It was one of those mornings. The kind where as soon as you wake up, the world greets you with a shitstorm… an eviction notice, a threatening email from a bill collector, your lover’s suitcases by the front door… take your pick.
For me, it was the 17th rejection to my latest book. For fuck’s sake!
No matter how noble my intentions or how hard I work, the world appears determined to thwart my best laid plans and lay waste to my illusions.
Yes, I’ve trained myself on the life force of clear-eyed optimism. I have accepted the universal law of resistance and have more grit than Sisyphus. But still. There are times when it’d be nice to see a silver lining in my otherwise gunmetal clouds. Just a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, for fuck’s sake!
As I pounded my laptop lodging the 17th rejection to my growing list, dawn broke through the window arrayed in radiant blue.
It seemed insane for me to remain indoors banging my head against the same wall while nature beckoned me with her splendor. So I suited up, wanting to ease my distress by surrendering to her soothing embrace.
Silence is so hard to come by anymore that upon entering the wild, I try my best not to fracture its hallowed stillness, especially not with my first-world laments. As it is, our frenzied, noisy existence has made it impossible for us to figure out what to do in quietude and has rendered us insensible to nature’s austere beauty. No wonder we’re always bored and desperate to find the meaning of life. Like discarded violins in the dusty attic of our past — strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bouts — we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize with nature so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. Not surprised we seem bent on destroying her.
My boots sank deep in snow as I trudged around the entrance gate leading to the trail. I advanced slowly, like a camel, still ruminating. Gusts swept through the tall trees making them groan, creak, and knock against each other producing hollow sounds, toppling large clumps of snow from their branches, and churning the white powder underfoot in diaphanous swirls that pricked my face.
The wind died down. Faint ticks and rustlings, the only sounds… sacred whispers… like a symphony about to begin.
I decided to silence the fretful voices in my head, shed my human integument, and commune with the wild in spirit.
That didn’t last too long…
“Salvation is a sham!”
Disrupting my incipient serenity, the defiant voice of Greek writer Kazantzakis boomed in my head.
“Man’s worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.”
No salvation, no hope, no expectation of recompense… how liberating must it be to live that way!
“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!” is the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone.
Hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. — ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’ by Luc Ferry
As I reached the river and turned right, I recalled these words from Rudyard Kipling: “You’ll be a man,” he said, “if you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.”
Joining the chorus of these audacious, carefree men, Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ accompanied my ascent to the highest peak of the vast wilderness I was in:
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”
“I love the great despisers,” spoke Zarathustra, “because they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore. I love him whose soul is lavish, who wants no thanks… always bestowing and desiring not to keep for himself. I love him whose soul is deep even in the wounding. I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart. I love him who chastens his God…”
“My God is not All-holy,” echoed Kazantzakis. “He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, nor does he care for virtues and ideas. He loves all these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”
“My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment. He is full of wounds; his eyes are filled with fear and stubbornness. But he does not surrender, he ascends.”
“My God is not All-knowing. His brain is a tangled skein of light and darkness which he strives to unravel in the labyrinth of the flesh.”
“My God struggles on without certainty. Will he conquer? Will he be conquered? Nothing in the Universe is certain. It is our duty, on hearing his cry, to run under his flag, to fight by his side, to be lost or to be saved with him. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”
“We set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — in this momentary passage of individual life — to order the chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light. It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar. My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’”
I have given my book everything I’ve got. Where will I find the strength and spirit to fight another day?
I reached the summit and sat down under a tree to catch my breath.
Kazantzakis’ God — not almighty, not all-knowing, not all-just and benevolent — contrasted starkly with the one I was raised to trust and believe in. The compassionate one, who answers all our prayers.
But I have since realized that the meek shall not inherit the earth. Blessed are not the poor in spirit. That justice is not always meted out on the unjust. Sinners are not always punished. Life is not game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. And that regardless of my best efforts, my book might never see the light of day.
I must come to terms will all this.
“Only that life is worth living, Kazantzakis said, “which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.”
When fortune lays waste to our illusions, what can we cling to if not hope?
Sitting deep in snow and lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my head.
As if by a celestial tablecloth bluely shaken on high, a faint breeze stirred the snow-laden branches above me and let fall a glittering drizzle of miniature diamonds which kissed my face with icy pinpricks.
Which made me recall another defiant call, this from author John Cowper Powys: “Do thy worst, O world! Still, still, and in spite of all, will I enjoy thy beauty!”
God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’
I rose and began my long walk to the house in a state of agitated defiance uttering these phrases under breath:
Bring on the shitstorm, I will still enjoy the view!
I will not kneel in prayer to ask an almighty, benevolent God for good fortune. Hereon, I will make my own.
If my book flounders and dies without seeing the light of day, I will start another and then another and never breathe a word about my loss.
I will accept hardship as a man, sharpening my sword against every obstacle on my way, walking the tightrope on the edge of uncertainty viewing the abyss with a defiant stare.
If God insists on testing my resolve without cutting me some slack, I will prove my worth without hope for recompense or salvation. The ascent alone will be my reward.
Waiting for me as I walked into the house was the 18th rejection to my book. For fuck’s sake!
Fuming, I stepped out on the front porch, and with a lit cigarette insolently dangling from my lips, I flipped God the bird.
No lightning struck me.
Regaining composure, I realized my contempt was misplaced. Deserving my rebuke wasn’t God or fortune. It was myself! My ego. The slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and recompense. Surrender the beast, and you’re free!
With that, I rushed to the bathroom, stared at my insolent reflection in the mirror and flipped myself the bird.
It happens every time. Once in the wild, I don’t want to return to civilization.
Civilization brings out the worst in me. Frustration, anger, stress, prejudice, the need to wear a mask, to jostle and compete. My zany, playful edges rubbed dull by work and toil. My wildness tamed.
Dullness is but another name for tameness, said Henry David Thoreau.
Nature’s allure shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, she cradled and shaped us for 99% of our time on this planet. Nature was once our home and governess; her lessons simple: harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation, and balanced competition. No need for therapy, Prozac, Ritalin or Xanax.
Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan say it’s the visual elements in natural environments — sunsets, streams, butterflies — which reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.
Regardless, once out, I just can’t bear the thought of heading back indoors.
In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it. But alone in distant woods, I come to myself. I once more feel myself grandly related. I suppose that this value is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. — Thoreau
City life makes me envious. Nature humbles me. City life numbs my senses. The wild awakens them.
Our sensitivities and vast compendium of knowledge gained as hunter-gatherers have been lost. We’ve retained all the fears of the savannah but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we can’t find our way now without a GPS. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or the silk of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without consulting labels. Bleared by the glaring and flickering light of screens, our sight misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us 24–7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear — with increasing doses to keep us hooked — have made it impossible for us to know what exactly to do in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored, anxious, angry, or depressed. No wonder the meaning of life eludes us.
My fascination with the wild began at an early age. Born and raised in one of the most magical spots on earth, I had ample opportunity to commune with nature.
One of my fondest childhood memories are of my solitary trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into ‘El Golfete’ in northeast Guatemala. They ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of vagabondage. It was a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their animated early morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. Being just a boy, I wasn’t conscious of their profound effect, and that’s the crucial point. I was feeling, not thinking. It is our much-vaunted rationality that blocks our path to intimate connection.
As we grow up, we gradually lose our embodied awareness. We become brittle and live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our primal sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. We commodify our aliveness. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes but a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.
Our heedless violence against the planet might be explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensuality.
No European who has tasted savage life, can afterwards bear to live in our societies. — Benjamin Franklin
“In pre-and post-revolutionary America, Puritans loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City,’ “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”
When I came of age, I cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth and sacrificed my natural sensitivities at the altar of ego, consumerism, and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment. Stripped of everything, I learned to succumb to nature’s wild embrace.
“The essence of the western male mind, says author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, “has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.”
If there’s ever a chance to save the wild, we must surrender to its seductive power and relearn nature’s wisdom. We must recover our lost scent.
I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. — Thoreau
I answer the call of the wild and enter its hallowed space to remember where I came from and to where I must constantly return.
In the face of new and more damning evidence in the impeachment trial against the Trump administration, I’ve begun to hear exculpatory comments from a few of his staunch supporters, like, “Every president has used the power of the office for personal gain; what’s the big deal?” or “Democrats are a bunch of hypocrites! Once in power, they all do the same thing,” or “Don’t tell me the Clintons didn’t use the presidency to line their pockets or help them get re-elected!”
Raised in a third-world country under military dictatorships for most of my adult life, I know well how corruption works. I also know how it slowly infects every sector of society until turning it into a cesspool. I just thought America was different.
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” — George Washington
It appears the little voice of conscience is dead in America too.
“Give a little whistle,” said Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio.
“Take the straight and narrow path
And if you start to slide
Give a little whistle
Give a little whistle
And always let your conscience be your guide.”
So here’s my whistle: Children are listening and watching what adults say and do, and they are masters at imitation.
It should surprise no one that according to a recent survey on the moral attitudes of young people conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 45% of boys agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed,” and that twice as many boys as girls agreed, or strongly agreed, that “it’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.”
Since I agree with American statesman Frederick Douglass that it is easier to grow strong children than repair broken men, my focus is on the youth in America, particularly its boys.
In thirty years of working with children,” says Dr. Michael Gurian, author of Saving our Sons, “I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America.”
I share Michael’s concern, and it seems many do so as well.
As a preface to their comprehensive and brilliant handbook on character strengths and virtues, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman say their project coincides with heightened societal concern about good character.
“After a detour through the hedonism of the 1960s, the narcissism of the 1970s, the materialism of the 1980s, and the apathy of the 1990s, most everyone today seems to believe that character is important after all and that the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts, from the playground to the classroom to the sports arena to the Hollywood screen to business corporations to politics. According to a survey by Public Agenda, adults in the United States cited “not learning values” as the most important problem facing today’s youth.”
Strengths of character, the authors suggest, provide the the stability and generality of a life well lived.
“The good life reflects choice and will. Quality life does not simply happen because the Ten Commandments hang on a classroom wall or because children are taught a mantra about just saying no. What makes life worth living is not ephemeral. It does not result from the momentary tickling of our sensory receptors by chocolate, alcohol, or Caribbean vacations. The good life is lived over time and across situations, and an examination of the good life in terms of positive traits is [essential]. Strengths of character provide the needed explanation for the stability and generality of a life well lived.”
They also underpin democracy, the rule of law, civic discourse, and the conscience of a nation.
In ‘Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools,’ educator Amanda Litinov says, “one of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”
“Until the 1960s,” Litinov adds, “it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.”
Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low, reports the Center for American Progress. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.
While knowledge and understanding is essential to democracy, I argue that they are no substitute for virtue and strengths of character.
“A good moral character is the first essential in a man. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” — Letter from George Washington to George Steptoe, December 1790
Pressured regularly by Alexander Hamilton to participate in the first presidential election, and worried Americans would view him with distrust and think he simply desired power, Washington wrote this to Hamilton: “Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles: the character of an honest man.”
In its rapid plunge into the cesspool of moral relativism, the United States seems no longer willing or interested in forging its boys into virtuous men of character, like Washington. It also doesn’t seem much bothered by the blatant disregard for decency, honesty, and decorum of its elected officials on both sides of the aisle.
So I’m giving a little whistle.
Either listen, and act, or prepare yourselves to witness your once-proudful country being taken over by villains and their legions of lily-livered and unscrupulous sycophants.
Governess: a woman employed to teach children in a private household.
President: a term deriving from the Latin prae, before, and sedere, to sit. Thus, “to sit before.” A public sitter, if you will; a head of state or symbolic embodiment of a nation. A man, or woman, who sets the moral tone for a country. By no definition a redeemer or savior, and certainly no silver-tongue demagogue who promises to single-handedly restore a nation’s power and glory. Germany once elected a guy like that. Didn’t work out too well.
So what exactly does a president do?
Although constitutionally ambiguous, the presidency of the United States is inherently dual in character. The president serves as the nation’s head of state and as its chief administrator.
Under Article II of the Constitution, the president’s administrative duties are limited to:
1. Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.
2. Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment).
3. Ensure laws are faithfully executed.
4. With consent of the Senate, nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.
5. Make treaties, by, and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Note these duties do not include issuing laws, creating jobs, fueling stock markets, declaring wars, or imposing immigration, monetary, industrial, and environmental policy. Having freed the colonies from the yoke of monarchy, the founding fathers made damn sure not to grant their leader overreaching powers.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. — Excerpt from the ‘Declaration of Independence’
The constitutional constraints on presidential power thus gave immediate rise to the practice of issuing executive orders to achieve policy goals, manage the executive branch, or outline a view intended to influence the behavior of private citizens. Bear in mind the U.S. Constitution does not define these presidential instruments nor explicitly vests the president with the authority to issue them.
One of the first executive proclamations was George Washington’s call for a Thanksgiving holiday, something I suspect most of us are grateful for.
However, there have been others who have used the ambiguous characterization of executive power to issue directives contravening the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights. Such was Roosevelt’s 1942 directive ordering the removal and internment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over one hundred thousand people — 70,000 of whom were American by birth — were imprisoned in a network of camps across the Southwest. The government made no charges against them nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost their homes and property.
The 5th Amendment states no person shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law.
Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, I get it. I also get that Congress and the Supreme Court backed Roosevelt’s draconian order, making it lawful.
My precise point is that the founding fathers could not cross all the t’s nor dot all the i’s while writing up the instructions on what a president can and cannot do. They could not foresee all the exceptional circumstances which a changing world would bring about. To wit, the assassination of foreign nationals, like the Jan 3rd drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani.
“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” — Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan.
“What constitutes assassination, however, is left undefined, writes Scott R. Anderson for Lawfare. “Subsequent presidential administrations have reportedly interpreted it to mean unlawful killings, which would not necessarily [include] targeting decisions during armed conflicts. Notably, while most of these interpretations are not public, we know that the Obama administration concluded that killings in self-defense are not assassinations in the context of drone strikes against al-Qaeda-affiliated targets in Yemen — a conclusion that likely bears on the decision to kill Soleimani.”
Things are certainly more complicated than they were in 1787. Leading the most powerful country on earth in an increasingly messy and complex world, is, well, messy.
Think back, for example, to the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. A time when the U.S. was in the grip of mass hysteria about the spread of communism across the world. Any foreign leader who dared espouse progressive ideals was labeled red and a potential enemy of U.S. interests.
In 1954, President Eisenhower directed the CIA to launch a covert operation in my country that toppled a popularly-elected, progressive president, ushering-in a civil war lasting over thirty years that cost the lives of close to two hundred thousand people and forced me into exile.
Depending on which side you were on, the event was either justified to contain the spread of communism, or an unconscionable overreach of American presidential power that left a shameful stain on the country’s moral fabric and snuffed my country’s democratic aspirations. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that the true motive behind the CIA-led coup was to protect the interests and profits of corporate America.
Eisenhower made a mockery of the principles of liberty and self-determination upon which the United States was founded. A president faithful to his vow to preserve, protect, and defend those principles upon taking office would’ve never given the order to oust a democratically-elected government in a foreign country. “Do as I say and not as I do” is a sure way to sow distrust, cynicism, and anger, at home and abroad. By the same token, “profit over principle” is a slippery road to a nation’s moral bankruptcy.
Don’t misjudge me. I am not that naive to think that everything is black or white. Geopolitics is a messy affair which often forces a leader to do what’s necessary and expedient even if it forces him or her to temporarily compromise on what is right. It is precisely when a dilemma arises where the end justifies the means that a nation needs a decisive and pragmatic leader but with a steady moral compass. Experience can be hired. A moral compass, however, cannot be purchased.
Which brings me to the governess.
In Victorian England, the governess was not hired to manage a household or to cook or clean. Her primary function was to educate children.
Depending on the age of her pupils, the governess could find herself teaching ‘the three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the youngest, while coaching the older in French conversation, history and geography. If her pupils were teen girls, the governess was expected to instruct them in drawing, playing piano, dancing, and deportment, i.e., how to conduct oneself properly. The governess might also be in charge of small boys up to the age of eight, before they were sent away to school.
The governess was expected to look after her pupils’ moral education too. As well as reading the Bible and leading them in prayer, she was to set a good example of moral behavior. For that reason, employers put great emphasis on hiring a governess who shared their beliefs.
If you were choosing a governess for your children, what would you focus on? Her superb writing skills and knowledge of the world, or her moral character? If forced to choose, say, between a math wizard, previously convicted of child molestation, and a dunce with high moral standards, a clean record and impeccable references, whom would you entrust to guide and edify your children?
How about this guy for president of the United States?
· Four terms in a state legislature, one fairly disappointing term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the United States Senate.
· No administrative experience. Never been a cabinet member, a governor, or even mayor of his hometown.
· Has filed for bankruptcy several times.
· Has never been abroad and knows no foreign languages. His education, he admits, is imperfect. The total time he spent in elementary school was less than one year. Not a great reader. Never finished a novel.
· By his own admission, the humblest of all individuals; a man without a name. Perhaps, he says, without a reason why he should even have a name.
His name was Abraham Lincoln, and while far from perfect, is considered one the great presidents by scholars and historians. Good luck trying to find the “perfect” candidate. We are all a little stained. Perfection often precludes the possible, and in my ledger, if forced to choose, values trump experience.
Of course experience is welcome, but not at the expense of virtuous and wise leadership, especially in a Republic, like the United States, with its sound system of checks and balances and judicious — albeit partly ambiguous — limitations on presidential power. Focus on experience when choosing your state’s representatives, governors, mayors, and city council members — the people charged with getting things done — but not when choosing your president.
The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover
Come November, Americans will choose their next head of state. The man or woman who will become the symbolic embodiment of their nation’s conscience. They will do so at a time when their country, its rule of law and the ideals for which it stands are being torn asunder amid a messy world that seems poised on the brink. Not a good time to focus on rigid ideologies or vote one’s pocketbook, in my mind. Not a good time either to allow fear, hatred, bigotry, or prejudice to mark the ballot. Default to any of these and you’ll soon end up with a tyrant.
When choosing, I suggest you check your emotions at the entrance of the polling station and walk clear-headed into the booth. Then, elect the person to whom you would entrust your children in your absence and further base that choice on the ideals which once made the United States the world’s beacon of hope and shining city upon the hill.
Like hailstones on flowers, we keep pelting our boys with scorn for the mere fact of being boys.
Assailing them at every turn, mass media thunders dispiriting messages like, “The End of Men,” “The Demise of Guys,” “Are Men Necessary?”
Not yet capable of nuance or understanding context, the opprobrium poured on men with undiscriminating malevolence must sound to their fragile minds like a factual, congenital defect of their gender. Guilty before proven innocent.
It’s the same guilt one is made to feel when walking into a Catholic church and met by the limp and lacerated body of Christ nailed to the cross. “Because of my fault, because of my fault, because of my great fault,” worshippers chant as they tap their guilt-ridden heart with their fist.
A year ago, the American Psychological Association put out its first-ever ‘Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men.’ “From the first sentences,” laments Dr. Michael Gurian, “the APA did what so many other organizations do: fall back on the soft science of ‘masculinity is the cause of men’s problems’ and ‘removing masculinity is the solution.’”
No wonder most men refuse therapy and are committing suicide in increasing numbers.
I suppose the scorn lashed against men is a form of payback for us having once blamed women for all the ills of the world… Lilith, Eve, Pandora, Demeter… I get it.
But I’m an adult. I can take the punches without losing my balance. Boys cannot.
So pummeled, the wings of their spirit are prematurely clipped, discouraging them to soar and actualize their innate masculine nobility. Then we wonder why they are failing to launch, lag behind at school, seek respect by joining online hate groups, or vent their confusion through mass shootings.
“As profiles of school shooters have shown us,’ adds Michael Gurian, “the most dangerous male is not one who is strong, aggressive, and successful; the most dangerous male is one who is depressed, unable to partner or raise children successfully, unable to earn a living, unable to care for his children. The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless.”
When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, women will be perpetually stuck with boys. And without strong men, women will never attain a centered and profound sense of themselves as women. — Camille Paglia
The inference, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is toxic, ergo masculinity is toxic, is as idiotic as saying: “Cleopatra was a cunning harlots, ergo all women are harlots.”
For every Weinstein, there are hundreds of men, like Aaron Feis, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves, who sacrificed their lives shielding the innocent from harm. Toxic you say?
For every Trump, I give you a Jefferson, a Washington and a Lincoln.
For every Hitler, I give you a Churchill and a Roosevelt.
Keep raising the toxic flag and shaming boys for being boys and you will awaken the beast. Our world has paid a heavy price at the hands of humiliated boys who sought retribution and power through bloodletting.
If you must vent, go ahead. There is a valid reason for your rightful anger. Just put away your shotgun and bring out your high-precision rifle. Boys don’t need to suffer the impact of your broad-stroked vitriol striking the guilty and innocent alike. Exceptions do not prove a rule. A radical Muslim, for instance, does not represent the entirety of the Islamic faith.
The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men. – Christina Hoff Sommers.
Boys need to know they are needed and wanted. That the world needs their fierce, warrior energy as much as it needs women’s intuition, empathy, and nurturing power.
“Boys are such great kids,” writes Katey McPherson in ‘Why Teens Fail: What to Fix,’ “because of who they are — so direct, so compassionate, so full of energy and wonder, if we can just see it and love it. To nurture it, though, especially as one of four sisters and a mother of four girls, I had to commit consciously to seeing male nature as a strong part of this world that needs my help to be and remain strong.”
If we, as a culture, insist on rejecting their unique gifts, we will perpetuate the parable of Cain and Abel. Brothers will keep slaying brothers and our boys will be condemned to a life of wandering — adrift and disoriented.
Male character traits such as strength, stoicism, rightful anger, and transformative power are vital forces for good if they are rightly understood and channeled.
Masculinity is not the enemy. The enemy is distorted, crafty, and malevolent language.
Had the Eurasian plate not presented its fierce resistance against the colliding Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas would not be crowned with Mt. Everest.
So it is with any worthy human endeavor.
We never know how high we can soar until we are called to rise. — Emily Dickinson.
And when the call to our true purpose comes, there is no greater life force we must bring to bear than the Life Force of Grit, a word originating from the Proto-Germanic root ‘ghreu’ — to rub or grind.
Three years ago, I was called to rise and lend my life a higher purpose. Ever since, my journey has been met with great resistance. Many times have I wanted to give up and run back to my previous life cushioned by security.
In the face of adversity, Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said there are three forms of prayer:
One: I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot.
Two: Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.
Three: Overdraw me, who cares if I break!
I have chosen the third.
“Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory.” added Kazantzakis. “His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.”
“God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts must become butterflies. There is only one way: The Ascent! View the abyss with a defiant glance — without hope and fear, but also without insolence, as you stand proudly erect at the very brink of the precipice.”
“Deliver yourself from deliverance. Salvation is a sham. Pursue only one thing: a harsh, carnivorous, indestructible vision — the essence. Ascend, because the very act of ascending is happiness and paradise. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks!”
Gritty words from a man who lived their truth and had this written on his tombstone: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free!”
We don’t seem to be raising our children with such steely determination and ‘stick-to-itiveness’ these days. Instead, we seek to clear their path from all obstacles, paving their way through life with a frictionless road to the land of plenty.
If they quickly tire, or become bored with one activity, we rush to ease their discomfort by facilitating a new one. “Don’t like the piano, Billy? That’s okay sweetie, you’ve given it almost a full week. We’ll pay for tennis lessons instead.”
For ten years, I worked at a Waldorf-methods public charter school. By the fourth grade, every student is handed a violin, one of the most difficult instruments to play. Certain that this would turn them off music for good, I asked the teacher what the purpose was.
“Grit,” he responded, with a grin. “Embracing and overcoming discomfort is the only way they’ll achieve mastery, in music, and in life.”
“Anything you rub long enough becomes beautiful,” I tell boys in my book.
“You’ll know what I mean if you like to collect rocks…”
Excerpt from Chapter 10
To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to super-fine. Rocks don’t like being polished. That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.
If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.
Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.
Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.
Circling above us, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal, is the hawk. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature. Suddenly, he spots the mouse. Easy lunch, one would think, but nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is about to begin!
Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.
Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.
What would happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?
In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.
What have we done, young man!
By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.
Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’
Best not to mess with the laws of nature.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.
Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.
Poof! A Genie appears.
Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer or not.
From that day forward, the Genie promises, you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.
Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?
Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.
As I put the finishing touches on ‘The Hero in You,’ I look back at the many months of struggle, the rolls and tumbles I’ve endured, the seemingly implacable resistance that continues to push against my conquering will.
Overdraw me, I say, who cares if I break!
If I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows
The rock will split. — D.H. Lawrence
With indomitable keenness, I will continue rubbing and grinding until I bring to the world a worthy and exquisite piece of literary sea glass.
Our struggles define us, not our desires, wrote Zat Rana.
And in our defiant ascent, the force we can never do without is the Life Force of Grit.
Men have been driving this world for the past two hundred thousand years and from what I can see through the rearview mirror the picture ain’t pretty so I say it’s time women take the wheel.
Notice I did not say, “Throw us out of the car and make us eat your dust.” After all, you’ll need us to change a flat tire now and then.
I know you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. I just think women’s hands should not be soiled by axle grease. They are meant to nurture and heal. Let us do the dirty work and heavy lifting, not because we think you’re weak, but because we care.
There’s a bully blocking your agenda? Tell us where he lives, we’ll take him out!
For the greater part of the human story, we were equals. You gathered, we hunted. This lasted for about 99% of the time modern humans have been on this planet. It wasn’t until ten thousand years ago when we began to settle and till the land that we disrupted the harmony with our macho bullshit. We came up with the notion of property and extended that notion to your bodies and personhood.
Afraid of your power, we began to blame you for the ills of the world and invented skygods after our own image to punish you.
Envious of your fecundity and your intuitive powers, we banished all female goddesses and filled the pantheon with male divinities and stoic male heroes. Reason became the supreme virtue, while the feeling body and emotions were declared vile and capricious.
Bewildered by your overpowering sensuality that continues to spin us like a top, we repressed it, veiled it to remove it from sight, and now seek its return in the dark and lonely theater of our minds projected through the perverted lens of pornography. Pathetic!
In our blinding arrogance, we considered your intellect inferior to ours and denied you the right to vote, robbing the world from your voice and wisdom at enormous cost.
We turned you from subjects to objects, which made it easier for us to exploit, enslave, and denigrate you.
