We can’t calm the storm, but we can ignore it

[This is part four of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I have about 112 hours of con­scious life to live each week: wis­dom dic­tates invest­ing at least one of these hours to med­i­tate on how I will use the remain­ing 111 hours.

First of all, why does getting eight hours of sleep a night seem to get harder with age? It might be time to recalculate my math here. But I digress…

Like most people, my commitment to grand declarations of personal self-discipline ebb and flow with time. Laser-focus intentionality is great: I just have a hard time controlling it consistently. As much as I like the idea that a calm mind — detached from the pressure points of deadlines and expectations — can transcend the temptation to feel overwhelmed, I fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent as much as the next person. Some weeks, devoting 1 full hour to contemplate the usage of 111 hours seems far more anxiety provoking than grounding.

However, in the fits and starts of life, I think I am slowly getting better at realizing that the feeling of pending implosion should be a trigger to slow down, not speed up. Thinking that I will alleviate the pressure by accomplishing more has proven, on many occasions, to be counterproductive. The days when the to-do list feels the least conducive to going for a walk or eating lunch in the park are the most important times to prioritize fresh air and clear headspace. Stress feeds its own momentum. The only way out is to break the cycle, not kick at it harder.

Leaving my laptop at the office and my phone in its home basket has done wonders for helping me appreciate that finding ‘the calm in the storm’ means leaving the storm behind, regardless of how loudly it is thrashing about. There is always a storm. Or at least an opportunity to fight a storm. Serenity only lives in parallel to the storm, not in place of it. The storm is only absent in some other magical realm, where divine management gurus receive book contracts to write about it the rest of us might imagine transcendence.

Those of us stuck in this dimension need to figure out how to strategically ignore the tornadoes trying to send us notifications.

I suppose the ‘problem’ with my initial proposition is that producing a week of organized calm is a lot to ask of one hour. Sure, I know that a weekly review of my projects, commitments, and calendar goes a long way to helping me make better decisions about how I leverage the hours at my disposal. This remains a valuable commitment to pursue, yes. But I also know those other 111 hours can throw plenty of curve balls of their own. Today, I think I’m less concerned with cleverly averting the tumultuousness of life in one fell swoop. There appears to be an infinite amount of chaos and only one me. The older I become, the more interested I am in learning how to just quit worrying about as much as I can altogether.

If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

Do not write off realism

Do not write off realism for its curmudgeonliness. There is no greater hope than the latent joy residing in the anguish of complete honesty. After all, even nihilism is nothing but a floating signifier and, in this respect, it is synonymous with meaning.

The sooner you realize

The sooner you realize that you’re gonna be just another irrelevant footnote in the bargain bin of history, the sooner you can get on with the marvellousness of living your life.

Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.

A Minimalist Income

Human consciousness seems to bequeath unto us a timeless curse: we can always imagine a point in the future when we will not have enough. This threat — the prospect of being in need one day — seems to induce us to constantly pursue more. More, indefinitely. No matter how much we possess, it is as if we are predisposed to stockpile more than we need. Even in abundance, we are wired for scarcity.

Suppose that we managed to circumvent our compulsion for more?

Imagine that your New Years resolution is to make less money this year than you did last year.

Instead of working harder to make more, what if you sat down and figured out how little you need?

How would you even go about determining the minimal amount of an income you need to sustain a meaningful life?

These are some of the ideas my friend Adam Fearnall and I recently discussed — an idea encapsulated in the notion of a ‘minimalist income.’ (This conversation serves as the basis for this week’s podcast.)

Instead of asking how much more income do we need to be content, we ask: how little money do we need to be content? This thought project leads to wondering how we can determine a figure or metric for the least amount of money we actually need to live the kind of lives we really want to live.

Suppose we abandon the construct of time as money. If all time is free, is the time we spend making more money than we actually need not a waste of our lives? What if money — more ‘security’ — actually exacerbates our chronic fear of scarcity?

If, indeed, all time is free time, then perhaps, as Clytemnestra laments, we are “buying what we most detest with what we hold most dear.” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1170)

Hope Actually

Hope can be hard to see these days. When large segments of us yearn for different or opposing outcomes, our efforts manifest as conflict and argument. It looks like hatred. It doesn’t look hopeful at all.

But hope is actually everywhere.

Beneath our labels — ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ — we share one thing in common: we are all hoping for something. The simple notion that our existence can be improved from the status quo compels us all. Where does the motivation to speak out, stand up, protest, fight, or voice opinions come from, if not hope? Hope is our impetus.

