As the mist resembles rain. — ‘A Day is Done’ by Henry W. Longfellow
Depression and anxiety are big business in America.
Antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit. Every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.
And yet, these maladies are at an all-time high, particularly among the young.
For this, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Better said, I blame his dangerous assertion that a supreme being gifted Americans with an inalienable right to pursue happiness; something Howard Mumford Jones described as the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.
What’s so wrong about sadness anyway? Or melancholy? Why does everything have to be rainbow colored all the time?
I sometimes drive an hour to the ocean, hoping I will find it thoroughly obscured by fog. I am not a bore, but want a break from all the rainbow violence in the world. — Meghan Flaherty
My younger daughter and I are profoundly melancholy. The type who prefer foggy days, shadowy places underneath bridges, mournful adagios, dark alleys, dusty attics crammed with old books, creaky chairs, rooms with low lighting…
In her teens, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed Zoloft which she dutifully took for a long time. Last year, she quit cold turkey. “I’m fed up with numbness!” she said. “I no longer know what it is to be happy because I no longer feel sad.”
The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere.
In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling,’ Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them.
While it’s great business for pharmaceutical companies, it is an invisible obstacle to empathy. “Melancholy,” proposes Alain de Botton, “is a key mental state and a valuable one. Melancholy is generous: you feel pity for the human condition.”
Had Abraham Lincoln been president today, he would’ve been prescribed Zoloft in a heartbeat.
“No element of Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”
“With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic. “A man whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”
“But Lincoln’s melancholy,” Shenk adds, “is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see [his] life more clearly and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas — of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain.”
The first time I felt empathy was when fate toppled me from the pinnacle of power and wealth forcing me to take-on what I first considered the most humiliating jobs. It’s when I met Darren, who had the letters “L” and “R” tattooed on his left and right wrist as a reminder of the brutal beatings he suffered as a young boy for not being able to distinguish which was which. The time I met Steve, with whom I first went dumpster-diving. And Lorraine, who worked three jobs to put her son through college while caring for her ailing parents. “Losers!” is how I once considered these wretched souls. Ever since, I have never again used that word.
Had I taken everyone’s advice and taken antidepressants to numb my pain during that tumultuous time in my life, I would’ve missed the gift of empathy. Ever since, I have taken all my suffering and transmuted it to light — the light of compassion and wisdom.
“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved,” says Shenk, “cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”
In psychotherapy, the integration to which Shenk alludes is called “shadow work.” It means bringing to light all the wounds we’ve suffered and repressed in life; the unavowed emotions that, when not brought to surface and given fresh air, have the nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads in other areas of our lives — alcoholism, drug addiction, illicit affairs, violence, etc.
When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. Absorbing instead of fighting against. The pain that signals a toothache is the pain that saves your life. Sometimes the only way out is through. — Sarah Lewis
How does the mind absorb suffering? By realizing that resistance and escape are false moves; that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, said Alan Watts in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’
Swallowing a pill, in my mind, works only as a temporary repressor of difficult emotions. It doesn’t make them go away. In my book, they’re called “the stuff of life,” and when courageously tussled with, not only awaken empathy, but can fuel the fire of great work.
Melancholy might paint a landscape gray, but it is only in shadow where light is perceived.
It was one of those mornings. The kind where as soon as you wake up, the world greets you with a shitstorm… an eviction notice, a threatening email from a bill collector, your lover’s suitcases by the front door… take your pick.
For me, it was the 17th rejection to my latest book. For fuck’s sake!
No matter how noble my intentions or how hard I work, the world appears determined to thwart my best laid plans and lay waste to my illusions.
Yes, I’ve trained myself on the life force of clear-eyed optimism. I have accepted the universal law of resistance and have more grit than Sisyphus. But still. There are times when it’d be nice to see a silver lining in my otherwise gunmetal clouds. Just a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, for fuck’s sake!
As I pounded my laptop lodging the 17th rejection to my growing list, dawn broke through the window arrayed in radiant blue.
It seemed insane for me to remain indoors banging my head against the same wall while nature beckoned me with her splendor. So I suited up, wanting to ease my distress by surrendering to her soothing embrace.
Silence is so hard to come by anymore that upon entering the wild, I try my best not to fracture its hallowed stillness, especially not with my first-world laments. As it is, our frenzied, noisy existence has made it impossible for us to figure out what to do in quietude and has rendered us insensible to nature’s austere beauty. No wonder we’re always bored and desperate to find the meaning of life. Like discarded violins in the dusty attic of our past — strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bouts — we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize with nature so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. Not surprised we seem bent on destroying her.
