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.

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

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


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

Related articles:

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

Rewilding the American Boy

The Unhappiest Place in the World

Is falling apart

Americans are crumbling like stringless marionettes.

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

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

I’m not surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosie the Riveter

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

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

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

Such purpose, however, need not be extraordinary, earth-shattering, or world-changing. As I tell boys in my book, “helping a blind man cross the street because you are blessed with the gift of vision is a heroic act. Assisting a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”

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

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

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

“The body’s needs are few,” said Stoic philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.”

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

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

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

Why not you?

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

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

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

Harvesting ‘Happy Chemicals’

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

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

Let me introduce you to your spirited ensemble:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Memorize this quote by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.” Realize that wanting to get out of pain is the pain. Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island or The Land of Cockaigne are for childish, deluded souls.

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

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

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


Related Articles:

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

The Gift of Melancholy

A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

I’m Aging Really Well!

In ways you can’t imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex. — Kapka Kassabova

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

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

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

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

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

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related article:

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard

 

Rage!

Harnessing the power of our emotions

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

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

And all this mayhem just because of a girl.

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

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

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

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

In his words:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chariot version 2

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

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

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

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

But here’s what happened…

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

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

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

Also pretty cool.

But here’s what happened to this guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King represents your Brain = Charioteer.

The Warrior represents your Strength and Courage = White Horse.

The Wild Boy represents your Emotions = Black Horse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication!

Related articles:

A Mass Shooting and the Birth of a Book

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

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

 

 

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

Vanquishing our fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps if one sees life as a book, says American poet Stephen Crane. “Just as a book is bounded by its covers — by beginning and end — so our lives are bounded by birth and death. You can only know the moments in between. It makes no sense to fear what is outside those covers and you needn’t worry how long the book is or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ME imperturbe!” he scoffed “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought. Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”

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

This rugged soul also lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!”

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

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

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

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

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

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

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

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

If sorrow beats you down,

if weariness numbs your limbs,

do like the dead tree: grow green again,

or like the buried germ: throb!

Reemerge, cheer, shout, march, fight,

vibrate, sway, growl, sparkle.

Do like the river when it rains: swell!

or like the sea against the rock: break!

At the irascible push of the storm,

you are not to bleat like a feeble lamb,

instead you are to roar like a wild beast.

Rise, resist, provoke!

Do like the corralled bull: bellow!

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

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


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

Related articles:

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

You’ll Figure it Out.

Bread and Circuses

Let the hunger games begin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s not just money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America [and] guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover

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

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


Related articles:

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Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess
Hail Caesar!
Requiem for a Once Great Nation

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In ‘Fire in the Belly,’ Sam Keen says “the dispassionate, post-modern man is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new age man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth a candidate for heroism. It is an illusion to believe that the virility men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”

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

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

To be ‘Male’ is a matter of biology.

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

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

Where are those battles?

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

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

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

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

Consider it your Warrior’s Training Manual.

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

The Preparation

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

Let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.

Conquer the last, greatest temptation of all: Hope.

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

The March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. I discovered mine… now go find yours!

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


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

A Blinding Passion

Is seldom what it seems.

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

Is seldom what it seems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”

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

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

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

It all came tumbling down in a flash.

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

But something’s missing…

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

Is it just me?

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

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

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

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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