I run through the woods like a wolf. Pulled fast on feet that barely touch the ground and with the hungry eagerness of a predator chasing prey. The wind cools my sweat soaked skin and the slow, dull ache of overused muscles pushes again to the front of my mind. I stop amid the emerald green path of moss and dirt and work to catch my breath. There is a heat in my lungs that cools at every deep breath I can take. The million chorused voice of bird songs start to sing in the wind, with the great pines, stretched like spears towards a blinding sun, groaning like old men. The fragrance of heated pine needles overwhelms the air and it is in that moment I am taken by the beauty of it all and how magical it is that I can experience it in such a powerfully sensual way. With everything of my body and mind tied to this little stretch of forest and time where I take my runs, I feel alive and happy and full of purpose and meaning.
And in that wildly sensual experience lies the doorway of the philosophical escape route proposed by absurdist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus when he came face to face with the meaninglessness of existence and our absurd attempt to give it such. But before we get to the meaning of his philosophy, let’s get to know our buddy Al.
Who Was Albert Camus?
Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity. – Camus
If any philosopher was ever going to be featured in People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue, it would have been Albert Camus. I mean, this was a darkly handsome, motorcycle riding, chain smoking, slick backed hair wearing, freedom fighting, slab of masculinity. But beyond just a pretty face, Albert Camus was an important, if controversial, personage in the world of philosophy and the development of Existentialism. All despite his insistence that he was a neither a philosopher or an existentialist.
Albert Camus proposed an absurdist view of the world in his philosophy. He presented a world view that stripped all meaning from life and had man in the position of trying to give meaning to things that had none. His philosophy is no better illustrated than in his most famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus. Here Camus presents the ancient hero Sisyphus engaged in his fruitless and absurd punishment of pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again.
The action of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill has no meaning because it will simply come tumbling down again. And for Camus, all human activity amounted to as much. Sandcastles washed away in the waves of life.
But he did not end there. Camus did not leave us out in the nihilistic playground where life just fades to grey and we are left with no reason to pursue anything. No. He had one parting resolution to this otherwise nihilistic philosophy. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. And how do we do that? We do that by appreciating the sensual aspects of his punishment and the meaning that it gives to the otherwise meaningless experience of pushing our boulders up the hill.
What is Sensual?
I can guess that the first thought that comes to mind for most people when they hear the word sensual is that of the sexual but that is only one small element of the sensual as it relates to philosophy. The dictionary definition of sensual is; “of or arousing gratification of the senses.” But if we know anything, we know that dictionary definitions be damned with philosophers and we are going to have to provide some nuance and qualification to this definition.
The sensuality of Camus’ philosophy does apply to an “arousing gratification of the senses”, but sexual sensuality is only a part of it. Camus also incorporates the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of everyday experiences that seem to pass us by as we are laboring to give meaning to the meaningless. The sensuality spoken of by Camus is one of sensory presence – a “nowness” as he calls it. That “nowness” is the most important connection we have to the world, as it is the only thing that all our senses can be directed towards collaboratively. Every “now” is the greatest opportunity to entirely engage in the physical experience of living. We don’t look back and try to give meaning to events, and we don’t look forward to try to cast meaning to future events not yet here. We remain “now” and with all of our senses open to the cacophony of sensual experience that swirls around us in every moment.
Now, I would like to say here that Camus’ was not the first philosopher to put forth the idea that the highest good of life should be that we look to enjoy the sensual pleasures of living. The philosophical concept of hedonism – the ethical value of sensual pleasure as a highest good – has existed for a long time.
The Cyernaics were a philosophical school founded in the 4th Century BCE by a Greek philosopher named Aristippus. Aristippus was a follower of Socrates and he is traditionally given credit with the original ethical idea of pleasure as the highest good.
Cyernaisim focused on the idea of not deferring any pleasures and giving no thought to future consequences of the pursuit of pleasure in the moment. The greatest good was to pursue immediate pleasures, and those of the body took precedence. Bodily pleasures took precedence over mental pleasures because the Cyernaics held to a skeptical epistemological position regarding what we could know of anything outside the senses. They believed that the only thing we could know for certain was the sensual experiences of living; and those things manifested in the body, were felt in the body, and gave rise to passions of the body.
The use of the word Epicurean today is largely unrepresentative of the spirit of the original idea. It has come to mean refined tastes for elegant and decadent things but that is far from the truth of this philosophical school founded in 3rd Century BCE by Epicurus.
Epicureanism calls for us to esteem, above all things, the simple pleasures of life and to cultivate a tranquility of spirit through the pursuit and enjoyment of those simple pleasures. A quiet, simple dinner with family. A warm bath. A long conversation with a missed friend. Reading a good book. Watching a sunset.
This is a very different sort of hedonism than that presented by the Cyernaics, but it is another philosophy that sees in life, the importance of sensual experience as the highest ethical pursuit.
How Camus Differs
I bring up these two philosophies, and could bring up many others that supply some variation on the “hedonistic” ethical position, because I want to distinguish them from Camus. Because there is something more to Camuss’ exit from absurdity.
Camus’ delight in the natural world, and the experiences there, are not nearly as so extravagant as those espoused in Cyrenaism and not nearly as asture as those espoused in Epicureanism. What Camus’ was proposing was a middle ground between these two philosophies. Not explicitly proposing, but he did land there in his attempt to provide a shred of meaning to a meaningless world.
I will not deny that there is a bit of Cyrenaism and Epicureanism mixed in with the ideas Camus’ proposes but the most important aspect of his philosophy – the idea of the Absurd – is lacking. Because of that lack, the ethical purpose of sensual pleasure seeking in Camus’ philosophy is done for a different purpose than most other hedonistic philosophical ideas.
As the world lacks meaning, and we are made absurd in it by trying to give it meaning, we gain peace from that absurdity by retreating to the safe haven and obvious potency of our sensual perceptions and we gain freedom by refusing to give meaning to the meaningless.
Delighting In The Sensual
The world does not have to have meaning to be beautiful and worthwhile. The natural world, while random and untameable and lacking any inherent meaning, is also fascinating and exciting, and to be able to experience the sensuality of it can be a source of constant joy and gratitude.
There needn’t be a why on the cool wind that runs over your sweat soaked skin on a hot day. There does not have to be any deeper explanation behind the swishing silk sound of skin against skin created by a naked embrace with another. No one need question the purpose of a child’s laugh, or the sound of rain, or the smell of fresh cut grass on those first spring days, to be able to enjoy them.
These things, and a million other sensual experiences, need no explanations if we choose to embrace them fully in the moment of their being. It is the goal then to immerse ourselves in the visceral, sensual, immediate pleasures of the natural phenomenon around us as much as possible. In that lies your salvation from absurdity.
This includes people. Exploring with sincere curiosity and sensual intent the being of another person is a magical way to find in them the little pieces of experience that make them more than another meaningless construct of consciousness bouncing around this big rock. In that person is a host of possibilities for mutual enjoyment, pleasure, meaning, and happiness. The same as in you, but we need to see in them, and offer up to them, all the sensual pleasures we can create.
It is necessary to fall in love… if only to provide an alibi for all the random despair you are going to feel anyway. – Camus
That’s what love is, after all. It is when two people offer each other mutually magnificent and significant sensual experiences. When two people come together who know how to offer the right level of nearly all sensual pleasures to a another person it spawns love.
