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A Father’s Blessing is a Boy’s Greatest Gift

According to Roman myth, it had been foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born.

In every boy’s life there is a moment when he imagines his destiny outside the expectations of his parents. When that time comes, the deepest wound a boy can suffer is not receiving his father’s blessing.

My dad never overcame such devastating blow.

At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany with his mother and moved to Guatemala to begin a 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.

Dan and Horse

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 there 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 a slab of petrified 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 it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather was also of the idea than a man’s identity is solely defined by his profession so worked long hours and was hardly present in my father’s life.

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 an eager sparkle in his blue 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.

In my mind, only two things can explain my grandfather’s reaction.

First, that he thought a man could only earn a living and provide for his 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 may have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason. Perhaps some other dream-crushing ogre 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. Had his boyhood dream been honored, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer. Instead, he became a businessman, just like his father, and lived to regret it.

As a father myself, I’ve always wanted the best for my two daughters and know how easy it is to buy into the prevailing cultural notions of success and wellbeing. Having also suffered great hardship in life, I found myself steering them in their early teens onto the college track out of a fearful wish to spare them from what I had suffered for not having gone to college myself. I now realize that while I was doing it out of love, my actions were misguided.

As we age, life has a very cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: ‘What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky. We no longer believe the impossible possible and start playing it safe. So when our children come to us with their own dreamy castles, we call them “impractical” and crush them underfoot, just like my grandfather did.

If “security” and “safety” become watchwords by which [we] live, gradually the circle of [our] experience becomes small and claustrophobic. This suggests that to ask “Why face danger?” is the wrong question. The right question is “What happens if I try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all risk?” — Sam Keen, ‘Learning to Fly’

I wish Dad would’ve defied his father with the same courage displayed by Richard Halliburton, one of the world’s most dashing explorers and adventurers.

At age 18, Richard wrote this letter to his father in response to his wishes that his son return to his senses and back to Princeton:

Dad, you hit the wrong target when you write that you wish I were at Princeton living “in the even tenor of my way.” I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my “way” as uneven as possible, then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility. No, there’s going to be no even tenor with me. The more uneven it is the happier I shall be. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain, thrills — every emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed. My way is to be ever changing, but always swift, acute, and leaping from peak to peak instead of following the rest of the herd, shackled in conventionalities.

Although he drowned at age 39 in a typhoon while sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Richard had already lived a full and adventurous life most men would kill for.

During his short lifespan, he climbed the Matterhorn, got himself incarcerated at Devil’s Island, hung out with the French Foreign Legion, spent a night atop the Great Pyramid, rode an elephant through the Alps like Hannibal, played Robinson Crusoe on his own desert island, retraced the path of Odysseus, met pirates and headhunters, and bought a two-seater airplane he named the Flying Carpet and flew off to Timbuktu. He swam the Nile, the Panama Canal, the Grand Canal of Venice, and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. The chronicle of his adventures made him a bestselling author.

In contrast, my father became a businessman, an alcoholic, and for the last twenty years of his life merely a shadow of his former self. While he might’ve died younger than at 88, had his father blessed his boyhood dream, he would’ve lived on his own terms, fulfilling the destiny that was his to live and not the aspirations of someone else.

It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly. — The Bhagavad Gita

In ‘Men and the Water of Life,’ mythologist Michael Meade says, “If children were simply satisfied with what the parents offered them, they would remain children forever. It’s not simply that parents don’t try to give enough to the child; rather, it’s that whatever the parents give is never enough. The child has a destiny outside the imagination of the parents.”

If a father does not honor and bless the boy’s own destiny, the boy will grow to become another wounding father and devour his children, just like the Titan Saturn, in a never-ending cycle of wound upon wound.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

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A Boy Needs to Hear the Shape of his Father’s Heart

Heartvoice (n): 1. The unvarnished and vulnerable unveiling of a man’s wounds, longings, regrets, victories and defeats. 2. A man’s authentic story.

I never heard my father’s.

My father didn’t either.

Not once having heard his father’s heartvoice, Dad did not know how to listen to his own so never allowed me into the inner chambers of his hurt. Never unveiled his wounds. Deeply buried, he never reached them himself, thus never healed.

“If a man, cautious, hides his limp, somebody has to limp it,” warns Robert Bly in ‘My Father’s Wedding.’

A few years before Dad died, I tried to limp his wounds by reconstructing his past. I urged him to face his demons hoping to make him whole. But I arrived too late. By then, his heart was an impregnable fortress and he left this world haunted by a thousand regrets.

“The strongest man,” I’d tell him, “is the one who has the courage to be vulnerable.”

My plea was always met by a puzzled, fear-tinged glance, a discomfited shuffle, a nervous smile, and a reflexive hardening of his armor. Like so many men.

“There is a big difference between being stoic and being in denial,” I’d prod further. “Stoicism is not about repressing our emotions but forming conscious relationships with them. If we don’t, instead of wisely responding to them we’ll keep reacting out of the darkness of our unconscious, invariably in negative ways.”

I wanted him, for instance, to go back to the moment of his childhood when his father would take him down to the basement of their house and kick a ball at him with such force it would often bruise him.

Be a man!” the old man would shout.

Or the time when he was about ten years old and excitedly handed his father a note in which he had scribbled his dream of becoming a world explorer only to see it crushed inside his father’s fist and tossed to the floor with a stern injunction to stop talking nonsense. Not receiving a father’s blessing is the gravest wound a boy can suffer.

I wanted him to grant himself permission to hate his father; to allow the rage to burn through so he could finally move to forgiveness. But all my father could do was make excuses for the ogre who’d bruised and crushed him. “I don’t hate my father,” he’d say. “He did what he had to do to make a man out of me.”

For, brother, what are we?

We are the sons of our father,

Whose face we have never seen,

Whose voice we have never heard. — Thomas Wolfe

There is an inevitable moment in every boy’s life when his father slips and falls from his pedestal. When the boy discovers that his father is not a god, but flawed and fallible like everyone else. This usually occurs when the boy himself falls from grace, around the age of ten, or the onset of puberty.

Adolescence: The age when a boy stops quoting his dad and starts criticizing him. — Evan Esar

In ‘East of Eden,’ author John Steinbeck describes such a moment:

“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. Who knows what causes this — a look in the eye, a lie found out, a moment of hesitation? — then gods are fallen, and all safety gone… and the child’s world is never quite whole again.”

For me, that moment came at age nine when I finally mustered the courage to ask my father why he and Mom did not make love anymore. I don’t know how I found out but surely must’ve panicked when realizing their marriage and our family were falling apart. I had discovered the sham in their relationship and felt unsafe. But instead of his heartvoice, he stared me down with a wrathful glare and shouted, “What did you say!?” which made my jaw quiver and my eyes brim with frightened tears. Without another word, he got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

I had pressed hard on one of his festering wounds, but being the kind of man who never takes time to examine his hurt, he wounded me instead — the default reaction of the bully.

As it is, many fathers exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the suffocating anguish of their dispassionate marriages, the festering anger of their unfulfilled desires, and the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence.

In that wretched state, what wisdom can a father impart if he hasn’t taken the time to grapple with the thorniest questions of existence, or the courage to journey through the dark and malodorous corridors of his psyche until coming to terms with the angel in himself and the devil in himself. In that state, it would be more benevolent if he met each of his children’s questions with “I don’t know,” rather than playing God twenty-four hours a day.

To be clear, before a boy falls from grace, I believe the father must remain King. The boy needs to be able to look up to him as an ever-protecting, omniscient and almighty god. The father must stand high above the boy, benevolent, of course, but awe inspiring, even evoking respectful fear. This runs contrary to the stance assumed by far too many fathers who lower themselves to the boy’s level and seek to become his “buddy” which must scare the hell out of a boy.

As King, however, the father must prepare himself for that fateful day when he is found out by the boy. When that happens, rather than stony silence, a raging glare or specious answers, the boy needs to hear his father’s unvarnished story. He needs to be shown his father’s wounds, his many mistakes and the way he’s dealt with life’s inevitable hardships and overcame them. The boy doesn’t need all the answers, simply told where he might find them.

Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one. — Li-Young Lee, A Story

I worry greatly about the millions of American boys now being raised without their fathers’ presence and with little guidance, I suspect, from other positive male role models. Denied the voice of their father’s heart, it is up to the male elders to respond to the responsibilities befitting their age and help initiate these boys into good men. This has become my mission at this stage in my life.

“As a man passes through the elders’ gates,” says mythologist Michael Meade, “his focus shifts from personal striving and status building to attending to the mysteries at the core of the community. The losses in life,” Meade adds, “become the cloth of the cloaks of elders.”

The losses to which Meade alludes, are precisely the ones boys hunger to hear once they’re at the threshold of manhood. They want to feel our wounds and watch us limp. If the elders hide this from view, boys will be forced to do the limping for us. They’ll continue making the same mistakes and perpetuating the many problems of our world which can often be traced back to uninitiated men. The cycle will never break and the hurt won’t heal. To wit, seventy percent of all suicides in 2017 were male.

“The way to guarantee that someone will continue wounding others [or themselves]”, say Michael Meade, “is to keep him ignorant of his own wounds.”

It’s not only boys who need to hear the male heartvoice but all men must be courageous and vulnerable enough to listen to their own.


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Featured

Turning Grief into Blessings

Like most men, I am incapable of providing comfort to someone who hopes to find a patient ear for their grief.

My default response is to provide a remedy. To pick them up, brush off their dust, wipe their tears, pat them on the back and spur them forward. It’s instinctive. Honed during hundreds of thousands of years during our life as hunters, it is an inherent male trait. Just imagine where our species would be had we sat by one of our fallen comrades to listen to their hurt. There was no time for that. The survival of those back at camp depended on our stoic courage. We had to get on with the hunt or else.

So when asked to lend a patient ear, I itch to offer solutions, and for that lifesaving instinct, men are often called tone-deaf, callous, and insensitive.

My shoulder is not to cry on. Do not look at me for relief. Come to me only if you wish to regain your footing and find a way out of your misery.

“Your bodily soul wants comforting,

The severe father wants spiritual clarity.

He scolds, but eventually leads you to the open.

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.

Flies collect on a wound. They cover it;

those flies of your self-protecting feelings,

your love for what you think is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies

and put a plaster on the wound.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking

at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.”

— Spiritual Master Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

My approach to grief, however, is conflicted. On the one hand, I know it’s essential to avoid getting stuck in melancholy, but I also often find its source in humanity’s deluded insistence on permanence. Of wanting things never to change. For loved ones to be immortal, comforts eternal, hardship nonexistent, suffering but something which should only afflict others.

We live in a contingent universe. Death and loss are part of the bargain. Reject those and you will be denied life’s blessings. Run away from the pain and you’ll remain in pain. Better confront it, speak to it, listen to it, and you will soon hear its call to a path of greater purpose. If a period of mourning serves for little else than to wallow in self-pity, the ‘gift of the wound’ will be squandered and the light Rumi talks about will never enter.

I’m not suggesting one can or should overcome a loss but to transmute it into a lavish bestowal of blessings. Of using our pain to heal others. To honor our losses by using them as fertile soil for regenerative deeds.

“Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, says writer Maria Popova, “is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy.”

On the morning of December 14, 2012, the world withdrew its mercy from the lives of Jessica Lewis and her six year-old son Jesse who was slain that day along with 19 of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Talk about unspeakable grief.

Despite my previous stern and stoic assertions, I’m not so sure I could pick myself up should I lose one my daughters. I do, however, find inspiration in what Jesse’s mother decided to do with her anguish.

In one of the most heart-wrenching videos I have ever watched, Jessica says that when she went back home to get Jesse’s clothes for the funeral, she walked through the kitchen on her way out and noticed three words Jesse had written on the kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died:

NURTURING — HEALING — LOVE.”

That was Jessica’s calling.

“These words were a message of comfort for his family and friends and an inspiration for the world,” Jessica says. “And I knew I’d be spending the rest of my life spreading this message.” Today, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is spreading its healing love across the entire country and the world.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

These are the words of Viktor Frankl, who, in 1942, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent three years in four camps, including Auschwitz, and was the only member of his family to survive.

Frankl surmounted the experience because he realized that there was an important task he needed to complete: a manuscript he had been working on which later became one of the most influential books of the post-war period — ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a “will to meaning,” which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them. — Viktor Frankl

In 1982, African American Archie Williams received a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. On DNA evidence, he was released 37 years later.

Speaking of his stay at Angola State Penitentiary — classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States — Archie said he had a choice: “Either be strong, or weak, because you will be tried and tested.”

When asked how he coped, he said, “Freedom is of the mind… I went to prison, but never let my mind go to prison.”

Like Viktor Frankl, Archie had a dream for his future. He loved to sing, and he’d watch America’s Got Talent in jail imagining himself on that stage. On May 19, 2020, Archie brought the show’s audience and judges to tears and a rousing ovation while singing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.’

Unspeakable loss into world healing… horror into meaning… darkness into song; the transformational stories of Jessica Lewis, Viktor Frankl, and Archie Williams are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit once we choose to gift ourselves to the world and transmute our grief into courageous, all-embracing love.

So when in grief, let its fire burn through you, but not all the way to your soul. Just enough to ignite a white spark of inspiration you can cup in your hands and carry with you to bring spiritual clarity, hope and healing to those who await your blessings.


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A Cautionary Tale of Bloodsucking Codependency

We need more people in our lives

A true legend is no longer with us… my father passed the day after Thanksgiving.

He would’ve been dead decades ago had it not been for a saving angel who rescued him from the maelstrom of his bipolar frenzy… a madness that was further fueled with wild abandon by a bottle of vodka and two packs of cigarettes per day.

Up to the moment of his ‘salvation,’ Dad had burned his candle at both ends and lived an almost mythical life. He was one-of-a-kind. His many adventures legendary; his eccentricities unforgettable; his romantic flair, the stuff of fairy tales.

Exhausted by the white heat, he decided to hang up his spurs at age 44, trading wildness for love, fierceness for yardage, his derring-do for another round of 44. It was a Faustian bargain, in my opinion.

Whisked away by his saving angel to a remote pocket of the world, they erected isolating walls and wrapped themselves in a tight cocoon for two. Family left behind and far away, and barely a soul gracing their home with the blessings of fellowship. Gradually, they restricted their contact with the outside world to the fearmongering of cable news: ‘world’s falling apart, not safe, no one can be trusted, conspiracies abound!

Increasingly fearful, distrustful, bitter, and angry, they bristled like cornered porcupines and began using the phrase: “We don’t like people,” and sought refuge in nostalgia… film noir, B&W classics, old Westerns, that sort of stuff. In self-imposed exile, they lived cradled in bygone, illusory archetypes.

They stopped making memories and sullied old ones from too much recollection. Never sought nor fashioned a joint enterprise to bring meaning and vibrancy to their lives. Having exhausted all topics, they fell mostly silent. Cut-off from interaction, they grew increasingly unable to hold a conversation. They forgot words, lost their unique voice, and began to echo each other’s thoughts or simply regurgitated the inanities and absurdities fed to them by the mind-numbing drip feed of media.

Their love story rang like the Spanish ballads of my country’s soap operas: ‘I can’t live without you.’ ‘All the love I’ve waited for I’ve found only in you.’ ‘Without you, my pain knows no clemency.’ ‘You are my existence, my moon and sun, my night of love…’

They embodied Plato’s ‘Myth of the Androgyne.’

At the beginning of time, the myth explains, there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous. Males were descended from the sun, females from the earth, the androgynous from the moon. They were powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans made to them, so Zeus decided to cut each person in two. Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half and reunite with it. When found, they would embrace and stay together, not wanting anything else.

And when one of them meets his other half, the pair are lost in an amazement of love. — Aristophanes.

From the outside, my father’s and his wife’s mutual devotion had all the warm and fuzzy feel of a Nicholas Sparks novel. To me, it read more like a gothic tale of two vampires sucking each other’s blood in a life-sapping feast of affective cannibalism.

“Real love stories,” writes clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, “reflect the wisdom of attachment science, which states that love is an ancient survival code. We are wired by millions of years of evolution for this kind of connection, as essential to us as our next breath. Emotional connection with a safe ‘other’ soothes our nervous system; it whispers ‘safety’ to our bonding brain.

I agree, to an extent. For if your ‘safety’ depends on just one person, once gone, your entire world will dissolve in a stomach-churning plunge into despair.

Now that Dad’s gone, the world of his “other half” is a barren, breathless void. Time she previously occupied with his care now drags endlessly like weightless grains in an hourglass. Now that her sun has forever set, her ‘pain knows no clemency.’

“When a couple has an argument,” said writer Kurt Vonnegut, “they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’”

Social isolation is a growing epidemic. Loneliness is being called the “new cancer.” Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone; half of those over 85 do.

I’m no scientist but I am Hispanic and intuit that my cohort’s better health and longer lifespans when compared to non-Hispanic whites has less to do with genes or immigration, and more to do with their broader network of relationships which reduces stress. Comforted by the knowledge that no matter what happens you can always count on friends and family, the notion of the self-reliant individual makes my ‘homies’ scratch their heads. Why would anyone want to live that way? Who would we dance with? Laugh or cry with? Share our food and stories with?

Having left our home country on the wings of his angel, my father replaced that ethos for the lonely stoicism of the rugged individual and the myth of the “other half.” He surrendered his sovereignty to codependency. Gained yardage, but lost the wild glint in his eye.

In his straight-talking book, ‘In Love or Enslaved,’ cognitive therapist Walter Riso calls for “affective liberation”: the establishment of a healthy, unfettered relationship through which each person can seek the development of his or her personality, despite, and even above and beyond the bounds of love.

To obsessive love, Riso counterpoints one of passionate but serene fondness.

To fearful love, a relationship of independent courage.

To oppressive love, one of freedom.

To fused love — in which “two become one” — he counterpoints a loving rapport between two sovereign individuals.

I have found no better affirmation to ensure a healthy and long lasting relationship than this vow proposed by writer Sam Keen:

“I vow to defend the integrity of my separate being and respect the integrity of yours. We will meet only as equals; I will present myself to you in the fullness of my being and will expect the same of you. I will not cower, apologize, or condescend. Our covenant will be to love one another justly and powerfully; to establish and cherish inviolable boundaries; to respect our separate sanctuaries.”

I’d add that those boundaries extend beyond the couple and outward to the wider sanctuaries of family, friendship, and community.

We definitely need more people in our lives. After all, there is only so much blood our partner can spare until their vitality is fully drained.


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People Don’t Want to Change

It doesn’t seem so anyway

No matter what they say, most people don’t want to change.

Or at least, if they do, they don’t want to put-in the work. Instead, they thirst for a quick potion to magically solve their dilemma. All in vain. For proof, 11 billion dollars are wasted every year by Americans on such ‘remedies,’ yet a growing number remain stuck in stagnant swamps of despair.

Askhole (n): a person who constantly asks for advice, but always does the opposite of what you tell them.

I just wanna be happy!’ they clamor, but pressed to define what they mean, they draw blanks, like dazzled deers.

I wanna be loved!’ they cry like sniveling infants, without once taking the time to define love.

I need more friends in my life!’ they lament, like so many lonely Americans, but asked what they mean by friendship, they’ll give you a flummoxed stare.

I hate my job and wish I could find my passion,’ they bemoan, but lack the courage to break free to seek it.

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Greek philosopher Socrates — infamously known as the ‘Gadfly of Athens’ — was condemned to death for urging his fellow citizens to think for themselves and arrive at clear and useful definitions — for happiness, love, friendship, work, beauty…

How the hell will you ever find anything if you don’t know what you’re looking for?

But that’s too hard… it’s just too much work, right? And who has the time? So people rather have someone else tell them what these things mean and how to find them, preferably by writing them a 3-step prescription for bliss.

I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t work that way. You must establish your own values, then stack them, from most important to least.

Once guided by your deepest values, the first step on the road to real transformation is to define the kind of life you want to live (in vivid detail), and then examine the chains which shackle you to the life you loathe.

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. — Samuel Johnson

Fear not, they can be broken, but it requires sacrifice, a word which seems as abhorrent to Americans as a steaming turd.

Eww… you mean I have to give up something?… Yuck! Why can’t I just have it all?’

I see your point. The path to bliss is certainly not for the covetous and lily-livered. As French novelist Romain Rolland said: “He who has freed himself from the bonds and gags of an old rotting world; from its masters and gods, must show himself to be worthy of his new liberty, capable of bearing it; otherwise, let him remain in chains!

In his ‘Song of the Open Road,’ American poet Walt Whitman extended his hand and invited people to journey with him to a place of greater joy and a more meaningful, spirited life. Yet, to whomever wished to accept his invitation, he issued this warning:

He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance.

Come not here if you have spent the best of yourself.

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn and achieve.

Whoever you are, come forth!

You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it.

Out of the dark confinement! Out from behind the screen!

Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces, behold a secret loathing and despair.

Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under their breast-bones, hell under their skull-bones,

Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of [themselves], speaking of anything else but never of [themselves].

Allons! the road is before us!

It is safe — I have tried it.

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!

Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn’d!

Comrade, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?

Whitman could’ve well have written this in 21st century America for the “secret loathing and despair” he saw in people more than a century ago remains alive and well in the unhappiest place on Earth.

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller

The key to your prison turns with a paradigm shift.

You will be happy once you realize happiness doesn’t exist.

You will find the love of your life, but not until you have properly defined what love means, and only once you begin to lead the life you love.

You will be embraced by true friends once you accept that most of the ones you have don’t measure up to the true definition of friendship.

Passionate and meaningful work will forever elude you as long as your values and priorities are ass-backward, and money remains your holy grail and banner of success.

You will never ‘find yourself’ until you stop trying to be someone else, and even then, you never will. For we are each a river with a particular abiding character but show radically different aspects of our Self according to the territory through which we travel. “Today’s identity,” says writer Sam Keen, “is tomorrow’s prison,” and only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living, added Virginia Woolf.

Finally, you’ll never travel the Open Road unless you welcome sacrifice and see the path for what it is —  a sacred pilgrimage reserved for the stout of heart and lavish of soul. This will require you to welcome and embrace uncertainty, give up hope and expectations, and vanquish man’s biggest fears: The Fear of Want and The Fear of Death.

Whoever you are, reading this now, I can attest to one thing Whitman was wrong about. The open road is not “safe” as he claimed. It is anything but safe and secure.

But if “safety” and “security” are the watchwords by which you want to live your life, by all means, go ahead, don’t change a thing, and forever remain wallowing in the stagnant pool with all the rest. Just don’t ask me for advice.


Related Reflections:

I Don’t Want to Be Happy

How do I find the love of my life?

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

Featured

Time for Women to Roar!

Calling for a female rebellion

As American cities and the planet burn under fires of hate and plunder, I see no other way out but to call for a female revolt. We men have been at the wheel for eons and have brought the world to the brink. It’s time for women to take over, at least for now.

The idea of a female rebellion is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in “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 the late 19th century, American women revolted against male irresponsibility by mobilizing nearly 200 thousand into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s campaign to close the saloons and outlaw booze. The American family was under threat, and women had had enough.

A true woman is serene until her den is threatened, and then she fights like a lioness to defend it. Now is the time for real women to roar. — Washington Irving

Until very recently, I still harbored the illusion that the sexes could reconcile and return to the harmony and cooperation which reigned for thousands of years during our egalitarian life as hunter-gatherers. Now, I’m not so sure. The growing rise to power of male autocrats, cheered by legions of groveling ‘men’ who have lost their individual power is threatening the den of the world on a social and planetary scale.

These slavish legions of weak men, said Hannah Arendt in her Theory of Totalitarianism, are the product of a specific conjuncture. They constitute the detritus of all social strata which have lost their former social identity and emotional bearings as a result of abrupt political, geopolitical, and economic dislocation. They compose individuals who live on the periphery of all social and political involvements. Bereft of power, organizational affiliation, inexperienced in conventional politics, and lacking conviction, these men offer virgin territory for the totalitarian movements to harvest.

At the end of the First World War, British poet WB Yeats saw the writing on the wall and wrote this in ‘The Second Coming’:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Twenty years after Yeats prophecy, men were back in the sandbox with their guns and bombs and plunged the world into another bloody episode of anarchy and carnage where 85 million people lost their lives.