If we believed that nothing mattered, we would not do anything. Despair is the soul of inactivity. But we argue about EU memberships, American political figures, religious radicalization, ecological policy, and refugee responses. Regardless of which ‘side’ of the debates we align ourselves, we see the potential future through the lens of our hopes.

And we are all hoping for remarkably similar things: security, peace, predictability, and happiness. Whether we are striving to achieve these ends through Sharia law, the Four Noble Truths, the Ten Commandments, or a particular political constitution, is all merely a point of detail. Go anywhere the world, listen to what people say they want, and you will hear the same sentiment: “I want to live in a society that reflects and reinforces my values.” This hope is universal. It is everywhere.

Hope is our final hope: hope that a critical threshold of us will realize we are all animated by hope; hope that in spite of our radically different values and visions we will discover a hope shared in common; hope that we will be one of the generations that make the necessary concessions and compromises so that multiple, diverse hopes can flourish together. At least, this is my hope.

What is the alternative? What is left if we lose this hope? What do we have left to hope otherwise?

Hope is the one good god still left on earth;
The rest forsake us and have gone to live
On Mount Olympus. Gone is the great god Trust
And Wisdom’s gone; my friend, the Graces have
Abandoned earth. Firm oaths no longer stand,
And no one worships the immortal gods.
The race of pious men has died away
And no one knows reverence or law.
Yet, while a man’s alive and sees the sun,
Let him still worship Hope among the gods
And let him pray, and burn rich offerings
To the gods, and let him sacrifice to Hope
The first and last.
(Elegies 1135-47, trans. Wender 1973:137)

We might say that hope is, in effect, the universal religion of humankind. But, like every religion, it is divided into sects and denominations of variant and diametric interpretation. Many deities, prophets, and philosophers enliven our consciousness, yes, but ultimately every single one of us can articulate a vision for a better world. “Faith,” writes the epistoler, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KVJ). What is conviction and commitment, if not operationalized confidence in what we hope for?

Yes, hope is actually everywhere. And, more than that, hope is all we have, as Aesop said, “hope alone remains” — even in a world where every other good thing has been lost. (Fable 123, trans. Temple 1998:93).

Do not be discouraged with humanity — we are a very hopeful bunch.

Aesop on Privilege

The fable of the tortoise and the hare is famous. Like many, I heard this story in childhood. But I recently discovered that the interpretation I inherited when I was younger might not be intended ‘lesson’ of the story.

The so-called ‘American children’s book version’ of the fable praises the fortitude and dogged resolve of the tortoise. The ‘moral’ of the story is simple: stick to it, no matter what. The tortoise never gave up. The tortoise is the hero.

I recently read a full translation of the entire Aesop’s fables corpus. By the time I made it to the tortoise and hare fable, I had become acutely aware that the fables I heard as a child were significantly filtered through a sanitized, anglicized lens.

I was now reading the story again, for the first time.

When taken at face value, the fable appears to be more of a reprimand of the hare than a celebration of the tortoise. As an ancient commentator appended, “This fable shows that hard work often prevails over natural talents if they are neglected.” (Aesop, Fables 352, in Temple 1998:257, emphasis added)

It was the hare’s race to lose. The only reason the tortoise won was because the hare got lazy. There is little cause to praise the tortoise just because the hare failed to live up to the baseline expectations we have for hares. If the hare performed as hares are capable of performing, there would be zero chance of a tortoise victory.

Think about what this means for the tortoise: it’s only chance for victory is that the hare screws up.

This message is exactly opposite to the notion that sticktoitiveness wins the race. No, tortoises only win races against hares when hares get cocky and overly self-confident. Otherwise, tortoises are creamed every time. No matter how diligent, committed, and tenacious the tortoise may be, it has zero chance of winning — unless the hare chokes. All the tortoise passion in the world isn’t going to beat a hare. This isn’t an ode to David’s victory over Goliath — it’s a stern scolding to Goliath for his abysmal failure.

In the end, this post is not about Aesop’s fable itself, but about how we interpret it. In the American dream, the tortoise wins because of its diligence, not because of its luck. I don’t think this is what Aesop was trying to get at.

A kid who had wandered on to the roof of a house saw a wolf pass by and he began to insult and jeer at it. The wolf replied: ‘Hey, you there! It’s not you who mock me but the place on which you are standing.’ (Fables 106, Temple 1998:82)

Despair; Malignant Surety

Despair is certainty. Absolute certainty. Certainty that you have apprehended the universe in its entirety and found existence wanting.