The right level of speech through respect and interest. The right level of arousal through the visual physicality and through deeper physical touching. The right level of fragrance that solidifies the memory of them in the mind and offers the strongest reminders when they are away. Even the right level of taste, the flavor of kisses and of their “themness”.
When all of these things come together to the right degree, we fall in love. Through that shared sensuality that allows us the only real opportunity for meaning or purpose in the world. That is why love feels so powerful. Because we find someone who shares our sensual version of the world. The only version that gives meaning to our lives.
The Meaning Of Life For Camus
You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. – Camus
The meaning of life then for Camus’ is to return consistently to the ever present unfolding of experiences in all of our senses and to delight in their abundance and possibility. The mere fact that we are alive to experience such a thing as this world is a mysterious magic in itself, and that we were blessed with such beautiful modes of perception to experience it all is a great gift.
So, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, we draw ourselves back to this experience of living. To the fresh cut smell of grass and the finger tap rhythm of rain. To the breath stealing warmth of a lover’s kiss and the new life smell of an infant. A million opportunities for meaning made of the sensual. Meaning derived from the sheer experience of it.
Go outside right now – I don’t care where you are -and your senses will explode. Sure, some of it will be undesirable. The smell of car exhaust. A screeching siren. An cacophony of voices. But that it is possible for you to feel at all, through your sensual experience, is the magic and meaning of life. That is the life for Camus’. That he is an experiencer of it. Of whatever random, meaningless, stretch of time this is, it is made magnificent and worthwhile because we can experience it now. Here. In this very moment. It is ours and it is everything and it means the world to us.
So, I have a confession to make. It’s a pretty damning confession from someone who writes about personal development and motivation and discipline. For those regular readers of my articles, you may have noticed that I have not posted in a while. Sorry about that. But holy shit, have I been in a rut. That is a hard thing to admit but God it feels good to say. Just admitting it makes it easier to accept. I don’t know where it is coming from. I have tried to dig it out. I just feel, hollow and lost. Like I am missing something in all of this or like I took a wrong turn somewhere. I know it is a temporary thing. It has happened in the past, and I will figure out the cause, but it has me in it’s grip and it is not where I want to be.
I don’t want it to be true because I want to maintain the image that I am constantly making mountains of progress and slowly evolving into the perfect version of myself since I decided to undertake this personal development journey in earnest a couple years ago. But it’s just not true and I don’t want to be disingenuous to myself or to anyone else.
The truth is, this is not a linear path, this life committed to bettering yourself. It ebbs and flows. You win sometimes and other times you find yourself staring down the repercussions of a regrettable situation, yet again. People think that as soon as you commit yourself to personal development that somehow, overnight, you just change and all the stupid shit you used to do you stop doing.
But that’s not how it works. Personal development is a constant fucking war. It’s messy as all hell and you are going to lose as many, if not more, battles than you win. But that’s ok. A war is won by losing the right battles and winning the right battles. And we focus on winning the right battles by knowing which fights are winnable and which are worth winning. By deciding where we need to focus our attention and retreating from the fights we just can’t win right now.
I don’t ever see anyone in the personal development world talking about this, though. No one is talking about the occasional stagnation and backsliding that happens when you are seriously committed to the difficult work of bettering yourself and your life. The reality is, we are all just sloppy, distracted monkeys trying to be better for ourselves and for the people we love and for the world and being sloppy, distracted monkeys we are going to constantly stagnate or backslide into old, negative habits if we let ourselves.
But there are ways that we can regain ourselves when we are threatened with stagnation or returning to old negatives and directionless actions.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
This is my go to move. As soon as I catch myself moving back into old habits I start punishing myself in my mind. That comes from years of abusive voices saying it in my ears when I failed, so I have been trying to soften that voice into my own, but I don’t always win that fight.
I do know that, when I am soft and compassionate and kind with myself when I eventually fuck up, I feel better. I feel stronger and instantly more committed to returning to my progress of development instead of focusing on the mistake I made or the old habit I returned to.
There is something about being able to nurture yourself that is empowering. To be able to scoop up the pieces of your own broken things is a remarkable talent and it is an instant indicator of future success. If you can heal yourself after a defeat. Fuck. That’s a superpower.
And we heal ourselves after our mistakes by remembering that nobody has all of this shit figured out and we are going to fuck this up more often than not. It’s hard work and it’s painful work and it scary, sometimes directionless, lonely, occasionally upside work but it’s worth it and if we are committed to it we have to take the ups and downs with compassion and understanding.
The world is going to throw punches and shade and all kinds of other painful potentials at you. There is no reason you should do the same to yourself. Try to be gentle with your mistakes and remember that you spent years doing the stupid shit you are trying to change. It doesn’t happen overnight and you get nowhere by beating yourself up when you make a mistake.
Revisit Your Inspiration
Something pushed you over the edge last time. Something stark and vivid and you need to return to that moment. Very few people turn to a life of reflection, wisdom, and improvement without some higher motivation that slaps them on the back of the head when they are not looking.
Sure it creeps in slow but the moment of inspiration is a lightning strike. It is a crystallized moment of undeniable force and intensity. A loved one dying. A near death experience. A desperately low point. An epiphany of philosophy. A visit from the divine. Some tragedy or revelation. Something exploded inside you to set you on a course to live a life in accord with something higher in yourself and you need to get back there with all your senses and bring that inspiration back to life.
Meditate on it. Bring that moment back with as much detail and veracity as you can. Feel it and breathe it and let it burn inside you again so that you are fueled by the fires of it. Memories are powerful things and powerful memories are sacred. Use the divinity of them to reignite your purpose and discipline.
Pull The Weeds That Grew
And when you are reinvigorated from the memory of your inspiration, you set your heels in to doing all the dirty work of getting started again. Yeah. That’s the price you pay for neglecting your progress for a while. You get to start all over. Ok. Not all over. But you do have some serious garden tending to do.
Near the end of his satire, Candide, French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire said that we should all “tend our own gardens”. Voltaire here is suggesting that we are all responsible for keeping our own affairs in life and his metaphor is an apt one for my own suggestion regarding the work we must do after a hiatus from our progress.
In this beautiful garden we are striving to grow in our minds and our lives, we are responsible for the maintenance of it. Our decision to make changes in our life had us begin the tilling and preparation of that garden, and we slowly began planting new seeds in there that would grow in place of the weeds that grew there before.
But those weeds are relentless and they will grow again in your garden if we are not vigilant and take efforts to constantly pull them out as they surface. And those weeds will always try to grow back when we are not looking. And there will always be a few hanging around that we miss, but you have to make sure we are constantly pulling what weeds we see and making sure our garden is more of the seeds we planted and not strangled by the weeds.
Is that metaphor too convoluted? Fine. Moral of the story is this – when you neglect the attention of the good habits you are trying to build, those pesky, motivated bad habits are going to resurface in their place, so you have to restart the good habits and keep a close watch on there redevelopment in order to be successful with them. They take care and patience to be become the good habits we want to replace the bad we don’t.
Ignoring The Critics
Ok. So you backslid. Or made a mistake. Or got distracted for a month with travel and a lack of inspiration and motivation. Whatever. As soon as you try to get back on track and return to the progress that you were trying to make you are going to hit a brick wall of uninformed critics. I can promise that. People calling you out on your lack of authenticity or mistakes. That is just how some people are.
If you do anything even remotely abnormal, like trying to follow some pesky dream or trying to pursue some imagined better life, there are always going to be assholes who try to shit on your parade. Always.
