When you can't think, write.
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.
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.
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.
Imagine you’re in a desert and there’s an enormous green wall in front of you. You look up and to each of the sides. All you see is the green wall.
There’s another person in this desert some distance away. They see the same thing, only their wall is blue. The third person sees it as red, and the fourth as half red and half blue. As you can imagine, they all start bickering and arguing over the one true color of the wall.
After a while each person becomes so certain of their belief that they cannot change it even if they wanted to. They become terrified of the possibility of being wrong.
And so they bicker and argue.
Some kilometers away, there’s a writer sitting on a tall dune of sand with a journal and a pen in his hand. He opens the journal and writes a single sentence on the page:
“A multicolored brick cube sits in the desert and a bunch of people argue over it.”
It’s an exercise in recognising reality. A practice that helps call things out as they are, rather than as I’d want them to be. A lifelong journey in changing perspectives. Walking far enough from the wall that it bends into a cube and I learn about my illusions.
I write to avoid sleepwalking through life. To recognize reality. To open my eyes, you might say.
There are ways to do this other than writing. For some, it might mean long walks. Dance. Music. Conversation. Writing isn’t the only way, but it is my way.
I tell you this so that you might know what to expect of these Slow Letters. I’ve begun them three months ago out of sheer boredom. Boredom with Netflix, social media, political bickering, the chase after money, status, and the next gadget.
I’ve had enough of the walls. I want to learn to see the cube. Then, I want to journey the whole desert, the entire world, and into the great universe. I want to journey until the beauty becomes so great that even a writer puts down his pen, closes the journal and gazes in silence.
This essay is an attempt to find company on that journey.
I’m glad to have you here.
There’s a joke that goes:
“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.”
At first, people react with confusion, then a hearty laugh. I love the joke because it applies to anything. Like my writing.
I’ve always wanted to write. Every year or so I’d make up my mind to put pen to paper and write at least 3 pages a day. Or 5.
"Starting to write is easy. I’ve done in a hundred times already."
A week later I’d fail and forget about writing for another year, disappointed in my lack of perseverance. I was the smoker who sneaks out to inhale a puff or two after four days of going cold turkey.
It never occurred to me that I might have raised the bar too high. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I tried a different approach.
Instead of starting big, I decided to start.
I promised (to myself) to wake up, go straight to the desk and write a minimum of 250 words for an entire month.
Words, not pages. That’s less than half a standard page.
I also decided I wouldn't wake up to write well, only that I would write. As long as ink came out of my pen in the form of words and sentences, that was enough. I was writing. There was no one to impress, only a promise to keep.
The next morning I started. Ten minutes later, I was done.
A week later, I was still writing. Sometimes I’d write more than 250 words, but never less.
I held on to the promise.
Thirty days came and went and I burned to continue. First, I bought a few beers to celebrate my small success with a few friends. It's important. Then, I decided to write for another month, only this time it was to be 300 words a day. A small increase. Going from the atomic level to the level of bacteria.
Today, years later, I write about 300 - 600 words a day. Writing is a fundamental part of my life. Like a limb, or an organ.
Out of my pen came essays, novels, short stories, articles, essays adn poetry. I've had people thank me for helping them through a hard day and sleepless nights. To tell me they've shared something I wrote with siblings, parents, friends, partners and “enemies”. I made them laugh, or think, or curse out in disagreement.
It all grew out of a small promise to write 250 words a day.
Tiny, in fact. Smaller than that, even. Microscopic. Get in there with the bugs. Start on the scale of the bacteria, or the virus.
Baby, go atomic.
Someone recently claimed that the Chinese had invented and unleashed the Coronavirus. On purpose, to injure the non-Chinese residents of this blue planet we inhabit.
Is this possible?
Yes. The Chinese government could have devised and attempted such a plan. It falls within the scope of the behavior of a Homo Sapiens. After all, we’ve been killing each other in the most creative ways since we could pick up a piece of rock.
Cultivating a murderous virus is a logical continuation of the human tendency to beat the shit out of one another. Remember Cain and Abel? In other words — if it didn’t happen already, it likely will in the future.
Now, is it possible that the claim above is not true?
Yes. The virus could have sprung from a species of bat or mutated from an earlier, less dangerous strain of the virus. There’s no artist quite like biology. More than that, it is statistically much more likely that China had not done it. There’s no certainty but statistics does count for something.
Now, while both the first and second case is possible, the first one is much more satisfying. There is something in us that wants to pin the guilt on the big, bad, monstrous foreigner, especially one with morals as dubious as China’s.
“Fine,” I said, “let’s get into it then. What are the arguments?”
“China is a powerful economy. An ideological juggernaut hell-bent on brainwashing the entire species into speaking Chinese and getting a Mao Zedong haircut!”
While the above may conceivably be true, it says nothing about the origins of the virus. Non-sequitur. It does not follow. It would be like saying that, because the Nazis were killers, they must be at fault for all killings to have ever occurred.
“I read about an educated virologist, an eminent person, who claimed China was the mastermind behind the current crisis!”
Immediately, I used the godlike powers of Google to dig up other virologists who made no such claims. For every authority, there’s a rival authority.
“How can you even know your virologists are any good?”
“Excellent, appropriate question! Have you asked yourself the same?”
Then I was accused of trying to vindicate China and profess my adoration for the Great Leader and the glorious communist party. That’s the headache nowadays. Everything’s literal. No room for nuance. You’re either with us, or against.
Seeing how I couldn’t argue unreason with reason, I decided to switch tactics and stuck out my tongue.
It at least alleviated the tension.
