will come to an end; and this is terrifying. We can attempt to comfort ourselves with the thought that we will be remembered or that our children (if we have any) will perpetuate our line. Yet this is an empty form of immortality, not only because we aren’t around to appreciate it, but also because, however long our memory or our descendents last, they too will come to an end. All of humanity will end one day; that’s certain.

The famous “Death of God” (the decline of religion) in western history caused a similar crisis. If there was no God directing the universe and ordaining what is right and what is wrong; if there was no afterlife but only a black emptiness waiting for us—what was the point? Nihilism seemed to many to be inescapable. Existentialism grew up in this environment, which inherited many of the assumptions of Christianity while (for the most part) rejecting God Himself, which led to not a few tortured, tangled systems of thought that attempted to reconcile atheism with some of our more traditional assumptions about right and wrong and what it means to live a meaningful life.

I had fallen into this same trap by asking myself the question: “If everything will end someday and humans are only a small part of the universe, what is the point?” This question is very revealing, for it exposes some of the assumptions that, upon further reflection, don’t hold water. First, why is something more worthwhile if it lasts longer? Why do we need to imagine an eternal God and an eternal afterlife to feel secure in our meaningfulness? Do people who live to eighty have more of a meaningful life than those who make it to thirty? Put this way, it seems to be a rather dubious assumption. For my part, I can’t figure out what permanence has to do with meaning. And by the way, I also don’t think that the opposite idea—that life is meaningful because it is temporary—is more useful, even though it is a poetic sentiment.

I think all this talk about permanence and impermanence does not get to the essence of the word “meaning.” What is more, it is my opinion that, once we properly analyze this word “meaning,” we will see that this fateful question—“What is the meaning of life?”—will vanish before our eyes. And this is not because life has no meaning, but because the question is based on a false premise.

To begin, let us figure out what the word “meaningful” actually means. To do this, take something that we can all agree has meaning: language. Language is in fact the paragon of meaningfulness; it is a symbolic system by which we communicate. If words and sentences had no meaning, you would have no idea what I’m saying right now. But where does the meaning of a sentence lie? This is the question.

To answer this question, let me ask another: If every human perished in a cataclysmic event, would any of the writing that we left behind have meaning? Would the libraries and book stores, the shop signs and magazines, the instruction manuals and wine labels—would they have meaning? I think they would not.

We don’t even have to engage in a hypothetical here. Consider the Indus Script, a form of writing developed in ancient India that has yet to be deciphered. Researchers are now in the process of figuring out how to read the stone tablets. How should they go about doing so? They can weigh each of the tablets to figure out their mass; they can measure the average height and thickness of the lines; they can perform a chemical analysis. Would that help? Of course not. And this is for the obvious reason that the meaning of a tablet is not a physical property of an object. Rather, the meaning of the script lies wholly in our ability to respond appropriately to it. The meaning of the words exists in our experience of the tablets and our behavior related to the tablets, and is not a property of the tablets themselves.

I must pause here to address a philosophical pickle. It is an interesting debate whether the meaning of language exists in the minds of language-users (e.g. meaning is psychological) or in the behavior of language-users (e.g. meaning is social). This dichotomy might also be expressed by asking whether meaning is private or public. For my part, I think that there is a continuum of meaningfulness from private thoughts to public behavior, and in any case the question is immaterial to the argument of this essay. What matters is that meaning is a property of human experience. Meaning is not a property of objects, but is a property of how humans experience, think about, and behave toward objects. That’s the important point.

The reason the Indus Script is meaningless to us is therefore because it doesn’t elicit from us any consistent pattern of thoughts or actions. (Okay, well that’s not entirely true, since we do consistently think about and treat the tablets as if they were ancient artifacts bearing a mysterious script, but you get my point.)

By contrast, many things besides language do elicit from us a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions. Most people, for example, tend to respond to and think about chairs in a characteristic way. This is why we say that we know what chairs are for. The social purpose of chairs is what defines them—not their height, weight, design, material, or any other property of the chairs themselves—and this social purpose exists in us, in our behaviors and thoughts. If everyone on earth were brainwashed and told to think about these same objects as weapons instead of for sitting then chairs would have a different meaning for us.

