When I try to get a grip on a particularly vexing or abstract concept I find myself thinking that it — the concept — is "like" something something something… That "like" is not to be confused with the linguistic bane of the last decade, often used with its partner in semantic assault "totally." As in "So, I was, like, totally blown away. It was, like, awesome… totally." Rather, I use "like" as the introduction to a clarifying simile. Then when I reflect on the relationship between the simile and the more abstract notion that is bedeviling me, the brain gets unstuck and I make some progress.
It is in that sense that I have come to the conclusion that the "distill" in the fourth pillar "distill complexity" is like the traditional method of making balsamic vinegar, even though that process is fermentation and not technically distillation. Let me explain.
When we were in Italy a few years ago, my wife and I went to a "wine and balsamic vinegar tasting" in Florence. The wine tasting was fun though pretty standard. However, the balsamic tasting was truly fascinating. In it we learned that a traditional gift — birth? wedding? That got garbled in translation — is a large wooden cask of "must," the juice from recently harvested white Trebbiano grapes that has been boiled down to between a half and a third of its original volume. Included in the gift is a set of 10 to 25 progressively smaller casks. The casks are meant to be placed in a room – preferably an attic — that has neither heating nor air conditioning, exposing the "must" to the hot sultry summers and chilly winters of the region. The casks are not sealed, but have openings in the top that are covered with porous cloth. Some specifics of the process were again lost between our guide's English an our feeble Rosetta Stone Italian, but over a period of 12 to 25 years, the cask keeper, each year, removes the aged vinegar from each cask and moves it to the next smaller barrel before topping off the largest cask with new "must." This process of gradual fermentation and evaporation eventually results in the emergence from the smallest cask of the wonderful, and very valuable, nectar we call balsamic vinegar. I really wish we had another name for it, because "tastewise" it is about as far from vinegar as it gets. I mean, go out to the kitchen and pop the top off a bottle of white vinegar, which we also use to clean floors, and take a whiff. Whew! It is not even in the same universe as the contents of that last cask of balsamic! I think I will call the good stuff balsamic nectar and be done with it.
The point is this – you cannot just sprint from the large, raw and cumbersome cask number one, to the small, exquisite, cask number twenty-five. There is no gigabyte network speed "app" for that. It takes twenty-five years. The process is incremental, evolving mysteriously though a series of ever smaller casks made of various types of wood. I have come to realize the the same is true with the 4th pillar: distill complexity. Distilling the complexity of our lives is a process of indeterminate length. It moves in fits and starts. As we reflect on the increasingly complex issues of our lives — why we are here? what we are meant to do? what is truth? love? beauty? does transcendent wisdom reside within us? somewhere else? does consciousness survive death? — we, like the casks that ferment balsamic nectar, change. The "wood" that defines our cask of the moment shifts as our chord is tuned — the product that is "us" concentrates into ever sweeter essences in smaller, less-cluttered spaces.
But let me hasten to clarify; the result of the distillation of complexity is not simplicity, it is not some childish certainty drawn from whiter teeth, tighter abs, faster cars, better wine and brighter bling; from the more fervent declarations of simple jingoistic slogans of faith or politics. Rather the result is harmonic parsimony, the most complete explanation of complex concerns expressed with the least deviation and the greatest clarity. The nectar of this distillation is the clearest expression of our best selves, our deepest beliefs, drawn with beauty, grace, humility, and hopefully — to avoid an abundance of somber notes — a touch of humor.
So where does this "clarifying simile" lead? A few lessons seem obvious, like, totally:
First we must realize that it is difficult, as we assess our lives at any one moment, to accurately discern from which cask we are dipping. We have an inclination in our culture to be fascinated with "coming of age" narratives. They tend, however, to focus on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Our callow protagonist is forced to look deep into his or herself and discovers some truths that will guide them as they pursue their life. Welcome to cask number three, maybe four. But we treat the narrative as though the protagonist has magically leapt to cask twenty or twenty-five. We see it in the media when some teenage phenom from the X-Games declares "This is something I have worked for my entire life!" I must admit I tend to chuckle. A life peaking at 16? I certainly hope not. Wisdom from cask number 4? I somehow doubt it. So we need to realize that while we have a tendency to believe we are always sipping from cask twenty-five, in truth we are often somewhere closer to the beginning or middle of the process.
Other cultures, interestingly often cultures older than our brave new young experiment here in America, seem more inclined to realize that wisdom is found down the line, in those smaller, older, sweeter barrels. The wisdom of the elders is valued. Patience and reflection are prized above noise and flash. And that often makes sense, but not always. Age itself is no guarantee of "the clearest expression of our best selves, our deepest beliefs, drawn with beauty, grace, humility and humor." Some of the least distilled, most hidebound, vitriolic declarations of "truth" have spewed out of the mouths and minds of some pretty old casks. In those casks, somewhere along the line the essence soured, went bad, turned — call it what you will. The point is this: we can only be where we are. None of us is born at cask twenty-five, it is a long journey. Also, we probably never really reach cask twenty-five. Even those enlightened souls whose wisdom seems transcendent can be further distilled. You see cask twenty-five is no more "the end" than was cask three or thirteen or twenty-three. The road to enlightenment, heaven, nirvana, whatever, is infinite. As Tolkien said, "the road goes ever on and on."
So, since we can only be in our current cask, and since there is no finite end to the row of casks stretching out before us, the only option we have is to tend to the current cask. Explore it as completely as possible with the tools you have — art, math, science, literature, philosophy, theology, the law; whatever your particular interests and gifts. Use them to poke into every corner of your cask. Stir it up. Increase the fermentation and evaporation. Do that, and one day you will wake up and find yourself sloshing into a new cask, smaller, sweeter, and most worthy of your attention and investigation.