When kidnapping was my country’s favorite sport, I pleaded my wife to change her routine, use different routes while driving, to be vigilant and check-in with me every few hours over the phone.
She scoffed, “I don’t need to. I have my saving angels.”
It made me pity all the unfortunate chaps who had arrived late to God’s ‘Saving Angel Allocation Party,’ and it wasn’t until the threat of abduction came knocking at our door that I had the ‘foresight’ to flee.
Despite multiple warnings, humans seem unable to act until it’s almost, or already too late.
Ancient Athenians condemned Socrates to death after he warned them about the dangers of hubris. Soon after, their empire collapsed.
When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God; that we should love our enemies as we do ourselves and turn the other cheek when slapped, people found him a killjoy and nailed him to the cross.
Clair Patterson was excoriated by the press and ostracized by the scientific establishment for warning Americans that lead in gasoline was making them crazy. It was only thanks to his stubbornness that his compatriots kept their sanity.
Galileo was imprisoned and forced to recant his ‘shocking’ discovery that man wasn’t at the center of the universe after all. The persecution of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition did not end until almost two centuries after Galileo’s death.
Today, every scientist — worthy of the name — is warning us about the looming climactic threat to our species and the rest of life on the planet. And how do we respond? With business as usual. With our jolly Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. With quarter-measures and endless world summits spewing bromides and ineffectual agreements.
When a 16 year-old autistic activist dares confront the fecklessness of world leaders and warns us of the dire consequences of inaction, she is mercilessly attacked on social media and mocked by the most powerful man on earth as a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. — André Gide
We keep making the same mistakes because we don’t listen or — worse — refuse to listen. We don’t care. We only care when the shit hits our fan. Water will have to reach our nostrils, wildfires singe our hairs, or a horde of climate refugees come knocking at our door before we act. Why? Because change is inconvenient. Because we deem ourselves too special to have something bad happen to us. Because in the back of our deluded minds we hope someone will eventually come to our rescue and save us from our addictions.
Never in history have we faced a more nefarious enemy, ourselves!
In discarding the monkey and substituting man, our Father in Heaven did the monkey an undeserved injustice. – Mark Twain
Don’t let my righteous thundering fool you in believing I’ve been spared by the contagion. I am as guilty as anyone. Despite my carbon footprint being almost as shallow as the water table in Cape Town, I know there is much more I could be doing, but don’t. For proof of my lack of foresight consider the fact that as I write this, I am about to step outside in sub-zero temperature to smoke another cigarette barely a week after my father died from bladder cancer and emphysema caused by his addiction to nicotine. Kurt Vonnegut described his own cancer sticks as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other.”
Foresight is obviously not our strong suit. Never has, never will. We are nature’s biggest blunder.
Let’s just hope the rapacious madness of such an unhinged primate doesn’t drag the whole world down with it.
WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.
Please, please make me stop!
What a piece of work, indeed.
Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.
When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.
What part of “radical” don’t you get?
It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.
Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.
Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?
True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.
The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.
“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”
I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.
The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!
“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca
The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”
The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:
Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”
Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”
Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?
Perhaps, our children?
“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx
As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.
I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.
Today is obviously one of those days.
When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.
Is it the beer you crave, or are you thirsting for the warm camaraderie and belonging hinted at by the affectionate smiles of the actors?
Are you hoping for the one-carat diamond around your finger, or for the true covenant of love that can only be expressed in honest words and meaningful deeds?
Is it the Caribbean cruise, or a yearning to break free from your meaningless job and humdrum life?
Philosopher Theodor Adorno said our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
So is it the gold watch, or more time to spend on what truly matters?
Faster food, or slower pace?
Might the diet program you just signed up for be a desperate cry for attention from your malnourished spirit rather than from your expanding waistline?
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. The tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
The hidden persuaders of capitalism, observed social critic Vance Packard, see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.
How did we end up here and how do we break free from the spell?
During the Great Depression of 1929, worried that the production lines would halt, industrialists turned to the hidden persuaders — the psychologists and marketers — for help. Whereas before, we bought stuff for its utilitarian value, e.g., durable shoes, the drive of the consumer had to be radically shifted to gobble-up the excess merchandise.
Enter human desire.
