In the pocket of your jacket there’s a map and a compass. Moody forest surrounds you like a sinister army. There’s no clear direction, no obvious path to take. You’re left to your own devices and no one’s there to help. Nervous, you take stock of your belongings.
I often think about self-discipline. How to achieve it, hone it, and prevent it from degenerating into an iron rigidness. How to reap its benefits. I invest so much time thinking about how to have more of it that I rarely, if ever, asked myself why do I want more self-discipline. Why do I want to control my moods, emotion, and disinclination?
Coronavirus and COVID-19 erupted in China. Then it spread across the world as a downside of globalization. Shit happens.
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Abstract and alarming concepts like the coronavirus are easier to handle when clearly defined. Put your fears on a piece of paper. They’re smaller than what your mind blows them up into.
The coronavirus is a serious problem that the human race can overcome, especially if we keep our heads together.
Facts and Context
Coronavirus is a virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, like the HIV virus causes AIDS disease.
Say you have 1 infected person on Monday. If the R0 value is 2, by Sunday you might have 64 people infected. By the end of the second week, 8 192 people infected. By the end of the third, that’s 1 048 576 people.
Notice that the spread of the virus is not linear – it is exponential. This is why the people who completely ignore the situation are deluded.
The real kicker behind all this is that you, most likely, will not have any significant problems if you contract the disease. Mild fever, coughing, breathing difficulties, and then it’s over.
You can eventually get on with your life.
So why the fuck should I stay at home?
You should stay at home because this is not an individual but a systemic problem. As an individual, you’re likely to be fine. As a society, we are suffering.
With a 2 week incubation period, the coronavirus is difficult to test for and contain. It’s invisible and fast-spreading. Scientists are saying that 40-80% of the global population could get infected, while 10-15% of those will need weeks of hospitalization.
Let’s be conservative and say that ‘only’ 25% of people get infected. In a country like Italy, that means 15 000 000. If 10% of those need hospitalization, that’s 1 500 000 people.
Italy has about 200 000 hospital beds in total. Many of these are already filled with tumor patients, pregnant women, the mentally ill and many others. Where do you find the beds for the extra 1 500 000 people? The medical staff? The supplies? How long does a person need to lie in the hospital before recovering? What if your wife needs to give birth? What if your childs surgery cannot happen because the health system doesn’t function anymore?
I hope you see how fragile and critical health systems are. Don’t stretch them to the breaking point with your behavior.
That’s what viruses are good at. Don’t be a virus. Stay at home.
Look, I know that staying at home, self-isolation, and quarantine sounds like a teenage overreaction.
There’s a difference between informed decisions and being an alarmist. Most people are on the extremes of the spectrum. They either completely ignore the situation or obsess over it, like doomsday prophets.
I ask you to choose the third route. Focus on what you can do and then do it.
If the hospital system falls apart everyone will be in for a shitshow. Stay at home. Watch Netflix if you must. Forget about gyms for a while, cancel your kid’s birthday party, don’t put others at risk. Don’t use public transportation. Don’t go to places of worship. Work from home. Read a little. Enjoy the silence. Ignore the majority of the news. It’s garbage. Find one or two sources that you trust and check for actionable advice. Help your elderly neighbors. Stay sane.
Signal is not easy to come by and silence is an endangered species.
There’s this ancient Mesopotamian myth called the Enûma Eliš. It tells of the Old Gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who gave birth to a generation of noisy Young Gods. Frustrated, Apsu decides to kill them all so they can finally sleep in silence. I’m sure parents can relate, although I hope not entirely.
The Enûma Eliš is 3500 years old. What would the old mythmakers think of the modern Age of Noise?
I bring up the Enûma Eliš to show that it’s pointless to call for a return to the “good, old, noise-free times”. We’ve always been noisy. What’s changed is the scale. We can now produce more noise and so we do.
The Screams of the Industrial Era
In the pre-industrial era, silence was a simple fact. It was everywhere while we were few and our means primitive. Only the privileged could amplify their vocal cords — in the Roman amphitheaters or European churches.
No one else.
Then the Industrial Era erupted into our collective consciousness, followed by the Information Age. Steam. Coal. Oil. Railways. Cars. Highways and speedways. Electricity. Telephone. Speakers. Airplanes. Microphone. Radio. Television. Megaphone. The Internet. Social Media. Smartphones. Open-floor-plan offices.
The unprivileged found their voice. Everyone can speak words into a microphone and have someone listen, miles away. The elites lost their monopoly. We stole the show. Silence has nowhere left to hide.
If that history trip sounds too fluffy, here’s a concrete example. A friend of mine works with the most powerful voice of the people — social media. Her job is to track what’s happening, where’s it happening, and how it reflects on her company’s brand. It’s a waterfall of noise, a downpour, in her own words. In a single day, she might go through twenty articles and a hundred posts. She remembers none of it the day after. How much of it do you remember?
Noise is now an integral part of our lives. It is indistinguishable from the modern city. Silence is the rainbow. Lovely, but no one knows where to find it.
All the kids know where’s Waldo, but where is silence?
It’s in the high-end, premium shops. Packaged and sold, like water. In a loud world, silence sells.
Think of your noise-canceling headphones and exclusive silent retreats. Meditation is the new black. Everyone’s doing yoga. All the vacation photographs show quiet beaches and solemn mountains.
It’s a need to get away from all the noise. You get on the airplane and make your way to a beach in Croatia or the Caribbean. You change into the summer clothes and lie down, ready to rest in silence.
Then you discover you can’t.
It’s been a long while since last you hung out with silence. You’re far removed from it. Where once you paid for silence now you’re ready to pay for noise and distraction. Spotify, Netflix, social media, instant messaging, endless surfing on the web. It doesn’t matter.
Just get rid of the silence.
The Open-Floor Office Plan
Maybe the best example of this need for noise and distraction is the open-floor office plan. Who convinced us that endless noise and interruption foster better work? It might be that ‘management’ forced it on us. It might also be that we took it up eagerly. Endless noise, after all, means less silence.
It is a paradox. Yearning for silence while at the same time fearing it. I buy headphones to silence the noise, only to hit play the moment noise disappears.
Erling Kagge, a Norwegian polar explorer, calls it experiential poverty. It can be about the lack of experience, but also its abundance. If the answer to silence is absolute freedom to overdose on distraction then we’ll forever crave higher dosages. That is a kind of poverty in itself — never satisfied, always running. In the ocean of distraction, who will find me if I cannot find myself?
If I am to write about any of this it’s good to admit I’m as distracted as you are. Whenever silence comes visiting my mind gropes for distraction. What am I so afraid of?
I don’t know. The only thing that seems obvious is that life passes by while we crave more entertainment, more noise. How big of a TV do you need? As big as the ocean. Let it clutter every silence and drown the uncomfortable thoughts.
Running out of distraction
On occasion, I manage to run out of distraction to keep me occupied. A traffic jam, bad internet signal, forgetting my phone or just going to bed at night forces me to deal with silence. To peek inside the walls of my skull. There, instead of silence, I find an emotional rave party.
Where is this silence the oriental gurus talk about? All I hear on the inside is a madness of cyclical thought. Fear, regret, anxiety. Like boiling water, it all comes crashing against my willpower.
After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is deal with all this crap. It’s easier to fire up Netflix and get on with it. That’s what most of us do anyway. Doesn’t that make it okay?
Maybe, if I buy into ‘okayness by numbers’. I don’t, on an intellectual level, but it’s hard to be conscious. It’s easier to do what others are doing. That’s got to be enough.
And it is.
It’ll get me through life like anybody else. I’ll drop off a little sooner or a little later, but I’ll get through it. Why bother with the onslaught of thoughts that comes with silence?
Why bother with even a single undistracted minute?
Look, you know the answer. No one has ever distracted their problems away. They come back, like unprotected sex. The thoughts, the emotion, the anxieties. Noise, no matter how addicting, can only ever repress the onslaught. It cannot resolve it.
The only way to resolve it is become friends again with silence. To remember that the onslaught exhausts itself if you hold out long enough. It cannot keep up, not when you’re watching. Kind of like shining a spotlight on a thief in the night. He blushes and, if you stare at him long enough, disappears. That’s all meditation is — being patient in silence and forcing the thief to blush.
None of this is fun, or easy, or cute. Having the courage to choose silence, every day, will exhaust you. There are no flashy rewards, no applause, only a whole lot of solitude. Over time, as you get better at it, the noise of your thoughts will settle. Stones on the ocean bottom. Undisturbed. Undistracted. Centered.
Not much more to say than that.
I realize you might disagree with the whole premise. That’s all right, of course. There’s nothing to prove here. None of it is about convincing you to do this or to do that. Whether you’ll invite more silence into your life doesn’t hinge on an essay from a guy in the online wilderness. It hinges on you.
Nothing’s worse than famine. It is the sensation of death reserved for the good man and the bad man alike.
Soraya understood this. It had been eight full days since her last meal of boiled corn and bread. She collapsed on a short flight of stone steps that led into a temple, not out of hope for charity but because that’s where her legs gave out. She stopped, and the world continued its motion around her, right down to the two lowly street cleaners brooming the dust.
A tattered awning whispered above her. At least I’m in the shade, Soraya thought. The sun was murderous that day and the shade gave her some respite. She was glad she wouldn’t leave the world parched and sweaty. Only famished. It was a good day for dying. That was one of the last coherent thoughts she had.
On the edges of her consciousness, she thought she heard voices. Men’s voices, coming closer and closer until the door of the temple opened and seven priests sat on the stone steps, barely a few feet away. She took it a sign from God, that she’d have such saintly company during her last hours on Earth. It gave her a measure of calm.