Humanity may have left behind the days of world conflagrations but look closely and you’ll see spreading fires of unrest, discontent, strife and looming chaos, against the backdrop of planetary collapse. The Third Coming? I say it’s time for women to roar and save the den.

As for the men, American statesman Frederick Douglass’ once said that there are days when it seems most adult men are beyond repair, and from the look of it, I’m afraid he’s right, but I refuse to give up on the young. So, while women heed my call to revolt and take over the wheel, I will assume my rightful place as a male elder of the human tribe and help initiate the coming generation of men.

Besides an urgent preoccupation with the state of the world, my effort is a way to ‘pay-it forward’ on behalf of my father. Had not it been for his fortune, he would’ve been a Nazi, indoctrinated in a hateful ideology conceived by a man who felt small and powerless and who stoked the fire of racism and hate festering inside the vast majority of German men who shared his sense of despair after their country’s humiliating defeat in World War I.

The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. — Dr. Michael Gurian, author of ‘Saving our Sons’

The loss of power, social identity, and emotional bearings as a result of political, geopolitical, and economic dislocation which Hannah Arendt said were the underpinnings of male discontent, will only get worse. If we now have what many call a “boy crisis” on our hands, we’ll soon face a full-blown catastrophe if we don’t properly guide the young.

Besides helping boys become critical thinkers, teaching them how to harness the power of rage, and confront their innate biases so that natural prejudice doesn’t turn to racial violence, I begin my book with the universal story which gave origin to us all… before race, borders, nations, and diving ideological lines. “We’re all made of stardust,” said astronomer Carl Sagan.

It was not until the Agricultural Revolution, 14,000 years ago, that the distancing between the male and female worldview began to widen; between egalitarianism and male domination. A distancing which grew wider when men began to tell themselves stories to justify their ascendancy. By the time of the Mycenaean Bronze Age civilization, around 1600–1100 BCE, the rule of men was firmly established.

To make sense of this significant shift and it’s ruinous consequences, I take boys on a journey back in time…

Minoan women
‘Ladies in Blue’ – Minoan Civilization fresco

Once we settled and built permanent houses, we had room to start accumulating and storing goods, mostly our grain crops and animals and began to worry about stuff. Forgetting how long we had lived and thrived from the land, we worried about whether we had enough food for the future. Before, if we didn’t find food in one place, we just moved. But now, we were stuck in place and depended more on the weather for our survival.

More food meant even more people, so populations began to explode. BOOM!

Larger cities were built to make room for growing populations. By the late 13th and early 14th centuries we started drawing lines on maps and calling them “borders,” which pretty much are imaginary divisions between skin colors, languages, or ways of looking at the world. They are like the outlines in children’s coloring books, yet children, as we all know, are masters at coloring outside the lines. We adults have much to learn from you kids.

Some people now had more than others, so fights broke out. We then started raiding other cities for their food and land. Battles broke out. Then all-out wars. BOOM! KABOOM!

Our growing brains were getting us in trouble. Our late cousins, the chimpanzees, must have been scratching their heads wondering what the heck was wrong with us.

People were not only fighting for food and territory; they also fought over ideas.

To explain this, I’ll tell you the story of two groups of people with very different ideas. It’s a true story, with some embellishments to make it easier to understand.

One group lived on an island called Crete, in ancient Greece, about 3000 years ago. They were the Minoans. I call them ‘Minnows,’ like little fish. The others lived in the mainland, two hundred miles from the Minnows. These were the Mycenaeans. I call them ‘Myce,’ like those furry beasties who scurry across kitchens making old ladies scream and jump on stools holding brooms.

The Myce had come from higher up the Eurasian continent. They were nomadic, which means they were always on the move. They herded cattle, which was their primary food source. They had also learned to tame wild horses. When their previous territory became cooler and drier because of climate change, they spread south and settled in Mycenae, two hundred miles from the Minnows.

Hunter-gatherers had first showed up in this area about twenty thousand years before. Over the next twelve thousand years, the sea level gradually rose, and large game animals were no longer available, so hunter-gatherer populations came to depend increasingly on plants for their survival and the problem became to develop a reliable supply. Girls were really good at this. After all, women in hunter-gatherer societies had developed the greatest knowledge of plants because they were the principal gatherers of this food. It has been estimated that men and women contributed about the same amount of food, in terms of calories, to early hunter-gatherer groups. This is starting to happen again, with both Moms and Dads working to provide for their families.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoan society was especially prosperous, peaceful, and happy. It was also a society in which women were as important as men. After all, they saved our butts when large animals became scarce. In the palaces of Knossos, the most important Minnow city in Crete, archaeologists found paintings on walls that show women holding high positions in Minnow society.

Meanwhile, over at Mycenae, the city of the Myce…

There, archaeologists uncovered a very different story, one of a warrior culture ruled by powerful commanders who made themselves rich by conducting raiding expeditions near and far, as well as by exploiting local farmers.

The main differences between the Myce and the Minnows were:

  1. They spoke different languages.
  2. Minnows were far more artistic.
  3. The Myce made burnt offerings to their gods; the Minnows did not. Burnt offerings consist of taking a poor animal that’s happily munching on grass, and then killing and burning it over an open fire to ask an imaginary being up in the sky for help. Sometimes they weren’t even nice enough to kill the animal before throwing it into the flames.
  4. Palaces in Myceland were heavily fortified. Those in Minnowland were not.
  5. Weapons were common in Myce, not on Mino.
  6. Minnow society granted women higher status. Myce, by contrast, were patriarchal — men held all the power and women were excluded from it.
  7. Goddesses played a greater role in Minnowland as evidenced by the large number of female figurines and paintings found around the ancient city of Knossos. In contrast, the most important and powerful God of the Myce was ‘Sky Father,’ later called ‘Zeus’ in Greek mythology; the bearded guy who throws thunderbolts at people he doesn’t like and is constantly unfaithful to his wife.
  8. Before the Myce were able to overtake the Minnows, a massive volcano eruption and tsunami — one that may have inspired the myth of the lost city of Atlantis — crushed the Minoan Civilization.

The Myce and their stories took over.

And they were not good stories.

Listen to some of them:

Humans! Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. [Genesis 1]

Since women give birth to babies like the Earth gives birth to plants out of seeds, it means women are the same as the Earth. But since sometimes the Earth goes dry and doesn’t produce plants, the Earth is evil. If Earth is the same as Woman, then women are evil too. The Earth sometimes also acts all crazy with storms, floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, ice ages, and hurricanes. Since the Earth is like a girl, then girls are scary crazy too. [From the Babylonian Creation Myth and the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone]

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as men are. [Exodus 21:7–11]

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. [Isaiah 13:1]

Go and strike and destroy all that your enemies have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey! [Samuel 15:3]

Slaves! Submit yourselves to your masters with respect, not only to the good and gentle masters but also to the cruel ones.[Peter 2:18]

A prophet should not have prisoners of war until he has made a great slaughter in the land. [The Qur’an Verse 8:67]

Do not permit a woman to teach or boss over a man; she must be quiet. [Timothy 2:12]

If the wife of a man who is living in her husband’s house, has persisted in going out, has acted the fool, has waster her house, has belittled her husband, he shall prosecute her. If her husband has said, “I divorce her,” she shall go her way; he shall give her nothing as her price of divorce. If her husband has said “I will not divorce her” he may take another woman to wife; the wife shall live as a slave in her husband’s house. [Code of Hammurabi c. 1700 BCE]

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. [Exodus 21:24]

Boy, oh boy…

Subdue and dominate our Earth and rule over everything; girls are evil and crazy; sell your daughter in slavery, dash the children of your enemies against rocks, slaughter away, keep women quiet… these stories make my blood curl. I feel like that old lady who stands on top of a stool with a broom in her hand trying to squash nasty mice.

What’s crazy is that many have listened to these stories and done exactly what these stories have told them to do. It makes me want to go back to our life as hunter-gatherers.

But we can’t go back.

So why not come up with better stories? Just like Abraham Lincoln did to end slavery. Or like Rachel Carson when writing Silent Spring which started the modern environmental movement. Or Gandhi, who said that if we all started poking people’s eyes because they poked ours, by and by the whole world would be blind. Stories like Buddha’s Second Noble Truth which says that people suffer because they crave stuff they don’t need, believe stupid stories, and because of their hatred and destructive urges.

Buddha started his life as a spoiled brat shielded from the outside world. Before he became known as ‘The Buddha,’ his name was Siddhartha Gautama. He was a prince, living in a luxurious palace with everything a boy could want. His father, the king, made sure he never suffered nor stepped foot beyond the palace walls. He did not want his son to go out into the world and see sick people, old people, or dead people. Only beautiful, young, and healthy people were allowed in the palace.

When he was about 16, Siddhartha married Yaśodharā who gave birth to their son, Rāhula. But even though Siddhartha had everything he wanted, something bugged him. He wanted to go beyond the palace walls and see the world for himself. One day, he ordered his charioteer to take him out into the city. On the road, they encountered a poor person, an old person, and a corpse. As they returned to the palace, Siddhartha passed a wandering monk wearing a simple robe. Siddhartha decided to become a monk, and left the palace, and his wife and son, in search for the answer to the problem of suffering in the world. Once he figured out what he thought was the cure for suffering, he became ‘The Buddha,’ for which the practice of Buddhism is known. Today, there are over 500 million people in the world who practice his teachings.

People like Buddha, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Gandhi, and Jesus were heroic people. They were not locusts, like the Myce, but bees, like Minnows, taking care of the garden… trying to erase the vile and destructive ideas that originally spun out of the heads of the Myce. They came up with positive stories which enhance the wonderful unfolding story of our universe that began 13 Billion years ago.

That’s the purpose of this book. To write a better story and guide you on the path of a hero to grow to become a bee.

So now that you know where you come from, where you are, and have heard some of the stories — good and bad — that humans tell each other, you are ready to be trained in the Life Forces you will need to start your own adventure in life…


My call for a female revolt is not one of violence but leadership; a call for women to wrest the reins of power from the many weak and ignoble men who seem hellbent on maintaining the status-quo. To our luck, a growing number of inspiring women across the world have begun to do just that.

While their legions grow, I’ll keep working to ensure that the next generation of men rises to the occasion and joins its female counterpart — as comrades once again — for the urgent work ahead.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Related content:

Understanding Prejudice – Teaching Boys to Confront their Innate Biases

Critical Thinking in a Crazy World

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

Featured

Shock and Fluff In The Age of Distraction

A writer’s conundrum

Tristan Harris is right. We are currently “engulfed in an arms race to the bottom of our brain stem to capture our attention.”

Think of that little timer counting down the seconds on Netflix or YouTube as you’re reaching the end of an episode. Or compare both the noise level and the speed at which scenes are switched in a modern-day documentary, with one filmed, say, before the 1990s. It’s enough to cause one vertigo and often feels like some two-bit swindler is trying to hypnotize you so he can steal your wallet.

And what about the news? now forced to shock its distracted audience with hyperbole: ‘STOCK MARKET PLUMMETS!’ ‘CARNAGE IN CAIRO!’ ‘MONSTER STORM ENGULFS GULF COAST!,’ ‘MAYHEM IN MINNEAPOLIS!’

When the news is finally delivered, it’s as anticlimactic as masturbating, even on a good day, they say.

Are people simply becoming dopamine junkies? Like porn, needing an increasingly higher dose after each hit?

This scourge has also infected the work of other writers, bloggers, and editorialists. If they wish to gain and audience they must perfect the art of screaming and stirring outrage and peddling snake oil instead of meaningful content. Moreover, they must adapt to a culture whose attention span is now shorter than a sneeze.

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses. — H.L. Mencken

As an artist who approaches his craft like a Michelin Star-winning chef, I refuse to sully my work with shock or fluff. Especially fluff! I also refuse to compress complex, meaningful ideas into fast food for the brain. Not surprisingly, my work withers mostly unread.

I come from a land of siestas, meriendas, and sobremesas… lazy naps, midafternoon grazing, and endless after-meal conversations with loved ones and friends, so have always wondered why Americans are in such a rush. It doesn’t seem like they’re getting much done. Not lately, anyway. In fact, in their frenzy, they’re not only crashing against each other but toppling everything around them, like, say, the entire planet.

It’s not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about? — Henry David Thoreau

In ‘Lazy: A Manifesto,’ Tim Kreider writes that “if you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’

“Even children are busy now,” laments Kreider, “scheduled down to the half hour with enrichment classes, tutorials, and extracurricular activities. At the end of the day, they come home as tired as grownups, which seems not just sad but hateful. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter. The busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Is that what it is? A sense of meaninglessness, existential dread, and emptiness? People needing distractions to avoid confronting their misery?

Wounds don’t heal in the dark and skeletons don’t simply vanish through neglect. At least not mine. In fact, they get angrier. They only way to appease them is by bringing them out of the closet and engaging them in deep, focused conversation. Which is what I try to do with my work, hoping to help others deal with the thorniest dilemmas of human existence so they can heal.

But this takes time and cannot possibly be delivered in a 5-point listicle or quick-read book. Chances are you’ve read more than one and soon forgot all the magic recipes and instant formulas. Case in point, Americans spend over 11 billion dollars per year on self-help and personal development stuff yet live in the unhappiest place in the world… wtf!?

Because it’s the land of the quick-fix and the magic pill. Where instead of wrestling with the underlying causes of despair, people numb them with drugs and distractions. It doesn’t take a genius to realize it’s not working.

One of my most read articles on Medium, for example, is ‘The Meaning of Life.’ I figured that in a country hungry for meaning, the least I could do was offer a remedy and a way forward.

Like most other forums, Medium is now compelled to post the time it will take a reader to get all the way through. God forbid it’s longer than 6 minutes because most readers will ignore it. ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ Who has more than 6 minutes to spare nowadays?

Mine is 7 minutes long (sorry), and although now read by over five hundred people, the average time devoted to the article by each person has been 1 min 5 sec. Really? Speed-reading through the meaning of life?

“A writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, said author Saul Bellow, “and out of distressing unrest — even from the edge of chaos — he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.”

That may be the case in Europe, or in my country, Mr. Bellow, but in America — the land of the microwave, the 3-minute cake, the quick-pass, “quickie,” and life in the fast lane — people hunger for instant gratification.

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 anguish is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.

For the longest time, I’ve been trying to invite people to sit quietly and take time to work through the toughest afflictions of the modern world, and together, figure a way out of their despairing lives.

Alas, refusing to use shock and fluff, my tireless work goes mostly ignored and the despair never ends.


Congratulations! You made it all the way to the end and I only stole 5 minutes of your precious time.


Related Reflections:

Do You Have a Minute?

Time Out!

The Unhappiest Place in the World

 

Featured

Crying Over Spilled Milk

Is the only way to die with few regrets

They say there’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I couldn’t disagree more.

The use in crying lies in what’s left in the glass and in figuring out how you spilled it in the first place.

Careless, inattentive and unaware, we spill our years under the delusion that we’re eternal. In fact, we often kill time by waking up late to shorten the hours not knowing what we’d otherwise do with ourselves with so much time on our hands. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Just wait a little, wait a while’… we tell our hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long, long road, and time waits for no man.

And then one day, you wake up and realize there is more spilled milk than what’s left in the glass and the spilling won’t stop.

You panic, cry, regret… What’s the use?

The use is in making sure that whatever milk is left, trickles, instead of spilling. And the trick to the trickle is to live attentive and aware from that moment on.

When Australian caregiver Bronnie Ware wrote a blog in 2009 listing the five things that most haunted her terminally ill patients, she had no idea it would become an internet sensation. The blog took on a life of its own. By 2012, more than eight million people had read her post.

No one, it seems, wants to die with these 5 regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

At 54, I realized how much milk I had spilled, and then and there, decided not to allow one more drop to fall without my awareness. And the only way I felt I could do this was by setting fire to the life I’d been leading up to that point and journey into the unknown on the knife-edge of uncertainty.

That was four years ago… 48 months that have felt like an eternity and I don’t regret one second.

One by one, I’ve examined these 5 venomous regrets and worked-out the antidotes.

Authenticity

Death, says philosopher Alain de Botton, is a terrifying agent of authenticity.

When you take stock of the milk you’ve spilled and how little remains, you realize there is no time left for pretense. No time to show up on stage wearing an ill-fitting costume and mask. Not a second more to waste on pleasing others by denying yourself. The only time you have is for growing into your own plumage, brightly, and end the weary, and ultimately fruitless charade of trying to be someone you are not. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly.”

Seeing how our modern world is hellbent on making us blend-in like sheep, it is one hardest battles you will ever have to fight. But if you don’t wage it, you will be voicing this regret once your last drop of milk is about to spill. Authenticity, I’ve also discovered, is one of love’s most powerful aphrodisiacs.

Overworked

I don’t think it’s a matter of too much work but the type of work on which we devote our time.

What many call “burnout,” “stress,” or “depression,” author Sam Keen examines under a more useful light.

Burnout, Keen warns, “is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.

Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it’s a symptom that you are living someone else’s life (Regret #1).

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.”

Purposeful work, that which matches your talents and passions to a particular need in the world, is one you will never tire of.

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. — Playwright William Herzog

But what if you’re still uncertain what you’re passions are and are stuck in a job you hate, like 70% of Americans?

Consider it then as a means to an end; one that can subsidize a period of exploration until you feel a spark. “Seek and you shall find,” said Jesus.

Expressing feelings

I assume that what Bronnie’s patients meant by this regret is what Mary Evans referred to at the end of this poem:

If there be sorrow

let it be

for things undone

undreamed

unrealized

unattained

to these add one:

Love withheld

… restrained.

Also what writer Anaïs Nin wrote in one of her journals:

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of wounds, weariness, of witherings and tarnishings.”

And, finally, what Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Beyond love for others, we also betray ourselves by not having the courage to express and actualize our deepest longings. We repress them out of fear of what others may think… the fear of having our dreams judged unrealistic, impractical, fanciful — even childish.

As we age, life has a cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky and no longer dare the impossible.

Genius, said French poet Baudelaire, is childhood recovered at will, and I have since killed the old cynic in me.

Dying without this 3rd regret, then, requires us to love with abandon, selflessness, attention, and supreme care, and to give voice and wings to our dreams.

Not staying in touch with friends

Today, more than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.

The key lies in the last word of the previous sentence: “companionship,” which, at root, means breaking bread together, and springs from the same source as the word “compassion,” or suffering together.

When I finally broke free, I realized how encumbered I had been with frivolous acquaintances, most of whom had only showed up in my life when times were good. The few that did appear when feeling blue, did so with the intent to feel better about themselves and their own fortune.

Approaching my 60th birthday, I’ve since discarded those unworthy of the name “friend” like one would discard a pair of tight-fitting shoes or the unwholesome leaves of an artichoke. I am down to one, but oh! what a companion he is; showing up —both— on sunny and stormy days, patiently watching me spill my guts without once casting judgment as we break bread together.

You know you are in the presence of an empathic man when you feel you have been given permission to be yourself. — Robert Bly

Like Sancho Panza to Quixote, he rides by my side — in victory and defeat — loyally serving me as the voice of conscience when I stray, and not once allowing me to wallow in self-pity or complacency. He is the thorn on my side, not my echo.

“Do not seek friends,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, “seek comrades in arms!” And you will find them once you understand the meaning of friendship, dare to be true to yourself, and work on something which nurtures your passions.

I wish I had let myself be happier

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; happy in the being and the knowing, 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. — Henry Miller

Happiness is not a pursuit, as the nation’s founding fathers have led you to believe. It’s an orientation, steeped in awareness, as Henry Miller discovered. It’s mindful attention to what exactly gives us joy, pleasure, and delight. It’s counterbalancing our unpleasant moments with a heavy dose of gratitude and by recalling positive experiences in the most vivid language we can.

Since the moment of my reinvention, I have sustained an almost daily practice of writing down 3 things for which I am grateful, along with a recent positive experience. A year ago, I tallied and categorized the 118 positive moments I had recorded up till then. This I did 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, but not surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), or simply making someone happy, or involving ‘meraki,’ a word modern Greeks use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, and 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. These kind, loving gestures, however small and seemingly insignificant, will prevent me from being forgotten, something that to ancient Egyptians was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A second third had been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future — with all its hopes, wants, and wishes — was annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ‘ataraxia,’ a lucid state of equanimity characterized by freedom from distress and worry, which, in my case, 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 time seems suspended while doing something immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, like William Herzog.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline when tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion was when I rewarded myself, say, with a double latte as a prize for a small victory.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

I wish I would’ve savored every moment

This regret is not on Bronnie’s list but I’m sure that, if prodded, her dying patients would have nodded in agreement.

As I recently wrote, when first becoming conscious of the little milk I had left and the much spilled without awareness, I was gripped by unspeakable terror, especially when realizing that many of my past experiences would never repeat themselves. As writer Maria Popova says, “one of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts.”

I now live with the urgency of the terminally-ill, hurried by what Germans term Torschlusspanik— literally, “gate-closing panic”- the feeling that opportunities are shutting down. But rather than panic, I now think of it this way: Every time I’m about to experience something, whether a solitary walk, a kiss, caress, or moonrise, I assume it won’t happen again and savor each blissful drop. Every act, then, acquires a heightened intensity and deeper meaning, leaving behind an indelible soulprint.

No doubt, I will die with some regrets, but I’m on a spirited quest to do so with the least amount possible.

What about you?

Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver


Related Reflections:

I’m Aging Really Well

Dad Died Last Night

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

 

 

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Understanding Prejudice

Teaching boys to confront their innate biases

Let’s face it: we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. It’s only natural.

“Tribal prejudice, says Elizabeth Culotta in Science Magazine, stems from deep evolutionary roots and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side.”

Like most, I’m 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 time you were last partnered with a stranger when playing a board game.

“Outgroup bias is core to our species,” says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. “It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe.” 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 speed and pattern of the mistakes they make show 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 says, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely.” People, he adds, also “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. If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness. — Luke 12:35 and The Gospel of Thomas

The light to which Jesus referred is the light of reason, and I have no doubt 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,” she explains, “not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice involves cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice taken to the extreme against a particular group of people based on perceived differences. 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:

1. Fear

2. The need to belong

3. Projection

4. Emotional incompetence

Fear

Psychologist and political advisor Dr. Reneé Carr says that “when one race 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. 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.”

Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Need to Belong

Some members of extremist hate groups, Abrams says, 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. Take the case of Reinhard Heydrich, chief architect of the Holocaust.

Nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, Reinhard was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population in Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his high pitched voice and 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 grew up a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, he became a cadet in the small elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. By then, Heydrich was 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 “Moses Handel” because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.

Think about this… a bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief designer of the nightmare that killed 6 million Jews. But he is not the exception. In ‘Wounded Boys at War,’ I profile other atrocities committed by wounded and alieneated children… all male.

In both Heydrich and his tormentors, we find men who lash out at “the other” driven by unconscious fears, prejudice, and hatred — those defensive thoughts and behaviors explained by Dr. Reneé Carr. We also see an innate expression of tribalism.

We men are tribal by nature.

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on tribal behavior. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. Sherif then placed them on a remote location in two separate and equally numbered groups. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone. Still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, flags, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, made weapons, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, and called each other nasty names.

“The male mind appears to be innately tribal,” writes Jonathan Hait in ‘The Righteous Mind.’ “It 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.”

Projection

“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.”

Referring to homosexuals, 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 gays which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ Not surprisingly, he was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson.

“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.” 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.

Low Emotional Competence

Loma K. Flowers, of the nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the “integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action.” This is where bigots and haters, like George Zimmerman, lose their footing.

“It is easier to believe fallacies,” says Flowers, “than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues.

“Thinking takes work… to line-up facts with feelings… to sort out, for instance, how much of your anger is really about being laid off from your job versus being about others objecting to Confederate statues erected to symbolize white supremacy… or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life (like Reinhard Heydrich). The challenge is to link each 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 family members or your community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence.”

If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another. — Adolf Hitler, ‘Mein Kampf’

In this excerpt of Hitler’s manifesto we hear a man whose deep seated prejudice and self-loathing are projected onto an outgroup while simultaneously attributing to ‘the other’ his own hatred and genocidal intentions.

