How to Convert an Atheist with one Beet

Red Beet2

Prime rib works just as well, though it must be rare… blood spattering rare.

In my case, it was a predawn potion of warm water mixed with turmeric, cayenne pepper, cider vinegar and honey.

Anything that will tinge urine with an alarming red color will make the staunchest unbeliever raise his eyes toward heaven and plead mercy, especially someone uninformed about the other probable causes of hematuria besides bladder cancer. Since my dad suffers from this affliction, you’ll understand why I defaulted to the extreme.

“I don’t believe in God. I fear him.”- Gabriel García Márquez

I’m not an atheist, but neither believe I have a direct line to an almighty power with nothing better to do than sit or float around all day listening to the petty laments and supplications of a weak, sniveling species. At least, not until the toilet bowl swirled with ominous blood-red tendrils a few mornings ago.

You should’ve seen and heard me then! Pleading with the staunch faith of someone who’d just been baptized in the waters of the Jordan River:

O please God no, not yet! I beg you. I still have lots I need and want to do.

It’s astounding that so many of us walk around as if death were an unfounded rumor; something that happens to strike 6,000 people every hour but somehow deems our continued presence so worthy to the entire planet that it chooses to spare us from annihilation.

Must we really be the sole survivors of a horrific plane crash to feel guilty and start living our lives with the urgency of the terminally ill? Isn’t life, by nature, a terminal disease?

Instead of survivor’s guilt, why not think of it as self-induced ‘survivor’s enthusiasm’ inspiring us to meaningful action each and every day?

Just imagine the intensity our lives would acquire if we lived with death as our eternal companion as Carlos Castaneda suggested in ‘Don Juan.’ I don’t think we’d ever dare say “just as soon as…” while contemplating our deepest yearnings.

“Just as soon as my urine is soaked in blood” doesn’t make much sense, does it?

So rather than waiting till your number is up, assume it has already and that no amount of genuflections and ‘Hail Marys’ next to a toilet bowl will spare you from the unyielding force of entropy. See if that doesn’t light a fire under your ass. If it doesn’t, and you still need a daily reminder that death is not just a nasty rumor, buy yourself a human skull and plop it on your desk.

Or eat red beets… just try to forget you ever read this.


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A Lesson on Prudence from an Impetuous, Reckless, and Irrational Optimist

Dumb Warning Sign

We build nest eggs, make hay while the sun shines, wear seat belts, stock emergency packs, back-up our hard drives, and squirrel away.

Most people, that is.

But we also smoke, drink and eat too much, drive like maniacs or morons, buy lottery tickets, have illicit sexual affairs, and, apparently, hold chainsaws by the wrong end.

We are prudent and foolhardy, gullible and suspicious, diffident and confident, calculating and impulsive, inveterate optimists and prophets of doom. “What a piece of work is man!” said Hamlet.

Indeed.

The human being is an astounding contradiction. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” (Winston Churchill).

Since I am writing a book for boys meant to help them develop the character strengths necessary to lead good and purposeful lives, I better get to the bottom of this dichotomy.

But here’s the rub…

Prudence, a.k.a. wise caution – one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity – has been conspicuously absent throughout my life.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ― William Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’ 

I’ve been a fool, many times, and know it. So who better to teach young boys about prudence than one whose life has been tossed and tumbled by the weltering seas of his own imprudence?

The Evolutionary Origins of Prudence

Prudence is the product of experience and foresight – a singular hominid trait that emerged in the Middle Pleistocene epoch from 780,000 to 120,000 years ago.

Our great-great-great-great… aunt Prudence was the one who thought it sensible to carry our stone tools in case we’d need them on our next stop during our wandering days as hunter-gatherers.

Similarly, our great-great-great-great… uncle Prometheus had the wise idea to maintain and transport fire tucked inside his loincloth just in case lightning would not be striking near our next campsite. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was a trickster who stole fire from heaven to give humans the power of the gods. His name, prometheia, in ancient Greek, means foresight.

The immense flexibility foresight provides allowed us to successfully adapt and colonize the planet.

