The Importance of Being Earnest | Lessons from a Musically Inclined Hobo

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It has struck me lately, the Importance of Being Earnest.

In his period play of the same name, Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head with the subtitle: A Trivial Comedy For Serious People. Such is life, really.

The word earnest is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a serious and intent mental state” or “a considerable or impressive degree or amount”. To me, earnestness sounds like serious sincerity. There is no way to lose when you are earnest, because when you mean everything you say and say everything you mean, it all comes back to you the way you meant it to.

I have a very dear friend, let’s call him Henry, who is the poster child for earnestness. Henry doesn’t make jokes, but he can be very funny. He cares passionately and deeply about things. He is the guy clogging your Facebook news feed with links to articles about government spending, environmental disasters, and the arrival of spring flowers in the desert. He becomes visibly agitated when let down by a friend. He is incredibly generous, inviting everyone he knows over when he makes a pot of soup. He is impossible not to tease, and equally impossible not to like.

The importance of being earnest is NOT the importance of taking life seriously (a dangerous and dumb thing to do), but rather the important of being true to oneself, in the sense that we stop being true when we lose sight of our passions and beliefs, practices that we are deeply intent on.

I read in earnest, I work in earnest, I practice yoga in earnest; if I did not, my life would cease to be a trivial comedy for a serious person, and become a drama for a trivial person, a cycle of samsara if I’ve ever heard one. As we grow up, we are tempted every day to lose our earnestness, and thus to lose ourselves – in fact, being ironic is as trendy as moustaches and living in a loft in Williamsburg.

Yesterday I was walking downtown, wrapped in the throes of some drama or another (I’m hurt by this friend’s habit of always being late, I’m annoyed that my roommate is so chatty in the morning, I’m pissed that my job doesn’t pay me more, blah, blah). I was going to meet a friend at a bookstore, and was not in the mood to socialize. Irritable, I called my mom, who is usually pretty good at talking me down from my high horse of self-righteous annoyance. She said, “anger is your worst enemy, humor is your best friend.”

I was pacing in front of the bookstore as we talked, not wanting to disturb the other patrons with my whining. On the corner, a homeless man was painstakingly going through a pile of garbage, opening each bag and pulling out chosen items for his shopping cart. As my mom talked, he began to sing, in a joltingly operatic baritone, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”. He was very serious and intent on his singing, which was beautiful and laughable in a not-at-all cruel way. I wanted to laugh because it made me feel so suddenly happy, and the bubble of angst in the pit of my stomach burst. I thanked my mom, met my friend, and had a good night.

This musically inclined hobo was essentially the Lama of Crosby and Prince, for he helped me see reality for what it was in the same way that deeply spiritual people do – pointing out the absurdity of life. Maya, reality, is a limited world, which can be depressing as all hell when you see it for more than a trivial comedy, in which we all act a part. Believing that what we see and feel is permanent and all encompassing is like watching a movie in a theater and believing that we’re all part of the movie, that we will never escape it. Treating life like a drama is just as terrifying, and also just as nuts.

Monks are funny, but in a serious, practical sort of way. There’s a Buddhist poem, describing enlightenment, which goes like this:

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. 
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water … but no longer trip over things at night.” ~
Skye Milo

Which is the same idea as the touristy Thai saying “same same, but different”, which in turn is just another way of describing the Importance Of Being Earnest:

Look, nothing has changed. The world’s still trivial and silly. You are the one who has changed, and your seriousness has added depth to your reality. Look, nothing has changed. Look, everything is different.