A more contemporary example is Donald Trump’s comments while campaigning in 2015:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs… they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists!”

Those that can make you believe absurdities, said French writer Voltaire, can make you commit atrocities.

Nine months after the 2018 midterm election during which Trump repeatedly warned the country of an imminent invasion by Hispanic immigrants, a 21 year-old gunman massacred 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” he wrote in his manifesto.

History, I’m afraid, will continue repeating itself unless society helps young men, especially those who feel alienated and powerless, to develop emotional competency, and taught, at a very young age, about their innate tribal tendencies, ingroup bias, and outgroup prejudice. This is one of the main goals of my book for boys, ‘The Hero in You.

Here are some of the things I tell them:

A Boy Like You Cover
Book by Frank Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren

“We are all made of stardust,” said astronomer Carl Sagan.

When I first learned that all the atoms in you and me are the same as in everyone else it made me think of Lego blocks. Although they come in different colors, they’re basically the same.

Say you were to build an awesome castle or cool spaceship. You wouldn’t use Legos of just one color, right? That’d be dull. Same goes for people. If I was in charge of populating planet Earth, it would be pretty boring if I only used one color to make humans. Or think of painting. Imagine you take a big, white canvas and paint it white. What do you get? The same bland, white canvas all over again. Personally, I’m rather thrilled Earth decided to use not only white, but also red, yellow, brown, and black to paint us humans. Study nature closely and you’ll discover that her secret ingredient is diversity.

(…)

Now let’s talk about what makes a man unique.

It helps to think of a man as a computer assembled by nature using a unique set of parts. The software written into the male computer was programmed during the time we lived as hunter-gatherers, or, in our specific case, as male hunters. That experience wrote the instructions which guide our behavior, even today.

For example, we men don’t talk much and 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.

We are also less empathetic than girls, less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our hunting 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 our camp depended on us to bring food. We bond with our buddies by challenging them.

We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate ancestors, the chimpanzees. 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. He then separated them in two groups. For the first five days, each group of eleven boys thought it was alone yet set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules like, perhaps, “no farting” or “no girls!” They came up with 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, territorial behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. You see? We are still warriors at heart 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’ll die in the process.

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 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 which means using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then using our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.

Knowing we are tribal and territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different, think differently, or 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.

(…)

Unless you plan to live on a deserted island when you grow up, you will need to strengthen your social intelligence.

I say “strengthen” because you already have it. It’s a gift from the way we evolved as humans and the one that allowed us to become the dominant species on Earth.

Let’s start by making an important distinction between baseline intelligence and social intelligence. I know a lot of highly intelligent people who seem clueless when it comes to getting along with others, and I’d much rather spend time with an uneducated and simple-minded friend, who is otherwise gentle and kind, than with a selfish, insufferable know-it-all. Truth be told, I often behave like one. There are days when I can’t stand myself. Like all humans, I still have much to learn.

Social intelligence is intelligence in relationship to others.

It means knowing how to relate to others by deciphering and understanding what makes them tick, by being aware and appreciating what they want, how they feel, what they believe in, and how they think. It’s the ability to establish and maintain positive relationships; to know how to behave in different social situations, handle conflict constructively, and to compromise and collaborate.

Superheroes, in contrast, are loners and therefore sad and lonely. They sulk in dark caves, like Batman, crouch alone atop rooftops, like Daredevil, hide behind shields like Captain America, or under ice, like Iceman. In that sense, they are like those guys who waste a great part of their lives in front of screens or playing video games.

The only way superheroes can relate to the world and feel important and in control is if there’s a villain to destroy. Because they mostly live in isolation, they are incapable of understanding what causes villains or bullies to do what they do, and, therefore, never solve anything. They just blow things up. That’s why as soon as they destroy a villain, another one takes his place. While it makes for good storytelling, you’ll do much better in the real world with the Life Force of Social Intelligence than with all the powers of flight, super-strength, super-speed, and x-ray vision.

Before we continue, we need to make another important distinction. Social intelligence does not mean playing nice all the time, or not standing up for what you believe in, even though some people might disagree with you or get their feelings hurt. It doesn’t mean you have to be liked by everyone or fit-in all the time. People pleasers have very weak King energy and low emotional intelligence.

That is why emotional intelligence is the first ingredient for strong social intelligence. If you’ve paid close attention up to this point and completed the exercises in your Warrior’s Workbook, you already know what emotional intelligence is and have begun to lay a strong foundation for it.

But just in case you’ve forgotten, emotional intelligence is knowing yourself, your unique temperament, what makes you tick, understanding where your different emotions come from, what they want from you, and how to harness them to react properly and make good choices.

The second ingredient for strong social intelligence is listening.

Notice I did not say “hearing.” Superman can hear things from miles away, but can he listen? True listening requires more than just your ears. It requires a receptive heart, and to open your heart, you must truly care about others. If you can’t care, you cannot love, and if you can’t love, you can’t serve like a true hero.

Fred Rogers, an American T.V. personality, said that there isn’t anyone we can’t learn to love once we hear their story.


We will continue to despise people until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Minessotta riots fire
Young rioter in Minnesota - May 2020

As American cities burn with rage, violence and despair, I am reminded of this African proverb:

“If don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”

In ‘Raising Boys,’ Stephen Biddulph says that “by understanding the psychology of boys, their stages of development, their hormones and hard-wired natures, we can raise them to be fine young men: safe, caring, passionate, and purposeful. Millions of boys have poor life chances because we have failed to understand and love them. We can save them still.”

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, was recently described by his wife thusly: “Under that uniform, he’s just a softie.”

Had Chauvin been properly guided as a young boy, I am convinced we would not be dealing with the current mayhem.

As a male elder of the human tribe, my mission to properly initiate boys has now acquired a greater sense of urgency.


Related content:

Rage! Harnessing the Power of our Emotions

Critical Thinking in a Crazy World

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How do I find the love of my life?

You won’t.

That is, not until you first know yourself, and then choose and act upon the life you’d love to lead.

Figure out these two, and the right one will find you. No need to rummage through haystacks.

Many a man, when thinking of tying the knot, will ask himself these questions in the wrong order: ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘Who’s coming with me?’ I know this because I once was such a man. Not only did I marry the wrong person but dragged her into the maelstrom of my confusion.

I should’ve listened to the indigenous wisdom of the Maya, the first inhabitants of my native country. In their culture, a man must first marry his own soul, his spirit-bride, before he can truly love a flesh-and-blood woman.

A man’s spirit-bride has two dimensions: An intimate understanding of who he is, and a clear sense of where he’s going and the kind of life he wishes to lead. Absent those, you’ll inevitably blunder into this other mistake humorist Evan Esar warned us about: “Many a man who falls in love with a dimple, makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl.”

My ex may not have had cute dimples, but, oh! what lustrous, flowing, ravenblack hair! What gorgeous, dreamy eyes, and feminine charm she had! She spun me like a top, stole my breath away, and put me out of my mind.

Let us recognize that “falling in love” is an inferior state of mind, a form of transitory imbecility. Without a paralysis of consciousness we would never fall in love. — Jose Ortega y Gasset.

So smitten, and without a clue of who I was and the kind of life that would best suit my temperament, I walked blindly into love’s slaughterhouse like so many bleating lambs.

Her once dizzying charms soon faded, of course. And because I’d also fallen blindly into my early line of work without first considering my true self and passions, the sham eventually exposed itself and my whole house of cards tumbled. The business empire I’d worked long and hard to build, collapsed, seemingly overnight.

Once I dared reveal myself to her in naked authenticity, she no longer found me attractive for I had ceased to be the man she had fallen in love with. Her once ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ had lost his shine, his armor, horse, sword, and entire kingdom, along with his desire to pick up the sword anew and resume the fight. Her fantasy of a carefree life in wealth shattered, and her once successful, steadfast provider, realizing at last he was never meant to be a businessman, now said he wanted to be a writer instead. This whole mess, I admit, was entirely my fault, not hers. I had lured her with counterfeit goods.

Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly. — T.S. Eliot

Let my folly be your guide.

Get to know yourself first. Explore and heal your wounds as much as you can. Don’t arrive at a relationship dragging a trainload of rank baggage. Become intimate with your longings, passions, quirks, your temperament, fears, flaws, and the qualities in a partner that are essential to you; those deal-breakers which, left unsaid, will eventually sunder a relationship. Work to arrive at a union in wholeness, preferably carrying an instruction manual, as suggests philosopher Alain the Botton — “a manual to your own rather tortured, odd, but ultimately, always, rather loveable soul.”

I for one, crave affection. I know it to be a childhood wound. But I’ve also taken time to realize that this need is intrinsic to who I am. As I crave it, I also dish it out with lavish abandon and it’s not something I can do without, change, or am willing to negotiate. It’s a deal breaker, and it would be a disservice to both myself and any potential partner if I wasn’t upfront about this quirk.

I also know where I’m headed, and the life I wish to lead, thus no longer seek a romantic partner but a comrade in arms. “Love does not consist in gazing at each other,’ said French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

While in physics, opposites attract, it doesn’t work so well in a long term relationship. At least not at a fundamental level. Take my current partner, for instance, who, while possessing qualities which I lack and strive to emulate, were she fundamentally attracted to the “good life,” such stark contrast with my preference for a simpler one would be irreconcilable.

I am also incorrigibly romantic and idealistic, thus, a dispassionate cynic, however down to earth or otherwise attractive she may be, would be dreary oil to my effervescent water.

This is not to say that I’m so naive to believe that somewhere, out there, the “perfect one” exists. As deeply flawed as I am, such notion would be the apex of arrogance, narcissism, and infantile delusion. I am also sufficiently wise to know that one will never find someone who can provide everything one needs. Trade-offs are the stuff of maturity.

My partner is faithful to a fault. This virtue of hers gives me peace of mind. Yet she tires rather quickly from my flights of fancy and mental cogitations. As you may have noticed, I love to ramble, talk on end, dream big and philosophize. But my priorities are rightly ordered. Fidelity comes first. I can always find a patient ear somewhere else… a friend, say, or priest, or you. Nowadays, as Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel worries, people expect their partners to be everything to them: best friend, confidant, therapist, healer, lover, mother, cook and crutch, and — if you wouldn’t mind — please manage my finances while you’re at it.

Helplessness is as repellant as bug spray.

Perel’s discovery of what makes most people drawn to their lovers confirms what I said at the start: Once you know yourself, live your truth, and lead a life that ignites your passions, the love of your life… no!… your comrade in life will find you. Sometimes, as they say, you need to run away to see who will come with you.

Across the world, those interviewed by Perel said to be most drawn and turned-on by their partner when: “He is in his element. When he is doing something he is passionate about. When I see him hold court. When he is radiant and confident.”

What these magnetic personalities have in common is an exuberant wellspring of erotic power.

Eros,” at root, means passionate and intense desire. It is the impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life rather than strictly a sexual-romantic thing. Greek philosophers considered Eros the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. 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 propelled life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.

Eros seems to have gone extinct in America, and I believe it’s partly because most people misdirect and exhaust their erotic energies into work or the accumulation of money and power. They invest more time, energy, imagination, and creativity on their professions than they do on their relationships. No wonder this country is experiencing a “sex drought.”

Authenticity and passion open the floodgates to an inexhaustible fount of erotic energy, and are indeed, some of love’s most powerful aphrodisiacs.

No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship. — Maria Popova

Presenting yourself as a false copy of who you are is not only a huge turn-off but an ultimate game of deception where the most tragic dupe is you. Likewise, if you tie the knot without first knowing where you’re headed in life, your ship will soon run aground and capsize, drowning not only you, but the one who joined your aimless journey. Not fair, to both.

I know well how hard it is to be authentic in today’s world. As E.E. Cummings said, “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.” But hard as it may be, it’s the only way the right partner will find you, once bewitched by your radiant, erotic, and irresistible allure.


Related reflections:

“I can’t find my passion and purpose in life.”

You’re the Woman of my Dreams – That’s How I Know You’re not The One

Raised a Gentleman, I Can’t Afford a Girlfriend

 

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I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

You’re not alone. Most people reach their deathbeds not having found them either.

That’s because they look in the wrong places, think inside tight boxes, or tackle the dilemma ass-backward. Many begin by making lists of their skills, aptitudes, and talents, then look for careers that match. Before anything else, they’ll check the pay rate and immediately stop exploring if not near their expectations. No surprise, then, that Gallup recently discovered 70% of Americans dislike their jobs.

For starters, I don’t know where we got the idea all jobs must be meaningful. I doubt Jesus found much meaning in carpentry, or Gandhi in law. And I know for a fact Buddha found his princely life utterly devoid of meaning. In all three cases, their life purpose found them. Either by way of an epiphany — like Jesus experienced when baptized in the Jordan River at age 30 — or when shuddering with indignation, like Buddha and Gandhi did when faced with injustice and human suffering.

Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass

On a train voyage to Pretoria, 24 year-old Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off a first-class railway compartment and beaten by a white stagecoach driver after refusing to give up his seat for a European passenger. That train journey was the turning point for young Gandhi who soon began developing and teaching the concept of “passive resistance” with the ultimate aim of freeing his homeland from the yoke of British colonialism. Thirty-seven years later, the Indian National Congress fulfilled Gandhi’s dream by declaring independence.

At 29, Siddhārtha shuddered when he fled from the ‘perfect’ world inside his royal palace, and, for the first time, witnessed the suffering of the common man in the street. Alleviating human suffering became his sole purpose. At 35, he reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

It’s worth noting that all three exemplars — Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha — died relatively poor, and that two of them were killed for their beliefs. It is also worth remembering that the word “passion” comes from the Latin pati— to suffer. As Nietzsche said, “if you have a ‘why’ to live, you can put up with almost any ‘how.’

What we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings, but by [the] bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings. What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for? — Mark Manson

From Passion and Anger to Greater Purpose and Meaning

My passion is writing. Has been since the age of eight. I know it is, because when writing I experience flow, that mystical feeling where time stops. I also know it’s my passion because the longer I write, the more energized I feel. It has made me experience the vitality famous playwright William Herzog finds in his own work, and which he describes as follows: “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.”

While I don’t believe I was singled out at birth to be a writer, I absolutely love it, and that love makes me practice the craft with steely grit and unwavering discipline. Little by little, day by day, I am becoming better at it, though must confess there are times when it feels, not like a long vacation, but like torture. But as I tell boys in my latest book, there is beauty and nobility in hardship.

The road from intensity to greatness passes through sacrifice. — Rudolf Kassner.

And yet, all this time, my passion had served no other purpose than to cater to my own pleasure and delight. That is, until I shuddered, a little over a year ago.

For a long time, I had been angered by the endless string of mass shootings in the U.S. and had taken the time to research their true cause. I’d also been following the growing crisis in American boyhood and dimming prospects for men in general. But I did absolutely nothing about these issues other than getting increasingly angry and frustrated. Then, on New Year’s Day, 2019, I chanced upon this quote in one of my notebooks: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness” and it struck me with a shattering force.

I finally grasped what Greek philosopher Aristotle meant about vocation — that it lies at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.

At last, at the ‘tender’ age of 57, I had found my purpose and decided to use my writing talent and passion to serve what I consider the most urgent need in today’s world: to initiate boys into becoming good men.

Thus far, I haven’t earned a dime from this work and hopefully never will, for as I tell boys in the book, one of the precepts of the Medieval Code of Knightly Chivalry is, “Focus on the good of your cause and not on its material rewards.” The word “knight,” I further explain, shares the same root with the word “hero,” meaning “servant.”

While my path opened through outrage, it is not the only way. Often, one’s purpose is found by way of an irrepressible enthusiasm for something one feels must be shared with the world. A crazy love! so to speak. The story of Vietnamese refugee David Tran and his giddy passion for his hot sauce Sriracha is a perfect example. His dream was “never to become a billionaire,” as Tran told Quartz when interviewed, “but to make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants it can have it. Nothing more.”

That “nothing more” has translated into a food empire now selling over $60 million dollars per year.

What if I don’t know what my passions are?

Here again, you’re not alone.

And it’s because most people shackle themselves to a narrow definition of who they are, what they think they’re good at, like, or may not like, so never move beyond their comfort zone. Hence the reason why so many could-be Jesuses remain in their wood shops, Gandhis in law offices, and Buddhas ensconced in their palaces, and the world doesn’t change nor heal.

Who’s to say, for instance, that if you were to apprentice with a beekeeper you might not discover in yourself a natural talent for it, even a burning passion that will inspire you to run further with it and save honeybees from extinction and the world from starvation in the process? What a legacy that would be!

We’re not slaves, says Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in ‘Saviors of God.’ As soon as we are born, a new possibility is born in us. Whether we act upon it or not, we each bring a new rhythm, a new desire, and potential new promise to the Universe. But unless we are curious and courageous enough to go out and seek it, we won’t find it.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. -Anonymous

In his practical and instructive guide, ‘How to Find Fulfilling Work,’ philosopher Alain de Botton says we should allow experience to be our mistress and let her take us “job dating” until we feel a spark. This process may include apprenticeships, internships, volunteering, or simply what he called “conversational research” where you spend an afternoon with a beekeeper, say, or a farmer, artist, chef, or a shamanic healer.

Vocation, Botton adds, is often something we grow into, not something we automatically find.

Before job dating, he recommends we let our imaginations run wild and think of 5 parallel universes where we’re allowed a whole-year-off to pursue any career we desire, then write down what it is about those five careers, or ways of life, that so moves and inspires us.

When I worked on this exercise, my deepest yearnings were for freedom, authenticity, serenity, and meaning.

Prodding deeper, I came up with this list:

  • I want to quit the rat race… don’t want to be a moron, automaton, or commuter
  • I don’t want to be enslaved by machines, bureaucracies, tedium
  • I want to be whole, not a fragment of myself
  • Do my own thing
  • Live simply and frugally
  • I want to deal with authentic people, not masks
  • People matter to me, nature matters, beauty matters, wholeness matters
  • I want to care for others. Give back. Pay forward. Heal.

At 54, I finally mustered the courage and broke free.

A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! — Nikos Kazantzakis

Another useful strategy recommended in Botton’s book is “The Personal Job Advertisement” in which we write down our talents, likes and dislikes, our yearnings, personal qualities and limitations, and the core values and causes in which we believe, and then send it to ten people who know us well asking them to recommend 2 or 3 career pathways that might fit. It then becomes a matter of experimenting with these possibilities in the real world.

A Means to an End

Not every job will be meaningful or engaging, as 70% of American workers have discovered. But it doesn’t mean the end of the world, nor that the promise that came with you when you were born will never see the light of day.

I freelance to pay my bills and hate every second while writing shit I could care less about. But I don’t complain. I see it as means to an end, affording me the freedom and time to bring my passion and talents to bear on what I do care about — the wellbeing and future of boys. If I can prevent but one mass shooting, I will die a happy man.

Your deep-seated frustrations with the world, your anger, outrage, or simply your irrepressible enthusiasms contain the clues to your purpose. Find that one need in the world that can be best served by your talents and you will have found your calling and unique path to a meaningful life. Just don’t expect a smooth ride, nor praise, fame, or rich rewards, and above all, don’t —please don’t wait until you’re 57. As poet Jimmy Santiago Baca said: “Life is not a rehearsal for living someday.”


Related reflections:

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

Stop Sharpening your F*#king Pencil!

“Living your Truth” is only for Madmen

 

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On The Wildness of Children

Lies the hope for the world

Deep in a remote jungle city in South East Asia, National Geographic reporter Hereward Holland writes that “in this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed, the cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. Many items on the menu, including drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.

“At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium; its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal’s muscular vitality.

The tiger wine is good for men, says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. ‘It makes a man strong in the bedroom.”

Never mind the pathetic spectacle of a grownup man incapable of recovering his erotic power by no other means than quaffing the deliquescing remains of a tiger. What I’m wondering about is the disconnect; of what made humans so detached from the rest of nature to now see her as nothing but a storehouse for their rapacious and often deviant appetites.

What kind of mind, I ask, is one that looks at an ocean and sees only breaded fish sticks and Omega-3 pills? Who in every rainforest sees nothing but a pricey mahogany table or green pasture to raise a juicy burger? Who sees a cure for erectile dysfunction in every tiger or rhino, a trophy for his fragile ego in the rack of a buck, a convenient drain for toxic sludge in every river, a mountain as a jewelry store and wild spaces as just ‘unpeopled.’

Only a dissociative mind. The mind of a schizophrenic and sociopath. An ecocidal mind. The same kind that considers anyone superficially different from him as less than human, thus fit for extermination. A genocidal mind, like Adolf Hitler’s.

Humanity, I fear, is suffering from reactive attachment disorder (RAD), prevalent in infants living in institutions; foster kids who go from one caregiver to another, or children who are separated from their mother for long periods of time.

Our separation from Mother Earth can be traced to the start of the Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago. Prior, we had lived for hundreds of thousands of years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Once we settled, we cut the umbilical cord and all hell broke loose.

The symptoms in those suffering from RAD include attention-seeking, neediness, infantile behavior, anxiety, detachment, and showing limited emotions. Pretty much the afflictions of the bulk of humankind.

Love is predicated on attachment, so it’s nearly impossible to love or care for anyone or anything from which you are far removed.

As it is, most of our sensitivities developed as hunter-gatherers are now all but lost. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or silkiness 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 checking labels. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. Bleared by the glaring light of screens, our sight now misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic media images and shouting voices that incite us 24/7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage and fear have made it impossible for us to find serenity and equanimity.

Our species no longer resonates, vibrates, thrums, or harmonizes, so can’t play its once rightful part within the concert hall of nature. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth — from the Latin mater for “mother” — simply becomes a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

We are living at right angles to the land and have commodified our aliveness, as said writer Maria Popova. And it may well be that our heedless violence against the planet is explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensual selves, so we seek to remove from view that which reminds us of what we have lost.

In his international bestseller ‘Last Child In The Woods,’ Richard Louv says that “since 2005, the number of studies of the impact of nature on human development has grown from a handful to nearly one thousand. This expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. — E.B. White

Curing adults from their acute nature deficit disorder seems hopeless. But I refuse to give up on the coming generations, which is why my book for boys seeks partly to call them out to the wild.

Here’s what I tell them:

Rewilding the American Boy2
Photo by Ashley Ann Campbell

For 99% of modern human history, or like forever, we lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our few clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins on our backs, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness.

We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, rugged, resourceful, and adventurous.

(…)

We are creatures of nature and are paying a heavy price for living apart from it. Some have called this “nature deficit disorder.” The average American kid now spends over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Compare that to the life of an American Indian boy as described by Charles Eastman who was a member of a Sioux tribe in 1858 and whose original name was Hakadah.

In his book, ‘Indian Boyhood,’ Hakadah says that “he enjoyed a life almost all boys dream of and would choose for themselves if they were permitted to do so. What boy,” he asks, “would not be an Indian for a while — the freest life in the world?”

“This was my life,” said Hakadah. “Every day there was a real hunt. We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. No people have a better use of their five senses than the children of the wilderness. We could smell as well as hear and see. We could feel and taste as well as see and hear. Nowhere has the memory been more fully developed than in the wild. All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. [We] had to go without food and water for two or three days without displaying any weakness, or run for a day and night without rest. [We] had to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing [our] way, either in the day or nighttime. [We] couldn’t refuse to do any of these things if [we] aspired to be warriors.”

I don’t know about you, but if I ever got lost in the wilderness, I would hope to find someone like Hakadah to guide me to safety rather than a modern-day boy with a cell phone or tablet.

I realize many kids today live in places where there is no immediate access to open natural spaces. But it doesn’t have to be a gigantic wilderness. With the right imagination, your local park or nearby creek will do just fine. Anything but sitting around playing video games or glued to screens which is causing two additional disorders:

The first one is psychataxia, a disordered mental state causing confusion and an inability to concentrate.

The second disorder caused by too much screen-time is social-emotional agnosia, the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. In other words, kids suffering from this disorder can’t relate to others.

(…)

In all my walks out in nature I have never seen a bird’s nest that’s two stories high with a hot-tub and a 60-inch plasma T.V. Have you?

I have never seen an obese, out-of-breath squirrel leaning against a tree unable to keep up with her fit friends because she ate more acorns than were necessary to keep her body fit.

