Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

We just don’t accept it.

Playing the role of Forrest Gump  (the small-town dimwit of the 1994 movie by the same name ) Tom Hanks sits on a bench by an outdoor bus stop with a box of chocolates on his lap. A nurse shows up, sits next to him, and rudely ignores his offer of one. Unfazed, the ever loveable Forrest remarks in his childlike southern drawl: “My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates… you never know what’cha gonna git.”

We humans are the petulant nurse in the story, stubbornly refusing Gump’s chocolatey truth. Amid a universe in constant upheaval, we demand certainty. We are spooked by spontaneity and bewildered by change. We can’t seem to live without controlling every aspect of our lives and insist on knowing what’s inside every chocolate before we take a bite. We are never patient, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet who sought his advice.

“Be patient,” he counseled, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. Live the questions now, and perhaps, gradually, without noticing it, you will live some distant day into the answer.

Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity. — Rainer Maria Rilke

In exile from his homeland during WWII, philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “to be lost is to fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. One does not get lost,” he added, “but loses oneself. It’s a conscious choice… a chosen surrender.”

This doesn’t mean giving up, but giving oneself up, which the ancient Greeks called kénōsis — the act of self-emptying — the arrestment of one’s will and desire. It’s Christianity’s notion of the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will to become receptive to the will of God, or fate.

Our world today is awash in uncertainty. Thousands are dying while millions lose their jobs. Whole industries are in peril and many countries at the brink of ruin. We’re at the mercy of an invisible, virulent scourge that has undermined our sense of control and proven how powerless we are.

When free falling into the abyss, it’s natural to want to flail our arms in search of a tree branch to save our lives. So is flapping our arms or praying for wings. But from what I can tell, no amount of flailing, flapping, or praying is going to stave the fall. It seems we are headed toward a nasty pileup. Quarantined and curled-up in crash position inside our homes, we can keep grasping at nonexistent branches, or choose to let go, surrender to the moment, and live the questions.

What is Covid-19 trying to tell us? What has it revealed about the human condition and the way in which we lived our lives before being turned upside down? What does it say about society at large and each of us in particular? Were we even in our right minds before the pandemic? What must change?

My friend and fellow writer Mary Reynolds Thompson may be right in saying “we often need some cataclysmic event to crack us open, just as bishop pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.”

Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller

Like a massive earthquake, Covid-19 has toppled our most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control. And like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness — the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

Before rushing to clean up the mess, though, we need to purge. To self-empty, like the ancient Greeks suggested. To use this dark moment to come to terms with ourselves and the fat turds we’ve dumped on the world while frolicking in abundance and denial. Time to also come to terms — once and for all — with uncertainty and the little control we’ve always had, always will. With so many lives being upended, so many fortunes changing, about the only thing we can control right now is how we choose to navigate the gauntlet.

About me are great natural forces — colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos, it is for me to thread my precarious way. — Jack London

Fortune is a capricious, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty and, the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. That day has come. Our world is tossing and heaving in unchartered waters.

“Never have I trusted Fortune,” declared Stoic philosopher Seneca, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”

Inner peace, suggested Greek philosopher Epictetus, “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’” Arriving at such sweet state of serenity must be apex of bliss, but if we are to get there, we must learn to accept any chocolate given to us from now on and know when to let go when the time comes. The important thing, Epictetus said, is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.

No doubt we’ll figure this out. But how we emerge from the crash will depend on what we do before we hit rock bottom. A new world, or new way of life, said Henry Miller, is not made by trying to forget the old; it is made with a new spirit, with new values.

If we use this time to live the questions… if we surrender our old ways of thinking and dare crack open our imaginations, we will come out of the dark — like tiny stars in the night — with saner, more fruitful answers to give our lives and the world a new orientation.

“You’ll Figure It Out”

Clear-eyed optimism in times of crisis.

As a young boy, I resented my dad for using that phrase whenever I came to him with a problem.

I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he’d say, patting me on the head. “Just pretend I’m dead.”

Well, he’s dead now, and I deeply regret not having once thanked him for such invaluable gift — the lifesaving skill of resourcefulness.

The full value of my father’s wisdom, however, was only made clear to me when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself living in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. Digging my family out of that muck took almost a decade.

‘Yes, Dad, I figured it out, and since I didn’t thank you in life, launching my book for boys is my way of paying it forward.’

In retrospect, those rough times have made me realize that while my father’s ‘harsh’ treatment helped me develop crucial street-smarts, there were other virtues and life forces I wish he would’ve trained me in that I know would’ve made the ordeal easier to overcome and — likely— prevented it. Virtues like Prudence, Temperance and Justice, which, along with Courage were the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity instilled in children as part of their upbringing and regular education.

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

I could have also benefited from the Life Force of Grit which would’ve made it easier to persevere; or the one of Social Intelligence, essential to weave a safety net, or the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism which would’ve helped me put my predicament in perspective keeping me from falling into despair as I often did.

If there ever was a right time to nurture these virtues and life forces in boys, surely this is it. With the world poised on the brink of another Great Depression, they will need every available tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Even before Covid-19, the outlook for boys was less than favorable. Now, rather than a “boy crisis,” we may be confronting a full-blown disaster. As it was, boys already faced a grim and precarious future. A future in which the need for men was already in doubt, amid a present day environment where the very notion of manhood is regularly blasted across social media as toxic, alongside dangerous and misguided calls to neuter — rather than harness — the innate fierce energy in men that so often has been a saving force in times of crisis. A very confusing time to be a boy, to say the least.