Once early hominins obtained a certain level of ecological dominance, they faced increased competition from their own species which resulted in a runaway social contest between (and within) groups leading to greater intelligence and enhanced abilities for both cooperation and deception. These included the ability to communicate through spoken language, read others’ minds, and entertain alternative future scenarios, i.e. mental time travel, or foresight.

The beginnings of culture created complex moral systems that judged actions as right or wrong partly based on what the actor could or could not have reasonably foreseen to be the future consequences of the act. Law, education, religion, and other fundamental aspects of human culture are deeply dependent on our shared ability to reconstruct past and imagine future events.

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits.

Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.

A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted, envision themselves achieving more than their peers, and overestimate their likely lifespan.

Using and MRI scanner, two neuroscientists at the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.

I’m sure many of you have painted vivid pictures in your head of the things you’d do if you ever won the lottery but have never imagined yourself in a comma as you were driving like a maniac on a busy highway.

What Was I Thinking?

Is a question that must be running through the minds of many who voted for Trump.

The fact is, you weren’t. You were simply guided by emotion.

The human brain is made up of a collection of many modules that work in parallel, with complex interactions, most of which operate outside of our consciousness. As a consequence, the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.

Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of a threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.

Within this two-tier system, it is the unconscious tier that is the more fundamental. It developed early in our evolution to deal with the basic necessities of function and survival, sensing and safely responding to the external world. It is the standard infrastructure in all vertebrate brains, while the conscious can be considered an optional feature.

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, cognitive neuroscience researchers in Australia were able to predict choices made by participants 11 seconds before they consciously declared their decisions. Lead author Joel Pearson said that the study suggests traces of thoughts exist unconsciously before they become conscious.

“When we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about,” Pearson says, “non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations. As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.”

My brain, no doubt, was fogged-up with unconscious hallucinations the day I quit my job, gave up the lion’s share of a generous lifetime pension, rid myself of most of my possessions, and plunged into unchartered waters to reinvent myself as a writer at the tender age of 54. Right now, with little income, piling debts, and a seemingly endless torrent of rejections to my writings, my reckless decision doesn’t seem to have been all that conscious, much less prudent.

My story, however, pales in comparison to Fred Smith’s, the Founder of FedEx, who, early on, gambled his last remaining $5,000 in Las Vegas hoping to win big and pay a $24,000 jet fuel bill to keep his company afloat. He won $27,000. FedEx is now worth over $40 Billion.

When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, he order his 600 soldiers to destroy their ships leaving them no other option but to forge ahead and conquer. While I despise what he did, I admire his guts.

In January 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon precipitating a civil war which ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator and ushered-in the imperial era of Rome.

All or Nothing!” “Burn the Ships!” “Cross the Rubicon!”

Recklessness does seem to pay off big, some of the time.

A Neuro-Social Perspective on Risk-Taking

Had our early ancestors not been great risk-takers, our gene pool would have probably ended with great-aunt Prudence and great-uncle Prometheus.

A recent paper published in Trends in Neuroscience argues that risk-taking behaviors pervade across humans and monkeys, suggesting that being reckless has advantages that have allowed the behavior to persist. “For this pattern to have endured millions of years of evolution,” the lead author proposed, “it must confer some benefit.”

Risky behavior ramps up in middle adolescence because their inhibitory-control system is not yet fully operational. This period of high impulsivity allows them to experience new things. Once their full inhibition circuitry is online, they can use those experiences to make better choices.

Adolescent expert and Professor of Psychology Laurence Steinberg says that risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes in the brain’s socio-emotional system, leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, fueled mainly by a dramatic remodeling of the brain’s dopaminergic system. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system – changes which improve individuals’ capacity for self-regulation. These changes occur across adolescence and young adulthood and are seen in structural and functional changes within the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.

Squaring the Circle

So here’s the rub.

If both prudence and risk-taking allowed our species to survive and thrive, how can I confer to boys the value of prudent behavior without inhibiting their wild intrepidness?

By introducing them to the concept of purposeful audacity.