I’ve never seen a bear hauling a ton of trash and dumping it in a river.

All I’ve seen in nature is balance.

Maybe that’s why I also haven’t seen a therapist couch, a drug rehab clinic, nor a prison in the wild. You only need those when things are out of whack or unbalanced. And the only ones who are unbalanced are humans, which is probably what made British philosopher Bertrand Russell describe planet Earth as the lunatic asylum of the Universe where the inmates have taken over.

Good for the Planet, Good for the Child

Rewilding the American boy is not only good for the environment but good for the boy.

Reporting for the National Center for Biotechnology, Susan Strife and Liam Downey say that increased urbanization combined with dwindling natural spaces and increased time indoors has sparked recent concerns regarding children’s diminishing direct contact with nature. Evidence that children are spending more time indoors and less time in nature has also sparked research across the health and psychological sciences that links children’s diminished contact with nature to important childhood health trends, including increased levels of depression and increased incidences of cognitive disabilities, obesity, and diabetes. This research indicates that exposure to nature has physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive benefits that not only buffer the symptoms of the above disorders but also positively affect children’s overall development.

A child’s brain develops stronger connections when exposed to a rich environment. A recent study shows that the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory, is highly susceptible to plasticity. Neuroplasticity induces lasting change to the brain throughout an individual’s life. Neuroplastic change has significant implications for healthy development, behavior, learning, and memory, and can be elicited by thoughts, emotions, and environmental stimuli.

Navigating nature also develops spatial thinking, described by Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe as “seeing in the mind’s eye,” allowing us to “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” In a 2013 report on maps and education, National Geographic concluded that “spatial thinking is arguably one the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. A [child] who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society.”

Besides the documented benefits to a child’s health and mental wellbeing there are profound life lessons to be found in the wild. “Every aspect of Nature,” said astronomer Carl Sagan, “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 will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”

An old tree, for instance, felled by age and storm and surrounded by fresh green shoots that had been waiting for their chance to rise, can teach a child more about the inevitability of death as a precondition for new life than any dry old textbook.

A stagnant, pestilent water pool can serve as a metaphorical warning against inactivity… to never allow their dreams to wither on the vine of life.

Watching a river flow effortlessly around rocks will teach them the power of persistence, flexibility, and yielding when confronting obstacles.

A bent tree sapling, struggling to get out from under the shadow of older trees to capture sunlight, is a testament to the rule by which we should all live — to find our own light, truth, authenticity and destiny, and stop trying to be an imperfect copy of someone else.

While I may not be able to save the tigers from being turned into wine to rejuvenate the flagging libido of older men, my hope is that my book will reach the new generation before the rest of nature succumbs to the rapacity of humanity’s dissociated, unwise, and unnatural mind.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Parent resources:

Vitamin N (public library link), by Richard Louv, author of the New York Times best seller that defined nature-deficit disorder and launched the international children-and-nature movement. Vitamin N (for “Nature”) is a complete prescription for connecting with the power and joy of the natural world, with 500 activities for children and adults.

Sense of Wonder (public library link), by Rachel Carson. A celebration of nature for parents and children by the acclaimed conservationist and writer of ‘Silent Spring.’

Featured

The Beauty in Hardship

Teaching children to embrace life’s challenges

What would this picture look like had it not been for the fierce resistance put up by the Eurasian land plate against the colliding Indian subcontinent 50 million years ago?

Featureless, flat… no soaring Mt. Everest — the crown jewel of the Himalayas.

What need would there be for a hawk’s great speed and keen eyesight if its prey were not swift and elusive?

Life itself would not exist at all without the gift of sunlight which is only made possible by the crushing force of gravity pressing against the core of our nearest star, the Sun.

No resistance, no soaring beauty. No opposition, no flourishing life.

And yet, humans seem unable or unwilling to accept this fundamental principle and further seek to shield children from hardship and suffering. All at a heavy price: the tragic loss of the nobility of their spirit.

In our misguided effort to pave for children a frictionless road to the land of plenty, we are raising a generation of weak and feckless individuals addicted to instant gratification and expecting a trophy just for getting out of bed. By the time they take their first step, we tell them they’re special… so, so special! Good thing they don’t ask us why, for we would be hard-pressed to give them a valid and useful answer.

Snowflakes are not special. What they are is unique. They all start their journey as tiny ice crystals high in Earth’s atmosphere, indistinguishable from one another. Their singularity is shaped by the path each one crosses and by what they encounter on that path.

In the womb, every child is indistinguishable. At an early age, they begin to manifest a unique temperament. Their character, however, just like a snowflake, will be forged by their journey through life. The greater the challenge and resistance, the stronger, more creative, resourceful and magnificent they’ll become. Muscles, mind you, grow stronger when swimming upstream.

Our job, then, is not to remove obstacles, but to teach children how to sharpen their swords. Rather than preparing the path for the child, we must prepare the child for the path.

A child unschooled in the fundamental principle of resistance in nature will see challenges as overly daunting, unfair, and unwelcome. Which is why my book for boys begins by exposing them to this fundamental reality.

I tell them “our universe is like one ginormous, never-ending fireworks display. An enchanted story of beauty and creativity as well as extreme violence and destruction. That’s what makes it such a good story. A fairy tale without thunder and lightning, or without epic battles or fiery dragons, would not be a good story no matter how pretty the princess is.

The origins and evolutionary story of humankind are next presented to develop in the young boy’s mind a sense of gratitude in the face of the improbability of our presence on Earth; a sense of humility when considering how recent humans emerged on the cosmic stage, and to dwell on the unique opportunity we have as the only species capable of reflecting the universe’s beauty, and the choice, either to continue spoiling the cosmic story, or contribute to its magnificent unfolding.

“…even though humans might be secondary characters in the story of the Universe, we are the only ones telling the story as far as we know. We’re the ones sending telescopes into space to take pictures of the dazzling spectacle and then watching them with mouths open and dropped jaws — sometimes with tears of wonder in our eyes — because we can’t get over how elegant and graceful everything is. Just like the magic mirror in Snow White, we’re like the mirrors upon which the Universe can finally reflect itself and see how beautiful it is. We are the Universe’s best ‘selfie.’ That’s awesome! Because it means we now have the opportunity and responsibility to make sure we continue making it a wonderful story. It’s like we’ve been given a beautiful garden to care for and must decide whether to be bees, or locusts.

Bees pollinate and make gardens flourish. Locusts are mean, rapacious, and ravenous grasshoppers who swarm into a garden, destroy it, then fly off to look for the next field to consume. They’re like those death-dealing aliens in science fiction stories who go from planet to planet laying waste to all life to feed their insatiable appetite.”

I then narrate our species’ life as hunter-gatherers during the 99% of the time modern humans have been present and thrived on Earth. This I do with two objectives: to introduce them to the Life Force of Grit, and, to underscore how being out in nature helped us develop our creative imagination, social intelligence, and survival and adaptation skills. It also serves as a precautionary warning against under-nourishing these intrinsic traits and skills with a steady diet of media and video games.

“We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, adventurous, rugged, healthy, eating different kinds of food which helped our brains grow larger to the point of sparking something no other animal appears to have: a creative imagination!

(…)

For 99% of modern human history, or, like forever, we kept living as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our 30 or 50 clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins which protected us from the elements, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness. We survived through scary droughts and bitter ice ages. We were, and still are, a gritty species. The Life Force of Grit is one we all have but few choose to use. Above all the other life forces, Grit is the one you never want to do without.

To capture a young boy’s imagination and cement in his mind the value of the Life Force of Grit, I make use of metaphor, followed by a familiar story with which they can identify.

Here’s what I tell them:

Alladin

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to superfine. Rocks don’t like being polished. In fact, they hate it! 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, is the hawk, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal. 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 a mouse. Easy lunch, one would think. But nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive, so 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 will 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.

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Before Covid-19 struck our world, the outlook for boys was already grim. We’re now confronting a more formidable challenge. If there ever was a right time to fortify a boy’s psyche and gird his soul, surely this is it. To succeed in the world of their future, they will need every tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Teaching them to face hardship — with courage and grit — and preparing them for the road ahead are the greatest gifts we can give them.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to lead spirited lives of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Related articles:

You’ll Figure it Out – The Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism

Rewilding the American Boy

Featured

The Unhappiest Place in the World

Is falling apart

Americans are crumbling like stringless marionettes.

One in six now take a psychiatric drug. Prescriptions for depression and anxiety are at an all-time high. The use of antidepressants alone increased by almost 400% between 1988 and 2008. The country churns and swallows 90% of the world’s methylphenidate to treat attention deficit. From 1999 to 2017, close to 400,000 people died from an opioid overdose.

In a place that holds the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right, it doesn’t seem to be working out quite like the nation’s founding fathers intended. Its people are wallowing in depression, anxiety, agitation, and pain.

I’m not surprised.

Because in a culture in which happiness is considered a holy grail, its people will inevitably frown upon sadness as a nasty virus to be eradicated at all cost.

“Since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear,” says Christina Kotchemdova in From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling. “And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as ‘abnormal,’ those who experience these emotions become alienated and ashamed.”

By the 1950s, the American war on sadness brought out the big guns with the introduction of the first antidepressant, and it wasn’t by chance, I believe, that it occurred as television became widely popular. Exposed to a wider world of plentitude — to its glitz, glam and glitter — people’s expectations of the good life acquired a whole new dimension and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ became a distressing struggle to keep up with the entire world.

In our high-performance society, it is feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. — Alain de Botton

In 1954, the antidepressant Miltown, popularly known as ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ arrived to help the American housewife just get through the day. Within ten years, Miltown was the country’s number one addiction after tobacco and booze.

Once the 24-hour news cycle roared into U.S. living rooms in the 1980s, Americans’ increasing feelings of inadequacy, envy, and helplessness were compounded by dread and anxiety. Before then, the news was broadcast by only three channels, in 15 to 30 minute segments, usually at six o’clock.

Death, disaster, crime and war, along with the ‘perfect life,’ would thereon haunt the American psyche — 24/7 — and ‘Despair’ became big business.

By 2011, Americans were spending $300 Billion on prescription drugs, with Xanax (for anxiety and panic disorders), Celexa (depression) and Zoloft (for panic attacks, OCD, depression and social phobia) being the most-prescribed. Ever year, 11 Billion dollars are mostly wasted on motivational and self-improvement programs in the form of books, CDs/DVDs, audiobooks, infomercials, motivational speakers, public seminars, workshops, retreats, webinars, holistic institutes, personal coaching, apps, Internet courses, training organizations and more. Billions are also flushed down each year on diets and dietary supplements, muscle building, and on sexual function, or dysfunction.

It’s not working.

Americans are now fatter, sadder, more anxious, lonely, dissatisfied, and less sexually active than ever, and worse, they are spreading their woeful contagion across the world.

Happiness: the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion. — Howard Mumford Jones

Happiness is a delusion that only infects the human mind. All other life forms thrive without it, for there is no such thing as “happiness” in biology, as historian Yuval Harari rightly points out, but only pleasure and delight.

Our intellectual forefathers, the ancient Greeks, did not believe the purpose of life was to be happy either. Instead, they championed the mind states of fulfillment and serenity.

Fulfillment — which the Greeks called eudaimonia — was attainable through a purpose driven life; by actualizing our potential in service to others.

It’s worth noting that the widespread use of the antidepressant know as ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ coincided with the return of men from World War II throughout which women had manned the engines of industry and warfare inspired by the iconic figure of ‘Rosie the Riveter’. Once men came back from the front, women were sent back to the kitchen and lost their sense of higher purpose.

Rosie the Riveter

Modern science has since confirmed the ancient Greek intuition of the benefits to wellbeing derived from a purpose driven life.

Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself, and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other no matter how difficult it is. Life is good when you’re happy, but much better when others are happy because of you. — Pope Francis

“The meaning of life is to find your gift,” said Pablo Picasso. “The purpose of life is to give it away.”

Such purpose, however, need not be extraordinary, earth-shattering, or world-changing. As I tell boys in my book, “helping a blind man cross the street because you are blessed with the gift of vision is a heroic act. Assisting 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.”

In fact, some of the most heroic people I know are those who were thwarted by circumstance from doing what they most wanted in life, and, instead, did what was necessary, such as caring for an ailing parent, and they did it with grace.

Along with purpose, the ancient Greeks also strived for ‘ataraxia,’ defined by philosopher Epicurus as a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve inner tranquility by being content with simple things.

Americans, though, seem unable to comprehend that they can never get enough of what they never needed in the first place so keep buying stuff to fill existential holes.

“The body’s needs are few,” said Stoic philosopher Seneca. “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.”

In addition to purpose and serenity, there are other pathways to psychic wellbeing without wasting billions on pills and false promises. But first, we must temper our expectations — those savage enemies of our peace of mind. “If happiness is determined by expectations,” says Harari, “the two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.”

We must come to terms with the fact that most of us will never be rich, powerful, or famous, and accept — even welcome — life’s inevitable hardships, disappointments, and loss as an opportunity for growth and deeper wisdom. “We must love our fate,” as said German philosopher Nietzsche, without wishing to escape to an imaginary world, like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island or Cockaigne, which, in medieval myth, was that unreachable, and ultimately undesirable place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always at hand and where the harshness of life does not exist.

Without exception, we must all run the gauntlet of life, and in the face of hardship, must never dare ask, “Why me?”

Why not you?

Why should you be spared from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” What makes you so special? Even those lavish souls who sacrificed their lives in service to the world were not spared, so why should you?

“What grants life its beauty and magic,” says writer Maria Popova, “is not the absence of terror and tumult, but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet. If we all accepted life’s bargain of ‘no pain no gain,’ we would drive many pharmaceutical companies out of business, or, better yet, make them divert their efforts towards discovering cures for real diseases.

Filled with a sense of higher purpose (eudaimonia), tempered by serenity (ataraxia), and armed with a realistic and mature outlook on life, there is one final pathway to psychic and mental wellbeing within your reach and without having to spend a dime.

Harvesting ‘Happy Chemicals’

Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins are the happy quartet of neurotransmitters responsible for human delight, pleasure, and contentment — of pure animal bliss, if you will.

I want you to picture yourself as a music conductor responsible for directing this foursome. Your job is to make sure each one is in perfect tune and none play too loud nor too soft. Harmony and balance are the keys to their magic, as with everything else in life.

Let me introduce you to your spirited ensemble:

DOPAMINE motivates you to strive toward your goals and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. To keep dopamine playing smoothly, break down your goals into smaller steps and celebrate each time you accomplish one. Too much dopamine, though, may cause aggression, and make you unable to pay attention and control your impulses which can lead to addiction. Here are other ways to naturally increase dopamine levels.

SEROTONIN flows when we feel significant or important. It’s the rush we get when feeling we belong to something greater than ourselves. Loneliness lurks when serotonin is absent. Joining a book club, for instance, or volunteering in your neighborhood boosts serotonin. Anything that connects you to the wider community. Exercise also helps. So does bright light and getting a regular amount of sunshine, eating right, making a periodic list of all the things for which you are grateful, and recalling all your past victories and accomplishments.

OXYTOCIN is the neurotransmitter that bonds us with our fellow man. We feel its rush when we caress, cuddle, or exchange a hug or gift with someone we love. It creates trust and builds healthy relationships. Not only does inter-personal touch raise oxytocin, says neuro-economist Dr. Paul Zak, but reduces stress and improves the immune system. 8 hugs a day is Dr. Zak’s oxyboosting prescription.

ENDORPHINS alleviate pain, anxiety, and depression. The “second wind” and euphoric “runner’s high” during and after a vigorous run are a result of endorphins. Along with regular exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to release endorphins.

To make this easy on you, I’ll now summarize the pathways to true and lasting wellbeing:

1. Remove yourself from the viral toxins spread by mass media. Break free from screens. If you must watch the news, do it with the intent of changing it. Figure out how your unique talents can be brought to bear to change the bad news into good.

2. Give your life a higher purpose. Big or small, doesn’t matter.

3. Temper your expectations. Most of us will never be rich or famous and that’s okay.

4. Know when enough is enough and you’ll understand why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would soon collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.

5. Memorize this quote by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “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.” Realize that wanting to get out of pain is the pain. Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island or The Land of Cockaigne are for childish, deluded souls.

6. See sadness for what it is: a normal and instructive part of the human condition. Open wide to the gifts of melancholy, nostalgia, longing, even anguish, for they are the stuff of soulmaking. Understand that the dark pit of despair may be the womb of a new self… your golden ticket to reinvention.

7. Conduct your happy chemical quartet in balance and harmony. Break down your goals into smaller steps. Celebrate each victory. Embrace community. Be lavish with your hugs. Walk in nature. Get some sunshine. Exercise. Eat right. Be grateful. Laugh often and make love with abandon.

You’ll save tons of money, and won’t crumble like so many woeful, American marionettes.


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I’m Aging Really Well!

In ways you can’t imagine.

“At 60, one starts to get young,” said Pablo Picasso, “but by then it’s too late.”

I’m beginning to fathom what this French rascal meant.

Because it now takes me a good part of the morning just to rev up: to discharge all the night’s clogged phlegm, scrape off the rheumy crust from my sleepy eyes, straighten my spine, my thinning hair and unruly eyebrows, ensure all my frostbitten toes are still there, and patiently stand over the toilet bowl watching my piss trickle slower than it takes coffee to percolate. By that time, I’m already tired, a good part of the morning is shot, and I’m close to calling it a day. My biggest fear, I’ll say, is that my decaying body won’t keep pace with my youthful spirit that keeps stamping the ground like a hotblooded bull.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho said age only slows the rhythm of the man who never dares walk on his own two feet. In other words: the man who doesn’t live true to himself and so leads an inauthentic life. Still, while I have proven this to be true, my two feet are getting weary and are having trouble keeping up with the frenzied pace I have purposely given my life for almost eight years now.

Back then, at the start of this new chapter in my life, I took one look at the span between the end of my childhood and my present and realized that most of those thirty odd years had elapsed under the implacable weight of tedium; that hulking monster who Spanish writer Luis Landero says approaches by drumbeat in a slow parade with his ashen face and lugubrious retinue of phantoms to officially shut down a life with the death lock of monotony. In a panic, I also recognized that my hourglass was more than half empty which lent the urgency of the terminally ill to whatever time I figured I had left.

It doesn’t take much to remind me what a mayfly I am… what a soap bubble floating over a children’s party. — ‘Memento Mori’ by Billy Collins

Few people live this way. They squander their time as if death were nothing but an unfounded rumor. There you are, in your prime… late twenties, early thirties perhaps, looking ahead at half a century of wonderful experiences until a ghoul shatters your fantasy; a pandemic, say, which does not discriminate between young and old. If you are wise and humble, you are seized with a sudden terror when realizing your half century is nowhere near guaranteed.

My own anxiety flared hotter while sifting my memories and recognizing there were experiences which would never again repeat themselves.

One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts. — Maria Popova

I recalled the last time I had been spellbound by the shocking iridescence of a Blue Morpho butterfly weaving through the white-blossomed coffee trees in my native country when I was about ten years old. The last daring dive I took from a cliff into the bracing waters of the most magical lake in the world. The time my daughters last took turns on my back and rode me like a prancing pony across the living room carpet. Unrepeatable moments… the sharpest daggers of loss.

Then and there, at age 54, I vowed to fall in love again — with life — and relish every single moment and experience as if they were my last. To do that, I needed to recover my childhood’s sense of wonder, awe, and delight.

First, I knew I had to disrupt the linear relationship between expense and value, seeing I had spent fortunes in the past on stuff without deriving much meaning or delight. In this realm, children have it licked, having two advantages as says philosopher Alain de Botton: “They don’t know what they are supposed to like, and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value for them. Now, the little money I have, I invest on experiences, not things.”

Next, I needed to see the world with fresh eyes, like children and artists do, for whom everything is relevant and little goes unseen. And for that, I had to train myself to forget the names I once used to label things.

An ‘ordinary’ old tree, then, would cease to be nothing but a ‘tree,’ but also a woodland elder, whose rugged bark, under my caress, could feel like the sagging skin on my father’s back. The moon would cease to be nothing but a dead rock floating in space, but also the poetic beacon for starstruck lovers or the lighthouse of melancholy. Wind not just wind, but the lofty carrier of sighs and seeds. Everything had to become unfamiliar and extraordinarily uncommon.

The whole conception of the normal, the average, the commonplace, is due to a significant mental disease, said English author John Cowper Powys, adding that the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language is the word “commonplace”.

Along with fresh eyes, I also had to train my apathetic soul to feel anew.

“It’s useless to try to feel new things without feeling them in a new way,” said Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. “For things are what we feel they are, and the only way for there to be new things… for us to feel new things, is for there to be some novelty in how we feel them.”

I decided to move “out of my mind” to get lost in sensation. I willfully awoke my numbed senses to the world and began to savor the fresh rain inside blueberries, to imagine a sugarcane field in every spoonful, to hear a beehum in a drop of honey and taste in an apple the summer and snows, the wild welter of Earth and the insistence of sun, as poet D.H. Lawrence said was necessary to live in blissful awareness. Lovemaking became a metaphor; an erotic ritual; a ceremony; raw animal sex transfigured by my imagination. I became voracious, lustful, uninhibited, incandescent, and wild!

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

It was as if I had awoken a caged beast inside me who clamored for release, so I decided to record his stentorian tumult and logorrheic yearnings in my Memoir:

“I want to carry thunderbolts in my hands. My blood to burn. Dance barefoot in mud while drinking rain. Pluck a slippery fish from an icy stream with bare hands and tear its flesh with my teeth. I want to swim in the ocean and not bathe for months. Push massive boulders down steep, rugged mountains. Prance and lock horns with goats in the Alps. Punch a white shark on its snout and watch it sink, cross-eyed into the abyss. I want to shoot a spear through the black heart of a crow. Women to cower when I look at them with rapacious eyes with the radiance and intensity of stars. I want orgasms like Supernovas! I want to crush pungent leaves and rub them all over my body; I don’t want to smell like soap but loam. I want to throw my shoes into a lake and never retrieve them. I want my flesh to be lacerated by branches, dirt and grime under my nails, fungus eating away at my toenails, heels like sandpaper, and yank snakes from my nostrils. I want to slap the young to wake them from their stupor and then inflame them. I want to kiss a woman wearing a plate inside her lips, have her devour my heart, spit the sinew, and swallow the bloody pulp. I want to communicate by drumbeats, walk naked into a forest fire, blow smoke onto women’s smug faces who refuse to feed their men raw meat. I want to sew bloody fangs onto every child’s cuddly teddy bear. Tumble with a girl who wears a necklace made of men’s skulls. I no longer want to tiptoe my way through life but stomp! Not whisper but bellow. I want my tumult to be heard!

But now that I’m approaching 60, my spirit and my body are out of sync and I’m afraid my moldering carcass will give out before I have sucked all the marrow out of life. There’s so much I still want to do and time’s running out. And yet, I refuse to go quietly into the night.

While I know full well there is nothing I can do against the universal law of entropy (from dust to dust), I still put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared, just like Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said in ‘Saviors of God’:

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless.

I stay unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, I smash it!

And to all my ills and troubles, I respond with laughter and the sense that I, and the world, are mad.

Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t strive to live rapt in wonder, awe, and delight. To see the world anew like a child. To savor every moment as if it were my last.

Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will. — Charles Baudelaire

At age 80, writer Henry Miller said he was a far more cheerful person than he was at twenty or thirty. “What is called youth is not youth,” he scoffed, “but something like premature old age. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then, I was ready for it. I had lost many illusions, but not my enthusiasm, nor my unquenchable curiosity. With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder.”

When Picasso said we start to get young at the age of sixty but too late, he added that “only then does one start to feel free; only then has one learned to strip oneself down to one’s essential creative simplicity.”

We are doomed to decay, says Maria Popova, so we cope by creating.

Therefore, as long as I can still drag my weary carcass out of bed each morning, I’ll keep spinning my yarns as my tribute for being one of the happiest of men alive on this wondrous world.

However many pages remain in my book, I intend to fill them with tall tales of adventure so that after biting the dust, my grandchildren will one day gather by an open fire, read my tumult, and become inflamed with a burning passion for a spirited and well-lived life.


Related article:

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard

 

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Rage!

