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.

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 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

 

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. We waste time, kill time, dither and delay… “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.

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.

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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.’

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.

page break cropped

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