When the Sh!t hits your Fan

The power of clear-eyed optimism.

Nostradamus4

The Antichrist will be the infernal prince again for the third and last time… so many evils shall be committed by Satan that almost the entire world shall be found undone and desolate. Before these events happen, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now!’ and sometime later will vanish.” — Michel de Nostradamus

At least this 16th century quack wrote his prophecies with poetic flair, whereas my doom and gloom is couched in banalities like, “That’s it! I’m screwed!

There is, however, one thing Michel and I have in common: neither his, nor my most dreadful prophecies have come to pass. In this, we are in the good company of Mark Twain who once quipped he had suffered a great many catastrophes in his life, most of which never happened.

No matter how many times I’ve come to realize that my dire predictions never materialize, I keep making them, as if I were somehow ruled by a masochist overlord who insists on tormenting my existence with drowning storms of anxiety.

I am shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in. — Fernando Pessoa

I am tired of being a hopeless catastrophizer, yet my nature is such that I can neither look at the future through the rose-colored glasses of a cheery-eyed Pollyanna. I’m the type that would require a portable Hubble telescope to spot the silver lining on a cloud and it appears I’m not alone.

Anxiety is now a rising epidemic, especially among the young, and is primarily caused by uncertainty of what the future holds.

Since I am writing a book for boys meant to help them develop the character strengths needed to navigate an increasingly uncertain world, I set out to look for a middle path between Nostradamus and Pollyanna; between a sunny optimist and gloomy pessimist.

I think I found it.

It first came to me through the words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer who said an optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere. A pessimist sees only the red stoplight. Only the truly wise are colorblind.

Schweitzer’s words seemed more practical than what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: that a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity while the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. “I am an optimist,” he declared. “It doesn’t seem very useful being anything else.”

I think there is something more useful. Something that is better suited to the way life often foils our best laid plans and dashes our greatest hopes and expectations. I call it clear-eyed optimism.

A clear-eyed optimist doesn’t see reality as only green or red, black or white. He neither thinks sunny days last forever, nor does he walk with a constant cloud over his head predicting more rain ahead. A cleared-eyed optimist understands that both light and shadow are part of the landscape and beauty of life. He knows the difference between hope and despair is just a matter of how he narrates his story.

I explain this to boys through my current experience with the publication of my book:


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

I had been writing the book for close to a year, and, seeing I was almost done, I decided it was time to submit it to literary agents hoping to find someone interested in its publication.

Out of the 33 agents to whom I’d sent the book, 11 had already rejected me and I had not heard from the others which meant they probably weren’t interested. Making things worse, I had run out of money.

Before discovering the wise words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, this is how I would’ve explained my situation:

I’m screwed! There’s nothing I can do. Everyone hates my book. I’m a terrible writer and it’s my fault for thinking otherwise. This always happens to me and always will. I’m gonna end up on the street starving to death. The world is not fair. I give up!

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

A cheery-eyed optimist would tell the story quite differently.

No need to stress out, he’d say. Things will work out, somehow. I can feel it! I’m special. People like me. My life will get better and better like in those movies with happy endings. All I need to do is wish harder and my dreams will come true.

All sunshine, unicorns, genies-in-a-bottle, cotton candy, and multicolored rainbows. Only seeing green lights.

A colorblind, or cleared-eyed optimist, is more like Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time.

Holmes would set all emotions aside, and, before jumping to conclusions, would search for clues, gather evidence, and then look coldly at the facts. His clear-headed analysis would provide a more realistic and useful explanation for my predicament.

Here’s what he’d tell me:

You have given this book all you have. Perhaps not 24/7, but close enough, for almost 365 days. You have also researched more than 50 books as part of that work. So the fact that it might not get published has nothing to do with your effort of which you should be very proud. If you need to blame someone, blame your bad luck, not your dedication.

Being Sherlock, I have taken the time to research the book industry and, while the information is not all that clear, it appears that the odds of getting your book published are anywhere from 300,000 to a million-to-one. You must come to terms with this and adjust your expectations. Not everyone will become famous and chances are you won’t either. But remember what you’ve said before: You’re not writing this book to become famous. You’re writing it to help boys. If you are to live true to your word, you’ll print the book yourself, if that’s what it takes, and personally hand it to every boy you can, even if it means going door-to-door like those kids who are forced to sell magazine subscriptions to their neighbors to raise money for their school.

