When you let go of making it big

When you don’t need to be the expert
When you don’t need any recognition
When you don’t need the keys to the city
When you don’t need to voice your opinion
When you don’t need the award nomination
When you don’t need a park named after you
When you don’t need to orchestrate your legacy
When you don’t need other people to like your post
When you don’t need to level up another achievement

When you let go of making it big
When all you have is all you need
When the world owes you nothing
When all living consciousness doesn’t orbit your ego

Then, and only then, do you find that you possess everything you could ever want

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People who love community destroy community

In 1939, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) published a treatise entitled Life Together. Bonhoeffer argues that communities often disintegrate because we put too much emphasis on a “wishful image” of what community should feel like — an expectation that predictable and eventually collapses under the messy reality of actually spending time together. (Bonhoeffer 2004[1939]:35)

When the experience of living in regular proximity to other people does not match one’s “definite image” and idealized expectation, the consequence is a feeling of disillusionment. And if the expectation is not adequately reformulated, the social fabric itself begins to unravel. Thus, writes Bonhoeffer, “The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and community, the better for both.” (Ibid)

The greatest challenges (and detriments) for a community, are the expectations of its own members. As soon as you or I envision the notion of “community with others” we have an instantaneous picture in our minds that represents our definition. If other people fail to live up to this expectation, then the expectation itself becomes a wand of destruction, which resentfully and manipulatively tries to coerce others into its mould. Our idea of community destroys community. The more we love our idea, the greater the devastation will be.

As a pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer explained,

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. (Ibid 36)

It is not difficult for abstract ideals to undermine relationships. It is like embarking on a family vacation with the goal of making a special brand of memories together, or confusing the love of the honeymoon with the love of one’s spouse. The more specific our designs are for the futures and behaviour of other people, the more impossible it will be to coexist with them in genuine, mutual respect for who they already are.

In other words, it is quite possible to love our ideas about marriage, family, friendship, and community more than our spouse, children, friends, and neighbours. In fact, it might be far easier to love abstract ideas floating around in our heads than it is to love actual people who have their own ideas about how things should be. And the more in love we are with the abstract ideas, the more difficult it will be to accept and love the real thing.

If the deck of your social cards is being regularly reshuffled, it might be worth asking yourself if you care more about your expectations for other people than you do about the people themselves who seem to consistently fail them.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume VI: Great Explorations.)

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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)

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The Most Liberating Realization in the World

The title of this article is honest. I do not intend it be sensationalization or ‘click bait.’ This post is about an idea that, thus far in my life, has proven to be the most freeing perspective I have personally realized:

I cannot change other people. I cannot change other people’s behaviours. I cannot change other people’s minds. I cannot change other people’s values, hopes, and dreams. Other people’s errors and misbehaviour is a category of problem I cannot resolve, and as such it does not warrant the unregulated investment of my emotional resources.

Sure, I can try to coerce people to my way of thinking and doing things. I can create stratagems to influence them. I can incentivize certain behaviours or punish their actions. I can be passive-aggressive or threatening. I can nudge them. I can bribe, guilt, and shame. I can do everything I can to ‘teach them a lesson’ about their errors. But at the end of all my struggles, it turns out that other people are remarkably like me: they want to make up their own mind about things, and the last thing they want is for someone else to do it for them.

Suppose, hypothetically, that all the energy I expend trying to change other people is a monumental waste of my time. All my effort to enlighten, convert, and fix others — just a big, extravagant squandering of my energy. Why do I take it upon myself to be the architect and enforcer of the ‘correct mould’ to which others must conform? Why do I even want the responsibility of assuming myself to be the archetype and definitive model of humanity?

How much life will I waste seeking to turn my partner, friends, and children into ideological carbon copies of myself? When they do not cooperate with my design, I resort to leveraging my approval and affection. I withhold acceptance. I exclude and slander. All this because other people fail to meet my expectations, realized or latent.

This operation turns out to be a daunting task. When the final standard is me, other people are worryingly incompetent. They chronically believe bad sources and unfounded ideas. They fall in love with the wrong people. They listen to the wrong advice. They say inappropriate things. It takes extraordinary work to convince all the people in my life how misguided they are all the time.

Is the point of human existence on Earth to wake up each day with the mission to ‘fix’ other people? Is this really what I want to do with this one life I have to live?

The lifelong occupation of trying to bring the rest of the world into alignment with my vision is a fool’s game. When does it stop? How many of the world’s inhabitants must I proselytize with my principles before I can sleep at night? How many relationships will I alienate or abandon when others fail to think, act, and talk within the parameters of my defined standards?

The sooner I abandon the cause of changing other people, the sooner I begin my own walk to freedom. This is most liberating realization in the world: I cannot change other people. The only way to love another is to accept them for who they are, not who I have concocted in my head that they should become.

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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.

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