The One Life Force You Cannot Do Without

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

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


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

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

Resistance is a fundamental force in nature.

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

So it is with any worthy human endeavor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three: Overdraw me, who cares if I break!

I have chosen the third.

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

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

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

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

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Chapter 10

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

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

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have we done, young man!

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

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

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

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

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

Poof! A Genie appears.

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

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

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

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

Alladin

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

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

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

Driven by invisible blows

The rock will split. — D.H. Lawrence

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

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

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


Follow my book’s gritty journey to publication.

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Life is Not a Caucus Race in Wonderland

The Meaning of Life

Is simpler than I thought.

The riddle has vexed humans for ages.

It’s made some walk across scorching sands for weeks, goaded others to ruminate for days in caves, and made others squat under trees in lotus pose to cook up recipes for enlightenment and bliss.

Hunger Artists’ is how poet Stephen Dunn names these restless seekers.

Like chefs in a mystical season of ‘Chopped,’ they tried to turn baskets of the ingredients of life into plain but nutritious meals for humankind, all because the available food they tried tasted wrong and they knew that the world was sad.

These sages of antiquity gifted their answers to the world hoping to alleviate suffering and injustice only to see their simple dishes repeatedly ignored, perverted, rejected or disdained.

Thus, the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” — Matthew 13:9

Like those who have lost their taste buds, we cannot appreciate a plain meal. We need spicier fare to awaken our numbed sensibilities. What stirs us most is fear. The fear of death is what sends us rushing back to the kitchen.

Spooked by our mortality, we have kept writing elaborate myths, rigid doctrines and incomprehensible philosophies to try to make sense of the universal law of entropy: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We conjure kingdoms in the sky where, for eternity, we will continue bedeviling the universe with questions of meaning accompanied by harp music or in sultry embrace with seventy-two virgins.

Imagination cannot grasp simple nothingness and must therefore fill the world with fantasies. — Alan Watts

Like troublesome, high-brow English professors, we appear incapable of savoring the poem of life in all its ‘nonsensical,’ majestic simplicity, so insist on pounding meaning out of it with the rubber hose of our arrogant incomprehension. In the vast cosmic scheme, human impermanence and insignificance drives us mad.

Meanwhile, the rest of life looks with mute dread at this aberration of nature, sensing its fate now irrevocably in the self-destructive hands of an unhinged primate with anger management issues.

Imprisoned in the torturous chambers of our minds, we continue burning the midnight oil writing scrolls and scrolls of answers to the meaning of life while the gifts of life pass us unaware. Shuttered inside our egocentric caves, we remain deaf and blind to the divine spectacle happening all around us every second of every day.

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

A simple recipe, like “love is the religion and the universe is the book” baked by the poet Rumi, sounds too straightforward. It cannot be that simple, can it? No! We must write more complicated rules, morals, and injunctions to govern our abnormal appetites. We need to create heavenly overlords after our own image who can keep us from harming ourselves and others. Certainly, we cannot govern ourselves without the looming threat of eternal damnation braised in fire and brimstone.

This madness is exclusive to our species: Homo Absurdus.

For all my walks in nature, I have yet to come across stone tablets, codices or surahs written by weasels or worms — not even by the wisest owls — to regulate their lives. They seem miraculously able to do so on their own. Perhaps this is why I have also not seen temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, sex shops, opium dens, torture chambers, prisons, rehab clinics, mindfulness retreats or therapy couches out in the wild.

You’re behaving like an animal! has always smacked me as praise rather than opprobrium.


ME imperturbe!” scoffed poet Walt Whitman. “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought.

“Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”

Afoot and lighthearted, Whitman traveled the Open Road unencumbered by the doctrines without which humans seem unable to joyfully navigate their brief time on earth.

“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,” Whitman declared. “They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

“The earth, that is sufficient!

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Whitman lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!

The prophet who wandered for forty days in the scorching sands of the Judean Desert returned with an equally simple message: Wake up! Yours is the kingdom as soon as you recover the delight of childhood and live with presence.

An uncarved block of wood was Daoism’s response to our insistence of making our lives unnecessarily complex.

To the question of the meaning of life, the Buddha responded by holding up a white flower.

The briefest sermon never ends.