Also, none of the 11 agents who have rejected your book have said that they hate it. What they’ve said is that it’s not for them. Big difference. Not everyone likes Brussel Sprouts but that doesn’t mean that they’re disgusting, nor that there aren’t people who love them. You just haven’t found the right agent for your book, that’s all.

Further, I have found no evidence to prove your claim that you’re a bad writer. What I have seen is how hard you work every day to become a better one and haven’t quit. You should be very proud of that.

You’re also incorrect in saying “this always happens to me.” I have examined your life story and have found many instances where you have succeeded. Do yourself a favor and go back to those moments to find guidance, inspiration, and strength.

You predict you will end up in the street starving to death, but you forget you’ve been in worse situations and managed to figure it out. The evidence tells me you’re a warrior and survivor so stop wasting time predicting storms and tsunamis and start making sunshine like you’ve done in the past.

“The world is not fair,” you say? Ha-ha! Really? Tell me something I don’t know.

You give up? Seriously? And what will you tell those boys whom you’re urging to be heroes? Even worse, what will you tell yourself? You’re supposed to be an example of the heroic life. Heroes don’t give up. They adjust and try over and over again until they get it right. Do yourself another favor and memorize this number: 606. It’s the name given to a successful drug developed by Dr. Paul Ehrlich in the early 1900s. It was called 606 because he had failed 605 times before!

Finally, even if your book fails, you have a choice in how you tell the story. You can tell it as a tragedy in which you played the part of the helpless victim, or turn it into the greatest tale of adventure and take credit for having dared greatly, just as American President Theodore Roosevelt said in this famous speech:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt is right. So is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Schweitzer.

The way we explain what happens to us — both good and bad — will either make us helpless victims of our circumstances, or heroes of our own daring and courageous story.

When this book finally gets published, I won’t say it was because I’m a great writer, or that I deserve it. I will explain it by the amount of dedication and effort — all the sweat and toil I gave it. At the same time, I won’t expect that my next book will demand less of me or that it will succeed just because the first one did. I will work just as hard, even harder, knowing I can always be better.

Next time you find yourself thinking in terms of GREEN stoplights, like:

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

“Everyone loves me because I’m special.”

“Everything’s gonna work out great in my life!”

“I’m the luckiest boy in the world, so I don’t need to prepare, train, or work hard at anything.”

“If I succeed today, I’ll succeed tomorrow.”

Or RED lights, like:

“I got a ‘D’ on my test because I’m stupid.”

“No one likes me or wants to hang out with me.”

“Things will never work out for me.”

“I never have any luck so what’s the use in trying.”

“I’m never trying out for the class play or soccer team because everyone will laugh at me.”

STOP! PLEASE STOP!

Stop using words like “never,” “always,” or “everyone.”

Stop labelling yourself as “stupid,” “loser,” or “smart.” If you got a ‘D’ on your test, chances are you didn’t study hard enough. If you got an ‘A,’ give yourself credit for having prepared well, then do it over and over again.

Stop expecting sunshine and rainbows or predicting storms and tsunamis. Stop staring at the thorns in a rose or just looking at the flower. Both thorn and flower are part of what it is to be a rose.

In every situation in life, both in victory or defeat, call Detective Holmes and have him analyze each one with clear-eyed optimism.”


Preparing boys for the inevitable disappointments in life is one of my main objectives in writing ‘The Hero in You,’ yet it has also served me well. Along with the other nine character strengths I discuss in the book, the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism is one I now bring to bear when life keeps giving me lemons.

Nostradamus was right in only one sense; when he said that “before events happen, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now!” which are the crow-caws of doom and gloom we often allow to drown us in anxiety. Nostradamus was also right when ending his prophecy with, “and sometime later [they’ll] vanish.”

What makes the crows vanish is the clear-headed analysis and serene voice of our inner Sherlock Holmes. It’s the courageous energy that keeps our blades spinning when the shit hits the fan.