Ultimately, I think that meaning is just an interpretation of our senses. A camera pointed at a chair will record the same light waves that are being emitted from the chair as I will; but only I will interpret this data to mean chair. You might even say that meaning is what a camera or any other recording device fails to record, since the devices can only record physical properties. Thus meaning, in the sense that I’m using the word, depends on an interpreting mind. Meaning exists for us.

I hope I’m not belaboring this point, but it seems to be worth a little belaboring since it is precisely this point people forget when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that most people mean “human life” when they ask this question, then we are led to the conclusion that this question is unanswerable. Human life itself—as a biological fact—has no meaning, since no fact in itself has meaning. In itself, “human life” has no point in the same way that the moon or saw dust has no point. But our experience of human life certainly does. In fact, by definition the human experience comprises every conceivable meaning. All experience is one endless tapestry of significance.

I see this keyboard below my fingers and understand what it is for; I see a chair to my right and I understand its purpose. I see a candle flickering in front of me and I find it pretty and I like its smell. Every single one of these little experiences is brimming with meaning. In fact, I would go further. I think it is simply impossible for an intelligent creature to have a single experience that doesn’t have meaning. Every time you look at something and you understand what it is, the experience is shot through with meaning. Every time you find something interesting, pretty, repulsive, curious, frightening, attractive, these judgments are the very stuff of meaning. Every time you hear a sentence or a musical phrase, every time you enjoy a sunset or find something tasty—the whole fabric of your life, every second you experience, is inevitably meaningful.

This brings me to an important moral point. Humans are the locus of meaning. Our conscious experience is where meaning resides. Consciousness is not simply a reflection of the world, but an interpretation of the world; and interpretations are not the sorts of things that can be right or wrong. Interpretations can only be popular and unpopular.

For example, if you “misunderstand” a sentence, this only means that most people would tend to disagree with you about it. In the case of language, which is a necessarily strict system, we tend to say that you are “wrong” if your interpretation is unpopular, because unless people respond to words and sentences very consistently language can’t perform its proper function. “Proper” meaning is therefore enforced by language users; but the meaning is not inherent in the words and sentences themselves. But in the example of a very abstract painting, then we tend not to care so much whether people interpret the painting in the same way, since the painting is meant to illicit aesthetic sensations and not transmit specific information. (In practice, this is all we mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective”—namely, that the former is used for things most people agree on while the latter is used for things that many people disagree on. Phrased another way, objective meanings are those to which people respond consistently, while subjective meanings are those to which people respond inconsistently.)

This is why meaning is inescapably personal, since experience is personal. Nobody can interpret your experience but yourself. It’s simply impossible. Thus conscious individuals cannot be given a purpose from the “outside” in the same way that, for example, a chair can. The purpose of chairs is simply how we behave toward and think about chairs; it is a meaning imposed by us onto a certain class of objects. But this process does not work if we try to impose a meaning onto a conscious being, since that being experiences their own meaning. If, for example, everybody in the world treated a man as if his purpose were to be a comedian, and he thought his purpose was to be a painter, he wouldn’t be wrong. His interpretation of his own life might be unpopular, but it can never be incorrect.

Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value. You cannot measure the worth of a life in money, friends, fame, goodness, or anything else. Valuations are only valid in a community of individuals who treat them as such. Money, for example, is only effective currency because that’s how we behave towards it. Money has value, not in itself, but for us. But a person does not only have value in the eyes of their community, but in their own eyes, and this value cannot be overridden or delegitimized. And since your experience is, by definition, the only thing you experience, if you experience yourself as valuable nobody else’s opinion can contradict that. A person despised by all the world is not worthless if she still respects herself.

In principle (though not in practice) meaning is not democratic. If everybody in the world but one thought that the point of life was to be good, and a single person thought that the point of life was to be happy, there would be no way to prove that this person was wrong. It is true, in practice people whose interpretations of the world differ from those of their community are usually put into line by an exercise of power. An Inquisition might, for example, prosecute and torture everybody that disagrees with them. Either this, or a particular interpretation imposes itself because, if an individual chooses to think differently, then they are unable to function in the community. Thus if I behaved towards money as if it was tissue paper, my resultant poverty would make me question this interpretation pretty quickly. But it’s important to remember that a king’s opinion of coleslaw isn’t worth any more than a cook’s, and even though everyone thinks dollar bills are valuable it doesn’t change the fact that they’re made of cotton. Power and practicality do not equal truth.

