The One Life Force You Cannot Do Without

“If you never want to master a skill, or finish anything you start, nor do anything significant in your life, feel free to skip this chapter.”

So I introduce the ‘Life Force of Grit’ in The Hero in You, my book for boys.


Stars shine owing to the crushing the force of gravity. No pressure, no radiance.

Carbon crystals become exquisite diamonds under extreme temperatures and pressure deep in the Earth’s mantle.

Resistance is a fundamental force in nature.

Had the Eurasian plate not presented its fierce resistance against the colliding Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas would not be crowned with Mt. Everest.

So it is with any worthy human endeavor.

We never know how high we can soar until we are called to rise. — Emily Dickinson.

And when the call to our true purpose comes, there is no greater life force we must bring to bear than the Life Force of Grit, a word originating from the Proto-Germanic root ‘ghreu’ — to rub or grind.

Three years ago, I was called to rise and lend my life a higher purpose. Ever since, my journey has been met with great resistance. Many times have I wanted to give up and run back to my previous life cushioned by security.

In the face of adversity, Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said there are three forms of prayer:

One: I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot.

Two: Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.

Three: Overdraw me, who cares if I break!

I have chosen the third.

“Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory.” added Kazantzakis. “His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.”

“God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts must become butterflies. There is only one way: The Ascent! View the abyss with a defiant glance — without hope and fear, but also without insolence, as you stand proudly erect at the very brink of the precipice.”

“Deliver yourself from deliverance. Salvation is a sham. Pursue only one thing: a harsh, carnivorous, indestructible vision — the essence. Ascend, because the very act of ascending is happiness and paradise. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks!”

Gritty words from a man who lived their truth and had this written on his tombstone: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free!”

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers

We don’t seem to be raising our children with such steely determination and ‘stick-to-itiveness’ these days. Instead, we seek to clear their path from all obstacles, paving their way through life with a frictionless road to the land of plenty.

If they quickly tire, or become bored with one activity, we rush to ease their discomfort by facilitating a new one. “Don’t like the piano, Billy? That’s okay sweetie, you’ve given it almost a full week. We’ll pay for tennis lessons instead.”

For ten years, I worked at a Waldorf-methods public charter school. By the fourth grade, every student is handed a violin, one of the most difficult instruments to play. Certain that this would turn them off music for good, I asked the teacher what the purpose was.

“Grit,” he responded, with a grin. “Embracing and overcoming discomfort is the only way they’ll achieve mastery, in music, and in life.”

“Anything you rub long enough becomes beautiful,” I tell boys in my book.

“You’ll know what I mean if you like to collect rocks…”

Excerpt from Chapter 10

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to super-fine. Rocks don’t like being polished. That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.

If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.

Circling above us, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal, is the hawk. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature. Suddenly, he spots the mouse. Easy lunch, one would think, but nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is about to begin!

Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.

Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.

What would happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?

In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.

What have we done, young man!

By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.

Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.

Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.

Poof! A Genie appears.

Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer or not.

From that day forward, the Genie promises, you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.

Alladin

As I put the finishing touches on ‘The Hero in You,’ I look back at the many months of struggle, the rolls and tumbles I’ve endured, the seemingly implacable resistance that continues to push against my conquering will.

Overdraw me, I say, who cares if I break!

If I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible blows

The rock will split. — D.H. Lawrence

With indomitable keenness, I will continue rubbing and grinding until I bring to the world a worthy and exquisite piece of literary sea glass.

Our struggles define us, not our desires, wrote Zat Rana.

And in our defiant ascent, the force we can never do without is the Life Force of Grit.


Follow my book’s gritty journey to publication.

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Raising Children in the Land of Fear

A lesson on perspective.

In the first episode of ‘Journeys to the Ends of the Earth,’ photojournalist David Adams travels across the shimmering heat of the Sahara desert with a Tuareg caravan. These fierce nomads have crisscrossed this forbidding landscape for thousands of years calling it ‘The Land of Fear.’