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Failure to Launch!

A challenge to young men.

Failure to Launch - Image credit Kyodo News Getty
Kyodo News/Getty Images

“Young men between 25 and 31 are 66 percent more likely than their female counterparts to be living with their parents.” — from ‘The Boy Crisis,’ by Warren Farrell and John Gray.

Can’t say I blame them for failing to launch.

Look at the world through their eyes and tell me you wouldn’t choose to stay shut in your room playing video games, binge-watching ‘The Bachelor,’ or living-out your conquest fantasies through porn.

Having come of age during the Great Recession of 2008, saddled with unprecedented student debt, with home prices out of reach for many, a shrinking share in the labor force, a boiling planet, feckless leadership, and blurring lines between truth and fiction and right and wrong, the American Dream must sound to these young men like a bad joke delivered inside a nightmarish hall of the absurd.

With everything so seemingly out-of-whack, it is understandable why the sense of absolute control afforded by a joystick or the submissive behavior of female sex kittens is so seductive and comforting. It just feels, well, safer.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — Arthur Miller

The United States has been down a similar path before.

The illusions of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ which swept Americans into an unfamiliar affluent consumer society were similarly snuffed out by the worst stock market crash in history. The Great Depression lasted for a decade. Even by April of its final year, more than one in five Americans were still out of work. Five months later, Hitler invaded Poland, igniting World War II.

The writing, though, had been on the wall for years.

Shocked by the carnage and chaos of the First World War (1914–1918), many people across Europe yearned for national unity and strong leadership to pull their countries out of mass unemployment, chaotic political party strife, and rising anarchy brought about by liberalism and Marxism. They longed for ‘strong-men’ to save them from their bewilderment and make them feel safe, proud and strong again.

Italy’s Benito Mussolini was happy to oblige with the birth of fascism, a term first used in 1915 by members of his movement, the Fasci of Revolutionary Action. Inspired by ‘Il Duce,’ the scourge of fascism spread across Europe and Japan. Hitler was just Mussolini’s most ardent and diabolical copycat.

“The main plank in the National Socialist program is to abolish the liberalist concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil, and bound together by the bond of its common blood.” — Adolf Hitler 1930s

After six years of heroic struggle, the Nazi threat was vanquished by the courage and sacrifice of young freedom fighters. Among them, the Americans, later lauded as ‘The Greatest Generation.’

Also known as the G.I. and World War II Generation, these brave men and women were shaped by the ravaging effects on their future prospects by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Before you get all teary-eyed, vicariously nostalgic, or thump your chest with the pride of exceptionalism, let me remind you the United States did not enter the war until two years after it started and only after attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The brunt of the struggle was borne by the Soviet Union who sacrificed around 10 million soldiers (vs. 400,000 by the U.S.) to rout the Axis Powers.

But still, once called, Americans rose to the occasion and launched their might against the jackals.


Sixty years later, the Great Recession of 2008 was the defining moment which still plagues the current generation of young men who are failing to launch. If that wasn’t enough, the world they’re inheriting is, once again, witnessing the rise of ultra nationalist and authoritarian movements while the world’s leaders seem hopeless or complicit. Meanwhile, icebergs are crumbling, corals bleaching, habitats shrinking, bees dying, and the earth is burning. Since the American Dream is also failing them, these young men may want to drop their joysticks, come out of isolation, and take arms to create a new dream— or blueprint — for themselves, for humanity, and the planet.

That is, unless they also want to be known as ‘The Silent Generation’ — which followed the ‘Greatest’ — and was so labelled because its members felt it was too dangerous to speak out and safer to obey the mantra of the time — conformity — symbolized by the man in the gray flannel suit.

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Referring to that spineless, silent generation, Henry Miller wondered, “What has come over these youngsters? Who instead of upsetting the world with their fiery thoughts and deeds, are seeking ways to escape from the world? What is happening to make the young, old before their time, frustrated instead of liberated? What is it that gives them the notion that they are useless and unfit for life’s struggles?”