But if we get comfortable identifying and devising a strategy for dealing with critics they become nothing more than testament to our progress. Because the more we improve our lives the more critics come out of the woodwork as they look at their own shitty, stagnant lives and try to bring you back down to their level.
These are people who just straight up don’t like your shit. They were never on your side, never pretended to be on your side, and are going to take every chance they can get to talk shit to you and about you. These are usually people who don’t know you. Their criticisms are usually false and fucking ridiculous but they can occasionally score a hit on some sensitive part of our lives.
When they do, we have to just let that shit slide off of our backs. Anyone who is actively pursuing an assassination attempt on your character or trying to dissuade you from a dream chasing idea or habit is obviously not worth your time. Easier said then done, I know, but a good strategy is to ask yourself what pain or misery that person has in their life that is prompting them to attack yours. Most people you criticize others are merely vocalizing the dissatisfaction they have in their own lives. If we can develop a little compassion for our critics we can easier accept their childish attempts at sabotaging our progress.
The most magical superpowers of the best critics is that they know exactly when to strike and how deep to cut. The best critics come out in the darkest parts of your night and they cut the deepest wounds. Friends and family are particularly good at this because they know you the best. These are usually your covert critics.
The reality is, most critics don’t think they are being critics. They think they are saving you from something. That by pointing out the impossibility of something they are saving you from some future hurt. You know what the problem with that is? By saving us from a future hurt you are just causing one perpetual one.
By telling someone that what they are going after is not going to work out, or it’s too hard, or now is not the right time, whatever, you are causing a constant level of doubt, dissatisfaction and anxiety that their dreams are unreachable. Who the fuck has the right to tell anyone that? Seriously. No one has any idea what someone else is capable of or what lives in their heart. No one has any right or reason to save anyone from a future hurt that is gained in the pursuit of a dream. I think almost everyone would rather fail in pursuit of a dream than succeed in the mundane.
So when these covert critics pop up and try to stealthily sabotage your progress, just remember that they are usually coming from a place they think is good and it is enough to smile, nod and go fucking prove them wrong.
If you are pursuing something great in your life, there will come a time when you are going to run face first into a wall and it is going to stop you dead in your tracks. It happens to everyone. Be it a lack of motivation, a general lack of confidence or progress, a fading of your inspiration, or the stinging words of critics. Whatever it is, something is going to threaten your continued progress down the path you want to take in this personal development journey of yours. But that’s ok.
It happens to everyone. Just because we choose to follow some great, distant dream of our future does not mean that the clouds will part, the path will become obvious, and we will skip our merry little asses towards it without any difficulty. In fact, the opposite is true.
Once you decide that you want to change something – that you want to go after something – that is when you prepare yourself for the impending war against the bad habits of your old self and negatives of the world that try to keep you from your progress. You will fight a million battles, each threatening to remove you from the battlefield, but every loss is an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and return again to the reasons for our conflicts and the purpose for our pain.
You won’t always get this right, and sometimes you will have large lapses in progress, but the goals isn’t to get to where you want to be following a straight line, it is to stagger your ass over the finish line in any way that you can. The only things that matters is relentless forward progress. Nothing else matters. And that means that every time you take a step backward or you stop moving, you find the strength and the reason to begin again. That’s all this is, this idea of betterment. It is a constant offensive against the powers, internal and external, that would have us lose the war for our happiness and well being. So, we fight like it matters and we never accept a temporary defeat as a sign that the war has been lost. You only lose if you stop fighting.
This is going to be one of those articles that I put out that is more catharsis than meaningful practical, tactical advice or wisdom. One of those articles where I open up a vein and bleed it out on the page, as Hemingway has always suggested. Maybe it will mean something beyond a bit of personal blood on the page to anyone who reads it. Maybe not. It’s OK if it doesn’t, because it means a lot to me.
What this article is, is a letter of forgiveness to an absent father now long passed and the lessons that can come from it. It is an attempt to find some closure and to release something heavy and burdensome from my heart. I know that this will not let it fully fly from my soul. His absence in my life will always be at least a small shadow. But this is the hope for a pinprick of light in that darkness, and maybe a beacon of hope to anyone who has also experienced something similar.
To that ends I want to say, I forgive you dad.
I forgive you for leaving a scared little boy to fend for himself. For leaving me to the viciousness of the men that came after you and for forcing me to pretend to be a man when I was terrified of the world and I needed my dad to shield me from the misery of life that is only barely manageable after you grow up. I forgive you for putting me in a position where I had to defend my mother and my sisters. For not being there to protect me from the beatings I took, mentally and physically. For the poison you put in my heart about love and security and my self worth.
I forgive you for never reaching out after you left. For never checking up on me or your daughters. For never sending a birthday card. For never taking us to the park or for an ice cream cone or sitting with us and playing a shitty, stupid game of Candy Land.
I forgive you for that phone call you made to me when I was 18. The one where you told me you were were dying and you need some of my liver. I never heard your voice before and it was strange to have a feeling so strong to want to know the man behind a stranger’s voice. I wish I could remember now what you sounded like. I might imagine the conversation went differently.
I forgive you for the shame and the grief that phone call caused because of the decision I made. The angry, petulant decision that ensured I would never, ever get to see you. I could have given you life. I suspect it would have been the same life you gave me, the one where we were never together, but I could have at least given you that. It would have been something and I would not have had to carry around this guilt for the last 21 years.
I forgive you for all this, because I want you to know something; the only space you have ever had in my head is a sad one and I don’t want you to live there anymore. I am cleaning out that closest and you can not stay there. You are an old, dusty thing that has been there too long and I need to unburden myself of those old hurts so that the new ones have a little room to breathe.
So you are moving out of that sad closet in my head and you can have a place in my heart. A small place where you put those small things that you are not even sure exist, but it is a place for you all the same.
You should know, before you go from my head to my heart, that my son will never know you, because I have no stories to tell him. I half believe he thinks I was immaculately conceived because he has never asked about my father and even if he did I have nothing I could tell him. He will not know you because I never knew you. Nothing. I have nothing of you except for the name we share. The name he now shares with us and the name I am working to restore so that when he walks around with it it means something more than what you or I ever made it mean. But I forgive you for that all that, as well.
And among all this forgiveness I offer you one solitary thank you.
I thank you because you did one thing right. You picked the right woman. You picked the right woman to create a child with and I learned what I needed about being a man from that woman. The woman you left with those three kids to fend for herself. The woman that struggled to provide for us, yet who made sure we were never truly without. I call her mother. My sisters call her mom. She is probably divine, but in her mortal form she raised that little boy you left and did what she could to make him a man.
I thank you because, while I wanted you, I never needed you. I had her. And while you get that small, still place in my heart, she gets the rest. She get’s the space that keeps growing.
I recovered from your absence and the brutality that came after you because I was lucky enough to be left with her. And when I teach my son lessons about being a man know that they come from her, not from you. I don’t say that to be cruel to you. I say that to be kind to her. Because she deserves the credit and I owe her that at least for the lifetime of hurts you and I heaped upon her.
With that in mind, here are only a small part of the things she has taught me.
Courage and strength come in many forms
The ability for a human to be courageous and strong has nothing to do with the dangling junk between their legs. The ideas of courage and strength have been synonymous with manliness for as long as they have existed but the lessons I learned about these manly traits never came from a cock.