“We must shift America from a needs-to a desires-culture,” suggested Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker of the time. “People must be trained to desire… to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
So successful were the hidden persuaders that it earned them this gushing praise from President Herbert Hoover: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”
So we went from this…
Desires unsettle the heart, said Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around the 4th Century BC.
His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:
The five colors
blinds our eyes.
The five notes
deafen our ears.
The five flavors
dull our taste.
Racing, chasing, hunting,
drives people crazy.
Trying to get rich
ties people in knots.
So the wise soul
watches with the inner eye
not the outward,
letting that go,
The inner eye is the wise arbiter of your desires. It is the keen sword that cuts through the veil of delusion to reveal what your true needs are, keeping those, and spitting out the snake oil peddled by the hidden persuaders.
“The body’s needs are few,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold and banish hunger with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.” Two thousand years later, in ‘Fight Club,’ actor Brad Pitt echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “We’re working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” You can see why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.
A cruise ship can’t whisk you away from your dull life and inauthentic self.
A diamond’s glitter pales in comparison to the one in your fiancé’s eyes when affirming his commitment.
No amount of food, however fast, will nourish your starved soul.
And no amount of beer will quench your thirst for belonging.
To break the spell, all you must do is step away from screens and ask this simple question: What do I truly need?
After all, as writer Mary Ellen Edmunds once said, “You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”
THE IDEA OF SENDING MEN ON A COLLECTIVE TIME OUT has been whirling in my mind with insistent frequency, echoing louder upon hearing another story of a man-child acting up, particularly one holding a position of power.
To those who decry patriarchy, here’s a better term to describe the current state of affairs: puerarchy — the rule of boys. Of course there are exceptions, but they seem few and far between and powerless to dethrone the chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants.
In an orchestra, the oboe is the instrument to which other instruments are tuned. As far as I can see, there’s hardly an oboe in sight.
The greatest underdeveloped nation lies within the psyches of men, wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ So maybe it’s time for women to send us on a collective time out so we can mine our dense psyches and only allowed back once we develop emotional intelligence.
This idea is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in the comedy “Lysistrata,” an account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. They play ends with the signing of a peace treaty amid plenty of painful erections.
In my country we have a saying, that a female pubic hair can pull more weight than a pair of oxen. Those who believe men have all the power should revisit the stories of Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Mars idea first popped in my head the day terrorists attacked Saudi oil refineries. That same day, a handful of brave young activists — mostly female — were coordinating a worldwide school strike to protest inaction on climate change. So while boys were busy flying deadly drones and blowing shit up, girls were working on saving our collective asses.
In 1951, Philip Wylie wrote ‘The Disappearance,’ imagining the aftermath of an extraordinary global occurrence that forces Earth’s men and women to exist in parallel dimensions. True to form, men bring their world to the brink of nuclear annihilation while women seek to resolve their differences by chatting and shopping.
Of all wild beasts, said Plato, boys are the most difficult to manage.
What’s wrong with us?
Why are most men incapable of expressing their fears and emotions besides slamming doors, sulking, having affairs, scapegoating, drowning in alcohol, drugs or pornography, or blowing shit up?
“A few suits of clothes, some money in the bank, and a new kind of fear constitute the main differences between the average American today and the hairy men with clubs who accompanied Attila to the city of Rome. ”— Philip Wylie, ‘Generation of Vipers.’
I know our brains are hardwired differently than girls, and that our long history as warriors and hunters predisposed us to action rather than introspection. I also know that, at times, the fierce boldness and aggression in men is vital. But come on guys! There is a reason our species is called Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). I say it’s time we live true to that classification.
Are we so straitjacketed by our warped sense of manhood to be incapable of becoming versed in the subtleties of emotional language? Must we continue to camouflage our fears with an exaggerated sense of strength? Isn’t it high time we learn to feel less threatened by emotional complexity? Can we learn to see our darkest emotions as Dragons and choose fight, instead of flight?
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn in ‘The African Queen.’
In ‘Raising Cain,’ authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say our culture’s historical assignment of relationship work to women has turned emotions into a disregarded “second language” for men. As a result, most have limited awareness or understanding of their feelings or the feelings of others. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — compete, control, and criticize.
