Some days, I feel very old and very silly. These are the days when I sign out of my e-mail only to sign back in a moment later, or when it’s 70 degrees and I carry around a sweater. These are the days when I bring my laptop everywhere I go and barely use it, the days when I spill coffee on my shoes because I thought it would be a good idea to fill my oversized thermos to the brim.
It has occurred to me that filling things to the brim is not always a good idea. Consequently, I have been thinking a lot about subtraction. It’s safe to say that we live in an environment crowded with things—to have, to do, to say—but that we also live in an economy of time and space. Reconciling these realities sometimes results in awkward attempts: for example, brushing my teeth in the shower. Some efforts are more ridiculous than others: for example, pirouetting around a coffee shop as I try to plug in my computer cable so that I will literally be tied to a wall or to the floor.
I’m beginning to believe that subtraction may be a viable philosophy. In the words of Lao Tzu: To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. This equation of knowledge to addition and wisdom to subtraction, although simplistic, is useful to me because I’m still learning to differentiate between the two.
This is nothing new, this technique of adding by taking away, this negative addition. Subtraction appears in art, in music, in technology, and we have many words for it — reduction, simplification, silence. At its core, subtraction is about reflection, about depth, focus, and refinement, and on an individual scale, I think subtraction is applicable to the routine of our daily lives. Perhaps you should be cautious of my calculations—it’s been a while since I took a math class—but I can imagine a process of subtraction for the clustered college life. I suggest beginning with the basics: the number of places we try to get to in one day, and the physical things we carry there. We could cut back on the number of times we open our computers, and put back the last few items in our shopping carts. Next would be harder: to accept pauses and silences, gaps in activity and conversation, to overcome our fear of stillness and emptiness and to see what fills these spaces. Somehow, we could learn to distinguish our deep concerns from our trivialities, learn to subtract the thoughts we spend on people who don’t think about us in return, because we carry the weight of these things all on our own.
One helpful synonym for subtraction is concision.
“Today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so,” Norton Juster wrote in The Phantom Tollbooth, but “while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many.”
In my classes and my papers, I recognize the words that pop and the phrases that disguise and distract. Perhaps in our efforts at wisdom, we should strive for some clarity of language—or at the very least, we should probably reduce the number of times we insert “like” and such uncertainties into our speech.
Subtraction is not only a process or an art—I believe it is a consciousness. Lacking worlds of knowledge and of wisdom, I am hesitant to test this statement, but I think our society may need a fundamental shift in consciousness. I think we need some movement from our state of unbridled addition and multiplication, our myopic, obsessive productivity, to a consciousness of modesty and moderation—or something like that.
I can only speak to my personal calculations and to those immediately around me. But our colleges are speaking now about one large effort at subtraction. They’re calling it Divestment. Through its clear message and concise values, and through its goals of longterm, comprehensive wellness, the 5C Divestment campaign embodies the consciousness of subtraction.
Subtraction can be infinitely difficult and highly subjective. But this is one area where we cannot afford to disagree. I encourage you to lighten your backpacks and to tinker with the equations of your daily lives, but I urge you also to endorse this effort, so much larger than ourselves.