Really sorry about all this too.
The record speaks for itself. Our seeming incapacity to develop emotional intelligence, and deal with our anger, has cost the lives of 150 million to over one billion people in warfare. Our self-imposed exile from our feeling bodies and emotions — hence from nature itself — has ushered in the sixth mass extinction and now has Earth on the brink.
The list of our blunders is exhaustive.
Recently, one of your female colleagues, a brave 16 year-old climate activist, speaking on behalf of the planet, was mocked and ridiculed by the most powerful man on Earth. Toxic, indeed.
But we’re all not like that. The rotten apples have not spoiled the entire barrel. It’s just that the bullies, loudmouths, windbags, braggarts and scumbags get most of the air time. They are the locusts of the world.
For now, it appears the locusts are winning, but listen carefully, and you’ll hear a growing buzzing of bees.
The New Zealand parliament, for example, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but still majority male, recently approved a landmark zero-carbon law.
2019 ended with a glimmer of hope when the Dutch Supreme Court (majority male) granted a landmark climate victory that could change the world.
And the decade ended with men and women joined in protest around the world.
“What lay underneath all this disillusionment,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “was a readiness to question foundations that had been portrayed as fixed, inevitable, unquestionable — whether that foundation was gender norms, heterosexuality, patriarchy, white supremacy, the age of fossil fuels or capitalism.”
The tide is turning.
So while your anger and disillusionment with men is rightful and warranted, this is not the time to further the divide. You will be perpetually stuck with boys, warns Camille Paglia, so long as you continue denigrating masculinity and manhood.
I’m asking you to give us some time to figure out our shit.
Your steady and deserved return back to equality has caught us unprepared. It will take us a while to fashion an evolved conception of manhood. Bear in mind that the male software was written by nature during hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history. The traits in men that women often find exasperating were fashioned out on the African savannah, and, in many ways, have served their purpose.
In ‘The Hero in You,’ my book for boys, I explain the virtues and glitches of these traits:
Excerpt from Chapter 2
For example, we men don’t talk much. There’s a good reason for that. Imagine you’re out on the savannah with your hunting buddies and one of them just won’t shut up. You would never catch anything, and you, your buddies, and all the members of your clan would starve to death. Our ancestors survived and passed-on those instructions to the next generation of hunters: “Speak little, hunt more.”
Our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. It would have been a bad idea for us and our hunting buddies to sit down and chat about how scared or unsafe we felt when encountering a Saber-toothed Tiger. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action.
Men have fewer nerve endings for feeling pain and fewer pain receptors in their brains. That’s why we can stand more pain, although you wouldn’t think so when watching a grown man stub his toe on a chair and collapsing on the floor screaming about how much it hurts.
Women claim men can’t find things. They’re half-right. While we might not be able to find the cereal box even though it’s right in front of our nose, we can certainly spot the big things, like Mammoths. Our software was written out in the wild, hunting on the wide expanse of the savannah. We look at the big picture. We see the forest, not the trees.
Women get frustrated with men who refuse to ask for directions when lost. There’s a good reason for that too. We like to figure things out for ourselves. We are scouts and explorers, navigators and adventurers. We like to wade across churning rivers, slash our way through steamy jungles, and climb mountains to look far and wide to map out the road ahead. We are visionaries.
We are also less empathetic; less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, or suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our buddies fell and got hurt, we just didn’t have the time to sit by his side to comfort him. We picked him up, brushed him off, maybe gave him a pat on the back, and we both kept running after our next meal. We had to. Those waiting for us back at camp depended on us to bring food. Men bond with their buddies by challenging them.
We don’t avoid pain and danger, but actually go out and look for it. Exposing ourselves to danger made us develop the skills we needed to survive. Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written in the soul of man.
We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees. To give you an example, in 1954, a famous social psychologist convinced twenty-two sets of parents to let him take their 12 year-old boys off their hands for three weeks and took them to a remote place. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone, yet still set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules, songs, rituals, and flags. One boy in each group was chosen as the leader. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. Men are warriors because when living as hunter-gatherers we had to defend our clan.
We are also protectors. When we see someone of our clan or family in danger, we run to their rescue, even if it means we will die in the process. Writing for The Federalist, Jason Farrell says “masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland as he shielded students from bullets while pushing them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre when three young men died shielding their girlfriends.”
Sometimes, we even sacrifice ourselves for an ideal — the ideas we believe can improve human lives. There have been brave men, like Greek philosopher Socrates, Italian cosmologist Giordano Bruno, and English statesman Thomas Moore, who chose to die, rather than renounce their ideals and live. These men are some of the great Warrior Bees in the human story.
But much as there are great things about the male software, it also has its bugs and glitches like any computer program, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t constantly work on making it better. After all, we are Homo Sapiens, or wise men.
There is, for example, no reason why we can’t train ourselves to better express our emotions besides sulking, shouting, hitting desks, slamming doors, or punching people in the nose.
Although we are less empathetic, I don’t see why we can’t develop rational compassion, using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then lending our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.
Knowing we are territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different and speak a different language, instead of destroying their flags, raiding and vandalizing their camp, and calling them nasty names, we can choose to see them as part of the human family, learn from one another, and work together to make the world a better place.
The human enterprise thrived for hundreds of thousands of years because men and women cooperated, side by side, as equals, bringing their unique traits, strengths and powers to bear on a shared adventure. We’d do well by remembering that the Greek goddess Harmonia was born from the union of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Realizing we lost our way ten thousand years ago, we must now ‘hark back’ — a phrase used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent.
While men get the hang of it, it’s best the world let women take the wheel. Just don’t leave us by the side of the road. You might need us to replace a flat tire now and then, or act as your human shield in case we come across armed bandits along the way.
It’s made some walk across scorching sands for weeks, goaded others to ruminate for days in caves, and made others squat under trees in lotus pose to cook up recipes for enlightenment and bliss.
‘Hunger Artists’ is how poet Stephen Dunn names these restless seekers.
Like chefs in a mystical season of ‘Chopped,’ they tried to turn baskets of the ingredients of life into plain but nutritious meals for humankind, all because the available food they tried tasted wrong and they knew that the world was sad.
These sages of antiquity gifted their answers to the world hoping to alleviate suffering and injustice only to see their simple dishes repeatedly ignored, perverted, rejected or disdained.
Thus, the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.
“He who has ears, let him hear.” — Matthew 13:9
Like those who have lost their taste buds, we cannot appreciate a plain meal. We need spicier fare to awaken our numbed sensibilities. What stirs us most is fear. The fear of death is what sends us rushing back to the kitchen.
Spooked by our mortality, we have kept writing elaborate myths, rigid doctrines and incomprehensible philosophies to try to make sense of the universal law of entropy: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
We conjure kingdoms in the sky where, for eternity, we will continue bedeviling the universe with questions of meaning accompanied by harp music or in sultry embrace with seventy-two virgins.
Imagination cannot grasp simple nothingness and must therefore fill the world with fantasies. — Alan Watts
Like troublesome, high-brow English professors, we appear incapable of savoring the poem of life in all its ‘nonsensical,’ majestic simplicity, so insist on pounding meaning out of it with the rubber hose of our arrogant incomprehension. In the vast cosmic scheme, human impermanence and insignificance drives us mad.
Meanwhile, the rest of life looks with mute dread at this aberration of nature, sensing its fate now irrevocably in the self-destructive hands of an unhinged primate with anger management issues.
Imprisoned in the torturous chambers of our minds, we continue burning the midnight oil writing scrolls and scrolls of answers to the meaning of life while the gifts of life pass us unaware. Shuttered inside our egocentric caves, we remain deaf and blind to the divine spectacle happening all around us every second of every day.
God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’
A simple recipe, like “love is the religion and the universe is the book” baked by the poet Rumi, sounds too straightforward. It cannot be that simple, can it? No! We must write more complicated rules, morals, and injunctions to govern our abnormal appetites. We need to create heavenly overlords after our own image who can keep us from harming ourselves and others. Certainly, we cannot govern ourselves without the looming threat of eternal damnation braised in fire and brimstone.
This madness is exclusive to our species: Homo Absurdus.
For all my walks in nature, I have yet to come across stone tablets, codices or surahs written by weasels or worms — not even by the wisest owls — to regulate their lives. They seem miraculously able to do so on their own. Perhaps this is why I have also not seen temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, sex shops, opium dens, torture chambers, prisons, rehab clinics, mindfulness retreats or therapy couches out in the wild.
You’re behaving like an animal! has always smacked me as praise rather than opprobrium.
“ME imperturbe!” scoffed poet Walt Whitman. “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought.
“Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”
Afoot and lighthearted, Whitman traveled the Open Road unencumbered by the doctrines without which humans seem unable to joyfully navigate their brief time on earth.
“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,” Whitman declared. “They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
“The earth, that is sufficient!
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.”
Whitman lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!”
The prophet who wandered for forty days in the scorching sands of the Judean Desert returned with an equally simple message: Wake up! Yours is the kingdom as soon as you recover the delight of childhood and live with presence.
An uncarved block of wood was Daoism’s response to our insistence of making our lives unnecessarily complex.
To the question of the meaning of life, the Buddha responded by holding up a white flower.
The briefest sermon never ends.
A wake-up call, a chunk of wood, and a stinking flower… is that it? Surely there’s more to the meaning of life than that! We need more rigid dogmas and heady philosophies, more ritual, more prayer, longer liturgies and a horde of cowled middlemen or supercilious interpreters to make sense of it all. We need miracle, mystery, and authority as said Dostoevsky in ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’
Having arrested and imprisoned Jesus after he returned to walk among his fellow men once more, the Grand Inquisitor reprimanded the Christ:
“Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely. [That] in place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter, with free heart, decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. [Didn’t you] know that he would reject Thy image and Thy truth if he [were] weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? Thou didst ask far too much from him. [Man] is weak and vile.”
The “free choice” mocked by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is the divine instinct German writer Georg Groddeck called “Gott Natur” or God nature — our kinship with the rest of life and our capacity to tell right from wrong and good vs evil without needing to hit the stacks or run to a confessional to confirm our intuition.
If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. — Gospel of Thomas
In ‘The Gospel of Jesus,’ Stephen Mitchell says “the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is of a man who has emptied himself of desires, doctrines, rules — all the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage that separate us from true life. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being… a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world.”
Other hunger artists were pretty much saying the same thing.
Kazantzakis said life is only worth living if we develop the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying to an imaginary world.
Philosopher Alan Watts suggested the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it, and then trying to grasp it.
For Greek poet Homer, life was a succession of contingencies. He believed our lives are ruled by fate and chance. Shit happens and life’s not that hard or complicated. Socrates, however, could not accept this, so he invented morality, says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs.’
Instead of wasting precious time searching for “eternal truths” or formulating redundant morals, Gray points to the simple lives of other animals as the source of ethics. “The beginnings of justice, prudence, moderation, bravery — in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues — are animal.”
As I write this, the first snowstorm is blanketing the meadow beyond my window. Unperturbed by questions of meaning and purpose, a pair of thick-furred deer nibble hungrily at the last tufts of grass. The forest is serene and placid except for a prudent squirrel hurrying to store the few remaining acorns. The black bear must already be snugly burrowed, dreaming of sunshine, golden honey, and the exultant spectacle of spring wildflowers.
It brings to mind the comfort author E.B. White said he found “with the pleasing thought that to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself; a task of such immediacy and beauty that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”
And it makes me wonder…
Do we, by nature, already carry the blueprint for bliss?
Might the meaning of life be truly found once we recover our divine instinct and live with childlike presence?
With that promise, Scar rallies a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas, topples the Lion King from power, upsets the Prideland’s order and turns it into a wasteland.
This is not the stuff of Disney movies alone. History is filled with such ruinous examples which we are doomed to repeat if we don’t learn from its lessons, as cautioned philosopher George Santayana.
The world has paid a heavy price for falling for the empty promises, demagoguery, and calls for unity and identity on the basis of race, blood, and soil, thundered by silver-tongued villains.
“The main plank in the National Socialist program is to abolish the liberalist concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil, and bound together by the bond of its common blood.” — Adolf Hitler 1930s
Fifteen years before Hitler’s rise to power, Irish poet W.B.Yeats saw the writing on the wall and wrote his prophecy in ‘The Second Coming’:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
By the time Yeats penned those words, Italian strongman Benito Mussolini had unleashed the scourge of fascism onto the world by hypnotizing his compatriots with his passionate intensity.
Back in the Prideland, while Scar and his slavish minions unleash their anarchy, the hoped-for savior, Simba, lacking all conviction, wastes his days singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ with his feckless buddies, Timon and Pumbaa.
By luck, Simba finds Rafiki, the old and wise baboon.
When Simba tells Rafiki that his father, Mufasa, is dead, the wise baboon says, “I know your father… he’s alive, and I’ll show him to you. Follow old Rafiki… he knows the way!”
Rafiki leads Simba to the edge of a waterhole and makes him look at his reflection. Simba looks hard, sighs, and says, “That’s not my father, it’s just my reflection.”
The wise baboon stirs the water’s surface with his finger and says, “Nooo, look harder… you’ll see he lives in you!” When Simba takes a second look, he sees Mufasa’s face, then hears his voice coming from above. Simba looks up and sees the ghost of his father breaking through a dense cloud.
“You have forgotten who you are,” says Mufasa in a deep voice. “Look inside yourself, Simba, you are more than what you have become.”
Like Simba, the American people have forgotten who they are.
Once a nation held together by a shared story under the motto “Out of many, one,” it is rapidly becoming a splintered patchwork of squabbling tribes laying waste to the ideals which their forefathers brought forth to give birth to the greatest country on earth; a country that appears to have forgotten Lincoln’s warning that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
“Divide and Conquer” has been a tool of tyrants since the dawn of time, along with their keen understanding and cunning manipulation of people’s fears, anger, greed, prejudices, ignorance, and insecurities. Most often, these scoundrels are not interested in the wellbeing of the people but consider them as halfwit pawns in their megalomaniac quest for absolute power and control.
“I never thought hyenas essential. They’re crude and unspeakably plain. But maybe they’ve a glimmer of potential if allied to my vision and brain.” — Scar
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said, so long as a group lacks a unifying story.
Rafiki had to remind Simba of his roots and his father’s legacy to wake him up from his self-centered existence. Armed with renewed courage and conviction, Simba returned to reclaim the Prideland and assumed his rightful place.
Americans have lost their center. They either ignore, or disdain the legacy of their forefathers. Like Simba, they stand aloof while the ideals enshrined in their Constitution are increasingly desecrated. Profit over principle is now the people’s maxim. Lacking a higher conviction, they stand on loose sediment. Thus unanchored, the American people are bewildered and afraid; easy prey for crowd-pleasers and opportunists — the Scars and hyenas of this world.
To Scar’s rallying cry of, ‘Stick with me and you’ll never go hungry again!’ I counter with Jesus’ warning: ‘For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his soul?’
Wake up America! The soul of your country is in peril. Look inside yourself, you’re more than what you’ve become.
Wake up, before your once, proudful land becomes a wasteland.
I write this on the Winter Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light. On this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.
Does that make me a Christian or Catholic?
No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist.
Does it matter?
It seems to me that walking away from a banquet just because we don’t like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes us lose out on a wonderful meal — we throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry.
That baby is Jesus’ message, now drowned in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, or co-opted and distorted on the other by religious dogma into petrified historicity and rarefied into canonical balderdash making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as a communion wafer. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded and that the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.
My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner far away from both the commercial din and religious sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet, no miracles or High-Priest authority and no translation necessary. Like a plain loaf of bread, his words are simple, yet all-nourishing.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth, a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.
The Winter Solstice marks the day when the sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
It never ceases to baffle me how, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is stirred once again, further drowning his message under inane calendrical calculations or through attempts to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.
Again, does it matter?
By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost, and we deny ourselves its gifts.
I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world. Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is great news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future once we’ve perfected our harp-playing skills.
When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here, with you.”
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus elaborates: “If those who lead you say — ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. The kingdom is within you.”
It’s the same idea contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ of the sacred Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE) — ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its primordial state, is identifiable with the Ultimate Reality and ground of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said, “we’re all stardust feeding off starlight.”
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.
After Jesus delivers his simple truth, he offers the key to this inner realm:
“Change and become like little children.”
I take his words as an invitation to return to my primordial state. Back to the way I was before the blank slate of my innocence was scarred with the ‘thou shalls’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ of the world.
Back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly. When neither race nor station dictated who I could play with. When I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive. Full of passion and compassion. When I could cry without shame. When days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present. When everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awe and delight. When I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy. The time when I didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was thus humble and insatiably curious. When I was trustful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder. That sublime stage in life when we still believe in invisible friends and dare build castles in the sky with magic bricks made of phrases like, ‘I wonder…, What if…, and If only…’
The lens through which most of us apprehend the world is what blocks our way back into that holy realm by being blurred by the blight and shadow of an endless Winter’s Solstice — the blight of cynicism, apathy, egoism, pretense, prejudice, intolerance, fears, false pride, vanities and our unbridled greed.
The Unconquered Sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.
“If an honest-minded man is really concerned about evil and injustice in the world,” proposed writer Fernando Pessoa, “he will naturally begin his campaign by eliminating them at their nearest source: himself.”
That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual — to illume my way back to the source. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you to sit at the banquet and feast.
Standing at the foot of Dad’s deathbed watching him take his final breaths, I pictured myself at a Deli counter holding a stub with the #A01 and hearing the butcher scream, “next!”
It’s the only time you don’t want to be next in line.
I can’t hand over the ‘lucky stub’ to the person behind me. That’d be one of my daughters and to outlive them would be worse than death. No choice, then, but hope the butcher gets distracted, at least for a while.
I’m 58, and as far as I can tell from those close to me – knees and hips crumbling in their late 60s – I have about ten to fifteen years left of brain and brawn. About the lifespan of a turkey (I just checked) and I’m certain no almighty, benevolent skylord will pardon my execution.
So 15 years at best.
But how can I be so sure?
Like poet Billy Collins, I often worry that a tiny ship of plaque is about to unmoor and set sail across the bloody rivers of my body headed straight to my brain causing a major stroke, paralyzing half my face, and leaving me bloodshot and drooling like a Basset Hound. Or what if, as Collins said, what if Death were already “stepping from a black car parked at the dark end of the lane, shaking open the familiar cloak, its hood raised like the head of a crow, and removing his scythe from the trunk?”
Yet most of us live our lives as if we were church pillars, meant to last forever. We think 15 years is a long time until it isn’t. Look back 15 years at your life and you’ll know what I mean. Kind of a blur, right?
In youth, we live as if we were immortal. Knowledge of mortality dances around us like a brittle paper ribbon that barely touches our skin. When, in life, does that change? When does the ribbon tighten, until it finally strangles us? – Amadeu de Prado
Not long ago, I found Dad standing on his balcony looking wistfully at the end of another day and asked him what was wrong. “I don’t know where the last ten years of my life have gone,” he said. “They’re just a blur.”
A blur that began in his mid-70s, and, from what I can tell, the previous ten weren’t that memorable and he died with a thousand regrets.
That’s how life often seems, doesn’t it? A blurry madhouse crisscrossed by our darting shadow busy “making a living” while putting our dreams on ice. Postponing, stalling, dithering, delaying… telling ourselves ‘just as soon as…’ while sitting in traffic gripped by the death lock of monotony contemplating the lugubrious parade of our disavowed longings march down the road not taken. ‘Just wait a little while longer…’
But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long road, and the Deli spool won’t stop spitting-out stubs, bringing our number closer.
Should we, then, live like the terminally ill? Assume we’ve been given just one more year and throw caution to the wind?
With that mindset, I’ve been doing just that for the past three years after taking a hard look at the previous ten and horrified by how unmemorable they were. Ask me what I did, and I’d bore you with an explanation rather than a great story. So I broke free.
I realize that having that choice is a privilege denied to many. Born and raised in a poor country, I suspect that any first-world tourist dumb enough to tell an unfortunate fellow in one of my city’s slums to ‘follow his dreams!’ will most likely get laughed at or punched in the face. Adding ‘carpe diem’ to his callous injunctions will probably get him dismembered with a machete. The poor have no choice — period. They do what’s necessary to survive which is often more heroic than doing what you love.
After I fulfilled my obligation of raising my daughters to the point of self-reliance, I reached a crossroads. I could continue on the familiar, ‘safe’ road, gathering wealth for that hoped-for day when I’d feel secure enough to finally unbridle my pent-up longings, or take the riskier path of adventure. Having witnessed my father lose the lion’s share of his savings in the crash of 2008, I chose the latter.
Ask me right now if I made the right choice and I’d equivocate. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m scared.
On the one hand, I’m doing exactly what I love and believe was meant to do with my life, so my days, just like playwright William Herzog’s, feel like one long vacation. “For me, everything is constantly fresh and always new,” he said. “A vacation is [only] a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine.” I know what he means.
Most days, I’m like a child on Christmas morning, waking up at dawn with great excitement for the creative challenges ahead and hardly ever tiring, despite working long hours.
The awareness of ‘The Blur’ has also been a terrifying agent of authenticity. I realized there was no time to waste pretending to be someone I was not. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly,” says the Bhagavad Gita, and I now get it.
As I age, I have also learned what a true friend is, and so, like an artichoke’s unwholesome bottom leaves, I have discarded those who are unworthy of the name. I don’t have time for that shit anymore.
My whole being has recovered its erotic power, not just in the sexual sense, but in its broader meaning held by the ancient Greeks: the impulse, or desire, that links us to the whole web of life. I have, if you will, fallen in love with life.
But right about now, my love feels unrequited.
I was under the illusion that if one did exactly what one was meant to do in life and brought the gifts of his unique talents to bear on the needs of the world, the world, in turn, would reward him, not lavishly, but with enough to survive with dignity. I’m not seeing it.
I was comforted and inspired by what Johann Goethe said, that the moment one definitely commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I’m not feeling that magic either.
I was goaded at the start of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore by serendipitous writings on walls, like, “Don’t let your dreams fall asleep,” and “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Back then, I really felt the Universe had my back.
So far though, the steps keep leading me down a slippery staircase inside what seems a bottomless pit of hardship and despair. I am living the myth of the starving artist and not really enjoying the view. Every time one of my well-intentioned daughters tells me to get a “real” job, I cringe and seethe.
When exactly did art become “unreal”? Was it when we decided that someone skilled at whacking a ball with a stick or good at shooting hoops was worth more than a teacher? How, I ask, would it feel to live in a world with no books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and so on?
Regardless, I can’t turn back now and rejoin the rat race. People my age appear as unnecessary to society as another pair of shoes in a woman’s closet. Besides, notwithstanding the hardship, I still prefer living on the edge of uncertainty doing what I love, rather than securely shackled to a desk, hating what I do. So deal, right? Grow a pair!
Here’s the scary part, though. If my number’s really up, I mean, like soon, it would make my reckless decision one of the best I’ve ever made. If, on the other hand, the butcher gets distracted for, say, thirty years, I have no idea how I’ll survive.
Author Paulo Coelho better be right when claiming that the road of adventure becomes less daunting over time; that age only slows the pace of those without the courage to follow their true path, and that the world hungers for romance, passion, and daring tales of great endurance.
Otherwise, best to hurry up to the counter and get it over with, or move to Norway, the “best place in the world to be a writer,” though I’d first have to get past my revulsion against Lutefisk and ghostly-white people in tacky reindeer sweaters.
I used to have a big bucket. So big in fact, I never bothered making lists. I just did anything I wanted.
I scuba-dived, trekked across rainforests and jungles, climbed Mayan temples, honeymooned in paradise, sailed yachts, piloted airplanes, wore gold watches, built financial empires, cavorted with prostitutes, powdered my nose with blow, briefly retired at age 36… that kind of big.
Fate smashed my bucket two decades ago.
I now have neither bucket nor pot to piss in, but I’m happier than ever… how’s that possible?
Because my bucket, you see, was riddled with holes, that no list — no matter how long or exotic— could plug. It took me years to figure out I was scratching the wrong itch. My thirst for adventure was masking a yearning to reconnect with my wild side. The bling and blow were desperate cries for attention and acceptance. Wealth, for respect and validation. Prostitutes, for intimacy.
They were, and are, the misty hidden yearnings manipulated by the sly persuaders of unruly capitalism to keep us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied desire… always scratching the wrong itch, always pouring more stuff into our buckets.
Where affluence is the rule, the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic vices. What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The health of the economy has thus come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. New vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. — Alan Watts
The loss mourned by Watts is Eros, which, at root, means the passionate and intense desire considered by ancient Greek philosophers as the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. There is no suggestion that this desire is specifically sexual. Eros is an impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life. Thus, in the original vision that gave birth to the word, erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propels life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.
Wasting my potential climbing ladders leaning against wrong walls, running the rat-race wearing ill-fitting masks, concealing my mute despair with glitz and glamor, and seeking safe harbor in the arms of lust, my life-well ran dry of erotic energy. I burned out without ever having been on fire.
Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller
Adrift for twenty years in the wasteland strewn with the ruins of my life, I finally got it. Unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be content no matter what I had. I needed to shift from a state of having, to a state of being.
My bucket had been filled to the brim with useless stuff, and I’m now certain that it wasn’t fate that smashed it but I the one who gave it the heave in unconscious revolt against the paradoxical emptiness of my life to finally wake up from a forty-year lie.
Once stripped of all the falsehood, I also thought that what would remain would be my authentic core — dreamer, poet, lover… a metaphysical gypsy encircled by a placid sea of inner truth. But even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of personhood, as cautioned Maria Popova. “They are but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self.”
We change, and must. Only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. What we desire today will change over time… just like a river, as said poet David Whyte, with a particular abiding character, but showing radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.
For many years after the crash, I dreamt of pulling my stakes and moving to Greece. The idea had long beguiled me. Ever since reading British author Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Or perhaps it was when I came across his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality drive great poets to slash their veins.
Had I the money at the time, I probably would have checked the item off my bucket list and be now married to a Greek peasant girl wondering why the hell she wasn’t burning inwardly like an altar candle and, instead, nagging me for not having milked the goats. Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I had to examine the fantasy to find the true nature of the itch. I discovered I was simply yearning to recover my erotic power.
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. — Jack Kerouac
I’ve since understood that Eros is not to be found on Greek isles nor in the arms of young girls. Neither can the ecstasy Kerouac pined for be found by assuming a different persona. The real voyage of discovery, said Marcel Proust, consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, echoed Henry Miller. “If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows!”