Well, things just got a lot more complicated. To such degree, I fear, that mankind’s ultimate destiny may hinge on how we steel our youth to confront one of the greatest challenges in modern history.

In thirty years of working with children, I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America. — Dr. Michael Gurian, New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Wonder of Boys’ and ‘Saving our Sons’

I share Dr. Gurian’s worries, but having risen victorious from the ashes of my own ordeal and learned from its lessons, I now look ahead with clear-eyed optimism. Not only from personal experience but also from knowing humanity has been in more dire straits before. In fact, our species came close to extinction about 190,000 years ago. Yet here we are… we figured it out.

With Dad gone, I can think of no better way to express my gratitude than helping boys navigate the rough road ahead. This is my mission in writing ‘The Hero in You.’

In my book, along with 9 other essential life forces, I introduce boys to the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism by way of a quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity while an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. “I am an optimist,” Churchill declared. “It doesn’t seem very useful being anything else.”

I then elaborate…

“Churchill was right, sort of, but I’ve discovered a better way to see things thanks to Doctor Albert Schweitzer, famously known for his heroic work healing the sick in Africa in the early 1900s. An optimist, Dr. Schweitzer said, is a person who sees a green light everywhere. A pessimist sees only the red stoplight. Only the truly wise person, he added, is colorblind.

You see, a clear-eyed optimist doesn’t see situations as only green or red, black or white. He neither thinks sunny days will last forever nor walks with a constant cloud over his head predicting more rain ahead. A clear-eyed optimist understands that both light and shadow are part of the landscape, beauty, and spice of life. He knows that the difference between hope and despair is a matter of how you tell the story. The way you choose to narrate your life experiences — good and bad — will either make you a victim of your circumstances or a hero in your own daring adventure.”

To train boys in reframing the narratives to which they often default, my book offers them these practical tools:

“Next time you find yourself thinking in terms of GREEN stoplights, such as,

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

Everyone loves me because I’m special.

Everything in my life is gonna work out great!

I’m the luckiest boy in the world so 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 because I’m a loser.

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” or “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 all the time or predicting storms and tsunamis. Stop staring at the thorns in a rose or just admiring the flower. Both thorn and flower are part of what it is to be a rose. If you’re not ready to accept the shitty parts of life, don’t expect the good ones either.”

I then use my experience with publishing my book as a real life lesson for reframing one’s narrative.

Boy Sherlock

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

I had been working on the book for close to a year, and, seeing I was almost done, I decided to submit it to literary agents hoping to find someone interested in its publication. This is just like what aspiring actors must do if they want to be hired for a movie. They first need to find an agent.

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 and was as desperate as a hungry squirrel suffering from amnesia in the dead of winter.

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 out on the street starving to death. The world is not fair. I give up!”

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

A foolish optimist, or nincompoop, on the other hand, would tell the story quite differently:

“No need to stress out. 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 sunny-sunshine, unicorns, cotton candy, and dazzling rainbows. Only seeing green lights.

A colorblind, or clear-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-eyed analysis would provide a more realistic and useful narrative for my predicament.

Here’s what he would tell me:

You have given this book all you’ve got. Perhaps not 24/7, but close enough, for almost 365 days. You have also researched over 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 investigate the book industry. 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 poor 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 they hate it. What they’ve said is that it’s not for them. Big difference. Not everyone likes Brussel Sprouts (I sure don’t) 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’s story and have found many instances where you have succeeded. Do yourself a favor and go back to those moments to find calm, 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 rain and start making sunshine like you’ve done in the past.

You claim the world’s not fair? 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, adapt, 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 hapless victim, or turn it into the greatest tale of adventure and take credit for having dared greatly, just like 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.”


Exemplified by the sagacity of Sherlock Holmes, and midpoint between a sunny Pollyanna and a doomsayer like Nostradamus, the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism has never been more crucial.

Yes, Covid-19 has made the future for boys much more complicated than it already was, but neither victory nor defeat are cast in stone. Although telling boys “You’ll figure it out” will make them resourceful (like it did me), we need to do much more to fortify their psyches and gird their souls for the enormous challenges they now face.

My book aims to do just that.

‘It is also my way of telling you, Dad: “Thank you, wherever you are.’


Receive news of the book’s release by joining our mailing list. The first 50 people to do so will receive a free, autographed edition of ‘The Hero in You’ upon publication.

Single mothers of boys are automatically eligible for a 20% discount by emailing their name and mailing address to boyherobook@gmail.com, adding “Promo Code SM20” to the subject line.


Further reading recommended for parents:

The Optimistic Child : a proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience, by Martin E.P Seligman, Karen Reivich, Lisa Jaycox, and Jane Gillham

View the full list of resources here.

The Great Purge of 2020

Refusing to return to “normal”

Can you hear it?

Like birdsong on the advent of spring, people around the world are beginning to sing for change.

Still scattered, but rapidly coalescing into a common melody, its key signature was just found graffitied inside an empty Hong Kong subway tunnel:

“We cannot return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.”

Like drunkards waking up from a collective binge, many of us are shaking our heads and shuddering as we contemplate the mayhem wrought by our collective, all-too-human hubris, indifference, self-indulgence, and misplaced priorities.