My boots sank deep in snow as I trudged around the entrance gate leading to the trail. I advanced slowly, like a camel, still ruminating. Gusts swept through the tall trees making them groan, creak, and knock against each other producing hollow sounds, toppling large clumps of snow from their branches, and churning the white powder underfoot in diaphanous swirls that pricked my face.
The wind died down. Faint ticks and rustlings, the only sounds… sacred whispers… like a symphony about to begin.
I decided to silence the fretful voices in my head, shed my human integument, and commune with the wild in spirit.
That didn’t last too long…
“Salvation is a sham!”
Disrupting my incipient serenity, the defiant voice of Greek writer Kazantzakis boomed in my head.
“Man’s 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.”
No salvation, no hope, no expectation of recompense… how liberating must it be to live that way!
“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!” is the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone.
Hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. — ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’ by Luc Ferry
As I reached the river and turned right, I recalled these words from Rudyard Kipling: “You’ll be a man,” he said, “if you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.”
Joining the chorus of these audacious, carefree men, Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ accompanied my ascent to the highest peak of the vast wilderness I was in:
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”
“I love the great despisers,” spoke Zarathustra, “because they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore. I love him whose soul is lavish, who wants no thanks… always bestowing and desiring not to keep for himself. I love him whose soul is deep even in the wounding. I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart. I love him who chastens his God…”
“My God is not All-holy,” echoed Kazantzakis. “He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, nor does he care for virtues and ideas. He loves all these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”
“My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment. He is full of wounds; his eyes are filled with fear and stubbornness. But he does not surrender, he ascends.”
“My God is not All-knowing. His brain is a tangled skein of light and darkness which he strives to unravel in the labyrinth of the flesh.”
“My God struggles on without certainty. Will he conquer? Will he be conquered? Nothing in the Universe is certain. It is our duty, on hearing his cry, to run under his flag, to fight by his side, to be lost or to be saved with him. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”
“We set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — in this momentary passage of individual life — to order the chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light. It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar. My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’”
I have given my book everything I’ve got. Where will I find the strength and spirit to fight another day?
I reached the summit and sat down under a tree to catch my breath.
Kazantzakis’ God — not almighty, not all-knowing, not all-just and benevolent — contrasted starkly with the one I was raised to trust and believe in. The compassionate one, who answers all our prayers.
But I have since realized that the meek shall not inherit the earth. Blessed are not the poor in spirit. That justice is not always meted out on the unjust. Sinners are not always punished. Life is not game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. And that regardless of my best efforts, my book might never see the light of day.
I must come to terms will all this.
“Only that life is worth living, Kazantzakis said, “which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.”
When fortune lays waste to our illusions, what can we cling to if not hope?
Sitting deep in snow and lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my head.
As if by a celestial tablecloth bluely shaken on high, a faint breeze stirred the snow-laden branches above me and let fall a glittering drizzle of miniature diamonds which kissed my face with icy pinpricks.
Which made me recall another defiant call, this from author John Cowper Powys: “Do thy worst, O world! Still, still, and in spite of all, will I enjoy thy beauty!”
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’
I rose and began my long walk to the house in a state of agitated defiance uttering these phrases under breath:
Bring on the shitstorm, I will still enjoy the view!
I will not kneel in prayer to ask an almighty, benevolent God for good fortune. Hereon, I will make my own.
If my book flounders and dies without seeing the light of day, I will start another and then another and never breathe a word about my loss.
I will accept hardship as a man, sharpening my sword against every obstacle on my way, walking the tightrope on the edge of uncertainty viewing the abyss with a defiant stare.
If God insists on testing my resolve without cutting me some slack, I will prove my worth without hope for recompense or salvation. The ascent alone will be my reward.
Waiting for me as I walked into the house was the 18th rejection to my book. For fuck’s sake!
Fuming, I stepped out on the front porch, and with a lit cigarette insolently dangling from my lips, I flipped God the bird.
No lightning struck me.
Regaining composure, I realized my contempt was misplaced. Deserving my rebuke wasn’t God or fortune. It was myself! My ego. The slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and recompense. Surrender the beast, and you’re free!
With that, I rushed to the bathroom, stared at my insolent reflection in the mirror and flipped myself the bird.
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!”
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.
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.
“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 weoften 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.