A wake-up call, a chunk of wood, and a stinking flower… is that it? Surely there’s more to the meaning of life than that! We need more rigid dogmas and heady philosophies, more ritual, more prayer, longer liturgies and a horde of cowled middlemen or supercilious interpreters to make sense of it all. We need miracle, mystery, and authority as said Dostoevsky in ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Having arrested and imprisoned Jesus after he returned to walk among his fellow men once more, the Grand Inquisitor reprimanded the Christ:

Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely. [That] in place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter, with free heart, decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. [Didn’t you] know that he would reject Thy image and Thy truth if he [were] weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? Thou didst ask far too much from him. [Man] is weak and vile.

The “free choice” mocked by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is the divine instinct German writer Georg Groddeck called “Gott Natur” or God nature — our kinship with the rest of life and our capacity to tell right from wrong and good vs evil without needing to hit the stacks or run to a confessional to confirm our intuition.

If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. — Gospel of Thomas

In ‘The Gospel of Jesus,’ Stephen Mitchell says “the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is of a man who has emptied himself of desires, doctrines, rules — all the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage that separate us from true life. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being… a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world.”

Other hunger artists were pretty much saying the same thing.

Kazantzakis said life is only worth living if we develop the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying to an imaginary world.

Philosopher Alan Watts suggested the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it, and then trying to grasp it.

For Greek poet Homer, life was a succession of contingencies. He believed our lives are ruled by fate and chance. Shit happens and life’s not that hard or complicated. Socrates, however, could not accept this, so he invented morality, says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs.’

Instead of wasting precious time searching for “eternal truths” or formulating redundant morals, Gray points to the simple lives of other animals as the source of ethics. “The beginnings of justice, prudence, moderation, bravery — in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues — are animal.”

 

As I write this, the first snowstorm is blanketing the meadow beyond my window. Unperturbed by questions of meaning and purpose, a pair of thick-furred deer nibble hungrily at the last tufts of grass. The forest is serene and placid except for a prudent squirrel hurrying to store the few remaining acorns. The black bear must already be snugly burrowed, dreaming of sunshine, golden honey, and the exultant spectacle of spring wildflowers.

It brings to mind the comfort author E.B. White said he found “with the pleasing thought that to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself; a task of such immediacy and beauty that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

And it makes me wonder…

Do we, by nature, already carry the blueprint for bliss?

Might the meaning of life be truly found once we recover our divine instinct and live with childlike presence?

Is the purpose of life, simply, to be?


Read my Winter Solstice meditation in celebration of the birth of Jesus.

No Bucket for My List

Fate smashed it two decades ago.

Bucket on Beach.jpg
Photo by Gregory Culmer on Unsplash

I used to have a big bucket. So big in fact, I never bothered making lists. I just did anything I wanted.

I scuba-dived, trekked across rainforests and jungles, climbed Mayan temples, honeymooned in paradise, sailed yachts, piloted airplanes, wore gold watches, built financial empires, cavorted with prostitutes, powdered my nose with blow, briefly retired at age 36… that kind of big.

Fate smashed my bucket two decades ago.

I now have neither bucket nor pot to piss in, but I’m happier than ever… how’s that possible?

Because my bucket, you see, was riddled with holes, that no list — no matter how long or exotic— could plug. It took me years to figure out I was scratching the wrong itch. My thirst for adventure was masking a yearning to reconnect with my wild side. The bling and blow were desperate cries for attention and acceptance. Wealth, for respect and validation. Prostitutes, for intimacy.

They were, and are, the misty hidden yearnings manipulated by the sly persuaders of unruly capitalism to keep us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied desire… always scratching the wrong itch, always pouring more stuff into our buckets.

Where affluence is the rule, the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic vices. What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The health of the economy has thus come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. New vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. — Alan Watts

The loss mourned by Watts is Eros, which, at root, means the passionate and intense desire considered by ancient Greek philosophers as the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. There is no suggestion that this desire is specifically sexual. Eros is an impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life. Thus, in the original vision that gave birth to the word, erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propels life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.

Wasting my potential climbing ladders leaning against wrong walls, running the rat-race wearing ill-fitting masks, concealing my mute despair with glitz and glamor, and seeking safe harbor in the arms of lust, my life-well ran dry of erotic energy. I burned out without ever having been on fire.

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

Adrift for twenty years in the wasteland strewn with the ruins of my life, I finally got it. Unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be content no matter what I had. I needed to shift from a state of having, to a state of being.