Which brings to mind the summer day I took my young daughters to the beach.
I had no money to pay for camps or trips abroad and had just traded my new, luxury SUV for a drab-brown Altima sedan to lower the monthly payments. To lend magic to an otherwise boring Wednesday, I had to open the windows of our imaginations.
“Let’s pretend,” I said, as we walked out of the house, “let’s imagine we lived in a small, whitewashed stone house perched on a craggy hill in the island of Corfu… chalk-white, with electric blue window shutters and the Ionian sea only minutes away. “Pretend we’d usually trundle down the rutted road in a red wagon pulled by goats, but today — in our only compromise with the trappings of the affluent life we’ve left behind — we will have to take the Altima.”
With nothing more than our bathing suits under our clothes, a pair of borrowed boogie boards, and a yellow, cracked surfboard I had fished-out of a dumpster just days before, we headed out.
We didn’t need to see flocks of sheep grazing under olive groves or drive past the nude chastity of rocky hills dotted with asphodel flowers as we made our way down the winding asphalt of Highway 1. Didn’t matter. Instead, we feasted our eyes on towering emerald thickets of Eucalyptus to our left, and wind-and-fog swept hills to our right. To heighten my girls’ thirst for the ocean’s chill embrace (which I suspected would be no warmer than 65 degrees) and to recreate the imagined summer temperature in Corfu, I closed the windows and turned on the heat. Within seconds, sweat drops bloomed on our skin, making the shimmering steel blue surface of the Pacific Ocean, by then in view, even more alluring.
As soon as parked, doors flew open. The glistening sweat on our foreheads and forearms was blown dry by the chill air as we made our heat-maddened dash to the waves. And then the plunge! All care and fret washed off our backs by the welcoming ablution of the Pacific!
Like trays of delicate pastries, the swells carried our boards aloft, out and back to shore, as we raced one another. My yellow cast-off board with its cracked paint and chipped nose always the winner.
“Let’s go!” I yelled, as we completed the final wake run and hurried up the soft sand chased by spindrift, all ashiver and dripping wet. “Pretend our caique has drifted away. We’re stranded and must overnight here. Help me find driftwood to start a fire. It’ll get very cold soon. Let’s move!” I commanded, ignoring the Pringles and Power Bars nestled inside my backpack.“Go look for crabs, mussels, and octopi in the tide pools. Quick! We’re having grilled seafood for dinner!”
A half hour later, crestfallen and empty-handed but for a few pieces of driftwood and a fistfull of seashells, my daughters came back. By luck, a group of jolly Latinos had invited me to sit by their bonfire and partake of their food and steaming pot of Mexican hot chocolate.
Sitting in circle by the roaring flames, the wind gathered strength and blew my eldest’s sun-and-honey laced hair in a straight horizontal. My youngest shielded herself from the smoke that seemed bewitched by her Byzantine eyes. Very few words were exchanged or necessary as we fixed our gaze on the darkening horizon and basked in the comforting embrace of fellowship linked to the whole web of life. Pelicans took advantage of the last flush of golden light for one final dive-bomb into the ocean. A sea lion arched its silvery back and vanished. Tiny crabs scurried into their holes. The first star glittered in the western sky.
As we drove back home — hair and skin satin soft and salty — I recalled these words from the poet Rumi: “And you, if you have no feet to leave your country, go into yourself, become a ruby mine, open to the gifts of the sun.”
That magical summer day, we traveled to Greece without having to postpone our wish for that hoped-for day that often never arrives. No feet, no bucket, no list… simply open to the gifts of the present.
That day, I learned to squeeze delight from the fruits of the here-and-now and vowed to never again use the phrase ‘just as soon as…’ I experienced the truth of Miller’s assertion that it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, and realized that the key is in understanding what makes us tick which is discovered by removing ourselves from the distractions and needling noise of the modern world to listen to the true longings of our hearts.
Now, far removed, I know that no Caribbean cruise, no matter how luxurious, can make anyone escape a meaningless job or humdrum existence.
“The Antichrist will be the infernal prince again for the third and last time… so many evils shall be committed by Satan that almost the entire world shall be found undone and desolate. Before these events happen, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now!’ and sometime later will vanish.” — Michel de Nostradamus
At least this 16th century quack wrote his prophecies with poetic flair, whereas my doom and gloom is couched in banalities like, “That’s it!I’m screwed!”
There is, however, one thing Michel and I have in common: neither his, nor my most dreadful prophecies have come to pass. In this, we are in the good company of Mark Twain who once quipped he had suffered a great many catastrophes in his life, most of which never happened.
No matter how many times I’ve come to realize that my dire predictions never materialize, I keep making them, as if I were somehow ruled by a masochist overlord who insists on tormenting my existence with drowning storms of anxiety.
I am shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in. — Fernando Pessoa
I am tired of being a hopeless catastrophizer, yet my nature is such that I can neither look at the future through the rose-colored glasses of a cheery-eyed Pollyanna. I’m the type that would require a portable Hubble telescope to spot the silver lining on a cloud and it appears I’m not alone.
Anxiety is now a rising epidemic, especially among the young, and is primarily caused by uncertainty of what the future holds.
Since I am writing a book for boys meant to help them develop the character strengths needed to navigate an increasingly uncertain world, I set out to look for a middle path between Nostradamus and Pollyanna; between a sunny optimist and gloomy pessimist.
I think I found it.
It first came to me through the words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer who said an optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere. A pessimist sees only the red stoplight. Only the truly wise are colorblind.
Schweitzer’s words seemed more practical than what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: that a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity while the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. “I am an optimist,” he declared. “It doesn’t seem very useful being anything else.”
I think there is something more useful. Something that is better suited to the way life often foils our best laid plans and dashes our greatest hopes and expectations. I call it clear-eyed optimism.
A clear-eyed optimist doesn’t see reality as only green or red, black or white. He neither thinks sunny days last forever, nor does he walk with a constant cloud over his head predicting more rain ahead. A cleared-eyed optimist understands that both light and shadow are part of the landscape and beauty of life. He knows the difference between hope and despair is just a matter of how he narrates his story.
I explain this to boys through my current experience with the publication of my book:
“The fact that you are reading this book means I was successful in getting it published. But while I was writing this chapter, things were not looking so good. Not good at all.
I had been writing the book for close to a year, and, seeing I was almost done, I decided it was time to submit it to literary agents hoping to find someone interested in its publication.
Out of the 33 agents to whom I’d sent the book, 11 had already rejected me and I had not heard from the others which meant they probably weren’t interested. Making things worse, I had run out of money.
Before discovering the wise words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, this is how I would’ve explained my situation:
I’m screwed! There’s nothing I can do. Everyone hates my book. I’m a terrible writer and it’s my fault for thinking otherwise. This always happens to me and always will. I’m gonna end up on the street starving to death. The world is not fair. I give up!
Spoken like a true, gloomy-eyed pessimist… all dark clouds, storms, tsunamis, thunder and lighting. Only seeing red stoplights.
A cheery-eyed optimist would tell the story quite differently.
No need to stress out, he’d say. Things will work out, somehow. I can feel it! I’m special. People like me. My life will get better and better like in those movies with happy endings. All I need to do is wish harder and my dreams will come true.
All sunshine, unicorns, genies-in-a-bottle, cotton candy, and multicolored rainbows. Only seeing green lights.
A colorblind, or cleared-eyed optimist, is more like Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time.
Holmes would set all emotions aside, and, before jumping to conclusions, would search for clues, gather evidence, and then look coldly at the facts. His clear-headed analysis would provide a more realistic and useful explanation for my predicament.
Here’s what he’d tell me:
You have given this book all you have. Perhaps not 24/7, but close enough, for almost 365 days. You have also researched more than 50 books as part of that work. So the fact that it might not get published has nothing to do with your effort of which you should be very proud. If you need to blame someone, blame your bad luck, not your dedication.
Being Sherlock, I have taken the time to research the book industry and, while the information is not all that clear, it appears that the odds of getting your book published are anywhere from 300,000 to a million-to-one. You must come to terms with this and adjust your expectations. Not everyone will become famous and chances are you won’t either. But remember what you’ve said before: You’re not writing this book to become famous. You’re writing it to help boys. If you are to live true to your word, you’ll print the book yourself, if that’s what it takes, and personally hand it to every boy you can, even if it means going door-to-door like those kids who are forced to sell magazine subscriptions to their neighbors to raise money for their school.
Also, none of the 11 agents who have rejected your book have said that they hate it. What they’ve said is that it’s not for them. Big difference. Not everyone likes Brussel Sprouts but that doesn’t mean that they’re disgusting, nor that there aren’t people who love them. You just haven’t found the right agent for your book, that’s all.
Further, I have found no evidence to prove your claim that you’re a bad writer. What I have seen is how hard you work every day to become a better one and haven’t quit. You should be very proud of that.
You’re also incorrect in saying “this always happens to me.” I have examined your life story and have found many instances where you have succeeded. Do yourself a favor and go back to those moments to find guidance, inspiration, and strength.
You predict you will end up in the street starving to death, but you forget you’ve been in worse situations and managed to figure it out. The evidence tells me you’re a warrior and survivor so stop wasting time predicting storms and tsunamis and start making sunshine like you’ve done in the past.
“The world is not fair,” you say? Ha-ha! Really? Tell me something I don’t know.
You give up? Seriously? And what will you tell those boys whom you’re urging to be heroes? Even worse, what will you tell yourself? You’re supposed to be an example of the heroic life. Heroes don’t give up. They adjust and try over and over again until they get it right. Do yourself another favor and memorize this number: 606. It’s the name given to a successful drug developed by Dr. Paul Ehrlich in the early 1900s. It was called 606 because he had failed 605 times before!
Finally, even if your book fails, you have a choice in how you tell the story. You can tell it as a tragedy in which you played the part of the helpless victim, or turn it into the greatest tale of adventure and take credit for having dared greatly, just as American President Theodore Roosevelt said in this famous speech:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Roosevelt is right. So is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Schweitzer.
The way we explain what happens to us — both good and bad — will either make us helpless victims of our circumstances, or heroes of our own daring and courageous story.
When this book finally gets published, I won’t say it was because I’m a great writer, or that I deserve it. I will explain it by the amount of dedication and effort — all the sweat and toil I gave it. At the same time, I won’t expect that my next book will demand less of me or that it will succeed just because the first one did. I will work just as hard, even harder, knowing I can always be better.
Next time you find yourself thinking in terms of GREEN stoplights, like:
“I got an ‘A’ on my test because I’m smart.”
“Everyone loves me because I’m special.”
“Everything’s gonna work out great in my life!”
“I’m the luckiest boy in the world, so I don’t need to prepare, train, or work hard at anything.”
“If I succeed today, I’ll succeed tomorrow.”
Or RED lights, like:
“I got a ‘D’ on my test because I’m stupid.”
“No one likes me or wants to hang out with me.”
“Things will never work out for me.”
“I never have any luck so what’s the use in trying.”
“I’m never trying out for the class play or soccer team because everyone will laugh at me.”
STOP! PLEASE STOP!
Stop using words like “never,” “always,” or “everyone.”
Stop labelling yourself as “stupid,” “loser,” or “smart.” If you got a ‘D’ on your test, chances are you didn’t study hard enough. If you got an ‘A,’ give yourself credit for having prepared well, then do it over and over again.
Stop expecting sunshine and rainbows or predicting storms and tsunamis. Stop staring at the thorns in a rose or just looking at the flower. Both thorn and flower are part of what it is to be a rose.
In every situation in life, both in victory or defeat, call Detective Holmes and have him analyze each one with clear-eyed optimism.”
Preparing boys for the inevitable disappointments in life is one of my main objectives in writing ‘The Hero in You,’ yet it has also served me well. Along with the other nine character strengths I discuss in the book, the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism is one I now bring to bear when life keeps giving me lemons.
Nostradamus was right in only one sense; when he said that “before events happen, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now!” which are the crow-caws of doom and gloom weoften allow to drown us in anxiety. Nostradamus was also right when ending his prophecy with, “and sometime later [they’ll] vanish.”
What makes the crows vanish is the clear-headed analysis and serene voice of our inner Sherlock Holmes. It’s the courageous energy that keeps our blades spinning when the shit hits the fan.
“Young men between 25 and 31 are 66 percent more likely than their female counterparts to be living with their parents.” — from ‘The Boy Crisis,’ by Warren Farrell and John Gray.
Can’t say I blame them for failing to launch.
Look at the world through their eyes and tell me you wouldn’t choose to stay shut in your room playing video games, binge-watching ‘The Bachelor,’ or living-out your conquest fantasies through porn.
Having come of age during the Great Recession of 2008, saddled with unprecedented student debt, with home prices out of reach for many, a shrinking share in the labor force, a boiling planet, feckless leadership, and blurring lines between truth and fiction and right and wrong, the American Dream must sound to these young men like a bad joke delivered inside a nightmarish hall of the absurd.
With everything so seemingly out-of-whack, it is understandable why the sense of absolute control afforded by a joystick or the submissive behavior of female sex kittens is so seductive and comforting. It just feels, well, safer.
An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — Arthur Miller
The United States has been down a similar path before.
The illusions of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ which swept Americans into an unfamiliar affluent consumer society were similarly snuffed out by the worst stock market crash in history. The Great Depression lasted for a decade. Even by April of its final year, more than one in five Americans were still out of work. Five months later, Hitler invaded Poland, igniting World War II.
The writing, though, had been on the wall for years.
Shocked by the carnage and chaos of the First World War (1914–1918), many people across Europe yearned for national unity and strong leadership to pull their countries out of mass unemployment, chaotic political party strife, and rising anarchy brought about by liberalism and Marxism. They longed for ‘strong-men’ to save them from their bewilderment and make them feel safe, proud and strong again.
Italy’s Benito Mussolini was happy to oblige with the birth of fascism, a term first used in 1915 by members of his movement, the Fasci of Revolutionary Action. Inspired by ‘Il Duce,’ the scourge of fascism spread across Europe and Japan. Hitler was just Mussolini’s most ardent and diabolical copycat.
“The main plank in the National Socialist program is to abolish the liberalist concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil, and bound together by the bond of its common blood.” — Adolf Hitler 1930s
After six years of heroic struggle, the Nazi threat was vanquished by the courage and sacrifice of young freedom fighters. Among them, the Americans, later lauded as ‘The Greatest Generation.’
Also known as the G.I. and World War II Generation, these brave men and women were shaped by the ravaging effects on their future prospects by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Before you get all teary-eyed, vicariously nostalgic, or thump your chest with the pride of exceptionalism, let me remind you the United States did not enter the war until two years after it started and only after attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The brunt of the struggle was borne by the Soviet Union who sacrificed around 10 million soldiers (vs. 400,000 by the U.S.) to rout the Axis Powers.
But still, once called, Americans rose to the occasion and launched their might against the jackals.
Sixty years later, the Great Recession of 2008 was the defining moment which still plagues the current generation of young men who are failing to launch. If that wasn’t enough, the world they’re inheriting is, once again, witnessing the rise of ultra nationalist and authoritarian movements while the world’s leaders seem hopeless or complicit. Meanwhile, icebergs are crumbling, corals bleaching, habitats shrinking, bees dying, and the earth is burning. Since the American Dream is also failing them, these young men may want to drop their joysticks, come out of isolation, and take arms to create a new dream— or blueprint — for themselves, for humanity, and the planet.
That is, unless they also want to be known as ‘The Silent Generation’ — which followed the ‘Greatest’ — and was so labelled because its members felt it was too dangerous to speak out and safer to obey the mantra of the time — conformity — symbolized by the man in the gray flannel suit.
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Referring to that spineless, silent generation, Henry Miller wondered, “What has come over these youngsters? Who instead of upsetting the world with their fiery thoughts and deeds, are seeking ways to escape from the world? What is happening to make the young, old before their time, frustrated instead of liberated? What is it that gives them the notion that they are useless and unfit for life’s struggles?”
Miller followed his diatribe with this challenge: “A truly young man, product of his age, would be fixing to throw a bomb to restore us to sanity. He would not be thinking of ways to escape but of how to kill off the elders and all they represent. He would be thinking on how to give this tired world a new lease on life. He would already be writing his name in the sky.”
While I am not suggesting all-out anarchy, now is definitely not the time for silence or inaction. Waiting for a clear enemy, like Hitler, to emerge, or another 9–11, or for Earth to cross the climactic tipping point, might be a little too late.
“Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man,” wrote John Eldredge in ‘Wild at Heart.’ Look out the window and you’ll find enough meaningful and urgent quests in desperate need of the idealism and fierce warrior-energy of men.
It’s an illusion, said writer Sam Keen, to believe that the virility men seem unable to find can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion. “The dispassionate, post-modern, cool man,” he added, “is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no Eros, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new-age man, who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth, a candidate for heroism.”
The world is starved for heroes. The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.
It’s time, young men, to find that intersection and launch! Time to come out of the “safety” of your virtual realities, write your name in the sky, and give the world a good reason to name you the Bravest Generation!
Back in September of last year, I claimed Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I went on to suggest that the demise of old ideas is not necessarily a bad thing if we replace them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, one transcending country, race, and religion.
I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time.
Right, because I maintain Americans have lost sight of their shared ideals. In fact, I suspect most don’t even know what those are.
Wrong, in claiming the country is fracturing. It just feels that way. I have since confirmed that the noisy extremes are the reason why. Between progressive activists (8% of the population) and devoted conservatives (6%), there is an “exhausted majority” desperate to have these extremists shut the hell up. It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and the loudmouths that dominate airtime. Those who compromise and calmly propose working solutions are drowned out by their rage.
Somewhat right, in calling for better ideas, but wrong in saying that the demise of old ones is not necessarily a bad thing. I was guilty of suggesting we throw out the baby with the bathwater.
That baby is the glue that once held this nation together: The Constitution.
A set of simple, revolutionary ideas which forged a national identity out of a group of people who looked different, spoke different languages, and practiced religion in varied ways — a true melting pot. There is a good reason the preamble to the Constitution begins with the words: “We the People” and the country’s motto is ‘E pluribus unum’ — Out of many, one.
I know, I know… Jefferson was a slave owner, women and African-Americans were denied the right to vote, and most, if not all of the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution were white men of property. It is the principle I am praising here, like I would still praise love even if some cheat.
Let us never forget that the American Revolution and its promise was won on the backs of both men and women, black, white, brown and red, enslaved and free, privileged and unfortunate. The Founders just knew how to write better, and in 7591 words — about thirty four pages including twenty seven amendments — they gave us a blueprint for how to keep the fabric from unraveling:
– Federal Republic: a federation of states with a central government devoid of a monarchy or hereditary aristocracy.
– Separation of Powers: checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.
– Rule of Law.
– Civil rights: to property, religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, voting, citizenship by birth, and to bear arms (no cherry-picking allowed).
– Federal Taxation (if you don’t like this one, move to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait which have none).
Simple, although imperfect, like all foundational documents, with room for improvement.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. — Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was in favor of revisiting the Constitution every twenty years or so.
It was last tweaked in 1992.
I say time’s up.
I’d start with clarifying freedom of speech, which some believe gives them license to say whatever is on their mind regardless of the consequences. I’d then propose amending the right to bear arms to keep them away from the mentally ill and add health care as another right.
Still, as it currently stands, the Constitution is the only glue that can keep this country together. Not race, religion, or political or economic ideology.
The extremes, however, are determined to tear it up.
In their article for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report troubling trends:
“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered by them] an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty, an engine of discrimination. Property rights, a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that a diverse and inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is essential, compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.
From the [extreme] right, there have been calls to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. President Trump routinely calls the [press] “the enemy of the American people.” In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press to criticize politicians was very important to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States.”
And not too long ago, Trump announced his plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order.
This is flag-burning at its worst, and those in the exhausted majority better do something before it’s too late.
Like deciding if they share the Constitution’s core principles. If so, they must recommit to their defense as they would defend their house and family if attacked by barbarians. Otherwise move.
Like kicking out the barbarians by voting for people whose express priority is defending those principles regardless of party affiliation.
Like advocating for changes to the Constitution they believe are necessary to adapt to the times.
Or calling for the return of civics education at public schools focused on those principles.
How about petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to make fundamental changes in the Naturalization Test, prioritizing knowledge of the principles which gave birth to the country, instead of asking inane questions like “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”
And, finally, let us stop wasting our precious time and brains listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and start thinking for ourselves!
As for the extremes, Chua and Rubenfeld say “the right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression.”
The Bison was the glue that held American Indians together. Once gone, their culture unraveled.
History appears to be repeating itself in 21st Century America.
I still hope that, one day, humanity will come together under one flag, and that’s where I am ahead of my time. But I’m afraid the time has not yet come and might require an existential threat for it to happen.
For now, groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue — a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart.
For the United States, that glue is “constitutional patriotism.”
Such lofty idea, however, will remain pie-in-the-sky if not preceded by civility. And the first step towards civility is for us to get off our self-righteous horses and sit together with our proclaimed “enemies” and listen.
Not everyone who doesn’t think like you is a bloodthirsty zombie or an idiot…ok, some probably are.
Moral indignation is the standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity. — Alain de Botton
When I said before we should stop listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and think for ourselves, I was referring only to those whose opinions are so calcified they border on fanaticism, which is just an overcompensation for doubt as psychologist Carl Jung suggested. For if these jokers were truly convinced of their ideas, there’d be no need to shout.
Is there an art to listening?
There is, and, to me, it starts with humility (Dubito ergo sum) and intellectual integrity. Nothing is more difficult, said economist E.F. Schumacher, than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.
True listening, says radio host Celeste Headlee, begins with presence. “Don’t be half-in and half-out of a conversation,” she recommends in her instructive Ted Talk in which she lists these other tips for a rewarding conversation:
Set yourself aside. If you want to pontificate, write a blog. Enter each conversation assuming you have something to learn. Be curious. Bill Nye rightly said “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
Use open-ended questions.
If you don’t know, say so.
Don’t equate your experiences with them.
Keep your mind open and your mouth shut. If your mouth is open, you are not listening. “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand,” said Steven Covey, “we listen with the intent to reply.”
Judging from the ongoing Democratic debates, it is progressives, in my opinion, who most need to learn how to listen, particularly to rural white America. Once they do, they need to speak to its gut, not just its frontal brain lobe (conservatives are masters at this). While they must be honest in letting this large electorate know the country they fear lost will never return (because it never really existed), I believe most would rally behind a commitment to the Republic’s collective interest, i.e., “We the people,” instead of a warring patchwork of ‘Us-versus-Them.’
There is enough credible research out there proving that exalting differences among groups of people only serves to create prejudice, but I am not suggesting we suppress the rich cultural expressions the United States is fortunate to have. That would only leave a bland, white canvas. I’m suggesting we invert our identity markers and start calling ourselves: American-Africans, American-Hispanics, American-Muslims, American-Asians, etc.
I’m proposing the canvas be placed before the paint.
When kidnapping was my country’s favorite sport, I pleaded my wife to change her routine, use different routes while driving, to be vigilant and check-in with me every few hours over the phone.
She scoffed, “I don’t need to. I have my saving angels.”
It made me pity all the unfortunate chaps who had arrived late to God’s ‘Saving Angel Allocation Party,’ and it wasn’t until the threat of abduction came knocking at our door that I had the ‘foresight’ to flee.
Despite multiple warnings, humans seem unable to act until it’s almost, or already too late.
Ancient Athenians condemned Socrates to death after he warned them about the dangers of hubris. Soon after, their empire collapsed.
When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God; that we should love our enemies as we do ourselves and turn the other cheek when slapped, people found him a killjoy and nailed him to the cross.
Clair Patterson was excoriated by the press and ostracized by the scientific establishment for warning Americans that lead in gasoline was making them crazy. It was only thanks to his stubbornness that his compatriots kept their sanity.
Galileo was imprisoned and forced to recant his ‘shocking’ discovery that man wasn’t at the center of the universe after all. The persecution of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition did not end until almost two centuries after Galileo’s death.
Today, every scientist — worthy of the name — is warning us about the looming climactic threat to our species and the rest of life on the planet. And how do we respond? With business as usual. With our jolly Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. With quarter-measures and endless world summits spewing bromides and ineffectual agreements.
When a 16 year-old autistic activist dares confront the fecklessness of world leaders and warns us of the dire consequences of inaction, she is mercilessly attacked on social media and mocked by the most powerful man on earth as a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. — André Gide
We keep making the same mistakes because we don’t listen or — worse — refuse to listen. We don’t care. We only care when the shit hits our fan. Water will have to reach our nostrils, wildfires singe our hairs, or a horde of climate refugees come knocking at our door before we act. Why? Because change is inconvenient. Because we deem ourselves too special to have something bad happen to us. Because in the back of our deluded minds we hope someone will eventually come to our rescue and save us from our addictions.
Never in history have we faced a more nefarious enemy, ourselves!
In discarding the monkey and substituting man, our Father in Heaven did the monkey an undeserved injustice. – Mark Twain
Don’t let my righteous thundering fool you in believing I’ve been spared by the contagion. I am as guilty as anyone. Despite my carbon footprint being almost as shallow as the water table in Cape Town, I know there is much more I could be doing, but don’t. For proof of my lack of foresight consider the fact that as I write this, I am about to step outside in sub-zero temperature to smoke another cigarette barely a week after my father died from bladder cancer and emphysema caused by his addiction to nicotine. Kurt Vonnegut described his own cancer sticks as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other.”
Foresight is obviously not our strong suit. Never has, never will. We are nature’s biggest blunder.
Let’s just hope the rapacious madness of such an unhinged primate doesn’t drag the whole world down with it.
WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.
Please, please make me stop!
What a piece of work, indeed.
Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.
When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.
What part of “radical” don’t you get?
It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.
Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.
Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?
True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.
The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.
“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”
I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.
The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!
“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca
The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”
The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:
Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”
Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”
Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?
Perhaps, our children?
“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx
As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.
I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.
Today is obviously one of those days.
When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.
Is it the beer you crave, or are you thirsting for the warm camaraderie and belonging hinted at by the affectionate smiles of the actors?
Are you hoping for the one-carat diamond around your finger, or for the true covenant of love that can only be expressed in honest words and meaningful deeds?
Is it the Caribbean cruise, or a yearning to break free from your meaningless job and humdrum life?