While Adams’ account of the Tuareg life is altogether fascinating, there was one scene which made me pause. It’s when Adams says the Tuareg set their makeshift camps at least five miles away from the nearest water source.

That’s crazy! I thought to myself. Why would anyone do that in such an inhospitable climate?

They do so, Adams explains, so that their children don’t take water for granted.

Stunned, I had to stop watching. I couldn’t help but contrast the Tuareg perspective with that of the industrialized West and wondered if living in close proximity to abundance explains why it’s so hard for us to count our blessings. In this part of the world, I thought, the Tuareg practice would likely get them sued for child abuse.

When young, my go-to response when I broke something at home was, “We can always buy a new one.” Born into wealth, I grew up thinking money grew on trees and took everything for granted. It drove my dad insane, yet, instead of straightening me out, he gave me a free pass tinctured with a brief sermon. Later in life, I would pay dearly for such disregard.

Now that I can barely sustain myself, I wish I would’ve been raised like a Tuareg child or shared the life of the boys who shined shoes at the park in front of my childhood home in Guatemala.

lustrador

Across our front street, the park had curved pathways shaded by tall, broad-leaf trees, where these boys, as young as seven, shined shoes for men in hats during their lunch break or after work. These kids did not attend school. Their meager earnings were mostly handed over to their fathers to buy alcohol. Looking down at them from the roof of my house, I envied their freedom, the ruggedness stamped on their brown, sinewy bodies, the dexterity with which they propelled discarded bicycle rims with long sticks held with their stained hands, and the way they laughed as they raced behind them. Meanwhile, surrounded by abundance, I was bored and unhappy.

Norman Douglas, author of ‘South Wind,’ noticed that the children who have the most fun, the children who are most inventive, are those who have absolutely nothing to play with.

William Kamkwamba was such a boy… a boy who harnessed the wind and saved his family and village from starvation.

In my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I use William’s story as an example to boys of how poverty and hardship are often catalysts for ingenuity.

Excerpt from Chapter 5

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He lived in a village of about ten mudbrick houses, painted white, with roofs made from long grasses collected from nearby swamps. For most of William’s life, his village didn’t have electricity, just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated their lungs with soot. His family, like others in the village, were poor farmers who grew mostly corn.

Unlike most kids in rich countries, William had no toys to play with. He and his friends scavenged for empty cardboard boxes which they would wash and then use to build toy trucks. They built larger wagons, like go-carts, using thick tree branches to build the frame and giant sweet potatoes for wheels. The wheel axles were made of poles carved from a blue-gum tree. They also loved to play soccer but had no money to buy real soccer balls, so made their own with plastic shopping bags which they wadded together and tied with rope.

I think kids are better off without flashy, fancy, noisy toys. If I were still young and was writing a letter to Santa Claus, I’d ask him for just five things: A stick, some string, a cardboard box plus a cardboard tube and dirt!

The year William turned 13, he became aware things in him were changing — not only his body, but also his interests. Like you, William was growing up.

He and his best friend Gilbert began to take apart old radios to see what was inside and figure out how they worked. For a long time, William had been fascinated by the sounds coming out of a radio and wanted to know how they got there.

“Why are these wires different colors?” “Where do they all go?” The boys had many questions but no answers, so William set out to find them himself. Before long, people were bringing their broken radios and asking William and Gilbert to fix them.

At that point, William didn’t know much about science, or that doing science could be a job. But he was becoming more and more curious about how things worked. For example, he wanted to know how gasoline makes car engines work, so he began stopping truck drivers to ask them: “What makes this truck move? How does it work?” But no one could tell him. It seemed to William that people in his village were happy enjoying their cars and radios without knowing how they work, but not him. “I was filled with the desire to understand,” he says, “and the questions never stopped coming. If finding these answers was the job of a scientist, then I wanted to become one.”

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of all times, once said he had no special talent but was only passionately curious, like William.