Now, my point is merely this: don’t rush. Consider many perspectives without immediately choosing a side. Some topics are too complicated for quick judgment. The origins of the coronavirus, the existence of aliens, the harmfulness of 5G technology, secret societies running the world, global economic power dynamics…complicated, complex topics that have more theories than I did pimples back in high school.
Don’t give in to the urge to choose camp until you exhaust all ability to doubt and be skeptical. If a particular question has five theories, hold them all in your mind at once. Compare one to the other, see where they succeed and where they fail. Some of them will be similar, other diametrically opposed. It will be difficult to choose what to believe.
In the words of Scott F. Fitzgerald, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
The world is a radio, isn’t it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
And that’s the truth, as far as I can see it.
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 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.
You choose an episode at random and hit play.
A chicken is a simple being. It wakes up, stretches its legs and wings, then goes about pecking at things the entire day long, has maybe a romp or two with the preening rooster, and sometimes manages one of those un-athletic looking attempts at flight, typical of chickens and ostriches. Then it’s time to hit the hay bed again. It may not sound like much of a life, but it’s a chicken’s life and the chicken is good at it. The chicken is content.
One day a swan appears, out of nowhere, blazing like the morning sun. The swan is in full heat and its plumes are a brilliant white that hurts the eyes. The chicken is dazzled. Even the swan is a little dazzled with himself. I mean, is it even fair to be this beautiful?
Leaving fairness aside, let’s return to the chicken who, after the swan has left, goes about its day as usual. Only this time, its thoughts are scattered. It cannot focus. The only thing it can think of is the magnificence of the flamboyant swan. The chicken realizes she doesn’t only admire the sparkling fellow. She realizes she wants to be the sparkling fellow. She wants to become the swan.
Ok, little chicken, ok. How will you do that?
Easy. The chicken remembers that a few of the swan’s resplendent feathers have fallen out right there by the brook. So she hops and fly-walks over to the brook, picks up the feathers, and decorates its chicken breasts. It’s a wonderful display and she puffs out her chest like a war general that’s never seen a war. She’s the envy of the neighborhood and life’s good.
There are a few problems though. The feathers keep falling out and dropping on the ground at the slightest move, so the chicken has to constantly pick them up and nest them back into her own brown plumage. Every time she does this, the swan feathers collect a little more dust and dirt, and their brilliance dims. Still, a swan’s feather is a swan’s feather. It’s classy and the chicken’s happy. It also helps that she’s the envy of the neighborhood. Goes a long way.
During the night, the chicken carefully hides her decorum, already dreaming of the wonderfulness of the next day as she, once more, dazzles the eyes of the other chickens. In the morning, she hides away behind some old crates, spending hours arranging the swan feathers so they’d be lodged firmly enough for at least one catwalk around the coop. Sometimes she has to pluck out her own brown feathers so the new ones can fit, but it’s a small sacrifice. Once she’s done, she takes a deep breath and swaggers out into the coop which she views now as her oyster. I don’t know how she knows what an oyster is.
In any case, as days go by, she notices that fewer and fewer of the other chickens pay her any attention. The novelty of it has passed, but our chicken thinks it’s the envy that keeps her comrades’ eyes peeled to the ground. She balloons out her chest, studded with now dirty swan feathers, trying to take up as much space as possible. She, after all, has become the swan.
On the other side of the brook, if you look carefully into the bushes, you can see the tip of a wet nose. It’s a fox, of course, because every story about chicken has to involve a fox. It’s terribly predictable but that’s where we are.
The fox eyes the chicken coop, trying to ignore its rumbling belly. It’s been a while since it had eaten anything and the thought of a throbbing chicken neck in its jaws is almost more than it can bear. The fox starts stalking the coop but the hunger makes it sloppy. The chickens are nervous. They sense there’a bad thing in the air and, as if by some unspoken command, they all hide inside the coop. The only one left on the feeding grounds is the browning swan, as proud as ever.
“Come! Run inside!”
“Hide in the coop!”
“Run, you fool!” yell the other chickens from the safety of the coop.
“I’m no chicken!” yells the swan back, its eyes terribly red and pulsating. “I’m a swan!”
The swan cranes its neck, sees the fox, and smiles…silly fox, what’s it going to do?
“Nothing! You can’t touch me!” screams the swan as it spreads its magnificent wings and takes flight.
Or, well, it tries too. Two things prevented it.
One, the sharp teeth of a fox sinking into its neck. It’s quite hard to fly like that.
Two, the fact that it wasn’t a swan. For all its stolen plumage, a chicken is a chicken.
It cannot fly.
Disease, famine, war, and pestilence have plagued humanity since our birth. 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?
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. 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.” — Ernest Becker
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.
For thousands of years we have been satisfied with the answers myths provided. Then, in the early 18th century, came the Enlightenment. Preceded by the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment began to poke at old notions and pseudoscience. It brought tools of skepticism 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 certainty suddenly we had the power of skepticism 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-Enlightenment. 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 questions.
Why am I here?
Why is there pain and suffering?
What happens after death?
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 worship 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 ande 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.” — David Foster Wallace
The Enlightenment 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.
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.
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 Auschwitz 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.”—Viktor Frankl
To take control of consciousness 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 dependent 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.” — Mihaly Csikszentnmihalyi
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 unconsciously find happiness by following someone else’s narrative.
But happiness cannot be found.
It lives in your actions.
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 moralising. You can quit 5 lines before this or 5 later, but not now goddamnit. I’m not moralising. 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 — to be, rather than to seem .
"Esse quam videri." Cicero
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.
 The frog anecdote possibly originates from the 18th century French writer named Nicolas Chamfort.
 Cicero’s essay De Amicitas (On Friendship).