What they teach us about adversity and our destiny
“Your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
So that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words resonated in my mind as I looked up at the night’s sky on New Year’s Eve.
Standing on a small wooden deck at my daughter’s farmhouse set on a vineyard in Northern California, the relative absence of light pollution allowed a clear view to an arching parade of constellated stars against a backdrop of lightdust spangled on the black sky-vault with openhanded extravagance. A brisk wind soughed somber as it combed the charcoal outline of a barren apple orchard and moaned across the wires holding the scraggly branches of vines.
I felt blocked-in; had written little in the past month, and feared I had done something to upset Polyhymnia, the Muse of eloquence, to the point of never again being favored by her gift.
My life felt like a stone in me, pressing down on my embryonic aspiration to become a writer with a massive weight of implacable resistance. I panicked, wondering what would become of me should I never recover the power of my creativity. I was about to turn 57, relatively penniless, and had just received the thirty-third rejection to my Memoir. Like the horn of a Ram, I was wound tight in a Gordian-knot of anxiety and flailed in the searing soup of my laments while the stars looked down on me with frosty indifference.
Fixing my gaze on the constellation of Orion, I spotted Betelgeuse, the supergiant star pinpointing one of the shoulders of this giant hunter. At six hundred times the Sun’s radius, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Trailing behind were the constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor: Orion’s hunting dogs. The former contains Sirius, the largest and brightest star ever discovered, and a billion times bigger than our Sun. In our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over two hundred billion stars; there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars than grains of sand on Earth.
Such sublime and staggering scale made my human tribulations seemed petty in cosmic terms. I had to laugh, feeling akin to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who once mocked his own trivial distress by recognizing he was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
How true, I thought, what psychologist James Hillman said, that it is not our stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We often dull our lives, he said, by the way we conceive it. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of the hero.
Awe,humility, and perspective were the first lessons I learned on the eve of the new year.
It was good to know my affliction had less weight than a grain of sand, but not enough to dispel my anxiety and rouse me from my creative rut. I needed to read deeper into the night sky to wrest more practical wisdom from the stars.
From what my father had taught me about the cosmos when I was a young boy, I remembered that close to Orion’s sword is the famous Orion Nebula.
Stars begin their journey inside clouds of dust and gas called nebulas: a star nursery where millions of new stars are born. Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. I equated turbulence with the excitement I felt writing my first stories when I was eight years old, and thought of the gravitational attraction as the allurement of love; Eros, or ardent desire, calling me onto the path of an artist.
As the stellar cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core that will one day become a star. If a protostar forms with insufficient mass, it will not burn hot enough for thermonuclear fusion to begin and will end its journey as a brown dwarf, halfway between a planet and a star. Was I destined, I wondered, for such an unimpressive fate?
Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen which forms helium deep in their interiors. Every second, fusion at the core of a star generates the explosive force of a billion nuclear bombs. The reason it doesn’t blow apart is due to the dynamic standoff between Gravity, which wants to crush the star, and the energy of the fusion process that wants to blow the star apart. And that tension, that balancing act, creates a star, and keeps it creating heat and light.
What hydrogen is for stars, our deepest desires are the fuel only we can transform into light. If our desire is too weak, we will not burn hot enough, sharing the fate of a failed, brown dwarf star.
But having a desire (to be a writer, to heal the sick or the planet, to fight injustice or alleviate hunger, etc.) is not enough. The first dynamic of the Universe is resistance. The existence of stars arises out of the constraints placed upon the energy of its fusion process, i.e., its desire. If they could continue without meeting resistance (Gravity), no star would ever emerge. Mountains are formed by this same dynamic process. Fifty million years ago, the robust resistance of the Eurasian plate pushing against the colliding Indian subcontinent crowned the Earth with its highest tectonic achievement: Mt. Everest.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies —
I recalled Emily Dickinson’s poem as I heard a flock of sheep bleating in the distance and the clang of tiny bells as they huddled closer together for warmth.
Two years ago, I thought I heard a call bell for me to rise; to move out of my humdrum existence and move towards a life of greater intensity. Fueled by my desire to give voice to my personal cosmology through writing, I shed my previous life and slid towards a new adventure like a snake sheds its scaly envelope to allow for further growth. Ever since, the resistance pushing against my desire has been formidable. I mentioned this to a stranger with whom I crossed paths on the first part of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore. He said the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Said it with such calm conviction, that I named him my Mexican Yoda, after the legendary Jedi Master from the movie ‘Star Wars.’