Miller followed his diatribe with this challenge: “A truly young man, product of his age, would be fixing to throw a bomb to restore us to sanity. He would not be thinking of ways to escape but of how to kill off the elders and all they represent. He would be thinking on how to give this tired world a new lease on life. He would already be writing his name in the sky.”

While I am not suggesting all-out anarchy, now is definitely not the time for silence or inaction. Waiting for a clear enemy, like Hitler, to emerge, or another 9–11, or for Earth to cross the climactic tipping point, might be a little too late.

“Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man,” wrote John Eldredge in ‘Wild at Heart.’ Look out the window and you’ll find enough meaningful and urgent quests in desperate need of the idealism and fierce warrior-energy of men.

It’s an illusion, said writer Sam Keen, to believe that the virility men seem unable to find can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion. “The dispassionate, post-modern, cool man,” he added, “is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no Eros, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new-age man, who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth, a candidate for heroism.”

The world is starved for heroes. The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.

It’s time, young men, to find that intersection and launch! Time to come out of the “safety” of your virtual realities, write your name in the sky, and give the world a good reason to name you the Bravest Generation!


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Making America Whole Again

This band aid might work.

Tattered American Flag

Back in September of last year, I claimed Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I went on to suggest that the demise of old ideas is not necessarily a bad thing if we replace them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, one transcending country, race, and religion.

I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time.

Right, because I maintain Americans have lost sight of their shared ideals. In fact, I suspect most don’t even know what those are.

Wrong, in claiming the country is fracturing. It just feels that way. I have since confirmed that the noisy extremes are the reason why. Between progressive activists (8% of the population) and devoted conservatives (6%), there is an “exhausted majority” desperate to have these extremists shut the hell up. It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and the loudmouths that dominate airtime. Those who compromise and calmly propose working solutions are drowned out by their rage.

Somewhat right, in calling for better ideas, but wrong in saying that the demise of old ones is not necessarily a bad thing. I was guilty of suggesting we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

That baby is the glue that once held this nation together: The Constitution.

A set of simple, revolutionary ideas which forged a national identity out of a group of people who looked different, spoke different languages, and practiced religion in varied ways — a true melting pot. There is a good reason the preamble to the Constitution begins with the words: “We the People” and the country’s motto is ‘E pluribus unum’ — Out of many, one.

I know, I know… Jefferson was a slave owner, women and African-Americans were denied the right to vote, and most, if not all of the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution were white men of property. It is the principle I am praising here, like I would still praise love even if some cheat.

Let us never forget that the American Revolution and its promise was won on the backs of both men and women, black, white, brown and red, enslaved and free, privileged and unfortunate. The Founders just knew how to write better, and in 7591 words — about thirty four pages including twenty seven amendments — they gave us a blueprint for how to keep the fabric from unraveling:

Federal Republic: a federation of states with a central government devoid of a monarchy or hereditary aristocracy.

Separation of Powers: checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.

Rule of Law.

Civil rights: to property, religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, voting, citizenship by birth, and to bear arms (no cherry-picking allowed).

Federal Taxation (if you don’t like this one, move to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait which have none).

Simple, although imperfect, like all foundational documents, with room for improvement.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. — Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was in favor of revisiting the Constitution every twenty years or so.

It was last tweaked in 1992.

I say time’s up.

I’d start with clarifying freedom of speech, which some believe gives them license to say whatever is on their mind regardless of the consequences. I’d then propose amending the right to bear arms to keep them away from the mentally ill and add health care as another right.

Still, as it currently stands, the Constitution is the only glue that can keep this country together. Not race, religion, or political or economic ideology.

The extremes, however, are determined to tear it up.

In their article for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report troubling trends:

“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered by them] an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty, an engine of discrimination. Property rights, a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that a diverse and inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is essential, compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.

From the [extreme] right, there have been calls to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. President Trump routinely calls the [press] “the enemy of the American people.” In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press to criticize politicians was very important to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States.”

And not too long ago, Trump announced his plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order.

This is flag-burning at its worst, and those in the exhausted majority better do something before it’s too late.

Like deciding if they share the Constitution’s core principles. If so, they must recommit to their defense as they would defend their house and family if attacked by barbarians. Otherwise move.