Harnessing the power of our emotions

In the history of Western literature, the very first word is “rage,” for that is how Homer’s ‘Iliad’ begins.

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, and made their bodies carrion, feasts for dogs!”

And all this mayhem just because of a girl.

In Homer’s epic, the great warrior Achilles is forced to give up his prized spoil of the Trojan War — a young captive girl. Enraged, Achilles abandons the battlefield and sulks in his tent causing the death of many of his comrades by his indecorous withdrawal.

Achilles is not alone in his affliction. A low EQ, or emotional intelligence, is a condition common to many men.

The Bible, for instance, records the first ever case of murder committed by Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, who, in a fit of blinding rage, bludgeoned his younger brother Abel after the Lord accepted Abel’s offering in preference to his own.

More recently — May 2014, to be precise — 22 year-old Elliot Rodger slaughtered seven people in Santa Barbara, CA. because he felt rejected by the sorority girls at Alpha Phi.

In his words:

“On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and will slaughter every single, spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls I’ve desired so much, they have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance toward them, while they throw themselves at obnoxious brutes.” — Excerpt of Elliot Rodger’s video recorded manifesto

Rage, says author Parker Palmer, is simply one of the masks heartbreak wears.

How different might the tales of these three young men have been if they’d been taught to draw upon their inner resources to master the moment… if, as boys, they would’ve been helped in nurturing their emotional intelligence.

Might there be a midpoint, then, between Cain and Elliot’s fiery rage and Achilles’ sulken, cowardly withdrawal? Halfway between our innate responses of fight or flight?

The ancient Greeks said there was and called it ‘sophrosyne’: an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to temperance, prudence, decorum, and self-control.


Men are like rivers. When rejection, disappointment, and despair rain down upon them, their current swells with hurt. Their sense of control and masculine pride come under threat. This is their ‘Achilles Heel’. Ashamed, disoriented, and untaught on how to deal with such powerful emotions, they repress them, but the hurt invariably breaks through and overflows, wreaking havoc on self and others.

Imagine if we could transform the chaos of these pent-up emotions into generative energy. What a better world it would be!

In Spanish, the word for “river dam” is ‘represa’ — to repress. But a dam does not end with an impervious barrier. A floodgate opens to a turbine which transforms the river’s raging power into energy. That’s sophrosyne!

Young men in America urgently need the wisdom of such harnessed power, which is why my book for boys devotes an entire chapter to the Life Force of Temperance.

“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.” — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’

Before training boys on this indispensable strength of character, though, I first help them tackle some of their generation’s most insidious problems, like the pervasive culture of narcissism and instant gratification; the dispiriting envy provoked by deceptive social media narratives about the ‘perfect body,’ the ‘perfect life,’ instant fame and wealth; the false promise that kids can be anything they want to be; that they are ‘special’ for no apparent reason instead of unique for many, and I further explain why obstacles and resistance (i.e., not always getting what we want) are necessary to spark ingenuity and creativity and what ultimately lend beauty and meaning to life.

Since children learn and retain best through story and metaphor, I introduce them to the Life Force of Temperance by way of the tragic tales of two famous young men, followed by the ‘Allegory of the Chariot’ by Greek philosopher Plato.

Chariot version 2

“Neither too hot nor too cold is what ‘Temperance’ means. Neither too fast nor too slow. It’s all about moderation. About self-control. About being able to say ‘no’ to short-term rewards in exchange for a greater reward in the future. It’s also about knowing when enough is enough.

I’ll explain this by way of a true story about a man by the name of Jack London.

In 1889, when he was just thirteen years old, Jack taught himself to sail. At fifteen, he borrowed three-hundred dollars to buy a small sailboat, the ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ and became the most successful oyster pirate in Northern California. Needing to earn money to help his poor family, Jack would go out at night on his boat and steal oysters from the companies who grew them along the shores of San Francisco and he’d then sell them at the fish markets in Oakland. At seventeen, he quit school and joined a crew of seal hunters and sailed to Japan. At twenty-one, he trekked deep into the Canadian wilderness in search for gold. Jack also loved to read and write, and by the age of thirty, was the most successful and highest paid writer in America. ‘The Call of the Wild,’ is one of his most famous books.

Pretty cool, right? Just imagine what Jack’s Instagram or Snapchat would have looked like had social media existed when he was growing up. Who wouldn’t want a life like Jack’s?

But here’s what happened…

Jack blazed hotter than a wildfire and kept pushing himself faster and faster, harder and harder, like a merry-go-round whizzing at breakneck speed with its wooden horses panting and covered in white foamed sweat. Jack wanted more — more fame, more money, more ‘likes’ — and he wanted them now! And because he could never get enough, he made himself sick, drank too much booze, and died at the age of forty.

Before I tell you what you can learn from Jack’s fate, I’ll tell you another true story. This one is about a boy named Alex, better known as Alexander the Great.

Alexander was born in Greece in 356 B.C. to King Philip II and Queen Olympias. At age 12, he showed impressive courage when he tamed the wild horse Bucephalus, soon to be his loyal battle companion. At age 20, Alexander became King of Macedonia and began a campaign for world domination. In thirteen short years, he defeated the mighty Persian Empire, conquered Egypt, and ruled over the largest empire in the ancient world.

Also pretty cool.

But here’s what happened to this guy.

Alexander kept pushing himself and his troops harder and harder. At one point, his exhausted soldiers refused to fight further. They told Alexander that a true leader knows when it’s time to stop fighting. Because he didn’t like the advice they gave him, Alexander killed his most trusted lieutenant in a fit of drunken rage.

“In victory,” said writer Robert Greene, “do not go past the mark you aimed for.”

To understand what this writer meant, imagine your school’s football team is trouncing the opponent 70–0 at the end of the third quarter. There is absolutely no way the other can win. Victory for your school is certain. Now suppose you’re the captain of your team… would you instruct your players to ease-off, or continue crushing it?

Alexander kept on crushing. Not only greedy, but dangerously vain and arrogant, he allowed his success to go to his head to the point of believing himself a God. Alex kept fighting, partied hard (just like Jack), drank too much, died at the age of thirty-two, and his empire soon collapsed.

Memorize this: A wise warrior knows when it’s time to stop swinging his sword.

What shocks me is the fact that Alexander was tutored by none other than the wise philosopher Aristotle who was himself a student of another genius by the name of Plato. It was Plato who warned everyone about the danger of not having self-control, or temperance. He explained himself by writing a simple story with a hidden, but crucial meaning, named ‘The Allegory of the Chariot.’

Every man, Plato said, is made up of three parts. The first is the logical, thinking part, that Plato called the “charioteer” — or conductor — whose job is to drive and control the chariot. The other two parts inside every man are the horses that pull the chariot — one black, the other white. The black horse represents our emotions. The white horse represents our spiritedness, that combines, both our physical and mental strength, and our courage.

Let’s summarize these 3 parts and connect them to the ‘Energies’ discussed in Chapter 9:

The King represents your Brain = Charioteer.

The Warrior represents your Strength and Courage = White Horse.

The Wild Boy represents your Emotions = Black Horse.

Remember what Confucius said? That we should never give a sword to a man who cannot dance? Confucius was referring to a man who is not connected to his body and emotions, and, therefore, can’t control his black horse. It’s the man who, when angry, doesn’t take the time to understand where the anger is coming from and what it wants from him so foolishly lashes out with violence. In other words, instead of wisely simmering, he blows hot and burns others.

Earlier in the book I told you that feeling and expressing emotions is a good thing but not so if you allow them to take over. The black horse of your emotions must always, always be under the wise control of the charioteer — the inner-King who brings order to your life and calms your storms.

The white horse, on the other hand, is very important because it helps you get what you want out of life. It is essential to achieve your goals. It’s that fierce warrior inside every man who won’t sulk or run when the going gets tough. It’s also the excitement you feel when you are doing something you love. But if you allow the white horse to run amok, you will end up like Jack London and Alexander the — not so — Great.

Hold your horses!’ is another phrase you should memorize for it may one day save your life as it may have spared Alex and Jack from their tragic fates. This expression was first used 2700 years ago by Greek poet Homer in ‘The Iliad,’ referring to a guy by the name of Antilochus who drove like a maniac in chariot races.

What I don’t get is this: Why on earth didn’t Alexander pay attention to his wise teacher Aristotle and learn all this stuff about charioteers and horses? Why did he not connect the dots? If you ask me, Alexander must have been distracted or half-asleep during class which I hope is not what you’re doing right now but, rather, paying close attention so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Aristotle was trying to teach young Alexander to know when enough is enough, and to listen to his body and properly deal with his emotions to prevent crashing his chariot in a fit of blinding rage hurting himself and others.”

Like fire, anger is a great servant but a terrible master. — Martin Luther

While intended for boys, this ancient wisdom would well serve adults and may help quell the many bursts of rage flashing across America today.

The sorry state of the nation’s discourse proves how woefully unaware and unintelligent many are about their emotions. Running hot through the civic bloodstream, today’s default response is rage. Debates are ‘won’ by who can shout the loudest. Many of its leaders are men who wield the sword of power but don’t know how to dance. Outrage is now the chief currency of the ‘news’ and media ecosystem. The country’s politics are infected by vitriol, and tightly-lidded dishes of seething anger and acrimony are present at dinner tables, especially at Thanksgiving, where families sit on eggshells in fear of inflaming one another or self-combusting. Politics, once ago but “the normal affairs of state and its citizens,” is now something better not discussed. And then people wonder why things are getting more strident and divisive and problems keep getting worse.

Rightful anger and spirited debate are necessary to resolve issues and fight injustice. In fact, I think larger doses of this robust tonic are needed in a country where its citizens are increasingly living true to what South African writer Breyten Breytenbach once observed, that “Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.” No more lamentable proof of this contagion than the growing indifference to the hundreds of innocent lives lost every year to mass shootings.

But while rightful anger is very often called for and necessary, the battle is all but lost if we allow it to play us like helpless marionettes.

In my book I tell boys that rather than raising their voice, they must harness their anger, simmer, and work on improving their arguments. Speak when you’re angry, warns writer Laurence J. Peter, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.

So it’s not a matter of cutting ourselves from our feelings, but of attaining a serene mind which no longer falls prey to our emotions; no longer shaken by adversity or intoxicated by success, as said Jean Francois-Revel and Matthieu Ricard in ‘The Monk and the Philosopher.’ “If a handful of salt falls into a glass of water,” they observed, “it makes that water undrinkable, but if it falls into a lake it makes hardly any detectable difference.”

The world today is experiencing unprecedented turmoil and greater storms lie ahead. The innate fierceness in men is needed more than ever. But such power must be expressed by calm inner strength and not with violence which is only a manifestation of frustrated, unconscious impotence like the one that made Achilles sulk, Cain murder, and Elliot slaughter so many innocent people.

My book aims to prepare the future generation of men to overcome the many challenges that will soon test their character by teaching them how to deal with the swelling hurt of life’s inevitable disappointments, defeats and rejection without burning themselves and others in an explosion of rage.


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication!

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Adventure, Danger, Honor and Glory – The Path of the Masculine Warrior

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

 

 

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Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

Vanquishing our fears

As humanity throbs with muted agony and chokes breathless in the grip of fear, a way forward breaks through the muck, lit by the timeless wisdom of those who came before us and prevailed against the dark.

Twin dragons guard the gateway to deliverance: Our Fear of Death and our Fear of Want. Vanquish those, and you’re free.

Before the great flaming battle, though, you must first rid yourself from the deluded chain-armor of immutability — the foolish insistence that things return to how they were before Covid-19.

“To resist change, to try to cling to life and non-existent certainties, is like holding your breath,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts in ‘The Age of Anxiety.’ “It must be obvious from the start that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a Universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. If you want to be secure — that is, protected from the flux of life — it means you are also wanting to be separate from life. A society based on the quest for security and permanence is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is taut as drum and as purple as a beet.”

Show me a static system in nature and you will have shown me a dead one. Best steer clear from stagnant waters for they breed nothing but pestilence.

Granted, the pain the pandemic has brought to the world is bitter. But equally distasteful were the dishes served to humankind by past plagues, wars, famines, great depressions… Life, my friend, is not a buffet where we get to choose what to eat. It’s a sit down dinner where we must eat what we’re served. If you refuse this universal truth, there is no point in reading further.

But assuming you accept this fundamental principle, let us charge ahead and lock horns with the twin dragons of death and want.

Many people walk through life dismissing death as nothing but an unfounded rumor. They imagine themselves as granite pillars, meant to last forever and so squander precious time in meaninglessness. Waste time, kill time, dither and delay. ‘Just wait a little, wait a while’… they stall their hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end and time waits for no man.

“Some people forget to live as if a great arsenic lobster could fall on their heads at any moment.” — Federico García Lorca

If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not ‘someday’, but at any given moment. On every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a stirring reminder that our precious life can end in a blink.

“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver

It helps if one sees life as a book, says American poet Stephen Crane. “Just as a book is bounded by its covers — by beginning and end — so our lives are bounded by birth and death. You can only know the moments in between. It makes no sense to fear what is outside those covers 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.”

As with death, so we must vanquish our fear of want.

When I was 36, my world was upended when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself adrift in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. That was twenty years ago. I figured it out, so can you.

I learned that fortune is a capricious, deceptive, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty, and the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. Although it took me a while, I finally adopted the worldview Stoic philosopher Seneca did centuries ago. “Never have I trusted Fortune,” he declared, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” Seneca added. “Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and, second, to know what is enough.”

A poor man is someone who fears poverty. — Nikos Kazantzakis

I no longer fear for want, having learned the hard way what poet Mary Ellen Edmunds wisely noted: “that you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”

Now that Covid-19 has upended my life one more time, it finds me calm and serene, lit with that inner peace Greek philosopher Epictetus said “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’”

I’m like an old anvil, if you will, laughing at the many broken hammers which keep trying (and failing) to break me. I remain unperturbed, like the carefree poet Walt Whitman who waxed defiant in his ‘Song of the Open Road’:

“ME imperturbe!” he scoffed “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.”

Whitman wisely detached himself from his problems. “That’s the idea! said writer Henry Miller. “Why try to solve a problem? Dissolve it! Bathe it in a saline solution of neglect, contempt, and indifference.”

This rugged soul also 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!”

On his spirited journey, Whitman put the sword to the dragons blocking the gateway to blissful aliveness: the twin fears of death and want.

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. 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. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

There’s no point, I’m afraid, in pining for life to return to normal after the pandemic ends. No time to bury our heads in the sand, there to entertain false hopes and illusions. “Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.

But while we can’t go back and change the beginning, we can start where we are and change the ending. Seeing we’re all teetering on the edge of uncertainty, why not consider the edge as a point of transition? as Sam Keen suggests in ‘Learning to Fly.’

“We are filled with seeds,” he says. “With potentialities, promises, talents that lie dormant for half a lifetime waiting for the right time to germinate. As a place to live, the edge combines risk and promise, fear and desire. It is a place of openness to what is new; of a willingness to expand our sense of the possible; a place where the ego is constantly dying and being reborn; where constriction gives way to inspiration.”

Rather than with paralyzing dread, why not confront this moment of suffering with a swelling sense of promise and adventure and seize the opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives?

What grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult, but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet. — Maria Popova

In the muck of our present tumult, let’s steel ourselves by gracefully accepting the invitation extended by Puerto Rican poet José de Diego:

If sorrow beats you down,

if weariness numbs your limbs,

do like the dead tree: grow green again,

or like the buried germ: throb!

Reemerge, cheer, shout, march, fight,

vibrate, sway, growl, sparkle.

Do like the river when it rains: swell!

or like the sea against the rock: break!

At the irascible push of the storm,

you are not to bleat like a feeble lamb,

instead you are to roar like a wild beast.

Rise, resist, provoke!

Do like the corralled bull: bellow!

or like the bull that can’t bellow: charge!

As our lives and world tumble, heave and toss in the storm, there seems little else we can do but rise, roar and charge, slay the twin dragons, and sail bravely through the gateway onto seas of adventure.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.

Related articles:

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You’ll Figure it Out.

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Bread and Circuses

Let the hunger games begin!

“People are like chickens. It doesn’t matter how much pain you inflict on them, the moment you offer them what they need, they will still follow you and turn to you for their survival.” — Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin

In 1935, Stalin invited his senior advisors and some media henchmen to a meeting with the intent to make a point. When everyone had gathered at a barnyard, he called for a live chicken and forcefully seized it by the neck with one hand, and, with the other, began to rip the chicken’s feathers in handfuls. The poor bird squawked under the torment, but Stalin kept plucking away. Unfazed by the signs of disgust on the faces of those too afraid to stop the tyrant, Stalin continued until the chicken was completely unfeathered.

He then put the bird down by a small heap of grain and stood up to finish the last act while the people observed the chicken trudge towards the grain. As the chicken started pecking, Stalin put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out another fistful of grain, laying it out in front of the wounded bird. To the utter surprise of the transfixed spectators, the chicken managed a weak-kneed stagger back to Stalin and started to peck the fresh grain right out of the hand which just seconds before had inflicted such unbearable pain. Stalin had made his point — loud and clear.

For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? Give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. — The Grand Inquisitor in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Having just received my Covid-19 relief check, I feel eerily whisked back to the times of the Roman Empire.

In the late first century AD, Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase “Bread and Circuses,” which, in a political context, means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base needs of a populace by offering a palliative — food (bread) or entertainment (gladiator games). This historical precedent partly inspired ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy by author Suzanne Collins.

“The evil was not in the bread and circuses, per se,” said Roman philosopher Cicero, “but in people’s willingness to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”

While the United States mourns the growing loss of so many of its brothers and sisters and many face food insecurity, its would-be emperor tosses chunks of red meat to his most slavish and fanatical minions to secure a second term in November.

And it’s not just money.

In a circus-like example with surreal parallels with Rome’s gladiator games, the Trump administration recently announced plans to open up an additional 2.3 million acres of wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing.

In praise, his henchmen hailed the proposal in stirring words:

“America’s hunters and anglers now have something significant to look forward to in the fall as we plan to open and expand hunting and fishing opportunities across more acreage nationwide than the entire state of Delaware.” — U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt

“Once the Trump Administration’s effort to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 has been successful, there will be no better way to celebrate than to get out and enjoy increased access for hunting and fishing on our public lands.” — US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith.

“This is a truly historic expansion and wonderful news. On behalf of NRA’s 5 million members, we wholeheartedly thank Secretary Bernhardt and Director Skipwith.” — Erica Tergenson, Director, National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.

To be clear, I have nothing against hunting and fishing. In fact, I know many a hunter and angler who are staunch conservationists and better stewards of the wild than treehuggers. I am here, merely prosecuting the deceitful intent, not the policy.

Other examples of ‘Bread and Circuses’ are the easing of gas-mileage standards hard-won by the Obama administration, waiving EPA regulations, and Trump’s insistence on bailing out the oil industry from its own folly.

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 [and] guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover

A people whose conscience places profit over principle makes easy pickings for demagogues and turn elections into nothing more than a spineless, desperate act to protect our toys, circuses, and wallets.

Come November, we will either prove ourselves but slavish, plucked chickens, or prove Jesus was right in saying “man does not live by bread alone.”


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Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

In ‘Saviors of God,’ Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said he wanted to find a single justification to live amid the dreadful daily spectacle of disease, ugliness, injustice and death.

Coming out of the horror of a concentration camp twenty years after Kazantzakis’ woeful plea, Viktor Frankl provided such justification: “For people who think there’s nothing to live,” he said, “the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them.”

He who has a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’ — Friedrich Nietzsche

Cowering inside our homes as most of us are today amid a world in shambles, it is easy to want to cry out for one good reason to keep going. If my daughters were still young and in need of support, the reason would be clear. Now that they are self-reliant, I have found a new purpose — to serve the world.

My quest wasn’t hard to find. I simply searched for a need in the world I could become passionate about, then found a way to use my talents to serve that need. While the journey hasn’t been easy, I would not trade it for anything.

Happy the man who hears the Cry of his times and works in collaboration with it. He alone can be saved. What, then, is our duty? It is to carefully distinguish the historic moment in which we live and to consciously assign our energies to a specific battlefield. — Nikos Kazantzakis

In recent years, there have endless debates about men’s purpose. Some have even dared suggest we are on our way to the scrap heap of historical obsolescence, there to lie buried along the VCR, the pay phone, and the floppy disk. But that was 2020 B.C. — before Corona.

Covid-19 now presents us men with the opportunity to rise and prove our mettle and worth, just like the menace of fascism in the 1940s roused men to save the day making them win the accolade of ‘The Greatest Generation.’

Our chance for glory has arrived! This is no time for cowering.

In ‘Fire in the Belly,’ Sam Keen says “the dispassionate, post-modern man is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, 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. It is an illusion to believe that the virility men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”

“Virility” is a word you don’t hear much anymore. “For most of history, though, it was normal to praise exemplary men as virile,” writes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker. “In fact, only in the past century has the word virility been displaced by the more anodyne ‘masculinity’ and ‘manliness.’ In Ancient Rome, virilitas migrated to the center of male identity. The virile man wasn’t just sexually assertive, powerfully built, and procreative, but also intellectually and emotionally levelheaded, vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained. The virile is not simply what is manly. It’s an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination, courage and greatness accompanied by strength and vigor.”

Swirling around the modern-day debate about men’s purpose is a confusing cacophony of opinions as to what it means to be a man. I’ll now try to settle this matter, once and for all, by way of definitions.

To be ‘Male’ is a matter of biology.

Masculinity, or more accurately, ‘Mask-ulinity,’ is a mannerism. It’s an affect, the extremes of which are found in the macho swagger of a ‘John Wayne’ type and a Japanese ‘Herbivore Man.’

Manhood, however, is not a given, as playwright Norman Mailer said. “It is something men gain by winning battles with honor.”

Where are those battles?

As I recently wrote, the current pandemic has not only toppled humanity’s most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control —  but like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness to which Kazantzakis referred: the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

It’s time to dare the impossible and bring about a new promise for the world!

“Centuries from now,” Kazantzakis prophetically wrote, “this epoch of ours will possibly be called a middle age, not a renaissance. As one civilization becomes exhausted, loses its creative strength and crumbles, a new Breath carried by a new class of men toils with love, rigor, and faith to create a new civilization.”

I’ve already proposed what this “new class of men” should be like, so won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll summarize the spiritual exercises Kazantzakis laid out for any man wanting to change the world.

Consider it your Warrior’s Training Manual.

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers
Epitaph on the grave of Kazantzakis in Heraklion: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!

The Preparation

Discipline is the highest of virtues so may strength and desire be counterbalanced and for the endeavors of man to bear fruit.

Let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.

Conquer the last, greatest temptation of all: Hope.

Say farewell to all things at every moment. Surrender yourself to everything. Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!

The March

This is the moment of greatest crisis. This is the signal for the March to begin. If you do not hear this Cry tearing at your entrails, do not set out.

Someone within me is struggling to lift a great weight, to cast off the mind and flesh by overcoming habit, laziness, necessity.

I put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared.

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly so that — all light — it may devour darkness.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless. I feel in my heart all commotions and all contradictions, the joys and sorrows of life. But I struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart, to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.

You are my comrade in arms. Love danger. Which road should you take? The craggiest ascent. In that ascent, do not seek friends; seek comrades-in-arms.

Be always restless, unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, smash it! The greatest sin of all is satisfaction.

You are not a slave. As soon as you were born, a new possibility was born with you. Whether you would or not, you brought a new rhythm, a new desire, a new idea.

Gamble the present and all things certain, gamble them for the future and things uncertain.

Free yourself from race; fight to live through the whole struggle of man. Gaze on the dark sea without staggering. Confront the abyss every moment without illusion, or impudence, or fear; battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

It is this ascension — this battle with the descending countercurrent — which gives birth to pain. But pain is not the absolute monarch. Every victory, every momentary balance on the ascent, fills with joy every living thing that breathes, grows, loves, and gives birth.

The ultimate most holy form of theory is action. Action is the widest gate to deliverance. Not to look on passively while the spark leaps from generation to generation, but to leap and to burn with it!

My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: ‘give me and I shall give you.’ 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 battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’

Whatever it might be, we fight on without certainty, and our virtue, uncertain of any rewards, acquires a profound nobility.