My bucket had been filled to the brim with useless stuff, and I’m now certain that it wasn’t fate that smashed it but I the one who gave it the heave in unconscious revolt against the paradoxical emptiness of my life to finally wake up from a forty-year lie.

Once stripped of all the falsehood, I also thought that what would remain would be my authentic core — dreamer, poet, lover… a metaphysical gypsy encircled by a placid sea of inner truth. But even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of personhood, as cautioned Maria Popova. “They are but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self.”

We change, and must. Only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. What we desire today will change over time… just like a river, as said poet David Whyte, with a particular abiding character, but showing radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

For many years after the crash, I dreamt of pulling my stakes and moving to Greece. The idea had long beguiled me. Ever since reading British author Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Or perhaps it was when I came across his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality drive great poets to slash their veins.

Had I the money at the time, I probably would have checked the item off my bucket list and be now married to a Greek peasant girl wondering why the hell she wasn’t burning inwardly like an altar candle and, instead, nagging me for not having milked the goats. Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I had to examine the fantasy to find the true nature of the itch. I discovered I was simply yearning to recover my erotic power.

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. — Jack Kerouac

I’ve since understood that Eros is not to be found on Greek isles nor in the arms of young girls. Neither can the ecstasy Kerouac pined for be found by assuming a different persona. The real voyage of discovery, said Marcel Proust, consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, echoed Henry Miller. “If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows!”

Which brings to mind the summer day I took my young daughters to the beach.

I had no money to pay for camps or trips abroad and had just traded my new, luxury SUV for a drab-brown Altima sedan to lower the monthly payments. To lend magic to an otherwise boring Wednesday, I had to open the windows of our imaginations.

“Let’s pretend,” I said, as we walked out of the house, “let’s imagine we lived in a small, whitewashed stone house perched on a craggy hill in the island of Corfu… chalk-white, with electric blue window shutters and the Ionian sea only minutes away. “Pretend we’d usually trundle down the rutted road in a red wagon pulled by goats, but today — in our only compromise with the trappings of the affluent life we’ve left behind — we will have to take the Altima.”

With nothing more than our bathing suits under our clothes, a pair of borrowed boogie boards, and a yellow, cracked surfboard I had fished-out of a dumpster just days before, we headed out.

We didn’t need to see flocks of sheep grazing under olive groves or drive past the nude chastity of rocky hills dotted with asphodel flowers as we made our way down the winding asphalt of Highway 1. Didn’t matter. Instead, we feasted our eyes on towering emerald thickets of Eucalyptus to our left, and wind-and-fog swept hills to our right. To heighten my girls’ thirst for the ocean’s chill embrace (which I suspected would be no warmer than 65 degrees) and to recreate the imagined summer temperature in Corfu, I closed the windows and turned on the heat. Within seconds, sweat drops bloomed on our skin, making the shimmering steel blue surface of the Pacific Ocean, by then in view, even more alluring.

As soon as parked, doors flew open. The glistening sweat on our foreheads and forearms was blown dry by the chill air as we made our heat-maddened dash to the waves. And then the plunge! All care and fret washed off our backs by the welcoming ablution of the Pacific!

Like trays of delicate pastries, the swells carried our boards aloft, out and back to shore, as we raced one another. My yellow cast-off board with its cracked paint and chipped nose always the winner.

Let’s go!” I yelled, as we completed the final wake run and hurried up the soft sand chased by spindrift, all ashiver and dripping wet. “Pretend our caique has drifted away. We’re stranded and must overnight here. Help me find driftwood to start a fire. It’ll get very cold soon. Let’s move!” I commanded, ignoring the Pringles and Power Bars nestled inside my backpack.“Go look for crabs, mussels, and octopi in the tide pools. Quick! We’re having grilled seafood for dinner!”

A half hour later, crestfallen and empty-handed but for a few pieces of driftwood and a fistfull of seashells, my daughters came back. By luck, a group of jolly Latinos had invited me to sit by their bonfire and partake of their food and steaming pot of Mexican hot chocolate.

Sitting in circle by the roaring flames, the wind gathered strength and blew my eldest’s sun-and-honey laced hair in a straight horizontal. My youngest shielded herself from the smoke that seemed bewitched by her Byzantine eyes. Very few words were exchanged or necessary as we fixed our gaze on the darkening horizon and basked in the comforting embrace of fellowship linked to the whole web of life. Pelicans took advantage of the last flush of golden light for one final dive-bomb into the ocean. A sea lion arched its silvery back and vanished. Tiny crabs scurried into their holes. The first star glittered in the western sky.