How could we have been so blind? So self-centered and stupid?

Because you see, drunkards and junkies don’t binge with forethought. Prudence, I’m afraid, is not one of our strong suits. Yet, from the sound of it, it appears we’re finally waking up.

Our intuitive wisdom is making us sense that Covid-19 is not an isolated, temporary affliction, but symptomatic of a deeper sickness. The sickness of the human mind.

In the deathly quiet of isolation, people are clamoring for a new way forward. From balconies, windows and rooftops, many are shedding joyful tears and a collective sigh of relief as they witness nature quickly healing from the scourge of our rapacity, the blight of our addictions, the heavy footprint of our limitless appetites, the deep scars carved by our delusions, and the wounds inflicted by our untrammeled desires.

At last, we are singing due praise to the lowly delivery man and janitor, the migrant farm worker, the tireless nurse and teacher, the struggling artist, the dowdy cashier at the local store, our solitary postman — all the humble souls who so often went unrecognized, now our lifelines and heroes, while our once idolized celebrities cower inside their gleaming yachts and stately mansions sending us tone-deaf exhortations to image a world without possessions and corporate titans and politicians itch to rush us back to “normal.”

The kind of normal that accepts 7 million yearly deaths from air pollution as the price of doing business.

The normal that tolerates the daily loss of 9000 children to malnutrition while one third of all food is wasted.

The normal that is able to reconcile the staggering chasm between the annual $1.75 trillion wasted on the world’s war machine and the mere $166 Billion allocated to development aid.

Or the one that buys-in to the perversity of planned obsolescence willfully ignorant of how much of our electronic waste ends up trashing and poisoning the world’s poorest regions.

The normal of opulence living side-by-side with the homeless and growing deaths from despair.

Where the deaths of schoolchildren to mass shootings are brushed off as merely collateral damage in an ideological struggle.

The normal that accepts a dying planet in the name of progress.

That kind of normal.

Enough!’ seems the message people are shouting from their balconies in a massive shakeup of values and priorities.

We are beginning to recognize the limits of human power and the sham of our preeminence. That we are but one of millions of species inhabiting the planet. We are discovering that well-being and peace of mind are not measured by stock indices or the size of our homes or bank accounts. That the world’s entire arsenal of war is useless. That so long as one link is weak, or broken, we cannot call a chain strong. That death does not discriminate and that security is an illusion. That for too long, we have allowed others to define our standards of success, tell us what we need, or dictate what constitutes “normal” and a life well lived.

It’s like a great awakening from mass hypnosis and an opportunity to purge.

Perhaps our last.

In 2013, Universal Pictures released ‘The Purge,’ in which the New Founding Fathers of America — a totalitarian political party — are voted into office following an economic collapse. They pass a law sanctioning an annual “Purge” during which all crime — including murder, arson, theft, and rape — is legal for 12 hours. A chance for people to unleash their darkest impulses and vomit their pain on the world.

The 2020 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a real life purge. Only this time, we are to remain indoors, there to raise a mirror to ourselves and come to terms, once and for all, with our complicity in the state of affairs.

If we are honest, we will have to admit that before Covid-19, we were already infected.

The affluenza virus we’ve spread across the world is coming back to haunt us, though its symptoms and effects were eating away at us way before Covid-19.

For long, we’ve been suffocating under hell-like wildfires, megadroughts, toxic air, poisoned waterways, contaminated food, dead bees, and the howls of the destitute and the displaced. We’ve been tumbling icebergs, bleaching coral reefs, felling forests, strip-mining mountaintops, exhausting the planet’s topsoil, and bringing death to countless life forms in Earth’s 6th mass extinction and, possibly, our own. In short, a serial gang-rape of the planet.

All along, Earth has been trying to make us change course by appealing to our intuition — the wise voice of instinct we share with our animal kin. Once intimately connected with nature, our feeling bodies have been warning us that our current path is unsustainable. Our increasing levels of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, boredom, loneliness and feeling of utter meaninglessness are the language our bodies have been using to tell us something is fundamentally wrong in the way we live, think, relate, consume, and waste.

Under the eerie cloak of silence that has descended upon our loud, frenzied lives, we have the chance to listen and purge, to heal and recover so we may begin repairing the damage we have caused.

The Great Purge of 2020 is a call to self-revolt. To rid humanity of its delusions and irrational impulses. To arrest its godlike powers and bring an end to its assault on itself and the planet. Now that we know how helpless and powerless we truly are, it is also a call to humility. To admit we don’t have all the answers. To reorder our priorities, reconsider our values, and redefine ourselves as human beings, instead of human havings.

“To put the world in order we must put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order. To put the family in order we must first set our hearts right.” — Chinese philosopher Confucius

Setting our hearts right begins by realizing our tenuous hold on life. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not at some distant point in the future, but at any given moment.

At every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a reminder that our precious life can end at any second.

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

With our priorities rightly ordered, we can keep setting our hearts right by cultivating the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, defined by Roman statesman Cicero as: “A habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature consisting of four character traits: Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.”

Prudence: also described as wisdom, is the ability to judge between actions. It’s that sweet spot, between stimulus and response, wherein lies our power to choose, as said Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A prudent person, for example, doesn’t drunk-shop — a $48B affliction, in today’s world.