It is not women’s responsibility to teach us this language, but seeing they’re better versed at it, we should have the humility and willingness to learn from them. After all, we demand their undivided attention as we ‘mansplain’ the refined art of changing a flat tire.
So where do we start?
Rising above our nature begins with learning what that nature is all about.
“We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study,” says Frans de Waal in ‘Our Inner Ape,’ and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace loving and erotic bonobo — a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
What you probably did not know is that the modern version going around on the Internet is not the original story.
The adulterated version goes like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The original story, however, ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” And the story goes on… “You see, if you only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for you to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention it craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if you acknowledge him, he will be happy, so will the white wolf and you all win. For the black wolf has many qualities: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong will, and strategic thinking that you need at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength, and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all. You see son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will soon become uncontrollable. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention, and when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing which will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces will determine your life.
“Anger as soon as fed is dead. ’Tis starving makes it fat.” — Emily Dickinson
Dealing with conflict is as simple (and as complicated) as knowing when to flip the switch between these two energies. Chimp-like, or black wolf aggression in our relationships leads to a dead end. But it was essential, for example, to rid the world of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. That was definitely not the right time to sit down with the bully to talk about his feelings.
The second ingredient for effective conflict resolution is emotional awareness. We men need to get better at identifying what we feel and where our emotions come from before we can begin to understand what to do about them. Our girlfriend’s kind reminder to take out the trash, for instance, might evoke dreaded memories of our mother’s overbearing nature and trigger defiance. A casual commentary by our wife about the neighbors’ lavish summer vacation in Tuscany might provoke a nasty reaction because we interpret her comment as an indictment on our manhood making us feel like a failure for being unable to provide her with such luxury.
“Every time you react emotionally instead of responding consciously, ask yourself, what am I afraid of?” — Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.
Finally, men need to develop emotional granularity, which is a bit like wine tasting, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman. “Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions — perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.”
“People who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts, Feldman adds. “Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.”
I have found no better way to develop emotional granularity and expand my emotional vocabulary than to read poetry and literary fiction (especially novels written by women). I’ve also discovered, in foreign languages, more useful words for emotions I had not been able to properly identify and express. For example:
TOSKA (Russian) — At its deepest and most painful, Toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.
TORSCHLUSSPANIK (German) — Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; that you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting old.
LITOST (Czech) — A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. We feel a searing pain at the scale of our inadequacies.
YA’ABURNEE (Arabic) — Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before their loved one because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
Just imagine the deep connection and intimacy such emotional granularity and richness of expression could bring to our relationships… with ourselves, as well as others.
Learning about our chimp/bonobo nature, becoming aware of the origin of our emotions, and developing emotional granularity will also lead to empathy, or, at the very least, rational compassion. With more and more men becoming fierce gentlemen — the oboes of the world — we will put an end to the age of puerarchy and join women in the struggle to overcome the many challenges our world is facing.
In this struggle, the female gender must also evolve. Hepburn’s dictum, that nature is what we are put in this world to rise above, must also be heeded by women. While gender-equality continues to make steady progress and fundamentally changing gender dynamics, women must learn their biology is still encoded with innate drives which unconsciously makes them predisposed to prefer a partner of status and wealth and who displays unwavering control, is strong and stoic, and who always seems to have an answer.
Faced with a man who has the courage to be vulnerable and express his deepest fears, his confusion, and his occasional feeling of helplessness or unworthiness, women must short-circuit their innate biases and receive him with compassion, which means, at origin, to suffer together.
As men learn to properly emote, women must be patient. At times, we will want to run away from deep conversation. Bereft of words for our emotions and afraid of vulnerability, we will often choose to flee to the solitary cave of our tortured souls. Allow us that respite. Like a pressure cooker, your escape valve is talking things through. We let-off steam in silence. This does not mean you should let us off the hook. Like a deft fisherwoman, slacken the line at times, then reel us back into conversation. We’ll get the hang of it, eventually.
Or you could send us to Mars, which might sound more expedient and appealing to many of you, but you will strip away the fierce boldness the world requires. You’ll be forever haunted by SAUDADE, Portuguese for the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and loves, and the knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
We’ll both end up living in barren worlds. One utterly silent, the other with plenty of flat tires.