Thus we find that human life doesn’t have meaning, but human experience does; and this meaning changes from individual to individual, from moment to moment. This meaning has nothing to do with whether life is permanent or impermanent. It exists now. It has nothing to do with whether humans are the center of the universe or only a small part of it. The meaning exists for us. We don’t need to be the center of a divine plan to have meaningful lives. Nor is nihilism justified, since the fact that we are small and temporary creatures does not undermine our experience. Consider: every chair will eventually be destroyed. Yet we don’t agonize about the point of making chairs, since it isn’t important whether the chairs are part of a divine plan or will remain forever; the chairs are part of our plan and are useful now. Replace “chairs” with “our lives” and you’ve hit the truth.

You might say now that I’m missing the point entirely. I am interpreting the word “meaning” too generally, in the sense that I am including any kind of conscious interpretation or significance, explicit or implicit, public or private. When most people ask about the meaning of life, they mean something “higher,” something more profound, more noble, more deep. Fair enough.

Of course I can’t hope to solve this problem for you. But I will say that, since meaning resides in experience, and since all experience is personal, you cannot hope to solve the meaning of all human life. The best you can hope for is to find meaning—“higher” meaning—in your own experience. In fact, it is simply presumptuous and absurd to say “This is the meaning of human life,” since you can’t very well crawl into another person’s head and interpret their experiences for them, much less crawl into the heads of all of humanity. And in fact you should be happy for this, I think, because it means that your value can never be adequately measured by another person and that any exterior criterion that someone attempts to apply to you cannot delegitimize your own experience. But also remember that the same also applies to your attempts to measure others.

I will also add, just as my personal advice, that when you realize that meaning only exists in the present moment, since meaning only exists in your experience, much of the existential angst will disappear. Find the significance and beauty of what’s in front of your eyes. Life is only a succession of moments, and the more moments you appreciate the more you’ll get out of life. Don’t worry about how you measure up against any external standard, whether it be wealth, fame, respectability, love, or anything else; the meaning of your own life resides in you. And the meaning of your life not one thing, but the ever-changing flux of experience that comprises your reality.

A Trip to Toledo

A Trip to Toledo

 

“Where’s the damned gate?” I asked my friend, as we stood in the train station, bewildered, worried, looking at every sign, nervously checking the time as the appointed hour of our departure neared.

I thought it must be upstairs, since that’s where the arrow seemed to point; but my friend, more perceptive than myself, noticed that the sign said bajo on it.

“That means it’s on the ground floor,” she said.

She pointed this out while we were already on the escalator up; so after we lamely rode all the way up, and then the adjacent one all the way down, we began again to scour the ground floor for our gate.

“Maybe it’s this way?” my friend offered, pointing in the direction that most people were walking.

We joined the crowd, and found ourselves headed towards the door outside.

“No, no,” I said. “This is to exit the building.”

We returned to where we started, once more examining the sign with the ambiguous arrow. Time was running out. We’d given ourselves a good 45 minutes to get lost, and we’d used nearly all of them. Luckily, we soon noticed the (very obvious) gate entrance, where people were lining up to pass through security.

After walking through the metal detector, we walked frantically down the platform, passing car after car of the train, looking in the windows for open seats. Finally, we got to a car that was mostly empty; we hopped on, found the two nearest seats, and sat down—happy that the stress of the morning was over.

Our peace was disturbed when, just two minutes later, two very nice Spanish women politely informed us that we were sitting in their seats.

Perdone,” I said, as we got up, again confused and embarrassed, and walked away.

“I told you we shouldn’t have sat there,” I said as we recommenced our desperate search for seats. (I’d said no such thing, by the way.) “That must’ve been the reserved section!”

“Whatever.”

We went through one, then two, then three cars—all of them completely full—until finally, in an otherwise full car, there were two empty seats.

We sat down again, hoping that finally we could relax.

As I sat there, letting my breathing slow, still a bit disoriented from the activity and lack of sleep, I noticed that an elderly British couple was sitting in front of us. This would not be worth mentioning if, a moment later, a Spanish man hadn’t came up and told them that they were sitting in his seat.