Like kicking out the barbarians by voting for people whose express priority is defending those principles regardless of party affiliation.

Like advocating for changes to the Constitution they believe are necessary to adapt to the times.

Or calling for the return of civics education at public schools focused on those principles.

How about petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to make fundamental changes in the Naturalization Test, prioritizing knowledge of the principles which gave birth to the country, instead of asking inane questions like “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”

And, finally, let us stop wasting our precious time and brains listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and start thinking for ourselves!

As for the extremes, Chua and Rubenfeld say “the right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression.”  


The Bison was the glue that held American Indians together. Once gone, their culture unraveled.

History appears to be repeating itself in 21st Century America.

I still hope that, one day, humanity will come together under one flag, and that’s where I am ahead of my time. But I’m afraid the time has not yet come and might require an existential threat for it to happen.

 

For now, groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue — a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart.

For the United States, that glue is “constitutional patriotism.”

Such lofty idea, however, will remain pie-in-the-sky if not preceded by civility. And the first step towards civility is for us to get off our self-righteous horses and sit together with our proclaimed “enemies” and listen.

Not everyone who doesn’t think like you is a bloodthirsty zombie or an idiot…ok, some probably are.

Moral indignation is the standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity. — Alain de Botton

When I said before we should stop listening to the loudmouths on both extremes and think for ourselves, I was referring only to those whose opinions are so calcified they border on fanaticism, which is just an overcompensation for doubt as psychologist Carl Jung suggested. For if these jokers were truly convinced of their ideas, there’d be no need to shout.

Is there an art to listening?

There is, and, to me, it starts with humility (Dubito ergo sum) and intellectual integrity. Nothing is more difficult, said economist E.F. Schumacher, than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.

True listening, says radio host Celeste Headlee, begins with presence. “Don’t be half-in and half-out of a conversation,” she recommends in her instructive Ted Talk in which she lists these other tips for a rewarding conversation:

  • Set yourself aside. If you want to pontificate, write a blog. Enter each conversation assuming you have something to learn. Be curious. Bill Nye rightly said “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
  • Use open-ended questions.
  • If you don’t know, say so.
  • Don’t equate your experiences with them.
  • Keep your mind open and your mouth shut. If your mouth is open, you are not listening. “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand,” said Steven Covey, “we listen with the intent to reply.”

Judging from the ongoing Democratic debates, it is progressives, in my opinion, who most need to learn how to listen, particularly to rural white America. Once they do, they need to speak to its gut, not just its frontal brain lobe (conservatives are masters at this). While they must be honest in letting this large electorate know the country they fear lost will never return (because it never really existed), I believe most would rally behind a commitment to the Republic’s collective interest, i.e., “We the people,” instead of a warring patchwork of ‘Us-versus-Them.’

There is enough credible research out there proving that exalting differences among groups of people only serves to create prejudice, but I am not suggesting we suppress the rich cultural expressions the United States is fortunate to have. That would only leave a bland, white canvas. I’m suggesting we invert our identity markers and start calling ourselves: American-Africans, American-Hispanics, American-Muslims, American-Asians, etc.

I’m proposing the canvas be placed before the paint.

That canvas is the Constitution.

Get yourself a copy.


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Why we keep making the same mistakes

Over and over again.

Chimp covering ears

When kidnapping was my country’s favorite sport, I pleaded my wife to change her routine, use different routes while driving, to be vigilant and check-in with me every few hours over the phone.

She scoffed, “I don’t need to. I have my saving angels.

It made me pity all the unfortunate chaps who had arrived late to God’s ‘Saving Angel Allocation Party,’ and it wasn’t until the threat of abduction came knocking at our door that I had the ‘foresight’ to flee.

Despite multiple warnings, humans seem unable to act until it’s almost, or already too late.

Ancient Athenians condemned Socrates to death after he warned them about the dangers of hubris. Soon after, their empire collapsed.

When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God; that we should love our enemies as we do ourselves and turn the other cheek when slapped, people found him a killjoy and nailed him to the cross.