“Nonsense, nonsense.” said one of the holy men, his high forehead gleaming in the sun. “To be a good man means to give alms and care for the poor.”
“Of course, my good Tzomas, of course.” said another whose voice came booming from the mountainous body wrapped in brown silk. “But the soul needs alms and care too. No point caring for the poor if your own soul is not taken care of. To be good, we must give praise and pray to the Lord, every minute of the day. Thank you, Lord.”
Another holy man, who was sweating beneath a white cap and a wiry black beard stood up and spread his arms as holy men do. Then he spoke in a smooth voice.
“Belief comes first, my good men. The believing befriend and protect one another, and shun evil; they perform the prayer, pay alms, and obey God and His messenger. As the few men of God, we must proclaim it to the many so no one walks in ignor-”
“Sit down Hamad, there are no minarets here to shout your goodness from. To be a good man is nothing more than to relinquish all possessions and walk this Earth as simple as a grain of sand, helping those who come and forgiving those who do not.”, a bald man dressed in orange interjected.
“True brother Lhamo, true, but we must also go out of our way to help those most broken.” said a small man clad in a white robe who went by the name of Rangarajan, and the discussion began anew, each man vying for his opinion to emerge victorious.
During that time, Soraya sat at the edge of the abyss of death, her thin feet dangling in the liquid darkness. Her body had already eaten its own muscles and, having finished, began digesting the dead child she still carried in her womb in a vain effort to sustain itself. Her eyeballs turned into her head. She was soon to be no more.
“Good men only want guidance. People can’t think for themselves. Here, I’ll prove it to you. Hey! You there! Yes, you!” Hamad yelled, his thick finger pointing at one of the street cleaners. “What do you think a good man should do?”
The street cleaner, named Haroun, turned toward the saintly men but his eyes caught sight of Soraya. He dropped his broom and ran over to her. Old, gnarled hands opened her lips and pushed a few crumbles of wet bread into her mouth, hoping it’d be enough to bring her back from the brink.
“So? I’m waiting.” repeated Hamad, flanked by the other’s, but Haroun ignored him despite knowing he could get whipped for it. He cradled Soraya and, in his poor powerlessness, simply chose to be a good man, rather than to sit and discuss what it means to be one.
Inspired by a quote from Marcus Aurelius: „Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.“
You wake up to a cold morning adorned with a clear sky. There is no better way to wake up. It’s the weekend. Finally.
No work to do, not even a single obligation on the horizon. You can return to what’s important. Good food, exercise, a little meditation, reading, call a friend for a cup of conversation.
You even remember there’s fresh spinach and tomato in the fridge. After Friday night’s junk food you vow to let your intestines rest.
Your feet swing over the side of the bed. Skin touches the cold floor. A jolt of sensation shoots into your knees and you shudder. Toes search for the slippers.
Your eyes notice the brushed aluminum sheen of a Macbook on top of a pile of clothes. The machine sleeps but the sight of it brings up thoughts of Netflix. A little smile appears in the line of your mouth. Your feet abandon the cold floor and snuggle back under the covers. Blood red logo of Netflix fires up the screen. Wonderful. It’s an early Saturday morning and you’ll watch an episode or two.
Four episodes later it’s creeping midday. The Macbook runs out of battery and some part of you thinks:
You spill out of bed and into the bathroom. Splash water. Flush toilet. It’s time to begin the weekend with spinach and tomato and eggs. As you prepare breakfast your thoughts slither back to Netflix. Might as well watch while preparing breakfast. An episode or two. No more.
Five episodes later it’s late afternoon. You don’t remember what you had for breakfast but the stomach is growling. Your eyes are dry and you feel a slight pounding in your head. Outside, the sun will sink soon. You think it would be good to catch a ray of sunlight after a whole week of computer work and stark office lighting.
But first, the bathroom.
Splash water. Flush toilet. Then, you put the sneakers on. As you’re about to open the door you remember you’ve left the keys in the living room. You turn to get them. On the coffee table you see your Macbook charging. An episode, you think to yourself, and then you’ll go for a walk after sunfall. You’re a night owl, anyway.
Three hours later you’re starving. You manage to put on the jacket and tumble out of the apartment. Your mind doesn’t notice the darkness. It doesn’t even notice the firmament above, visible despite the light pollution. Your thoughts are on your dry eyes, the pounding headache and the idea of pizza. You’d think the narrative of your favorite show would swim around your head but it doesn’t. You don’t remember much besides the last episode or two. You’re not watching — you’re killing time.
The local store sells two frozen pizzas for the price of one. A steal. You get wine while you’re at it and a long bar of milk chocolate. It’s the weekend, goddamnit. You might as well splurge a little after, and before, a week’s worth of hard work. That’s what echoes in your head as you swipe the card on the 3rd pair of pizzas this week and the 5th bar of chocolate. Back out on the street, you hurry to the apartment. It’s uncomfortable to be outside, exposed, with nothing to distract you.
You unlock the door, fire up the oven, crack open the bottle of wine and break off a piece of chocolate. Hell, why not? You can’t think of a reason. It’s the weekend. Might as well live a little.
You’ve watched all the episodes of your favorite show but you still put on Netflix. In the “Recommended” section you find yet another show, figuring to pass the time until the food’s ready. The shows starts and you immediately know you don’t like it. Still, you watch, late into the night. Before you realize, the hands of the clock come together in prayer — it’s midnight.
How can that be? You’ve only just woken up, thinking of spinach, tomato and exercise. Tired, you undress and let the hot water run. You rub your temples and the dry eyes. It’ll be good to sleep, you think, and crawl into bed. You kill the light. Close your eyes. Then you wait.
Before long your thoughts begin to twist and rage. A hurricane of anxiety. Everything Netflix suppressed comes screaming back.
It’s three after midnight now. The room is quiet in the darkness. Below the covers, as if hiding, your bloodshot eyes await the bloody Netflix logo.
The title above would be a perfect introduction into a listicle full of inspirational quotes written in a lovely font and superimposed over a backdrop of majestic mountains. But I won’t do that.
However, I intend to absolutely steer clear of that sort of communication. To get to the deep, hidden heart of things, the means of communication have to be slow, deliberate, and demand an investment of time.
So here we go.
The Urge Toward Freedom
Freedom is a powerful word. Not only does it embody the human striving to dissolve chains, but it also contains a past tense. The tense realization that if we are now free, it is only because we have once been enslaved. Freedom is an idea to mourn if lost, cherish if had, and hoped for in the vague tomorrow.
It is also an often misused word.
History is a smoldering battleground of people who have briefly demanded freedom before their heads were cut off. Few things cause as much death as the desire to be one’s own master.
Then there are people who most often did the cutting, either literally or by proxy. Dictators of all kinds, historical or contemporary, have tried to chop off each and every head that had dared to demand freedom. The philosophy of kings and dictators is always the same:
“There is only one kind of freedom possible and, conveniently, it happens to be the one I humbly propose at the tip of a bloody sword.” — Random Dictator
If you step back far enough and survey the entirety of human history, you’ll see that it is like a playground see-saw, albeit with higher stakes. One side demands to be free, the other utter submission, and on we go, again and again, up and down, an endless game of see-saw.
But, the game is rigged. It is rigged in favor of the side that wants to be free. Yes, they die, by their hundreds and thousands, but each death adds a little weight, a little more burden for the dictator to carry. Eventually, the dictator is outweighed and launched into the air.
Usually, that’s when the party demanding freedom becomes the oppressor, until it, too, is tossed off the see-saw. That is how we, as a species, have traveled from outright slavery under the king or the Dear Leader, to the modern-day ideas of human rights. After much blood, and many rolling heads, we are now freer than ever before.
And therein lies our trouble.
The Tyranny of Freedom
There are two kinds of freedom, two sides of the same coin. The negative freedom, which is the freedom from something, like the revolutions in France, Jewish catastrophe in Nazi Germany, or the crumbling of the Soviet regime. It is the urge in people to get away from something.
The other, positive kind, is not only the freedom from but the freedom to do something, like the women’s movement that sought the freedom to vote.
The negative freedom is, on a minute scale, similar to the emancipation of a child from the authority of parents. It is necessary and exhilarating, but it also brings with it a sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Who hasn’t felt the occasional terror of being completely responsible for his or her own conduct? In many ways, it is easier to continue being dependant on an external authority, because it allows for avoidance of responsibility.
That is what happens when masses of people gain freedom from something. Necessity, exhilaration, excitement, but also dread because it is one thing to be free from the authority of others, but quite another to embrace the freedom and become one’s own authority. Negative freedom talks of authority and oppression, and positive freedom requires embracing responsibility.
That’s when people begin to feel the tyranny of freedom, the demand to make one’s own choices and to be responsible, day in and day out.
It is not easy.
It is the moment when we begin to want to be free again, but only this time we want freedom from freedom.
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.” — Erich Fromm
We want to be told what to do and be lead by a strong hand. A parent, a partner, or a pharaoh. The new authority will never appear exactly the same as the old one, but its underlying function remains the same — to alleviate the uncertainty of everyday life by providing a firm code of conduct. In other words, let the authority decide.
I only follow orders.
The Joke of Freedom
Now the true trouble arises. To assume responsibility, you have to make a choice. To abandon responsibility, you also have to make a choice.
What is this ability to choose if not freedom? Even unfreedom requires a free choice, hence we cannot truly be unfree. There can be no circumstances in which you are not making a choice (except outright mental illness and unaccountability). Whether it’s the choice to assume responsibility or to abandon it and follow orders doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have made a choice and out of that choice springs your future. In other words:
At the heart of what happens to you, is you.