They came from a mother who had the courage to stand up to men that wanted nothing more than to break us as individuals and as a family. They came from her constant battle against the forces of poverty and the hardships of a system that make women second class workers yet still finding a way to keep us fed and clothed and with a place to live.
But it’s not just struggle and battle that makes courage and strength possible. It is in vulnerability as well. It is in the capacity to keep loving after it goes wrong so many times. My mother is a professional at that. She has a shitty picker but a pliable ticker. Her heart has been broken, shattered, crushed under heel like a dry brittle bone, but she has never stopped putting it out there and that is one of the most courageous and strengthening lessons I have ever learned from her. And it paid off, because she finally picked a good one. Or that good one picked her. They picked each other and that was only possible because she kept opening up her heart and letting people in.
That’s something a man needs to be able to do. To be vulnerable and let themselves open up a little to the world. Does it suck sometimes to put yourself out there and open up and have someone nut-punch you for your efforts? Fuck yeah it does. But it’s going to suck even if you don’t do that. And it’s going to suck in a way that leaves you empty and hollow. I would rather face the pain and keep trying to get it right, than empty out all the possibility and shut it all down.
Power does not mean physical might
The first entry in the dictionary definition of powers is, “the ability to act or produce an effect”. That’s the power I am talking about here. Not the possession or control over others that men usually go for.
There is a delusional definition of power that is must come from physical presence or domination. That it must come from force and subjugating others to your will. I faced down those sort of power mongers. I stared them in their eyes floating in whiskey or beer and I felt the impotent strength of their power. There is nothing powerful in that. There is only lack. A sad emptiness that manifests as violence and rage.
Because you want to know what makes a man powerful? Sacrifice. Through doing what must be done so that others that rely upon him can do and have the things they need.
The kind that has you working late and hard and then coming home to make sure the house is clean, the homework is done, the ball is thrown, the bellys are filled, the kids are bathed, the beds are tucked and the day is done. All before you settle into a moments rest before you collapse down on the couch to do it all over again. Because it is the only way it would get done. That’s the sort of power I learned from my mother and that’s the power a man should have.
I also learned that sometimes power means resilience. It means exposing yourself to a world that you know is going to beat you down but doing it anyway in order to accomplish something bigger. My mother has always been good at picking herself back up when she has gotten knocked down. She is a heavyweight boxer in that regard. She gets in the ring with every opponent she has to face and, though she may take a handful to the chin, she wins every fight because she never stops giving herself to the world. I want to be that sort of man. That kind that has the toughness to face an opponent that he knows is going to demolish him, but is never sacred to open up and do it all over again.
Your Mind Is Great Gift
There is one secret gift that I prize above all others that my mother bestowed upon me. A gift that changed my life and allowed me to temporarily escape the madness of our situations. That gift was a love of reading. I suspect she knew the power in those pages. How it could take you away from where you were and bring you into a world that was so much more. I am sure that she gave me that gift so I could have a place to run to like she did. Whatever the reason, it saved my tiny soul.
If you were to enter my room when I was a very small child, after I was tucked into bed for the night, you would have found me with the comics of the newspaper. The green sheet, it was called. It started there. The funnies. I needed the funnies. It escalated to Garfield books and then to choose your own adventure books and further into the early classics, before I opened my mind and just started consuming it all. Every fucking book I could find. And we never had a shortage.
I have never stopped reading. I am like a man parched from thirst and the only healing liquid is the steady stream of words you can find in the pages of a book. That precious gift has made sure that, despite the school expulsions, the drugs, the random and disastrous fuck-ups I committed to in life, I had a place to retreat to and dream in. A place that would push me towards the achievement that I eventually accomplished. There is no power greater than that found in the constant search for more words – for more knowing.
Now intelligence is not merely a man’s trait, obviously, but it is a trait that I am glad my mother gave me, because it makes me more of a man everyday. To be able to think and consider and analyze the situations of my existence and come to reasoned and practical solutions has served me well over the years. There is an irrationality that comes from a lack of intelligence. Something that leaves you bare to the winds of life without a buffeting shield to consider which way they are blowing before you go out there and move in them. And in those books I also found role models that I would need to fill the chasm left by my father’s absence. Men that I could look up to and who would defines aspects of my being that is the usual duty of a father.
As I said at the beginning, these are not the only lessons about being a man my mother has given me, but they are the most powerful and have been the longest lasting. These are the core that I will pass on to my son in the hopes that he can continue to be more than I ever had the chance to be at his age. I have more now that I have learned from the experiences I have had and the books I have read. Those lessons will come as well. But they all spawn from what my mother gave me.
I see my son as a reflection of what I could have been had I the right environment, the right structure, the right foundation, and the right tools. My mother gave me everything she could and more, but a boy needs his father. He does. And that is what I am always going to be for him. But when he looks at me – the man that I have become – and asks me how I became that man, I am going to look him dead in the eyes, smile a wistful, knowing smile, and tell him that it was because a woman taught me how.
It has been sometime since I have vomited out a profanity laced article that tackles the lighter side of all this personal development shit. With that in mind, I want to tackle a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Dealing with assholes.
Perhaps it is because I have been an asshole as often as had to deal with them that I am so fond of the subject of finding ways to cope with them. Perhaps it is because the longer I live the more variety of assholes I find in this world. Perhaps it is just me getting old and miserly and growing fully into my curmudgeonly ways. Whatever the reason, I have never had a shortage of assholes to deal with in my life.
And because of that, I have found many ways to handle their assholery and even found a few ways of not adding my own particular flavor of asshole to the mix.
If you are offended by profanity, stop reading this. It only goes downhill from here. If you are under the age of whatever is acceptable for reading swear words, read this in secret without your parents knowing. Do not read this out loud if their are kids in the room and you don’t want them to hear “naughty” words, probably even if pets are in the room, as some pets can be highly offended by such uncouth language. In fact, you probably shouldn’t read this out loud at all. I am not sure what the universe is going to do to you for saying this many cuss words in such a short amount of time. You have been warned, and I refuse any negative karma you throw at me for writing this disgusting mess.
How To Deal With Assholes
Understand that everyone is coming from someplace broken
This is the best way I know how to deal with assholes. I just look into their eyes, their angry, sullen asshole eyes, and I imagine all the pain and sadness and hurt and accumulation of broken hearts and shattered dreams and ruined hopes that live in there and it is all I can do to not break down in tears and hug them and tell them that it is all going to be OK.
I mean, think about it. Every person you meet has gone through so much struggle and pain and tragedy in their lives. People dying. Broken homes. Abuse. Loss. Physical maladies. You have no idea how much suffering someone is going through at the very moment of their assholeness and that should give you a little space to open up to the possibility that they are really hurting right now and that is why the are being an asshole. I am not saying that everyone’s struggles and pains and tragedies are the same but everyone has had some and their experience of them is not very much different then your experience of them in most cases.
I am merely saying that we should appreciate that people come from a lot of misery, from infancy to adulthood, and they carry that around with them constantly. Is it fair for them to to shit all over other people because of that? No. But we can develop a little compassion in those situations where we have to deal with difficult people if we remember that most people are coming from a place of hurt when they are assholes and knowing that people are hurting should make us want to help, not contribute to their harm.
Remember that we all just want to be happy
Yes, most people don’t know how to find happy, so it comes out as screaming and yelling and overreacting to small, imagined slights or projecting insecurities on others in toxic ways, but at the end of the day, all anyone is trying to do is find a little fucking sunshine that they can hold on to in this world.