“What?” said the Englishman.

“Yes, look,” the Spaniard said in English, holding up his ticket. With his finger, he pointed to two numbers on the top of the slip of paper.

“E6 and E7, car 3,” he said.

I looked up and found, to my surprise, that the seats had numbers and letters. We had assigned seats!

“Oh, terribly sorry,” the Englishman said, as he and his wife relocated to their proper seats—which, as it turned out, were right behind us.

“Quick,” I said to my friend, “the tickets!”

She pulled out the tickets from her bag, and we hastily examined them. E8 and E9, car 3. I looked up: we were sitting in our exact seats.

One thing to remember when traveling in foreign lands: even simple things can be a challenge, since here your conventional wisdom is unconventional, and your common sense far from common. This can make you come across as a fool, and feel like one, too. But you know you’re not a fool—you’re an American. And although there’s a large degree of overlap in the two categories, they aren’t exactly equal.

§

I had been urged, repeatedly and sometimes urgently, by friends and family who had been to Madrid that, once there, I shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Toledo.

Toledo is a small city, situated about 75 kilometers south of Madrid. It can be gotten to cheaply and quickly, by train in 30 minutes and by bus in an hour, making it the ideal place for day-trippers. It is a city of long history and rich culture, of fine architecture and splendid sights.

But of course I didn’t know any of this when, after much cursing and petty frustration, I booked two round-trip tickets (ida y vuelta) on the train for a Sunday trip. Really, I didn’t know anything about the place at all, other than that its cathedral was reputed to be one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

As a result, I had nothing definite in mind when I stepped off the train in Toledo, blinking in the bright sun, looking around in a befuddled daze. My ignorance didn’t bother me, however, as going places without knowing anything about them is something I tend to do. After all, I’d moved to Spain without knowing Spanish—or really anything about Spain at all except that there was bullfighting, flamenco, and an inquisition a long time ago—so why not try the same approach with Toledo?

My friend was less keen on this, though, so she went about procuring a map from the nearby tourist office—even as I insisted that it was unnecessary, since we have phones.

Yet we needed neither a map nor a phone to tell us that we’d arrived somewhere special; even the train station was lovely. In fact, it hardly seemed like a train station at all—more like a renovated relic. I know now, since I’ve looked it up, that the building was constructed in the early 20th century, and so was far from ancient. Nevertheless, the amount of effort exerted on a purely functional edifice—elaborately ornamented on the inside and outside, with finely carved wooden railings and stained-glass windows—was enough to convince me that Toledo was not an ordinary city.

Since we were traveling on the cheap, we decided not to take a cab or a bus into town, but to walk. This was, it turned out, an excellent choice, not only because of the agreeable weather, but because the approach from the station to the town took us across a bridge, spanning across a sparkling blue river, and allowed us to see the whole antique city, nestled up on a hilltop, almost as a traveler would have seen it a few hundred years ago.

I admit I indulged in a bit of romanticizing in the last paragraph; for it is impossible to forget that, however old Toledo might be, it is now the twenty-first century. Indeed, the juxtaposition between old and new was a constant refrain during our trip there. City buses crawled up twisting roads, alongside fortified walls; modern cars squeezed their way through crooked, narrow streets, forcing pedestrians to press themselves up against the sides of buildings, as if in a police line-up, to avoid getting clipped by passing side-mirrors.

To an American, at least, and I suspect to most other people, the past has a strange and eerie power, which lingers in the present like a faint, musty odor. The whole city felt old. We went through a stone gate, passing churches and abbeys, climbing up a road that had possibly been laid down before my country was a country—perhaps before my country was even a colony.

In these moments, when in the presence of something truly antique, there is a certain type of pensiveness that comes upon us, a certain reverie which, we hope, is akin to wisdom. Being in the presence of an object so much older than ourselves puts our own lives into a historic perspective. We feel ourselves, all too briefly, to be but a small and passing phenomenon in the pageant of works and deeds that came before us and will continue after us. Our problems, struggles, and triumphs are made ridiculous in the face of these accomplishments, and we are humbled.

If there is something edifying or character-building about visiting historic sites, I suspect that the above is it. The problem, however, is that these contemplative moments—when the passing years yawn open in your mind like a chasm, swallowing you up until nothing remains but mute astonishment—are cut short by all the other people there, trying to do the exact same thing.