Despair is a destructive self-delusion — the foolish conclusion that you have perceived the whole of everything. Hopelessness is the inability to see any possibility beyond the horizon, yes, but who are you to project your own blindness onto the cosmos? Who are you, ant, to profess such omniscience?

How did you reach this all-encompassing certitude? When did you decide that your knowledge reckoned and beheld the totality of all things? Congratulations on your laughable achievement.

When, my mind, did you assert your claim to infinity?

Depression, a disease — yes! The disease of certainty; a malignant growth of self-assured confidence. There is nothing for you, you say? Ah, tell me about this time you gazed upon the sum of omneity and justified your declaration!

What is hope, if not the conscious, humble acknowledgement that everything you perceive and contemplate is but a sliver of what is? How foolish, indeed, to project your fractional perspective onto everything you have yet to see and examine.

If despair be the disease, curiosity be the cure. Doubt, self-doubt, is the antidote. Be suspicious, mind, of your despair: for only an eye so foolish to claim that it has seen everything can claim that there is nothing worth being seen.

All the People in the Room

Look at all the people in the room.

What makes an individual?

Talk to each person. Ask them anything, and they recount their personal experiences. They give autobiographical accounts of their lives and knowledge. They are creatures defined by episodic recall: they see the world and define themselves by the perspectives, traditions, and stories they have accumulated along the way.

However, if you were to dissect any one of these people, you would find a stunningly complex arrangement of biological materials, like billions of afferent nerves transmitting signals from sensory neurons. As a traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease might exhibit, our memories, personalities, and identities are inseparable from the physical composition of our brains.

What makes a person the person that they are? Their experiences and memories? Or the physical materials that make the retention of memories and recall of experience possible?

Are you the result of the story you have lived… or the neuronal connectivity that has sensed, remembered, and constructed the narrative of ‘you’ so far? If your hippocampus is starved of oxygen, or if your prefrontal cortex is damaged by a severe blow to the skull, do you become a different person?

Are you made of your memories or your materials? Is your unique identity and consciousness — the idea you have of ‘you’ — a result of the ‘hardware’ of your brain or the ‘software’ of your memories?

Or is it a false dichotomy?

What is are memories and stories without neurons?

What are neurons without sensations and experiences?

Just look at all the people in the room.

An Evening

She said: “It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it? Just about perfection.”

“I know!” he said. “Too bad it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

Then they went their separate ways: one to enjoy the evening and the other to spend the evening dreading the disappointment of tomorrow.

Do What You Love?

In a recent article in Jacobin, art historian Mika Tokumsitu addresses one of the most popular mantras in Western culture today: Do what you love, love what you do. Tokumsitu argues that the attitude behind this little inspirational slogan is a Trojan horse – a set of assumptions quietly eroding our respect for work itself.

This is Tokumsitu’s contention: if we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling? After all, society depends on a great many people doing a multitude of messy, unpopular, and quite ‘unlovable’ tasks, day after day. Even more importantly, the self-actualized doer-of-what-thou-loves still depends on the janitorial staff, the electronics assembly line manufacturer, and the sewage line maintenance crew. You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up. As an ethos, doing what you love invites us to ignore the importance of most real work, and re-labels everything else as a romantic pastime.

The idea that a person can arbitrarily select any activity or interest they ‘love’ and then expect to receive monetary compensation for pursuing it depends on several factors, not the least of which include social class and economic mobility. For instance, the mother whose immediate concern is buying groceries for her children is not in a position to contemplate how her job as a cashier is supposed to reinforce her transcendent sense of meaning. For her, work is work – not a mechanism to validate her theoretical and unique identity on the planet.

Tokumsitu’s conclusion: the message that our work ought to be emotionally gratifying and spiritually rewarding only deepens the trench between the working class and the intellectual class. Even though the rallying cry to do what you love seems to celebrate the importance of work and career on the surface, it is essentially elitist and anti work at its core. Practically speaking, society would altogether fail to function if everyone did nothing but the things they love, therefore the ‘option’ only exists for a small, select segment of the population.

I also wonder what the personal implications are for believing that our work must be the object of our love. In our insistence that every dimension of life should be loveable and edifying, do we consequently undermine our ability to truly love anything? If I truly love my work, in what sense then do I truly love my family? In our effort to find jobs that we love, do we inadvertently cheapen our love for everything else?

Maybe the point of work is to work. And maybe the more we respect work as work, the more we will appreciate our interdependence. And maybe, just maybe, if work is respected, then workers, too, might be appreciated as more than minion cogs in a vast machine, slavishly working to provide a handful of ‘creative’ people the opportunity to believe employment is only meaningful if it is also a passion.