So what are we to do with this? Freedom, far from being the romantic ideal we find in the movies, proves to be a troublesome burden. Its work does not end with Mel Gibson’s dramatic shouting in Braveheart, that’s where it begins. To want freedom is easy, to win it is difficult, and to maintain it is the hardest task the human animal can face. That is why we often wish to be rid of it — so that the burden of thinking, choice-making, and consequences would fall on someone else. We can remain marionettes.
The exact moment our wish becomes true is the exact moment when the worst aspects of humanity become possible — utter subservience to authority, destructiveness, conformity. It all arises from your and my choice to suppress our own freedom in favor of following orders. That is the butt of the joke.
And where does it all leaves us?
If what I’ve written above is true, it leaves us, of course, with a new choice. Remember, we cannot be unfree, because even to be unfree requires a free choice.
The only real question then is what that choice will be — abandonment of responsibility and submission to authority, or the acceptance of the burden of your own actions so that, when the river of the next mass-delusion begins to rage and foam, you and I might find ourselves walking upstream.
You decide to stop for the night on the banks of a rushing, frothing river inside the Arctic Circle.
You unload the heavy pack and pitch the tent. You’re hungry but decide to hold off on the meal. First, you’ll wash in the river, knowing the waters are barely a breath above freezing. Your body refuses to even consider stepping into the river, but you have enough of a mind to overrule the body. You’ll wash.
You find a natural beach on the bank where the waters pool. At least you won’t have to fight the pull of the river. The sun is almost kissing the horizon, painting the world in reds and pinks and all the hues of silence. You step into the waters, ankle-deep, and naked. The cold surges through your calves, knees, into your very heart, and lungs struggle to keep breathing.
You force a breath. The air is cold. The river is cold.
Using your traveler’s cup, you collect water and pour it on your calves and thighs, working up the nerve to let the cold touch the belly and the head. As the body adjusts to the sharpness, you pour water on your scalp and it runs down to re-join the river. Each droplet sears itself into your skin, prodding the body to be awake, awake as it had never been.
You’re shivering now but allow your frozen knees to buckle, slowly, and kneel in the shallow water. The parts of the body that are now underwater are all but gone. Another half a minute and you feel nothing except the blade of your mind, sharpened to its utmost. You’re now only a spirit, bodyless, hovering above the glacial river in the deep North. Each breath reaches farther into the dark reaches of your psyche that have never seen the light of day. Then you dip your head underneath the surface and all thought vanishes into the river.
On the other bank, a reindeer emerges from the shrubbery. It’s come to drink water in great gulps. High up in the sky a sea eagle, with its careful eye, sees the crown of the reindeer and then the animal itself.
Down by the river, the reindeer lifts its head, suddenly unnerved. The eagle’s body stiffens for an infinitesimal moment, calculating the angle of assault, but then relaxes. The reindeer is too large for prey.
When your head breaks the surface of the river the horned animal bounds away, its belly full.
You, shivering, walk out of the river on feet devoid of all feeling. Your whole body is seared with the cold, but your mind is a single point, like a knight’s lance. You put fresh clothes on and, feeling the first whispers of warmth, grab the wooden walking stick, then sit on a large rock that is almost entirely in the river, a small peninsula. The rock emanates frost but you don’t mind. You’d been in the river and know the cold cannot touch you, not for a little while anyway.
The sun is burning the horizon now. The edge of the world revels in a storm of color. In the later parts of the year, the sun slips beyond the edge and plunges the world into darkness, but in the summer there’s only a perpetual light casting deep shadows upon the mountains.
You gather a towel tightly around your shoulders, holding the cold at bay. It’s almost time for you to go and rest, but you stay a little longer. After the many miles of the day, sleep won’t be a problem. Not today. Not in the Arctic Circle, so far from the cacophony in the South.
Now is the time to think. Thinking is what you are here for, in the great expanse, hoping to give your mind space to unravel. Space to decide.
Immediately your mind contracts because you don’t know how to decide. Your entire life you’d never learned the act of deciding and moving on. Every decision you’d ever made you regretted, and would have regretted the alternative too.
“What if I had made the wrong call?”
That is how the doubt starts and, before long, you’ll spiral into trying to change the past or embrace anxiety that makes every tomorrow just a bleak repetition of yesterday.
What if I decide the wrong way?
The thought echoes. The day had been long, filled with miles upon miles, and your body is exhausted. And yet, what tires you is the mind.
The ceaseless chattering.
You bring your knees to your chest and watch the river play as it rushes past you down toward a little river island, and then beyond view.
The river island is barely more than a scrap of rock, decorated with bushes of some plant and a single birch. The island is so small you can see, from your vantage point, that it’s entirely wet and hadn’t known a dry day in all the long years of its existence.
Everything is murmuring.
You can feel the murmur in your chest. It is there, unmistakable. You unsock one of your feet and lower it into the clear water. The shock of cold is immediate. You smile, thinking that’s what getting born must have felt before the river of life sweeps us all away.
“The river of life…” —you mouth and look at the river and the riverbed it had carved in the landscape for untold years. Life is much the same way — a gathering of energy unleashed upon the world. There it carves its own riverbed of habits, breaks against its own river islands, and flows into the horizon where it finally disappeares into the vast quiet.
“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” 
The glacial river of the deep North is hardly a stream but you remains quiet. The passage of water, like the passage of time, is best honored in silence.
You watch the river rush toward the river island, then split into two branches, like your mind does when trying to decide. Neither of the branches seems obviously better than the other. They stretch for a little while before turning a bend and vanishing from sight. If there are treacherous rapids on the left or menacing rocks lurking beneath the surface on the right, you cannot know. And yet you strain your eyes and strain your mind.
“Which way to go?”
The question rings out in the cold air. You’re sitting on a rock, far up in the North. Water flows beneath your feet, but you’re not there anymore. Your mind abandons the North and travels South, to the streets you knoww well, to the people, to the life you’ve led, to the decisions you’ve made, to the regrets you have, never knowing which way to go, but always hoping the choices would be as clear as the water.
They never are.
Angered, you throw your walking stick into the water like a javelin, watching it disappear into the foam only to appear again on the surface. The ferocious waters toss the stick to and fro, now sinking and now launching it into the air, but inevitably the stick nears the treacherous shores of the river island. You watch it skirt the rocks and the gravel of the island and continue on its mad dance down the right branch of the river. In a moment it would soon be out of sight and you already curse throwing your walking stick, knowing you’d have to carve another one tomorrow.
Then a thought smashes into you conscience.
“It doesn’t matter which way we decide to take! Whether it is the left or the right, the rapids or the menacing rocks, the river will come to itself again…and it is the same with life.”
You jump to his feet, clamber down the rock and, pausing only to put your boots on, run toward the island and then past it.
There, where the branches of the river meet, you find your walking stick unharmed.
 The line comes is from the “Open House For Butterflies”, by Ruth Krauss.
A woman steps into her new apartment for the first time. It’s a spacious, two-bedroom apartment with her own walk-in closet which she’s had installed because she’s a woman. It’s what she’s supposed to do.
She takes off her new high heeled shoes and walks into the aforementioned walk-in closet and places the shoes among the stoic ranks of her other shoes. Or, well, she tries to. There doesn’t seem to be enough space. The shelves are full, just as they had been in her old apartment.
With the keen eye of a thing-owner, she surveys her walk-in closet and, after only about a month of living in the new, bigger, and improved apartment, she concludes she needs more space.
She picks up the phone and calls a storage company which promises her a good deal for renting storage space. Now, if you aren’t acquainted with the concept, storage space is essentially enclosed air. Someone rents out to you for a monthly sum, like an apartment. Only you aren’t allowed to live in it. Or work in it. Or, well, you aren’t allowed to do anything in it or with it.
After a brief conversation, the woman agrees to rent out 4 square meters. Next Saturday, she moves a bunch of her stuff, locks the storage area, and drives back to her apartment. Even though she’s glad she’s moved some of the stuff, the apparent emptiness of the apartment unnerves her.
What does she do?
If your thought was something along the lines of she buys more stuff, then read on. There might be something for you in this article, as there was for me in writing it.
Let’s remove the gender from the story and settle on the fact that the main protagonist is your average human being. Look through the window and, when you see one, you’ll get the picture. Oddly strange creatures, but what can you do.
Let’s also remove the characteristics of all the stuff in the above story and settle on the fact that it is just that — stuff. Things. Inanimate objects. This rewritten story would go something like this:
A human being has an unsustainable amount of things in the storage space it tries to live in. The human being decides to enlarge this storage/living space or rent more of it, but soon finds itself in a similar situation, thus beginning the buy-stuff-have-no-space cycle again.
I like the second story better. I think it’s truer than the first. Not because the first is untrue, but because it doesn’t cast a wide enough net. It is not that women have an obsession with shoes. That’s a stereotype. Rather, it is that both women and men have an obsession with inanimate objects made of various materials.
That’s a fact.
“We have a greed to which we have agreed.”
The curious thing about this obsession is that it is neither utilitarian nor hedonistic anymore. We do not own to use. We don’t even own to enjoy. We are past that phase. Now we own to own. We own to show we own. We own to fuel the sense of having accomplished something.
How much of the stuff you own do you use on a daily basis? Monthly?
How much of it doesn’t see the light of day in an entire year?
How much of it, hand-on-the-Holy-Book-of-your-choosing, do you honestly care about?
There’s a story about a snail who loved to collect stones. In his slow travels, he’d always pray for rain because he liked the glistening stones best. The mansion he carried on his back got heavy over time but our little snail didn’t think much about it. Then, one day, a magnificent summer rain fell. All the ground was afire with beauty.