Philosopher Theodor Adorno said our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
So is it the gold watch, or more time to spend on what truly matters?
Faster food, or slower pace?
Might the diet program you just signed up for be a desperate cry for attention from your malnourished spirit rather than from your expanding waistline?
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. The tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
The hidden persuaders of capitalism, observed social critic Vance Packard, see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.
How did we end up here and how do we break free from the spell?
During the Great Depression of 1929, worried that the production lines would halt, industrialists turned to the hidden persuaders — the psychologists and marketers — for help. Whereas before, we bought stuff for its utilitarian value, e.g., durable shoes, the drive of the consumer had to be radically shifted to gobble-up the excess merchandise.
Enter human desire.
“We must shift America from a needs-to a desires-culture,” suggested Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker of the time. “People must be trained to desire… to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
So successful were the hidden persuaders that it earned them this gushing praise from President Herbert Hoover: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”
So we went from this…
Desires unsettle the heart, said Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around the 4th Century BC.
His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:
The five colors
blinds our eyes.
The five notes
deafen our ears.
The five flavors
dull our taste.
Racing, chasing, hunting,
drives people crazy.
Trying to get rich
ties people in knots.
So the wise soul
watches with the inner eye
not the outward,
letting that go,
The inner eye is the wise arbiter of your desires. It is the keen sword that cuts through the veil of delusion to reveal what your true needs are, keeping those, and spitting out the snake oil peddled by the hidden persuaders.
“The body’s needs are few,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold and banish hunger with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.” Two thousand years later, in ‘Fight Club,’ actor Brad Pitt echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “We’re working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” You can see why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.
A cruise ship can’t whisk you away from your dull life and inauthentic self.
A diamond’s glitter pales in comparison to the one in your fiancé’s eyes when affirming his commitment.
No amount of food, however fast, will nourish your starved soul.
And no amount of beer will quench your thirst for belonging.
To break the spell, all you must do is step away from screens and ask this simple question: What do I truly need?
After all, as writer Mary Ellen Edmunds once said, “You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”
THE IDEA OF SENDING MEN ON A COLLECTIVE TIME OUT has been whirling in my mind with insistent frequency, echoing louder upon hearing another story of a man-child acting up, particularly one holding a position of power.
To those who decry patriarchy, here’s a better term to describe the current state of affairs: puerarchy — the rule of boys. Of course there are exceptions, but they seem few and far between and powerless to dethrone the chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants.
In an orchestra, the oboe is the instrument to which other instruments are tuned. As far as I can see, there’s hardly an oboe in sight.
The greatest underdeveloped nation lies within the psyches of men, wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ So maybe it’s time for women to send us on a collective time out so we can mine our dense psyches and only allowed back once we develop emotional intelligence.
This idea is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in the comedy “Lysistrata,” an account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. They play ends with the signing of a peace treaty amid plenty of painful erections.
In my country we have a saying, that a female pubic hair can pull more weight than a pair of oxen. Those who believe men have all the power should revisit the stories of Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Mars idea first popped in my head the day terrorists attacked Saudi oil refineries. That same day, a handful of brave young activists — mostly female — were coordinating a worldwide school strike to protest inaction on climate change. So while boys were busy flying deadly drones and blowing shit up, girls were working on saving our collective asses.
In 1951, Philip Wylie wrote ‘The Disappearance,’ imagining the aftermath of an extraordinary global occurrence that forces Earth’s men and women to exist in parallel dimensions. True to form, men bring their world to the brink of nuclear annihilation while women seek to resolve their differences by chatting and shopping.
Of all wild beasts, said Plato, boys are the most difficult to manage.
What’s wrong with us?
Why are most men incapable of expressing their fears and emotions besides slamming doors, sulking, having affairs, scapegoating, drowning in alcohol, drugs or pornography, or blowing shit up?
“A few suits of clothes, some money in the bank, and a new kind of fear constitute the main differences between the average American today and the hairy men with clubs who accompanied Attila to the city of Rome. ”— Philip Wylie, ‘Generation of Vipers.’
I know our brains are hardwired differently than girls, and that our long history as warriors and hunters predisposed us to action rather than introspection. I also know that, at times, the fierce boldness and aggression in men is vital. But come on guys! There is a reason our species is called Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). I say it’s time we live true to that classification.
Are we so straitjacketed by our warped sense of manhood to be incapable of becoming versed in the subtleties of emotional language? Must we continue to camouflage our fears with an exaggerated sense of strength? Isn’t it high time we learn to feel less threatened by emotional complexity? Can we learn to see our darkest emotions as Dragons and choose fight, instead of flight?
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn in ‘The African Queen.’
In ‘Raising Cain,’ authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say our culture’s historical assignment of relationship work to women has turned emotions into a disregarded “second language” for men. As a result, most have limited awareness or understanding of their feelings or the feelings of others. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — compete, control, and criticize.
It is not women’s responsibility to teach us this language, but seeing they’re better versed at it, we should have the humility and willingness to learn from them. After all, we demand their undivided attention as we ‘mansplain’ the refined art of changing a flat tire.
So where do we start?
Rising above our nature begins with learning what that nature is all about.
“We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study,” says Frans de Waal in ‘Our Inner Ape,’ and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace loving and erotic bonobo — a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
What you probably did not know is that the modern version going around on the Internet is not the original story.
The adulterated version goes like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The original story, however, ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” And the story goes on… “You see, if you only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for you to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention it craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if you acknowledge him, he will be happy, so will the white wolf and you all win. For the black wolf has many qualities: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong will, and strategic thinking that you need at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength, and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all. You see son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will soon become uncontrollable. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention, and when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing which will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces will determine your life.
“Anger as soon as fed is dead. ’Tis starving makes it fat.” — Emily Dickinson
Dealing with conflict is as simple (and as complicated) as knowing when to flip the switch between these two energies. Chimp-like, or black wolf aggression in our relationships leads to a dead end. But it was essential, for example, to rid the world of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. That was definitely not the right time to sit down with the bully to talk about his feelings.
The second ingredient for effective conflict resolution is emotional awareness. We men need to get better at identifying what we feel and where our emotions come from before we can begin to understand what to do about them. Our girlfriend’s kind reminder to take out the trash, for instance, might evoke dreaded memories of our mother’s overbearing nature and trigger defiance. A casual commentary by our wife about the neighbors’ lavish summer vacation in Tuscany might provoke a nasty reaction because we interpret her comment as an indictment on our manhood making us feel like a failure for being unable to provide her with such luxury.
“Every time you react emotionally instead of responding consciously, ask yourself, what am I afraid of?” — Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.
Finally, men need to develop emotional granularity, which is a bit like wine tasting, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman. “Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions — perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.”
“People who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts, Feldman adds. “Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.”
I have found no better way to develop emotional granularity and expand my emotional vocabulary than to read poetry and literary fiction (especially novels written by women). I’ve also discovered, in foreign languages, more useful words for emotions I had not been able to properly identify and express. For example:
TOSKA (Russian) — At its deepest and most painful, Toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.
TORSCHLUSSPANIK (German) — Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; that you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting old.
LITOST (Czech) — A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. We feel a searing pain at the scale of our inadequacies.
YA’ABURNEE (Arabic) — Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before their loved one because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
Just imagine the deep connection and intimacy such emotional granularity and richness of expression could bring to our relationships… with ourselves, as well as others.
Learning about our chimp/bonobo nature, becoming aware of the origin of our emotions, and developing emotional granularity will also lead to empathy, or, at the very least, rational compassion. With more and more men becoming fierce gentlemen — the oboes of the world — we will put an end to the age of puerarchy and join women in the struggle to overcome the many challenges our world is facing.
In this struggle, the female gender must also evolve. Hepburn’s dictum, that nature is what we are put in this world to rise above, must also be heeded by women. While gender-equality continues to make steady progress and fundamentally changing gender dynamics, women must learn their biology is still encoded with innate drives which unconsciously makes them predisposed to prefer a partner of status and wealth and who displays unwavering control, is strong and stoic, and who always seems to have an answer.
Faced with a man who has the courage to be vulnerable and express his deepest fears, his confusion, and his occasional feeling of helplessness or unworthiness, women must short-circuit their innate biases and receive him with compassion, which means, at origin, to suffer together.
As men learn to properly emote, women must be patient. At times, we will want to run away from deep conversation. Bereft of words for our emotions and afraid of vulnerability, we will often choose to flee to the solitary cave of our tortured souls. Allow us that respite. Like a pressure cooker, your escape valve is talking things through. We let-off steam in silence. This does not mean you should let us off the hook. Like a deft fisherwoman, slacken the line at times, then reel us back into conversation. We’ll get the hang of it, eventually.
Or you could send us to Mars, which might sound more expedient and appealing to many of you, but you will strip away the fierce boldness the world requires. You’ll be forever haunted by SAUDADE, Portuguese for the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and loves, and the knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
We’ll both end up living in barren worlds. One utterly silent, the other with plenty of flat tires.
It’s been three years since Nelinha appeared at my doorstep on Halloween night. The one and only night.
She came arrayed as a Greek goddess, in a short, white linen tunic, a thin, shimmering garland crowning her head, a bronze bracelet coiled around her forearm, gold glitter dusting her olive-hued chest and arms, exquisite feet in braided lace-up thong sandals, and a gleam of apprehensive desire in the darkness of her eyes.
At last, about to cross the threshold into the forbidden, stood the ideal, the eidolon, a woman in the league of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Bathsheba, and Helen of Troy… women whose seductive power drive kings, emperors, prophets, politicians, and poets insane, chewing them alive, then spitting out their bones with regal indifference.
Like wax over fire, I stood speechless, my hand on the twisted door knob, watching droplets fall from the midnight of her hair, and these words playing in my head:
A prize one could wreck one’s peace for.”
And it was wrecked, for over a year. Worse, my obsession didn’t just wreck my peace, but came close to destroying her marriage and the lives of her two children.
As the flames in the fireplace warmed the living room and a mournful fado played on the stereo… as she reluctantly allowed me to caress her bare feet while taking small sips of her favorite drink — dark and bitter like her melancholy moods — as we hungrily approached the edge of the abyss, she pulled back, saving us both, and drove away under sheaths of rain.
“It is the woman in our heads, more than the women in our beds, who causes most of our problems.” — Sam Keen
Nelinha was not the first one. She was just the final link added to my long and woeful chain of amorous disillusions, each sharing the same features: roguish black eyes, flowing ravenblack hair, olive skin, a seemingly-innocent seductive cunning, primitive and exotic sensuality, graceful femininity, and exasperating elusiveness.
Elusive, because they personified the archetype Jungians call the ‘anima,’ or the unconscious image of ‘woman’ in the minds of men.
In ‘The Archetypal Female in Mythology,’ Dr. Joan Relke says the “anima manifests as an inconsistent creature: appearing positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. She can be cruelly provocative, taunting, seductive, and terrifying on the one hand, and gentle, solicitous, and wise on the other. She is an active protagonist in male dreams, fantasies, and projections.”
Think Marilyn Monroe.
In ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow,’ Robert Bly says, “millions of men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. In the economy of her psyche, her death was inevitable because no single human being can carry so many projections.”
For years, I considered these creatures to be manifestations of my “ideal mate” and pursued each one with impulsive avidity only to pay a heavy price every time the fantasy failed to match reality.
Nelinha was the final straw jolting me back to sanity.
Fed up with the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the dizzying swoons, the effervescent arousals and ensuing disillusions; desperate to rid myself from the chthonic allure of the archetype that had caused me so much trouble in life, I poured through my dream logs and journals searching for clues of where and when it had first infected me with the psychic parasite that feeds on dangerous infatuations driving many men to ceaselessly pursue a chimera, rather than tussle with a woman of flesh and blood, furor and tears, scars and wrinkles, and a fractured but ultimately endearing humanity.
What I discovered was shattering but ultimately lifesaving.
In my dream logs, I found this:
“She visited me again last night, in a long white cotton wrap-skirt like those worn by peasant girls or gypsies. I was sleeping in the dream while she sat on the bed with my head nestled in the warmth of her crossed, bare legs, and caressed my hair. I began to conjure stories, the words forming above us in wraithlike filigrees of smoke, words she rapidly copied inside a small, brown leather notebook as her face looked forwards and backwards.”
Like a powerful search beam, the last phrase illumed in my memory something I had just read in Robert Bly’s book ‘Iron John’:
“When a man is ready to make a decisive move toward ‘The Legends,’ a feminine figure whose face looks both ways may appear in his dreams. It’s as if she has two faces: one looks toward the world of rule and laws, the other toward the world of dragonish desire, moistness, wildness, and adult manhood. This dream figure is not a flesh-and-blood woman but a luminous eternal figure. The Mysterious Hidden Woman loves privacy, overhanging trees, long skirts, the shadowy places underneath bridges, rooms with low lighting… she wants passion and purpose in a man, and carries a weighty desire in her, a passion somewhere between erotic feeling and religious intensity.”
“They are temptresses,” warns Dr. Relke, “using sexuality to drag one into the depths of the unconscious, to the destruction of the conscious will and ego and into the wider world of the Self. The anima lurks in the unconscious, wielding her supernatural power to drive our lives either towards mystical knowledge, consciousness and individuation, or towards oblivion in sexual urges.”
What I, time and again, had been searching for in vain, bedeviled by sexual urges with disastrous consequences, was not something, or someone outside myself, but an integral part of my psyche, a luminous figure who constellated the intuitive, non-rational and creative energies I had repressed far too long by living one-sidedly in the world of reason, rules, and laws.
For more than three decades, I had squandered my erotic energy in pursuit of wealth and power. I lived in my head, exiled from flesh, and had forgotten to dance.
“There’s a devil in me who shouts, and I do what he says. Whenever I feel I’m choking with some emotion, he says: ‘Dance!’ And I dance. And I feel better! Men have sunk very low; the devil take them! They’ve let their bodies become mute and only speak with their mouths.” — Zorba the Greek
Eroticism must not be confused with sex. Eros, at origin, means “ardent desire,” the quickened-pulse feeling of aliveness where our whole being burns with radiant, passionate intensity. As it is, most men today burn out without ever having been on fire. “It’s nature’s way,” says Sam Keen, “of telling you you’ve been going through the motions, but your soul has departed.”
Nelinha, and all the others, were just like the women Robert Bly describes as ones “who throw a spark into dry wood, pull energy from a stagnant psyche, and are capable of stirring the sea with a single hair.”
I finally realized they were simply inviting me to dance with life.
Exiled from the realm of natural sensuality and bereft of erotic power, many men now desperately look for it through fantasy.
Take pornography, now a multi-billion dollar industry. According to Pornhub, the human race consumed enough hours of porn in 2016 to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says psychologist James Hillman, is the manifestation of what we’ve repressed.
“Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways?” asks Richard Kearney in his blog for ‘The Stone.’ “For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image. Pornography,” Kearney adds, “is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh; one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.”
How do we heal this split to find our way back to ecstasy?
By remembering and recovering the intimate relationship with our sensual selves.
“Learn to tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex.” — Kapka Kassabova
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld — or the body — where they have been exiled by the mind,” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City.’ “We convert neurosis into authentic suffering through active participation, or soul-making. Stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior indicate the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity.”
The cure for my obsessive behavior was to establish a relationship with ‘Hedone,’ goddess of sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight.
Daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction), Hedone points to sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight as a product of the union and proper balance between spirituality and sexuality; between mind and body.
“Full humanity,” says Kearney, “requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to ‘feel what wretches feel’ — or what artists, cooks, musicians, and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth, to close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move would radically alter our sense of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, ‘I have been touched.’”
“Much too often we take the intensity of an infatuation for proof of the intensity of our love, while it may only prove the degree of our preceding loneliness.” — Erich Fromm
Dancing, as a metaphor for sensuality, opens the space where soul becomes flesh. “There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance,” said French playwright Moliere. “Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, comes from not knowing how to dance.”
Centuries before, Confucius cautioned we should never give a sword to a man who cannot dance. You’ll catch his drift when considering the rise to power of ultra-nationalist, misogynist, and xenophobic “men” across the world today.
Relationships, politics, and human suffering are not the only areas which would begin to heal by men becoming reacquainted with their body through sensuous experiences. Earth, too, is in urgent need of fierce men able to viscerally feel her pain to wake up their warrior selves and come to her defense. For how can one protect what one does not love? And how can we love unless we first establish an intimate relationship with our beloved? Such relationship is only possible if we close the distance, as Kearney suggested, “by returning from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth.”
One of the principal deities of Hinduism is ‘Shiva,’ supreme destroyer of evil and the one who creates, transforms, and protects the Universe. The only manifestation of Shiva worshipped in human form is Nataraaja — The Dancing Shiva.
So long as Shiva is dancing can the world continue to transform. Otherwise it collapses back into nothingness or chaos. Pulling him away from consciousness — the mind — to bring him into the dance, is Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy and the embodiment of the active feminine energy of Shiva.
As soon as I did, I realized Nelinha was the woman of my dreams which is precisely why she was not the “one.”
Mysteriously, the “one,” showed up in my life the moment I accepted the invitation to dance. No ravenblack hair, no black roguish eyes, no olive skin… just the most delightful female companion I could ever dream of.
As José Ortega y Gasset said, “the kind of beauty which attracts one is seldom the kind of beauty which makes one fall in love.”
Prime rib works just as well, though it must be rare… blood spattering rare.
In my case, it was a predawn potion of warm water mixed with turmeric, cayenne pepper, cider vinegar and honey.
Anything that will tinge urine with an alarming red color will make the staunchest unbeliever raise his eyes toward heaven and plead mercy, especially someone uninformed about the other probable causes of hematuria besides bladder cancer. Since my dad suffers from this affliction, you’ll understand why I defaulted to the extreme.
“I don’t believe in God. I fear him.”- Gabriel García Márquez
I’m not an atheist, but neither believe I have a direct line to an almighty power with nothing better to do than sit or float around all day listening to the petty laments and supplications of a weak, sniveling species. At least, not until the toilet bowl swirled with ominous blood-red tendrils a few mornings ago.
You should’ve seen and heard me then! Pleading with the staunch faith of someone who’d just been baptized in the waters of the Jordan River:
“O please God no, not yet! I beg you. I still have lots I need and want to do.”
It’s astounding that so many of us walk around as if death were an unfounded rumor; something that happens to strike 6,000 people every hour but somehow deems our continued presence so worthy to the entire planet that it chooses to spare us from annihilation.
Must we really be the sole survivors of a horrific plane crash to feel guilty and start living our lives with the urgency of the terminally ill? Isn’t life, by nature, a terminal disease?
Instead of survivor’s guilt, why not think of it as self-induced ‘survivor’s enthusiasm’ inspiring us to meaningful action each and every day?
Just imagine the intensity our lives would acquire if we lived with death as our eternal companion as Carlos Castaneda suggested in ‘Don Juan.’ I don’t think we’d ever dare say “just as soon as…” while contemplating our deepest yearnings.
“Just as soon as my urine is soaked in blood” doesn’t make much sense, does it?
So rather than waiting till your number is up, assume it has already and that no amount of genuflections and ‘Hail Marys’ next to a toilet bowl will spare you from the unyielding force of entropy. See if that doesn’t light a fire under your ass. If it doesn’t, and you still need a daily reminder that death is not just a nasty rumor, buy yourself a human skull and plop it on your desk.
Or eat red beets… just try to forget you ever read this.
We build nest eggs, make hay while the sun shines, wear seat belts, stock emergency packs, back-up our hard drives, and squirrel away.
Most people, that is.
But we also smoke, drink and eat too much, drive like maniacs or morons, buy lottery tickets, have illicit sexual affairs, and, apparently, hold chainsaws by the wrong end.
We are prudent and foolhardy, gullible and suspicious, diffident and confident, calculating and impulsive, inveterate optimists and prophets of doom. “What a piece of work is man!” said Hamlet.
The human being is an astounding contradiction. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” (Winston Churchill).
Since I am writing a book for boys meant to help them develop the character strengths necessary to lead good and purposeful lives, I better get to the bottom of this dichotomy.
But here’s the rub…
Prudence, a.k.a. wise caution – one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity – has been conspicuously absent throughout my life.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ― William Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’
I’ve been a fool, many times, and know it. So who better to teach young boys about prudence than one whose life has been tossed and tumbled by the weltering seas of his own imprudence?
The Evolutionary Origins of Prudence
Prudence is the product of experience and foresight – a singular hominid trait that emerged in the Middle Pleistocene epoch from 780,000 to 120,000 years ago.
Our great-great-great-great… aunt Prudence was the one who thought it sensible to carry our stone tools in case we’d need them on our next stop during our wandering days as hunter-gatherers.
Similarly, our great-great-great-great… uncle Prometheus had the wise idea to maintain and transport fire tucked inside his loincloth just in case lightning would not be striking near our next campsite. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was a trickster who stole fire from heaven to give humans the power of the gods. His name, prometheia, in ancient Greek, means foresight.
The immense flexibility foresight provides allowed us to successfully adapt and colonize the planet.
Once early hominins obtained a certain level of ecological dominance, they faced increased competition from their own species which resulted in a runaway social contest between (and within) groups leading to greater intelligence and enhanced abilities for both cooperation and deception. These included the ability to communicate through spoken language, read others’ minds, and entertain alternative future scenarios, i.e. mental time travel, or foresight.
The beginnings of culture created complex moral systems that judged actions as right or wrong partly based on what the actor could or could not have reasonably foreseen to be the future consequences of the act. Law, education, religion, and other fundamental aspects of human culture are deeply dependent on our shared ability to reconstruct past and imagine future events.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits.
Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted, envision themselves achieving more than their peers, and overestimate their likely lifespan.
Using and MRI scanner, two neuroscientists at the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
I’m sure many of you have painted vivid pictures in your head of the things you’d do if you ever won the lottery but have never imagined yourself in a comma as you were driving like a maniac on a busy highway.
What Was I Thinking?
Is a question that must be running through the minds of many who voted for Trump.
The fact is, you weren’t. You were simply guided by emotion.
The human brain is made up of a collection of many modules that work in parallel, with complex interactions, most of which operate outside of our consciousness. As a consequence, the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.
Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of a threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.
Within this two-tier system, it is the unconscious tier that is the more fundamental. It developed early in our evolution to deal with the basic necessities of function and survival, sensing and safely responding to the external world. It is the standard infrastructure in all vertebrate brains, while the conscious can be considered an optional feature.
In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, cognitive neuroscience researchers in Australia were able to predict choices made by participants 11 seconds before they consciously declared their decisions. Lead author Joel Pearson said that the study suggests traces of thoughts exist unconsciously before they become conscious.
“When we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about,” Pearson says, “non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations. As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.”
My brain, no doubt, was fogged-up with unconscious hallucinations the day I quit my job, gave up the lion’s share of a generous lifetime pension, rid myself of most of my possessions, and plunged into unchartered waters to reinvent myself as a writer at the tender age of 54. Right now, with little income, piling debts, and a seemingly endless torrent of rejections to my writings, my reckless decision doesn’t seem to have been all that conscious, much less prudent.
My story, however, pales in comparison to Fred Smith’s, the Founder of FedEx, who, early on, gambled his last remaining $5,000 in Las Vegas hoping to win big and pay a $24,000 jet fuel bill to keep his company afloat. He won $27,000. FedEx is now worth over $40 Billion.
When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, he order his 600 soldiers to destroy their ships leaving them no other option but to forge ahead and conquer. While I despise what he did, I admire his guts.
In January 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon precipitating a civil war which ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator and ushered-in the imperial era of Rome.
“All or Nothing!” “Burn the Ships!” “Cross the Rubicon!”
Recklessness does seem to pay off big, some of the time.
A Neuro-Social Perspective on Risk-Taking
Had our early ancestors not been great risk-takers, our gene pool would have probably ended with great-aunt Prudence and great-uncle Prometheus.
A recent paper published in Trends in Neuroscience argues that risk-taking behaviors pervade across humans and monkeys, suggesting that being reckless has advantages that have allowed the behavior to persist. “For this pattern to have endured millions of years of evolution,” the lead author proposed, “it must confer some benefit.”
Risky behavior ramps up in middle adolescence because their inhibitory-control system is not yet fully operational. This period of high impulsivity allows them to experience new things. Once their full inhibition circuitry is online, they can use those experiences to make better choices.
Adolescent expert and Professor of Psychology Laurence Steinberg says that risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes in the brain’s socio-emotional system, leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, fueled mainly by a dramatic remodeling of the brain’s dopaminergic system. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system – changes which improve individuals’ capacity for self-regulation. These changes occur across adolescence and young adulthood and are seen in structural and functional changes within the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.
Squaring the Circle
So here’s the rub.
If both prudence and risk-taking allowed our species to survive and thrive, how can I confer to boys the value of prudent behavior without inhibiting their wild intrepidness?
By introducing them to the concept of purposeful audacity.
Contrariwise, skipping school and risking imprisonment like 16 year-old Greta Thunberg did to call for urgent action on climate change is imprudently audacious and might pull us from the brink of disaster.
Seeking a dopamine rush from tee-peeing their neighbor’s front yard is not only a profligate waste of toilet paper, but, more importantly, a pathetic expression of their inner warrior.
Scavenging a scrap yard for stuff with which to build a windmill like 15 year-old William Kamkwamba did to save his village from starvation – now that – is the truest expression of a man’s fierce boldness.
I tell boys to dare, and dare greatly in life, but that a crucial difference exists between being daring and just plain stupid.
I tell them that youth is the time for irrational optimism. Of the undaunted idealism which builds castles in the air as a prerequisite to building them on solid ground.
That prudence, while undeniably an essential life force, if taken to an extreme, quickly turns into diffidence and saps our courage to dare cross the Rubicon.
Ships are safe at harbor, I tell them, but that’s not what ships were made for.
O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady unendurable land,
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,
To leave you, O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail and sail and sail!
O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!
To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air),
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys. – From ‘A Song of Joys’ by Walt Whitman
As I prepared to cross the point of no return and journey on the edge of uncertainty three years ago, rather than dwelling on what I was about to lose, I focused on everything I stood to gain – freedom, liveliness, bliss, and now, the glimmer of the ultimate reward: the possibility of seeing all my struggles culminate in the publication of a book that will guide boys to become joyful men of heroic purpose.
Despite the heavy price I’ve paid in life for my impetuousness, my inner boy is still alive and exultant!
