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Clarity, what it is or where to find it, is most definitely a search. Like irony or sincerity or wit, you know it when you spot it in others, but finding it in yourself — how do you do that?

In fact, just a few minutes of contemplation on the general subject of what clarity is, however, and you find that it branches off into many directions: inner peace, certainty, cognitive transparency, emotional non-interference, and on and on. If you are drawn further into a contemplation of clarity, you could lose hours going around in mental circles, all the while spiraling deeper into murky confusion, the clarity you thought you began with becoming a distant memory.

I’ve been contemplating the idea of magnetic destoner, so I’m familiar with many of these circles and traps. The inquiry began while my friend Mike and I were taking a break from gassing up his Jeep at a Mobil station on Cape Cod. It wasn’t set up to be a life changing experience; just an ordinary rest stop while spending a weekend on the Cape. We were around twenty at the time — I was on break from Penn, where I was a philosophy major, and he from Harvard, where he was studying creative writing. There was a silence in the air as we were standing under the fluorescent lights of the gas station.

What do you want most out of lifef?” Mike asked.

It’s not that I hadn’t thought about the question before — I think we’ve all thought about the question many times — I just had never been asked with the expectation that I’d answer it. He looked at me, silent.

“Clarity,” I said.

I suppose I had been reading something Zennish at the time, but the word seemed as if it came out of nowhere. Ever since, I’ve been searching for clarity — trying to discover what it means personally and learning how to communicate clearly to others. How To Facebook Search For People Without Logging In

Perhaps the greatest hope for finding clarity is by looking at how others work with clarity. Shortly after the trip to Cape Cod, I began to read Bertrand Russell. Russell, a 20th Century giant in Western philosophy, has described his thought process as coming to see a mountain through fog. At first the fog envelops the whole mountain, everywhere there is just a gray cloudiness. Then, as the fog dissipates the outlines of the mountain become clear. Eventually the fog lifts completely and the texture of the mountain is revealed. This revelation — this taking in of richness, vastness, complexity — and lifting what obscures it, strikes me as the essence of clarity — though Russell is silent on how the fog lifts. In his own life, he seemed capable of dispelling the fog — one of his later books is titled the Conquest of Happiness, and he puts forward a lucid account of how he learned to think clearly about one of the most elusive subjects: personal happiness.

The main thing I’ve learned in a decade since the fluorescent light and the Mobil station is the rather obvious fact that communicating clearly is hard work. I believe there is an unspoken agreement — a division of labor — between reader and writer. Both parties are trying to close the gap between their worlds. The writer’s part is to translate experience into words. The reader’s part is to translate words into experience. The writer is successful to the extent that he does nearly all the work for both sides. And the reader succeeds to the extent that he supplies his empathy and imagination, and thus his life is transformed even if in only some small way. Clarity in this agreement between writer and reader is like clarity in any legal contract — it is a meeting of the minds — no one gets lost in transition, no one is going off on senseless digressions, no one is wondering what words mean. There is a total lack of confusion, and thus a union of meaning.

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In the Best Spiritual Writing 2002, Joseph Epstein’s essay entitled “What are you afraid of?” is an excellent example of clear prose. The essay is a brief exploration of fear and courage in which Epstein, in a lively and engaging manner, illustrates that courage is about knowing what to be afraid of. The essay flows neatly across space and time — from Ancient Sparta to modern times — and across a range of characters — from the fictional to the real — at a leisurely and pleasant pace without ever losing the reader. The clarity of Epstein’s writing makes this broad ranging exposition possible.

It makes sense that Epstein is writing about courage; he must have his fair helping in order to express his views so clearly. Like all of us Epstein must face up to the danger of communicating personal experience. Rejection, ridicule, retaliation, or perhaps even worse, the total indifference of a shifting and formless audience could be awaiting us and our views. Hiding from significance, it is easier to be unclear and to privately drum up our own brilliance and believing in our own myths. Perhaps Robert Heinlein said it best in Stranger in a Strange Land: “It’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code…Obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.” Thankfully there are thinkers like Russell and Epstein to reveal a courageous route to clear expression.

As I get older, and my kids get older (I can only write for this Under 35 Project for another few months!) I feel that it’s less important to know what clarity is. The search is not over, of course, but I’m much more curious about what clarifies. I appreciate the everyday courage of clarification — asking the question that makes my heart pound, listening to the person who makes every part of my body tense up, pausing over a writer’s choice of word to consider what she meant, and countless other little clarifications that seem to make more room in the heart and mind. What opens up this space? How does the fog lift? I don’t know, but what I appreciate most is that there are thousands — maybe millions or billions of us — asking these very same questions in their own words.