Out of the corner of his strange, stalk-eyes, the snail spotted a gorgeous quartzite stone. The crowning jewel to his collection. Its size wouldn’t quite fit the diminishing space in the snail’s mansion, but he wasn’t willing to get rid of any of the older stones. So, feeling brilliant, he stepped out of his own house and made room for the quartzite. His eyes were teary with joy at seeing such a fine collection as his. Then, a blackbird swooped from a branch and swallowed the houseless, defenceless snail.
We store things in our living spaces and then live in those storage spaces. Why? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an attempt to fill up some kind of an internal emptiness, or if it’s the industrialization, or the grossly underpriced products that don’t reflect the real cost of production because they’re manufactured in shitty conditions in mainland China. What matters it that we’re buying. As long as we are, there exists a demand, and as long as there’s demand, there’s supply to that demand.
The worst thing with this reckless ownership is that it is unconscious. You, like me, have never explicitly decided to stuff your apartment with stuff you never use. You just kind of grew up thinking you need this inanimate object. And this one, that one, that one over there, this one over here, another one of those, six more of those, a few of these, and here we are again — reaching for the phone to call the storage company. Or a real estate agent to search for a new apartment. Or any of the other options that don’t involve getting rid of stuff, ceasing to purchase, or needing less.
Our culture, the kind of society we’ve built, is uncomfortable with the concept of needing less, even though there has not been a time in our entire history where we’ve had so much. The sheer magnitude of the things we own is stupendous. Have you ever thought about the fact that you likely only use between 20–50% of your wardrobe?  You haven’t. Neither have I, until this very moment.
What about the stuff in your garage?
This kind of ownership is in line with the spirit of the times — needing more. How much of a salary do you need? More. Gadgets? More. Food? More. Living space? More. Choice? More. Well, how much more? More. If you doubt this, just look at your standard, run-of-the-mill clickbait headlines:
“101 Cool Things to Buy Right Now — The only list you’ll need!” 
“What Should I Buy? Making a Statement for $30,000 or Less.” 
Need? Make a statement? To whom? What for? Who gives a f***? 
There are other measures of progress than just owning more things. One of the most precious is the realization that the way to truly have more is needing less. That freedom does not come from more and bigger, but from an understanding that you really only need the skin on your back, breath in your lungs, food in your belly, shelter, and other people. And even those you can have too much of. More is not the answer. More is too much. More is much too much.
We were born naked. Fidget spinners weren’t included in the package. Neither was anything else you own. Slow down. Look around before you whip out The Credit Card. Ask yourself whether you need everything you own.
Disease, famine, war, and pestilence have plagued humanity since it has existed. We call them the Four Horsemen of Death. The hooves of their horses have left a trail of death across human history. It’s impossible to imagine the extent of death and devastation.
And yet, today we are somewhat removed from those concerns. We are healthier, longer-lived, more affluent, and more educated than ever. To the early Homo Sapiens, with her club and her thick skull, we are almost as gods.
That is how far we’ve come.
Why then aren’t we any happier than before? We are affluent, and yet we crave more. We are longer-lived, but the idea of death is paralyzing. We are more educated, but lack meaning. We are more connected than ever, but fail to understand one another more than ever.
In the progress toward happiness, we have achieved the progress, but forfeited happiness.
How did it get to that?
Happiness in an unpredictable world
One obvious and irrefutable fact of human existence is that we live in a volatile, unpredictable, violent universe. Earthquakes, famines, draughts, disease, pollution, war, and death are everpresent.
To the early human, these events posed an enormous problem. How to accept that we are at the whim of so many forces beyond our comprehension, let alone control?
Seeing how she had no way of preventing any of it, the early human anthropomorphized it. She made it about herself. She built a nest neatly in the center of it all, deciding that it was all created to highlight her own uniqueness, to underline her happiness. She gave rise to myth, belief, and religion to provide answers to the unanswerable questions.
Why am I here? Because Gaia and Uranus made us, said the old Greeks.
Why is there pain and suffering? Because Adam and Eve cursed the human race when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, teach the Jews and the Christians.
What happens after death? We rise to Valhalla where we feast and drink with Odin, awaiting Ragnarok, or so believed the Northerners.
Tales of this sort exist from the earliest stirrings of humanity to the modern day world. With the advent of wide-spread monotheistic religions, the narrative has somewhat changed, but the structural supports have remained the same. In the words of Ernest Becker:
“We cannot endure [our] own littleness unless [we] can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
What larger level than constructing an elaborate, supernatural force concerned, it seems, with humanity and nothing except humanity?
Like the early myth, modern day religions serve the same role — to provide answers of sense and meaning. In a world that often seems devoid of both this is essential. They provide a code of conduct one can follow throughout life, assured of his own uniqueness and the benevolence of the supernatural force.
Political ideologies, nationalism, and other forms of mass-belief tell the same underlying myth as religion does — that the adherents are unique and uniquely predisposed to succeed. The particular terms of success vary but that is beside the point. What is on point is the urge to build a buffer between us and the stupefying enormity of existence. They urge us to build an illusion that envelops and keeps reality at bay.
The Rise of the (Somewhat) Rational Animal
For thousands of years we have been satisfied with the answers myths provided. Then, in the early 18th century, came the Englightenment. Preceeded by the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment began to poke at old notions and pseudoscience. It brought tools of scepticism to all areas of human endeavour. It showed that no answer need be taken for granted. We are animals capable of thinking for ourselves, rather than accepting someone else’s narrative.
This movement had, in Europe and nearly all the world, drastically undermined the power of the Church and its equivalents. Priesthood was no longer the only educated caste. People, filled with a wealth of new ideas, began to advocate democracy, freedom of expression, personal liberty, and the weakening of religious authority.
In the short span of about 70 years the world changed with a vengeance. Reason and rationality took down the glorified edifices of The Infallible Religion. An earthquake rippled through societies worldwide, causing a paradigm shift. Where once we had absolute religious certanity suddenly we had the power of scepticism and doubt.
We began to question everything.
That’s when the protective illusions of myth and belief unraveled. Many of the established meaning-structures came crashing down. Some people celebrated this as the awesome power of the human mind. Some advocated a return to faith, as did the proponents of the Counter-Englightenment. Regardless, and across the board, the repercussions went deep and wide.
Illusions and buffers were no more. Reality invaded the mind of the average person who, stripped of the protections myths provide, suddenly felt a kind of existential dread. They, once again, asked the question.
Why am I here?
Why is there pain and suffering?
What happens after death?
The weight of reality
This time around there were no ready-made answers. The stories of old were an illusion, but an illusion that protected the mind and provided meaning. Logically (and rather unconsciously), people chose to build worshop their own structures of meaning in the form of lust for power, money, intellect, sexual allure, and so on. David Foster Wallace, the author of This is Water, sums up the consequences:
“If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
The Englightenment cast doubt on the old structures of meaning, but provided little by way of replacement. Where once there was order, however flawed, suddenly there was nothing. People were free to do as they pleased. This, we discovered, is not as pleasant as it sounds. It does not guarantee happiness.
One of the functions of the old systems was to limit sheer scope of reality in order to help us function on a daily basis. Once we tore down the old systems, numerous “liberation” movements of the mind and of the body emerged. It became fashionable to be a “freed soul”. We threw away the milk of old restrictions, and went on a consumption binge. So we eat and drink ourselves dumb, drug and distract ourselves to the point of unconsciousness, shop and buy until we sink into an unconscious stupor.
And we call it freedom.
A return to consciousness
In both cases, restricted and “freed”, we acted the part in order to better fit into the surrounding society. We adjusted to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. That, at least, provided some sense of belonging and meaning. It gave us an idea of what is rewarding and what is punishing in relation to others around us.
And that is key.
The definition of what is good (reward) and bad (punishment) once again did not come from the individual, but either from the society or her own vague desires. There was no conscious choice of direction – either one is directed by the society or by their whims and instinct. In neither of the cases can it be said that a person has directed their own life because that requires making a conscious choice. Meaning is not given, but chosen through deliberate responsibility and ownership of our actions.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and an Aushwitz survivor, wrote in his seminal book:
“Ultimately, [we] should not ask what the meaning of…life is, but rather must recognize that it is [we] who [are] asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
To take control of conscioussness and live a life of meaning, we have to define our own rewards. The rewards must be internal and sustainable, focused on the process, rather than on the mark. It is crucial to retain this privilege of defining the rewards. To consciously choose them and to make them dependant on our own conduct, not on outside forces or ones own unthinking genetics.
“Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces.”
Of course, knowing how we went from myth to the present state of apathy is not enough to change. Knowing about an idea is not the same as embodying it. It requires making a choice, day in and day out, that inches us toward deciding what is meaningful and what is rewarding. Everything else is a blind attempt to unconsciuosly find happiness by following someone else’s narrative.
The first thing to do is to admit that I am a human being. There’s a sea of writer’s advice urging me to connect with the audience. So there, we’re both human. Done.
Now onto the story.
There were once two frogs and a little boy. The frogs were dead and the boy’s task was to eat the dead frogs. Why were the frogs dead? I don’t know. There have been at least as many dead frogs as alive ones. Chances are good that the boy’s task was to eat dead frogs. Let’s move on.
So the boy had to eat two frogs. He was malnourished and after days of scrounging for scraps and rotten food, he stumbled across two gorgeous, recently deceased frogs in a pond. He knows the pond well. He knows the frogs aren’t rotten. He knows the frogs are edible. And yet, he cannot bring himself to do it. One look at their slimy skins and bulging eyes is enough to send him retching. As he retches, nothing comes out of his mouth. There’s nothing to come out. He hasn’t had food in days. He hasn’t any means to start a fire either. Everything is damp. The situation is rather clear. Either he eats the frogs now or joins them in the pond a little later.