I don’t know what makes people stop using the Life Force of Curiosity as they grow older. They stop asking questions like ‘What if?’ or ‘I wonder…’ or ‘If only…’ Most of our world’s greatest inventions have come about precisely because someone asked these questions. Sometimes these discoveries can even save lives as William was about to prove.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate only one meal a day. Unable to feed his dog, Khamba, William took him out to the field one day, tied him to a tree, and left him there to die. There was nothing else he could do. With little money, his father could no longer pay for his education so he had to drop out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William says.

Now imagine yourself in a similar situation: living in a cramped, mudbrick hut with your parents and six sisters, no electricity, only able to eat once a day; you’re hungry all the time and can’t go to school anymore because your parents can’t afford it. Imagine further that you’ve never used a computer, know nothing about the Internet, and barely speak English. This is what William was up against when he was fourteen years old.

But rather than whining about it or complaining that the world was unfair and owed him a better life, or looking for an easy way out, William imagined a better future for himself, his family, and his people, and decided to do something about it.

Because he couldn’t go to class, William spent his time playing board games with his other friends whose parents could not afford sending them to school anymore. “But these games weren’t enough to keep my mind stimulated,” William says. “I needed a better hobby. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from going mushy.”

William decided to go to the library.

I could talk all day long about why you should read and learn instead of playing video games, but I’ll let William’s story convince you of why it’s such a good idea.

“Come to borrow some books?” the librarian asked William as he entered the small, musty room. It was the first time he had set foot inside a library.

He nodded, then asked, “How do I do it?”

William spent that first morning sitting on the floor, flipping through pages and marveling at the pictures. He says that for the first time in his life, he experienced what it felt like to escape without going anywhere.

Wanting to keep up, he checked out the same books his friends were studying at school. Back home, he fashioned a hammock from empty flour sacks and strung it between two trees. From then on, he spent his mornings at the library and the hot afternoons reading in his hammock under shade.

One Saturday, Gilbert met him at the library just to look at books for fun. The first book William spotted was the ‘Integrated Science’ textbook used by his older, former schoolmates. Turning the pages, he saw a photo of a large waterfall located in southern Malawi where the country’s electrical company operated a hydro plant. This is basically a machine that produces electricity using falling or flowing water to turn the blades of a turbine which spins a generator.

“Well,” he told Gilbert, “this sounds exactly like a bicycle dynamo. It lights a bulb by turning a wheel.”

Dynamos are like small metal bottles with a grooved spinning cap that attach to the wheel of a bicycle. William had seen them around the village before but didn’t know what they were for until he saw his father’s friend riding-up to their house on a bicycle with its headlamp shining. As soon as he stopped, the light turned off. It was the dynamo that created electricity to power the lamp.

The photo in the book made William think about the swamps behind his house which also created a waterfall during the rainy season.

“What if I put a dynamo underneath it?” William asked Gilbert. “The falling water could do the spinning and produce electricity. We could listen to the radio whenever we wanted.”

Putting a dynamo under the waterfall would be easy. The problem was running wires all the way to his house to power the lights and radio. That would cost a fortune. And what about during the dry season when there is no waterfall?

“I guess I’ll have to research this a little more,” he thought.

William kept reading, but because his English was so poor, he struggled with many words, so went to look for the dictionary on a bottom shelf of the library. When he squatted to grab it, he noticed a book he’d never seen before. It was pushed deep into the shelf so hidden from view. It was a textbook called ‘Using Energy.’

William says this book changed his life.

Textbook Using Energy

The cover of the book showed a long row of windmills. William had no idea what a windmill was. All he saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a fan.

He called Gilbert over and pointed at the picture. “Don’t these look like the pinwheels we used to make?”

“Yeah,” Gilbert said, “but these things are giant. What are they for?”

“Let’s find out,” William said, and began to read:

‘Energy is all around you every day. Sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us. How can we convert forms of energy? Imagine hostile forces have invaded your town. If you needed a hero to save the day, it’s unlikely you would go to the nearest university and drag a scientist to the battlefront. Yet, according to legend, it was not a general who saved the Greek city of Syracuse when the Roman fleet attacked it in 214 B.C… it was a scientist.’

