Crying Over Spilled Milk

Is the only way to die with few regrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

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

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

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

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

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

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

Authenticity

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

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

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

Overworked

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

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

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

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

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

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

A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation. — Playwright William Herzog

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

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

Expressing feelings

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

If there be sorrow

let it be

for things undone

undreamed

unrealized

unattained

to these add one:

Love withheld

… restrained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not staying in touch with friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I had let myself be happier

Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy; happy in the being and the knowing, that is beyond happiness, that is bliss! And if you have any sense, you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it. — Henry Miller

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

Since the moment of my reinvention, I have sustained an almost daily practice of writing down 3 things for which I am grateful, along with a recent positive experience. A year ago, I tallied and categorized the 118 positive moments I had recorded up till then. This I did to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion, strong and memorable enough, to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, but not surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), or simply making someone happy, or involving ‘meraki,’ a word modern Greeks use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, and love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones. These kind, loving gestures, however small and seemingly insignificant, will prevent me from being forgotten, something that to ancient Egyptians was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

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

A second third had been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future — with all its hopes, wants, and wishes — was annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ‘ataraxia,’ a lucid state of equanimity characterized by freedom from distress and worry, which, in my case, usually occur out in nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which time seems suspended while doing something immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, like William Herzog.

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

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

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

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

I wish I would’ve savored every moment

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

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

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

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

What about you?

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


Related Reflections:

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Dad Died Last Night

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

 

 

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

 

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.

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.

The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

Walking Away From It All

Escape with purpose.

You’ve probably heard some version of the story of the father who left the house one night to buy cigarettes and never came back.

Most would call him a ‘douche,’ and would be right, in some cases. But what about the others? What compels them to walk away?

You cannot tell me you’ve never felt the impulse. Late at night, perhaps, after a hard day, looking out the window by a sink full of dirty dishes and glasses trying to catch your breath, wondering if there is not more to life, and longing to leave everything behind to find out.

This unease led Siddhārtha Gautama to leave the comforts of his father’s palace, his wife Yaśodharā and newborn son Rāhula toward a spiritual journey to discover the causes and remedies for human suffering.

Call the Buddha an enlightened deadbeat, if you must.

The world would not have Paul Gauguin’s exquisite painting ‘Orana Maria’ had he chosen to remain by his family’s side in Copenhagen, making no money selling French tarpaulins to a Danish market who did not want his tarpaulins instead of risking everything to travel alone to Tahiti in search of a new vision in art.

Orana Maria

On the same year and country my father was born, George Dibbern left his wife and three daughters and sailed his 32-foot ketch ‘Te Rapunga’ toward New Zealand to reunite with his Maori spiritual Mother.

The world was marching toward a second world carnage. Unemployment in Germany had reached four million. Suicides were a daily occurrence. Idle and in despair, the citizens of the Weimar Republic of the 1930s were besieged by a dizzying number of political parties spouting their competing ideologies, each claiming to have the answer to their predicament.

In the middle of this maelstrom stood George Dibbern, unable to subscribe to any of them.

Te Rapunga’ means longing, or seeking, and is referenced in the third step of the Maori creation myth — the predawn moment of anticipation.

While still in Germany, Dibbern tried to make ends meet by operating a shipyard with his cousin. But the business was failing. To raise money, he twice sold the ‘Te Rapunga’ only to have it returned to him when the buyers could not come up with the cash to pay him.

Think about it: Dibbern tried twice to rid himself of his longing but it kept coming back. Having twice denied mine, every time I think of this part of his story, I recall this poem by the Greek Constantine Cavafy:

“Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before they had aged,

sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,

roses by the head, jasmine at the feet — 

so appear the longings that have passed

without being satisfied, not one of them granted

a night of sensual pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.”

The shipyard business failed and Dibbern had no other choice but join a rock-breaking crew. At the end of his rope, he considered:

At present, I can no longer be a member of one nation, only a member of a larger group —  humanity. I cannot grow roots here; I think so differently from everyone else. I am not meant to be what I am now. What is the good of adapting myself ninety-nine times.

What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? — Theodore Roethke

One night, back from his back-breaking job, George entered the kitchen, looked at his wife, and asked: “What would you do if I were dead?”