Very often though, as my dear friend Mary Reynolds wrote in her extraordinary book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul,’ one may need a cataclysmic event to crack open, just as Bishop Pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.
Could it be, I wondered on that cold starry night, that I was at the threshold of something momentous, about to crack open and spill my unique gifts on the world?
Like snowflakes…like you and I, each star is a one of a kind. What a stirring, but daunting realization! To know that upon birth, a new possibility is born with us, a new desire, a seed of potential that is up to us, and only us, to make sprout. An opportunity that is ours to actualize or deny according to our resolve.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. The poet Annie Dillard offers one possible answer: “To give voice to your own astonishment,” she said. To astound, from Latin: “to thunder!”
At the stroke of midnight, nearby firework flashes and thunderous explosions heralding the birth of a new year reminded me of a Supernova: the single most violent event in the Universe.
I lifted my gaze back at Betelgeuse, the giant star many scientists predict will be our galaxy’s next Supernova and wondered what wisdom I could extract from its looming fate being broadcast by its light traveling at a hundred and eighty six miles per second.
Giant stars live fast, burn bright, and die hard. Once out of fuel, the epic battle is won by the crush of Gravity over their desire to keep expressing their radiant selves. But from their destruction come the seeds of life itself. We owe our existence to such a Supernova billions of years ago — our Cosmic Mother. Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme named her “Tiamat” after the ancient Babylonian goddess of primordial creation and eulogized her in ‘The Universe Story’:
“Tiamat found herself pressed to the wall, exhausted by the effort, helpless to do anything more to balance the titanic powers. When her core had been transformed into iron, she sighed a last time as collapse became inevitable. In a cosmological twinkling, her gravitational potential energy was transformed into a searing explosion, a single flash of brilliance. When the brilliance was over, when Tiamat’s journey was finished, the deeper meaning of her existence was just beginning to show through. Out of the spectacular tensions in the stellar core, Tiamat had forged calcium, a new presence that would one day support both mastodons and hummingbirds. Tiamat had forged phosphorus which would one day enable the majestic intelligence of photosynthesis to appear. Tiamat had sculpted oxygen and Sulphur which would one day somersault with joy over the beauty of the earth. She vanished as a star in her grand finale of beauty, but the essence of her creativity went forth in wave after wave, tossed into the night sky with the most extravagant gesture of generosity.”
Without Supernovae, there would be no us. We are made of carbon, of oxygen; there is iron in our blood. All those elements were generated in the womb of a star. We are made of star stuff, said astronomer Carl Sagan, something Walt Whitman, the poet, already intuited a century before when proclaiming that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Every atom deep within the dormant soil of the dark fields extending in front of my gaze; those inside the apple trees, the grapevines, and the huddled sheep, as good belong to me. I had received a lesson of reception and kinship.
Perfect love, said ninth century Mohammedan mystic Sari-al-Sakadi, exists between two people only when each addresses the other with the words: “O myself!” On what grounds, then, dare I deny, discriminate, or diminish the life of a fellow human simply because his atoms choose to express themselves through a different color, language, or custom?
In the presence of the ‘Other,’ the proper stance is celebration and curiosity, not disdain. I further realized that every violent act against Earth, or against any of its multifarious expressions, is a form of self-annihilation.
But those were not the only lessons I learned from a Supernova.
I sensed my desire to become a writer was not burning hot enough to prevent the implacable resistance from crushing it. I was allowing my fears — of rejection, poverty, ridicule, obscurity — to gain the upper hand, and, as Brian Swimme warned, someone who takes as a central life project the avoidance of suffering will lead an ephemeral life. Like our Sun, whose mass (desire) is not sufficient to become a Supernova, I risked exiting life’s stage with a whimper, not a bang.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
Throughout history, our firmament has been illumed by human Supernovae like Jack London, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rachel Carson who wrote her revolutionary book, ‘Silent Spring,’ while dying from cancer – giants whose bursts of creative light still shine upon us today. Like our Cosmic Mother, they scattered the essence of their genius in wave after wave with the most extravagant gesture of generosity. I saw no reason why I could not emulate them. Like Orion, I needed to pick up the sword again and charge ahead, warrior-like, toward my chosen destiny. I had to look at my fears straight in the eye so they would feel afraid and run away.
Each beam of starlight makes an epic journey travelling at six hundred million miles an hour. Most stars are so far away their light takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us. Light from Betelgeuse has been travelling since Columbus discovered America. The light we see today from Eta Carinae left that star when our ancestors first farmed the land eight thousand years ago. That from our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, began its journey at the time our ancestors had just begun making tools over two million years ago. For all we know, all those stars might have perished already.