The book went on to explain how a Greek inventor, named Archimedes, used his ‘Death Ray’ — basically a bunch of mirrors — to reflect the sun onto the enemy ships until, one by one, they caught fire and sank. It was an example of how you can use the sun to produce energy. Just like with the sun, windmills could also be used to generate power.

It all snapped together for William.

“If the wind spins the blades of a windmill,” he thought, “and the dynamo works by turning the pedals of a bike, these two things could work together! If I can somehow get the wind to spin the blade on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I can create electricity and power a lightbulb. All I need is a windmill and I could have lights! No more smoky lanterns in my house. I could stay awake and read instead of going to bed at seven.” But most important, a windmill could also pump water. With his village and the rest of the country starving to death, a water pump could save lives by irrigating crops.

“Gilbert!” William exclaimed. “I’m going to build a windmill!”

William had never tried anything like it, but he decided to step out of his comfort zone and embark on a hero’s quest.

Gilbert smiled. “When do we start?”

“We start today.”

For the next month, William woke up early each day and went to a scrapyard to find pieces for his windmill. Now that he had a purpose and a plan, he began to find exactly what he needed. “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity,” he says. When he wasn’t at the scrapyard, he hung out at the library or sat in his hammock and read. His imagination was constantly at work.

People in his village thought he was crazy. His room was full of junk from the scrapyard. “What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked one day. “Your friends don’t behave this way. Look at this room! It looks like a madman’s room. Only madmen collect garbage.”

William proved them wrong.

Despite the many things that went wrong, he persisted, and brought his windmill to life.

Tuareg camp

In the ‘Land of Fear,’ the Tuareg camp five miles away from the nearest water source so their children learn to not take it for granted.

The shoeshine boys in my country were happier and more inventive than a privileged child looking down on them with envy.

A poor boy in Malawi used hardship as a catalyst for ingenuity.

Meanwhile, children in the West grow up in abundance, plied with the latest gadgets, toys, electronics, and myriad distractions, which partly explains the growing epidemic of anxiety, ADHD, and depression plaguing American children.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai warriors greet each other with the phrase “Kasserian Ingera?” — “Are the children well?”

“Not well at all,” would be my answer should one of them greet me at a shopping mall in an industrialized city, especially on a Black Friday.

Parents in this part of the world might want to consider removing their children from their world of plentitude to spark their inventiveness and teach them to not take everything for granted.


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

Dumb Warning Sign

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

Most people, that is.

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

But here’s the rub…

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

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

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

The Evolutionary Origins of Prudence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was I Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Neuro-Social Perspective on Risk-Taking

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

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

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

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

Squaring the Circle

So here’s the rub.

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

By introducing them to the concept of purposeful audacity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ship in Storm
Image credit: Lorenzo Lanfranconi

O to sail to sea in a ship!

To leave this steady unendurable land,

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

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

To sail and sail and sail!

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prologue to ‘The Hero in You’

Boy fighting dragon (blank)

Congratulations! You’re a very lucky boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bushman-campfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So congratulations again!

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

One last thing before we get started…

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

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

Chapter 1

Learn Emotional Intelligence from a Clever Horse

Clever Hans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Cues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genuine vs Fake Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social-emotional agnosia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roughhousing Boys

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

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

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

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


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Do you have a minute?

Busy (Johns Hopkins Health Review)
Source: John Hopkins Health Review

Probably not, uh?

Shocking, isn’t it? For all our time-saving devices, we just don’t have time.

The fact is, we do. It’s just crammed with new distractions created by the engine of commerce.

What’s ironic is that we work longer and longer hours to make more money to hand over to swindlers to come up with new distractions to stave our boredom. It is a mad chase for jolts of dopamine, and, like any addiction, the doses must be increasingly potent.

The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions. — Erica Jong

We would not be bored had we lived prior the Industrial Revolution. That’s because the word was only first used in 1853 by Charles Dickens, in ‘Bleak House,’ to describe the chronic malady of modern life.