And that’s the problem. Happiness is just some formless, intangible, random heat. It can’t be grasped or held or captured. It just comes and goes when it wants like some flippant beam of sunlight and sometimes we slip into a little golden ray of it. And it feels all warm and fuzzy and we get those little tingles over our skin, until suddenly a cloud comes and throws us into shade again and happiness is gone and everything is cold and we go storming off to chase it down again and strangle the living shit out of it for being so flighty.
We need to remember that everyone is seeking that something that makes them feel warm and unfortunately most people have been indoctrinated with the idea that to get what they want they have to shit on what other people want. Hence, they become assholes. If we can understand that most people’s actions are merely their misplaced movements towards whatever happiness they can find, it allows us to see their struggles in a different light and develop a connection with their search and our own.
Focus on your reactions
Holy shit do I hate when people walk really slowly and I am stuck behind them. Seriously. You have no idea how many times I have fantasized about punching an old man in the back of the head because of how slow he is moving. What the fuck old man! I am super god damn important and have super god damn important places to be!! Can’t you hear how loud my footsteps are and all the purpose in my stride?! Move!!!
And in those moments, where I cock back my arm and make a fist, and find that shiny, soft spot in the back of his head I take a breath, I unclench my fist, and I remember that sometime the biggest asshole I have to deal with is myself. That voice in the back of my head that is whispering all this entitled bullshit into my ear and telling me to step on anyone else to get what I want. I wish I could punch that voice, because it does not good to respond to assholes with your own asshole behavior.
The assholes that you have the most difficulty with are not always going to be external. They are occasionally going to manifest as your own reactions towards others and the repercussions of those unskillful activities. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies and the only surefire way to deal with ourselves is to get honest and work to change those things that make us contributing assholes to this world. This means digging into what makes you tick and what explodes your excrement all over the world and rooting those things out in the slow process of awareness and self-improvement.
How To Not Be An Asshole
Keep your shit together
I have to let you in on a little secret. It’s a hard secret to know but it’s a true secret and one that you really need to understand if you are not going to be an asshole in this world. Ready? Ok. Here it is. Nobody gives a shit about your feelings. Boom. Fucking bucket of truth shit right there.
OK. OK. Some people will sometimes care about your feelings but the average everyday stranger, the people that we are most often assholes to, those people don’t give a flying fuck about your bad day or your shitty marriage or your sick grandmother. It sucks, but it’s true. And that’s OK. They don’t have to. You should definitely have some people in your life that care about your feelings, and I am sure you do, but usually you have to compartmentalize that baggage and emotional upheaval in a way that you are not constantly puking it out into the world because no one cares and no one understands. All they see and hear is someone being an asshole.
What I am saying is, we have to get better at working through our life issues internally and in reasonable settings and not drag it with us through our day and snapping at people who don’t deserve it or committing actions out of places of misplaced anger and aggression. Meditation helps. As does talking to people close to you in a comfortable setting. Giving yourself reasonable outlets for your sadness or anger. Hobbies. Fitness. Whatever. Just find other ways to deal with your shit besides randomly spraying it all over unsuspecting strangers.
Stop Being Negative
Listen. We all know this world is going to shit and we are flying down a mountain at a reckless speed in a vehicle with no brakes and the guardrails are off the road, but we can’t have everyone in the world running around like a fucking chicken with it’s head cut off. Some people need to keep their shit together because that goes a long way to not being an asshole.
Most of the time people are assholes because they let all their toxic, negative, pessimistic, garbage spill out of their dirty mouth holes. Everyone already knows the world sucks, so stop adding your particular disgusting flavor of doomsday prophecy to the mix. It’s not original and it smells just as shitty as everyone else’s.
Instead, why don’t you try to puke some rainbows? Maybe go naked-bareback-a-unicorn-down-a-yellow-brick-road this mother fucking world for a little while and spread some cheer. If the world needs anything it just needs more positivity. A bigger sense of hope. Something to look forward to. I am not saying turn a blind eye to the tragedy of all this shit. I am saying that none of it is as serious as we want it to be and a whole hell of a lot more to be hopeful about then there is to despair.
Remember that you are also a piece of shit
Ok. Ok. I am obviously not really saying that you, or anyone, is a piece of shit. Well. Some people are pieces of shit, but that’s besides the point. I am just being purposely salacious to get the point across that whatever asshole things you call out in people, you are full of asshole things as well. Infact, those things you see in others that drive you bat shit crazy, they are probably things you don’t like about yourself.
We are all so fantastically flawed. Everyone of us a broken diamond, and pointing at the little cracks and impurities in someone else’s shine means you are not paying attention to the cracks and impurities in your own. Most people know what is wrong with them. It’s why they are assholes to begin with, to cover those imperfections up, and no one needs you to point it out to them.
Better you spend a little time in trying to identify what character qualities you are lacking in yourself and turn your attention to improving those things instead of spending your energy on being a flaw detector in others. You have an opportunity in every agitation you find in others to find the source of it in yourself. And after having done so, you can root that shit out and have one less asshole quality in you that makes you less of a piece of shit.
Be Happy For Other People
You want to know a really easy way how not to be an asshole? Be sincerely excited about other people’s fortunes instead of turning it around as a reflection on the lack of your own fortunes. You know what I mean. When someone tells you some really good news and that pang of jealousy stabs your heart and the why-not-me’s start dancing around in your head and you steal the enthusiasm of the moment with a lackluster congratulations and a piss poor excuse for shared excitement. We have all been there. It’s natural but it’s an asshole thing to do.
Celebrating other people’s accomplishments is a way to celebrate the fact that the universe lets anyone achieve anything at all. The fact that good shit can happen to anyone is an awesome lottery to play. Sure, you are going to get shit on constantly, but every day you keep scratching that ticket and every once in a while you hit a jackpot big enough worth celebrating and when that time comes, you are going to want to share it with other non-assholes who will celebrate with you. So, be happy for other people and other people will be happy for you.
I am not even going to offer an apology for all the profanity in this article. I think each and every “asshole” and “shit” and “fuck” and every other expletive is necessary. Because all that offense is the hallmark of an asshole, and as I said at the beginning of this article, I have given as much as I have received in the asshole department.
But more than that, it’s all necessary, in my opinion, because it tempers some of the seriousness of the epidemic of people just being really cruel to one another for no other reason then that they are having a hard time working through the daily, weekly, yearly, lifetimes of pain and sadness that lives in all their hearts. Because they are really scared about what is happening in the world and their first reaction is defense. Because they honestly don’t understand how to be any different than a reaction to all this craziness of life.
But don’t be that person. It’s OK to be scared. It is. We all are. It’s OK to have all that pain and hurt and sadness inside of you and not know what to do with it or who to take it to and who to trust with it. We all feel that way. It’s OK to not know where this world is going and sincerely fear for the future of humanity. Every single one of us is unsure and we are all looking for hope.
But none of that is an excuse to be an asshole. If anything, it’s a reason to be anything but.
If you haven’t noticed from reading over my blog, I write a great deal about romantic love. It is something that interests and intrigues me like few other subjects. It is an emotional state like no other in that it can persist for such a long time and change us so completely. It is a root emotion, in so much as it spawns so many other branches of emotions in it’s growth and expression.
From love comes happiness, contentment, joy, excitement, sadness, jealousy, longing, and sometimes even hate. The entire spectrum of emotions is captured in the many stages and manifestations of romantic love and it is perhaps because of that great mixing pot of confusing feelings that so many myths have been brought to life and persisted in the name of love.