This august scale of time and distance gave me comfort. The thoughts I consign to these pages might not touch anyone in the present, but one day, far in the distant future, might inspire someone, who, like me, will be contemplating the firmament.
As the New Year’s fireworks ended, I took one last look at the scattering of stars and remembered that the Universe will eventually run out of fuel and go dark. Sooner or later the stars will begin to blink out until the last star burns out. In the face of such bleakness, we are prone to nihilism or despair. What is the point of such exuberant creativity? one is inclined to ask.
“In music,” said philosopher Alan Watts, one doesn’t make the end of a composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest [or] who only wrote finales.”
A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning. — David Steindl-Rast
The same with dance, Watts adds. “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
“There is no goal,” wrote Nietzsche, “we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future but is always there already. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement but revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. For this reason, life is always already at its goal.”
Our wish for security, immutability, eternity, or to arrive at ultimate meaning seemed to me at that moment but futile illusions. It is necessary to shake them off and yet remain passionately in love with life even after its great futility has been revealed. I learned that I am not here be consoled, but curious and enthralled by the unfolding story of the Universe, and to contribute my unique gifts to its dazzling, unfolding spectacle.
Coming back into the house, the only word I could think of to describe the goal of life was “Rapture,” and as I settled into bed on the first day of the new year, my life no longer felt like a stone in me, but like a star.
What about love? What do stars teach us about the affairs of the heart? Read Episode II (exclusive content).
In my country we call it feeling like caked dogshit on someone’s shoe. (Think of sneakers with deep grooves).
As I began submitting my second book for publication last month, I remembered the pain and sense of defeat I felt years ago as the mailman kept delivering pithy rejections to my first one. Adding to the sting, I then recalled the dejection I experienced during my sorry days of online dating.
But this time around I armored myself for this second, anticipated onslaught.
Tempering my expectations seemed like a good start. They are, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, “reckless enemies of serenity.”
Level-headed realism was next. When it is your first novel, author Jim Harrison warned, and assuming you are not witless, you know well that the odds of your work being published are ten thousand to one against, and even when it is published the reactions from friends and relatives are often puzzled and evasive. (Tell me about it).
Despite digging myself into a deeper financial hole through this process, and now and then, I confess, daydreaming of an advance payment to save my divinely foolish ass, I keep reminding myself that my decision to reinvent myself as a writer was not spurred by the potential monetary reward (that’d be funny), but because it is the only thing I wanted to do with whatever is left of my “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver).
One must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without hope for fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well, wrote G.K Chesterton. Such a man, he added, must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. This is the root meaning of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin amare: to love.
An amateur has only one reason for doing something: the genuine fire and unbridled passion, concluded Chesterton.
After all, one doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera. One sings because one’s lungs are full of joy. No one can be paid to irradiate joy. – Henry Miller
Besides the joy and exhilaration I feel when doing what I love and fires my passion, I insist on never calling my writing work but ‘Ofrenda’ – Spanish for anything done as a contribution to something greater than oneself. Writing the saga of my love and existential tumult is my way of lighting William Faulkner’s match.
Literature is like a match out on an empty field at night, the author said. While it barely illuminates, it makes us realize how much darkness surrounds us.
It is my way to add brightness to the lodestar shining with the wisdom of sages, poets, and writers who help us navigate – away from distractions and beyond our delusions – onto saner shores.
Finally, from day one, I vowed to never allow the romance of my journey to be dulled by the obstacles I sensed would make the path hard and steep. After all, the view is still magnificent!
I felt – and still do – that if I stay true to its course and true to myself the path will eventually ease its angle of ascent and turn generous, although, as writer Paulo Coelho promised, it will never turn smooth and secure but always gift us new challenges. I hope he is right.
As I begin harvesting rejections (3 so far), I find it easier to think in metaphors so cannot but think back to my childhood when I first braved the treacherous riptides and large swells of the Pacific Ocean pummeling the black-lava beaches in my country. Young and brash, I stubbornly tried to dive over the oncoming waves to reach the calm waters beyond the crashing surf only to be humbled, roughed-up and tumbled back to where I first started while my father watched and smiled.
“Dunk under,” he repeated his patient advice. “Just dunk. Otherwise you’ll only get hurt and never reach the other side.”
So I’ll dunk, and report back to you when and if I get there.
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