In Stoic philosophy, prudence is understanding what’s important in life and living accordingly.

No man can have whatever he wants, but he has it in his power not to wish for what he doesn’t have and cheerfully make the most of the things that come his way. — Marcus Aurelius

Justice: also considered as fairness, was considered by Aurelius as the source of all other virtues, one extending beyond Confucius’ Golden Rule: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like them to do to you. For the Stoics, the scope of justice must also consider our duty to our fellow beings. It’s “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of [the]community of life,” said Cicero.

The belief in the interdependence of everything in the universe —  that we are all one — is perhaps the Stoics’ most radical idea.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.” — Marcus Aurelius

Once this pandemic ends, Aurelius’ admonition should make us refuse the self checkout line at the supermarket, for example, to protect the livelihood and cross smiles and small talk with Iris, who, for all we know, may depend on her cashier’s job to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments and help with her son’s crippling college debt. Post Covid-19, we will hopefully trade convenience for connection. Comfort for belonging. Choose to do without, to grow within.

Temperance: is the practice of self-control, abstention, and restraint of our irrational appetites. Greek philosopher Aristotle called it the “Golden Mean,” found between excess and deficiency. Excessive desires are nothing but symptoms of discontent and dissatisfaction. Temperance is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential, of realizing you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place, as said nurse and author Mary Ellen Edmunds.

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

Courage: also named fortitude, is endurance, inner strength, forbearance, and the bravery to confront and overcome your fears, prejudices, and misconceptions. The courage to face misfortune, to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.

I know perfectly well that death is invincible. Man’s worth, however, lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. 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 courage. — Nikos Kazantzakis

With our hearts thus set right by the recognition of our unpredictable time on earth and through daily cultivation of a virtuous life, we must purge our cynicism to recover the idealism of youth. The ‘can-do’ spirit that dares imagine a better world even if it seems impractical or unrealistic.

Imagination sparks when we unclutter our minds from the adult affliction of common sense. – Physicist Brian Cox

For who’s to say certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? asks 12 year-old Adora Svitak. “Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things,” she says. “Kids can be full of aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or everything were free… kind of utopia. How many still dream this way and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”

The fact the current pandemic struck us on the advent of spring is profoundly symbolic and meaningful. As Nature unfurls her bounteous spectacle of renewal, she is beckoning us to do the same. Like Jesus on Golgotha, we are undergoing our own crucifixion — the chance to purge ourselves from the ego-cravings of the Self to be reborn in spirit. A precious opportunity to push the boundaries of possibility and bring about a new normal to the world.

I realize that weaning ourselves from our previous way of life will be massively disruptive. Recovering from affluenza will undoubtedly lend a death blow to many industries which (let’s face it) only exist to feed our addictions, temporarily assuage our insecurities, and prop-up our fragile egos. Going forward, it may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise rather than a celebrity in a world that has lost all sense of values, as said Henry Miller. No guiding morality, I claim, can develop without a hierarchy of values.

Refusing to return to normal will be disruptive, surely, but I’m convinced that in its stead, novel trades, communities, cities, technologies, art forms, and life experiences will emerge which respond to our true needs, are focused on what matters, and in harmony with the whole.

That, anyway, is my song.

Those who insist on returning to “normal” would do the world a great favor by booking themselves a one-way ticket to Mercury.

I hear it’s pretty nice up there… 800 degrees during the day; minus 300 at night. Lots of rocks.


Related articles:

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

What Now, Pandora?

Something Extraordinary Happened

 

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

Changing course before it’s too late.

There was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations severed, whole civilizations fell…

2020?

Not exactly.

The events narrate the near-sudden collapse of the world’s great civilizations of the Bronze Age (3000–1177 BCE) which plunged humanity into its first Dark Age.

A concatenation of events, both human and natural — including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and systems collapse — coalesced to create a perfect storm of calamities that brought this age to an end. — Eric H. Cline, ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed’

The parallels between this historical event and the modern-day are striking. Now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade, travel and diplomacy, and the downfall of one nation affects the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse”

We have now reached modern history’s first tipping point — a Black Swan event.

It is likely that once the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will gradually get back on its feet, bruised and battered, ready for the next round. But the blows will keep coming and growing ever more powerful. “The international COVID-19 pandemic is many things,” writes astrophysicist Adam Frank in the online journal ‘Think,’ “but its impact may be fostering a recognition that [the] machine of civilization is a lot more fragile than we thought. And that is why, in the long term, the coronavirus will one day be seen as a fire drill.”

The eerie similarity between the events which led to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the state of our world today are worth repeating: climate change, natural catastrophes, growing social stratification and inequality, class warfare, over-dependence on global trade, and the migration of large populations displaced by poverty and conflict.

Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Failing to act on knowledge is lack of wisdom. And those who do not learn from history, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that continuing with business as usual once the pandemic ends could well plunge the world into the next dark age. The only thing that might prevent it, I believe, is a substantive shift in human consciousness. Post Covid-19, our priorities, our values, the way we think, consume, invest, vote, educate our young, and interact with other groups and the natural world will determine our future.

Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel.

Amid humanity’s first dark age, a series of guiding lights began to flash. Around 800 BCE, with no obvious cultural contact with each other, the world witnessed the emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the rational philosophies of ancient Greece. Like navigational stars showing us the way out of darkness, these new stories spoke about balance and temperance, about compassion and nonviolence, about tolerance and acceptance, and reason over ignorance. In short, about living right. Known as the Axial Age, it was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, and philosophical change in recorded history,” notes scholar Karen Armstrong in ‘The Great Transformation.’