As we drove back home — hair and skin satin soft and salty — I recalled these words from the poet Rumi: “And you, if you have no feet to leave your country, go into yourself, become a ruby mine, open to the gifts of the sun.”

That magical summer day, we traveled to Greece without having to postpone our wish for that hoped-for day that often never arrives. No feet, no bucket, no list… simply open to the gifts of the present.

That day, I learned to squeeze delight from the fruits of the here-and-now and vowed to never again use the phrase ‘just as soon as’ I experienced the truth of Miller’s assertion that it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, and realized that the key is in understanding what makes us tick which is discovered by removing ourselves from the distractions and needling noise of the modern world to listen to the true longings of our hearts.

Now, far removed, I know that no Caribbean cruise, no matter how luxurious, can make anyone escape a meaningless job or humdrum existence.

That no gold watch can make up for the lost time we should invest on what truly matters.

That lust is no road to intimacy nor rugged adventure the way back to our wildness.

That neither wealth nor power can ever recharge our erotic potency.

That true joy is found in being, not in having.

Which is why I’m not surprised to learn that the country with the most buckets is one of the world’s unhappiest.

We don’t need buckets or lists. All we need is to open more windows.


Keep your window open for more of my musings by joining my mailing list.

When the Sh!t hits your Fan

The power of clear-eyed optimism.

Nostradamus4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I found it.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what he’d tell me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone loves me because I’m special.”

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

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

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

Or RED lights, like:

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

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

“Things will never work out for me.”

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

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

STOP! PLEASE STOP!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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Beer of Belonging?

Our misty hidden yearnings.

Beer commercial

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

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

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

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

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

Faster food, or slower pace?

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

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

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

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

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

Enter human desire.

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

The rest, as they say, is history.

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

So we went from this…

To this:

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

His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:

The five colors

blinds our eyes.

The five notes

deafen our ears.

The five flavors

dull our taste.

Racing, chasing, hunting,

drives people crazy.

Trying to get rich

ties people in knots.

So the wise soul

watches with the inner eye

not the outward,

letting that go,

keeping this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Dumb Warning Sign

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

Most people, that is.

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

But here’s the rub…

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

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

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

The Evolutionary Origins of Prudence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was I Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Neuro-Social Perspective on Risk-Taking

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

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

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

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

Squaring the Circle

So here’s the rub.

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

By introducing them to the concept of purposeful audacity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ship in Storm
Image credit: Lorenzo Lanfranconi

O to sail to sea in a ship!

To leave this steady unendurable land,

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

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

To sail and sail and sail!

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride (Part V of a Series)

 

Arrogant Dragon by Vasilare De Derg
Image credit: Vasilare The Derg

It blows hot and cold.

When hot, it puffs you up like Blowfish, chalking your victories to your brilliance but conveniently blaming bad luck for your defeats.

It electrifies your hair, raises goosebumps on your skin, and swells your patriotic chest at the rise of a flag and the beginning chords of your nation’s anthem without once allowing you to reflect on the underbelly and scourge of your country’s might and supremacy or whether the aroused sensations could be compensating for a feeling of worthlessness resulting from a presumed lack of personal power.

Pride, warns the Bible, goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Before my grandiose business schemes collapsed in early 1999, I was as arrogant and overweening as boxing legend Muhammad Ali who described himself as “young, handsome, and fast! further claiming he couldn’t possibly be beat.

I’m not the greatest,” he boasted, “I’m the double greatest!

His dazzling career ended in a humiliating defeat to lumbering, slow-armed boxer Trevor Berbick.

“To see Ali lose to such a moderate fighter,” one sportswriter lamented, “was like watching a king riding into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.”

The legacy of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, along with the mighty Roman Empire, were snuffed by the hot breath of conceit that burned delusional in his young son and successor Commodus.

A mere 70 years after Greek philosopher Socrates warned Athenians of the perils of their unquestioning pride, their empire collapsed under the sword of Alexander the Great whose own hubris and intemperance later led to the downfall of his vast and powerful empire.

Hubris, or toxic pride, awakens ‘Nemesis,’ the Greek Goddess of Retribution.