Clair Patterson was excoriated by the press and ostracized by the scientific establishment for warning Americans that lead in gasoline was making them crazy. It was only thanks to his stubbornness that his compatriots kept their sanity.

Galileo was imprisoned and forced to recant his ‘shocking’ discovery that man wasn’t at the center of the universe after all. The persecution of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition did not end until almost two centuries after Galileo’s death.

Today, every scientist — worthy of the name — is warning us about the looming climactic threat to our species and the rest of life on the planet. And how do we respond? With business as usual. With our jolly Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. With quarter-measures and endless world summits spewing bromides and ineffectual agreements.

When a 16 year-old autistic activist dares confront the fecklessness of world leaders and warns us of the dire consequences of inaction, she is mercilessly attacked on social media and mocked by the most powerful man on earth as a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. — André Gide

We keep making the same mistakes because we don’t listen or — worse — refuse to listen. We don’t care. We only care when the shit hits our fan. Water will have to reach our nostrils, wildfires singe our hairs, or a horde of climate refugees come knocking at our door before we act. Why? Because change is inconvenient. Because we deem ourselves too special to have something bad happen to us. Because in the back of our deluded minds we hope someone will eventually come to our rescue and save us from our addictions.

Never in history have we faced a more nefarious enemy, ourselves!

In discarding the monkey and substituting man, our Father in Heaven did the monkey an undeserved injustice. – Mark Twain

Don’t let my righteous thundering fool you in believing I’ve been spared by the contagion. I am as guilty as anyone. Despite my carbon footprint being almost as shallow as the water table in Cape Town, I know there is much more I could be doing, but don’t. For proof of my lack of foresight consider the fact that as I write this, I am about to step outside in sub-zero temperature to smoke another cigarette barely a week after my father died from bladder cancer and emphysema caused by his addiction to nicotine. Kurt Vonnegut described his own cancer sticks as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other.”

Foresight is obviously not our strong suit. Never has, never will. We are nature’s biggest blunder.

Let’s just hope the rapacious madness of such an unhinged primate doesn’t drag the whole world down with it.


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Please, Save us from our Addictions!

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.

addicted
Cartoon by Nate Beeler

WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.

Please, please make me stop!

What a piece of work, indeed.

Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.

When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.

What part of “radical” don’t you get?

It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.

Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.

Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?

True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.

The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.

“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”

I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.

The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!

“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca

The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”

The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:

Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”

Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”

Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?

Perhaps, our children?

“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx

As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.

I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.

Today is obviously one of those days.

When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.


Until then, join my mailing list to receive my future rants.

Beer of Belonging?

Our misty hidden yearnings.

Beer commercial

Is it the beer you crave, or are you thirsting for the warm camaraderie and belonging hinted at by the affectionate smiles of the actors?

Are you hoping for the one-carat diamond around your finger, or for the true covenant of love that can only be expressed in honest words and meaningful deeds?

Is it the Caribbean cruise, or a yearning to break free from your meaningless job and humdrum life?

Philosopher Theodor Adorno said our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.

So is it the gold watch, or more time to spend on what truly matters?

Faster food, or slower pace?

Might the diet program you just signed up for be a desperate cry for attention from your malnourished spirit rather than from your expanding waistline?

Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. The tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.

The hidden persuaders of capitalism, observed social critic Vance Packard, see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.

How did we end up here and how do we break free from the spell?

During the Great Depression of 1929, worried that the production lines would halt, industrialists turned to the hidden persuaders — the psychologists and marketers — for help. Whereas before, we bought stuff for its utilitarian value, e.g., durable shoes, the drive of the consumer had to be radically shifted to gobble-up the excess merchandise.

Enter human desire.

“We must shift America from a needs-to a desires-culture,” suggested Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker of the time. “People must be trained to desire… to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

So successful were the hidden persuaders that it earned them this gushing praise from President Herbert Hoover: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”

So we went from this…

To this:

Desires unsettle the heart, said Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around the 4th Century BC.

His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:

The five colors

blinds our eyes.

The five notes

deafen our ears.

The five flavors

dull our taste.

Racing, chasing, hunting,

drives people crazy.

Trying to get rich

ties people in knots.