Romantic love is a beautiful expression of our being and, as such, it should be pursued with a recklessness of heart and mind. But I would like, as I like with all things, for that pursuit to be reasoned and if we are to do that we need to first debunk some dangerous myths about love that will ruin our chances of ever keeping it.
You Have A Soulmate
This idea of a soulmate was spawned from Plato’s Symposium, where the character Aristophanes relates the tragic myth of how we each came to be separated from our other half by the angry lightning bolts of Zeus. It is a such a beautiful allegory that has spawned a mountain of absolute horse shit ideas about the pursuit of love. This myth has co-opted our language of romantic love and turned our pursuits of it into “merging” and “finding the one” and other nonsense that has us holding out for some ultra special person that is only for us.
Let me be very, very clear about this myth. You DO NOT have a soul mate! You do not have a special, only-for-you, “other half” out there in the world and you should not be looking for your “other half” as a means to complete you. No one is going to fill you up, not in the way that you want them to anyway. You are already complete and if you don’t feel that way it is because you do not yet understand what it means to be complete.
You want to know what you should do instead of wandering around looking for your soulmate? Get into your own head and figure out who the fuck you really are and connect the pieces of your heart and soul so that you feel complete alone! I am not reinforcing the old adage of learning to love yourself. I think that aphorism is bullshit anyway. I know that I am never going to fully love myself. And I am ok with that. It doesn’t mean I can not love another fully. Because I know that what love really requires is not that we come to love ourselves but that we come to know ourselves. In that aphorism is the real power of true romantic love.
If you really want to find something close to your “soulmate”, then you have to know what’s is in your own soul. You need to know what values you champion and what virtues you esteem. You need to know what the good life looks like to you and in getting clear about that, about the whole of who you are and what you would like your life to look like, only then you can go out and find someone that mirrors those values and virtues and ideas about life. And only then will you find something that resembles a soul mate. Not because they were destined to be with you, but because you attracted each other through your common pursuits, values, and interests.
I am not saying you go out and find a perfect copy of what you desire in this world, but at the very least you should find a compliment to yourself, as that is what a true “soulmate” looks like. But you are never going to be able to do that unless you do some deep internal digging and figure out who you are, what you value, and what you want your life to look like.
True Love Is All About Passion
As the beginnings of love come with an overwhelming flow of intense passion and romanticism, we often feel like that is what the entirety of what love should look like. We believe that all of love should be surprise flowers and romantic dinners and intense sexual relations. It is portrayed that every moment should be a firework explosion of enviable desire and connection. True romantic love is not that, though.
Yes, romantic love should always have moments of passion. Moments of poetry and beauty that swim in your head and moments where you catch yourself with a smile for no other reason than you are thinking of your beloved, but it can’t all be that. This idea has been the catalyst for so many relationships ending before they had a chance to truly become something with depth and meaning.
Passion is easy. It doesn’t require any effort. It just happens. It is like getting sick. You are suddenly struck with something that you did not have before. And it overwhelms your body and your mind. But that feeling is going to fade. I can promise you that. You will learn things about your love that deflate that sense of passion in your every waking moment. Your beloved shits and it stinks. Your beloved doesn’t always look like an angel. Your beloved is a human being with flaws and pains and a million tiny cracks that need to be handled with care and concern and passion isn’t the right tool for that job.
And that’s ok. You can’t sustain the intensity of passion, anyway. It would burn you to ash. What you should realize and work towards is sustaining moments of passion alongside the moments of pragmatic romanticism. Work on a controlled burn of your heart. You need to realize that real romantic love, a real relationship, is just as much about those soft, subtle moments of connection as they are about the intense moments of passion. When you can get to that understanding you will approach a maturity of love that most people never achieve.
You Can Be Everything To Someone
Listen, as much as we would like to think that we can be everything to that person that we love, we can’t be. We are going to suck at some things that your partner really needs and wants in their life and, if you expect them to have to get those things from you, it is going to be a really shitty experience for them and they are going to eventually resent you for forcing that on them. And poof, there goes your love.
The alternative is to just accept the fact that your partner is going to look other places to have certain needs met and you should want that for them. If you really care for their well being and happiness, as love should imply, then you should want them to have their needs met by any means necessary. Now, this could mean so many different things to so many different people but the key point here is that we should not seek to keep our love isolated from satisfying their needs with other people. We should be secure enough in the strength of our feeling for them and the strength of our relationships to encourage them to find their love wherever they need to find it.
Love Lasts Forever
This myth is the hardest one to experience but thankfully the easiest one to forget. I think everyone remembers the first time they were faced with this myth in the flesh. The gut wrenching pain, the heart thumping sadness, the sudden hollow growing in your heart, and the sound of shattering glass as everything seems to break and crumble in your mind. You thought it would be forever. You thought that love was an eternity and to see it dissolve into an ice cold nothing is a pain that few pains can rival.
The reason heartbreak hurts so much is that when we enter into our romantic relationships, we are entering into a contract of sorts. We are entering into an agreement with an implicit end date of never, because our hearts are so tangled in the joy and excitement and nowness of our love that we can not imagine an expiration. Something about the initial stirrings of love make us believe that this is it. This is the forever we have always been waiting for.
But almost every love will expire, for so many reasons that are neither good nor bad. My concern is not to qualify the reasons we fall out of love but to get us to recognize that love does not promise forever. Love promises now and it should be approached as now because that is where the joy of it is. It is in those too short moments of togetherness that makes a love powerful and worthwhile and that is where we need to exist in it. Wanting your love to last forever forces you to hold onto it too tightly, to strangle it to submission, and what remains in its place looks nothing like love. It looks like captivity. Like a caged animal that we claim that we care for but never let out because we are afraid it will escape.
So, yes. That means you are going to love and lose many times in your life, if you are lucky. And every time you do so it is going to hurt like hell but in that hurt, if you pay close attention to where the pain is going and what it looks like, you will learn something new about yourself and about the direction of your life and you will jump back into that pool of love again. I promise.
Love Is Not Hard
No greater myth has contaminated the beautiful wellspring of romantic love than that created by Hollywood and its portrayal of love as something effortless. I am not saying that love should be a constant struggle of arguments and difficulties. What I am saying is that love – after the initial glow of those intense feelings wear off and the fading remnants of the smoldering fire you consummated are mere embers – takes effort.
You need to make time to be together despite your busy schedules. You need to tangle together your friends and families and deal with conflicting personalities and ideas from others about what your love should look like. You need to make occasional sacrifices. You need to give up something about yourself that doesn’t feed into the strength of your relationships. Not give up something important to your happiness but give up some things so that you can replace them with things that brings you closer together. All these aspects of love are difficult but necessary for a successful romance.
This means biting your tongue sometimes when your beloved does something a different way than you do. This means going to events you don’t want to go to with a smile because they are important to your beloved. This means holding back your beloved’s hair as she pukes her guts out because she is sick. It means helping her fight her battles that you think are silly or helping her chase dreams that you might think are impossible. It means doing difficult things that suck sometimes because in the long run they all add up to a collective strength and intimacy that immature love never approaches. All of these things add up to a love that is whole and lasting and none of it is easy.
The moral is, love is not easy. Anyone who tells you it is has never truly been in love. They have never moved into the more meaningful stages of romantic love that require effort and work to grow and flourish. The truth is, romantic love requires a great deal of labor and time and energy but if you do it right, all of that hardship is an investment leading to something greater than what it started as. You will move from that initial, unsustainable dopamine rush of passionate love into the more rewarding varieties of love that can last a lifetime.