Joined in a spirited dance between his audacity and my hard-won wisdom, he and I now share the helm of our ship.
He throws caution to the wind, while I prudently point to the reefs.
When hot, it puffs you up like Blowfish, chalking your victories to your brilliance but conveniently blaming bad luck for your defeats.
It electrifies your hair, raises goosebumps on your skin, and swells your patriotic chest at the rise of a flag and the beginning chords of your nation’s anthem without once allowing you to reflect on the underbelly and scourge of your country’s might and supremacy or whether the aroused sensations could be compensating for a feeling of worthlessness resulting from a presumed lack of personal power.
Pride, warns the Bible, goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Before my grandiose business schemes collapsed in early 1999, I was as arrogant and overweening as boxing legend Muhammad Ali who described himself as “young, handsome, and fast! further claiming he couldn’t possibly be beat.
“I’m not the greatest,” he boasted, “I’m the double greatest!”
His dazzling career ended in a humiliating defeat to lumbering, slow-armed boxer Trevor Berbick.
“To see Ali lose to such a moderate fighter,” one sportswriter lamented, “was like watching a king riding into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.”
The legacy of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, along with the mighty Roman Empire, were snuffed by the hot breath of conceit that burned delusional in his young son and successor Commodus.
A mere 70 years after Greek philosopher Socrates warned Athenians of the perils of their unquestioning pride, their empire collapsed under the sword of Alexander the Great whose own hubris and intemperance later led to the downfall of his vast and powerful empire.
Hubris, or toxic pride, awakens ‘Nemesis,’ the Greek Goddess of Retribution.
When the Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride blows cold, its breath originates from the belly of shame, scrawling one nagging question inside our heads:
“WHAT WILL OTHERS THINK OF ME?”
It makes us preemptively ashamed of what others might think should we fail at something, so we don’t even try.
Ashamed to be thought of as ‘losers’ if we don’t have lots of money or fame, we push ourselves to the breaking point, even if it goes against the grain of our temperament, and often at the price of our health, relationships, and wellbeing.
It forces us go to the gym to workout our muscles or pump them with steroids because we have chosen to believe only ‘real men’ have them and if we don’t, we think it is something to be ashamed of.
It keeps us from reading poetry or pouring our darkest emotions onto the pages of a journal, from dancing or painting, from hugging a friend and telling him we love him, because we have chosen to believe ‘real men’ don’t do these things.
It’s the one that keeps us from asking for help when we most need it, from saying we don’t know because we think we’ll appear stupid, from crying when we really need to cry or admitting we are lost and afraid.
The antidotes to neutralize the twofold venom (pride and shame) of this toxic Dragon can be found inscribed at the Greek temple of Apollo, high up Mt. Parnassus in the town of Delphi.
Home to the famous oracle Pythia, or priestess, ordinary Athenians would climb up to the temple to ask her questions and seek guidance for their actions. Think of her as the foremother of therapists and life coaches.
Among the 147 Delphic aphorisms, or guiding truths, inscribed on the forecourt of Apollo’s temple, are the twin weapons we must use to vanquish the Dragon of Toxic Pride:
“Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess”.
Self-knowledge not only involves a detailed mapping and intimate knowledge of our temperament and abilities but must also consider our evolutionary history and biochemistry to fully understand our behavior and its triggers.
We would then, for example, be suspicious whenever our hair unconsciously stands on end with nationalistic pride, and recognize this reflex as nothing more than our overactive amygdalas, and our species’ prosocial need to belong to something greater than ourselves, reminding us how this evolutionary-adaptive trait, when taken to an extreme, has led to unspeakable terror, oppression, war, and genocide. We’d then be free to seek belonging without renouncing our integrity and sovereignty.
A critical awareness of the presuppositions and biases of our thoughts and opinions would make us rightly skeptical of our much vaunted rationality and lead us to greater wisdom and away from dangerous extremism.
“Nothing in Excess” must have been what inspired Greek philosopher Aristotle to develop his concept of the Golden Mean.
Modesty, Aristotle proposed, or moderation when estimating our abilities, was the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and a sense of worthlessness.
Had young Commodus, for example, appropriately channeled the energies of King rather than identifying himself as King and God, he would have magnified his father’s legacy and possibly prolonged the halcyon era known as the Pax Romana. Instead, he declared himself to be an incarnation of the god Hercules and forced the senate to recognize his divinity. Statues of Commodus were erected across the city of Rome including one made of solid gold weighing nearly 1,000 pounds.
Taking time to appraise and value our unique temperament and abilities will keep us from pursuing careers or undertaking challenges for which we are unsuited, and, instead, assume our rightful place in the world from which we can radiate the power of our authentic worth.
Further understanding our brain’s unique neurochemistry can also potentially help us choose the right partner for a long lasting relationship, as discovered by anthropologist and chief scientific advisor to Match.com, Helen Fisher.
An honest assessment of our proudful victories will reveal the crucial role played by genes, luck, proper timing or circumstance, making us humble and quick to replace the insensitive label of “Loser” for the benevolent one of “Unfortunate” when judging the plight of those ill-served by providence. Pity would lead to compassion and be further nurtured by the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of our shared human experience.
Understanding our limitations will break through the stoic armor we often use to hide our doubts and fears, opening a door to courageous vulnerability which will allow us to seek help while inciting us to reconnect with our feeling bodies and not think twice about nurturing our softer sides through dance, poetry, tears, deep relationships, and intimacy.
The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride is a formidable adversary, no doubt, but no match for the True Masculine who recognizes the value of self-knowledge and seeks the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and worthlessness by cultivating the Life Force of Moderation.
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Had his childhood dream not been scorched, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer.
Instead, he became a businessman, and lived to regret it.
At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany and moved to Guatemala to begin his new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.
Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.
To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.
Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.
These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.
I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like stone and creaking wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force that it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather also worked long hours, so Dad hardly saw him. My grandfather held the notion that a man’s identity is solely defined by his work.
That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with a boyish sparkle in his eyes, waiting for his blessing.
Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:
“Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”
Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” He thundered and walked away.
Meet the Dream-Scorching Dragon, who’s deadly fire that fateful day denied the world a dashing explorer. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dad became a businessman instead and lost the sparkle in his eye.
I have two possible explanations for what occurred.
First, that my grandfather thought a man could only earn a living and provide for a family by holding a “respectable” job, and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.
Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too might have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason, Perhaps some other Dream-Scorching Dragon stopped him in his tracks.
Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer.
There are too many people like that lurking in our midst. People who lack the faith and audacity to slay the Dragon and give time and power to their true calling — no matter how unconventional, unprofitable, or impractical — so become Dream-Scorching Dragons themselves.
German philosopher Nietzsche knew them well:
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived shamelessly in
Temporary pleasures, and beyond the
Day had hardly an aim.
Then broke the wings of their spirit.
Once they thought of becoming heroes;
But sensualists are they now.
A trouble and a terror
Is the hero to them.” — ‘Zarathustra’
Three years ago, I woke up from a 40-year lie and upended my life to pursue my boyhood dream of becoming a writer. Soon after declaring my intention, a horde of Dream-Scorching Dragons lined up ahead of my path and began to blow their disheartening fire. Not least, my father, who, while often my most ardent cheerleader, also spat numbing venom, making me question my sanity. It was, I suppose, a twisted form of payback.
Dream-Scorching Dragons are shapeshifters. Whether with good or bad intent, those closest to you will be the ones most likely to make you hesitate or give up on your dream altogether. They’ll either presume to know what’s best for you, or appeal to your sense of duty to place their interests ahead of your own.
“You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you. What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.” — Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Open Road’
It took every ounce of resolve for me to resist the clutch of those outreached hands trying to hold me back. It also took a heavy dose of selfishness… of the good kind I mean, defined by philosopher Alain de Botton as one that involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term.
After all, one cannot fully love others while denying oneself. Only in fullness does one overflow.
If we turn our backs on our aspirations and remain shut within the walls of what appears safe or practical, we will become dead in life… forever haunted by regrets as poet Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly foretold:
“Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.”
I did not wish to remain “inside the dishes and the glasses” leaving it up to my children to do what only I was meant to do. Nor did I want to be like so many fathers who exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence, and the festering wounds of their unfulfilled desires.
Neither should you.
Answering the call of your true destiny will require a stout heart, self-love, a firm intention, and unwavering resolve.
Meet ‘Clever Hans’: A horse that performed arithmetic and intellectual tasks on the level of a third-grader.
“He can do almost everything but talk,” reported the New York Times in 1911.
In his book ‘Subliminal,’ theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains how:
Hans learned to respond to his master’s questions by stamping his right hoof. The New York Times reporter described how, on one occasion, Hans was told to stamp once for gold, twice for silver, and three times for copper, and then correctly identified coins made from those metals. He identified colored hats in an analogous manner. Using the sign language of hoof taps, he could also tell time; identify the month and the day of the week; indicate the number of 4’s in 8, 16, and 32; add 5 and 9; and even indicate the remainder when 7 was divided by 3. Sometimes, he could answer his master’s questions even if not verbalized. By the time the reporter witnessed this display, Hans had become a celebrity.
A psychologist named Oskar Pfungst decided to investigate. He discovered that the horse could answer questions posed by people other than his master, but only if the questioners knew the answer, and only if they were visible to Hans during the hoof tapping.
Pfungst eventually found that the key to the horse’s feats lay in involuntary and unconscious cuesdisplayed by the questioner. As soon as a problem was posed, the questioner would involuntarily and almost imperceptibly bend forward, which prompted Hans to begin tapping. Then, as the correct answer was reached, another slight bit of body language would signal Hans to stop.
Scientists, Mlodinow ads, attach great importance to the human capacity for spoken language. But we also have a parallel track of nonverbal communication, and those messages may reveal more than our carefully chosen words and sometimes be at odds with them. Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental that our words.
One recent study, for example, found that when trained properly, a wolf can respond to human nonverbal signals. Like us, wolves are highly social animals, and one reason they can respond to nonverbal cues from humans is that they have a rich repertoire of such signals within their own community.
In ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,’ Charles Darwin argued that emotions — and the ways they are expressed — are not unique to humans and provide a survival advantage.
Consider, for example, a smile — an expression we share with other primates. If a submissive monkey wants to check out a dominant one, it will bare its teeth as a peace signal.
“In monkey talk, says Mlodinow, “bared teeth mean I don’t plan to attack, so please don’t attack me first. In chimpanzees, the smile can go the other way — a dominant individual may smile at the submissive one, saying, don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you.”
You might think a smile is a rather shoddy barometer of true feelings. After all, anyone can fake one. But our facial expressions are expressed subliminally by muscles over which we have no conscious control. Our real emotions and signal expressions cannot be faked.
A genuine smile involves contraction of specific muscles which pull the skin surrounding the eye toward the eyeball causing an effect that looks like crow’s-feet but can be very subtle.
Learning to read these subtle cues is fundamental to social interaction and the development of empathy: the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.
There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. — G.K. Chesterton
In ‘Figuring,’ a sublime book by Maria Popova, she explains that the word empathy came into popular use in the early twentieth century through the gateway of art, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a painting in an effort to understand why art moves us.
But if we don’t expose ourselves to a painting, we cannot project our emotions onto the canvas and intuit the subtlety of the artist’s intention and resulting effect in our feeling bodies.
Likewise, now that our social interactions are increasingly mediated by social media and text messages, our capacity to read subtle cues broadcast by body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions is atrophying. An emoticon, no matter how clever or cute, just doesn’t cut it, which might explain the growing level of societal discord and strife.
Just think of the last time one of your text messages was completely misunderstood by its recipient.
While this modern-day scourge affects both old and young alike, my current work and concern is with our boys.
Much like shielding boys from danger inhibits their ability to effectively overcome obstacles and navigate the world, allowing them to mediate their human interactions through technology prevents them from developing strong social-emotional intelligence.
Also known as expressive agnosia, social-emotional agnosia is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. People with this form of agnosia have difficulty determining and identifying the motivational and emotional significance of external social events. In other words, they can’t relate. Social-emotional agnosia often occurs in individuals with schizophrenia and autism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism. The prevalence is 1 in 42 for boys and 1 in 189 for girls. These rates yield a gender ratio of about five boys for every girl. The latest estimate of autism prevalence is up 30 percent from the rate reported in 2008, and more than double the rate in 2000. — Scientific American.
Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA study.
UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.
“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”
As I explain to boys in Chapter 2 of my current book, our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action. We are also less empathetic than females… less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering.
The only way Clever Hans was able to answer questions was while being face-to-face with the questioner.
The only way boys will develop positive social skills is by removing the screens which shield them from direct human interaction and send them out into the world.
This, no doubt, will help them become as emotionally-intelligent as a horse.
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The boy who never built a castle in the air will never build one on earth. – Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The Twitter vitriol poured on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) and Greta Thunberg (16) reminded me of Wentworth’s quote.
Striking, yet unsurprising, is the lack of alternative solutions proposed by their older critics who I imagine sitting on bleachers – seething in the green muck of their envy and shrunken under the tepid sun of their cowardice – while these two young idealists dare to enter the arena with the audacity and courage to imagine a better, saner future.
The attacks echo the slurs against Rachel Carson after the publication of her 1962 seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ which conceivably pulled us back from the brink of environmental disaster:
A book reviewer for Time characterized Carson’s argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature.”
In other words, Carson was deemed by her critics to be irrational.
“Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs?” asked 12 year-old Adora Svitak in her 2010 Ted Talk.
“Maybe you’ve had grand plans before,” she said, “but stopped yourself, thinking, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘that costs too much,’ or ‘that won’t benefit me.’ Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free… kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
In 1968, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked Dr George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a highly specialized test to effectively measure the creative potential of NASA’s rocket scientists and engineers. The duo came up with an unorthodox test rooted in the process of divergent thinking: the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. The test worked so well at identifying the best candidates that Land and Jarman decided to administer it to 1600 five year-olds.
What they discovered was astonishing.
Out of the 1600 kids that took the test, 98% of them scored at genius level!
Excited by this incredible finding, the team decided to turn this test into a longitudinal study and tested the same group of children five years later. By then, in grade school, the children’s level had declined to just 30%.
By age 15, it had dropped all the way down to 12%.
Disturbed, but still intrigued by this fascinating study, Land and Jarman decided to conduct this same test on adults aged 25 and up (with an average age of 31). After numerous studies, what they found was that less than 2% of all adults scored at genius level!
Once bitten, twice shy.
As life batters us with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we become less creative and more risk averse. As we age, we shift our mental calculations toward what we stand to lose, rather than what we stand to gain and our courage to dare is weakened by our fears — of loss, rejection, judgment, and criticism; fears which gradually wrap us in an armor of cynicism which we deceptively label practical or pragmatic.
Ironically, William James, founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, had this to say:
Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, — his pre-eminence over them is solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
If we had limited ourselves to what appeared possible, safe, and practical, we would have never become bipedal.
English journalist Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” said U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. “There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
It would be one thing if those without the courage to dare greatly were to remain shut in the dark and malodorous space of their dispirited lives. Quite another is pouring the acid of their fecklessness on the hide of those who do dare.
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived they shamelessly in
Temporary pleasures, and beyond the
Day had hardly an aim.
Then broke the wings of their spirit.
Once they thought of becoming heroes;
But sensualists are they now.
A trouble and a terror
Is the hero to them.” — Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Zarathustra’
At 57, I have harvested enough disappointments — in love and enterprise — to make even the fiercest gladiator never want to set foot again on the arena of life’s slaughterhouse. My hide is black-and-blue from the pummeling fury of fortune’s mercurial temper. Yet, I have not ceased to ask myself: “What if? or “If only…” I still yearn to quell the storm and ride the thunder… still believe in impossibilities. It’s the reason why I side with those like #AOC and Greta Thunberg and cheer their valiant efforts to challenge the status quo. They are no trouble and terror to me, but an inspiration, stirring the same hopefulness I felt when watching the young man block the advance of a column of tanks on China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“The truly decrepit, living corpses,” said Henry Miller, “are those middle-aged men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever, or else, are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelter to wait it out.” You can avoid reality, writer Ayn Rand warned, but not the consequences of reality.
When we operate under fear, we use a smaller part of our divergent thinking and stifle our capacity to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Convergent thinking, focused on coming up with the single, well-established answer to a problem, begins to come up with all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done.
Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. — Samuel Johnson
The new generation is inviting us to dare to dream the impossible, to awaken the genius of our inner child, who, full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, is not hampered when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. We should either accept their invitation or get out of their way.
Society is not a bond between the living, said philosopher Edmund Burke. It is a bond between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to come. As it stands right now, it appears that the generation currently in charge is assuming the stance of comedian Groucho Marx who once scoffed: “What should I care about future generations… what have they ever done for me?”
At the recent Austrian World Summit, Greta Thunberg ended her speech with this indictment: “For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically doing nothing to stop climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up and promise we will not let you get away with it anymore.”
How will we respond?
Will we rise to the challenge or cower inside our mental bomb shelters to wait it out, hoping for a savior?
“Our world needs fierce men and women,” writer Sam Keen urged, “who must deal with the darkness at noon, the failure of our success, the impotence of our power, and the waste products of our creativity. It needs spiritual warriors who are alive with moral outrage and who enter the arena to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Fierce individuals who still have thunder and lightning in them; not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”
As for the world, the same applies to our lives.
I suspect many of you, despite age, circumstance, or accumulated disappointments, still wonder what your life would be like if you had the temerity to build castles in the air; to give voice and impetus to your “irrational” dreams, yet you deny them out of fear of judgment, discomfort, failure, or loss. In the end, however, should you cower, the day will come when you will have to face the most terrifying judge of all: yourself.
Hell is found, said writer Paulo Coelho, twenty seconds before you die as you look back and discover that you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
Dare to be irrational! Shatter the status-quo of your existence! Think not of what you stand to lose but what you will gain by breaking free from your self-imposed prison… more time for joy, deeper and more meaningful relationships, ardent desire, wonder and delight.
If each new day — as our human life unfolds itself like the pages of an illuminated fairy book — is not a caravanserai of marvels, a ship of treasure, an island of enchantment, with its own sun and moon and high particular stars, what, in heaven’s name, is the value of being alive at all? Nature intended us to be exquisitely happy and when our happiness ebbs it is because some phobia or mania or inhibition in ourselves. — John Cowper Powys
Trust your wants. Prune not your extravagance. Become uninhibited, zany, expansive, voracious and wild. Seek through the fire of your enthusiasm and idealism to make your clay statue incandescent at last!
Having answered the call to adventure, I assure you that a day sailing wild and pathless seas is worth more than an eternity spent safe at harbor.
As you move into authenticity — your true story — you will unleash unsuspected powers which not only will blow on the embers of your dreary, sputtering life, but will incite you to respond to the calling of our time.
Let those tepid souls, who sit in the bleachers, rot in the dunghill of their timidity.
When our individual stories are rightly embedded within a vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
I mean besides genealogy, ethnicity, culture, or nation. Farther back I mean…way back…all the way back to the beginning of space and time.
If we don’t know where we come from, warned author Terry Pratchett, then we don’t know where we are, and if we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going.
A quick glance at the current state of the world tells me we haven’t a clue.
The phrase ‘hark back’ was used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent. I like to imagine what the world would be like if our “once-upon-a-time” stories harkened back 13 Billion years to the moment of the Big Bang.
Might we recover our lost scent?
Would a visceral understanding that we’re all stardust feeding off starlight help us develop a universal sense of kinship with all forms of life?
Might knowing we only arrived on stage but a few seconds ago in cosmic time deflate our human hubris?
Would we properly humble and then be rapt by awe and wonder if we allowed the fact to sink-in that there are more stars than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth?
Would our anxious, plundering rapacity cease if everyone knew that our planet is a living organism that creates and sustains life and that our species was doing just fine as nomadic hunter-gatherers for 99% of the time we’ve been on stage?
If we worked on harmonizing with the fundamental laws written 13 Billion years ago instead of trying to force the Universe to conform to our designs, might we not usher-in a golden age?
If we understood, for instance, that the heat and light of stars is only possible by the implacable resistance imposed on their desire for exuberant expression by the force of Gravity, would we continue cursing when encountering resistance to ours?
Death would not seem like an unfounded rumor if we knew it was woven in the cosmic fabric with the thread of entropy from day-one. No longer, then, would outrage or dismay be our default reactions to decay and disorder, but calm acceptance and mature resignation.
“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even part of science testify to the unwearing effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.” – John Gray
Our cherished preeminence would crumble with just a cursory understanding of the ‘Many-Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. ‘The Web of Life’ would finally acquire meaning when learning about the enchanting entanglement that occurs between subatomic particles separated by billions of light-years of space.
We’d surrender our insistence on immutability once we appreciate the fluid nature of the stellar story in which we find ourselves. You want nothing to change? Show me stasis in nature and you will have shown me a frozen or dead system. If you suffer from insomnia, try reading a novel where nothing changes.
Realizing how improbable our presence is on Earth; the many accidents and near-misses, the coincidences and lucky breaks that preceded our arrival, would we ever curse our fate or bemoan our existence? Would we dare utter the phrase ‘Sunday night blues’?
Allowing ourselves to be stunned by the fact that every star, snowflake, seashell, tree, flower…each and every one of us is one-of-a-kind; an inimitable entity in the unfolding story of the Universe, would we continue struggling to become someone else?
Knowing that the ethics of moderation, prudence, bravery, and reciprocal altruism are encoded in our behavior as in all animals, would we continue searching for moral guidance in dusty libraries, yoga retreats, therapy couches, pews, stone tablets, or up in the heavens?
We might develop a healthy skepticism of our vaunted rationality knowing that the frontal lobe of our brain is of recent occurrence in the evolution of our species and that we had no trouble feeding ourselves and navigating the world before then. This realization would encourage us to reconnect with our bodies, our senses and instincts, and repair the rift we’ve caused between ourselves and the natural world.
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless mayflies darkening the sky. – Robinson Jeffers
When our individual stories are rightly embedded within this vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
Knowing that there is no one like us among 7.53 Billion humans should be enough to divert us from debilitating and fruitless emulation, rouse us from apathy and conformism, from spiritless cowardice and escapism, from selfishness and greed, and make us stake our unique claim and contribute to the magnificent symphony which began before space and before time.
“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” – Carl Sagan
As it is, we are but sorry violins discarded in the moldy attic of our past. With strings slack, broken tuning pegs and cracked bouts, we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part within the concert hall of the Cosmos. When we insist, it is shamefully obvious we’ve forgotten the musical score, so we play off beat and out of tune. With humanistic conceit, we willfully ignore that should we vanish tomorrow, the concert hall would remain open and the show would go on.
It’s time to relearn the score.
Let’s retrace our steps along the path and recover our scent before it’s too late. The Universe will be glad to be rid of us if we don’t.
Shocking, isn’t it? For all our time-saving devices, we just don’t have time.
The fact is, we do. It’s just crammed with new distractions created by the engine of commerce.
What’s ironic is that we work longer and longer hours to make more money to hand over to swindlers to come up with new distractions to stave our boredom. It is a mad chase for jolts of dopamine, and, like any addiction, the doses must be increasingly potent.
The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions. — Erica Jong
We would not be bored had we lived prior the Industrial Revolution. That’s because the word was only first used in 1853 by Charles Dickens, in ‘Bleak House,’ to describe the chronic malady of modern life.
The rapid expansion of factories spewing ‘time-saving’ contraptions inaugurated the concept of “leisure time” quickly crowded by new distractions — circuses, theatrical extravaganzas, tourism, Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram… the Smartphones right next to you and me.
German philosopher Theodor Adorno called Walt Disney the most dangerous man in America. He wasn’t against leisure time; simply questioning what we choose to do with it. It’s not enough to be busy, said Henry David Thoreau, so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?
Adorno realized that our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry, so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires-culture,’ said Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street Banker during the Great Depression. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. Capitalism’s tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
Pay close attention to most advertisements and you’ll discover the ruse.
Checking-out is no easy matter. The hook is deeply wedged in our brains. Rehab is the enemy of the great persuaders; our modern-day snake oil peddlers. They can’t afford us escaping the insane asylum and checking ourselves into a quiet space to restore our sanity; to alleviate our dis-ease. If we did, not only would we discover how enslaved we are but realize that the shackles were forged by our own hands.
A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller
Bill Levitt, father of American suburbia, perversely said no man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do. Keep the herd busy, docile, and entertained to prevent it from discovering the fraud.
A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.
We no longer know what to do in quietude. We fidget, look around for our cell phone, check the clock, fidget and fret some more. Simple things no longer deliver enough dopamine to stimulate our nerve cells. If we take a walk out in nature, our overstimulated brains are no longer reactive to a placid landscape but require more intense colors, harsher sounds, perhaps a flame-throwing squirrel torching aspens to ash. Not nature-as-it-is, but nature as we see on screens. We wish to edit the natural world as we edit our photos to the point where we no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and fantasy ends up being more stimulating because it’s chock-full of dopamine.
You might be familiar with the famous experiment conducted in the 1950s by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner in which they connected electrodes to the brains of rats enabling them to create sensations of excitement (dopamine) simply by pressing a pedal. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly scurry across shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would do this as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.
Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.
Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Is reality all that bad, or have we been made to believe it is?
Confucius found it rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the only way to achieve harmony was through strict adherence to ancient rituals and ceremonies.
Buddha found it bitter and preached the doctrine of detachment as the path to bliss.
Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, rejected labels altogether. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed on existence, he said, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life seem “sour” or “bitter”.
Writer Henry Miller said the word reality should not have a sinister and fatalistic ring. The man who is truly awake and completely alive, he said, is a man for whom reality will always be close to ecstasy.
But ecstasy, at root, means “standing outside oneself” which would put us back in an imaginary world. Perhaps Miller was referring to a feeling ofjoyful excitement, rooted in the reality of our ordinary world.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell said he didn’t think humans were necessarily seeking a meaning for life as much as an experience of being alive, so that our experiences on the physical plane (the world as it is) resonate with our innermost being and reality making us actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Both Miller and Campbell are pointing at feelings of intense joy.
Campbell went a step further and added “innermost being,” meaning eudaimonia: the process of living in accord with our essence and realizing our unique potential. Work done in accord with our essence and in service to a higher purpose will never feel like work.
We all would love to describe our careers like filmmaker William Herzog:
“A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me, everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”
The slogans of the travel industry — escape, unwind, recharge — have no effect on a man like Herzog.