Die every day. Be born every day. Deny everything you have every day. Impose order, the order of your brain, on the flowing anarchy of the world.

The soul of man is a flame that shouts: ‘I cannot stand still, I cannot be consumed, no one can quench me!’

We can no longer fit into old virtues and hopes; into old theories and actions. Today, the only complete and virtuous man is the Warrior!

Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’

If you were looking for a ‘why’ to live, the havoc Covid-19 has wrought on our world and the many fault lines it has exposed in its wake has just opened up many fronts which call for the fierce warrior energy in men.

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. I discovered mine… now go find yours!

The world is starved for heroes. It needs virile and passionate men now more than ever. I say it’s time we draw our swords and give the world a solid reason to name us ‘The Bravest Generation!’


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.

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A Blinding Passion

Is seldom what it seems.

Defying monster waves, abandoning your marriage, an illicit affair, quitting your job, buying a Ferrari…

Is seldom what it seems.

Dig deeper, and under each sweeping impulse you’ll find a common thread: the burning desire to feel intensely alive.

Most of us could care less about the ultimate meaning of existence, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. What we truly yearn for is the experience of being alive, so that our day-to-day existence, on the physical plane, resonates with our innermost self to awaken rapture — a word that, at origin, means to be carried away, snatched away… swept away!

It’s the longing many us feel at different points in our lives and project onto the intimate screen of our wistful day dreams.

Like the sultry one of being trapped inside the elevator with our sexy coworker who’s charmed with that irresistible dimple, healthy lack of inhibition and naughty disdain for company policy.

The carefree fantasy of a life in sun-drenched Tuscany, or the melting desire to be ravished by a Venetian, black-eyed gondolier.

The stirring wish to find a job posted online by a band of pirates looking for a daredevil shipmate for their next raid out on the open sea. “No swashbuckling experience required. Booty guaranteed!”

The barefooted dream on a white sand beach swaying on a hammock watching our slick sailboat bobbing nearby with no other care in the world than charting the next leg of our intrepid voyage.

It’s that ultimate yearning to be whisked away from our tedious lives, dispassionate relationships, boring locales, dispiriting jobs, or saved, if only for a day, from the death lock of monotony.

Bemoaning the apathy and deadening conformity of the 1950s, Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured his generation’s seething urge for revolt through the personal lens of his disquietude:

“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 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.”

In today’s regimented, rat-racing world, I imagine many must feel like they ought to check their pulse now and then just to make sure they’re still alive.

Not long ago, at the heels of a dangerous dalliance with a married woman, I quit my well-paying job and walked away. I had reached the point of numbness, a state of mind and spirit made worse by seeing the hourglass of my life more than half empty and the sand accelerating its fall.

‘Now or never!’… I finally broke free to fulfill my boyhood dream of becoming a writer; one I unwittingly buried to join the ladder-climbing sheep of my generation. In my early twenties, much too young and unwise to second-guess my impulse, I donned the mask, the suit and tie, and got busy pursuing other people’s tinsel fantasies. So convincingly did I play the role that after fifteen grueling years working long hours finally made it to the top.

It all came tumbling down in a flash.

Like Sisyphus, I spent the following two decades rolling my heavy burden uphill just to see it roll back down to start all over again. Paycheck to paycheck, one humdrum job after the other, escape was morally untenable. By then, I was honor bound to my family so bowed my head and kept going through the motions like a shackled, limp marionette. Breaking free only became possible once I launched my two daughters into self-reliance. At long last, I heeded the call of my boyhood passion and allowed myself to be swept away, and for the past three years, have been doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

But something’s missing…

While most of my hours hum and zing with a spirited charge of aliveness, I still find myself longing for that sense of rapture Campbell and Kerouac so poignantly described.

Is it just me?

Am I the only one cursed with abiding dissatisfaction? Might my affliction be living proof of the hedonic treadmill theory? The one that says humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes? Are we just inveterate desiring machines; nothing but incorrigible dopamine addicts? Or is our restlessness caused by our awareness and fear of death? “We love life,” says writer Sam Keen, “so death is an insult to our spirit.”

“There is something highly erotic about living in a conscious relationship to danger and fear,” Keen writes in ‘Learning to Fly.’ “The presence of danger makes us feel intensively alive and allows us to take an inventory of our fears, gives us an index of our courage, and forces us to develop grace under pressure (like bullfighters). On the other hand, if ‘security’ and ‘safety’ become the watchwords by which we live, the circle of our experience gradually becomes small and claustrophobic.”

Perhaps this is what I’m up against; the dreadful recognition that my life is again losing its edge, becoming small and stifling. Still too safe and secure, I’m like a sheltered ship at harbor, yet know that is not what ships are meant for. Maybe this is why I lately find myself daydreaming of purchasing a one-way ticket to a foreign country and moving there with only loose change in my pocket. What could possibly go wrong? Would I really end up starving to death in some squalid, rat-infested neighborhood swarming with pimps, prostitutes, and knife-wielding assassins? Or might I instead discover within me a previously untapped fount of courage and butt-saving street-smarts? One thing I am certain of is that those who live closer to the bloody floor of life’s slaughterhouse know no boredom. Like animals on the hunt, their hides must quiver, alert and alive.

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. 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. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

For all my present confusion, though, there is one more thing I know well, and that is myself. In such state of vulnerable unease, I know I am easy prey to a new blinding passion so must remain vigilant and keep the stamping and impetuous bull inside me locked in its pen until I figure this out.

Those lacking self-awareness are the ones who succumb to subconscious urges making them bolt from their marriages, abandon their children, buy Ferraris, have affairs, or quit their jobs on a whim.

Knee-jerking is for fools. Wise men simmer. They shine the light of reason on the wild and dark recesses of their minds before deciding to act on a bubbling impulse. When they do act, they make sure the remedy for their itch is the right one and not some fleeting opiate they know won’t work. A sexual obsession, for example, is a sign of repressed spirituality, as Sam Keen wisely notes.

Having singed my wings to feel the burn far too many times, I have proven what Keen says about using self-indulgent risk taking as an antidote to boredom — it is a dangerous drug.

Slowly then, I’m beginning to sense that serenity, perhaps even rapture, can only be experienced when we become part of something greater than ourselves. A worthy, selfless quest must surely be life’s most powerful aphrodisiac.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. – Maria Popova

Facing danger — even death — in loving service to others and the world may be as close as we can get to meaningful and intense aliveness. It is also the only path to immortality, one forever etched in the memories of those whose lives we heal and inspire by the touch of our grace.

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Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

We just don’t accept it.

Playing the role of Forrest Gump  (the small-town dimwit of the 1994 movie by the same name ) Tom Hanks sits on a bench by an outdoor bus stop with a box of chocolates on his lap. A nurse shows up, sits next to him, and rudely ignores his offer of one. Unfazed, the ever loveable Forrest remarks in his childlike southern drawl: “My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates… you never know what’cha gonna git.”

We humans are the petulant nurse in the story, stubbornly refusing Gump’s chocolatey truth. Amid a universe in constant upheaval, we demand certainty. We are spooked by spontaneity and bewildered by change. We can’t seem to live without controlling every aspect of our lives and insist on knowing what’s inside every chocolate before we take a bite. We are never patient, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet who sought his advice.

“Be patient,” he counseled, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. Live the questions now, and perhaps, gradually, without noticing it, you will live some distant day into the answer.

Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity. — Rainer Maria Rilke

In exile from his homeland during WWII, philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “to be lost is to fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. One does not get lost,” he added, “but loses oneself. It’s a conscious choice… a chosen surrender.”

This doesn’t mean giving up, but giving oneself up, which the ancient Greeks called kénōsis — the act of self-emptying — the arrestment of one’s will and desire. It’s Christianity’s notion of the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will to become receptive to the will of God, or fate.

Our world today is awash in uncertainty. Thousands are dying while millions lose their jobs. Whole industries are in peril and many countries at the brink of ruin. We’re at the mercy of an invisible, virulent scourge that has undermined our sense of control and proven how powerless we are.

When free falling into the abyss, it’s natural to want to flail our arms in search of a tree branch to save our lives. So is flapping our arms or praying for wings. But from what I can tell, no amount of flailing, flapping, or praying is going to stave the fall. It seems we are headed toward a nasty pileup. Quarantined and curled-up in crash position inside our homes, we can keep grasping at nonexistent branches, or choose to let go, surrender to the moment, and live the questions.

What is Covid-19 trying to tell us? What has it revealed about the human condition and the way in which we lived our lives before being turned upside down? What does it say about society at large and each of us in particular? Were we even in our right minds before the pandemic? What must change?

My friend and fellow writer Mary Reynolds Thompson may be right in saying “we often need some cataclysmic event to crack us open, just as bishop pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.”

Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller

Like a massive earthquake, Covid-19 has toppled our most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control. And like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness — the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

Before rushing to clean up the mess, though, we need to purge. To self-empty, like the ancient Greeks suggested. To use this dark moment to come to terms with ourselves and the fat turds we’ve dumped on the world while frolicking in abundance and denial. Time to also come to terms — once and for all — with uncertainty and the little control we’ve always had, always will. With so many lives being upended, so many fortunes changing, about the only thing we can control right now is how we choose to navigate the gauntlet.

About me are great natural forces — colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos, it is for me to thread my precarious way. — Jack London

Fortune is a capricious, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty and, the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. That day has come. Our world is tossing and heaving in unchartered waters.

“Never have I trusted Fortune,” declared Stoic philosopher Seneca, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”

Inner peace, suggested Greek philosopher Epictetus, “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’” Arriving at such sweet state of serenity must be apex of bliss, but if we are to get there, we must learn to accept any chocolate given to us from now on and know when to let go when the time comes. The important thing, Epictetus said, is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.

No doubt we’ll figure this out. But how we emerge from the crash will depend on what we do before we hit rock bottom. A new world, or new way of life, said Henry Miller, is not made by trying to forget the old; it is made with a new spirit, with new values.

If we use this time to live the questions… if we surrender our old ways of thinking and dare crack open our imaginations, we will come out of the dark — like tiny stars in the night — with saner, more fruitful answers to give our lives and the world a new orientation.

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“You’ll Figure It Out”

Clear-eyed optimism in times of crisis.

As a young boy, I resented my dad for using that phrase whenever I came to him with a problem.

I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he’d say, patting me on the head. “Just pretend I’m dead.”

Well, he’s dead now, and I deeply regret not having once thanked him for such invaluable gift — the lifesaving skill of resourcefulness.

The full value of my father’s wisdom, however, was only made clear to me when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself living in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. Digging my family out of that muck took almost a decade.

‘Yes, Dad, I figured it out, and since I didn’t thank you in life, launching my book for boys is my way of paying it forward.’

In retrospect, those rough times have made me realize that while my father’s ‘harsh’ treatment helped me develop crucial street-smarts, there were other virtues and life forces I wish he would’ve trained me in that I know would’ve made the ordeal easier to overcome and — likely— prevented it. Virtues like Prudence, Temperance and Justice, which, along with Courage were the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity instilled in children as part of their upbringing and regular education.

We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy. — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’

I could have also benefited from the Life Force of Grit which would’ve made it easier to persevere; or the one of Social Intelligence, essential to weave a safety net, or the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism which would’ve helped me put my predicament in perspective keeping me from falling into despair as I often did.

If there ever was a right time to nurture these virtues and life forces in boys, surely this is it. With the world poised on the brink of another Great Depression, they will need every available tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Even before Covid-19, the outlook for boys was less than favorable. Now, rather than a “boy crisis,” we may be confronting a full-blown disaster. As it was, boys already faced a grim and precarious future. A future in which the need for men was already in doubt, amid a present day environment where the very notion of manhood is regularly blasted across social media as toxic, alongside dangerous and misguided calls to neuter — rather than harness — the innate fierce energy in men that so often has been a saving force in times of crisis. A very confusing time to be a boy, to say the least.

Well, things just got a lot more complicated. To such degree, I fear, that mankind’s ultimate destiny may hinge on how we steel our youth to confront one of the greatest challenges in modern history.

In thirty years of working with children, 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. — Dr. Michael Gurian, New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Wonder of Boys’ and ‘Saving our Sons’

I share Dr. Gurian’s worries, but having risen victorious from the ashes of my own ordeal and learned from its lessons, I now look ahead with clear-eyed optimism. Not only from personal experience but also from knowing humanity has been in more dire straits before. In fact, our species came close to extinction about 190,000 years ago. Yet here we are… we figured it out.

With Dad gone, I can think of no better way to express my gratitude than helping boys navigate the rough road ahead. This is my mission in writing ‘The Hero in You.’

In my book, along with 9 other essential life forces, I introduce boys to the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism by way of a quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity while an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. “I am an optimist,” Churchill declared. “It doesn’t seem very useful being anything else.”

I then elaborate…

“Churchill was right, sort of, but I’ve discovered a better way to see things thanks to Doctor Albert Schweitzer, famously known for his heroic work healing the sick in Africa in the early 1900s. An optimist, Dr. Schweitzer said, is a person who sees a green light everywhere. A pessimist sees only the red stoplight. Only the truly wise person, he added, is colorblind.

You see, a clear-eyed optimist doesn’t see situations as only green or red, black or white. He neither thinks sunny days will last forever nor walks with a constant cloud over his head predicting more rain ahead. A clear-eyed optimist understands that both light and shadow are part of the landscape, beauty, and spice of life. He knows that the difference between hope and despair is a matter of how you tell the story. The way you choose to narrate your life experiences — good and bad — will either make you a victim of your circumstances or a hero in your own daring adventure.”

To train boys in reframing the narratives to which they often default, my book offers them these practical tools:

“Next time you find yourself thinking in terms of GREEN stoplights, such as,

I got an ‘A’ on my test because I’m super smart.

Everyone loves me because I’m special.

Everything in my life is gonna work out great!

I’m the luckiest boy in the world so 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 because I’m a loser.

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” or “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 all the time or predicting storms and tsunamis. Stop staring at the thorns in a rose or just admiring the flower. Both thorn and flower are part of what it is to be a rose. If you’re not ready to accept the shitty parts of life, don’t expect the good ones either.”

I then use my experience with publishing my book as a real life lesson for reframing one’s narrative.

Boy Sherlock

The fact that you’re reading this book means I was successful in getting it published. But while writing it, things were not looking good. Not good at all.

I had been working on the book for close to a year, and, seeing I was almost done, I decided to submit it to literary agents hoping to find someone interested in its publication. This is just like what aspiring actors must do if they want to be hired for a movie. They first need to find an agent.

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 and was as desperate as a hungry squirrel suffering from amnesia in the dead of winter.

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 out on the street starving to death. The world is not fair. I give up!”

Spoken like a true gloomy-eyed pessimist… all dark clouds, headwinds, storms, and tsunamis. Only seeing red stoplights.

A foolish optimist, or nincompoop, on the other hand, would tell the story quite differently:

“No need to stress out. 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 sunny-sunshine, unicorns, cotton candy, and dazzling rainbows. Only seeing green lights.

A colorblind, or clear-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-eyed analysis would provide a more realistic and useful narrative for my predicament.

Here’s what he would tell me:

You have given this book all you’ve got. Perhaps not 24/7, but close enough, for almost 365 days. You have also researched over 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 investigate the book industry. 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 poor 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 they hate it. What they’ve said is that it’s not for them. Big difference. Not everyone likes Brussel Sprouts (I sure don’t) 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’s story and have found many instances where you have succeeded. Do yourself a favor and go back to those moments to find calm, 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 rain and start making sunshine like you’ve done in the past.

You claim the world’s not fair? 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, adapt, 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 hapless victim, or turn it into the greatest tale of adventure and take credit for having dared greatly, just like 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.”


Exemplified by the sagacity of Sherlock Holmes, and midpoint between a sunny Pollyanna and a doomsayer like Nostradamus, the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism has never been more crucial.

Yes, Covid-19 has made the future for boys much more complicated than it already was, but neither victory nor defeat are cast in stone. Although telling boys “You’ll figure it out” will make them resourceful (like it did me), we need to do much more to fortify their psyches and gird their souls for the enormous challenges they now face.

My book aims to do just that.

‘It is also my way of telling you, Dad: “Thank you, wherever you are.’


Receive news of the book’s release by joining our mailing list. The first 50 people to do so will receive a free, autographed edition of ‘The Hero in You’ upon publication.

Single mothers of boys are automatically eligible for a 20% discount by emailing their name and mailing address to boyherobook@gmail.com, adding “Promo Code SM20” to the subject line.


Further reading recommended for parents:

The Optimistic Child : a proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience, by Martin E.P Seligman, Karen Reivich, Lisa Jaycox, and Jane Gillham

View the full list of resources here.

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The Great Purge of 2020

Refusing to return to “normal”

Can you hear it?

Like birdsong on the advent of spring, people around the world are beginning to sing for change.

Still scattered, but rapidly coalescing into a common melody, its key signature was just found graffitied inside an empty Hong Kong subway tunnel:

“We cannot return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.”

Like drunkards waking up from a collective binge, many of us are shaking our heads and shuddering as we contemplate the mayhem wrought by our collective, all-too-human hubris, indifference, self-indulgence, and misplaced priorities.

How could we have been so blind? So self-centered and stupid?

Because you see, drunkards and junkies don’t binge with forethought. Prudence, I’m afraid, is not one of our strong suits. Yet, from the sound of it, it appears we’re finally waking up.

Our intuitive wisdom is making us sense that Covid-19 is not an isolated, temporary affliction, but symptomatic of a deeper sickness. The sickness of the human mind.

In the deathly quiet of isolation, people are clamoring for a new way forward. From balconies, windows and rooftops, many are shedding joyful tears and a collective sigh of relief as they witness nature quickly healing from the scourge of our rapacity, the blight of our addictions, the heavy footprint of our limitless appetites, the deep scars carved by our delusions, and the wounds inflicted by our untrammeled desires.

At last, we are singing due praise to the lowly delivery man and janitor, the migrant farm worker, the tireless nurse and teacher, the struggling artist, the dowdy cashier at the local store, our solitary postman — all the humble souls who so often went unrecognized, now our lifelines and heroes, while our once idolized celebrities cower inside their gleaming yachts and stately mansions sending us tone-deaf exhortations to image a world without possessions and corporate titans and politicians itch to rush us back to “normal.”

The kind of normal that accepts 7 million yearly deaths from air pollution as the price of doing business.

The normal that tolerates the daily loss of 9000 children to malnutrition while one third of all food is wasted.

The normal that is able to reconcile the staggering chasm between the annual $1.75 trillion wasted on the world’s war machine and the mere $166 Billion allocated to development aid.

Or the one that buys-in to the perversity of planned obsolescence willfully ignorant of how much of our electronic waste ends up trashing and poisoning the world’s poorest regions.

The normal of opulence living side-by-side with the homeless and growing deaths from despair.

Where the deaths of schoolchildren to mass shootings are brushed off as merely collateral damage in an ideological struggle.

The normal that accepts a dying planet in the name of progress.

That kind of normal.

Enough!’ seems the message people are shouting from their balconies in a massive shakeup of values and priorities.

We are beginning to recognize the limits of human power and the sham of our preeminence. That we are but one of millions of species inhabiting the planet. We are discovering that well-being and peace of mind are not measured by stock indices or the size of our homes or bank accounts. That the world’s entire arsenal of war is useless. That so long as one link is weak, or broken, we cannot call a chain strong. That death does not discriminate and that security is an illusion. That for too long, we have allowed others to define our standards of success, tell us what we need, or dictate what constitutes “normal” and a life well lived.

It’s like a great awakening from mass hypnosis and an opportunity to purge.

Perhaps our last.

In 2013, Universal Pictures released ‘The Purge,’ in which the New Founding Fathers of America — a totalitarian political party — are voted into office following an economic collapse. They pass a law sanctioning an annual “Purge” during which all crime — including murder, arson, theft, and rape — is legal for 12 hours. A chance for people to unleash their darkest impulses and vomit their pain on the world.

The 2020 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a real life purge. Only this time, we are to remain indoors, there to raise a mirror to ourselves and come to terms, once and for all, with our complicity in the state of affairs.

If we are honest, we will have to admit that before Covid-19, we were already infected.

The affluenza virus we’ve spread across the world is coming back to haunt us, though its symptoms and effects were eating away at us way before Covid-19.

For long, we’ve been suffocating under hell-like wildfires, megadroughts, toxic air, poisoned waterways, contaminated food, dead bees, and the howls of the destitute and the displaced. We’ve been tumbling icebergs, bleaching coral reefs, felling forests, strip-mining mountaintops, exhausting the planet’s topsoil, and bringing death to countless life forms in Earth’s 6th mass extinction and, possibly, our own. In short, a serial gang-rape of the planet.

All along, Earth has been trying to make us change course by appealing to our intuition — the wise voice of instinct we share with our animal kin. Once intimately connected with nature, our feeling bodies have been warning us that our current path is unsustainable. Our increasing levels of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, boredom, loneliness and feeling of utter meaninglessness are the language our bodies have been using to tell us something is fundamentally wrong in the way we live, think, relate, consume, and waste.

Under the eerie cloak of silence that has descended upon our loud, frenzied lives, we have the chance to listen and purge, to heal and recover so we may begin repairing the damage we have caused.

The Great Purge of 2020 is a call to self-revolt. To rid humanity of its delusions and irrational impulses. To arrest its godlike powers and bring an end to its assault on itself and the planet. Now that we know how helpless and powerless we truly are, it is also a call to humility. To admit we don’t have all the answers. To reorder our priorities, reconsider our values, and redefine ourselves as human beings, instead of human havings.

“To put the world in order we must put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order. To put the family in order we must first set our hearts right.” — Chinese philosopher Confucius

Setting our hearts right begins by realizing our tenuous hold on life. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not at some distant point in the future, but at any given moment.

At every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a reminder that our precious life can end at any second.

“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.

With our priorities rightly ordered, we can keep setting our hearts right by cultivating the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, defined by Roman statesman Cicero as: “A habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature consisting of four character traits: Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.”

Prudence: also described as wisdom, is the ability to judge between actions. It’s that sweet spot, between stimulus and response, wherein lies our power to choose, as said Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A prudent person, for example, doesn’t drunk-shop — a $48B affliction, in today’s world.

In Stoic philosophy, prudence is understanding what’s important in life and living accordingly.

No man can have whatever he wants, but he has it in his power not to wish for what he doesn’t have and cheerfully make the most of the things that come his way. — Marcus Aurelius

Justice: also considered as fairness, was considered by Aurelius as the source of all other virtues, one extending beyond Confucius’ Golden Rule: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like them to do to you. For the Stoics, the scope of justice must also consider our duty to our fellow beings. It’s “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of [the]community of life,” said Cicero.

The belief in the interdependence of everything in the universe —  that we are all one — is perhaps the Stoics’ most radical idea.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.” — Marcus Aurelius

Once this pandemic ends, Aurelius’ admonition should make us refuse the self checkout line at the supermarket, for example, to protect the livelihood and cross smiles and small talk with Iris, who, for all we know, may depend on her cashier’s job to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments and help with her son’s crippling college debt. Post Covid-19, we will hopefully trade convenience for connection. Comfort for belonging. Choose to do without, to grow within.

Temperance: is the practice of self-control, abstention, and restraint of our irrational appetites. Greek philosopher Aristotle called it the “Golden Mean,” found between excess and deficiency. Excessive desires are nothing but symptoms of discontent and dissatisfaction. Temperance is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential, of realizing you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place, as said nurse and author Mary Ellen Edmunds.

Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and second, to know what is enough. It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor. – Seneca

Courage: also named fortitude, is endurance, inner strength, forbearance, and the bravery to confront and overcome your fears, prejudices, and misconceptions. The courage to face misfortune, to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.

I know perfectly well that death is invincible. Man’s worth, however, 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 courage. — Nikos Kazantzakis

With our hearts thus set right by the recognition of our unpredictable time on earth and through daily cultivation of a virtuous life, we must purge our cynicism to recover the idealism of youth. The ‘can-do’ spirit that dares imagine a better world even if it seems impractical or unrealistic.