The transformation, in other words, begins from within. It starts with each one of us.

“The Axial sages,” says Armstrong, “were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift after which they could return, with renewed vigor, to their ordinary self-centered lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.”

From the look of it, it is clear that the bulk of humanity chose to ignore their wisdom. The Black Swan event of 2020, much like the shock therapy used to treat manic disorders, might make us think twice about burying our heads in the sand once again.

A self-centered person is one who is willfully ignorant and callous about the consequences of his actions on the rest of the world. So long as his ego and status are propped up, his insecurities temporarily assuaged, and his addictions satisfied, the rest of the world and the planet can pretty much go fuck themselves.

My cell phone, for instance, contains about 62 different types of metals. But had I ever bothered to find out where these metals come from, how they’re mined, and the impact their extraction is having on the people who mine them and their environment? Not at all. Not until the Black Swan shocked me. I’ve since learned that the tin used as a solder in our phones’ circuit boards has all but destroyed the paradisiacal island of Bangka where excessive tin mining has dramatically changed the natural landscape, leaving acidic craters in place of lush forests, and making clean drinking water harder to come by.

Tin mining Indonesia
Bangka Island, Indonesia

A self-centered person is one who doesn’t think twice about drinking an elixir made from a tiger’s carcass left to rot for years in a vat of rice wine just to ease his sexual insecurities.

“The tiger wine is good for men,” says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.” — Extract from Hereward Holland’s National Geographic report: ‘China’s Expanding Middle Class Fuels Poaching, Decadence in Myanmar’

Never mind the tiger and its almost certain extinction. The possibility of infecting the rest of the world with a deadly virus from the consumption of wild animals never occurs to a self-centered individual.

Today, an eight-year bottle of tiger wine will set you back $290. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G: $1600. A pair of Buscemi Diamond Sneakers: $135,000.

A self-centered existence at any expense — human and ecological — was precisely what the sages of the Axial Age were trying to warn us about.

Perhaps the most obvious change during the Bronze Age was the rise of the privileged. It is hard to think of this process in terms other than those of aggrandizement of the few. — J. M. Coles & A. F. Harding : The Bronze Age in Europe

I can think of no better symbol for the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations than the vast deposits of crushed shells from the mollusk bolinus brandaris found on the coasts of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Driven to near extinction in ancient Phoenicia, these medium sized sea snails were used to extract the purple dye used to color the garments of the elite. According to historian B. Caseau, 10,000 snails were needed to produce one gram of dyestuff worth more than its weight in gold. Tyrian purple became a status symbol representing power, prestige and wealth.

Yesterday’s sea snails are but today’s sea cucumbers, now being driven to extinction to boost the weak sexual libido and indulge the palate of the wealthy few.

Amid collapsing economies, mass layoffs and mass burials around the world, the insights of the sages of the Axial Age are more relevant than ever:

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

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

Desires unsettle the heart. — Chuang-Tzu

Nothing in excess — Confucius’ Golden Mean

Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy. Trying to get rich ties people in knots. The wise soul watches with the inner eye not the outward. — Lao Tzu

Covid-19 has placed a deathly pause on humanity’s intemperate, unbalanced and frenzied existence. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going,” says author Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens.’

The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations tells us exactly where we’re headed.

It seems wise, then, to use this period of isolation to detoxify ourselves from our addictions which are placing inordinate strains, not just on the environment and its life-sustaining systems, but on our physical and mental well-being.

This is not a fanciful call to asceticism. I’m not suggesting we all wear saffron robes and roam our neighborhoods carrying begging bowls once allowed back out. But neither do we need purple robes and diamond-studded sneakers. My call is for judicious consumption. For balance and temperance. To slow our pace, reorder our priorities, and, critically, to allow this shocking period of collective suffering to crack open our hearts, thereon extending our concern beyond the center of our own existence to encompass, both, our planet, and the lives of the less fortunate whose future has been further blighted by the Black Swan of 2020.

What Now, Pandora?

If anything, now is not the time for hope.

Written about 3000 years ago by Greek poet Hesiod, the myth of Pandora may shed some light on humanity’s current predicament and contain a hidden clue for a better way forward.

In her ‘Short Story of Myth,’ religious scholar Karen Armstrong warns that “it is a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought that can be cast aside when human beings have attained reason. Myths give explicit shape to a reality that people sense intuitively. It is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. It puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action. It helps us cope with the problematic human predicament and to find our place in the world and our true orientation. It lifts men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they see the world with new eyes. A myth, therefore, is true because it’s effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.”

This is exactly what we need right now: To silence the voice of reason and listen to our intuition, to see the world with new eyes and change our minds and hearts to find a new orientation. Our traditional ways of thinking, I’m afraid, are not going to cut it this time. Humankind needs a new story, fast!

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

The myth recounts how Zeus, ruler of all gods, ordered Hephaestus to fashion Pandora from clay, thereon to live among humans as punishment for Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods and gifting it to mankind.

In Hesiod’s poem ‘Work and Days,’ we read:

“To make up for the fire, I will give them an evil thing, in which they may all take their delight, embracing this evil thing of their own making.”