“It is a melancholy commentary upon the nature of our modern industrial system,” wrote John Cowper Powys, “that in any consideration of happiness we are compelled to leave what is called ‘work’ entirely out of our thoughts. There are few occupations left worthy of the self-respect of the human race. Happiness, [for most], whether manual slaves or mental slaves of the monstrous profit system, must be something snatched at in contemptuous independence of what they call ‘our life’s work.’”
Perhaps, this is why so many eagerly swallow the quack medicine peddled by the great persuaders. To alleviate the tedium and lack of higher purpose of most jobs which burns them out without ever having been on fire. They chase ‘spirits’ in the guise of alcohol, drugs, extreme sports, pornography, consumerism, and non-stop distractions to assuage the pain and ennui of a spiritless life. Or because they feel unworthy, seek specious validation from a crowd of virtual judges through their social media posts.
Dopamine, instead of eudaimonia.
Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. — Doris Mortman
The difference between who you are and what you have was thoroughly explored by social psychologist Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art of Being.’
“The full humanization of man,“ he said, “requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation; from selfishness and egotism, to solidarity and altruism.”
Fromm was not advocating asceticism. Orientation toward “being” is not identical with “not-having.” He was, I suppose, simply echoing what Gandhi said decades before: “You do not have to renounce any of your possessions; you have to renounce the possessor.”
Three years ago, I did precisely that. Actually, went a step further and renounced most of my possessions and checked myself into spiritual rehab agreeing fully with Krishnamurti who said it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
The symptoms of withdrawal, I discovered, were more acutely felt by society than by me. Strange, how little man belongs to himself, said Henry Miller, how much he is yet the community’s property. If one follows one’s own conscience, everybody objects.
The objections are the terrified squeals of the infernal machine that insists that if the gears stop spinning, the world will come to an end. That’s the whole purpose behind its manufactured distractions — to keep us from thinking for ourselves and follow our own drumbeat. It can’t afford to give us a minute to sit in quietude lest we begin to pick the lock of the illusory doors of our prison.
(If you’re still with me and have not once checked your phone, social media, or email, it means I am succeeding in slowly lifting the veil to reveal the fraud perpetrated by the Great Wizards).
Walking away is not the point. A new world is not made by trying to forget the old, said Miller. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values.
The first step I took was examine the script I had been playing. I then edited-out the parts which did not resonate with my innermost being which kept me from feeling the rapture of being alive. I gave myself permission to be myself, so to speak.
Next, I thought hard on what exactly filled me with delight. In this domain, children have it licked, because, as modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton said, they don’t know what they are supposed to like and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value to them. They have to rely instead on their own delight in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with. It is easy to comprehend why Jesus said that theirs was the Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom, mind you, of the here and now.
Having once possessed the wealth many covet, I realized simpler pleasures yielded greater delight. I also discovered that while the quick-pulse intensity of a passionate life sounds alluring, it is short-lived and produces the same burnout than the one I felt working 14-hour days.
So I scratched-off the words “happiness” and “passion” from my script and replaced them with euthymia and ataraxia, Greek words for serenity and to describe a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. I traded dopamine for serotonin, if you will; a glass of bubbly champagne for a cup of warm milk.
I have not lost wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. — Seneca
Once done writing my own code of values, I worked on placing my life in an eudaimonic state; the state of living in accord with my essence to actualize my unique potential. I knew I could write well and felt called to use that talent for a greater purpose than entertainment. I did not want to escape high-up to a mountain and, there, cut-off from society, indulge in navel-gazing, endless self-improvement, or self-righteous pontifications of what it is to live the ‘good life’. I wanted to share the saga of my trials and tribulations to recover the ancient purpose of entertainment, which, in Greek tragicomedy, held the audience together in shared suffering, or joy, or both, leading to catharsis.
I then looked around the world to find a need that could use my talents; something which made me shudder and lit a fire in my belly. That’s when I began writing The Hero in You.
Here’s the thing, though…
I’m either speaking an unintelligible language, or the world doesn’t want to listen to those coming between the distracted and the distractions. The infernal machine appears hell-bent in ostracizing those who rock the boat and will ensure that those who rebel quickly find themselves unable to survive.
Most days, I feel like a baker who has unearthed an ancient recipe for wholesome, nutritious bread, only to find the marketplace crowded with people gorging on Wonder Bread and Twinkies laced with listicles promising instant wellbeing, power, esteem, love, wealth, and approbation. While ancient grains are harder to digest, I promise they are better for you.
Bake Twinkies! many urge, and people will flock to your bread stand.
I admit I’ve been tempted, just like Christ was in the desert; Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.
(If I still have your attention, it means the rebellion stands a chance!)
In every prototypical hero’s journey, this is the moment when the hero faces the greatest test.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. — E.E. Cummings
Because I am writing a book for boys meant to guide them towards a life of authenticity and purpose, I have no choice but to press on, come what may. I’ll keep stealing a minute of everyone’s time to find our way out of the madhouse.
Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.
Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would just stop.
Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel with its panting, sweat-lathered horses; someone to yell “Freeze!” inside the circus tent suspending twirling trapeze artists in mid-air, cut the steam off the calliope, lift the needle off the blaring phonograph, flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude.
Just for a while.
Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.
Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.
After all, we do it to our kids.
“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’ve found your ways and manners!”
It’s shameful, yet delightfully ironic, that kids are the ones now sending ‘adults’ to the corner.
Kids like fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Jamie Margolin (17), founder of Zero Hour, thirteen year-old activist Alexandria Villasenor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike, Emma Gonzalez (19) and David Hogg (19), founders of the anti-gun violence group March for our Lives, etc.
“What have you done?” “What are you doing?” seem the questions they are posing to the generation in charge.
Shut up! You’re too young to know any better. We must keep spinning the carousel. If it stops, we’ll be catapulted and smashed to bits!
Sssh the sea says
Sssh the small waves at the
Shore say sssh
Not so violent, not
So haughty, not
Sssh. — Rolf Jacobsen
Would we, tough? Would we really be smashed into bits once we’ve recovered from our addictions? The world wouldn’t stop spinning, would it? Just the grindstone grating us to anxious dust.
Three years ago, I stepped off the carousel and turned-in my badge certifying me as an inmate of the insane carnival and took a time out. I’m happy to report I have never been more whole.
I had felt trapped inside a bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while the friction of wheels against rails shot heated sparks scorching the landscape outside. I looked out the window and realized I was missing sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight, moonrises, dragonflies, the sea’s soundprint inside seashells…and my time was running out.
Inside the train I kept hearing outrage, gunshots, screams, groans of despair, and hollow laughter. I saw burnt out grownups in endless shifts shoveling coal into the train’s insatiable furnace and children with terror in their eyes.
When I asked the train conductors to explain what exactly they meant by “progress,” they scoffed.
“Why, a better life, of course. You fool!”
When pressed for clarity, they said things like “growth, immortality, abundance, eternal happiness, immutability, and absolute power and control.”
I knew I had to step out.
Long had I bought-in to these stories. Actually contributed to their dizzying incantations, convinced that if we stopped spinning the tales, the skein would unravel.
It took me a while to detox and become centered.
When you spin in place a hundred times and suddenly stop, unless you’re a whirling dervish, it takes a while to regain your footing. You’re off-balance and disoriented, mostly guilt-ridden for not contributing coal to the furnace.
Immortality, Immutability, Eternal Happiness, Absolute Power and Control…
Like a silkworm, I’ve been munching on the mulberry leaves of these insane notions trying to come up with better silk, such as “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” or “an organism at war with itself is doomed,” or “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” or, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Truths spoken by Gandhi, Carl Sagan, Krishnamurti, and Jesus — the bees of our world, in epic battle against the locusts.
I’m writing my way into their hive, offering my talents to stop the bullet train before it’s too late.
Perhaps it is…
I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.
What stops me are the children.
I do not wish to come out empty handed from my time out and face their opprobrium.
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked poet Antonio Machado.
I want to answer Machado with something other than dead flowers, withered petals, yellow leaves, despair, death, and devastation.
My time out has allowed me to discover it is not so much a matter of writing alternative stories but simply harmonizing with the magnificent score written in the cosmos at the moment of the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago. We’re just playing off beat and out of tune.
We demand immutability from a Universe in a state of constant fluidity and change.
We deride and reject balance and pursue growth for the sake of growth which is the ideology of the cancer cell.
We consume way beyond our needs to distract ourselves from facing the gaping holes in our hearts.
We rail against decay and death, forgetting the Universe’s Second Law of Thermodynamics necessary for new life to emerge.
We forget we all came from stardust; that we all share the same constituent parts and then dare see diversity as ‘the Other.’
Inside the bullet-train, in self-imposed exile from Earth, we consider her not as a living organism that sustains us, but as a giant glittering mall, inexhaustible supermarket, and massive dump-ground for our waste.
In such disharmony, many still wonder why they remain so afraid, depressed, distressed, burned-out, insecure, and soul-starved.
But they keep shoveling coal into the furnace; spinning the carousel while seeking endless distractions and swallowing magic pills to prevent them from looking inside and out the window and realize what they’ve done and keep doing. Meanwhile, children gaze with terror in their eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future and they can’t get out.
For now, it seems the Locusts are winning, but
and you’ll hear the growing buzz of bees.
An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted, said playwright Arthur Miller.
The Age of the Locusts is almost over. But they won’t give up without an epic fight.
This is not a cosmic battle of Good vs Evil. Simply a clash of bad imagination vs one that speaks the language of sustainability, balance, harmony, serenity, tolerance, awe, wonder, and delight.
It is the language of bees, and I have now joined their legion.
My book, The Hero in You, is the nectar I intend to pass on to younger ones for them to turn into wax and honey to gum up the wheels of the bullet train until it comes to rest giving the world an urgent time out.
The Universe doesn’t give second chances.
Follow the Bees and receive a free treasure trove of letters containing the insight of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers with my recipes for applying their wisdom to your own life.
Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…
Writing ‘The Hero in You’ is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.
More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.
It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.
Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.
I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.
“How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.
I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.
I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.
If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?
J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.
Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.
In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.
Life’s bitter lemons…
More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.
Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.
In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.
When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.
“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.
Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.
Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.
Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!
What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?
Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.
This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!
He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.
Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…
“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”
My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.
In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’on toilet paper.
“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”
A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”
If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?
In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:
‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.
Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!
While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.
Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron
When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.
Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.
Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson
“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”
Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare
From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.
Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.
Inspired already? Then be a hero. Champion the book! CLICK HERE.
The following is part of a series of pieces included in ‘The Hero in You’: my book for boys (8–12) meant to guide them toward authentic, generative manhood.
(…continued from previous chapter)
Jane Goodall did not let her lack of knowledge of chimpanzees stop her from going to Africa to follow her dream. Once there, she used her imagination to study their behavior in a new way.
She started by doing something no one had ever done before. Instead of identifying the chimps with numbers, she gave them names based on their appearance or personality. For example, Jane gave the name of ‘David Greybeard’ to the chimpanzee who first approached her because he had a grey chin. Other names included Gigi, Mr. McGregor, Flo, Frodo, Goliath, and Mike.
It is the story of Goliath and Mike which reminds me of my early days at school.
Chimpanzees live in groups of several adult males and females plus young of all ages. In every group there is always one adult male who is dominant. Scientists call him the ‘Alpha male’ — the biggest and strongest. You might call him a ‘tough guy’ or ‘Jock.’
When Jane studied the group, the alpha male was Goliath who intimidated all the other males with his size and strength, especially poor Mike, a much smaller chimpanzee, and one of the lowest ranking males. Mike would often sit all by himself (as I used to at my school’s playground) and get attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get food and would only eat after all the other males had done so.
But then, something extraordinary happened.
One day, Mike walked over to Jane’s camp and took two large empty cans by their handles. Carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place he’d been before, close to the other chimps. He started rocking back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him carefully. Mike began to make hooting sounds, and, suddenly, charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached, the other males ran away from him.
Mike ran into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes, he came back, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. Once again, he charged the other males and, once again, they ran away from him.
Then he made a big decision. Mike decided to confront Goliath who was sitting by himself. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud even Goliath got out of his way.
Male chimpanzees show their submission to their more powerful buddies by grunting and reaching out their hands. Mike’s magic trick with the cans convinced the others, except Goliath, of his superiority. At that moment, all the other male chimps came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. Grooming involves removing dirt, sticks, leaves, dried skin, and bugs from the hair of another chimpanzee. The last male chimp to do so was David Greybeard, who, until then, was Goliath’s closest buddy. Only Goliath remained apart.
The match was now set for a final round: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever won this epic showdown would become the alpha male. The final faceoff came one day after Goliath returned from patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory.
When Goliath and Mike faced off, both tried to outdo each other with their displays. Mike kept the cans in motion by rolling them across the ground making lots of noise. Goliath used his strength, going after and beating up some of the younger chimps to show who was boss.
After Mike and Goliath were done with their wild shenanigans, they stopped, sat on the ground, and nervously eyed each other. Suddenly, Goliath walked slowly over to Mike and began to grunt and groom him. Mike enjoyed this for a while, then turned around and started grooming Goliath. Mike was now the undisputed alpha male of the group!
You should know that during the entire showdown, Mike and Goliath never touched or hit each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through intimidation, which basically means frightening someone until they surrender. A staring contest is a good example.
Mike overcame his limitations, not by going to the gym to get stronger, not by learning karate or kickboxing, but by using the strength he already had: the assertive powers of his brain and imagination.
I am not suggesting the next time you go to school, you carry two large empty cans and start hooting and hollering while banging and pushing the cans across the playground to get noticed. That’d be weird, and probably make you spend recess inside the Principal’s office. All I’m saying is that you need to discover your unique strengths and talents and use them to occupy your place in the world.
Mike could have done many other things: he could’ve tried to fight Goliath, but you and I know how that would’ve ended. Mike could’ve also tried to beat-up his buddies, but being the weakest in the group, that would’ve ended badly as well. Instead, Mike discovered something unique in himself and used it to his advantage.
And that, my dear boy, is the difference between being aggressive and being assertive; between being strong and being smart; between exercising your body or using your brain.
When you are assertive, like Mike, people will respect you. Maybe they’ll even remove dirt and bugs from your hair. When you are aggressive, like Goliath, people will fear you, but will not respect you. What would you rather be: respected or feared?
Assertiveness, or gentle fierceness, is speaking-up for what you need and want but always with respect…always in control of your emotions. We’ll talk more about this later.
In the meantime, let me tell you another “monkey story.”
This is from another one of my heroes. His name was Hideyoshi, and he was born in Japan in 1536 to a poor farming family. His story will teach you many priceless lessons, especially how to turn personal disadvantages into advantages…how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Hideyoshi was short, about five feet tall. He weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was really ugly and wasn’t athletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him the appearance of an ape resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.
He was the ‘Mike’ of the previous story.
Most people today would think there was no way someone like Hideyoshi could have succeeded in life.
They’d be wrong.
Hideyoshi grew up at a time when the only choices for a poor peasant to move ahead were to become a priest, or a warrior or samurai. It was the Age of the Warring States in Japan, a period of social upheaval and near-constant military conflict. It was a mess. If you live in the United States, imagine your state in constant war against your neighboring state. This period of unrest in Japan lasted more than a century.
The samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan. Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai led their lives according to a set of rules, or ethic code, called bushido: the way of the warrior.
Hideyoshi was not only puny but clumsy at martial arts but he still dreamt of becoming a samurai. Eventually, he rose to the top, unified his country, and became its supreme ruler. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.
How did he do it, and what can you learn from him?
(to be continued…)
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“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black
From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.
No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.
“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.
Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.
Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.
Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.
Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.
But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.
A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.
“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black
“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.
I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:
Your old grandmother says,
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.
You look a little pale.”
Run when you hear that.A father’s stern slaps are better.
Your bodily soul wants comforting.
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventuallyleads you into the open.
Pray for a tough instructor.
Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.
I do not comfort but challenge them.
Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.
Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).
“Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know.” – Maria Popova
Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.
Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.
I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.
In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.
Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.
A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”
In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.
Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.
“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”
Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.
Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis
With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.
While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.
Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”
Yuanming explains why:
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains. Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap. Waking up, thirty years had gone. The caged bird wants the old trees and air. Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream. I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor. Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden… Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage, Now I can get back again to Nature.
Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.
Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.
If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson
As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.
Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.
Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:
“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”
“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”
“You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”
“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”
“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”
“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”
“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”
Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.
I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.
Once his light is out, I will be next in line.
“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.
It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.
I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.
After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.
Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.
Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!
Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.
But is it enough?
At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?
Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass
I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.
When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.
As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”
It struck me with shattering force.
For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.
These things make me shudder.
But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.
What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.
The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb
Many villages are burning now.
I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager — listening attentively as I spoke.
“The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.
As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.
As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.
To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.
What they teach us about adversity and our destiny
“Your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
So that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words resonated in my mind as I looked up at the night’s sky on New Year’s Eve.
Standing on a small wooden deck at my daughter’s farmhouse set on a vineyard in Northern California, the relative absence of light pollution allowed a clear view to an arching parade of constellated stars against a backdrop of lightdust spangled on the black sky-vault with openhanded extravagance. A brisk wind soughed somber as it combed the charcoal outline of a barren apple orchard and moaned across the wires holding the scraggly branches of vines.
I felt blocked-in; had written little in the past month, and feared I had done something to upset Polyhymnia, the Muse of eloquence, to the point of never again being favored by her gift.
My life felt like a stone in me, pressing down on my embryonic aspiration to become a writer with a massive weight of implacable resistance. I panicked, wondering what would become of me should I never recover the power of my creativity. I was about to turn 57, relatively penniless, and had just received the thirty-third rejection to my Memoir. Like the horn of a Ram, I was wound tight in a Gordian-knot of anxiety and flailed in the searing soup of my laments while the stars looked down on me with frosty indifference.
Fixing my gaze on the constellation of Orion, I spotted Betelgeuse, the supergiant star pinpointing one of the shoulders of this giant hunter. At six hundred times the Sun’s radius, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Trailing behind were the constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor: Orion’s hunting dogs. The former contains Sirius, the largest and brightest star ever discovered, and a billion times bigger than our Sun. In our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over two hundred billion stars; there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars than grains of sand on Earth.
Such sublime and staggering scale made my human tribulations seemed petty in cosmic terms. I had to laugh, feeling akin to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who once mocked his own trivial distress by recognizing he was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
How true, I thought, what psychologist James Hillman said, that it is not our stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We often dull our lives, he said, by the way we conceive it. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of the hero.
Awe,humility, and perspective were the first lessons I learned on the eve of the new year.
It was good to know my affliction had less weight than a grain of sand, but not enough to dispel my anxiety and rouse me from my creative rut. I needed to read deeper into the night sky to wrest more practical wisdom from the stars.
From what my father had taught me about the cosmos when I was a young boy, I remembered that close to Orion’s sword is the famous Orion Nebula.
Stars begin their journey inside clouds of dust and gas called nebulas: a star nursery where millions of new stars are born. Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. I equated turbulence with the excitement I felt writing my first stories when I was eight years old, and thought of the gravitational attraction as the allurement of love; Eros, or ardent desire, calling me onto the path of an artist.
As the stellar cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core that will one day become a star. If a protostar forms with insufficient mass, it will not burn hot enough for thermonuclear fusion to begin and will end its journey as a brown dwarf, halfway between a planet and a star. Was I destined, I wondered, for such an unimpressive fate?
Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen which forms helium deep in their interiors. Every second, fusion at the core of a star generates the explosive force of a billion nuclear bombs. The reason it doesn’t blow apart is due to the dynamic standoff between Gravity, which wants to crush the star, and the energy of the fusion process that wants to blow the star apart. And that tension, that balancing act, creates a star, and keeps it creating heat and light.
What hydrogen is for stars, our deepest desires are the fuel only we can transform into light. If our desire is too weak, we will not burn hot enough, sharing the fate of a failed, brown dwarf star.
But having a desire (to be a writer, to heal the sick or the planet, to fight injustice or alleviate hunger, etc.) is not enough. The first dynamic of the Universe is resistance. The existence of stars arises out of the constraints placed upon the energy of its fusion process, i.e., its desire. If they could continue without meeting resistance (Gravity), no star would ever emerge. Mountains are formed by this same dynamic process. Fifty million years ago, the robust resistance of the Eurasian plate pushing against the colliding Indian subcontinent crowned the Earth with its highest tectonic achievement: Mt. Everest.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies —
I recalled Emily Dickinson’s poem as I heard a flock of sheep bleating in the distance and the clang of tiny bells as they huddled closer together for warmth.
Two years ago, I thought I heard a call bell for me to rise; to move out of my humdrum existence and move towards a life of greater intensity. Fueled by my desire to give voice to my personal cosmology through writing, I shed my previous life and slid towards a new adventure like a snake sheds its scaly envelope to allow for further growth. Ever since, the resistance pushing against my desire has been formidable. I mentioned this to a stranger with whom I crossed paths on the first part of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore. He said the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Said it with such calm conviction, that I named him my Mexican Yoda, after the legendary Jedi Master from the movie ‘Star Wars.’
Very often though, as my dear friend Mary Reynolds wrote in her extraordinary book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul,’ one may need a cataclysmic event to crack open, just as Bishop Pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.
Could it be, I wondered on that cold starry night, that I was at the threshold of something momentous, about to crack open and spill my unique gifts on the world?
Like snowflakes…like you and I, each star is a one of a kind. What a stirring, but daunting realization! To know that upon birth, a new possibility is born with us, a new desire, a seed of potential that is up to us, and only us, to make sprout. An opportunity that is ours to actualize or deny according to our resolve.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. The poet Annie Dillard offers one possible answer: “To give voice to your own astonishment,” she said. To astound, from Latin: “to thunder!”
At the stroke of midnight, nearby firework flashes and thunderous explosions heralding the birth of a new year reminded me of a Supernova: the single most violent event in the Universe.
I lifted my gaze back at Betelgeuse, the giant star many scientists predict will be our galaxy’s next Supernova and wondered what wisdom I could extract from its looming fate being broadcast by its light traveling at a hundred and eighty six miles per second.
Giant stars live fast, burn bright, and die hard. Once out of fuel, the epic battle is won by the crush of Gravity over their desire to keep expressing their radiant selves. But from their destruction come the seeds of life itself. We owe our existence to such a Supernova billions of years ago — our Cosmic Mother. Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme named her “Tiamat” after the ancient Babylonian goddess of primordial creation and eulogized her in ‘The Universe Story’:
“Tiamat found herself pressed to the wall, exhausted by the effort, helpless to do anything more to balance the titanic powers. When her core had been transformed into iron, she sighed a last time as collapse became inevitable. In a cosmological twinkling, her gravitational potential energy was transformed into a searing explosion, a single flash of brilliance. When the brilliance was over, when Tiamat’s journey was finished, the deeper meaning of her existence was just beginning to show through. Out of the spectacular tensions in the stellar core, Tiamat had forged calcium, a new presence that would one day support both mastodons and hummingbirds. Tiamat had forged phosphorus which would one day enable the majestic intelligence of photosynthesis to appear. Tiamat had sculpted oxygen and Sulphur which would one day somersault with joy over the beauty of the earth. She vanished as a star in her grand finale of beauty, but the essence of her creativity went forth in wave after wave, tossed into the night sky with the most extravagant gesture of generosity.”
Without Supernovae, there would be no us. We are made of carbon, of oxygen; there is iron in our blood. All those elements were generated in the womb of a star. We are made of star stuff, said astronomer Carl Sagan, something Walt Whitman, the poet, already intuited a century before when proclaiming that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Every atom deep within the dormant soil of the dark fields extending in front of my gaze; those inside the apple trees, the grapevines, and the huddled sheep, as good belong to me. I had received a lesson of reception and kinship.
Perfect love, said ninth century Mohammedan mystic Sari-al-Sakadi, exists between two people only when each addresses the other with the words: “O myself!” On what grounds, then, dare I deny, discriminate, or diminish the life of a fellow human simply because his atoms choose to express themselves through a different color, language, or custom?
In the presence of the ‘Other,’ the proper stance is celebration and curiosity, not disdain. I further realized that every violent act against Earth, or against any of its multifarious expressions, is a form of self-annihilation.
But those were not the only lessons I learned from a Supernova.
I sensed my desire to become a writer was not burning hot enough to prevent the implacable resistance from crushing it. I was allowing my fears — of rejection, poverty, ridicule, obscurity — to gain the upper hand, and, as Brian Swimme warned, someone who takes as a central life project the avoidance of suffering will lead an ephemeral life. Like our Sun, whose mass (desire) is not sufficient to become a Supernova, I risked exiting life’s stage with a whimper, not a bang.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
Throughout history, our firmament has been illumed by human Supernovae like Jack London, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rachel Carson who wrote her revolutionary book, ‘Silent Spring,’ while dying from cancer – giants whose bursts of creative light still shine upon us today. Like our Cosmic Mother, they scattered the essence of their genius in wave after wave with the most extravagant gesture of generosity. I saw no reason why I could not emulate them. Like Orion, I needed to pick up the sword again and charge ahead, warrior-like, toward my chosen destiny. I had to look at my fears straight in the eye so they would feel afraid and run away.
Each beam of starlight makes an epic journey travelling at six hundred million miles an hour. Most stars are so far away their light takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us. Light from Betelgeuse has been travelling since Columbus discovered America. The light we see today from Eta Carinae left that star when our ancestors first farmed the land eight thousand years ago. That from our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, began its journey at the time our ancestors had just begun making tools over two million years ago. For all we know, all those stars might have perished already.
This august scale of time and distance gave me comfort. The thoughts I consign to these pages might not touch anyone in the present, but one day, far in the distant future, might inspire someone, who, like me, will be contemplating the firmament.
As the New Year’s fireworks ended, I took one last look at the scattering of stars and remembered that the Universe will eventually run out of fuel and go dark. Sooner or later the stars will begin to blink out until the last star burns out. In the face of such bleakness, we are prone to nihilism or despair. What is the point of such exuberant creativity? one is inclined to ask.
“In music,” said philosopher Alan Watts, one doesn’t make the end of a composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest [or] who only wrote finales.”
A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning. — David Steindl-Rast
The same with dance, Watts adds. “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
“There is no goal,” wrote Nietzsche, “we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future but is always there already. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement but revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. For this reason, life is always already at its goal.”