Prime rib works just as well, though it must be rare… blood spattering rare.
In my case, it was a predawn potion of warm water mixed with turmeric, cayenne pepper, cider vinegar and honey.
Anything that will tinge urine with an alarming red color will make the staunchest unbeliever raise his eyes toward heaven and plead mercy, especially someone uninformed about the other probable causes of hematuria besides bladder cancer. Since my dad suffers from this affliction, you’ll understand why I defaulted to the extreme.
“I don’t believe in God. I fear him.”- Gabriel García Márquez
I’m not an atheist, but neither believe I have a direct line to an almighty power with nothing better to do than sit or float around all day listening to the petty laments and supplications of a weak, sniveling species. At least, not until the toilet bowl swirled with ominous blood-red tendrils a few mornings ago.
You should’ve seen and heard me then! Pleading with the staunch faith of someone who’d just been baptized in the waters of the Jordan River:
“O please God no, not yet! I beg you. I still have lots I need and want to do.”
It’s astounding that so many of us walk around as if death were an unfounded rumor; something that happens to strike 6,000 people every hour but somehow deems our continued presence so worthy to the entire planet that it chooses to spare us from annihilation.
Must we really be the sole survivors of a horrific plane crash to feel guilty and start living our lives with the urgency of the terminally ill? Isn’t life, by nature, a terminal disease?
Instead of survivor’s guilt, why not think of it as self-induced ‘survivor’s enthusiasm’ inspiring us to meaningful action each and every day?
Just imagine the intensity our lives would acquire if we lived with death as our eternal companion as Carlos Castaneda suggested in ‘Don Juan.’ I don’t think we’d ever dare say “just as soon as…” while contemplating our deepest yearnings.
“Just as soon as my urine is soaked in blood” doesn’t make much sense, does it?
So rather than waiting till your number is up, assume it has already and that no amount of genuflections and ‘Hail Marys’ next to a toilet bowl will spare you from the unyielding force of entropy. See if that doesn’t light a fire under your ass. If it doesn’t, and you still need a daily reminder that death is not just a nasty rumor, buy yourself a human skull and plop it on your desk.
Or eat red beets… just try to forget you ever read this.
The boy who never built a castle in the air will never build one on earth. – Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The Twitter vitriol poured on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) and Greta Thunberg (16) reminded me of Wentworth’s quote.
Striking, yet unsurprising, is the lack of alternative solutions proposed by their older critics who I imagine sitting on bleachers – seething in the green muck of their envy and shrunken under the tepid sun of their cowardice – while these two young idealists dare to enter the arena with the audacity and courage to imagine a better, saner future.
The attacks echo the slurs against Rachel Carson after the publication of her 1962 seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ which conceivably pulled us back from the brink of environmental disaster:
A book reviewer for Time characterized Carson’s argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature.”
In other words, Carson was deemed by her critics to be irrational.
“Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs?” asked 12 year-old Adora Svitak in her 2010 Ted Talk.
“Maybe you’ve had grand plans before,” she said, “but stopped yourself, thinking, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘that costs too much,’ or ‘that won’t benefit me.’ Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free… kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
In 1968, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked Dr George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a highly specialized test to effectively measure the creative potential of NASA’s rocket scientists and engineers. The duo came up with an unorthodox test rooted in the process of divergent thinking: the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. The test worked so well at identifying the best candidates that Land and Jarman decided to administer it to 1600 five year-olds.
What they discovered was astonishing.
Out of the 1600 kids that took the test, 98% of them scored at genius level!
Excited by this incredible finding, the team decided to turn this test into a longitudinal study and tested the same group of children five years later. By then, in grade school, the children’s level had declined to just 30%.
By age 15, it had dropped all the way down to 12%.
Disturbed, but still intrigued by this fascinating study, Land and Jarman decided to conduct this same test on adults aged 25 and up (with an average age of 31). After numerous studies, what they found was that less than 2% of all adults scored at genius level!
Once bitten, twice shy.
As life batters us with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we become less creative and more risk averse. As we age, we shift our mental calculations toward what we stand to lose, rather than what we stand to gain and our courage to dare is weakened by our fears — of loss, rejection, judgment, and criticism; fears which gradually wrap us in an armor of cynicism which we deceptively label practical or pragmatic.