Clenching his teeth, he resolves to eat the frogs and is immediately presented with a problem. You see, the frogs are of different sizes. One of them is a horrendous, fat, tumor-like monster the size of a small melon. The other is a tiny thing, barely bigger than the boy’s thumb, and a lot more palatable by the looks of it.
The boy’s immediate reaction is to gulp down the small one as if it were a pill of sorts. He smiles a tired smile and reaches for the smaller frog but then stops. Some part of his malnourished mind reminds him that he has to eat both frogs to survive. If he eats the smaller now, the large one still remains, and the prospect of that is terrifying . Wouldn’t it be better to sink his teeth into the hard, leathery hide of the big one, again and again, swallowing as fast as possible, bite by nasty bite, and get it over with? Then he’d only have the small one left and, in comparison, that would almost be like candy. Disgusting, horrible candy, but candy nevertheless.
The boy is in a real bind now. He sits by the edge of the pond and contemplates his situation. There are two things he’d like to do. One, to eat the big frog first and be done with it. Two, not to have to deal with the big frog at all, while still having the benefits of all those lifesaving calories. Well, there’s a third thing he’d like. He’d like to not have been born into a shitty, starving life while the rest of the planet stuffs their faces with a wholegrain, organic, paleo, bio, avocado chia unicorn tear salad with a BigMac on the side.
You can’t always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones sing.
Instead, you get two dead frogs some first world writer expects you to eat. Get on with it.
Let’s return to the boy’s predicament. He’s hungry. It’s getting cold. He has to start moving soon or he’ll miss the next episode of his favorite Netflix show.
In a funny twist of fate, the boy is you. If you’re a girl, ignore this. I’ll write the same story with a girl as the protagonist for gender equality purposes. In any case, the frogs are a metaphor for a dilemma you have right now, a dilemma between a hard choice and an easy one. The rational part of you understands the order in which things ought to be done. Hard, first. Easy, second. The less rational part of you laughs at your silly face and hits play on the next Netflix episode.
The boy at the pond, however, has no choice but to be rational. His life does not accommodate the idea of postponement or procrastination. The consequences of his actions are stark, like placing a naked hand on a cold metal bar on a January morning. Eat or starve. Sleep inside or sleep on the street. Live or die. There isn’t really a dilemma for the boy. He knows that either he pounces on this opportunity now, or some other animal will. The moment he sees the frogs he wolfs down the big one and eats the small one for dessert. Done. What’s next?
In the “civilized” society, you might argue that things work a little different. Your needs are taken care of and the boy’s situation doesn’t apply.
That is true, but only in a very rudimentary way. Sure, your chances of survival are orders of magnitude greater than the boys. When you see a frog on the street you can just scream and run toward the nearest fast food joint to stuff your face with faceless animals compressed into nuggets. It doesn’t matter as much whether you make the hard choice now, or a bit later when circumstances force you to, or never if they don’t. It just doesn’t matter. You most likely won’t die from starvation, but you will die without ever exploring what you’re capable of.
Your face must be some variant of “well, that escalated quickly” right now. I know it is because even mine is, and I’m writing this. Sometimes things can get very funny in my head while writing. It’s also cold on this damn porch. Where was I?
The escalation. Starvation. There was another word I had at the ready…what was it? Ah, yes, actualization. That’s the “you will die without ever exploring what you’re capable of” part. Dramatic, isn’t it? Now, please don’t stop reading because you feel I’m moralizing. You can quit 5 lines before this or 5 later, but not now goddamnit. I’m not moralizing. I mean to say that just as the boy is you, so is he me, which in a roundabout way means that you too are me, and I…you. All three of us are at the edge of that pond, every day, each of us starving for something. The boy starves for food, I starve to get my writing as good as it can be, and you starve for…What do you starve for?
I don’t know. They say writers can read the reader’s mind, but yours is an enigma to me. So tell me, what do you starve for? Right here, on the edge of the pond. What does the mind of your mind, the heart of your heart, the soul of your soul starve for? Write it out on a piece of wood and let it float on the calm surface. And if you want to get funny with me and say you’re starving for a burger let me just notice that you might want to buy two and give one to the boy. Wait. This is a pond in the middle of nowhere. Your cash is useless, your credit card is useless. You’re starving for something. Not the best place to act smart. It’s better to be smart.
Have you ever heard of Cicero? He wrote a lot, like me, and was a famous Roman statesman, unlike me. In one of his essays, Cicero wrote esse quam videri which means — to be, rather than to seem .
If there is any point to the pond we find ourselves sitting by, it is that it forces us to realize there are two ways to live life. One is to seem as if you were something you want to be. The other, to simply be what you want to be. Simple? Yes. All it takes is to eat the big frog first and leave the small one for dessert.
Easy? No. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, this choice to esse quam videri.
In any case, you’re not alone at the edge of the pond, and neither am I. Maybe it’s selfish to say I’m glad, but I am. It’s good to have company. We each have a pair of frogs, shiny, slimy, saggy, soft, and slick, waiting to be eaten. I see the boy eat and maybe I do too. You see us both do it and maybe your teeth sink into the frog too.
Just remember the order. First, the big frog. Then, the small frog.
Esse quam videri.
And the reward? You get to move on and run into a new choice, a new pair of nasty frogs. Only now you will have maybe developed a taste for the big frog and that, of course, makes all the difference.
My latest assignment saw me crash land into a maddeningly confusing trio of parallel projects, each of which came with more abbreviations than an aircraft handling manual. They were complex, demanding, and had forced me to understand a torrent of new information. They also placed a severe strain on my ability to handle high stress, all the while I was trying to become accustomed to an industry I knew nothing about and to which I came as an expert on things UX.
And if that were not enough, I also kept questioning myself:
Am I good enough?
Can I handle this?
What if I can’t?
What will everyone say should I fail?
This concoction of rampant fear and feelings of inadequacy does not offer a fertile ground for meaningful work. Stretching the fertile ground analogy further, my situation resembled a farm needing tilling while the farmer (me) stood at the edge, afraid to even begin the work for fear that the shovel would break, that the sun’s too hot, that the ground’s too dry and hard, that there’s not enough water, that the seed is damp and stale, and that he’ll end up laughed at by the curious audience that had gathered to watch him work.
Not a fun place to be.
Of course, the curious audience is much more than just curious. It’s invested. It has a stake in the farm. It’s made up of, quite literally, stakeholders. It has a reason to want the farm to flourish. After all, that’s why they hired a consultant-farmer to come in and do the hard lifting. They, more than anything, want to see him succeed.
But, to the farmer, all those eyes seem ominous. Full of scrutiny and judgment, as if waiting for something to go wrong so they can point the finger and scream profanities at the poor, misunderstood farmer.
Which, of course, is not the case. The project was challenging, and the client needed help. Hence them hiring me. Something in my skillset and my character convinced them I could provide that help. If anything, it’s a compliment and evidence of good-natured trust placed in me. But, coming there, it seemed as I needed convincing of my ability to justify that trust.
What am I doing here? Do they know I’m barely scraping by? What if I mess this one up and the project(s) fail?
In the 1970s, psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance noticed a tendency of women in academic environments to belittle their worth and achievements. They continuously feared failure and felt like frauds. No matter how successful they were, or how long and accomplished their career, they pinned their success to luck instead of to their own effort and merit. In other words, they felt like impostors, someone who’s just about to be seen through, exposed, and sent home. Clance called this the impostor phenomenon — characterized by an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, neither of which seemed to disappear with more success.
The same kind of self-debilitating patterns were later on found in men, and the impostor phenomenon was no longer thought to be a gender-specific trait. Instead, it became evident in general human psyche — a persistent feeling of inadequacy.
Consulting, and working in fast-paced tech environments in general, is nothing if not stressful. The constant need to be up to date, agile, an abbreviation ninja, iterative, one step ahead, and on the bleeding edge can, and does, cause people to question and second-guess themselves.
And it should.
It seems to me it’s only normal. Tech and consulting are full of challenges unlike any seen before, and it’s OK to turn to introspection and reflection, to ask yourself — can I objectively do this? It seems above all else a human trait, that allows us to pause before running headlong into something. If there weren’t such a mechanism, we’d all just be boastful talking heads with no regard for humility and no grasp of reality.
But the mechanism can spiral out of control. It can turn from an objective consideration (what I can do vs. what I’m supposed to do) to a paralysing feeling of inadequacy where everyone else’s cool exterior seems more capable, more successful, and more deserving than I am. Think of the women Clance interviewed — they were all successful, driven, high-ranking, and respected. And yet, they felt like they had no right to be where they were.
Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist and author, once read a book titled “Human Brain and Psychological Processes” by Alexander R. Luria and was filled with immense admiration. He, a successful pioneer in his field, also began to doubt his ability to produce anything of value:
“…for as I read it, I thought, what place is there for me in the world? Luria has already seen, said, written, and thought anything I can ever say, or write, or think. I was so upset that I tore the book in two (I had to buy a new copy for the library, as well as a copy for myself.”
Neil Gaiman, a prolific writer, imagined a man in a dull suit knocking on his door in the middle of the night and proclaiming:
“Well, I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.“
Both of them, like me, like those women in the interview, and like the metaphorical farmer were terrified of the audience, forgetting to notice that the audience is also terrified of some other audience which fears yet another audience — the cycle goes on, and it’s difficult to stop, even if for just a moment, to notice that the person next to me is likely going through the same thing I am.
A human being is hardly ever alone.
So how to pause and face the impostor phenomenon?
Next time, tell yourself you’re going through a bout of the impostor syndrome and it will immediately become a little less difficult.
Talk to someone when it becomes too much. Find people whom you can confide in. Thoughts, and emotions, are much less scary once they’re out in the open. Sharing will help you learn how to appreciate progress without constantly having to put yourself down.