Our wish for security, immutability, eternity, or to arrive at ultimate meaning seemed to me at that moment but futile illusions. It is necessary to shake them off and yet remain passionately in love with life even after its great futility has been revealed. I learned that I am not here be consoled, but curious and enthralled by the unfolding story of the Universe, and to contribute my unique gifts to its dazzling, unfolding spectacle.
Coming back into the house, the only word I could think of to describe the goal of life was “Rapture,” and as I settled into bed on the first day of the new year, my life no longer felt like a stone in me, but like a star.
What about love? What do stars teach us about the affairs of the heart? Read Episode II (exclusive content).
In 1954, a foreign power gripped by paranoia dashed my country’s hope for democracy and forced me into exile.
Naturally, I have an ax to grind.
But rather than retribution, I seek understanding. How did it happen?
More to the point, how did the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s infect so many Americans that it blinded them to the fact their government was trampling on their most cherished ideals, in their name, and far away from home?
The Red Scare narrative went more or less like this: an evil ideology, Communism, threatens the American way of life and must be stopped in its tracks.
On April 7, 1954, about to plunge the country into one of its deadliest wars (Vietnam), U.S. President Eisenhower referred to the prevailing Domino Theory: “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he said,“you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty.” This would lead to disintegration in Southeast Asia, with the “loss of Indochina, Burma, Thailand; the Peninsula and Indonesia following.”
Vietnam eventually did fall to communism despite costing $950 billion (in today’s dollars) and the lives of sixty thousand U.S. soldiers and over a million Vietnamese, but the rest of the dominoes – except Laos and Cambodia – didn’t budge. Cambodia later became a constitutional monarchy, and today, Vietnam can hardly be called a communist nation in the proper sense.
The Bogeyman just wasn’t under the bed, just as it wasn’t in my country.
Despite declaring Communism to be contrary to human nature, President Juan Jose Arevalo, who ushered-in a democratic revolution in Guatemala, was repeatedly labeled a communist by the U.S. State Department and survived over thirty coup attempts before finishing his term. Today, proving Arevalo’s assertion, many of the world’s most inspiring rags-to-riches stories come from ‘communist’ China.
The most valuable thing about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen, a distinguished historian once said. But I forget…schools nowadays don’t teach much history.
I sense a new scare spreading across the U.S. today; no longer Red, but Brown.
As I write this, President Trump has deployed thousands of U.S. soldiers to the southern border to stop what he calls a “migrant invasion, funded by liberals,” which contains “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners… very tough fighters,” he adds extra drops of poison for good measure.
Responding to the call, the Texas Minutemen, a vigilante militia group, is sending armed men to the border.
Those that can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham added her dose of venom by suggesting that the migrant caravan may bring diseases. They are, Laura, and I’ll tell you which: a strong work ethic, solid family values, staunch religious faith, great food and music, and a sense of joy that transcends material well-being. You might want to rush to the border and get infected. While there, cross over to the town of Boquillas del Carmen and have some green chile enchiladas and a few tacos at Jose Falcon’s Restaurant. It might spice-up your life a bit.
Contrary to Trump’s misleading claims, should the ‘invaders’ make it pass the wall, they will also contribute more in tax revenues than they take in government benefits, they’ll offset the declining U.S. birth rate, and take-on jobs Americans won’t and work harder at them. During the twenty years I lived in San Rafael, California, where 30% of the residents are Hispanic, not once did I see a Hispanic panhandling.
Just so we’re clear where I stand: when I say “make it past the wall,” I mean legally.
This ‘Brown Scare’ did have its intended effect on the midterm election. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate by keeping a tight grip throughout the rural South. Prior the vote, at a Trump campaign rally in North Carolina, a mesmerized, cheering, salivating, and flag-waving Ms. Philpott (white, middle-aged) said: “He wants to protect this country! He wants to keep it safe! Keep it free of invaders and the caravan and everything else that’s going on!”
I suspect that her “everything else that’s going on” is the fear the country has been or will soon be overtaken by_____________ (you may fill-in the blank with your chosen ‘Other,’ or ‘Not like us’). On today’s paranoid menu, the main course is colored brown, like Mole Sauce.
I have news for Ms. Philpott though: Too late, and, in any case, the United States has never been single-anything; neither race, language, or religion. The only thing single about it is a set of revolutionary ideas. That’s the reason Americans are patriots, not blood and soil nationalists. At least should be.
Like the Center for Disease Control warns the public about infectious diseases, and the Environmental Protection Agency on contaminants, my purpose here is to report on this outbreak of Brown Paranoia, its causes, and antidote.
Why are we so tribal?
In ScienceMagazine, Elizabeth Culotta writes that tribal prejudice stems from deep evolutionary roots, and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side. Like most, I am sure you think your family is the cat’s meow compared to all the rest and that you’d risk your life to defend it.
Even in arbitrarily-constructed groups with no shared history, psychologists find that people still think those in their ingroup are smarter, better, more moral, and more just than members of outgroups. Think of the times you’ve been partnered with someone when playing a board game.
Outgroup bias is core to our species. It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe, says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat.
In the Implicit Associations Test, for example, people are asked to rapidly categorize objects and faces; the pattern of mistakes and speed shows that people more quickly associate negative words such as “hatred” with outgroup faces than ingroup faces. In disturbing tests using a video game, people looking at a picture of a person carrying an ambiguous object are more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun and shoot the carrier if he is an outgroup male. Remember George Zimmerman?
Neuberg studied what might turn this detection system up and down. “When you feel threatened,” he reports, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely; people startle more easily in the dark. That’s why prejudice rears its head in a dark alley rather than a well-lit field.”
“Keep your lights burning,” Jesus urged his followers, and, in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, he added: “If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.”
The light to which he was referring, is the light of reason.
Trayvon Martin would be alive today had Zimmerman been using his brain.
The Psychology of Extreme Hate
Writing for Psychology Today, Allison Abrams corrects a common misconception. While all racists are prejudiced, Abrams explains, not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice is a human phenomenon involving cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice against a particular group of people based on perceived differences, sometimes taken to the extreme. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred.
According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts. On the other hand, hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes.
Abrams goes on to list the factors behind extreme hate:
2.The need to belong.
4. Emotional incompetence.
“When one race of persons unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group—fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened—they will develop defensive thoughts and behaviors,” says psychologist and political advisor Dr.Reneé Carr. (Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks). “They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.” (e.g. Fox host Laura Ingraham’s “diseases” claim).
The Need to Belong
Some members of extremist hate groups, explains Abrams, are motivated by the need for love and belonging—a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups is one way to do so.”
Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his very high pitched voice and his devout Catholicism. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family. At home, Heydrich’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich was a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, Heydrich became a cadet in the small, elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. Heydrich was by then over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him “Billy Goat” because of his bleating laugh and taunted him with ‘Moses Handel’ because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.
A bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief architect of the Holocaust.
In ‘The Human Shadow at War,’ I profiled other atrocities committed by wounded, lonely children…all male, and though FBI hate crime records do not appear to report the offenders’ gender, I’ll bet the vast majority were committed by males.
We men are tribal by nature.
In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on social psychology. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. For the first five days,each (11-boy) group thought it was alone. Even still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of another group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. Both sides created flags. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, called each other nasty names, and made weapons.
“The male mind appears to be innately tribal –that is – structured in advance of experience so that boys and men enjoy doing the sorts of things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups, in contrast to two-person relationships for girls,” wrote Jonathan Haidt in ‘The Righteous Mind.’
The FBI hate-crime statistics for 2016 do show that 60% of the victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias against race/ethnicity/ancestry, 20% because of bias against religion, and 17% because of bias against sexual orientation.
“The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders …. Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.”
Those were the paranoid words of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover published in his 1947 article for The American Magazine titled ‘How Safe is your Daughter?’
During the 1950s, Hoover engaged in a maniacal persecution of homosexuals which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ He was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson. Oops!
“The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron.“Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our perceived shortcomings by transferring—or projecting—them onto others.”
Omar Mateen (29) killed fifty people and wounded an equal number at a gay club in Orlando in 2016. He was said to have been frequently angered by the sight of two men kissing. Regulars of the‘Pulse’ reported having seen Omar at the nightclub where “he would go over to a corner and sit and drink by himself.” Mateen is also said to have used a gay dating app. Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, said Mateen messaged him on-and-off for a year before the shooting, using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d. Cord Cedeno also said he saw him on it. “He was open with his picture on the sites, he was easy to recognize,” said Cedeno, who said he was also contacted by Mateen at least a year before on a dating app.
Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.
Hatred and violence can also occur when we feel we’ve lost something precious to us.
During the American Indian Wars, the American Army carried out a number of massacres and forced relocations of indigenous peoples (another ‘Red Paranoia’ if you will).
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote that by 1840 Indian hating had become a “metaphysic” that begins in abstraction and alienation and drapes itself in innocence. The myth of innocence is so attractive because it inverts guilt, says Barry Spector. The settlers became the virgins – captured, tormented, and raped by savages. Between 1682 and 1732 all but one of America’s best-selling books were captive tales.
“Puritans in pre-and post-revolutionary America loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Spector, “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”
Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
No European who has tasted savage life, Benjamin Franklin once remarked, can afterwards bear to live in our societies.
Might the current ‘Brown Paranoia’ be nothing more than the frustration some white people feel for not knowing how to dance? For having lost touch with their wilder, zanier, and sensual selves?
Beat writer Jack Kerouac poetically captured this feeling:
“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness,music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”
The essence of the western male mind has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world, said author Barbara Ehrenreich.
Low Emotional Intelligence
Loma K. Flowers, M.D. of nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action. This is where the bigots and haters lose their footing (e.g. Zimmermann). It is easier to believe fallacies, she says, than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues. They may find comfort in a belief in innate superiority and entitlement and be too terrified or satisfied with the status quo to surrender it without a safe alternative. Thinking takes work, lining up facts with feelings, and sorting out how much of your anger is about being laid off from your job and how much of it is about others objecting to Confederate statues erected in the 1920s to symbolize white supremacy. Or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life. The challenge is to link each part of every feeling to the right context. Whether these beliefs are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or learned from teaching or modeling by members of their family and community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence (e.g. “Hangman Heydrich”).
Paranoia: American Style
I suppose if I became all-powerful and dominant, and considered myself exceptional, I too would start to feel a bit paranoid about being knocked off my perch, especially when someone starts catching up (e.g. China – the new and growing Yellow Scare).
The United States has a long history of paranoia.
In his exhaustive article for Vox, David Roberts provides a comprehensive list:
In 1692 Puritan settlers were so afraid of the influences of witchcraft upon their Christian society that 150 citizens from across the region were rounded up for suspicious behavior and put on trial for witchcraft in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
During the mid-nineteenth century, immigration was booming in the United States. The majority of immigrants during this time were German, Irish, and practicing Catholics. Native-born Americans generally accepted the Germans since they brought with them sufficient capital and drive to become productive members of American society. But most Nativists resented the Irish and the Catholics. Irish were perceived as drunkards who often clogged up the slums of eastern cities, while Catholics were seen as a threat to the Protestant values and history of the United States.
In 1855 a Texas newspaper article reported: “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”
1919: The First Red Scare: Immediately after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, a ‘Red Scare’ swept across the United States. Americans had watched from afar as the Russian Empire succumbed to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and transformed itself in the socialist Soviet Union. Americans feared that a socialist and radical uprising in the United States was imminent and hysteria plagued the nation.
1924: The National Origins Act of 1924: As a result of the [First] Red Scare, the National Origins Act was ratified. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” This drastically cut down on the number of immigrants who were allowed into the United States, especially those who originated in Russia and Eastern Europe. For the next several decades it would be very difficult for an individual to legally migrate to the United States, and America entered into a nearly twenty year long period of isolationism.
1950s: McCarthyism: After the Second World War and during the beginning of the Cold War, the second Red Scare occurred, known as McCarthyism. Senator Joe McCarthy initiated a witch-hunt of sorts to root out Communists and Socialists within the United States government. Even though McCarthy was eventually exposed as being a fraud, the fear he created once again played into America’s apprehension of socialism and communism that was at a height during this time. This second Red Scare was the one responsible for the end of a decade of democracy in my country and the begging of a 30-year civil war which cost the lives of over two-hundred thousand people.
Witches, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Radicals, the Irish…
Now it’s the Brown People.
I suppose that if I defined my identity on the basis of race, language, religious belief, wealth, my profession, or economic or political ideology, I would also view those outside my “in-group” with suspicion (especially if I did not know how to dance). Were my Emotional IQ as low as Laura Ingraham’s or Donald Trump’s, I would also spit venom. Were I not aware of my shortcomings, or be afraid to confront them, I too would be projecting them onto outsiders. And though solitary by nature, I do recognize the need to belong, but believe it is best found in ideals, not ideologies or superficial and narrow identities.
Imagine the outcome if we replaced the label “White-Christian-Individualist” for “Human-Spiritual-Communitarian”?
In ‘Making America Whole Again,’ I proposed that the country’s identity be grounded solely on the ideals which gave it birth. I further said that groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue: a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart. But there is a big difference between having a conviction and becoming a conviction. Becoming a conviction leads to cognitive rigidity, which, together with anxiety, predisposes individuals to paranoia.
My gut tells me that those making their way to the southern border are not part of a liberal, secret, international conspiracy to take over the country. Like you and I, they are just human beings who share the ideal of freedom and seek an opportunity to provide a safe and dignified existence for themselves and their families.
In what way are they different from those who arrived on American shores in the early 1600’s or the second wave during the first part of the 19th Century?
They speak Spanish and dance better, that’s all.
I suspect Trump would be leading the welcoming committee if the ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ were white, wealthy Germans or Norwegians.
If I were in his place, instead of terrifying the country with the Brown Mole Bogeyman, I’d be handing the newly-arrived with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and vouchers to learn the English language. I’d be doing my job and using the power of the pulpit to pressure Congress to draft a legal and sensible solution to deal with the issue once and for all. Finally, instead of cutting aid to the countries from which most migrants are coming from – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (The Northern Triangle) – I’d recognize my country’s complicity in the crisis and create a permanent task force focused on meeting the goals set forth in the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle aimed at creating security, growth, and opportunity in those countries to ease the pressure and reduce the migrant flow into the U.S. It has been done before, after World War II, with the Marshall Plan which benefited both the U.S. and the economies of the nations devastated by the war. A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats.
But it will take time to lift these three countries, and the burden must be borne primarily by their political and business leaders, without which, no amount of U.S. assistance will suffice. They must also accept responsibility for the despair which drives their people to seek better opportunities. In the meantime, the migrants will keep coming, no matter how tall or long the wall. As they continue washing on your shores, I recommend you vaccinate yourself against distrust, hatred, and paranoia by following these steps:
The hell writer Paulo Coelho said is found twenty seconds before you die; when you look back and discover you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
I had erred, yes, many times, and been wounded. But the wounds were sustained on a battlefield where I did not belong, wearing ill-fitting armor, and blazoning a coat of arms I had unwittingly assumed was mine. That’s why all my failures had a weird, unsatisfying aftertaste.
I had had enough. I was burned out without having been on fire. Did not want to voice the regrets common to those on their deathbed:
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I would’ve left myself be happier.”
“I wish I would’ve had the courage to express my true self.”
“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.”
So I quit.
Not surprisingly, most of what I love about my life started then.
My decision was not entirely conscious. Had I given it much thought, I would have never done it. At my age, with little money, no safety net, and few possessions, it seemed reckless. But if I ever was to find my path, I had to set fire to my life and burn the bridges.
“Too late,” some said. “You’re too old.”
How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to, wrote Henry Miller. What stays them, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish their chains seems like a sacrifice.
I was willing to pay the price for a taste of bliss…for a life more abundant. Did not want to be like those middle aged men John Steinbeck wrote about, who:
“…begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. I see so many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. Its bad theater as well as bad living.”
When my time’s up, I thought, I want to leave the stage as Greek writer Kazantzakis says we should, “not like scourged, tearful slaves, but like kings who rise from the table with no further wants, after having eaten and drunk to the full.”
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free! is the epitaph etched on his tomb.
In ‘Report to Greco,’ the account of his life, his art, and spiritual quest, Kazantzakis said that a man’s worth lies not in victory, but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.
The only thing I was certain of when jumping into the void was that I longed to be a writer. I had wanted it since I was eight-years old and felt I had a knack for it. I learned from philosopher William James that I should trust my wants; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of my life and would lead me to issues entirely beyond my present powers of reckoning. He was right.
I also suspected the world would only get something of value from me at that crossing point Aristotle said is the place of our vocation – where our talents intersect with the needs of the world.
A few months into my new life, however, I was paralyzed, which gave way to fear, making me second-guess my decision. Something was holding me back.
On a long, solitary walk, I discovered what it was. I had walked away, yes, but was still shackled by my old chains: my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed.
I had to smash them first. Not an easy thing because I ended up naked and vulnerable as when first born. Not easy, but the only way I found to bring about a rebirth, without which, as Goethe warned, I would remain nothing more than another troubled guest on earth.
I am not yet totally free, like Kazantzakis. I still fear and hope; still a grub, not yet butterfly. But I now blissfully twist and curl inside my true chrysalis and can feel the budding of wings.
The world is a better place to live in, wrote Walter Lippmann, because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. The things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves. In such persons, mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways.
Lippman’s sentiment was echoed by a young writer, Colin Wilson, whose book, ‘The Outsider,’ was partly responsible for my ‘reckless’ decision. Man, he said, is potentially hero and genius; only inertia keeps him mediocre. The “self-surmounter” is never satisfied. He is cursed by a divine dissatisfaction choreographer Martha Graham described as “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”
I am no longer marching towards Hell, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel on fire, doing exactly what I believe I was meant to do.
In my Sept 14 post, Now that the Buffalo are Gone, I said Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I then suggested that the demise of old ideas was not necessarily a bad thing if we replaced them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism and inspired by the image of our little blue planet, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, transcending country, race, and religion.
I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time…
Brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates, infamously known as the gadfly of Athens, was condemned to death for thinking too much and urging his fellow citizens to do so as well.
Fifth Century female scholar and philosopher Hypatia was hunted down by Christian men who brutally stripped off her clothes, beat her with tiles, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dragged her body through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, until she died.
The Church forced Italian scientist Galileo to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
“The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” – Explorer Ferdinand Magellan
Echoes of Galileo’s trial can be heard in the current debate on climate change where today’s Inquisitors dispute the consensus of science on no other ground than their fear of having their cherished notion of progress challenged and not knowing who they would be or what they would do once they give up their toys and recover from their addictions.
In the 1930’s, Nazis conducted a campaign to ceremonially burn books viewed as being subversive or representing ideologies opposed to Nazism.
In the early seventies, Chinese poet Mu Xin was imprisoned and tortured during China’s ‘Cultural’ Revolution that placed intellectuals last in the “Nine Black Categories” (or castes) deemed inferior by the government of Mao Zedong. Mao mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of ‘educated youth’ sent down to the countryside to receive reeducation from the peasants.
The Killing Fields in Cambodia are lush green, fertilized by the corpses of more than a million people killed from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Many were slain just because they read. Even wearing eyeglasses could cause your death. You Nerd!
The benighted ghost of anti-intellectualism is once again spreading its shadow on the world threatening mankind with a new Dark Age.
It’s raising its ugly head in President Trump’s attack on journalism, his mockery of science and truth, and his allergy to the written word (except Tweets).
It howls through Brexit proponent Michael Gove, U.K. Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary (2015-2016), when saying: “People in this country have had enough of experts!”
It lurks in Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
I understand people’s exasperation with those who perch high-and-mighty on their ivory towers presuming to know the ‘right way’ and who hurl their godlike knowledge down upon us lesser mortals as an indictment on how we live our lives. But to use these condescending windbags to sneer at those whose talents and inclinations happen to be better suited to serve humankind through academia, is foolish and dangerous.
A bit ironic too. For these modern day Inquisitors, these champions of ignorance, will rush to a medical scientist the minute they sneeze; drive to a mechanic to repair their car; trust a nutritionist more than their gut for what to eat or not, or stand in line for hours at an Apple store to have a Geek fix their iPhone.
It was bacteriologist Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.
British scientist Sir Richard Doll who first linked smoking and lung cancer.
It was geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson who stopped us from being further poisoned by increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain.
Writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson who saved us from the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and launched the environmental movement.
The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome – Epicureans, Skeptics, Stoics – all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life.
And it was psychologist Linda Caporeal’s curiosity that finally linked an outbreak of rye ergot (a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic substances in bread altering behavior when consumed) to the odd conduct of 15th Century women in Salem, Massachusetts, which condemned them to the gallows. Too late though.
All brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Verbal intelligence, the ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning, is linked to open-minded thinking. Close-minded thinking, on the other hand, allows opportunists to manipulate your emotions to control your thoughts and actions. They will, warned Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, make you believe absurdities and so make you commit atrocities, like burning books or hanging ‘witches,’ skinning female scholars, and shooting four-eye nerds. Or its more contemporary versions: mailing pipe bombs and shooting inside places of worship to annihilate those who you are told are the enemy.
Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim and how strongly you should believe it.
Willful or lazy ignorance is an insult to the gift of reason, a danger to democracy, and a grave threat to our survival. Compounding this ignorance with the deprecation of those who do think, is outright contemptible.
If you don’t want to read or think, that’s fine. Your loss. But the next time you see someone reading an actual book inside a coffee shop or walking down the street with a slide-rule, pocket protector, and adjusting his glasses, I suggest you salute him as you would a brave soldier for he might be close to discovering something that will heal or save your life.
Barring massive economic mobilization and rapid transition to more efficient technologies, we are in serious trouble.
After I first ranted about this, then followed up with a second one at the peak of the summer’s heat wave, I stuck my head in the sand and ignored any article dealing with this issue because I felt there is nothing I could do.
I’ve also been numbed by fear.
But I can’t turn my back and ignore it, can I? Like you, I hold one share (of 7.5 Billion) in our planetary venture and feel it my duty to do something. If anything, out of gratitude for my luck of living in such a beautiful place.
I don’t know about you, but I really like this little blue planet, which, as far as I know, is the only home we have.
As it is, my carbon footprint is as shallow as Paris Hilton. I like meat, don’t have many devices plugged in, own an iPhone 5 whose battery just ran out…again, don’t own a car, don’t conform to latest fashion, and can’t line-dry my clothes. What to do?
Call a legislator and rant? Write a letter to the United Nations? Pope Francis?
Good luck with that.
From their track record, it is clear that the powers that be are too unwieldy – or spineless – to bring about the rapid transition we need to stave disaster. It’s been twenty years since many of the world’s leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations and here’s what they’ve accomplished:
Pretty grim, I know.
I decided to find out what the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions are, and then figure out what the average Joe can do about it.
Since I cannot afford an electric car nor house on which to install solar panels and double-pane windows, I focused instead on Industry and Electricity which constitute 50% of the problem.
The Industry sector produces the goods and raw materials we use every day and its main emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels for power or heat. So stop buying unnecessary stuff, and don’t upgrade my iPhone5. Check!
The Electricity sector emissions are also released when burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Burning fossil fuels, then, is the common denominator; the main culprit, and the most carbon intensive fossil fuel out there is coal. In the electricity sector alone, coal accounts for 67 percent of CO2 emissions yet only generates about 30 percent of U.S. electricity.
What now? Call Rob Murray, Coal-Boss of Murray Energy, and rant?
Instead, let’s contact the person in charge of our 401K or pension plan to instruct him/her to divest our portfolios of anything having to do with coal and switch those investments to companies which are leading the pack in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (Okay, maybe not China).
Retirement accounts and foreign investors – primarily sovereign wealth funds – own close to three-quarters of U.S. corporate stocks. They control the spigots that flow with the capital companies need to invest and grow.
If we all wiped our portfolios clean of coal, we might have a chance.
Desperate times call for stealthy measures.
Once the CEO’s of these companies see their capital flows run dry and stocks plummet, they might wake up and move towards more efficient technologies. After all, they should know that they are not in the coal business per se, but in the energy business. All they need is some imagination and a little push to evolve.
As for those employed in the sector, governments must step-in to ease the transition. A combination of a temporary guaranteed income and intensive retraining should work. The U.S., for example, employs about 80,000 workers in the coal industry. At the country’s median income, the country would need to come up with about $5 billion to cover a year’s worth of salaries. If the U.S. government has $3.1 billion to spare on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave, I’m sure it can make this work.
For all other investments in your 401K or pension plan portfolio, make sure the companies you are supporting are aligned with your values by becoming a conscious investor as Vinay Shandal suggests in his humorous TED talk.
Margaret Mead famously said we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 as a warning to the nation about the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies but spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agriculture, and launched the environmental movement.
In 1965, geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson tried to draw public attention to the problem of increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson fought against the lobbying power of the Ethyl Corporation and against the lead additive industry as a whole. Following Patterson’s clarion call, he was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the United States Public Health Service. In 1971, he was excluded from a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination, even though he was the foremost expert on the subject. But he persisted, and by 1975, the United States mandated the use of unleaded gasoline resulting in the phaseout of lead from all automotive gasoline by 1986. Lead levels within the blood of Americans dropped by up to 80% by the late 1990s.
“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything” – Albert Einstein
Inspired by these courageous figures, I have sent my ‘No More Coal’ letter to my pension fund.
As an outsider, I have a bird’s-eye advantage of looking down at the fires raging across the American political landscape and the internecine clashes which threaten to tear the “United” States apart.
Being a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, non-partisan, and pledging allegiance to nothing else than the Earth and all living beings, I sit far removed from the circus arena and watch the clowns and carnage while munching on metaphysical popcorn.
A shrill tragicomedy unfolds before my eyes on this Theater of the Absurd.
For several weeks, the main act featured the clash of two puppets, male and female, Kavanaugh and Ford, whose strings were manipulated in shadow by the doctrinaire forces rending the fabric of this nation. Meanwhile, exploitative reporters thronged the front row feeding spectators raw meat and venom which devoured their entrails and made them vomit it back without once passing through the sieve of their intellectual integrity. Thus poisoned, and burning with self-righteous rage, they cast doubt on the testimony of these two players, based not on objective evidence, but in blind allegiance to the dark forces pulling their strings. One side claiming there should be a statute of limitation for wrongdoing, while the other insisting on imposing perfect morals on imperfect beings, they precipitated their judgment, and, like Roman Emperors, lowered their thumbs condemning their despised to death.