Thus spoke the father of men and gods, and he laughed out loud.

Then he ordered Hephaestus to shape some wet clay and to put into it a human voice and to make it look like the immortal goddesses…

And he ordered Aphrodite to shed golden charm over her head; also harsh longing and anxieties that eat away at the limbs.

And he ordered Hermes, the messenger [of the gods], to put inside her an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy.

And [Hermes] put inside her a voice, and he called this woman Pandōrā.”

Let us skirt the obvious patriarchal allusions of women being the bane of man’s existence and dig deeper to discover the symbolic meaning of Pandora.

“For us moderns,” says Karen Armstrong, “a symbol is essentially separate from unseen reality, but the Greek symballein means ‘to throw together.’ This sense of participation in the divine was essential to the mythical worldview. The purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them.”

Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way: “The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept. The symbol, energized by metaphor, doesn’t just point to something else but awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and reality itself.”

So what does Pandora symbolize?

We get an inkling from Hesiod’s poem. Pandora, he said, is the evil of our own making; the harsh longings and anxieties that eat away at us.

In ‘The Wisdom of the Myths,’ Luc Ferry elaborates: “Hermes gives Pandora the mind of a dog, which is to say she always asks for more than enough. She is insatiable on all levels: food, money, gifts. She always wants more… her appetite is without limit.” “Always dissatisfied, demanding, self-indulgent, she is the sum of all the contradictions of our existence,” adds Jean Pierre Vernant in ‘The Universe, the Gods, and Men.’

Sound familiar?

Ferry and Vernant could well have been describing a good chunk of consumers in affluent societies. Us, in other words.

It is through symbols that we enter emotionally into contact with our deepest selves. — Trappist monk Thomas Merton

After Hephaestus fashions Pandora from clay, the myth recounts the moment Zeus whispered in her ear tempting her to open a strange jar that the gods had given her. Commonly known as “Pandora’s Box,” it contained all the ills, all the misfortunes, and all the sufferings that would thereafter rain down on mankind.

Hesiod again:

“Before this, humanity lived on earth

without evils and without harsh labor,

without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.

But the woman took the great lid off the jar

and scattered what was inside.”

And so ended the golden age for man, just like it ended when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Same story, different characters.

Let us step away from the realm of myth and into the real world to find out if humankind has ever enjoyed a “Golden Age.”

We have, of sorts, suggests Yuval Harari, author of the international bestseller ‘Sapiens.’ It lasted for 99% of the time modern humans have been on the planet when we lived as hunter-gatherers.

“On the whole,” says Harari, “foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers, and office workers who followed in their footsteps. They were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. They had a varied diet so were less likely to suffer when one particular food source failed. They also suffered less from infectious diseases.”

Harari suggests that this golden era ended about ten, to fifteen thousand years ago with the Agricultural Revolution; a turning point he denounces as “history’s biggest fraud.”

“The extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure,” Harari says. “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. Wheat did not give people economic security; the life a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. On the contrary, that’s when raids began. The pursuit — through agriculture — of an easier way of life, resulted in much hardship. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theater of the human mind.”

Why did humanity make such a fateful miscalculation? Harari wonders.“For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated,” he says. “They are unable to fathom the full consequence of their decisions.

Since the Agricultural Revolution — ramping up during the Industrial era — humans, like did Pandora, have been endlessly lifting a dangerous lid with their voracious and insatiable “dog-like” appetites, with their greed and avarice, their self-indulgent addictions, thus unleashing on themselves and the planet one scourge after another in a plundering orgy of consumption — plagues, pollution, climate change, wildfires, wars, floods, famine, deforestation, desertification, droughts, dust bowls, etc. The latest ill to escape from the box is a deathly virus directly linked to man’s arrogant, mindless, and relentless assault on the rest of nature.

Let’s be honest. Before coronavirus, we were already infected. Only this time by a deadlier pathogen — our own befouling rapacity.

Seeing nature as nothing more than an inexhaustible source of stuff and a dumpsite for human waste, we are blind to what environmental philosopher John Muir intuited more than a century ago, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

An addiction is the habitual avoidance of reality, and while you’re free to avoid reality, said novelist Ayn Rand, “you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

Here we are, 2020, face-to-face with the first major consequence of our longstanding avoidance, and I fear it won’t be the last. This latest pandemic is but an ominous foretaste of what’s to come.

Pogo

Is there hope?

Therein lies the clue in the myth of Pandora.

‘Hope,’ it so happens, was the only thing that did not escape the box when she opened the lid.

Sounds comforting, but I have a hard time with the notion of hope. It’s too fuzzy, passive, sunny and cheerful, of course, but numbing, like a shot of Pollyannaish Novocaine for the spirit. I seriously doubt prayer, candle-lighting or crossing fingers are going to alter reality, unless, we — individually, and as a species — take decisive action.

My preference, rather, is for the classic understanding of hope.

For the ancient Greeks, hope was not a gift. It was a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope was to remain in a state of want; to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain unsatisfied and unhappy, just like Pandora.

That’s why hope remained in the box.

Therefore, to find our way out, we must examine the root cause of our irrational behavior.

According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is a never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Even when experiencing pleasure we are not content because we fear the feeling might soon disappear and wish it to remain, and, ‘hopefully,’ intensify.

Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet cave? If not, what’s the point? — Yuval Harari

“The most important finding of all,” says Harari, “is that happiness does not depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations,” meaning, your life as it is, compared to your expectations of how you’d like it to be, or worse, how others tell you it should be. In such constant state of want and dissatisfaction, we become easy prey to the hipnotic enticements dangled in front of our eyes by mass media and the advertising industry.

If happiness is determined by expectations, the two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting our reservoirs of contentment. — Yuval Harari

In an earlier piece, I included a sobering indictment by German philosopher Theodor Adorno warning pointing at how capitalism craftily repackages our longings so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our well-being. “The hidden persuaders of capitalism,” further 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.”

Fuck that!

I say it’s time to revolt!

Time to take arms against our collective delusions and irrational emotional blockages! Time to recover from our addictions and define our own standards of success, worth, attractiveness, and well-being! Time to stop lifting the lid off Pandora’s box and cease our relentless assault on the natural world just to satisfy our caprices, ease our insecurities, and feed our insatiable appetites! Time to choose between continuing our covetous existence as human-havings, or start living as who we’re meant to be — human beings.

Covid-19 has sent us on a collective time out. Perhaps our last chance to forge a new path forward. Why not seize the moment? What’s there to lose? As it is, the world-as-we-knew-it is in shambles.

“Cracks in the foundations of life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” suggests philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

“The Homo Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little we can be proud of,” Harari laments. “We seem as disoriented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going. Self-made gods — with only the laws of physics to keep us company — we are accountable to no one. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

You act like mortals in all you fear, and like immortals in all you desire. — Stoic philosopher Seneca

I’m not suggesting we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence. That would be as impractical and unsustainable as staying the course. I am simply proposing we slow down, that we become more embedded and dependent on our local communities for our sustenance, contentment, and sense of belonging; that we rewild ourselves, especially our children, to heal the rift we’ve caused between us and the rest of nature; that we listen to our youth and dare become infected with their idealism and divergent-thinking magic. Finally, that we focus on what we truly need rather than on what we desire and limit our consumption within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

In Faustian Economics,’ author Wendell Berry proposes that “to recover from our disease of limitless consumption, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent. We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and necessity of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. We will have to reexamine the economic structures of our lives and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places.”

Only then do we stand a chance.

We need a new story. A daring story of self-revolt!

The enemy is us — a group of deranged, godlike primates whom we must topple from their hubristic throne before it’s too late.

Something Extraordinary Happened

Is humanity on the threshold of an evolutionary leap?

Five hundred million years ago, during the Precambrian era, the instructions for building an eye jumped from plants to animals. The blueprint was encoded in the RHO gene tasked with the manufacture of the rhodopsin protein — near identical to the one in the human eye. Considered one of the major leaps in evolutionary history, this gift to animal life came from microscopic forms of marine plankton called “dinoflagellates.”

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest this extraordinary gene transfer occurred through symbiosis – from dinoflagellates to jelly fish. This seemingly-impossible merging of plant and animal DNA was a game changing event for life on earth.

My metaphorical imagination makes me think that the submicroscopic piece of DNA now infecting close to a million people is actually meant to open a third eye in us all. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, Covid-19 seems like a dark emissary carrying a threatening, yet pivotal message for humanity: Wake up!

Wake up from your addictions and your delusions, from your insatiable appetite for more and more stuff causing your relentless assault on the environment. If you’re looking for someone to blame, take a hard, honest look at yourself! Your addictions and insecurities were precisely what forced me to unleash my fury. You seem incapable of listening unless death itself comes pounding on your door. Do you hear it now? How many do I need to suffocate to death until finally awakening the third eye within you?

The pineal gland, also known as the third eye, is a miniscule organ located deep in the human brain which is activated when exposed to light. French philosopher René Descartes called it the “seat of the soul.” A sacred and revered tool of seers and mystics, the third eye opens the pathway to clarity, imagination, and intuition.

For a long time now, it seems nature has been trying to speak to our intuition, or embodied knowledge, warning us that our modern way of life is not only unsustainable but detrimental to our well-being. Her message can be perceived in the increasing levels of depression and anxiety, particularly in affluent societies.

In the U.S. alone, antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. Close to 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2018. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit, and, every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

If we’re so rich, why are we so miserable?

A painful hangover would be well worth it had the party been smashing, but it doesn’t appear we’ve been having such a good time in our frenzied race to the land of plenty.

Could it be that the voice of our intuition has been telling us all along that we’re on a slippery slope to self-annihilation but we no longer feel able to control our destructive impulses? Ironically, our desperate pursuit to ‘secure’ our future has now made us more vulnerable than ever.

An organism at war with itself is doomed. — Astronomer Carl Sagan

What’s it going to take? A million deaths? The wipeout of the world’s coastal megacities by rising seas? Hordes of desperate climate refugees pouring across borders? The sudden collapse of pollinator communities and ensuing global famine? What!? “Civilizations die from suicide,” warned historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.”

Something truly extraordinary happened 500 million years ago giving rise to our capacity to see.

If Covid-19 awakens humanity’s third eye, the current crisis will be hailed as a new leap in evolution; the pivotal moment when we decided to write a better and more sustainable chapter in the storybook of humankind. If it doesn’t, and we proceed with business as usual, I’m afraid it won’t take long for nature to excise the cancerous scourge we’ve become.