Snorting condoms or ingesting pods of Tide detergent in response to Internet dares is not only imprudent but a reckless waste of their innate audacity.

Contrariwise, skipping school and risking imprisonment like 16 year-old Greta Thunberg did to call for urgent action on climate change is imprudently audacious and might pull us from the brink of disaster.

Seeking a dopamine rush from tee-peeing their neighbor’s front yard is not only a profligate waste of toilet paper, but, more importantly, a pathetic expression of their inner warrior.

Scavenging a scrap yard for stuff with which to build a windmill like 15 year-old William Kamkwamba did to save his village from starvation – now that – is the truest expression of a man’s fierce boldness.

I tell boys to dare, and dare greatly in life, but that a crucial difference exists between being daring and just plain stupid.

I tell them that youth is the time for irrational optimism. Of the undaunted idealism which builds castles in the air as a prerequisite to building them on solid ground.

That prudence, while undeniably an essential life force, if taken to an extreme, quickly turns into diffidence and saps our courage to dare cross the Rubicon.

Ships are safe at harbor, I tell them, but that’s not what ships were made for.

Ship in Storm
Image credit: Lorenzo Lanfranconi

O to sail to sea in a ship!

To leave this steady unendurable land,

To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,

To leave you, O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,

To sail and sail and sail!

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!

To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!

To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,

A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air),

A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys. – From ‘A Song of Joys’ by Walt Whitman

As I prepared to cross the point of no return and journey on the edge of uncertainty three years ago, rather than dwelling on what I was about to lose, I focused on everything I stood to gain – freedom, liveliness, bliss, and now, the glimmer of the ultimate reward: the possibility of seeing all my struggles culminate in the publication of a book that will guide boys to become joyful men of heroic purpose.

Despite the heavy price I’ve paid in life for my impetuousness, my inner boy is still alive and exultant!

Joined in a spirited dance between his audacity and my hard-won wisdom, he and I now share the helm of our ship.

He throws caution to the wind, while I prudently point to the reefs.

 

The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride (Part V of a Series)

 

Arrogant Dragon by Vasilare De Derg
Image credit: Vasilare The Derg

It blows hot and cold.

When hot, it puffs you up like Blowfish, chalking your victories to your brilliance but conveniently blaming bad luck for your defeats.

It electrifies your hair, raises goosebumps on your skin, and swells your patriotic chest at the rise of a flag and the beginning chords of your nation’s anthem without once allowing you to reflect on the underbelly and scourge of your country’s might and supremacy or whether the aroused sensations could be compensating for a feeling of worthlessness resulting from a presumed lack of personal power.

Pride, warns the Bible, goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Before my grandiose business schemes collapsed in early 1999, I was as arrogant and overweening as boxing legend Muhammad Ali who described himself as “young, handsome, and fast! further claiming he couldn’t possibly be beat.

I’m not the greatest,” he boasted, “I’m the double greatest!

His dazzling career ended in a humiliating defeat to lumbering, slow-armed boxer Trevor Berbick.

“To see Ali lose to such a moderate fighter,” one sportswriter lamented, “was like watching a king riding into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.”

The legacy of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, along with the mighty Roman Empire, were snuffed by the hot breath of conceit that burned delusional in his young son and successor Commodus.

A mere 70 years after Greek philosopher Socrates warned Athenians of the perils of their unquestioning pride, their empire collapsed under the sword of Alexander the Great whose own hubris and intemperance later led to the downfall of his vast and powerful empire.

Hubris, or toxic pride, awakens ‘Nemesis,’ the Greek Goddess of Retribution.

Nemesis - Source Ancient Pages

When the Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride blows cold, its breath originates from the belly of shame, scrawling one nagging question inside our heads:

“WHAT WILL OTHERS THINK OF ME?”

It makes us preemptively ashamed of what others might think should we fail at something, so we don’t even try.

Ashamed to be thought of as ‘losers’ if we don’t have lots of money or fame, we push ourselves to the breaking point, even if it goes against the grain of our temperament, and often at the price of our health, relationships, and wellbeing.