The rapid expansion of factories spewing ‘time-saving’ contraptions inaugurated the concept of “leisure time” quickly crowded by new distractions — circuses, theatrical extravaganzas, tourism, Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram… the Smartphones right next to you and me.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno called Walt Disney the most dangerous man in America. He wasn’t against leisure time; simply questioning what we choose to do with it. It’s not enough to be busy, said Henry David Thoreau, so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?

Adorno realized that 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.

We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires-culture,’ said Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street Banker during the Great Depression. “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.

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. Capitalism’s tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.

Pay close attention to most advertisements and you’ll discover the ruse.

Checking-out is no easy matter. The hook is deeply wedged in our brains. Rehab is the enemy of the great persuaders; our modern-day snake oil peddlers. They can’t afford us escaping the insane asylum and checking ourselves into a quiet space to restore our sanity; to alleviate our dis-ease. If we did, not only would we discover how enslaved we are but realize that the shackles were forged by our own hands.

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller

Bill Levitt, father of American suburbia, perversely said no man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do. Keep the herd busy, docile, and entertained to prevent it from discovering the fraud.

A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.

We no longer know what to do in quietude. We fidget, look around for our cell phone, check the clock, fidget and fret some more. Simple things no longer deliver enough dopamine to stimulate our nerve cells. If we take a walk out in nature, our overstimulated brains are no longer reactive to a placid landscape but require more intense colors, harsher sounds, perhaps a flame-throwing squirrel torching aspens to ash. Not nature-as-it-is, but nature as we see on screens. We wish to edit the natural world as we edit our photos to the point where we no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and fantasy ends up being more stimulating because it’s chock-full of dopamine.

You might be familiar with the famous experiment conducted in the 1950s by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner in which they connected electrodes to the brains of rats enabling them to create sensations of excitement (dopamine) simply by pressing a pedal. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly scurry across shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would do this as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.

rate race.jpg
Image credit: stevecutts.com

Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.

Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Is reality all that bad, or have we been made to believe it is?

Confucius found it rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the only way to achieve harmony was through strict adherence to ancient rituals and ceremonies.

Buddha found it bitter and preached the doctrine of detachment as the path to bliss.

Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, rejected labels altogether. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed on existence, he said, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life seem “sour” or “bitter”.

Writer Henry Miller said the word reality should not have a sinister and fatalistic ring. The man who is truly awake and completely alive, he said, is a man for whom reality will always be close to ecstasy.

But ecstasy, at root, means “standing outside oneself” which would put us back in an imaginary world. Perhaps Miller was referring to a feeling of joyful excitement, rooted in the reality of our ordinary world.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said he didn’t think humans were necessarily seeking a meaning for life as much as an experience of being alive, so that our experiences on the physical plane (the world as it is) resonate with our innermost being and reality making us actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Both Miller and Campbell are pointing at feelings of intense joy.

Campbell went a step further and added “innermost being,” meaning eudaimonia: the process of living in accord with our essence and realizing our unique potential. Work done in accord with our essence and in service to a higher purpose will never feel like work.

We all would love to describe our careers like filmmaker William Herzog:

“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.”

The slogans of the travel industry — escape, unwind, recharge — have no effect on a man like Herzog.

“It is a melancholy commentary upon the nature of our modern industrial system,” wrote John Cowper Powys, “that in any consideration of happiness we are compelled to leave what is called ‘work’ entirely out of our thoughts. There are few occupations left worthy of the self-respect of the human race. Happiness, [for most], whether manual slaves or mental slaves of the monstrous profit system, must be something snatched at in contemptuous independence of what they call ‘our life’s work.’”

Perhaps, this is why so many eagerly swallow the quack medicine peddled by the great persuaders. To alleviate the tedium and lack of higher purpose of most jobs which burns them out without ever having been on fire. They chase ‘spirits’ in the guise of alcohol, drugs, extreme sports, pornography, consumerism, and non-stop distractions to assuage the pain and ennui of a spiritless life. Or because they feel unworthy, seek specious validation from a crowd of virtual judges through their social media posts.

Dopamine, instead of eudaimonia.

Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. — Doris Mortman

The difference between who you are and what you have was thoroughly explored by social psychologist Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art of Being.’