Feeling that you’re not up to the task means that you’re challenged, that you’re growing, learning, managing, handling, failing, and getting up (don’t forget that last bit). The impostor syndrome, if nothing else, can serve as a road sign that says in bold letters: here, go this way, this is where you’ll grow.
People are not out to get you
Acknowledge that people are either interested in your success or disinterested in you completely, both of which takes some stress off of your shoulders. Either they’re willing to help, or they’re not. Very rarely, if ever, will they actively work against you. This is especially true in a professional setting — you are hired to help, and people around you want you to succeed.
Don’t ride your ego
You are not as important or crucial as you think you are. This is not an insult, but rather a reminder. We can often go mad, thinking that things revolve around us more than they do.
Understand that no one is perfect.
It’s a cliche for a reason. There’s no point in putting people on a pedestal while downgrading yourself. We’re all here for a brief moment and it’s better to live it than to squat on top of a pedestal or kneel below it.
Remember your worth,
because it’s precisely the same as everyone else’s. No more and no less.
In the Pacific Ocean, people are scarcer than landmass and loneliness is the only company. The journeys are long for the sailor. In comparison to the size of the ocean, he is forever en route, denied the right to reach anything, ever. Loneliness sits heavy on his shoulders as his eyes plead with the emptiness to allow through some proof that there are others who have undertaken the same journey. Some proof that every smudge on the horizon is not just a mirage, a Fata Morgana, or a carcass, but an actual ship carrying living beings.
Occasionally, a ship appears far out in the distance. The sailor steers towards it, his predicament alleviated by the presence of another human being. The two ships meet, port side to port side. The sailors yell out a simple hello to one another. There’s no functional purpose to it — it’s just an acknowledgement of the existence of another human being in the great loneliness of the Pacific.
I am not alone, thinks the sailor, certain that his counterpart is thinking the same as both of them carry on their way as if the chance meeting had never happened at all.
In the city, it is different. In a city like New York, it is especially different. Faces of every kind, hurrying to and from, grazing clothes, bumping elbows, on their way to experience something someone else had just come out of. I walk with them. My past becomes the future of someone walking opposite me, their past my future. I try it on, like a pair of old shoes, to see if it fits my idea of tomorrow. They do the same, all over the city. Without much pomp and without any acknowledgement, as if my face and theirs signified nothing more than leaves blowing in the wind.
What hides behind those faces? Rich worlds bearing grapes of experience, love, hurt, failure and loneliness. None of it visible on the outside. We meet on the street and pass each other, silently, like ships in the night. There’s no loneliness like the loneliness of a city, among millions of people.
This feeling is not unique to New York, even though it might there be at its most intricate. Every city nurses its own sense of loneliness, evident in the great anonymity of people. Anonymity and silence reign, despite our being so physically close so as to easily tell the color of the iris.
There was once a homeless man whom I often ran into, sitting on the curbside. I offered to buy him lunch once and then we ate together, looking at the pedestrians. He told me much of his life story, of the many perceived wrongs and grievances that had forced him to inhabit the streets. But more than homelessness, more than hunger, more than the sorrow, he told me about the silence he had to become intimate with. The silence of other people. The averted eyes. The avoiding. He felt invisible, a non-person. Speaking of this, he averted his own eyes.
Years, and a few more cities later, I learned that the silence and the avoidance were not reserved for the homeless, even though for them it was the salt in the wound. Despite the usual noise of a city street, there’s an underlying silence permeating everything. A reluctance to make eye contact, to smile, or to say hello, as if we were islands in no need of one another. Unlike the good kind of silence, this kind is torture.
It’s a scary prospect, to need other people. I’ve always prided myself on my individuality and self-sufficiency, thinking that the less I need others the more free I become. I still hold that belief in that I’ve experienced that needing less does bring with it a widening of the horizon. A sense of heightened free will and a measure of courage, unburdened by expectations and whims of others.
And yet, out on the street, where we hurry about our business with blinders made up of our own troubles, each one of us plays the part of a pebble on the beach — beautiful, smooth, cold and un-needing. We do not need others!, we seem to say as we rush here and there, around the corner, all the while clutching the smartphone like a crutch, sacrificing the possibility of a new connection on the street for the certainty of one in the confines of the digital screen.
I had always found our exorbitant reliance on digital communication sad, as if it lessens who we are. I still think the same, even while I clutch my own iPhone crutch. The street is silent, while likes and hearts flow freely from the frantic tapping of the glass screens. Searching for connection. Like the homeless man, like the sailor. The sense of existing, as solidly as a storefront, but invisible, a speck of dust drifting in the Pacific air.
The speck hides so much more than is visible to the naked eye. Each person on the street, beneath the thin skin, hides the thickness of human existence. There’s no one I cannot learn something from, no one I cannot teach something. There, that woman with the wide hat and a small child, she might be a writer who can serve as my mentor.
Across the street, that old man walking as fast as a school hour drips could tell me a thing or two about women. The guy in the bookstore might share my experience as an expat, and the homeless gipsy shivering in the corner of a building just might tell me a story that would make my head spin.
It could all happen, and yet it might not. These people might be utterly dull to me, and I to them. There’s no way of knowing and it would not make sense to try and explore everyone to the highest degree. It takes more than a single lifetime to know oneself, let alone another human being. Even so, a single lifetime is enough to recognize and acknowledge others. To learn something of their complexity, of their experience, fears, doubts, and passions. To offer a nod in passing, a knowing look, a smile, or a simple hello in recognition of our shared humanity on this sometimes pitch-black journey.
It will soon be a full decade since I’ve decided to leave my hometown and stepped onto the plane that would take me away from family, friends, and all the people I’ve known and came to know, often putting me in touch with people and places I could never have dreamt of — neither as dreams, nor as nightmares. Even though I probably could have done without some of the latter, I profess no regrets. Life is a composite of the good and the bad and it would be a pointless endeavour any other way.
Since then, I’ve left nearly everyone I’ve ever met — I’ve left family, friends, girlfriends, situations, places, and just about everything else, if there is anything else. Some of it was easy and welcome, some of it painful and awash with regret — especially when it comes to family. Leaving them always felt like an abandonment on my part, even though I knew we’d always be there for one another, wherever there might be. While that may not be the case for everyone, I can’t be anything but grateful that it is the case for me.
Leaving has since become an intricate part of my life. It’s the only modus operandi I’ve known for a long time now — it’s what I, in a way, do. I have grown accustomed to raising the anchor and changing my position until I find shores to my liking and delight. Because of this I was able to experience wildly different peoples and cultures and have been sensible enough to let all that humanity change me. I’m hardly the same man I once was and it feels good to write that. No one has missed the point more than the person who had never allowed any change. I do not leave to abandon, nor to escape, but rather to give something new a go before returning, much like a ship would leave and return. It must leave in order to return, or else it will rot while being “safe” in the harbor.
There was a time when all I knew was one place and one kind of people and, having had the chance to learn much about other places and other kinds of people, I know in my heart I would not want to go back to that single point of view. Learning how to leave and return gracefully allowed me to assume many points of view and that is what helped me cope with my own humanity, and that of others. Until I felt vulnerable in a foreign place, I did not truly understand those who are vulnerable and foreign in my backyard.
Over the years I’ve left many people too — some only physically and some thoroughly. Sometimes the process was slow, full of doubt and deliberation on both sides, like slow-cooked pork, so that the whole relationship would eventually fall apart at the slightest of touches. Some disappeared without a trace, almost as an afterthought. This difference between protracted and sudden endings is often on my mind.
If I choose to leave, how to do it best?
I once thought that the best way to leave would resemble a clean, surgical incision — a quick severance of the relationship that puts all sides into a temporary shock that quickly subsides before the demands of everyday life. I still hold that belief albeit to a lesser degree. There’s leaving and then there’s leaving — not everything can, nor should be done quickly and rashly. When wearing a band-aid for a few days it’s best to remove it fast and endure the sharp burst of pain, but when your chest has been pried open and your heart is out for everyone to see, then don’t do anything quickly. Endure the slow pain and nuisance of waiting for the stitches to fall out on their own because if you try to rip them out like you would a band-aid — you very well may die.
Remember, though, that most of the times you will, in fact, not die and that prolonging the inevitable is stealing time from your life. If you must leave, try to leave quickly. Don’t turn back, and don’t cling to memories for they always seem like the “good old times” in retrospect.
I am guilty of leaving slowly when I should have done it quickly, and vice versa, but the latter is a rare occurrence and the former a familiar sight — when I’d try to hold on to something for such a long time that it would sag and break like a chewing gum stretched beyond its limit.
If you must leave, leave quickly and get on with it.
The other side of leaving is being left, or the ego-shattering realization that there are people who can do without me. It took a long time for me to understand that someone leaving me, in whatever sense, is a choice they’ve made, not a personal insult, and that I should let them go as gracefully as I’d expect other people to let me go. As gracefully as waves fall back from the sea’s shore.
They’ll come back, or they won’t. Either way, it’s up to them.
At times, I did not leave — I escaped, though I had only occasionally admitted that to myself, let alone to anyone else. Sometimes I left to face the world and grow, but some other times I left to escape the world, deny it’s realities, and attempt to hold on to a version of the story that has lost any semblance of reality. There were times when I chose to leave something I thought a lost cause only to realize later that I had escaped because the lessons contained in those causes I was afraid to acknowledge. When friends pointed out my unwillingness to share emotion, I thought them overly emotional. When someone had pointed out my skewed competitiveness, I thought them wimps.