Author Dave Hollis recently said that in the rush to return to normal, we should use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. It is my fervent hope that we’ll all heed his wise counsel.

The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, perhaps.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no life jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

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

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest (4.1) death count from Covid-19 is forty five thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Every disaster

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (okay… maybe not China).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.

Adventure, Danger, Honor, and Glory

The path of the male warrior.

My inner barbarian awoke from its civilized slumber while binge-watching documentaries on wars of conquest and the rise and fall of empires.

I felt unsettled, tugged by two contrary forces: one modernly conscious (woke?) — scoffing at the sight of grown men acting out their atavistic impulses and yearnings for status and glory through battlefield carnage — the other, an unconscious stirring, marked by goosebumps, raised hair, a quickened pulse and puffing chest with every scene depicting the victors raising their bloodstained weapons and hollering like madmen.

There I was, thinking I had evolved… no longer bound by instinct.

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

I realized it will take more than gentle appeals for inclusion, vulnerability, empathy and compassion to ‘correct’ a man’s tendency towards tribal aggression forged during millions of years in evolutionary history. Fully taming the warrior fierceness in men, I further concluded, is not only impossible, but foolish and dangerous.

Consider the runup to World War II.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler on three occasions, finally conceding the Sudetenland, in northern Czechoslovakia, in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe. Chamberlain boasted it was “Peace for our time.” Hitler salivated, and, emboldened by Chamberlain’s fragility, invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by Poland — on 9.1.39 — the day the British finally declared war. Chamberlain resigned shortly after and was replaced by Winston Churchill, nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his dogged tenacity and ferociousness. The United States joined the fight in 1941, and, to this day, the Americans who helped free the world from the scourge of Hitler’s diabolical ideology are revered as “The Greatest Generation.”

Today, young men have few paths to greatness. No mighty struggles, no crusades, no calls to conquest (besides video games), no loftier badge of honor than a virtual sword, and no codes of conduct like those which guided the Knights of the Round Table and the Samurai in Japan.

Yet, the stirring remains… always will, and the consequences of not leading boys and young men onto paths to glory through heroic quests are self-evident.

Many of the things that parents have nightmares about (risk taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young men’s desire for glory and heroic roles. Boys look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.— From ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph

That place, Steve, is everywhere in sight. There are enough worthy battles out in the world to test the strongest of men. But in our society’s misguided attempt to tame the wild spirit of boys, they now cower and fear its expression, or, worse, vent it through self-harm or harm to others. “Some boys are so afraid they will become domestic,” says Robert Bly, “that they become savage, not wild.

If we are to overcome the challenges of the 21st Century, we better change our messaging, fast.

Rather than telling boys there is something fundamentally wrong about being male, I suggest we teach them how to harness their innate fierce energy in service to a cause greater than themselves. Let us drag them — kicking and screaming — out of their dark rooms and away from their screens to initiate them into spirited men of noble purpose!

Let’s inspire them with tales of true heroes; not the super-kind, nor those whose only proof of worth is their wealth, fame, or online celebrity. I’m talking about ordinary people. Those who have dared respond to the calling of their age and brought their unique talents to bear on the challenges of their time.

Let’s instruct them on the innate wiring of the male software — with both its virtues and glitches — and allow them to tinker with it until coding an evolved expression of manhood.

While we’re at it, let’s help them demystify the female gender so, when reaching puberty, they’ll know how to relate to women with realism and respect rather than through the confusing and delusory spectacle of porn.

Further, we must help boys develop a code of honor and conduct and the strengths of character essential for a flourishing life and to withstand and overcome the inevitable obstacles, disappointments and defeats inherent in every hero’s journey. They must learn, from the start, that life is neither a cakewalk in wonderland, nor a buffet where one gets to choose what one wants. It’s a sit-down dinner, where what is served is what they must eat — joys, sorrows, victories, failure, love, rejection, loss… the whole enchilada.

Above all, we must let them know they are needed.

Because right now, about the only thing our well meaning, but confused culture is telling boys is that they’re toxic and not wanted. This, while the world burns and gets overtaken by chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants. We are, I fear, nurturing a generation of Chamberlains, drained of all masculine power, and if history can teach us anything at all, it is that the most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. Hitler was such a man.

My warning has nothing to do with raising boys under idiotic injunctions like “men don’t cry” or “man-up!” As I’ve said before, men’s seeming incapacity for emotional intelligence is partly responsible for warfare. But a crucial line must be drawn between being empathic and being weak. “Brave men are vertebrates,” said British author, G.K. Chesterton, “they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. Modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.”

Our world could use more vertebrates, right about now. We need fierce, gentle warriors steeled with an inner strength informed by the wisdom of water — supple, pliable, but ferocious, persevering, and invincible!


Related reading:

My Father Would’ve been a Nazi

 

Walking Away From It All

Escape with purpose.

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

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

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

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

Call the Buddha an enlightened deadbeat, if you must.

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

Orana Maria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,

roses by the head, jasmine at the feet — 

so appear the longings that have passed

without being satisfied, not one of them granted

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few weeks later, he set sail.

Te Rapunga

Writer Henry Miller said this about Dibbern:

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

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

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

Pretty gracious, if you ask me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of us don’t.

That’s the reason our escapes are fleeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

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

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

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

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

Buddha showed us a path away from suffering.

Gauguin gave us the Orana Maria.

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

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


Read my escape story.