So the wise soul

watches with the inner eye

not the outward,

letting that go,

keeping this.

The inner eye is the wise arbiter of your desires. It is the keen sword that cuts through the veil of delusion to reveal what your true needs are, keeping those, and spitting out the snake oil peddled by the hidden persuaders.

“The body’s needs are few,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold and banish hunger with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.” Two thousand years later, in ‘Fight Club,’ actor Brad Pitt echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “We’re working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” You can see why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.

A cruise ship can’t whisk you away from your dull life and inauthentic self.

A diamond’s glitter pales in comparison to the one in your fiancé’s eyes when affirming his commitment.

No amount of food, however fast, will nourish your starved soul.

And no amount of beer will quench your thirst for belonging.

To break the spell, all you must do is step away from screens and ask this simple question: What do I truly need?

After all, as writer Mary Ellen Edmunds once said, “You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”

 


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Men are from Mars and Women Should Send them Back

Men on Mars
By NASA. Public Domain- https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79759707

THE IDEA OF SENDING MEN ON A COLLECTIVE TIME OUT has been whirling in my mind with insistent frequency, echoing louder upon hearing another story of a man-child acting up, particularly one holding a position of power.

To those who decry patriarchy, here’s a better term to describe the current state of affairs: puerarchy — the rule of boys. Of course there are exceptions, but they seem few and far between and powerless to dethrone the chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants.

In an orchestra, the oboe is the instrument to which other instruments are tuned. As far as I can see, there’s hardly an oboe in sight.

The greatest underdeveloped nation lies within the psyches of men, wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ So maybe it’s time for women to send us on a collective time out so we can mine our dense psyches and only allowed back once we develop emotional intelligence.

This idea is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in the comedy “Lysistrata,” an account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. They play ends with the signing of a peace treaty amid plenty of painful erections.

In my country we have a saying, that a female pubic hair can pull more weight than a pair of oxen. Those who believe men have all the power should revisit the stories of Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Monica Lewinsky.

The Mars idea first popped in my head the day terrorists attacked Saudi oil refineries. That same day, a handful of brave young activists — mostly female — were coordinating a worldwide school strike to protest inaction on climate change. So while boys were busy flying deadly drones and blowing shit up, girls were working on saving our collective asses.

In 1951, Philip Wylie wrote ‘The Disappearance,’ imagining the aftermath of an extraordinary global occurrence that forces Earth’s men and women to exist in parallel dimensions. True to form, men bring their world to the brink of nuclear annihilation while women seek to resolve their differences by chatting and shopping.

Of all wild beasts, said Plato, boys are the most difficult to manage.

What’s wrong with us?

Why are most men incapable of expressing their fears and emotions besides slamming doors, sulking, having affairs, scapegoating, drowning in alcohol, drugs or pornography, or blowing shit up?

“A few suits of clothes, some money in the bank, and a new kind of fear constitute the main differences between the average American today and the hairy men with clubs who accompanied Attila to the city of Rome. ”— Philip Wylie, ‘Generation of Vipers.’

I know our brains are hardwired differently than girls, and that our long history as warriors and hunters predisposed us to action rather than introspection. I also know that, at times, the fierce boldness and aggression in men is vital. But come on guys! There is a reason our species is called Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). I say it’s time we live true to that classification.

Are we so straitjacketed by our warped sense of manhood to be incapable of becoming versed in the subtleties of emotional language? Must we continue to camouflage our fears with an exaggerated sense of strength? Isn’t it high time we learn to feel less threatened by emotional complexity? Can we learn to see our darkest emotions as Dragons and choose fight, instead of flight?

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn in ‘The African Queen.’

In ‘Raising Cain,’ authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say our culture’s historical assignment of relationship work to women has turned emotions into a disregarded “second language” for men. As a result, most have limited awareness or understanding of their feelings or the feelings of others. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — compete, control, and criticize.

It is not women’s responsibility to teach us this language, but seeing they’re better versed at it, we should have the humility and willingness to learn from them. After all, we demand their undivided attention as we ‘mansplain’ the refined art of changing a flat tire.

So where do we start?