Faced with her stupefaction — quickly morphing into rage and despair — George tried to clarify what he meant: how he already felt dead, but dead in life.

A few weeks later, he set sail.

Te Rapunga

Writer Henry Miller said this about Dibbern:

“He takes the path in order to become the path. Some might think that George was unadaptable, a man unfit for human society. This is not true. If anything, it is society which is unfit to accommodate itself to a man like Dibbern. It is the purity and integrity of men like Dibbern which make it difficult for them to fit in our world. Living his own life in his own way, Dibbern makes us realize how much life can be enjoyed even on the fringe of society. It is not his ideal; he is striving desperately to participate, to be at one with his fellow man, but on the best terms, i.e., on the terms of his own best self. Nor did he wait to lead the ideal existence until some mythical day in the future. He lived the ideal life right then — as much as he dared and could. And that is the difference between a rebel and a man of spirit.”

As Dibbern was saying goodbye to his three young daughters, he thought:

Perhaps it is more important that, someday, I may be an understanding comrade to my children than be a provider now.

Pretty gracious, if you ask me.

For of what use is it to children to see their father return from work with a lifeless look in his eyes as he contemplates all his denied longings pustulating like unstitched wounds? To hear him vilify his boss, ridicule his co-workers, recount the office skullduggery, complain about the long hours and the commute, or fret about the bills as he finishes his third glass of wine while mindlessly thumbing his cellphone.

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

No surprise most children fear growing up, or rebel against their elders.

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

Soon after sailing, believing a flag represented one’s beliefs and principles, George Dibbern refused to fly the obligatory Nazi flag with the swastika and raised one of his own design. He later rejected his German passport and created his own with the following declaration:

“I, George Dibbern, through long years in different countries and sincere friendship with many people in many lands, feel my place to be outside of nationality, a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples. I recognize the divine origin of all nations and therefore their value in being as they are, respect their laws, and feel my existence solely as a bridge of good fellowship between them. This is why, on my own ship, I fly my own flag, why I have my own passport and so place myself, without other protection, under the goodwill of the world.”

Here’s the thing about walking away, though. If it serves no other purpose than to run away from responsibility, it is as pointless and futile as taking a vacation to “recharge.”

All successful escape artists have one life saving trick: they know all about their chains.

Most of us don’t.

That’s the reason our escapes are fleeting.

So very few ever think of taking leave that they too might enjoy the fruits of paradise. Almost invariably they’ll confess that they lack the courage or imagination. “Too late” he probably murmurs to himself. How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to! What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish his chains seems like a sacrifice. — Henry Miller

Walking away (from work, the rat-race, the place you live, your relationship, etc.) is meaningless unless you arrive at a new orientation to life. Otherwise, it’s just like any other vacation, for which, under your shorts, Tommy Bahama shirts, flip-flops, sunscreen and hat, you fold and pack your same old prejudices, addictions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and hungers, and then, upon returning, you realize you never took the time to unpack, air-out, inspect, and transform all that junk, so when you pop open your suitcase it all comes flying back out again, back into your closet, there to continue haunting you until your next escape.

I know this well, having attempted it a few times with disastrous consequences.

But the latter, during which you reorient yourself to life, that is a spiritual journey, which begins when you doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and walk towards an unknown destination — like Buddha to the Bodhi Tree, Gauguin to Tahiti, and Dibbern to the open sea. The real escapist, you see, is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to. It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society, said Krishnamurti.

And it is not just doubting societal conventions but realizing how many you’ve half-wittingly adopted as your own. What’s essential is to examine each shiny trinket you have received as part of your initiation into the modern world, and above all, to discover what treasure you’re giving up in exchange. Your entire life?

For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul — Jesus

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. A new world is not simply made by trying to forget the old, Henry Miller proclaimed, but made with a new spirit, with new values. Contrary to what many believe, it doesn’t require you to go anywhere. In fact, it’s often the case that a “change in scenery” only creates further distractions that will lead you astray.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes, said writer Marcel Proust, and it’s one that is yours alone to undertake.

“It cannot be undertaken other than by ourselves,” said famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. “In the story of the Arthurian knights, each set out in search of the Grail (a spiritual, rather than a material goal) by ‘entering the forest at its darkest part,’ that is, at the place where no one has cut a path before.”