It forces us go to the gym to workout our muscles or pump them with steroids because we have chosen to believe only ‘real men’ have them and if we don’t, we think it is something to be ashamed of.

It keeps us from reading poetry or pouring our darkest emotions onto the pages of a journal, from dancing or painting, from hugging a friend and telling him we love him, because we have chosen to believe ‘real men’ don’t do these things.

It’s the one that keeps us from asking for help when we most need it, from saying we don’t know because we think we’ll appear stupid, from crying when we really need to cry or admitting we are lost and afraid.

The antidotes to neutralize the twofold venom (pride and shame) of this toxic Dragon can be found inscribed at the Greek temple of Apollo, high up Mt. Parnassus in the town of Delphi.

Delphi. Image source Wikipedia commons. Credit Kufoleto - Antonio De Lorenzo and Marina Ventayol
Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Credit: Kufoleto — Antonio De Lorenzo and Marina Ventayol.

Home to the famous oracle Pythia, or priestess, ordinary Athenians would climb up to the temple to ask her questions and seek guidance for their actions. Think of her as the foremother of therapists and life coaches.

Among the 147 Delphic aphorisms, or guiding truths, inscribed on the forecourt of Apollo’s temple, are the twin weapons we must use to vanquish the Dragon of Toxic Pride:

Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess”.

Self-knowledge not only involves a detailed mapping and intimate knowledge of our temperament and abilities but must also consider our evolutionary history and biochemistry to fully understand our behavior and its triggers.

We would then, for example, be suspicious whenever our hair unconsciously stands on end with nationalistic pride, and recognize this reflex as nothing more than our overactive amygdalas, and our species’ prosocial need to belong to something greater than ourselves, reminding us how this evolutionary-adaptive trait, when taken to an extreme, has led to unspeakable terror, oppression, war, and genocide. We’d then be free to seek belonging without renouncing our integrity and sovereignty.

A critical awareness of the presuppositions and biases of our thoughts and opinions would make us rightly skeptical of our much vaunted rationality and lead us to greater wisdom and away from dangerous extremism.

Nothing in Excess” must have been what inspired Greek philosopher Aristotle to develop his concept of the Golden Mean.

Modesty, Aristotle proposed, or moderation when estimating our abilities, was the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and a sense of worthlessness.

Had young Commodus, for example, appropriately channeled the energies of King rather than identifying himself as King and God, he would have magnified his father’s legacy and possibly prolonged the halcyon era known as the Pax Romana. Instead, he declared himself to be an incarnation of the god Hercules and forced the senate to recognize his divinity. Statues of Commodus were erected across the city of Rome including one made of solid gold weighing nearly 1,000 pounds.

Taking time to appraise and value our unique temperament and abilities will keep us from pursuing careers or undertaking challenges for which we are unsuited, and, instead, assume our rightful place in the world from which we can radiate the power of our authentic worth.

Further understanding our brain’s unique neurochemistry can also potentially help us choose the right partner for a long lasting relationship, as discovered by anthropologist and chief scientific advisor to Match.com, Helen Fisher.

An honest assessment of our proudful victories will reveal the crucial role played by genes, luck, proper timing or circumstance, making us humble and quick to replace the insensitive label of “Loser” for the benevolent one of “Unfortunate” when judging the plight of those ill-served by providence. Pity would lead to compassion and be further nurtured by the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of our shared human experience.

Understanding our limitations will break through the stoic armor we often use to hide our doubts and fears, opening a door to courageous vulnerability which will allow us to seek help while inciting us to reconnect with our feeling bodies and not think twice about nurturing our softer sides through dance, poetry, tears, deep relationships, and intimacy.

The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride is a formidable adversary, no doubt, but no match for the True Masculine who recognizes the value of self-knowledge and seeks the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and worthlessness by cultivating the Life Force of Moderation.


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Slay the Dream-Scorching Dragon!

And let go of those who hold you back.

Quimera
Contributor Noah Black @ aminoapps.com

Had his childhood dream not been scorched, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer.

Instead, he became a businessman, and lived to regret it.