It is one of the paradoxes of travel that, because it’s supposed to be good for you, everyone does it; and because everyone does it, it ceases to be good for you. Nothing quite ruins the romance of gazing at an old statue like two people in front of it, taking a selfie. And not only does this ruin the romance, but it makes it hard to even get a good selfie yourself.

§

The first thing I wanted to do was to visit the cathedral—since that was the only thing I knew about, anyway. I typed “Toledo Cathedral” into my phone, and was helpfully shown the way with a blue path extending from the tips of my toes to one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe. Still, we managed to take a few wrong turns (I’m not sure mapping software was built for the crooked, tightly packed, criss-crossing roads of old towns like Toledo), and, as usual, I managed to leave my friend behind a few times as I ruthlessly powerwalked in whatever direction I thought was correct.

But gothic cathedrals are notoriously hard to miss; so in just twenty-minutes time, we found ourselves gaping upward at the magnificent Catedral Primada María de Toledo. It was even more marvelous than I’d expected. It was, in fact, probably the most beautiful structure that I’d ever seen. Most conspicuous was the tremendous spire, ornamented with spikes, reaching upward like a hand grasping towards heaven.

Hypnotized, we made our way towards it (though we took a short detour to examine the metal swords on sale in a gift shop), trying to find the entrance. Our search took us past the three great doors. In typical gothic style, these were surrounded by concentric archways, which had the effect of making them seem like portals to another world.

Every corner of the façade was stuffed with bas-reliefs of religious figures; the whole building, in fact, was covered in little statues, who prayed and chanted and sang endlessly to the heavens and to the earth. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition was there, the prophets, the apostles, angels and psalmists and kings and priests and even God.

It was a very strange feeling, standing there in front of those doors; it was as if the entire cathedral was looking down at us, judging our little lives. Perhaps because there were so many human figures carved into the walls, or perhaps because the whole building, both in its large-scale design and its fine details, was redolent with symbols and tradition—for whatever reason, the cathedral did not seem in that moment to be a mere hunk of stone, but strangely alive.

But of course, I couldn’t let this feeling linger long, for I had to take pictures. This done, we kept moving, slowly circling the entire edifice, until we ended up at the tourist entrance. Strange: there was no line; only a couple employees standing in front of the open door.

“Ask him if this is for the cathedral,” I told my friend.

“¿Por el catedral?” she asked.

Sí, pero se abre a las dos,” he responded.

“It opens at two,” my friend told me.

“Damn.”

Somewhat despondently, we pulled out the tourist map (the damn thing was useful, after all) and began looking for other things to do until then. The nearest attraction was the El Greco museum, so we decided on that.

§

Like most everything I encountered here, I knew almost nothing about El Greco before coming to Spain. I’d seen a few of his paintings in an art history textbook, and remembered liking them—but that’s about it. So I was understandably not very excited for the museum.

But I perked up a bit when the lady at the front desk told us it was free.

“Sweet!” I said, and in a few minutes we found ourselves standing in an old house, refurnished to give it the appearance it would’ve had during El Greco’s life.

“Imagine, El Greco, the famous painter, lived here!” I said to myself, looking around the quaint old place.

Unfortunately, I soon found out from reading a sign on the wall that he’d never lived here; in fact, his old house no longer exists. This museum was bought and built by some eccentric nobleman (if memory serves) under false pretenses, and the true state of affairs was discovered later.

Somehow, learning this made the experience considerably less cool. I’m not exactly sure why this is, mind you. Really, when you think it over, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the tourist’s search for the authentic is a bit silly.

The simple truth is that “authenticity” is not a property of objects, but of our perception of objects. Take these two scenarios: First, what if the sign told me that this was the real house, when it really wasn’t? And second, what if the sign told me that this wasn’t the real house, when it really was?