Most never break free, leaving it up to the next generation, as Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly rendered in this poem :

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

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

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

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

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

Buddha showed us a path away from suffering.

Gauguin gave us the Orana Maria.

Dibbern left us a chronicle of his spiritual journey in his book ‘Quest.’

If you are to remain “inside the dishes and in the glasses,” unable or unwilling to break free, the next time you hear a story of a man who did, think twice before you judge him, for he may one day return with a gift for you and the rest of humankind.


Read my escape story.

Slay the Dream-Scorching Dragon!

And let go of those who hold you back.

Quimera
Contributor Noah Black @ aminoapps.com

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

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

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

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

Dan and Horse

To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.

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

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

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

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

Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:

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

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

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

I have two possible explanations for what occurred.

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

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

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

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

German philosopher Nietzsche knew them well:

“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their

Highest hope. And then they disparaged all

High hopes.

Then lived shamelessly in

Temporary pleasures, and beyond the

Day had hardly an aim.

Then broke the wings of their spirit.

Once they thought of becoming heroes;

But sensualists are they now.

A trouble and a terror

Is the hero to them.” — ‘Zarathustra’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

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

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

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

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

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

Neither should you.

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

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

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

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

“One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do.

Little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Now tell me…

What is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”


 

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

Read the Dragon Series in my book for boys.

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Shudder!

Then turn anger into action

It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.

I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.

After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.

Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.

Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!

Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.

But is it enough?

At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?

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

I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.

When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.

As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”

It struck me with shattering force.

For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.

These things make me shudder.

But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.

What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.

The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.

If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb

Many villages are burning now.

I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager —  listening attentively as I spoke.

The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.

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Art by Johnathan Reiner

As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.

As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.

To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.

I’m done shuddering. It’s time for action!


Follow The Hero in You

 

Answering the Call

This is the post excerpt.

empty road

In most lives, there is a path that runs parallel to the one on which we span the time between our entry and our exit from life’s stage.

We usually sense its presence late at night, when alone, and everyone else sleeps. Or returning from work, nerve-ends frayed, and vitality sapped. We often see it through the kitchen window as we stand at the sink, dealing with another pile of soiled dishes and glasses, and wonder:

“Is this it? What am I doing with my life? How much time do I have left?

There is a Russian word that best describes this sentiment:

Toska: At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, a yearning.

Such simmering unease usually signals a call from the path of true purpose, demanding to feel the decisive steps of our most authentic and creative selves.

Most ignore the call. The signals are often fuzzy, the path looks treacherous, steep, and shrouded in uncertainty. So we choose to remain in place, wrapped inside our familiar, predictable, and safe cocoons, and thus never become butterflies. We remain, like Rilke said, “inside the dishes and in the glasses“.

Over time, like a failed telemarketer working the night shift, the Universe gives up, and stops calling.

Not in my case.

I seem to have been assigned the most indefatigable, willful, and creatively-destructive operator on staff – the new hire, the one with the quirky accent, always fresh and stoked, working the longest hours, the most grueling shifts.

When he first dialed my number, I was eighteen, sitting next to my father inside the stately, oak-paneled opulence of the Edwardian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel having eggs Benedict for breakfast, mesmerized by the glitter of diamonds and gold, kindled by the overhead chandeliers. Too young anyway to understand his language, and no wise mentor to turn to; no Yoda, Obi-Wan, Professor Dumbledore, or Mr. Miyagi to translate the – often – ambiguous message. Preening, cock-sure, and materialistic too, so I ignored his call.

For years he persisted, progressively growing more impatient, but I kept hanging up. At thirty I began to sense what he was selling, and wanted it.

He had watched me as a young boy, reading and writing stories atop an old avocado tree, feeling my delight as the hours passed unnoticed, and wanted to return to me the gift of wonder, curiosity, and imagination I then had.

He wanted me to return to the tree.

But my hands were busy building a business empire. No time for climbing trees, reading books, gawking at sunsets, whiling away astonished by beauty, or for writing stories.

Eventually he got pissed, and six years later, kicked my sandcastle really hard. Left the empire and my identity in ruins, the feisty bugger.

With four mouths to feed, I thought I had no choice but to forever remain a grub. But I always hoped for one last chance; that he’d call again.

The final call came when I was about to turn fifty-five.

I’m going back to the tree.

sleep no more


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