Their remarks had later on proved to be true and a clear sign that I did not leave those relationships — I ran away. I escaped so that I would not have to doubt my perspective of the world. But the escape, unlike a carefully considered leaving, gives no peace because our inner demons follow wherever we go. Only understanding and accepting our demons ever helps. Escaping offers no more than a fleeting, illusory sense of freedom.
Speaking of friends who are brave enough to point out uncomfortable truths, I’m glad to have (eventually) had the good sense of keeping a few around me. Friends who are different enough to learn from and close enough to rely on when the storms come and either one of us discovers that the ship of life is not as watertight as we had thought it to be. In a life of constant change, these people are the roots which ground and nourish me, without putting shackles on my spirit. They are peppered all over the world, but they support me as surely as any arm across the shoulder would.
Leaving is a necessary part of life but our nervous wanting to have everything without ever having to make any choices makes us hesitant. This is our mistake, because we can have and do anything but we cannot have and do everything. We have to make the choice and leave some people, some places, and some situations — so that we might arrive at others. It’s equally unfitting for a human being to always be surrounded by the well-known as it is to always plunge into the unknown.
We need both and we need rest from both.
By the time you reach the end of this essay, you’ll likely have thought of a few times when you should have left — better, or sooner, or maybe not at all — I know I have. I can’t change any of that, nor would I want to because a life of no mistakes is no a life at all. We can only ever try to do a little better the next time around, so on that note I leave you with this:
Think carefully before you leave, then do it.
Leave swiftly and get on with your life. Let past be past and have no regret about your yesterday because it will suffocate your tomorrow.
Learn to be left gracefully.
Clutching onto someone who chose to leave you is like frantically waving your arms in the thin air hoping to fly — it only works in cartoons. Let them go gracefully, because how you take it speaks more about you than their leaving does about them.
Nourish a few lasting friendships.
Take great care of those few relationships that seem unaffected by the distances and the passage of time — your best friends, your soulmates. They’re the salt of life, if you will, because even the most wondrous experiences will leave a bland, ashen aftertaste if there’s no one to share them with.
They say that reality is stranger than fiction and nowhere is that more evident than in physics — just think about the innards of atoms, the mind-boggling distances in the universe, or entire galaxies colliding with each other. Few, if any, works of fiction can paint a picture stranger than what can be found on the macro and micro vistas of the natural world.
Physicists have often been a curiosity of mine for their unremitting and indomitable devotion to nature, choosing to understand it rather than settling for supernatural explanations which inevitably fall flat in comparison to even the dullest, grayest morning in the dullest, grayest corner of the world.
One such man was Richard Feynman, an American physicist known for his many contributions in quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of superfluidity, and particle physics, all of which had earned him a lifetime of honor and awards, like the Nobel prize he won for discoveries in quantum electrodynamics. His contribution to our collective understanding of the natural world is so profound that I will not touch upon it much — it would take volumes and I have intended this essay to be only a few pages.
Richard Phillips Feynman was born in 1918 in New York City to non-practicing Lithuanian Jews, Lucille neé Phillips and Melville Arthur Feynman. Melville, a sales manager, had had a profound influence on his son, instilling in him a keen sense of curiosity and a deep irreverence for any and all figures of authority. This echoed, maybe unconsciously, Bertrand Russell’s admonition (to all of us) to have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found — for each expert, there can be found a counter-expert.
This principle was embodied best in Melville’s scorn for uniforms — he took great care to imbue in young Richard the knowledge that, beneath the uniform, everyone’s the same. He wanted his son to know that the uniform means nothing, that it does not imply authority, and that it’s OK to call the king naked.
Richard and his father had on many occasions gone on long walks through woods and forests, where Melville demonstrated his peculiar mind. One particularly important lesson that arose from these walks was the importance of understanding the difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing something.
“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird, absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know something about people — what they call the bird.”
Melville Arthur Feynman
This anecdote had shaped much of Richard’s reverence for the absence of pretense. In other words, either you make the effort to understand what’s around you or you satisfy yourself with a pretense of knowledge through parrot-like repetition of the names someone else had come up with. It’s a little like demanding to be given fish to eat, but refusing to be taught fishing and so meet your own needs.
Out of this childhood of simple curiosity and lasting lessons, Richard set out to understand the world in all its form and hues. He was enamored with everything around him, believing that the world cannot fall under any one discipline and that it should be stubbornly, and lovingly, studied — an approach that’s strikingly at odds with the modern habit of professional over-specialization where we‘re defined by a single activity we do. Richard, aside from being a physicist, was an accomplished painter, drawer, and bongo player.
This love of the natural world, coupled with a distrust of dogma and authority fostered by his father, would land Richard into many adventures and misadventures on his way to becoming a giant in the world of physics.
One such adventure took place during his time in Los Alamos at the height of the Second World War. A physicist of some renown by that time, Richard was recruited by the American government to work on what was to become the Manhattan project and give birth to the atomic bomb. There, in the center of the ongoing scientific war, Richard noticed that all the classified documents were filed inside shabby cabinets protected by weak locks.
He began complaining about this but no one paid him any notice — in the minds of his colleagues, the cabinets were protected by locks and that was the end of it. To prove that the locks didn’t matter in the least, Feynman learned how to pick these and, whenever he needed someone’s report, he’d sneak into their office, pick the lock, read the report and, when he was finished, would tell the guy:
“Thanks for your report.” “Where’d you get it from?” “Out of your filing cabinet.” “But, I locked it!” “I know you locked it. The locks are no good.”
Pointing out the obvious — that the cabinet is locked — amounts to knowing the name of the bird, but understanding and picking the lock apart to prove it’s worthless shows you know something about the bird itself. Richard had, over and over again, chosen to fish for his own fish rather than be satisfied with what might be thrown his way. How often do we do the same?
His desire to understand the world often brought him face to face with obscure concepts, difficult physics problems, and theories that were as complex to posit as they were to validate. This, in Richard’s case, meant dealing with elusive questions at the very edge of human understanding — a place where it doesn’t help to consult physics textbooks or history because nothing of the sort had ever been attempted before. A place where you are alone, trying to shine the torch of your own imperfect reason into the dark hall of everything you don’t understand. When faced with a maddening problem he was unable to crack, Feynman resorted to what underlined his entire physics career — the simple pleasure of finding things out. He wanted there to be questions beyond his capacity to answer, so that he could forever think about them.
“You gotta stop and think about it, to really get the pleasure, about the complexity — the inconceivable nature…of nature.”
His love of nature and understanding was most evident in how he could go on and on about the simplest phenomena, like why droplets of water falling through air assume a globular shape, taking the listener through an explanatory journey assembled by a brilliant mind whose only purpose was to show that even the simplest phenomena, the most boring events, and the most common objects all hide wondrous secrets available to those who are willing to go beyond the superficial names. That was his lifelong love — to accept the world as it is while using his considerable mental faculties to further the collective human understanding.
“I get a kick out of it. Just as a runner gets a kick out of… out of sweating, I get a kick out of thinking about things.”
A lifelong member of the academia, Feynman taught incredibly popular physics lectures by demonstrating his ability to deconstruct complexity through the use of analogy, metaphor, humor, and stories — even earning himself the title “the Great Explainer”. Bill Gates, an admirer of Feynman, thought these recorded lectures so important that he bought out the rights to the entire collection and made it available for free.
Richard Feynman was a keen thinker who took the time to understand the world beyond what’s immediately perceivable. He was aware that we humans often fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we do because we might be wielding an arsenal of many names. But, as he so vividly demonstrated, knowing the name amounts to nothing if we don’t know what lies behind the name. And to know what lies behind it, we must be willing to explore the edge of our understanding, rigorously and with a love of truth, while at the same time keeping in mind the fact that not knowing does not have to be scary — indeed, it’s what makes the whole thing fun.
“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
Below is a thought experiment, a book review, a lament, and a hopeful conversation, all rolled into one. If you enjoy it, you might also enjoy a lovely poem by the poet Ellen Fishbein, on the same topic.
Rollo May, a psychotherapist and a writer, wrote many books during his lifetime, one of which is Freedom and Destiny. The central theme in the book, as the title suggests, is the definition and the relationship between freedom and destiny.
“Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.”
Destiny, on the other hand, May defines as the set of circumstances that serve as constraints on our abilities and possibilities. The conditions, genes, and environments we’re born into and have no control over.
This is where May sees and introduces the purpose of destiny — to impose (or bestow, depends how one looks at it) on us a set of circumstances that constrain choice. The late physicist Stephen Hawking is one such example. Affected by an early onset of ALS, he had spent the remainder of his life as a prisoner in a failing body. His was an extreme constraint he had to learn to live and work around as best as possible, which he did to great effect. Accepting that it does him no good to hope for a different body, he was free to direct all his considerable intellect to mental pursuits.
Would he have, retrospectively, opted out of having ALS? Probably, and with every right. But, since he did have it, the only choice left to him was either to accept the condition, as best as humanly possible, or allow it to become the central focus of his life, to the detriment of all else — even physics.
“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you […] In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap.”
Similarly, we’re all born into some circumstances that are beyond our ability to change. How we take these constraints, according to May, directly affects personal freedom. Having myself been born with a relatively benign spine deformation, I have seen first hand how my attitude toward the condition affects my life more than the condition itself. Whenever I’d set out to deny the condition, out of sheer spite, I’d slam into a very painful wall. More than that, I’d rob myself of much energy and effort that could have been better spent invested in areas where I am not constrained whatsoever.
Having ALS or any other disease is an example of an involuntary narrowing of choice, but the same effect can be produced artificially. Igor Stravinsky, a well-known composer, maintained that the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. That’s why photographers, when facing a creative block, go out on the street and invent a constraint, choosing to only photograph things that are red or blue. This effectively erases the creative block, which normally arises when one doesn’t know where to start. It erases some of the many options available, providing focus, just as Hawking’s involuntary condition affected his mental excursions. Here I do not mean to make light of ALS — the point is entirely in arguing that constraints can serve as more than just obstacles on the way.