At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany and moved to Guatemala to begin his new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.

Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.

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 to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.

Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.

These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.

I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like stone and creaking wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force that it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather also worked long hours, so Dad hardly saw him. My grandfather held the notion that a man’s identity is solely defined by his work.

That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with a boyish sparkle in his eyes, waiting for his blessing.

Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:

“Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”

Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” He thundered and walked away.

Meet the Dream-Scorching Dragon, who’s deadly fire that fateful day denied the world a dashing explorer. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dad became a businessman instead and lost the sparkle in his eye.

I have two possible explanations for what occurred.

First, that my grandfather thought a man could only earn a living and provide for a family by holding a “respectable” job, and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.

Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too might have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason, Perhaps some other Dream-Scorching Dragon stopped him in his tracks.

Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer.

There are too many people like that lurking in our midst. People who lack the faith and audacity to slay the Dragon and give time and power to their true calling — no matter how unconventional, unprofitable, or impractical — so become Dream-Scorching Dragons themselves.

German philosopher Nietzsche knew them well:

“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their

Highest hope. And then they disparaged all

High hopes.

Then lived shamelessly in

Temporary pleasures, and beyond the

Day had hardly an aim.

Then broke the wings of their spirit.

Once they thought of becoming heroes;

But sensualists are they now.

A trouble and a terror

Is the hero to them.” — ‘Zarathustra’

Many Dragons
From ‘Dungeons and Dragons. All rights reserved.

Three years ago, I woke up from a 40-year lie and upended my life to pursue my boyhood dream of becoming a writer. Soon after declaring my intention, a horde of Dream-Scorching Dragons lined up ahead of my path and began to blow their disheartening fire. Not least, my father, who, while often my most ardent cheerleader, also spat numbing venom, making me question my sanity. It was, I suppose, a twisted form of payback.

Dream-Scorching Dragons are shapeshifters. Whether with good or bad intent, those closest to you will be the ones most likely to make you hesitate or give up on your dream altogether. They’ll either presume to know what’s best for you, or appeal to your sense of duty to place their interests ahead of your own.

“You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you. What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.” — Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Open Road’

It took every ounce of resolve for me to resist the clutch of those outreached hands trying to hold me back. It also took a heavy dose of selfishness… of the good kind I mean, defined by philosopher Alain de Botton as one that involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term.

After all, one cannot fully love others while denying oneself. Only in fullness does one overflow.

If we turn our backs on our aspirations and remain shut within the walls of what appears safe or practical, we will become dead in life… forever haunted by regrets as poet Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly foretold:

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children have to go far out into the world

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

I did not wish to remain “inside the dishes and the glasses” leaving it up to my children to do what only I was meant to do. Nor did I want to be like so many fathers who exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence, and the festering wounds of their unfulfilled desires.

Neither should you.

Answering the call of your true destiny will require a stout heart, self-love, a firm intention, and unwavering resolve.

For some of us, it also requires a touch of madness.

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

To arm you for battle against the Dream-Scorching Dragons who will try to hold you back, I give you this weapon, forged by the mighty pen of poet Mary Oliver:

“One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do.

Little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Now tell me…

What is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”


 

Read Episode I: Overcoming the Ice Dragon of Self Doubt.

Read the Dragon Series in my book for boys.

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Prologue to ‘The Hero in You’

Boy fighting dragon (blank)

Congratulations! You’re a very lucky boy.

First, because someone cared enough to give you this book and The Warrior’s Workbook.

Second, because you can read. Many kids around the world are not so lucky.

Third, because you choose to read while many don’t. Keep it up, you’re way ahead of the pack.

If you’re wondering what this book is about, I’ll answer your question with a story:

Modern humans have been in the world for about 200,000 years. For 99% of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth in small tribes. There were no cities, no towns, no malls, no Internet or social media, and – you’ll love this – no schools! Boys learned in the wild.

When time came for boys to learn to survive and become men, the male elders of the tribe would sneak into the village in the middle of the night, drag them away from their mothers, and take them into the wilderness. There, boys would go through a series of difficult trials often involving being left out in the wild by themselves. They call this “initiation” or “rites of passage.”

In Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific, for example, young boys come of age by bungee-jumping off a 100-foot-tall tower with a tree-vine tied to their ankles, barely long enough to prevent them from hitting the ground. Unlike a bungee cord, the vine lacks elasticity, so a slight miscalculation in vine length can lead to broken bones or even death. In their first dives, their mothers hold an item representing their childhood (think stuffed animal or snuggie blanket). After the jump, the item is thrown away symbolizing the end of childhood.

Nowadays, about the only trial a boy has to go through to call himself a man is to get his driver’s license or a tattoo which is pretty lame and meaningless, wouldn’t you say?

In aboriginal Australia, 10 to 16 year-old boys were left out in the wilderness for a period as long as six months to learn to survive on their own and make the transition from boy to man, just like a caterpillar breaks free from its cocoon and emerges as a butterfly.

But before going out on their own, the elders of the tribe gathered the boys around a campfire to tell them stories.

bushman-campfire

Stories about how the world began, the customs of their tribe, and the role and purpose of men in their culture. They would also sing the names of things and places across the land that the boys would soon have to navigate on their own; the places where they could find shelter, water, and food; places where they would encounter danger and the skills needed to get out of it. They called these songs “Dreaming Tracks.”

The boys would listen and memorize these songs. Once they were out in the wilderness by themselves, all they had to do was to repeat these songs to safely make their way across the land.

Think of it this way… say you have a younger brother who is ready to explore your neighborhood, by himself, for the first time. Of course, you already know it like the back of your hand and could even possibly draw a map of it with your eyes closed. You are familiar with the exciting places, like the nearest skatepark or the best swimming hole or fishing spot by the river. Your experience has also taught you about the places and people your brother must avoid, like the front lawn of Mr. So & So who hates children and whose house is haunted, or the town’s graveyard, particularly at the stroke of midnight.

Before allowing your younger brother to venture out on his own, I am certain you would sit him down and explain all this to him. When warning him about the dangers, I’m also sure you’d look all serious and use a stern tone of voice to make sure he gets it. Maybe you’d draw a map for him with all sorts of exes, squiggly lines, and the occasional skull and crossbones, and insist he carry it with him. That would be your Dreaming Track.

I am one of the elders of your tribe – The Human Tribe – and having gone through many exciting and dangerous adventures, this book is my Dreaming Track.

It is my song to help you navigate the world, to guide you on your journey from caterpillar to butterfly… from boy to man, and tell you about the Life Forces you will need to become the hero in your own story.

Now, this book will not be easy to read. But I’m not writing it to make things easy for you or to entertain or comfort you… I am here to challenge you!

The choice is yours: put the book down and walk away, or follow me on this daring journey.

If you choose to continue reading, it means you’re curious. Curiosity is one of the Life Forces this book will tell you about and you already have it! Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, once said he had no special talent, he was only passionately curious. The most important thing, he said, is to never stop questioning.

So congratulations again!

You are among the great minds of our time and your hair hasn’t even turned gray and bushy like Albert’s.

One last thing before we get started…

It is great to be a man! Our world is facing enormous challenges which need the fierce strength of heroic men to overcome them. But before you go out and save the world, you need to know what it means to be a man and a hero.

First, you need to know where you came from. Because if you don’t know that, you won’t know where you’re going.

Chapter 1

Learn Emotional Intelligence from a Clever Horse

Clever Hans

Meet ‘Clever Hans’: A horse that performed arithmetic and intellectual tasks on the level of a third-grader.

“He can do almost everything but talk,” reported the New York Times in 1911.

In his book ‘Subliminal,’ theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains how:

Hans learned to respond to his master’s questions by stamping his right hoof. The New York Times reporter described how, on one occasion, Hans was told to stamp once for gold, twice for silver, and three times for copper, and then correctly identified coins made from those metals. He identified colored hats in an analogous manner. Using the sign language of hoof taps, he could also tell time; identify the month and the day of the week; indicate the number of 4’s in 8, 16, and 32; add 5 and 9; and even indicate the remainder when 7 was divided by 3. Sometimes, he could answer his master’s questions even if not verbalized. By the time the reporter witnessed this display, Hans had become a celebrity.