In the first scenario, I’d be thrilled; and in the second scenario, I’d be disappointed—even though the physical house would be, in both cases, identical. The simple fact is that I have no direct way of telling whether this or that particular house was the previous home to a famous Spanish Renaissance painter. My feelings of awe or anticlimax are thus pure exercises of my imagination; they are only tenuously related with the physical object. If told the house was real, I could imagine the painter himself (not that I know what he looked like) walking through these very halls; while if told the house was only a replica, these pleasant images wouldn’t spring so easily to mind. But of course, I can imagine El Greco wherever and whenever I want. And if I was a master of self-deception, maybe I could even convince myself that he’d lived in my own apartment?

To return to the museum, I wasn’t very impressed with it. Seeing old-fashioned furniture and old-fangled kitchens does not play strongly upon my passions. So I walked from room to room, my eyes passing over every surface, my mind somewhere else, until I found myself in a room filled with El Greco’s works.

My interest was piqued. Most of the paintings were individualized portraits of saints. One detail I remember in particular, which I learned from reading a caption, is that it’s a tradition in Catholic art to portray martyred saints holding the instrument with which they were killed. Thus, there were a few portraits of saints with crucifixes leaned upon them, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes, as if challenging us to equal their conviction.

But the most arresting painting of the lot was the portrait of St. Peter, teary-eyed, his hands clasped in prayer in front of his chest, beseeching heaven for forgiveness. He had just denied Christ (as in, denied he knew Christ) three times, just as Jesus prophesied, and was repenting for his cowardice.

It’s difficult to capture the feeling of standing before a great painting—especially for someone such as myself, who knows so little about art. But what I remember most are St. Peter’s eyes, sad and soft, seeming to twinkle as you looked at the portrait.

This was near the end of our walk through the museum; and soon we found ourselves, once again, standing on the streets, wondering what to do. Thankfully, it was almost two o’clock; so after eating a brief lunch—and a very early lunch, for Spaniards—we were on our way, once again, to visit one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

§

The line was short, the wait was brief, the price of admission came with an audioguide; and in just a few minutes, we found ourselves standing under the vaulted ceiling of Toledo Cathedral.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. It was a scent I had experienced at least once before, at a concert in a church in New York. Perhaps this is a scent associated with all catholic places of worship—I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever the smell is, I love it. I find it intoxicating and irresistible. I know this sounds funny, but I wish my whole life smelled like this, for there is something unearthly and calming about it, as if this faint fragrance is above all of the petty concerns and vain ambitions, all of the weaknesses and frailties that beset human life. It is a smell that puts the whole cosmos in perspective. I’d buy it if I knew where to find it.

The next feeling is a vertiginous sense of height. The ceiling, made entirely of heavy stone, hovers high up above you, suspended in mid-air. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, dozens of feet up, making the top of the cathedral brighter than the bottom; it is as if heaven itself is illuminating the space. At ground level, meanwhile, the place is dusky and dim—a twilight of religious mystery. The building is just as impressive on the ears as on the eyes. Footsteps, snatches of conversation, coughs, sneezes, and whispers are all quickly picked up by the towering room, carried up to the top of the building, bounced off the walls, and returned to you as indistinct murmuring. Even your own breath seems far away.

I put on the audioguide and began the virtual tour. I’ve quickly developed a strong liking for audioguides. They are private—preserving the individual experience, and giving you the freedom to go where you please—but they also connect you intimately with your surroundings. Left to my own devices, a particular religious work of art, for example, might be wholly unintelligible; but with an expert in my ear, guiding my eye, feeding me information, a meaningless image becomes an icon, laden with symbolism. This way, I was led by my ears all through the cathedral, then into its museum, then outside into the cloister, and then back in again, learning about kings, cardinals, saints, and artists.

Perhaps this is only a modern prejudice, but I am normally tempted to say that art is a form of self-expression. Yet this definition is wholly inadequate when faced with something like the Toledo Cathedral. So many hands contributed to this building, across so many years, in so many different styles, that it’s obvious that the building is not the expression of any individual. Rather, the building seems to be the expression of an age, of a religion, of a whole people. It is a blend of sensibilities across centuries.

I can’t hope to recount all the different tombs and temples contained in that church; and besides, such a straightforward list would be dull. I will try, however, to articulate why I found my time in the cathedral so profoundly moving, even though I am not at all religious.

But what does it mean to be religious? Does it mean to believe certain dogmas and to endorse a particular mythology? A single glance at the cathedral would give you this impression. Every spare surface has been ornamented with an image from the Judeo-Christian saga. During the Middle Ages, I can imagine these pictures and sculptures being a visual Bible for the unlettered farmers who prayed here, inculcating the faith through the sight rather than words.

