Jason Gots (EC96) Discusses his Memoir, Humanity is Trying
April 12, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Jason Gots (EC96) is a writer, musician, and podcast producer who lectures in Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts’ writing department. After studying acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he earned an Eastern Classics degree from St. John’s and a master’s in developmental psychology from Columbia. Here he discusses his memoir, Humanity is Trying, which was released by HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press on March 1, 2022 and chronicles (among other things) the loss of his sister Meri Gots (SF97), who died in 2015.
So your time at St. John’s in Santa Fe overlapped with Meri’s?
Yeah, that’s why I went to St. John’s. I graduated NYU in ‘94 and was ostensibly starting a career as an actor but had basically left acting behind without being able to admit it to myself. Trying to start a life in New York in a career that I wasn’t really convinced I wanted to continue with ... it was a really dark and difficult time for me. I was in a lot of conversations with my sister, who was out at St. John’s, and I learned about the Eastern Classics Program.
I think it functioned for me as a sort of a secular monastery, a retreat. At that moment it felt like a safe place to go. For the content of the Eastern Classics Program and what it taught me—and for the proximity to my sister—it was very much a necessary and beneficial stage in my life.
How has the Program affected your life since then?
When I was at NYU, I took a lot of academic classes, because I was interested in literature and dramatic literature and theology. But I was an acting student, so the bulk of my focus was on the art. I was always an avid reader and writer but had never had the luxury of being in a community devoted purely to the premise of “Let’s read and talk about books.” That was a revelatory experience for me.
The people that I met there were incredible—a fascinating, interesting, very diverse group of thinkers, both the tutors and the students. That was the first year of the Eastern Classics Program, and it was people coming for every imaginable reason and from every imaginable direction at every imaginable stage in their life. Everyone was really smart, everyone had incredibly insightful things to say about the stuff we were reading. So that was marvelous.
Because my intellectual education was always adjacent to my formal acting education in college, I was sort of an autodidact. I read what I wanted to, I wrote about what I wanted to. Coming to a place that respected people’s intelligence, to approach a book as a primary source and then talk about it, was very empowering.
Years later, after a couple years of doing the Think Again podcast, where we were often talking about a book, the art of the show for me was like, “How do you have an open-ended conversation where the intellectual energy remains lively, and at the same time it’s enjoyable and accessible to a wide range of listeners?” I realize that so much about how I designed the show and what I was doing in the show is directly connected to the approach to learning St. John’s taught me.
I’ve never read for any reason other than because I’m excited to read something. I always idiosyncratically absorb lessons from books and often put them to use in my life. Books have always been there and have always been important. That’s definitely a theme throughout Humanity is Trying.
What about the content of what you studied in the Eastern Classics program? Has your relationship to that material changed?
When I was at St. John’s I was mostly interested in Taoist and Hindu texts—specifically the Mahabharata and Chuang Tzu, among the Taoists. Buddhism left me very cold. I was 22, and I was not in a position to make any sense of the idea that life is suffering, and we should eliminate desire. That made no sense to me whatsoever.
But since then, maybe ten years after St. John’s, I returned to Buddhist books and practices and communities and meditation, and it’s become this enormously important part of my life. I have a very different understanding of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths than I did then. But I think of that time as planting those seeds, which have become a framework that I live within.
Sort of like me and my life, the book goes in a lot of different directions, and Buddhist ideas are definitely an important framework, especially in terms of how they’ve helped me to deal with grief and learn about a working, sustainable kind of discipline.
What are some of the other themes your book explores?
It’s very much about my sister and my relationship with her. There’s definitely a thread about sibling relationships and how they define us in ways that we can only start to understand in retrospect.
I see the ways that Meri’s and my personalities and lives pushed one another and formed one another—like that time when my life was very difficult in New York and, essentially, she brought me out to Santa Fe to rescue me. There was sort of a role reversal, where she became the big sister and was nurturing and caring for me. She was like, “You should come here.” And I investigated, but basically that’s why I came to St. John’s.
Later in her life, when things got very, very difficult for her for a number of reasons, I ended up in that supportive position. My life had more stability, more clarity, and I knew some things about the professional world that she was struggling with. I was trying to be there for her.
The book also explores the dynamic of her being a strong-willed and stubborn and decisive kind of person and me being a very inward and emotional and divergent kind of person. Growing up in a household, you are labeled with these external qualities and that shapes your self-concept. How do you struggle with that over the course of your life? “Is this all I am? Who am I? What other flexibility do I have?”
I’ve started to recognize the qualities that I used to attribute to her that I also have in myself but might not have acknowledged previously.
Tell me about the box of notebooks.
One very important part of the book is the chapter called “Box of Notebooks.” It’s about a literal box that I was filling with notebooks of song lyrics and journaling and thoughts and poems since high school—maybe all the way through St. John’s. It sat in my closet gathering dust for about twenty years.
Some kind of emotional shift in my life took place a couple years ago, which is related to some of the stuff I talk about in the book around healing from grief. One of the things that happened was that I opened that box of notebooks and started going back through these fragments of things. There were scripts, there were unfinished plays, there was a comic book I wrote for a couple of years—some things that had been published, many things that had not.
I think of it as the fragments of life and of psyche that we shove off into the corner, because they don’t quite fit our résumé or our self-conception, or they might threaten our current comfortable life. The act of reclaiming that, the humility and the generosity to look back on all those things you may have considered shameful or embarrassing or unfinished or imperfect about yourself, and to shine light on them and find love for them ... this seems to me like the most important work that you can do.
How does that theme relate to the book’s title?
It’s a triple entendre. My sister used to have a bumper sticker that said “Humanity is trying” on her car, and she explained it as: Humanity is doing its best, even though we often suck; humanity is getting on my nerves, like it’s trying, it’s exhausting; and that trying is the essence of what it means to be human—striving. I’d say that’s probably true of all living organisms.
In that is something profound about how my sister saw the world. It’s a worldview I share with her, which you could call classical liberalism. It comes down to empathy, the recognition of the fact that living is hard for every single living being, and that 99 percent of the time when you think you know what’s going on with somebody, you don’t have the whole story.
We are groping imperfectly forward, all of us. Part of the project of this book is about trying to reclaim the wholeness of life.