A psychologist named Oskar Pfungst decided to investigate. He discovered that the horse could answer questions posed by people other than his master, but only if the questioners knew the answer, and only if they were visible to Hans during the hoof tapping.

Pfungst eventually found that the key to the horse’s feats lay in involuntary and unconscious cues displayed by the questioner. As soon as a problem was posed, the questioner would involuntarily and almost imperceptibly bend forward, which prompted Hans to begin tapping. Then, as the correct answer was reached, another slight bit of body language would signal Hans to stop.

Social Cues

Scientists, Mlodinow ads, attach great importance to the human capacity for spoken language. But we also have a parallel track of nonverbal communication, and those messages may reveal more than our carefully chosen words and sometimes be at odds with them. Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental that our words.

One recent study, for example, found that when trained properly, a wolf can respond to human nonverbal signals. Like us, wolves are highly social animals, and one reason they can respond to nonverbal cues from humans is that they have a rich repertoire of such signals within their own community.

In ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,’ Charles Darwin argued that emotions — and the ways they are expressed — are not unique to humans and provide a survival advantage.

Consider, for example, a smile — an expression we share with other primates. If a submissive monkey wants to check out a dominant one, it will bare its teeth as a peace signal.

“In monkey talk, says Mlodinow, “bared teeth mean I don’t plan to attack, so please don’t attack me first. In chimpanzees, the smile can go the other way — a dominant individual may smile at the submissive one, saying, don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you.

You might think a smile is a rather shoddy barometer of true feelings. After all, anyone can fake one. But our facial expressions are expressed subliminally by muscles over which we have no conscious control. Our real emotions and signal expressions cannot be faked.

Genuine vs Fake Smile

A genuine smile involves contraction of specific muscles which pull the skin surrounding the eye toward the eyeball causing an effect that looks like crow’s-feet but can be very subtle.

Learning to read these subtle cues is fundamental to social interaction and the development of empathy: the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. — G.K. Chesterton

In ‘Figuring,’ a sublime book by Maria Popova, she explains that the word empathy came into popular use in the early twentieth century through the gateway of art, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a painting in an effort to understand why art moves us.

But if we don’t expose ourselves to a painting, we cannot project our emotions onto the canvas and intuit the subtlety of the artist’s intention and resulting effect in our feeling bodies.

Likewise, now that our social interactions are increasingly mediated by social media and text messages, our capacity to read subtle cues broadcast by body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions is atrophying. An emoticon, no matter how clever or cute, just doesn’t cut it, which might explain the growing level of societal discord and strife.

Just think of the last time one of your text messages was completely misunderstood by its recipient.

While this modern-day scourge affects both old and young alike, my current work and concern is with our boys.

Much like shielding boys from danger inhibits their ability to effectively overcome obstacles and navigate the world, allowing them to mediate their human interactions through technology prevents them from developing strong social-emotional intelligence.

Social-emotional agnosia

Also known as expressive agnosia, social-emotional agnosia is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. People with this form of agnosia have difficulty determining and identifying the motivational and emotional significance of external social events. In other words, they can’t relate. Social-emotional agnosia often occurs in individuals with schizophrenia and autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism. The prevalence is 1 in 42 for boys and 1 in 189 for girls. These rates yield a gender ratio of about five boys for every girl. The latest estimate of autism prevalence is up 30 percent from the rate reported in 2008, and more than double the rate in 2000. — Scientific American.

Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA study.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Another UCLA study linked technology with a decline in critical thinking and analysis.

Roughhousing Boys

As I explain to boys in Chapter 2 of my current book, our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action. We are also less empathetic than females… less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering.

The only way Clever Hans was able to answer questions was while being face-to-face with the questioner.

The only way boys will develop positive social skills is by removing the screens which shield them from direct human interaction and send them out into the world.

This, no doubt, will help them become as emotionally-intelligent as a horse.


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