“Faith” and “belief” are words we often hear associated with religion. Although some church fathers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to persuade others with reason, in the church’s history tremendous clashes of power and violence were waged over doctrinal differences. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was distinct and subordinate to God the Father, came very close to being made the orthodox belief, until it was slowly beaten back by its opponents; and a war had to be waged during the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade, to wipe out a puritanical sect of Christians who had adopted a dualist view of the cosmos (i.e. holding that there was both an evil and a good force in the universe). I give these two examples only to show that, in the history of religion, or at least of Catholicism, a lot of ink and blood has been spilled to establish one belief over another.

Insofar as religion consists in holding beliefs in the supernatural, I can’t abide by it. It seems to me a violence to human reason to enforce beliefs based neither on evidence nor logic. But once the pretentions to reality of Catholic dogma are pared away, once we discredit and ignore the occult elements, what are we left with?

What remains is a complex medley of stories and rituals, myths and legends, customs and ceremonies. Without the core of belief, this remnant can perhaps be called the “shell” of the religion. For Catholicism, this shell is partly physical, partly immaterial. The intangible portion of the remainder consists of the wonderful stories—Adam and Eve, David and Samuel, Jesus and the apostles—full of drama and wit and wisdom. The material remainder consists of things like the Book of Kells, the Hagia Sophia, and of course the Toledo Cathedral.

Taken together, I’d argue that the remaining shell of the religion can be seen, not simply as an anthropological curiosity, but a tremendous work of art. The Catholic religion is like a beautiful, multi-colored tapestry, spread over the whole of human life. Or perhaps it can be better described as an aesthetic system, through which the mundane events of daily life are dramatized. The beauty often hidden in our humdrum affairs is accentuated and given meaning within this tradition. Like a painter, the myths and rituals of religion begin with something ordinary—a shopkeeper, a sunny evening in the park, a few objects sitting on a table—and transforms them into something beautiful and significant.

Of course, I can’t claim any originality for this thought; many have said this before. The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is my most direct influence in seeing religion this way. Here is a quote from his book, The Life of Reason: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.”

This is an image which has stuck with me: a flower taking nutrients from the unremarkable and ugly dirt, and turning them into a blossom of color. And is not something similar happening when, as in Catholicism, every day of the calendar year commemorates the life of a saint, whose heroic deeds are recounted in dramatic stories? Is not something similar happening when every stage of life and death is marked by a sacrament and a ritual?

These meditations filled my head as I wandered through Toledo Cathedral, gasping up at the ceiling, staring in continuous awe at the many paintings and statues and frescoes contained therein. It was an experience which, I predict, I’ll remember all my life.

§

The rest of my time in Toledo was, of course, something of an anticlimax compared to this. We visited a synagogue, used by the Sephardic Jews before they were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs. But the main impression left on me by that museum was that I would do well to read The Ornament of the World, by María Rosa Menocal, which tells the story of the brief period of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.

We also visited a temporary exhibition on torture devices, which consisted of replicas of torture devices, alongside gory descriptions of how they were used on their poor victims. The information was framed in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, when torture was used to extract confessions from accused heretics. However, I now suspect that the information presented was untrustworthy, or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, the exhibition had an iron maiden, but according to the Wikipedia article—which I trust!—there is no reliable evidence of the existence of iron maidens before 1793; and although several iron maidens are on display around the world, its unlikely that any of them were ever used. It seems to be an invention of our morbid modern imagination, rather than a condemnation of medieval times.

After this, we tried to visit the Hospital de Tavera, a medical center constructed during the Renaissance. But, unfortunately for us, the place was closed by the time we got there. Oh well.

We were out of time. The train was leaving in 25 minutes, and the station was 20 minutes away. So we powerwalked and jogged the kilometer between the town and the train station, quickly passing through the beautiful station building, presented our tickets, and boarded the train—this time, making sure to sit down in our proper seats. My friend fell asleep shortly after sitting down, and I almost did the same; in thirty minutes, we were exiting the gate which had so eluded us that morning.

“Whew, that was fun,” said my friend. “What’s next?”