Imagination sparks when we unclutter our minds from the adult affliction of common sense. – Physicist Brian Cox

For who’s to say certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? asks 12 year-old Adora Svitak. “Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things,” she says. “Kids can be full of aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or everything were free… kind of utopia. How many still dream this way and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”

The fact the current pandemic struck us on the advent of spring is profoundly symbolic and meaningful. As Nature unfurls her bounteous spectacle of renewal, she is beckoning us to do the same. Like Jesus on Golgotha, we are undergoing our own crucifixion — the chance to purge ourselves from the ego-cravings of the Self to be reborn in spirit. A precious opportunity to push the boundaries of possibility and bring about a new normal to the world.

I realize that weaning ourselves from our previous way of life will be massively disruptive. Recovering from affluenza will undoubtedly lend a death blow to many industries which (let’s face it) only exist to feed our addictions, temporarily assuage our insecurities, and prop-up our fragile egos. Going forward, it may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise rather than a celebrity in a world that has lost all sense of values, as said Henry Miller. No guiding morality, I claim, can develop without a hierarchy of values.

Refusing to return to normal will be disruptive, surely, but I’m convinced that in its stead, novel trades, communities, cities, technologies, art forms, and life experiences will emerge which respond to our true needs, are focused on what matters, and in harmony with the whole.

That, anyway, is my song.

Those who insist on returning to “normal” would do the world a great favor by booking themselves a one-way ticket to Mercury.

I hear it’s pretty nice up there… 800 degrees during the day; minus 300 at night. Lots of rocks.


Related articles:

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

What Now, Pandora?

Something Extraordinary Happened

 

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A Black Swan and a Dark Age

Changing course before it’s too late.

There was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations severed, whole civilizations fell…

2020?

Not exactly.

The events narrate the near-sudden collapse of the world’s great civilizations of the Bronze Age (3000–1177 BCE) which plunged humanity into its first Dark Age.

A concatenation of events, both human and natural — including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and systems collapse — coalesced to create a perfect storm of calamities that brought this age to an end. — Eric H. Cline, ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed’

The parallels between this historical event and the modern-day are striking. Now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade, travel and diplomacy, and the downfall of one nation affects the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse”

We have now reached modern history’s first tipping point — a Black Swan event.

It is likely that once the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will gradually get back on its feet, bruised and battered, ready for the next round. But the blows will keep coming and growing ever more powerful. “The international COVID-19 pandemic is many things,” writes astrophysicist Adam Frank in the online journal ‘Think,’ “but its impact may be fostering a recognition that [the] machine of civilization is a lot more fragile than we thought. And that is why, in the long term, the coronavirus will one day be seen as a fire drill.”

The eerie similarity between the events which led to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the state of our world today are worth repeating: climate change, natural catastrophes, growing social stratification and inequality, class warfare, over-dependence on global trade, and the migration of large populations displaced by poverty and conflict.

Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Failing to act on knowledge is lack of wisdom. And those who do not learn from history, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that continuing with business as usual once the pandemic ends could well plunge the world into the next dark age. The only thing that might prevent it, I believe, is a substantive shift in human consciousness. Post Covid-19, our priorities, our values, the way we think, consume, invest, vote, educate our young, and interact with other groups and the natural world will determine our future.

Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel.

Amid humanity’s first dark age, a series of guiding lights began to flash. Around 800 BCE, with no obvious cultural contact with each other, the world witnessed the emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the rational philosophies of ancient Greece. Like navigational stars showing us the way out of darkness, these new stories spoke about balance and temperance, about compassion and nonviolence, about tolerance and acceptance, and reason over ignorance. In short, about living right. Known as the Axial Age, it was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, and philosophical change in recorded history,” notes scholar Karen Armstrong in ‘The Great Transformation.’

The transformation, in other words, begins from within. It starts with each one of us.

“The Axial sages,” says Armstrong, “were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift after which they could return, with renewed vigor, to their ordinary self-centered lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.”

From the look of it, it is clear that the bulk of humanity chose to ignore their wisdom. The Black Swan event of 2020, much like the shock therapy used to treat manic disorders, might make us think twice about burying our heads in the sand once again.

A self-centered person is one who is willfully ignorant and callous about the consequences of his actions on the rest of the world. So long as his ego and status are propped up, his insecurities temporarily assuaged, and his addictions satisfied, the rest of the world and the planet can pretty much go fuck themselves.

My cell phone, for instance, contains about 62 different types of metals. But had I ever bothered to find out where these metals come from, how they’re mined, and the impact their extraction is having on the people who mine them and their environment? Not at all. Not until the Black Swan shocked me. I’ve since learned that the tin used as a solder in our phones’ circuit boards has all but destroyed the paradisiacal island of Bangka where excessive tin mining has dramatically changed the natural landscape, leaving acidic craters in place of lush forests, and making clean drinking water harder to come by.

Tin mining Indonesia
Bangka Island, Indonesia

A self-centered person is one who doesn’t think twice about drinking an elixir made from a tiger’s carcass left to rot for years in a vat of rice wine just to ease his sexual insecurities.

“The tiger wine is good for men,” says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.” — Extract from Hereward Holland’s National Geographic report: ‘China’s Expanding Middle Class Fuels Poaching, Decadence in Myanmar’

Never mind the tiger and its almost certain extinction. The possibility of infecting the rest of the world with a deadly virus from the consumption of wild animals never occurs to a self-centered individual.

Today, an eight-year bottle of tiger wine will set you back $290. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G: $1600. A pair of Buscemi Diamond Sneakers: $135,000.

A self-centered existence at any expense — human and ecological — was precisely what the sages of the Axial Age were trying to warn us about.

Perhaps the most obvious change during the Bronze Age was the rise of the privileged. It is hard to think of this process in terms other than those of aggrandizement of the few. — J. M. Coles & A. F. Harding : The Bronze Age in Europe

I can think of no better symbol for the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations than the vast deposits of crushed shells from the mollusk bolinus brandaris found on the coasts of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Driven to near extinction in ancient Phoenicia, these medium sized sea snails were used to extract the purple dye used to color the garments of the elite. According to historian B. Caseau, 10,000 snails were needed to produce one gram of dyestuff worth more than its weight in gold. Tyrian purple became a status symbol representing power, prestige and wealth.

Yesterday’s sea snails are but today’s sea cucumbers, now being driven to extinction to boost the weak sexual libido and indulge the palate of the wealthy few.

Amid collapsing economies, mass layoffs and mass burials around the world, the insights of the sages of the Axial Age are more relevant than ever:

The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire. — Buddha’s second truth

Desires unsettle the heart. — Chuang-Tzu

Nothing in excess — Confucius’ Golden Mean

Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy. Trying to get rich ties people in knots. The wise soul watches with the inner eye not the outward. — Lao Tzu

Covid-19 has placed a deathly pause on humanity’s intemperate, unbalanced and frenzied existence. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going,” says author Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens.’

The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations tells us exactly where we’re headed.

It seems wise, then, to use this period of isolation to detoxify ourselves from our addictions which are placing inordinate strains, not just on the environment and its life-sustaining systems, but on our physical and mental well-being.

This is not a fanciful call to asceticism. I’m not suggesting we all wear saffron robes and roam our neighborhoods carrying begging bowls once allowed back out. But neither do we need purple robes and diamond-studded sneakers. My call is for judicious consumption. For balance and temperance. To slow our pace, reorder our priorities, and, critically, to allow this shocking period of collective suffering to crack open our hearts, thereon extending our concern beyond the center of our own existence to encompass, both, our planet, and the lives of the less fortunate whose future has been further blighted by the Black Swan of 2020.

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What Now, Pandora?

If anything, now is not the time for hope.

Written about 3000 years ago by Greek poet Hesiod, the myth of Pandora may shed some light on humanity’s current predicament and contain a hidden clue for a better way forward.

In her ‘Short Story of Myth,’ religious scholar Karen Armstrong warns that “it is a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought that can be cast aside when human beings have attained reason. Myths give explicit shape to a reality that people sense intuitively. It is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. It puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action. It helps us cope with the problematic human predicament and to find our place in the world and our true orientation. It lifts men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they see the world with new eyes. A myth, therefore, is true because it’s effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.”

This is exactly what we need right now: To silence the voice of reason and listen to our intuition, to see the world with new eyes and change our minds and hearts to find a new orientation. Our traditional ways of thinking, I’m afraid, are not going to cut it this time. Humankind needs a new story, fast!

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

The myth recounts how Zeus, ruler of all gods, ordered Hephaestus to fashion Pandora from clay, thereon to live among humans as punishment for Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods and gifting it to mankind.

In Hesiod’s poem ‘Work and Days,’ we read:

“To make up for the fire, I will give them an evil thing, in which they may all take their delight, embracing this evil thing of their own making.”

Thus spoke the father of men and gods, and he laughed out loud.

Then he ordered Hephaestus to shape some wet clay and to put into it a human voice and to make it look like the immortal goddesses…

And he ordered Aphrodite to shed golden charm over her head; also harsh longing and anxieties that eat away at the limbs.

And he ordered Hermes, the messenger [of the gods], to put inside her an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy.

And [Hermes] put inside her a voice, and he called this woman Pandōrā.”

Let us skirt the obvious patriarchal allusions of women being the bane of man’s existence and dig deeper to discover the symbolic meaning of Pandora.

“For us moderns,” says Karen Armstrong, “a symbol is essentially separate from unseen reality, but the Greek symballein means ‘to throw together.’ This sense of participation in the divine was essential to the mythical worldview. The purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them.”

Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way: “The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept. The symbol, energized by metaphor, doesn’t just point to something else but awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and reality itself.”

So what does Pandora symbolize?

We get an inkling from Hesiod’s poem. Pandora, he said, is the evil of our own making; the harsh longings and anxieties that eat away at us.

In ‘The Wisdom of the Myths,’ Luc Ferry elaborates: “Hermes gives Pandora the mind of a dog, which is to say she always asks for more than enough. She is insatiable on all levels: food, money, gifts. She always wants more… her appetite is without limit.” “Always dissatisfied, demanding, self-indulgent, she is the sum of all the contradictions of our existence,” adds Jean Pierre Vernant in ‘The Universe, the Gods, and Men.’

Sound familiar?

Ferry and Vernant could well have been describing a good chunk of consumers in affluent societies. Us, in other words.

It is through symbols that we enter emotionally into contact with our deepest selves. — Trappist monk Thomas Merton

After Hephaestus fashions Pandora from clay, the myth recounts the moment Zeus whispered in her ear tempting her to open a strange jar that the gods had given her. Commonly known as “Pandora’s Box,” it contained all the ills, all the misfortunes, and all the sufferings that would thereafter rain down on mankind.

Hesiod again:

“Before this, humanity lived on earth

without evils and without harsh labor,

without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.

But the woman took the great lid off the jar

and scattered what was inside.”

And so ended the golden age for man, just like it ended when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Same story, different characters.

Let us step away from the realm of myth and into the real world to find out if humankind has ever enjoyed a “Golden Age.”

We have, of sorts, suggests Yuval Harari, author of the international bestseller ‘Sapiens.’ It lasted for 99% of the time modern humans have been on the planet when we lived as hunter-gatherers.

“On the whole,” says Harari, “foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers, and office workers who followed in their footsteps. They were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. They had a varied diet so were less likely to suffer when one particular food source failed. They also suffered less from infectious diseases.”

Harari suggests that this golden era ended about ten, to fifteen thousand years ago with the Agricultural Revolution; a turning point he denounces as “history’s biggest fraud.”

“The extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure,” Harari says. “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. Wheat did not give people economic security; the life a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. On the contrary, that’s when raids began. The pursuit — through agriculture — of an easier way of life, resulted in much hardship. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theater of the human mind.”

Why did humanity make such a fateful miscalculation? Harari wonders.“For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated,” he says. “They are unable to fathom the full consequence of their decisions.

Since the Agricultural Revolution — ramping up during the Industrial era — humans, like did Pandora, have been endlessly lifting a dangerous lid with their voracious and insatiable “dog-like” appetites, with their greed and avarice, their self-indulgent addictions, thus unleashing on themselves and the planet one scourge after another in a plundering orgy of consumption — plagues, pollution, climate change, wildfires, wars, floods, famine, deforestation, desertification, droughts, dust bowls, etc. The latest ill to escape from the box is a deathly virus directly linked to man’s arrogant, mindless, and relentless assault on the rest of nature.

Let’s be honest. Before coronavirus, we were already infected. Only this time by a deadlier pathogen — our own befouling rapacity.

Seeing nature as nothing more than an inexhaustible source of stuff and a dumpsite for human waste, we are blind to what environmental philosopher John Muir intuited more than a century ago, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

An addiction is the habitual avoidance of reality, and while you’re free to avoid reality, said novelist Ayn Rand, “you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

Here we are, 2020, face-to-face with the first major consequence of our longstanding avoidance, and I fear it won’t be the last. This latest pandemic is but an ominous foretaste of what’s to come.

Pogo

Is there hope?

Therein lies the clue in the myth of Pandora.

‘Hope,’ it so happens, was the only thing that did not escape the box when she opened the lid.

Sounds comforting, but I have a hard time with the notion of hope. It’s too fuzzy, passive, sunny and cheerful, of course, but numbing, like a shot of Pollyannaish Novocaine for the spirit. I seriously doubt prayer, candle-lighting or crossing fingers are going to alter reality, unless, we — individually, and as a species — take decisive action.

My preference, rather, is for the classic understanding of hope.

For the ancient Greeks, hope was not a gift. It was a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope was to remain in a state of want; to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain unsatisfied and unhappy, just like Pandora.

That’s why hope remained in the box.

Therefore, to find our way out, we must examine the root cause of our irrational behavior.

According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is a never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Even when experiencing pleasure we are not content because we fear the feeling might soon disappear and wish it to remain, and, ‘hopefully,’ intensify.

Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet cave? If not, what’s the point? — Yuval Harari

“The most important finding of all,” says Harari, “is that happiness does not depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations,” meaning, your life as it is, compared to your expectations of how you’d like it to be, or worse, how others tell you it should be. In such constant state of want and dissatisfaction, we become easy prey to the hipnotic enticements dangled in front of our eyes by mass media and the advertising industry.

If happiness is determined by expectations, the two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting our reservoirs of contentment. — Yuval Harari

In an earlier piece, I included a sobering indictment by German philosopher Theodor Adorno warning pointing at how capitalism craftily repackages our longings so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our well-being. “The hidden persuaders of capitalism,” further 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.”

Fuck that!

I say it’s time to revolt!

Time to take arms against our collective delusions and irrational emotional blockages! Time to recover from our addictions and define our own standards of success, worth, attractiveness, and well-being! Time to stop lifting the lid off Pandora’s box and cease our relentless assault on the natural world just to satisfy our caprices, ease our insecurities, and feed our insatiable appetites! Time to choose between continuing our covetous existence as human-havings, or start living as who we’re meant to be — human beings.

Covid-19 has sent us on a collective time out. Perhaps our last chance to forge a new path forward. Why not seize the moment? What’s there to lose? As it is, the world-as-we-knew-it is in shambles.

“Cracks in the foundations of life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” suggests philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

“The Homo Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little we can be proud of,” Harari laments. “We seem as disoriented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going. Self-made gods — with only the laws of physics to keep us company — we are accountable to no one. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

You act like mortals in all you fear, and like immortals in all you desire. — Stoic philosopher Seneca

I’m not suggesting we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence. That would be as impractical and unsustainable as staying the course. I am simply proposing we slow down, that we become more embedded and dependent on our local communities for our sustenance, contentment, and sense of belonging; that we rewild ourselves, especially our children, to heal the rift we’ve caused between us and the rest of nature; that we listen to our youth and dare become infected with their idealism and divergent-thinking magic. Finally, that we focus on what we truly need rather than on what we desire and limit our consumption within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

In Faustian Economics,’ author Wendell Berry proposes that “to recover from our disease of limitless consumption, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent. We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and necessity of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. We will have to reexamine the economic structures of our lives and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places.”

Only then do we stand a chance.

We need a new story. A daring story of self-revolt!

The enemy is us — a group of deranged, godlike primates whom we must topple from their hubristic throne before it’s too late.

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Something Extraordinary Happened

Is humanity on the threshold of an evolutionary leap?

Five hundred million years ago, during the Precambrian era, the instructions for building an eye jumped from plants to animals. The blueprint was encoded in the RHO gene tasked with the manufacture of the rhodopsin protein — near identical to the one in the human eye. Considered one of the major leaps in evolutionary history, this gift to animal life came from microscopic forms of marine plankton called “dinoflagellates.”

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest this extraordinary gene transfer occurred through symbiosis – from dinoflagellates to jelly fish. This seemingly-impossible merging of plant and animal DNA was a game changing event for life on earth.

My metaphorical imagination makes me think that the submicroscopic piece of DNA now infecting close to a million people is actually meant to open a third eye in us all. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, Covid-19 seems like a dark emissary carrying a threatening, yet pivotal message for humanity: Wake up!

Wake up from your addictions and your delusions, from your insatiable appetite for more and more stuff causing your relentless assault on the environment. If you’re looking for someone to blame, take a hard, honest look at yourself! Your addictions and insecurities were precisely what forced me to unleash my fury. You seem incapable of listening unless death itself comes pounding on your door. Do you hear it now? How many do I need to suffocate to death until finally awakening the third eye within you?

The pineal gland, also known as the third eye, is a miniscule organ located deep in the human brain which is activated when exposed to light. French philosopher René Descartes called it the “seat of the soul.” A sacred and revered tool of seers and mystics, the third eye opens the pathway to clarity, imagination, and intuition.

For a long time now, it seems nature has been trying to speak to our intuition, or embodied knowledge, warning us that our modern way of life is not only unsustainable but detrimental to our well-being. Her message can be perceived in the increasing levels of depression and anxiety, particularly in affluent societies.

In the U.S. alone, antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. Close to 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2018. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit, and, every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

If we’re so rich, why are we so miserable?

A painful hangover would be well worth it had the party been smashing, but it doesn’t appear we’ve been having such a good time in our frenzied race to the land of plenty.

Could it be that the voice of our intuition has been telling us all along that we’re on a slippery slope to self-annihilation but we no longer feel able to control our destructive impulses? Ironically, our desperate pursuit to ‘secure’ our future has now made us more vulnerable than ever.

An organism at war with itself is doomed. — Astronomer Carl Sagan

What’s it going to take? A million deaths? The wipeout of the world’s coastal megacities by rising seas? Hordes of desperate climate refugees pouring across borders? The sudden collapse of pollinator communities and ensuing global famine? What!? “Civilizations die from suicide,” warned historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.”

Something truly extraordinary happened 500 million years ago giving rise to our capacity to see.

If Covid-19 awakens humanity’s third eye, the current crisis will be hailed as a new leap in evolution; the pivotal moment when we decided to write a better and more sustainable chapter in the storybook of humankind. If it doesn’t, and we proceed with business as usual, I’m afraid it won’t take long for nature to excise the cancerous scourge we’ve become.

Author Dave Hollis recently said that in the rush to return to normal, we should use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. It is my fervent hope that we’ll all heed his wise counsel.

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The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

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Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, perhaps.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no life jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest (4.1) death count from Covid-19 is forty five thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Every disaster

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. 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).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.

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Adventure, Danger, Honor, and Glory

The path of the male warrior.

My inner barbarian awoke from its civilized slumber while binge-watching documentaries on wars of conquest and the rise and fall of empires.

I felt unsettled, tugged by two contrary forces: one modernly conscious (woke?) — scoffing at the sight of grown men acting out their atavistic impulses and yearnings for status and glory through battlefield carnage — the other, an unconscious stirring, marked by goosebumps, raised hair, a quickened pulse and puffing chest with every scene depicting the victors raising their bloodstained weapons and hollering like madmen.

There I was, thinking I had evolved… no longer bound by instinct.

Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’

I realized it will take more than gentle appeals for inclusion, vulnerability, empathy and compassion to ‘correct’ a man’s tendency towards tribal aggression forged during millions of years in evolutionary history. Fully taming the warrior fierceness in men, I further concluded, is not only impossible, but foolish and dangerous.

Consider the runup to World War II.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler on three occasions, finally conceding the Sudetenland, in northern Czechoslovakia, in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe. Chamberlain boasted it was “Peace for our time.” Hitler salivated, and, emboldened by Chamberlain’s fragility, invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by Poland — on 9.1.39 — the day the British finally declared war. Chamberlain resigned shortly after and was replaced by Winston Churchill, nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his dogged tenacity and ferociousness. The United States joined the fight in 1941, and, to this day, the Americans who helped free the world from the scourge of Hitler’s diabolical ideology are revered as “The Greatest Generation.”

Today, young men have few paths to greatness. No mighty struggles, no crusades, no calls to conquest (besides video games), no loftier badge of honor than a virtual sword, and no codes of conduct like those which guided the Knights of the Round Table and the Samurai in Japan.

Yet, the stirring remains… always will, and the consequences of not leading boys and young men onto paths to glory through heroic quests are self-evident.

Many of the things that parents have nightmares about (risk taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young men’s desire for glory and heroic roles. Boys look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.— From ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph

That place, Steve, is everywhere in sight. There are enough worthy battles out in the world to test the strongest of men. But in our society’s misguided attempt to tame the wild spirit of boys, they now cower and fear its expression, or, worse, vent it through self-harm or harm to others. “Some boys are so afraid they will become domestic,” says Robert Bly, “that they become savage, not wild.

If we are to overcome the challenges of the 21st Century, we better change our messaging, fast.

Rather than telling boys there is something fundamentally wrong about being male, I suggest we teach them how to harness their innate fierce energy in service to a cause greater than themselves. Let us drag them — kicking and screaming — out of their dark rooms and away from their screens to initiate them into spirited men of noble purpose!

Let’s inspire them with tales of true heroes; not the super-kind, nor those whose only proof of worth is their wealth, fame, or online celebrity. I’m talking about ordinary people. Those who have dared respond to the calling of their age and brought their unique talents to bear on the challenges of their time.

Let’s instruct them on the innate wiring of the male software — with both its virtues and glitches — and allow them to tinker with it until coding an evolved expression of manhood.

While we’re at it, let’s help them demystify the female gender so, when reaching puberty, they’ll know how to relate to women with realism and respect rather than through the confusing and delusory spectacle of porn.

Further, we must help boys develop a code of honor and conduct and the strengths of character essential for a flourishing life and to withstand and overcome the inevitable obstacles, disappointments and defeats inherent in every hero’s journey. They must learn, from the start, that life is neither a cakewalk in wonderland, nor a buffet where one gets to choose what one wants. It’s a sit-down dinner, where what is served is what they must eat — joys, sorrows, victories, failure, love, rejection, loss… the whole enchilada.

Above all, we must let them know they are needed.

Because right now, about the only thing our well meaning, but confused culture is telling boys is that they’re toxic and not wanted. This, while the world burns and gets overtaken by chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants. We are, I fear, nurturing a generation of Chamberlains, drained of all masculine power, and if history can teach us anything at all, it is that the most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. Hitler was such a man.

My warning has nothing to do with raising boys under idiotic injunctions like “men don’t cry” or “man-up!” As I’ve said before, men’s seeming incapacity for emotional intelligence is partly responsible for warfare. But a crucial line must be drawn between being empathic and being weak. “Brave men are vertebrates,” said British author, G.K. Chesterton, “they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. Modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.”

Our world could use more vertebrates, right about now. We need fierce, gentle warriors steeled with an inner strength informed by the wisdom of water — supple, pliable, but ferocious, persevering, and invincible!


Related reading:

My Father Would’ve been a Nazi

 

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Walking Away From It All

Escape with purpose.

You’ve probably heard some version of the story of the father who left the house one night to buy cigarettes and never came back.

Most would call him a ‘douche,’ and would be right, in some cases. But what about the others? What compels them to walk away?

You cannot tell me you’ve never felt the impulse. Late at night, perhaps, after a hard day, looking out the window by a sink full of dirty dishes and glasses trying to catch your breath, wondering if there is not more to life, and longing to leave everything behind to find out.

This unease led Siddhārtha Gautama to leave the comforts of his father’s palace, his wife Yaśodharā and newborn son Rāhula toward a spiritual journey to discover the causes and remedies for human suffering.