Nemesis - Source Ancient Pages

When the Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride blows cold, its breath originates from the belly of shame, scrawling one nagging question inside our heads:

“WHAT WILL OTHERS THINK OF ME?”

It makes us preemptively ashamed of what others might think should we fail at something, so we don’t even try.

Ashamed to be thought of as ‘losers’ if we don’t have lots of money or fame, we push ourselves to the breaking point, even if it goes against the grain of our temperament, and often at the price of our health, relationships, and wellbeing.

It forces us go to the gym to workout our muscles or pump them with steroids because we have chosen to believe only ‘real men’ have them and if we don’t, we think it is something to be ashamed of.

It keeps us from reading poetry or pouring our darkest emotions onto the pages of a journal, from dancing or painting, from hugging a friend and telling him we love him, because we have chosen to believe ‘real men’ don’t do these things.

It’s the one that keeps us from asking for help when we most need it, from saying we don’t know because we think we’ll appear stupid, from crying when we really need to cry or admitting we are lost and afraid.

The antidotes to neutralize the twofold venom (pride and shame) of this toxic Dragon can be found inscribed at the Greek temple of Apollo, high up Mt. Parnassus in the town of Delphi.

Delphi. Image source Wikipedia commons. Credit Kufoleto - Antonio De Lorenzo and Marina Ventayol
Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Credit: Kufoleto — Antonio De Lorenzo and Marina Ventayol.

Home to the famous oracle Pythia, or priestess, ordinary Athenians would climb up to the temple to ask her questions and seek guidance for their actions. Think of her as the foremother of therapists and life coaches.

Among the 147 Delphic aphorisms, or guiding truths, inscribed on the forecourt of Apollo’s temple, are the twin weapons we must use to vanquish the Dragon of Toxic Pride:

Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess”.

Self-knowledge not only involves a detailed mapping and intimate knowledge of our temperament and abilities but must also consider our evolutionary history and biochemistry to fully understand our behavior and its triggers.

We would then, for example, be suspicious whenever our hair unconsciously stands on end with nationalistic pride, and recognize this reflex as nothing more than our overactive amygdalas, and our species’ prosocial need to belong to something greater than ourselves, reminding us how this evolutionary-adaptive trait, when taken to an extreme, has led to unspeakable terror, oppression, war, and genocide. We’d then be free to seek belonging without renouncing our integrity and sovereignty.

A critical awareness of the presuppositions and biases of our thoughts and opinions would make us rightly skeptical of our much vaunted rationality and lead us to greater wisdom and away from dangerous extremism.

Nothing in Excess” must have been what inspired Greek philosopher Aristotle to develop his concept of the Golden Mean.

Modesty, Aristotle proposed, or moderation when estimating our abilities, was the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and a sense of worthlessness.

Had young Commodus, for example, appropriately channeled the energies of King rather than identifying himself as King and God, he would have magnified his father’s legacy and possibly prolonged the halcyon era known as the Pax Romana. Instead, he declared himself to be an incarnation of the god Hercules and forced the senate to recognize his divinity. Statues of Commodus were erected across the city of Rome including one made of solid gold weighing nearly 1,000 pounds.

Taking time to appraise and value our unique temperament and abilities will keep us from pursuing careers or undertaking challenges for which we are unsuited, and, instead, assume our rightful place in the world from which we can radiate the power of our authentic worth.

Further understanding our brain’s unique neurochemistry can also potentially help us choose the right partner for a long lasting relationship, as discovered by anthropologist and chief scientific advisor to Match.com, Helen Fisher.

An honest assessment of our proudful victories will reveal the crucial role played by genes, luck, proper timing or circumstance, making us humble and quick to replace the insensitive label of “Loser” for the benevolent one of “Unfortunate” when judging the plight of those ill-served by providence. Pity would lead to compassion and be further nurtured by the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of our shared human experience.

Understanding our limitations will break through the stoic armor we often use to hide our doubts and fears, opening a door to courageous vulnerability which will allow us to seek help while inciting us to reconnect with our feeling bodies and not think twice about nurturing our softer sides through dance, poetry, tears, deep relationships, and intimacy.

The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride is a formidable adversary, no doubt, but no match for the True Masculine who recognizes the value of self-knowledge and seeks the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and worthlessness by cultivating the Life Force of Moderation.


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