Ironically, William James, founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, had this to say:
Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, — his pre-eminence over them is solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
If we had limited ourselves to what appeared possible, safe, and practical, we would have never become bipedal.
English journalist Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” said U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. “There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
It would be one thing if those without the courage to dare greatly were to remain shut in the dark and malodorous space of their dispirited lives. Quite another is pouring the acid of their fecklessness on the hide of those who do dare.
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived they 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.” — Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Zarathustra’
At 57, I have harvested enough disappointments — in love and enterprise — to make even the fiercest gladiator never want to set foot again on the arena of life’s slaughterhouse. My hide is black-and-blue from the pummeling fury of fortune’s mercurial temper. Yet, I have not ceased to ask myself: “What if? or “If only…” I still yearn to quell the storm and ride the thunder… still believe in impossibilities. It’s the reason why I side with those like #AOC and Greta Thunberg and cheer their valiant efforts to challenge the status quo. They are no trouble and terror to me, but an inspiration, stirring the same hopefulness I felt when watching the young man block the advance of a column of tanks on China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“The truly decrepit, living corpses,” said Henry Miller, “are those middle-aged men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever, or else, are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelter to wait it out.” You can avoid reality, writer Ayn Rand warned, but not the consequences of reality.
When we operate under fear, we use a smaller part of our divergent thinking and stifle our capacity to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Convergent thinking, focused on coming up with the single, well-established answer to a problem, begins to come up with all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done.
Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. — Samuel Johnson
The new generation is inviting us to dare to dream the impossible, to awaken the genius of our inner child, who, full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, is not hampered when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. We should either accept their invitation or get out of their way.
Society is not a bond between the living, said philosopher Edmund Burke. It is a bond between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to come. As it stands right now, it appears that the generation currently in charge is assuming the stance of comedian Groucho Marx who once scoffed: “What should I care about future generations… what have they ever done for me?”
At the recent Austrian World Summit, Greta Thunberg ended her speech with this indictment: “For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically doing nothing to stop climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up and promise we will not let you get away with it anymore.”
How will we respond?
Will we rise to the challenge or cower inside our mental bomb shelters to wait it out, hoping for a savior?
“Our world needs fierce men and women,” writer Sam Keen urged, “who must deal with the darkness at noon, the failure of our success, the impotence of our power, and the waste products of our creativity. It needs spiritual warriors who are alive with moral outrage and who enter the arena to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Fierce individuals who still have thunder and lightning in them; not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”
As for the world, the same applies to our lives.
I suspect many of you, despite age, circumstance, or accumulated disappointments, still wonder what your life would be like if you had the temerity to build castles in the air; to give voice and impetus to your “irrational” dreams, yet you deny them out of fear of judgment, discomfort, failure, or loss. In the end, however, should you cower, the day will come when you will have to face the most terrifying judge of all: yourself.
Hell is found, said writer Paulo Coelho, twenty seconds before you die as you look back and discover that you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
Dare to be irrational! Shatter the status-quo of your existence! Think not of what you stand to lose but what you will gain by breaking free from your self-imposed prison… more time for joy, deeper and more meaningful relationships, ardent desire, wonder and delight.
If each new day — as our human life unfolds itself like the pages of an illuminated fairy book — is not a caravanserai of marvels, a ship of treasure, an island of enchantment, with its own sun and moon and high particular stars, what, in heaven’s name, is the value of being alive at all? Nature intended us to be exquisitely happy and when our happiness ebbs it is because some phobia or mania or inhibition in ourselves. — John Cowper Powys
Trust your wants. Prune not your extravagance. Become uninhibited, zany, expansive, voracious and wild. Seek through the fire of your enthusiasm and idealism to make your clay statue incandescent at last!
Having answered the call to adventure, I assure you that a day sailing wild and pathless seas is worth more than an eternity spent safe at harbor.
As you move into authenticity — your true story — you will unleash unsuspected powers which not only will blow on the embers of your dreary, sputtering life, but will incite you to respond to the calling of our time.
Let those tepid souls, who sit in the bleachers, rot in the dunghill of their timidity.