Love Is All You Need
I love the Beatles, but they obviously don’t know shit about love. Despite what they claim, love is not all you need. You need so much more than that to make sure that the romantic relationships you have with people in the world are valuable and fulfilling and long-lasting.
You need respect, kindness, appreciation, patience, time, proximity and a million other small and large things to make your romantic love life a success. Thinking that because you have this strong feeling of desire and joy for someone it will be enough to weather the storms of love is setting yourself up for an amazing amount of pain, sadness, and failure.
The problem with this idea is that is trivializes all the complimentary work needed to create a fulfilling sort of love; a love that lasts over the ebbs and flows that are inevitable in a relationship. Your can not rest your heart entirely on the feeling of love in order to get the most out of it. You have to reach further into the uncomfortable emotions that spawn out of love and get intimately familiar with them and how they manifest in your life.
In that exploration you will find all the other things you need to make your romantic love a success. You will discover the foundation stones that need to be placed in your life together to make sure that what you have now will be standing 50 years from now. And what you have will surely be based on love but it will not be all you need to build a relationship structure that has longevity and strength.
Romantic love is a very real and wondrous thing. I do not dispute the power and force of it. It is beauty like no other when it comes into your life and it can be so magically fulfilling as to make everything else in your life just a bit brighter and a bit clearer but we have to be careful not to believe the myths of love if we are serious about making it last.
We have to be willing to put in the work to make our love successful. We have to be willing to let our beloved find what they need in others. We have to dig very deep into ourselves and discover what we really want from a partner and then understand that, despite all of our hard work, our love might still leave us.
All of these things are ok. They don’t diminish the magic of love. In fact, in understanding them, your experience of romantic love will be so much more rewarding and closer to the truth. And in that truth of love lies your opportunity to find something that actually lasts – a happily ever after that exists in something other than a fairy tale.
If you ever sit very quiet with yourself – lying in bed in those hushed moments of night with the sheer-black fabric of darkness veiling your eyes or you are peering out over a green and brown expanse of rolling hill and forest from the top of a sun-bleached mountain top – I swear you can hear the sound of the universe. If you listen very close, beyond the groaning shifts of the settling house or the howling wind of nature’s scream, you can hear that never-ending movement of time that is pulling you towards your extinction.
And sometimes in those moments an existential malaise breaks down on you like a frigid ocean wave in the dead of winter and you are visited by the heart-thumping, body-trembling fear of your mortality and the slow encroachment of your nonexistence. If you sit very quiet with yourself and listen to the sound of the universe, this is what you will hear.
Now, I am not pointing this out because I enjoy reminding people they are going to die someday. It scares the shit out of me as much as anyone else. I have no fucking clue what comes after this mad mess of existence. I suspect it is nothing but one can never be to sure about nothing. It sometimes has a way of becoming something.
Whatever it is, that slow tick of time that you can hear when you are really paying attention to the world and to your life – that movement has some potential in it. Not just potential for sadness and anxiety and regret. No. It has potential to be a great motivator towards fulfilling your legacy to make sure that the universe knows you were here.
What Does That Mean?
Everything you do in this world is a contribution. Everything you do adds something. The good shit usually adds more good shit and the bad shit usually adds more bad shit. It’s not hard to see how we impact the world through our actions and our choices. I shouldn’t even have to explain that you should try to contribute good shit, right? Good, because that’s not the point of this article. The point is that we have to maximize the good contributions to the world in such a way that the universe can not forget our presence, for however long that is.
Like throwing rocks in a pond you are causing ripples throughout the world. Some people, those tiny stones with little mass or density, they make small splashes. They cause the sort of ripples that does not stir the universe. Those people are destined to be forgotten in the rippling of others. They will be swept up in the waters of the universe and be forgotten. These are the couch-sitters, the binge-watchers, the comfort-zoners, the entertainment-over-experiencers. These poor souls are destined to be but footnotes in the catalog of the universe.
Our goal then is to be large stones, great boulders with infinite mass and density, and throw ourselves repeatedly into the center of the universe, rippling the waters of life to such a degree that the universe has no choice but to remember that we were here.
So how do we become large stones?
Create or Accomplish
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
If the universe is going to remember that you were here you need to do one of two things. You need to either create things or accomplish things.
Creating is a way of adding to the universe. It is a way of contributing in a way that enhances one of two things; beauty or understanding. All natural creation is an enhancement of beauty or understanding and when we create something that adds to this tapestry we are creating as the universe itself creates. We are making something that adds to the natural wonder of existing. We are contributing something that augments the way we see the world. And when we create something that enhances understanding we are working towards defining the beauty of the universe.
When you can add one of these creations to the universe in this way you will always force it to turn its attention to you, because you are amplifying it, and by association, your presence in it.
Most enhancements of understandings in the universe fall within the realm of philosophy and science and most enhancements of beauty fall within the arts. Music. Painting. Literature. There is plenty of crossover between the enhancement of beauty and that of understanding. We needn’t get so caught up in defining which is which. Because the whole of it is creation. We should strive only to create what is uniquely ours to create.
But being noticed by the universe for creation does not mean merely creating physical things. We can also think of other things – more important things perhaps – that we create in the world that would remind the universe that we were here. Joy. Laughter. Love. Passion. We are very capable of creating these things, in ourselves and others, and anytime you can be the conductor of a great chorus of laughter or joy or love or passion the universe takes notice. It has no choice but to turn itself to that explosion of exultation that comes from those emotions.
Creating things connects you to the universe because the universe itself is a creating thing. It responds to its own and being a creator puts you in the same class as the universe. The key is to create things that help the universe become more and not create things that requires the universe to become less. But we have already said that that is obvious.
The other thing we can do to remind the universe that we were here is to accomplish things. To bring our dreams, and the dreams of others, to fruition. To pour our lives work into the world. Accomplishing things is an attraction to the universe. It speaks to the desire for fulfillment. It tugs at the threads of the universe and secures them around you and your legacy.
I should be clear here and say that, I am not talking about the sort of accomplishment you might be thinking. I am not saying that the universe is going to remember you because you have 3 PhD’s, can speak 8 languages, and your bank account is bursting at the seams. Those are personal accomplishments. Great things, in and of themselves, but nothing the universe will take overt notice of. The true accomplishment that the universe takes note of is what you do with all those things you have achieved.
The universe doesn’t give a shit about what you personally have been able to do, it cares what you have done to help others with the spoils of what you have been able to do. We should think more often about our accomplishments in that way. The things we achieve are only meaningful if they can be shared with others.
The movement towards our accomplishments should be in that light, as a catalyst towards helping others also achieve, because if we can be the start of a chain of accomplishment the universe is going to feel all of it tangle around the impact of your accomplishment on others and it is going to take notice.
Putting It All Together
If you put in even a half assed effort, you will go through life and eventually figure out what the hell you want the universe to say about you. Do you want to be a creator or an accomplisher? Maybe a bit of both? Whatever it is, you then have to go do that with a wild fucking recklessness, so the universe can prick up it’s ears and start paying attention. You have to bleed yourself dry on the efforts towards creating or accomplishing everything you want the universe to remember about you. That is the only way you make sure that the universe knows that you were here.