Consider drugs as another example. Since 1971, the United States has wasted 1.5 trillion dollars on its “war on drugs,” but done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Why? Because addiction is not a “drug problem” but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the self-destructive manifestation of despair. A country with good imagination would invest its treasure on mental health, not ineffective wars.
What about guns and mass shootings? Here again, this country faces a problem of anguish, one which mostly afflicts young men. Bad imagination would have government confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans or have teachers carry concealed weapons at recess. The good kind would focus attention on the underlying issue.
What about walls? Bad imagination conjures idiotic ideas that immigrants are determined to take over the country or are somehow afflicted with irrepressible wanderlust and must therefore be stopped at the border with ever-higher fortifications. Good imagination understands that most immigrants originate from neighboring countries as yet not sufficiently developed to afford everyone the opportunity to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. “Tough luck!” Bad imagination would say. “Not our problem. Build that Wall!” forgetting that necessity is the mother of invention, so, while laying another row of bricks, the ground beneath their fortress becomes tunnel-riddled like Swiss Cheese. President Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech outlining his vision to assist developing countries is a perfect example of good imagination:
“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.”
How those intentions were later translated into action is a perfect example of bad imagination.
Climate change is yet another example, pitting those who insist on wasting time trying to pin the blame on humans against those who deny it, often with such vitriol and vehemence it reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. To my mind, it is not ultimately a matter of who is responsible, but what we do about it. Whether man-made or not, it is a phenomenon which poses a serious threat to human survival, so we might want to stop splitting hairs and, instead, roll-up our sleeves and get to work before it’s too late.
The forces of bad imagination — preferring strife over compromise, war over healing — now control the United States and threaten to tear it apart. One can only hope that the millions of puppets under their spell will soon wake up from their hypnosis, start thinking for themselves, take back power, and unleash the right kind of imagination on their country.
I’ll still be perched here, munching on metaphysical popcorn, to report on the awakening, or watch in disbelief as Rome continues to burn.
Aching for slow beauty to save us from our quick-quick life!
Tired of hearing old people pine for the good old days; frustrated really, from sensing that I have somehow missed the boat, I decided to ask my eighty-seven year old father and his wife what they meant.
Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped the list:
SIMPLICITY: The good old days of civility, tight-knit communities, only 3-TV channels and 2-cylinder cars, the 30-minute newscast, rotary phones, human operators, physical maps, doctor house calls, limited choices of mates and breakfast cereal, little regulation and much self-reliance and self-responsibility.
Attempting to make our lives more convenient, free-up time, and expand our choices, it seemed from their leading answer and clarifying definitions that us “young ones” have made matters worse by transforming our world into a kind of giant, impersonal Rube Goldberg contraption, performing simple tasks (calling a friend, getting from point A-to-B, remedying a cold, choosing a partner or cereal) in convoluted, impersonal, and dizzying ways, often riddled with frustrating redundancies, and, in many cases (dating, entertainment), with so much to choose from, we end up tied up in a knot, unable to choose.
I had to admit they had a point.
But what about all the free time we’ve gained thanks to our technological advances?
If that is so, why are most of you, “young ones,” so overwhelmed, harried, stressed and burnt out? Why, for instance, has the number of vacation days taken by the average American worker declined from twenty to sixteen in the last forty years? And if, in fact, you’ve gained free time through all your techno wizardry, it appears it’s been claimed by new and meaningless distractions…a tossing welter of irrelevance.
Ok…but! I pressed on, in valiant defense of our times…technology helps bring families, friends, and communities closer together.
(Phlegmy scoffs followed by huge eye rolls behind thick, smudged eyeglasses held together with duct tape).
Ok, not that then. But what about regulation? You can’t deny it helps curb abuse and blatant irresponsibility from others.
Aha…but the excess to which regulation has been taken has come at the steep price of self-reliance and self-responsibility…the loss of agency.
I can have a meal or book delivered in less time than it takes you to rinse your octogenarian dentures!
And you’ll eat your meal and read your book – if at all – in less time, and soon forget what you ate and most of what you read while suffering from heartburn.
I never get lost thanks to Google Maps!
Some of the most memorable adventures in our lives have occurred precisely because we got lost.
We have so much to choose from now.
And you never settle for anything.
We have gut-cleansing Kombucha, Mushroom Coffee, and Colored Toast! I bet you never had that in the “good-old-days,” huh? (mocking voice…finger doing air quotes).
By then, I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’ struggling to repair the Giant Machine.
It does feel that our world is evolving, not from simplicity to complexity, but to chaos, or entropy.
As explained by James Clear, entropy is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. The inevitable trend is for things to become less organized and more so over time. This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of our universe.
I decided to pose the same question to someone a bit ‘younger,’ my sixty-year-old brother:
“When you hear the phrase ‘Good Old Days,’ what comes immediately to mind?”
Before I reveal his answer, let me say that my brother’s nickname is ‘Turtle,’ not only because of his weathered countenance, but, especially, for his calm and plodding approach to life.
Here’s what he said after ruminating for a long time while sipping his signature Crown Royal whisky and puffing a fat cigar:
“Hmm…the good old days…
I’d say right now, this moment!
Ask me tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing.”
When in doubt, always ask a turtle.
My brother’s simple wisdom immediately brought to mind one of my favorite poems:
“MY HERO” by Billy Collins
Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
And old thunder. – From ‘A Buffalo Skull’ by Ted Kooser
At one point their population numbered in the tens of millions.
Hunted to near extinction by American market hunters, the once massive bison population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the turn of the century.
Sanctioned by the United States government, the widespread slaughter was proposed to effectively weaken the Native Indians of the West whose livelihood was tied to the bison – central to their culture and heritage.
“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” said Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1870’s. “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds [will] favor our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”
The American settlers realized Native Americans could perhaps be eliminated if the bison were exterminated. Thus, the American government set out to destroy the plentiful buffalo population while enforcing a reservation system to confine the Indians to a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands.
Crippled by the scarcity of bison, the culture of the Plains Indians and other neighboring tribes unraveled.
“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” records Crow Chief Plenty in his personal biography. “After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
There is little singing in America today because it, too, has lost its Buffalo: a common mythology and shared identity; the story, ideals, and illusions which once bound the country together. And an era can be considered over once its basic illusions have been exhausted, playwright Arthur Miller said.
Shut away as we are becoming in impenetrable fortresses of tribalism, nationality, identity politics, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and rigid ideologies, the glue is coming undone and the center cannot hold as poet John Keats warned in ‘The Second Coming,’ adding, prophetically, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and everywhere the best [men] lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
There was plenty of passionate intensity after 9-11, but a nation glued together by hatred does not hold together regardless of how righteous.
In a recent opinion piece, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that the western civilization narrative, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world, came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and, most important, provided a set of common goals. Now, Brooks adds, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding.
A similar phenomenon is occurring with men’s old notions of masculinity which are rapidly eroding under a rising tide of the rightful demands from women to once again be co-authors in the human story. Yet, absent a new definition of what it means to be a man in this evolving narrative, many men are bewildered. This might explain why middle-aged men are committing suicide in greater numbers, and why many young men, as described by Stephen Marche in the Guardian, are mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.
The demise of timeworn ideas is, in my mind, not a bad thing. Who misses the Roman Empire, for example, or cries over the demise of monarchical rule in Europe which ushered in the age of liberty and democracy?
The danger is failing to write a new and better story out of the vacuum left behind by the demise of old ideas, ideas that seem to be running their course under the rapid changes our world is experiencing.
But as it happens, across the world today, we are handing the pen over to “strong men,” allowing them to author the new story, and we, unwitting characters, are cheering them on with tribal glee. Higher, more impenetrable walls are being built, deeper moats are being dug around our fortresses, and a new arms race is under way as the scorched-earth assault on our planet ramps up.
In a recent conference, author Chetan Bhatt dared his audience to refuse their identity myths.
What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, Bhatt questioned. One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and of course, accelerating inequalities?
Do we really need identity myths to feel safe?
What if the plains Indians would have diversified their diet? Or been less dogmatic about their choice of totemic animal?
What about you, now, listening to this? Bhatt challenged further. What about you and your identity? One stitched together with your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. This person you are when you say, “I,” “am,” or “me,” doesn’t this also include all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you’s that could have been, and includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are? Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong? If we don’t need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.
For the past eighteen months, I have been playing Jenga with my Self.
Jenga is a game where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. But rather than placing back the old blocks, I have examined, removed and discarded all my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed, all which were impeding a more authentic self to emerge. It’s been an unsettling but liberating experience, one which has cleared the way for me to replace those old blocks with new values – my unique values – and write my own script.
As for the world, what if we started by replacing our cherished Buffalos with ‘Earthrise,’ the most famous photograph ever taken?
That was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home, which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy, wrote philosopher Alain de Botton when contemplating that iconic photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968.
“Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God, and it’s only us now who are responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.”
I say it is time to snatch the pen out of the callous hands of “strong men” and write a better story for humanity and our planet.
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Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.
It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.
So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?
In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.
Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.
‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life
A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.
Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happensto you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.
In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).
Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca
In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”
The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.
Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.
The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose
Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.
In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).
Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.
Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.
It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.
The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.
Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.
But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.
It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.
As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.
In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.
By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:
Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.
A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.
A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.
One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.
Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.
Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.
A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.
I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.
I discovered what truly brought me joy.
Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:
“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”
Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.
There are days when you feel stretched to your breaking point. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out. It feels like being trapped in a snow globe full of sharp rocks being shaken by a brat. Yesterday was one of those days.
I knew it was bound to be bad the minute I woke up and stabbed my toe against the edge of the closet door. The pain was amplified by an email with the seventh rejection to my Memoir and the pre-dawn realization that my credit card debt is reaching its limit which means that, soon, I won’t be able to write full-time and be forced to find a ‘real’ job.
I tried adding my daily thousand-words to my second book, but nothing seemed good, nor worth anyone’s time, so I wasted the morning reading other people’s stuff which only helped heighten my sense of inadequacy.
Surfing for hours across the roiling pages of the Internet – my senses jarred by all the chatter, outrage, and flashing images inside this bleak, abstract landscape we call cyberspace – only added to my distress.
Dizzy and with a pounding headache, I reached for my antidote: the hundred pages of quotes and poetry fragments I’ve collected for ten years.
The poet, Robinson Jeffers saved the day:
“A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.”
All this time, not once had I unglued my face from my laptop to contemplate the verdant scenery expanding in front of the screened porch in which I usually write in spring and summer. Beckoned by its peaceful countenance, I knew what I had to do.
Fortunate to be living temporarily in a house surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, I closed my laptop and turned off my cell phone. Within twenty minutes, walking across the forest, I reached my favorite spot on the river, where it bends, almost at a ninety degree angle, bordered by a tall, sheer rock wall.
The river’s rush over a natural fall managed to deafen the overhead roar of jets, and the shrill and harrowing sounds of jackhammers, weed-whackers, and leaf-blowers with which humans blazon their dominion and relentless encroachment into the wild.
I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, waded across the other shore, and sat down, staring at the shaded deep pool carved by the river in front of me. Too cold for a swim, I thought. My clothes will get wet.
This time, writer GK Chesterton came to my rescue:
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.”
I slid into the chill water and felt an instant current of primordial excitement. Childlike, I floated with the flow staring up at the overhead canopy which gleamed in a variegated kaleidoscope of shades of green I had never seen before. Or perhaps seen, but never apprehended. The air was honeyed by the scent of wildflowers. After swimming a few short laps, I waded across a flatter section scanning the sandy and pebbled river bottom, my eyes attracted by shimmering golden glints of rock flakes. I lay down on a sunny patch of sand with my bare feet inside the water. I closed my eyes and, soon, felt soft, pecking nibbles. Tiny, silver fish were feeding off my skin. I laid back down and turned my head away from the overhead sun. Inches away was a damselfly with a drowsy, hinge-like motion of its gossamer wings.
I did not want to return to the madhouse. All my earlier, petty tribulations had been rinsed by a simple ablution and keen awareness in this small pocket of enchantment. Did not wish to read or write one more thing about the human condition; about flourishing, purpose, happiness, or despair. The answers were crystal out here: balance, harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation. Every living thing content with just being.
Not one who takes Prozac or Xanax, this has always been my therapy for my first-world laments, and current science endorses my remedy.
Stanford researchers recently scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for ninety minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the part of our brains tied to depressive rumination. The lead researcher believes that being outside in a pleasant environment takes us outside of ourselves. Nature, he says, may influence how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.
Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. “Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.
I headed back, wet, serene, and lighthearted. My predicament hadn’t changed, surely. The eighth rejection to my Memoir was waiting for me in my inbox. The debt had not vanished. But my outlook underwent a dramatic transformation. The perspective of my tribulations was altered by my soft fascination with river, rock-glimmer, wildflower, fish, and damselfly.
My thoughts no longer swarming like “mouthless mayflies darkening the sky,” I ended my day with a thousand words, which, while perhaps inadequate or mediocre, speak with the authentic voice of my sense of wonder.
It’s 97 degrees today with 93% humidity. The forest is eerily silent, the atmosphere is laden and sticky, the sky phosphorous yellow, the A/C is shot, and I sweat and rage.
As I write this (7.6.18), the heat dome extends its red and orange mantle across most of our planet. It’s the proverbial gasping canary in the coal mine. Ominous. How many must choke until we get it?
During the Great Smog of London in 1952 ten thousand had to die before the country woke up from denial and did something about it. I’m not talking canaries anymore. Nearly three-hundred people had to die from smog pollution in New York in 1953 for the Clean Air Act to pass years later. We had to reach the point in which 30% of our drinking water was unsafe – as were two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters – for the Clean Water Act to become law two years later.
Why do we do this? Why do humans wait until smacked on the face to wake up?
Ecological Scientist, Dr. Jason Bradford offers this explanation in ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’:
“Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.
Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards or punishments and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our mental models, setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are.
When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption.
Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal.
The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial or rationalization. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, Well, I just have faith, even when the subject is not overtly religious. This signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis.
Because scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for progress and the consequences of [untrammeled] economic growth, many cannot agree with [them] without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.”
Think of Italian scientist Galileo, forced by the Church to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
Or Giordano Bruno, the Dominican-monk, who was burned at the stake for claiming that the earth’s sun is just one of many stars.
These threats to human preeminence and grandiosity were just too great for some to accept making them kill the messenger as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’
Some claim there are as many “credible” scientific studies out there that prove humans are not altogether responsible for the warming of the planet as those proving the contrary. Even if true, who gives a shit? It’s like discovering a giant meteorite hurtling towards earth and doing nothing about it because we did not cause it. Even if scientists were to confirm that it was only highly probable – but not 100% certain – the meteorite would impact earth, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything we can to prevent it?
After 9-11, both the American and British governments borrowed a page from the Green Movement and adopted its ‘precautionary principle,’ which says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists. You don’t take out car insurance because you believe you’re a shitty driver but because you consider the roads to be chock-full of morons.
What both Bush and Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network the politician’s role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. If it made sense to use the precautionary principle to preempt a terrorist threat, why not apply it to an existential one?
Others argue that as long as other countries continue spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere without abatement, the U.S. is right in staying its course. While self-destructive, the argument would hold water if the country – with only 4% of the world’s population – was not responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide heating the planet. It’s like you trashing your neighborhood in an all-nighter and refusing to clean up because you saw one neighbor throwing an empty beer can into the mess.
Finally, there are those who faithfully assert that mankind will eventually get its act together. It might, but at what cost, and will it be too late? We are but a monstrous locust plague, and no matter how valiantly she struggles to heal after every onslaught, the earth’s regenerative magic is no match for the speed and intensity of our rapacity.
Crises are a matter of bad imagination over good imagination. The United States used to be a country of undaunted imagination, one which never shirked when confronted with a worthy challenge. Throughout history, the ingenuity and can-do attitude of Americans have led the world in times of great need or opportunity. It’s in their DNA. Or perhaps was. It could well be that this once indomitable spirit has been tamed by lashings of selfishness and greed. It seems we are living, not in the midst of an advanced culture and heroic civilization, but inside a feverish ant-heap made of concrete, steel and silicon, ruled only by the imperative and ideology of a cancer cell: growth for the sake of growth.
What’s frustrating is that I believe we are wrong to consider the challenge of global warming as one asking us to retrench; one requiring a drastic degradation of our way of life. Quite the contrary. I believe that the country with the courage to lead the effort towards a sustainable economy, planet and future will not only reap great material rewards but will be looked upon with great respect and admiration by the rest of the world. Were it to resuscitate its fighting spirit and lead the way, the United States could then rightfully claim its cherished exceptionalism.
I say this not only because of this country’s feckless leadership, ruling corporate special interests, and our collective silence, but out of guilt. For what have I really done to contribute to the solution? Not enough, I’m afraid. True, I don’t own a house or car, and my possessions could fit in two boxes. But this choice is selfish, motivated by my desire to live a simpler, unencumbered life. Much as I love this place, Earth did not weigh in my decision.
All this makes me want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, limb-locked with a swarthy native girl, wait for Armageddon while I enjoy what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet…the only inhabitable one we know of.
By the way, my 87-year-old father can’t afford to repair the A/C because he lost most of his savings in the stock market crash and Great Recession of 2008. That’s progress for you.
In my country we call it feeling like caked dogshit on someone’s shoe. (Think of sneakers with deep grooves).
As I began submitting my second book for publication last month, I remembered the pain and sense of defeat I felt years ago as the mailman kept delivering pithy rejections to my first one. Adding to the sting, I then recalled the dejection I experienced during my sorry days of online dating.
But this time around I armored myself for this second, anticipated onslaught.
Tempering my expectations seemed like a good start. They are, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, “reckless enemies of serenity.”
Level-headed realism was next. When it is your first novel, author Jim Harrison warned, and assuming you are not witless, you know well that the odds of your work being published are ten thousand to one against, and even when it is published the reactions from friends and relatives are often puzzled and evasive. (Tell me about it).
Despite digging myself into a deeper financial hole through this process, and now and then, I confess, daydreaming of an advance payment to save my divinely foolish ass, I keep reminding myself that my decision to reinvent myself as a writer was not spurred by the potential monetary reward (that’d be funny), but because it is the only thing I wanted to do with whatever is left of my “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver).
One must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without hope for fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well, wrote G.K Chesterton. Such a man, he added, must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. This is the root meaning of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin amare: to love.
An amateur has only one reason for doing something: the genuine fire and unbridled passion, concluded Chesterton.
After all, one doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera. One sings because one’s lungs are full of joy. No one can be paid to irradiate joy. – Henry Miller
Besides the joy and exhilaration I feel when doing what I love and fires my passion, I insist on never calling my writing work but ‘Ofrenda’ – Spanish for anything done as a contribution to something greater than oneself. Writing the saga of my love and existential tumult is my way of lighting William Faulkner’s match.
Literature is like a match out on an empty field at night, the author said. While it barely illuminates, it makes us realize how much darkness surrounds us.
It is my way to add brightness to the lodestar shining with the wisdom of sages, poets, and writers who help us navigate – away from distractions and beyond our delusions – onto saner shores.
Finally, from day one, I vowed to never allow the romance of my journey to be dulled by the obstacles I sensed would make the path hard and steep. After all, the view is still magnificent!
I felt – and still do – that if I stay true to its course and true to myself the path will eventually ease its angle of ascent and turn generous, although, as writer Paulo Coelho promised, it will never turn smooth and secure but always gift us new challenges. I hope he is right.
As I begin harvesting rejections (3 so far), I find it easier to think in metaphors so cannot but think back to my childhood when I first braved the treacherous riptides and large swells of the Pacific Ocean pummeling the black-lava beaches in my country. Young and brash, I stubbornly tried to dive over the oncoming waves to reach the calm waters beyond the crashing surf only to be humbled, roughed-up and tumbled back to where I first started while my father watched and smiled.
“Dunk under,” he repeated his patient advice. “Just dunk. Otherwise you’ll only get hurt and never reach the other side.”
So I’ll dunk, and report back to you when and if I get there.
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I consider myself intellectually rigorous which is why I only post every other week or so. On that occasion I was plain lazy and picked between the two versions of Jefferson prevalent in the national discourse. Being an inveterate iconoclast, I chose ‘Slave-owning Hypocrite,’ over the one portraying him as an untouchable ‘Godlike Founding Father.’
Already in my mid-fifties, it is troubling to realize that I can still slide at times into the comfortable embrace of confirmation bias and agree with E.F. Schumacher who said that there is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.
What’s worse, I wasn’t even thinking of giving Jefferson a break until persuaded by a favorite writer of mine to check out Ken Burns’ documentary of the man. Far more egregious was the fact that I hemmed and hawed for days before watching it. I didn’t want my bias to be challenged. It’s the reason many stick to either Fox News or MSNBC.
While deeply moved by Jefferson’s great suffering and stoicism, the documentary’s greatest impact was that for the first time, I was presented with an image of him as an ordinary human being: flawed, failed, irresponsible, epicurean, contradictory, conflicted, and moved by irrational desire, on the one hand, while industrious, humble, wise, generous, and triumphant on the other.
For the first time, he was brought down from the pedestal to walk among us imperfect mortals. Jefferson became accessible in all his flesh-and-blood. I could finally relate, which now makes it possible to emulate.
Same thing with Jesus.
In my book, Querencia, I recount this fulminating soliloquy I had with Christ Crucified on a beach in Mexico:
Where is yours by the way? Your shadow, I mean. Where is it? Why is it that you are presented to us scrubbed and sanitized of all impurity, imperfections, conflicts, and appetites? No light, no shadow… How are we, creatures of desire, ever to attain the perfection you commanded us to seek? I prefer you as the flesh and blood, angry man, who entered the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. I can identify with that fury…with that Jesus! Or with the one whose carnal body battled with his spirit as he lusted after Mary Magdalene…the one that forgave the adulteress…the man who was full of doubt. Him I can follow and strive to emulate, because he’s one of us.
I wish the Catholic Church would replace the Crucifix with Rodin’s sculpture of Christ and the Magdalene.
For I would feel less guilt – unshakable and ultimately useless guilt – and more emboldened and inspired to learn about his ministry and adopt his radical gospel of love and forgiveness.
“Where the myth fails, human love begins.” – Anaïs Nin
The Western mind, laments Barry Spector in Madness at the Gates of the City, divided the primal unity of the indigenous soul into irreconcilable opposites: mind/body, male/female, white/black, culture/nature, and ultimately, Christ and the Devil. Gone was the memory that in the great cycle of existence, darkness or chaos is the necessary precondition of rebirth.
My self-righteous remark on Jefferson was the result of that split, and my hubris and faulty memory. In a slick move, I ignored my deep flaws and inner-demons which often lead to despicable behavior.
We will continue to despise people, Martin Luther King Jr. said, until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.
Until we confront our shadows and arrive at a cease-fire between the angel in ourselves and the devil in ourselves, will we never fully understand nor learn from the struggles and triumphs of exemplary individuals. This task, warned Portuguese writer Pessoa, might take a lifetime. I only have, at best, three decades left.
I was wrong about you Mr. Jefferson, and for that, please accept this as my humbled apology.
Fire sparks our imaginations and brings us closer together.
Two weeks ago (now an annual tradition), our family descended on my father’s property in rural New England.
The year before, one of my nephews built a firepit on the lawn facing a grand view of the tall trees lining its edge and sloping down to the meadow and further below to the roaring river gorged with snowmelt and April storms.
The reunion was like a short lived but dazzling meteorite shower striking the property for a few days, leaving in its wake a small crater with half-burned Tiki-torches, cigar stubs, and globs of molten glass from the bottles we shattered against the firepit’s stone rim. Absolute cathartic madness!
A merry band of revelers, joined by love, lore, and myth, we let loose our wild spirits, giving uninhibited wind to our singing voices (in convincing Mariachi), howled to the moon, hurled burning torches at the star-studded sky, dug sharp canines into sizzling meat and freshly-caught trout, and pretty much made total fools of ourselves. It was a veritable reenactment of the Greek festival of Anthesteira, celebrated at the beginning of spring, honoring Dionysus, the God of Ecstasy.
But besides the mischief and fire, there were stories.
In our frenzied modern-day lives, enamored as we are with our technological prowess and gadgetry, we forget that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Sometime around 400,000 years ago, we learned to fully control fire which not only changed our diet – fueling rapid brain growth – but also sparked our imagination.
A study of evening campfire conversations by the !Kung people of Namibia and Botswana suggests that by extending the day, fire allowed people to unleash their imaginations.
Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Polly Wiessner took detailed notes on the !Kung day and nighttime conversations. She reported that whereas daytime talk was focused almost entirely on economic issues (money), land rights (real estate), and complaints about other people (gossip), 81% of the firelight conversation was devoted to telling stories.
Tales told by firelight puts listeners on the same emotional wavelength, Wiessner writes in her paper, eliciting understanding, trust, and sympathy.
On one of those nights by the flames, my brothers and I finally lifted the veil over the false legend by which our mother lived during her entire life. But rather than disappointment, my heart grew in understanding and sympathy for her tragic childhood.
The ancient Greeks understood the importance of telling stories which were recounted through their many comedic and tragic plays. Stories which dealt with the follies and dramas of human existence.
The word ‘Entertainment’, at root, means to ‘hold together.’ It is a ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering, or joy, or both, wrote author Barry Spector. Athenian audiences, he added, viewed the clash of unbearable human contradictions and conflict, held that tension, and laughed, or wept together.
Had I, for instance, read Sophocles’ play Philoctetes before temporarily moving to my ailing father’s house to help care for him, I would have been armed with greater empathy.
Had I been told or read Diodorus’ myth of Icarus as a young boy, I would have probably avoided plunging into the abyss at age 36 for having soared too close to the sun on waxed wings of hubris, envy, and greed.
And we could all learn to satisfy our soul’s longing with something more satisfying and durable than our relentless consumption by reading the story of Tantalus who the Greek Gods condemned to the Underworld where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back, almost within reach, ‘tantalizing’ him forever.
Fire also brings us closer together.
Past the mayhem and revelry, after the enchantment of fire, wine and music, the banter and stories, wisdom and folly, the tears and laughter, after all that much-needed zaniness died down and our family dispersed, the few days us savages shared left behind an indelible mark: a reminder of the invisible strands that bind us together and the comforting feeling that the strength of those bonds – irrespective of wealth, faith, or fame – are the only links which we can rely upon in times of need or solace.
So, go build yourself a firepit, gather firewood and your loved ones, turn off your cellphones, and share your stories.