Rising above our nature begins with learning what that nature is all about.

“We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study,” says Frans de Waal in ‘Our Inner Ape,’ and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace loving and erotic bonobo — a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Poster art by Shoowpai

Some of you may have heard the Native American story of the two wolves.

What you probably did not know is that the modern version going around on the Internet is not the original story.

The adulterated version goes like this:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The original story, however, ends this way:

The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” And the story goes on… “You see, if you only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for you to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention it craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if you acknowledge him, he will be happy, so will the white wolf and you all win. For the black wolf has many qualities: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong will, and strategic thinking that you need at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength, and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all. You see son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will soon become uncontrollable. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention, and when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing which will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces will determine your life.

“Anger as soon as fed is dead. ’Tis starving makes it fat.” — Emily Dickinson

Dealing with conflict is as simple (and as complicated) as knowing when to flip the switch between these two energies. Chimp-like, or black wolf aggression in our relationships leads to a dead end. But it was essential, for example, to rid the world of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. That was definitely not the right time to sit down with the bully to talk about his feelings.

The second ingredient for effective conflict resolution is emotional awareness. We men need to get better at identifying what we feel and where our emotions come from before we can begin to understand what to do about them. Our girlfriend’s kind reminder to take out the trash, for instance, might evoke dreaded memories of our mother’s overbearing nature and trigger defiance. A casual commentary by our wife about the neighbors’ lavish summer vacation in Tuscany might provoke a nasty reaction because we interpret her comment as an indictment on our manhood making us feel like a failure for being unable to provide her with such luxury.

“Every time you react emotionally instead of responding consciously, ask yourself, what am I afraid of?” — Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.

Finally, men need to develop emotional granularity, which is a bit like wine tasting, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman. “Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions — perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.”

“People who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts, Feldman adds. “Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.”

I have found no better way to develop emotional granularity and expand my emotional vocabulary than to read poetry and literary fiction (especially novels written by women). I’ve also discovered, in foreign languages, more useful words for emotions I had not been able to properly identify and express. For example:

TOSKA (Russian) — At its deepest and most painful, Toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.

TORSCHLUSSPANIK (German) — Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; that you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting old.

LITOST (Czech) — A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. We feel a searing pain at the scale of our inadequacies.

YA’ABURNEE (Arabic) — Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before their loved one because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

Just imagine the deep connection and intimacy such emotional granularity and richness of expression could bring to our relationships… with ourselves, as well as others.

Learning about our chimp/bonobo nature, becoming aware of the origin of our emotions, and developing emotional granularity will also lead to empathy, or, at the very least, rational compassion. With more and more men becoming fierce gentlemen — the oboes of the world — we will put an end to the age of puerarchy and join women in the struggle to overcome the many challenges our world is facing.

In this struggle, the female gender must also evolve. Hepburn’s dictum, that nature is what we are put in this world to rise above, must also be heeded by women. While gender-equality continues to make steady progress and fundamentally changing gender dynamics, women must learn their biology is still encoded with innate drives which unconsciously makes them predisposed to prefer a partner of status and wealth and who displays unwavering control, is strong and stoic, and who always seems to have an answer.

Faced with a man who has the courage to be vulnerable and express his deepest fears, his confusion, and his occasional feeling of helplessness or unworthiness, women must short-circuit their innate biases and receive him with compassion, which means, at origin, to suffer together.

As men learn to properly emote, women must be patient. At times, we will want to run away from deep conversation. Bereft of words for our emotions and afraid of vulnerability, we will often choose to flee to the solitary cave of our tortured souls. Allow us that respite. Like a pressure cooker, your escape valve is talking things through. We let-off steam in silence. This does not mean you should let us off the hook. Like a deft fisherwoman, slacken the line at times, then reel us back into conversation. We’ll get the hang of it, eventually.

Or you could send us to Mars, which might sound more expedient and appealing to many of you, but you will strip away the fierce boldness the world requires. You’ll be forever haunted by SAUDADE, Portuguese for the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and loves, and the knowledge that the object of longing might never return.

We’ll both end up living in barren worlds. One utterly silent, the other with plenty of flat tires.