Call the Buddha an enlightened deadbeat, if you must.

The world would not have Paul Gauguin’s exquisite painting ‘Orana Maria’ had he chosen to remain by his family’s side in Copenhagen, making no money selling French tarpaulins to a Danish market who did not want his tarpaulins instead of risking everything to travel alone to Tahiti in search of a new vision in art.

Orana Maria

On the same year and country my father was born, George Dibbern left his wife and three daughters and sailed his 32-foot ketch ‘Te Rapunga’ toward New Zealand to reunite with his Maori spiritual Mother.

The world was marching toward a second world carnage. Unemployment in Germany had reached four million. Suicides were a daily occurrence. Idle and in despair, the citizens of the Weimar Republic of the 1930s were besieged by a dizzying number of political parties spouting their competing ideologies, each claiming to have the answer to their predicament.

In the middle of this maelstrom stood George Dibbern, unable to subscribe to any of them.

Te Rapunga’ means longing, or seeking, and is referenced in the third step of the Maori creation myth — the predawn moment of anticipation.

While still in Germany, Dibbern tried to make ends meet by operating a shipyard with his cousin. But the business was failing. To raise money, he twice sold the ‘Te Rapunga’ only to have it returned to him when the buyers could not come up with the cash to pay him.

Think about it: Dibbern tried twice to rid himself of his longing but it kept coming back. Having twice denied mine, every time I think of this part of his story, I recall this poem by the Greek Constantine Cavafy:

“Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before they had aged,

sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,

roses by the head, jasmine at the feet — 

so appear the longings that have passed

without being satisfied, not one of them granted

a night of sensual pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.”

The shipyard business failed and Dibbern had no other choice but join a rock-breaking crew. At the end of his rope, he considered:

At present, I can no longer be a member of one nation, only a member of a larger group —  humanity. I cannot grow roots here; I think so differently from everyone else. I am not meant to be what I am now. What is the good of adapting myself ninety-nine times.

What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? — Theodore Roethke

One night, back from his back-breaking job, George entered the kitchen, looked at his wife, and asked: “What would you do if I were dead?”

Faced with her stupefaction — quickly morphing into rage and despair — George tried to clarify what he meant: how he already felt dead, but dead in life.

A few weeks later, he set sail.

Te Rapunga

Writer Henry Miller said this about Dibbern:

“He takes the path in order to become the path. Some might think that George was unadaptable, a man unfit for human society. This is not true. If anything, it is society which is unfit to accommodate itself to a man like Dibbern. It is the purity and integrity of men like Dibbern which make it difficult for them to fit in our world. Living his own life in his own way, Dibbern makes us realize how much life can be enjoyed even on the fringe of society. It is not his ideal; he is striving desperately to participate, to be at one with his fellow man, but on the best terms, i.e., on the terms of his own best self. Nor did he wait to lead the ideal existence until some mythical day in the future. He lived the ideal life right then — as much as he dared and could. And that is the difference between a rebel and a man of spirit.”

As Dibbern was saying goodbye to his three young daughters, he thought:

Perhaps it is more important that, someday, I may be an understanding comrade to my children than be a provider now.

Pretty gracious, if you ask me.

For of what use is it to children to see their father return from work with a lifeless look in his eyes as he contemplates all his denied longings pustulating like unstitched wounds? To hear him vilify his boss, ridicule his co-workers, recount the office skullduggery, complain about the long hours and the commute, or fret about the bills as he finishes his third glass of wine while mindlessly thumbing his cellphone.

Many fathers exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the suffocating anguish of their dispassionate marriages, the festering anger of their unfulfilled desires, and the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence.

No surprise most children fear growing up, or rebel against their elders.

In that wretched state, what wisdom can a father impart if he hasn’t taken the time to grapple with the thorniest questions of existence, or the courage to journey through the dark and malodorous corridors of his psyche until coming to terms with the angel in himself and the devil in himself, or the humility to challenge all the mythologies he has half-wittingly accepted as truth? In that state, it would be more benevolent if he met each of his children’s questions with: “I don’t know,” rather than playing God twenty-four hours a day.

Soon after sailing, believing a flag represented one’s beliefs and principles, George Dibbern refused to fly the obligatory Nazi flag with the swastika and raised one of his own design. He later rejected his German passport and created his own with the following declaration:

“I, George Dibbern, through long years in different countries and sincere friendship with many people in many lands, feel my place to be outside of nationality, a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples. I recognize the divine origin of all nations and therefore their value in being as they are, respect their laws, and feel my existence solely as a bridge of good fellowship between them. This is why, on my own ship, I fly my own flag, why I have my own passport and so place myself, without other protection, under the goodwill of the world.”

Here’s the thing about walking away, though. If it serves no other purpose than to run away from responsibility, it is as pointless and futile as taking a vacation to “recharge.”

All successful escape artists have one life saving trick: they know all about their chains.

Most of us don’t.

That’s the reason our escapes are fleeting.

So very few ever think of taking leave that they too might enjoy the fruits of paradise. Almost invariably they’ll confess that they lack the courage or imagination. “Too late” he probably murmurs to himself. How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to! What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish his chains seems like a sacrifice. — Henry Miller

Walking away (from work, the rat-race, the place you live, your relationship, etc.) is meaningless unless you arrive at a new orientation to life. Otherwise, it’s just like any other vacation, for which, under your shorts, Tommy Bahama shirts, flip-flops, sunscreen and hat, you fold and pack your same old prejudices, addictions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and hungers, and then, upon returning, you realize you never took the time to unpack, air-out, inspect, and transform all that junk, so when you pop open your suitcase it all comes flying back out again, back into your closet, there to continue haunting you until your next escape.

I know this well, having attempted it a few times with disastrous consequences.

But the latter, during which you reorient yourself to life, that is a spiritual journey, which begins when you doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and walk towards an unknown destination — like Buddha to the Bodhi Tree, Gauguin to Tahiti, and Dibbern to the open sea. The real escapist, you see, is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to. It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society, said Krishnamurti.

And it is not just doubting societal conventions but realizing how many you’ve half-wittingly adopted as your own. What’s essential is to examine each shiny trinket you have received as part of your initiation into the modern world, and above all, to discover what treasure you’re giving up in exchange. Your entire life?

For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul — Jesus

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. A new world is not simply made by trying to forget the old, Henry Miller proclaimed, but made with a new spirit, with new values. Contrary to what many believe, it doesn’t require you to go anywhere. In fact, it’s often the case that a “change in scenery” only creates further distractions that will lead you astray.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes, said writer Marcel Proust, and it’s one that is yours alone to undertake.

“It cannot be undertaken other than by ourselves,” said famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. “In the story of the Arthurian knights, each set out in search of the Grail (a spiritual, rather than a material goal) by ‘entering the forest at its darkest part,’ that is, at the place where no one has cut a path before.”

Most never break free, leaving it up to the next generation, as Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly rendered in this poem :

“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.”

Buddha showed us a path away from suffering.

Gauguin gave us the Orana Maria.

Dibbern left us a chronicle of his spiritual journey in his book ‘Quest.’

If you are to remain “inside the dishes and in the glasses,” unable or unwilling to break free, the next time you hear a story of a man who did, think twice before you judge him, for he may one day return with a gift for you and the rest of humankind.


Read my escape story.

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Hail Caesar!

Is America sliding toward dictatorship?

In response to my article ‘Requiem For a Once Great Nation,’ some people called me a scaremonger for suggesting the American Republic could break apart.

“It can’t happen here!”

I’m sure the citizens of the Roman Republic in 44 BC, those of the Italian Republic in 1804 and Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1930s thought the same.

All that was needed to tear those republics apart was a little anarchy and a self-proclaimed “savior.”

Rome had emperor Julius Caesar, Italy was “rescued” by Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler promised to restore Germany to its previous glory. In all three cases, the result was greater anarchy and bloodshed.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

The American Republic is particularly vulnerable because its citizens no longer share a common story nor believe in the ideals which underpinned its foundation. Most don’t even know what those ideals are or what they stand for. Not even the military, it seems. Former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh recently said that when he joined the Navy, he swore to support and defend the Constitution. But not once, in all of his training, did he receive meaningful instruction on the document to which he had pledged his life.

In ‘The Irony of Democracy,’ its authors state that “if the survival of the U.S. system depended on the active, informed, and enlightened citizenry, [it] would have disappeared long ago, for the many are apathetic and ill-informed about politics and exhibit a surprisingly weak commitment to democratic values.”

As it stands, the vast majority of Americans now get their ‘facts’ and ‘enlightenment’ through the venomous drip feed of caustic propaganda which masks itself under the deceptive guise of news. Like tarantula hawk wasps, our current-day peddlers of deception find the country asleep and deposit their lies in the minds of its citizens which slowly devour their capacity for independent thinking.

Writing for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report the pernicious effects:

“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered] 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.”

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” warned Abraham Lincoln.

No clearer proof of how far the nation has come apart than during — and right after — the recent impeachment trial. There were no victors, in my view. Just one more collective step down a dangerous slope to mayhem and authoritarianism.

So how vulnerable is American democracy?

In ‘How Democracies Die,’ authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say “extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. An essential test of this kind of vulnerability isn’t whether such figures emerge, but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power. When established parties opportunistically invite extremists into their ranks, they imperil democracy.”

“Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Instead, institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America. — From ‘How Democracies Die.’

In the face of disorder and no common ground on which to stand, people panic and cower behind intolerant fortresses of tribalism making them easy prey for silver-tongued demagogues who promise to restore order and bring about a new era.

Caesar did it, so did Napoleon and Hitler.

Afraid, paranoid, stoked by hatred and willfully ignorant and powerless, millions saw these individuals as saviors and handed them absolute power.

The rest, as the say, is history.

But it can’t happen here, can it?

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Sorry not Sorry, Millennials

A conditional apology from a boomer-ish.

During my father’s recent memorial, I got a taste for the intergenerational conflict currently exemplified by the cry of “OK boomer.”

The boomers and Gen-Xers in my family were slightly outnumbered by the millennials, and in terms of political leanings, there were 4 ultra-conservatives, 3 ultra-progressives, 3 apolitical, and me, self-described as non-partisan, a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, and pledging allegiance to little else than the Earth and all living beings. An explosive and interesting mix, indeed.

The timing was perfect: the impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus, Australia devastated by fire…

Ensconced for an entire week in my father’s house amid freezing temperatures and dismal weather, tempers flared at every turn. But since there was nowhere to run, things had to be hashed out.

What struck me, deeply and painfully, was the angst among the young adults in our clan. Citing crippling student debt, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and health insurance, a nearing collapse of social safety nets, and a planet on the brink, every single one expressed extreme reluctance to bring children into the world.

The mood was borderline nihilistic.

Having no house of my own, currently on Medicaid, deep in debt, and struggling to pay off my daughter’s college loans, it was easy to relate, even at 58.

What a shame, I thought, that we — the outgoing bunch — were handing them such a dismal world outlook. So I decided to offer millennials a heartfelt, generational apology, which, understandably, was met by the outcry and stern rebuke of some of the boomers around the dinner table. How dare I apologize!

I just couldn’t help but contrast their pessimism with the excitement and sense of hope I felt when my firstborn arrived into the world in 1993. As she emerged from her mother’s womb and scanned the delivery room with her wide open, curious and impossibly-blue eyes, I felt my timeline suddenly extend a whole century and the word “legacy” entered my consciousness for the first time. That legacy was now on trial.

But wait a second… I thought, after everyone flew back to their respective homes. Are previous generations not due proper credit, respect, and admiration for, say, nearly ending world hunger and having drastically reduced infant mortality rates and deaths from infectious diseases? Is the fact that 90% of the world’s population can now read and write not earn us any accolades when just a century ago 7 out of 10 were illiterate? What about world poverty? At the start of the boomer generation more than 70% of the world’s population was extremely poor. By 2015, that number had dropped to less than 10%. And life expectancy? While I will likely die before my 80th birthday, thanks to advances in medical science, millennials will probably enjoy an extra decade in pretty good health provided they stop worrying so goddamn much.

To be fair, I also worried a lot before deciding to have children. That’s why I took so long to have them. Being an inveterate catastrophizer, I considered everything that could go wrong and likely make me fail as a father. By a ton, or more, I underestimated the amount of shit that would soon hit my fan.

By the time my second daughter showed up, I was bankrupt, living in self-imposed exile in one of the most expensive places on Earth, with no college degree, no network, and four mouths to feed. Prior that, I had lived for 34 years in a third-world country under mostly military rule and ravaged by 30+ years of civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 thousand people. Throughout, I witnessed car bombs, executions by firing squads, political assassinations, and coups d’état. I made and lost fortunes running several businesses under systemic corruption and bouts of extreme inflation and a collapsing currency. My family received several death and kidnapping threats which eventually made us flee our home country.

Yet, I’m still here. Scarred and wounded, of course, but doing just fine. My daughters are thriving. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the priceless gift of their presence in my life, I would’ve ended it long ago. It was their light and their future which kept me going.

Perhaps the prevailing millennial malaise can be partly explained by the fact that we old people are terrible storytellers. We don’t share our victories, accomplishments, and survival stories with the younger generations as much as our parents and grandparents did. We no longer sit at the table or by an open fire to mesmerize and inspire our children with our tales of adventure. Instead, we let the peddlers of media doom and gloom drive the narrative. No wonder they’re afraid. If a young zebra spent its time watching National Geographic documentaries, it, too, would never dare venture out into the savannah.

So, ok, Millennials… granted, we forgot the warming of the planet. We bad. Don’t forget, though, that global warming didn’t show up on our radar until the U.S. drought of 1988, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted, which, mind you, was drafted by Boomers and Gen-Xers, as was the recent Paris Accord. So we’ve had less than thirty years to tackle this problem. In the meantime, though, we’ve been busy putting out other fires across the world, like patching-up the ozone layer, increasing the world’s production of renewable energy 6-fold, and putting you through college.

Besides, I am sure you wouldn’t want to inherit a world where every problem has been solved for you. That would rob you of the opportunity to test your mettle and prove your worth.

So get to work, and while you’re at it, have as many children as you can so when they grow up and dare berate you for your generation’s ‘dismal’ legacy, you, too, will have something to brag about while inspiring them with your tales of derring-do.


Related stories:

Failure to Launch! A challenge to young men.

Fire and Stories

 

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The Gift of Melancholy

Working through the pain in life.

A feeling of sadness and longing,

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles rain. — by Henry W. Longfellow

Depression and anxiety are big business in America.

Antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit. Every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

And yet, these maladies are at an all-time high, particularly among the young.

For this, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Better said, I blame his dangerous assertion that a supreme being gifted Americans with an inalienable right to pursue happiness; something Howard Mumford Jones described as the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.

What’s so wrong about sadness anyway? Or melancholy? Why does everything have to be rainbow colored all the time?

I sometimes drive an hour to the ocean, hoping I will find it thoroughly obscured by fog. I am not a bore, but want a break from all the rainbow violence in the world. — Meghan Flaherty

My younger daughter and I are profoundly melancholy. The type who prefer foggy days, shadowy places underneath bridges, mournful adagios, dark alleys, dusty attics, old books, creaky chairs, and rooms with low lighting.

In her teens, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed Zoloft which she dutifully took for a long time. Last year, she quit cold turkey. “I’m fed up with numbness!” she said. “I no longer know what it is to be happy because I no longer feel sad.”

The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere.

In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling,’ Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them. While it’s great business for pharmaceutical companies, it is an invisible obstacle to empathy. “Melancholy,” proposes Alain de Botton, “is a key mental state and a valuable one. Melancholy is generous: you feel pity for the human condition.”

Had Abraham Lincoln been president today, he would’ve been prescribed Zoloft in a heartbeat.

“No element of Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

“With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic. “A man whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”

“But Lincoln’s melancholy,” Shenk adds, “is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see [his] life more clearly and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas — of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain.”

The first time I felt empathy was when fate toppled me from the pinnacle of power and wealth forcing me to take-on what I first considered the most humiliating jobs. It’s when I met Darren, who had the letters “L” and “R” tattooed on his left and right wrist as a reminder of the brutal beatings he suffered as a young boy for not being able to distinguish which was which. The time I met Steve, with whom I first went dumpster-diving. And Lorraine, who worked three jobs to put her son through college while caring for her ailing parents. “Losers!” is how I once considered these wretched souls. Ever since, I have never again used that word.

Had I taken everyone’s advice and taken antidepressants to numb my pain during that tumultuous time in my life, I would’ve missed the gift of empathy. Ever since, I have taken all my suffering and transmuted it to light — the light of compassion and wisdom.

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved,” says Shenk, “cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

In psychotherapy, the integration to which Shenk alludes is called “shadow work.” It means bringing to light all the wounds we’ve suffered and repressed in life; the unavowed emotions that, when not brought to surface and given fresh air, have the nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads in other areas of our lives — alcoholism, drug addiction, illicit affairs, violence, etc.

When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. [It means] absorbing instead of fighting against. The pain that signals a toothache is the pain that saves your life. Sometimes the only way out is through. — Sarah Lewis

How does the mind absorb suffering?

By realizing that resistance and escape are false moves; that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, as said Alan Watts in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’

Swallowing a pill, in my mind, works only as a temporary repressor of difficult emotions. It doesn’t make them go away. In my book, they’re called “the stuff of life,” and when courageously tussled with, not only awaken empathy, but can fuel the fire of great work.

Melancholy might paint a landscape gray, but it is only in shadow where light is perceived.


Read further: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

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Requiem For a Once Great Nation

The end of the American experience.

There’s an ominous whiff of civil war in the air.

With 400 million firearms in the hands of U.S. civilians, it promises to be a magnificent spectacle.

Trump’s childish refusal to shake Pelosi’s hand at the start of his State of the Union address and Pelosi’s pathetic tear-up of his speech said it all. They might’ve just as well have burned the U.S. Constitution.

Gotta hand it to you, America. After your circus performance during the Kavanaugh hearings, I did not think you could outdo yourself in clowning and chicanery. You have sunk to new lows, indeed.

As I watched the SOTU address, these warnings from the founding fathers echoed in my mind:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. — Abraham Lincoln

Political parties are “the most fatal disease” of popular governments. — Alexander Hamilton

One of the functions of a “well-constructed Union” should be “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. — James Madison

When Washington stepped aside as president in 1796, he memorably warned in his farewell address of the divisive influence of factions on the workings of democracy: “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party,” he said, “are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

“[Washington] stayed on for a second term only to keep [the] two parties from warring with each other,” says Willard Sterne Randall, professor emeritus of history at Champlain College and biographer of six of the Founding Fathers. “He was afraid of what he called ‘disunion.’ That if the parties flourished and kept fighting each other, the Union would break up.”

By that time, however, the damage had been done. After the highly contentious election of 1796, when John Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson, the new president moved to squash opposition by making it a federal crime to criticize the president or his administration’s policies. Jefferson struck back after toppling Adams four years later when Democratic-Republicans won control of both Congress and the presidency. “He fired half of all federal employees — the top half,” Randall explains. “He kept only the clerks and the customs agents, destroying [Adams’] Federalist Party and making it impossible to rebuild.”

While the Federalists would never win another presidential election, and disappeared for good after the War of 1812, the two-party system revived itself in the 1830s with the rise of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party, and firmly solidified in the 1850s after the founding of the Republican Party. Though the parties’ identities and regional identifications would shift greatly over time, the two-party system we know today had fallen into place by 1860 — even as the nation stood poised on the brink of the very civil war that Washington and the other Founding Fathers had desperately wanted to avoid.

620,000 Americans died in the Civil War of the 1860s. Brothers pitted against brothers in bloody carnage. I wonder what the body count will be this time around.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. — Thomas Jefferson

I’m afraid, though, that the Civil War of the 2020s will not serve to refresh the tree of liberty nor give the American empire a new lease on life. Having long made a mockery of the nation’s motto, “Out of many, One” and trampled upon the ideals which gave it birth, the predictable outcome is a warring patchwork of ideological enclaves: The Republic of California, The Republic of Texas, The New Southern Confederacy…

Upon leaving the constitutional convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin told a curious passerby that the Framers had produced “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Adam J. White, Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute asks: “What does it take to “keep a republic”?

“Nearly two and a half centuries into this experiment in self-governance, he says, “Americans tend to think that they keep their republic by relying on constitutional structure: separated powers, federalism, checks and balances. But constitutional structure, like any structure, does not maintain itself. Each generation has to maintain its institutions and repair any damage that its predecessors inflicted or allowed. This task begins with civic education, so that Americans know how their government works, and thus what to expect from their constitutional institutions.”

“Yet civic education alone, though necessary, is not sufficient. For civic education to take root and produce its desired fruit, the people themselves must have certain qualities of self-restraint, goodwill, and moderation. Because those virtues are necessary for the functioning of a constitutional republic, they are often called civic virtue, or republican virtue.”

What we are witnessing today in our elected officials is a total absence of republican virtue, without which, the house cannot stand.

When the war breaks out, I’ll just need someone to tell me who to shoot: the crazies in red uniform or the loonies in blue. Better yet, as the lights dim, the curtain closes, and the house falls, I should perhaps use my writing talent to chronicle the tragic denouement inspired by these words uttered by writer Henry Miller: “Rome has to burn in order for a guy like me to sing.”

R.I.P. America.


Read these companion articles:

Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess

Making America Whole Again

 

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Flipping God the Bird

A lesson on defiance.

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.”

Will I ever become such a man?

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.

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The Call of the Wild

And the wish never to return.

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.

Chocon Machacas
Chocón Machacas River in Guatemala

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.

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Everyone’s Doing It

So it must be okay

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!”

It seems character no longer matters in these United States.

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.

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Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess

America’s choice 2020

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.


Read this related piece: Making America Whole Again

 

 

Featured

Guilty until Proven Innocent

Masculinity on trial.

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.

Our boys deserve better.


Follow my book for boys on its journey to publication.

Featured

The One Life Force You Cannot Do Without

“If you never want to master a skill, or finish anything you start, nor do anything significant in your life, feel free to skip this chapter.”

So I introduce the ‘Life Force of Grit’ in The Hero in You, my book for boys.


Stars shine owing to the crushing the force of gravity. No pressure, no radiance.

Carbon crystals become exquisite diamonds under extreme temperatures and pressure deep in the Earth’s mantle.

Resistance is a fundamental force in nature.

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!”

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers

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.

Alladin

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.


Follow my book’s gritty journey to publication.

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Life is Not a Caucus Race in Wonderland

Featured

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

While men figure out their shit.

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.

Just imagine the world led by your nurturing power backed by our warrior fierceness.

You want to reforest the planet? We’re on it!

Australia is burning? We’ll douse it!

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.

I’m sorry.

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.

Photo by Aino Tuominen from Pixabay

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.


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication.

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The Meaning of Life

Is simpler than I thought.

The riddle has vexed humans for ages.

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?

Is the purpose of life, simply, to be?


Read my Winter Solstice meditation in celebration of the birth of Jesus.

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Beware of Silver-Tongued Villains

A wise warning from an old baboon.

“Stick with me and you’ll never go hungry again!”

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,

And everywhere

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.

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Next In Line!

My number’s up and I’m scared.

Next in line

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?”

What if?

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.

Taken at an art gallery in Mexico at the start of my adventure.

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.


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No Bucket for My List

Fate smashed it two decades ago.

Bucket on Beach.jpg
Photo by Gregory Culmer on Unsplash

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.

That no gold watch can make up for the lost time we should invest on what truly matters.

That lust is no road to intimacy nor rugged adventure the way back to our wildness.

That neither wealth nor power can ever recharge our erotic potency.

That true joy is found in being, not in having.

Which is why I’m not surprised to learn that the country with the most buckets is one of the world’s unhappiest.

We don’t need buckets or lists. All we need is to open more windows.


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When the Sh!t hits your Fan

The power of clear-eyed optimism.

Nostradamus4

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 we often 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.


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Failure to Launch!

A challenge to young men.

Failure to Launch - Image credit Kyodo News Getty
Kyodo News/Getty Images

“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!


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Making America Whole Again

This band aid might work.

Tattered American Flag

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.

That canvas is the Constitution.

Get yourself a copy.


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Why we keep making the same mistakes

Over and over again.

Chimp covering ears

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.


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