“The full humanization of man,“ he said, “requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation; from selfishness and egotism, to solidarity and altruism.”

Fromm was not advocating asceticism. Orientation toward “being” is not identical with “not-having.” He was, I suppose, simply echoing what Gandhi said decades before: “You do not have to renounce any of your possessions; you have to renounce the possessor.”

Three years ago, I did precisely that. Actually, went a step further and renounced most of my possessions and checked myself into spiritual rehab agreeing fully with Krishnamurti who said it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

The symptoms of withdrawal, I discovered, were more acutely felt by society than by me. Strange, how little man belongs to himself, said Henry Miller, how much he is yet the community’s property. If one follows one’s own conscience, everybody objects.

The objections are the terrified squeals of the infernal machine that insists that if the gears stop spinning, the world will come to an end. That’s the whole purpose behind its manufactured distractions — to keep us from thinking for ourselves and follow our own drumbeat. It can’t afford to give us a minute to sit in quietude lest we begin to pick the lock of the illusory doors of our prison.

(If you’re still with me and have not once checked your phone, social media, or email, it means I am succeeding in slowly lifting the veil to reveal the fraud perpetrated by the Great Wizards).

Walking away is not the point. A new world is not made by trying to forget the old, said Miller. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values.

The first step I took was examine the script I had been playing. I then edited-out the parts which did not resonate with my innermost being which kept me from feeling the rapture of being alive. I gave myself permission to be myself, so to speak.

Next, I thought hard on what exactly filled me with delight. In this domain, children have it licked, because, as modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton said, they don’t know what they are supposed to like and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value to them. They have to rely instead on their own delight in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with. It is easy to comprehend why Jesus said that theirs was the Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom, mind you, of the here and now.

Having once possessed the wealth many covet, I realized simpler pleasures yielded greater delight. I also discovered that while the quick-pulse intensity of a passionate life sounds alluring, it is short-lived and produces the same burnout than the one I felt working 14-hour days.

So I scratched-off the words “happiness” and “passion” from my script and replaced them with euthymia and ataraxia, Greek words for serenity and to describe a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. I traded dopamine for serotonin, if you will; a glass of bubbly champagne for a cup of warm milk.

I have not lost wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. — Seneca

Once done writing my own code of values, I worked on placing my life in an eudaimonic state; the state of living in accord with my essence to actualize my unique potential. I knew I could write well and felt called to use that talent for a greater purpose than entertainment. I did not want to escape high-up to a mountain and, there, cut-off from society, indulge in navel-gazing, endless self-improvement, or self-righteous pontifications of what it is to live the ‘good life’. I wanted to share the saga of my trials and tribulations to recover the ancient purpose of entertainment, which, in Greek tragicomedy, held the audience together in shared suffering, or joy, or both, leading to catharsis.

I then looked around the world to find a need that could use my talents; something which made me shudder and lit a fire in my belly. That’s when I began writing The Hero in You.

Here’s the thing, though…

I’m either speaking an unintelligible language, or the world doesn’t want to listen to those coming between the distracted and the distractions. The infernal machine appears hell-bent in ostracizing those who rock the boat and will ensure that those who rebel quickly find themselves unable to survive.

Most days, I feel like a baker who has unearthed an ancient recipe for wholesome, nutritious bread, only to find the marketplace crowded with people gorging on Wonder Bread and Twinkies laced with listicles promising instant wellbeing, power, esteem, love, wealth, and approbation. While ancient grains are harder to digest, I promise they are better for you.

Bake Twinkies! many urge, and people will flock to your bread stand.

I admit I’ve been tempted, just like Christ was in the desert; Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.

(If I still have your attention, it means the rebellion stands a chance!)

In every prototypical hero’s journey, this is the moment when the hero faces the greatest test.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. — E.E. Cummings

Because I am writing a book for boys meant to guide them towards a life of authenticity and purpose, I have no choice but to press on, come what may. I’ll keep stealing a minute of everyone’s time to find our way out of the madhouse.


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Read the companion piece ‘Soft Fascination – More effective than Prozac or Xanax

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