They can show the way.
This can be exceedingly difficult to accept, as became evident in 1971 in Copenhagen, where an alternative movement sought to establish a self-governing entity free from the constraints and failures of society. They called it Freetown Christiania and issued an open invite to anyone who wanted to exit the rat race and find a better way to live. The emphasis was on creativity, spirituality, acceptance and, above all else, freedom to do anything one wants, without constraint and without consequence. It turned out, however, that constraints and consequences are more than just chains on our feet — they are teachers.
What do you do when all options are always on the table? In Christiania, drugs and opiates turned out to be the answer. Cocaine, speed, cannabis, hash, heroin, alcohol, LSD, and mescaline became the mirage of utter freedom, a bastardization of it. To be free seemed to mean no more than satisfying every whim and impulse. The children of the first Christianites bore the brunt of the experiment — they watched their parents waste away in a haze of drugs, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility neither for themselves nor for their offspring. Out of a noble desire to challenge the establishment, Christianites went too far in their pursuit of freedom, allowing it to fester at the expense of all else. In the end, they became as aimless as the leaves in the wind, which is the core of May’s argument.
Freedom and destiny (constraints) cannot exist without one another. Before intentional, focused freedom can arise, we must accept life’s givens: all the shortcomings, circumstances, and ailments that are beyond our ability to change.
A lot of people, at some point in their lives, realize they’ve belonged to groups and ideologies without really knowing why. If you, like me, are one of them — read on.
Recently someone asked me whether I’m a feminist like them and I said no. Same goes for whether I’m a Christian, leftist, rightist, centrist, chauvinist, Calvinist, Muslim, a crossfitter, vegan, paleo, a yogi, a Trekkie, and whatever other labels you can think of, except maybe that of being human.
Each of these labels is an invitation to belong to a group. But, not all labels are created equal. Some, like being a Muslim or a Christian, you have most likely swallowed just by chance of being born in a Muslim or a Christian family. Same goes for political views or fervent nationalism. You were fed these labels, same as I was. There was no conscious choice on your part. There was no point during your childhood that you decided to subscribe to one — instead, it was imprinted on you, by your equally unconscious family and surroundings.
Most of us operate on these beliefs by default. It’s not a chance that the vast majority of people who profess Islam, Christianity, communism, capitalism, or outright chauvinism also happen to have been raised in those social circumstances. How we are nurtured does not define all we are, but it does define much of what we are.
Most people never think to question their beliefs and playact them from the cradle to the grave.
Everyone knows this but it’s difficult to admit to because the alternative forces us to offer our deepest beliefs up to scrutiny. And that is not easy for the human animal to do, because beliefs are how we operate in the world. We use labels and beliefs as filters to automatically weed out what we believe is irrelevant. If I believe in Yahweh, then Allah is immediately ruled out as irrelevant. If I subscribe to a right-wing party, then the left wing one is irrelevant. This mode of operating makes life easier because it allows us to avoid doubts, dilemmas, and thinking in general, leading up to much of what people are capable of — hate and intolerance.
The ironic thing about these beliefs is not that they’re evil or devilish — it is that they are not conscious. They are the spoon-fed, wholesale scripts that seem more potent than reality because they paint an easy, uniform picture that does not upset the stomach.
Some people manage to break out of their labels.
Maybe you managed too. At some point in your life, during adolescence or later, you realized you’ve been played the fool. So you convulsed and retched until you vomited out what was swallowed in, all those years ago.
Then, soon after the initial exhilaration, a sense of anxiety set in. Much like after vomiting, you’ve realized your stomach was empty. You become hungry for something to believe in, for a group to belong to again.
That’s where the obstinate believer becomes an equally obstinate atheist, the dedicated carnivore becomes a holy vegan Buddha, the couch potato buys all the crossfit gear, and disillusioned people become neo-fascists. They forget that the opposite of crazy is still crazy while they scream their new convictions on social media. Just think of the many Internet Warriors who crusade the comments section, screaming at things that are not aligned with their [INSERT HERE] views of the world. They have an emotional reaction to anything that does not fall under their chosen belief, which renders their reason unable to function.
Even though they’ve done it consciously now, they’ve landed in exactly the same place. They’ve slapped on a new label on their forehead, joined a new group – happy to belong again, without a thought toward what it all means.
To be clear and fair, labels are useful tools. They’re a way for us to convey complex ideas and many years of human insight in a relatively short amount of time. As such, they’re not something we ought to dispense with.
Think of labels as second-hand shops replete with an incredible amount of stuff. Going into the shop, you browse around and figure out what you want to buy, if anything, and you leave the shop eventually with a thing or two or ten.
Notice that you don’t leave the shop with all of the things, which would be the equivalent to accepting a label as is, without modification. Every time you accept a label as 100% true and appropriate is like going into a second-hand shop and buying everything inside, including that nineties multicolored tracksuit. It might feel good initially, but in the long run, it’s not good for you.
So what are we to do?
The way to break away is twofold.
First, slow down to realize that no label is entirely right, nor (most likely) entirely wrong. Once this is our perspective of the world, we can approach everything with a different kind of question in our minds:
Is there anything here, however slight, that can be of benefit to me?
If there is, take it, fit it into your inner landscape, and dispense with the rest. If you are drawn to the social antics of Christianity, take them. If the warmup routine crossfitters use makes you feel fantastic, take it, it’s yours. If you prefer a vegan dinner after the heavier meals of the day, eat a vegan dinner. You don’t have to call yourself vegan to sometimes eat vegan, you don’t have to call yourself feminist to see women as equal, and you don’t have to buy into the whole crossfit madness just because you like the warmup routine.
Second, understand that swallowing a belief wholesale entombs you into a Fortress of No Differing Opinions. This fortress keeps you sheltered from anything that goes against what you’ve been led to believe. History is a pomegranate of examples: book burnings, witch trials, public demonization, and the modern outrage culture. Highly emotional experiences replete with calls to purity, truth, and tradition, without ever considering individual thought, integrity, and healthy curiosity.
You have to consciously place yourself in the vicinity of people and content (books, movies, music, etc.) who will force you to see the borders of your beliefs. Not only that, but they will force you to realize that, beyond the borders, lies an entire world to play with.
None of this is easy, especially the first time around. We are trained to react with intense emotion to differing points of view. I know I am. This is a direct indicator that there’s shallow thinking behind our own point of view that causes us to ostracize opposing ideas, instead of debating them.
Labels, beliefs, and ideologies are constructs that can serve as useful tools. When swallowed whole, they limit your mind to what someone else was able to come up with, filtering out everything else. But the world is larger than any one idea or belief. Expose yourself to opposing ideas, especially the ones you have an emotional reaction to and sit with them for a while.
In meditation, there’s an exercise called mirroring. It calls for picturing someone or something you violently disagree with and just sitting with it for a while, slowly achieving what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a first-rate intelligence — an ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time while retaining the ability to function.
Don’t argue, don’t scream, don’t nod, and don’t agree — just sit with it for a while, until you’re able to think for yourself, deconstructing many beliefs and, most importantly, constructing your own.
There are times when your brain, your body, your very soul is on fire. This happens when you try to think about just how much there is to do and see and say in this world. All the wondrous things other people seem to be doing — on Facebook, on Instagram — and just how small your life seems in comparison. So you decide to do it all yourself, to say yes to it all:
“Yes! I will write, I will create a podcast, yes I will make that app and start that company, I’ll be an entrepreneur, and learn to program, yes I’ll travel to Bali, and I’ll travel to Nicaragua and I’ll travel even more, and I’ll take hundreds of photographs without a filter that nevertheless look filtered, I’ll write the book, and the other book, I’ll climb the corporate ladder, and be the boss of a company, I’ll have a beach body, and I’ll become an influencer, a Silicon Valley guru, I’ll open up a yoga studio, I’ll have a cooler life than all the Instagram people, and eat all the superfood in the world, I’ll read a hundred books a year, and I’ll do it all, I’ll do it all, I swear, you’ll see, I have to do it, others are doing it, or I’ll feel like…like what?“
Like you’re running out of time?
But…why? Yes, each breath we take takes us one step closer to the grave, but that’s not it, is it?
The world is a pomegranate and each seed a universe in itself. There is so much to do, to see, to try, but so little time. Hence we run, we race, we elbow each other and strive for the first place. The winner takes is all, the entire pie, leaving less and less for those of us who need a retry. Life is a zero-sum game, isn’t it? More for me means less for you.
Of course, that’s not true — as long as we don’t agree to it. There is a different way, a wiser path that teaches, shelters, and nourishes with each step.
That path is the path of enough. The path of choosing what to stick to and what to let go of. This world is a pomegranate, but a pomegranate too big for your jaws no matter how wide you can open them. You can eat any one of the seeds, any two, any three, but not all of them — no matter how much you fight for it, no matter how much you run for it. You cannot stuff it all down your gully.
It’s not a problem; it’s a blessing. If you could have everything, you’d value nothing. Stop running. Yes, you are running out of time. We all are, but don’t make that an excuse to waste said time rushing from A to B to C to Death by touching on a thousand different things, like a butterfly pollinating a thousand flowers. Slow down.
When you slow down, time slows down, too. Suddenly, there’s enough of it to do anything you want, provided you don’t try to do everything. Choose one thing, two, or three, and relinquish the rest.
You are running out of time only if you keep on running. Feel the depth of the world rush in through your eyes, your ears, your skin, through the very soles of your feet.