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  • Aarik Danielsen

Serious People

When I find myself in times of trouble, I picture moving through a drafty, old Wisconsin home, playing middle brother to two men I’ll never know.


The 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl houses a moment as slight as it is indelible. A younger brother (Ryan Gosling) lays a word puzzle before his older sibling (Paul Schneider): How do you know when you’ve become a man? Is sex the rite of passage? Or something else? With Gosling’s Lars, I hang on every beat and all the spaces between.


The elder brother awkwardly dances around an answer before delivering an unremarkable litany. Maturity is a conscious choice, he notes, the outward expression of an inner desire to do right by those you love, even when what’s right proves costly.


 

That line—“It sounds like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not”—sticks, especially now as I glance around me, searching for serious people.

 

He offers a few real-world virtues—fidelity, provision, owning your mistakes—before unfolding a sentence which sounds like scripture to me.


“That's all I can think of, you know—it sounds like it's easy and for some reason it's not.”


That line—“It sounds like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not”—sticks, especially now as I glance around me, searching for serious people.


I want to surround myself with serious people. No judgment against laughter; I welcome it, especially on nights after the world saddles my shoulders and shakes my soul. In the comedy of Mike Birbiglia and John Mulaney, Atsuko Okatsuka and generations of Saturday Night Live arrives both a moment’s respite and a sustaining meal. All my best friends know how to laugh, the sound rising up from somewhere deep behind their bones.


But unseriousness abounds. Nothing new, it works itself out uniquely in our moment—in a lack of good-faith exchanges, in plenty of thoughtless trolling. In cheap salves applied to deep cuts, and age-old questions recycled by people with no interest in the answers. So many of us resemble Proverbial fools, yet look into our mirrors, seeing stars.


Give me the serious people instead. Not few and far between, as they might seem when our eyes skim the surface of things; more like quiet and steady, rarely recognized without a long gaze beyond the thicket or up around timberline.


Serious people, first and foremost, live as children of the Great Imagination. They know sin, transgression, injury—whatever term you prefer—fulfills many unfortunate images. Not least of which is a famine of imagination, an inability to picture a world unlike the one we have, then lend flesh to images composed in their mind’s eyes.


Unserious people confine their neighbors in ceaseless debates, repeating their day’s buzzwords like doctrines, not knowing or caring how they merely translate passionless ideas passed down as an empty inheritance. The people I seek ask better questions, tuning their lives till revelations come.


 

Transcending the unserious urge to only see, hear and know a fixed set of delights, serious people never deny someone else’s pleasure, answering another’s revelry with “Clearly, you haven’t read X, heard Y, or watched Z.”

 

As serious about pleasure as anything else, they traffic in Whistler paintings, owning many precious words for the blacks and golds in his “Nocturne”; lift fingers to their mouths in gentle self-caution, then momentarily forget their own names inside particular Coltrane passages; stop everything to share the story of a recent meal, relaying each note and texture in one long, unbroken sentence.


All this, not to show off or lord over, but for the sake of exploding joy into a million fragments.


Transcending the unserious urge to only see, hear and know a fixed set of delights, serious people never deny someone else’s pleasure, answering another’s revelry with “Clearly, you haven’t read X, heard Y, or watched Z.”


When faced with the prospects of God, serious people adopt a penitent’s posture, too often observed only in film or literature. You know the one, often played to dramatic effect in an empty cathedral against stirring strings. Planted in one pew, yet leaning across another. Head bowed, arms either collapsed into a prayer or outstretched to catch the smallest blessing like a leak in the roof.


Serious people sit this way, not as an act of self-flagellation, or because God is impressed with our unhappiness, but as a vote against the alternative. Swaggering through the house of God as if you alone know Leonard Cohen’s secret chord keeps you from feeling your need, from stumbling into mystery.


To live seriously is to work through cliches and toward a clearing, to work against the double down and other trite strategies for self-preservation. About 1700 words into a recent article for my day job, I weighed the likelihood of not one, but two sides each resenting at least a few sentences. In a rare moment of seriousness, I fought through my first instinct: to toss easy phrases out of my mouth. Something like “Well, that must mean I’m doing something right.”


Instead, I briefly considered what I might be doing wrong, grieved how complicated our lives are, sat still until I felt softer, less made of steel.


Why do these moments matter? To repeat the cliche is to keep conversation at arm’s length. This shrinks our everyday possibilities—consider the person silencing anyone who specifies their pronouns, missing out on any of their wisdom or humanity.


Over time, the tendency becomes a habit, and the habit creates intolerable fractures. I know too many people willing to drown, whispering thoughtless phrases as they go down with a very comfortable ship. This, rather than see even a little whiteness or capitalism thrown overboard as dead weight.


I might keep describing the serious and unserious through certain traits: the former keep their Christmas lights up till February, and know there’s a time and place for swearing; the latter go out of their way to correct other people’s grammar. But this would qualify as arbitrary legalism, assigning me to the ranks of the unserious.


I don’t want to live out my days that way. There is no poetry, no fire left in the person who nurtures their unseriousness. Nothing about them dances. Nothing sings. Unseriousness is why our world forever has too many books and not enough, why we beat our retreat into generalism—which eventually corrodes, as writer David Dark notes.


 

To seek this hard-won joy, to make a thousand little choices each day—one begetting the next—that shape us into serious people might sound, at least on paper, like it’s easy. And for some reason, it’s not.

 

When I meet serious people, I cling. I sit close, allowing their words and ways to shape my own. Serious people enjoy the last and longest laugh. A smirk never crosses their faces, nor do they laugh from some form of triumphalism. Rather, their laughter sounds musical, a major chord that rises out of living through one minor key after another.


Songwriter and novelist Nick Cave described the sound and its attendant circumstances in a recent dispatch from his Red Hand Files newsletter.


“For me, to strive toward joy has become a calling and a practise. It is carried out with the full understanding of the terms of this hallowed and harrowed world,” Cave writes. “I pursue it with an awareness that joy exists both in the worst of the world and within the best, and that joy, flighty, jumpy, startling thing that it is, often finds its true voice within its opposite. Joy sings small, bright songs in the dark—these moments, so easily disregarded, so quickly dismissed, are the radiant points of light that pierce the gloom to give validation to the world.”


To seek this hard-won joy, to make a thousand little choices each day—one begetting the next—that shape us into serious people might sound, at least on paper, like it’s easy. And for some reason, it’s not. But hold close to the serious people you encounter, and you’ll start to see a serious person looking back at you. Live to hear that laughter surround you, a chorus of witnesses to what matters.



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