Nothing Left Of You When You Die
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” ~ Arthur Miller
This is the thing about dying, You don’t get to take anything with you. Nothing. So you why not make sure as shit that you leave it all here in a madness of creation and accomplishment?
It should be as if you wore yourself paper-thin – you should lie nearly translucent in your grave. You do not want to approach occupation of that little plot of your eternal home and suspect that you could have gave any more effort to life. That would be the worst feeling in the world. To die with regrets.
Oh sure, there are going to be some things that haunt you when you die. That is an unavoidable condition of living. No one escapes that little sadness, but if we do it right, if we give with the right sort of intensity to our gifts of creation and accomplishment, then we can die with the right regrets. That regrets that produce that wistful smile of remembrance and a lesson that had to be learned the hard way.
And those right regrets will be born on chances taken. On mental and emotional battles fought. On wounds suffered and on hearts broken. On the pursuit of magical things that everyone else says can never exist and in paying homage to those beautiful things that everyone else insists are repulsive. Those things that pulled you under sometimes and threatened to break you. Those are the regrets that other people will come to envy in you. Those are the chances you took that other people will come to see as the difference in your life and the absence in theirs.
If I can hit my dirt nap with those kind of regrets, and not have the kind of regrets that are born from what-ifs and why-didn’t-I’s and I-shoulda’s, I will die content with the knowledge that, though I wear some scars and battle wounds and have left the shattered remnants of everything that I am out there in the universe, I also wear the accolades of creation and accomplishment. I bled all of myself into my living and I created a fucking mountain that made a splash when it fell. And from that splash I caused the ripples and from those ripples the universe is going to remember that I was here.
This is not going to be my usual article. I am not going to tell you how you can defeat some demon or accomplish some goal. Nor am I going to discuss some profound philosophical idea that we can relate to our lives. Instead, I am going to do something really fucking difficult for me. I am going to open up and let you in on a little bit of poison that I drink everyday. A poison that has ended countless relationships. A poison that has fueled many moments of emotional distance, depression, anger and addiction. That poison is insecurity.
Now, I have never been good at fully inviting people into my life, so this article makes me anxious as hell. I am basically exposing my deepest, darkest deficiency to as many people as will read this. I don’t know how many that is. Probably only a few. I secretly hope it is none. However many it is, I know that this scares the living shit out of me – just putting it down where it can be found by anyone and not leaving it safely tucked away in my head where I feel like it belongs. But I also know that this is a long time coming. I need to open the cage. I have to let this breathe and writhe and happen in the world because it is smothering me.
And maybe, someday, someone will stumble across this little piece of bitter honesty I am attempting and they will find something of value. They will find a soul stricken with a similar poison and by finding it approach some anecdote of their own. Me. I am writing this without yet having a remedy but with a mind and heart set on finding one.
This insecurity has plagued me to some degree or another for as long as I remember. I am sure it has mostly has to do with my father leaving when I was just a child and never seeing him again. I am sure it has to do with the beatings I took, verbal and physical from the men that came after. I am sure it has to do with the early disappointments I heaped upon the people I love and the continued disappointments I occasionally throw their way. I think I understand the cause, but understanding the cause does not give me any purchase in finding a solution.
Now, I know that, to some degree, every one of us faces insecurity. Will we be accepted by our friends? Will we be able to perform in our jobs and our roles of life? Are we attractive enough or smart enough or financially stable enough to live the life we want? These questions have crossed everyone’s mind. This is a normal feeling that we face when we look out into the world and see all the remarkable difference and beauty and accomplishment of others. I wish I had that normal bit of insecurity. Mine, it goes much deeper. It is a toxicity that has poisoned everything I have ever done in my life.
I will use this a small example. I run ultra distance races. Marathons and longer. It is brutal and miserable and it takes a rare kind of insanity to push yourself through those miles and that pain. Most races you finish should be a fucking celebration of just still being alive. But here’s the thing, of all the countless races I have ever finished I have never once crossed that finished line and congratulated myself. The first thought I have is, “I have to do the next one better.”
And that’s jut one of the fucking tragedies of the toxic insecurity I am talking about. You never let yourself be proud of yourself. Never giving yourself that ‘atta boy. That good job. That mental pat on the back. Never letting yourself just bathe in the moment of success and let the warmth of it wash over you and feed those hungry aspects of yourself that need to be reminded that you are a pretty fucking amazing creature.
The sad reality of insecurity is that it manifests in so many ways. And I have to admit that some are actually desirable, when seen from a distance. My insecurity is closely aligned with my discipline. I have chiseled my physique and pushed my body to the limits of what is possible for it. I have chased and caught countless academic accolades and awards. I have started from nothing in my life to shape a career that I should be proud of and that has afforded me countless luxuries. I have managed to be a decent father without ever having on one my own. And still, among all that, there is this deep, dark chasm that sucks up every inch of my self worth and turns every accomplishment to black.
Because I know that, to some degree, I push myself to do all these things, to chase the accolades and the accomplishments and physical feats, out of a place of deficiency. It all comes from a place of lack and because of that it has no substance. Now don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of love and joy in the things I work to accomplish. I sincerely enjoy working out and running far. I enjoy the constant chase of more knowledge and wisdom and making a difference in the world, but I can see the thread of darkness through it all and it pushes me to the extremes of accomplishment, never letting me enjoy the process or the reward of it.
But for those small goods, there is a cost. And, oh, what a cost it is.
I am constantly stricken with this underlying jealousy towards the world. A constant sense of competition and one upmanship with everyone and everything. If I can not be the center of attention or control the situation in a way that allows me to manipulate the flow of it all I grow instantly sullen and petulant and I shut down. I become cold and dismissive as a means of manipulating the situation and drawing the attention I so desperately seek by any means necessary.
Every romantic relationship I have ever had has been slowly eroded away by this insecurity. It starts small. Because I am not yet fully invested in the commitment of it. They do not yet occupy the necessary space in my heart to tear it out of my chest so my insecurity is not yet alarmed. But as soon as my emotions start to inch towards any sincere and deep emotional connection with someone I can feel the insecurity bubbling up and that old poison hot in my veins. What if I am not enough? What if they leave? What if they see through my patchwork facade of charm and accomplishment and motivation and just see the sad, broken, overcompensating loser that I am.
In my mind, if I let the person I am with go explore other people or things, or if I let them into the struggles or emotions of my life, I will be exposed for the worthless piece of shit that I am and they will leave. They will leave me and I will be alone. Forever alone and their leaving is the validating, self-fulfilling prophecy I always bring to bear. And what’s worse, my insecurity never lets me get close enough to them. I always build a wall between our lives and I never fully immerse myself in the totality of their beautiful world because I think it’s going to end someday anyway, so why even bother? It is a vicious cycle of a desire for connection, true raw, meaningful connection and then a quick pushing away once I feel my heart becoming too invested.
And that’s where I live. That’s where my deepest pain exists and that is where I approach most everything in my life. From that sort of toxic insecurity. And if I am brutally honest, which I have been up to this point, even my desire to help people is a thin, selfish call for attention. A desire to be noticed and valuable in the world. Don’t get me wrong again, there is a very deep well of sincere compassion and desire to do good and to make a difference in this world, but I can feel the poison in there as well. I can feel the bitterness of it and it contaminates the doing of it. It makes it a little lesser and that breaks my fucking heart because I want it to be pure. I want my desire to help others be undeniably sincere. I don’t want it to feed the poison in me.
So, I am trying to figure that out. How to come out of that insecurity and patch up those things that shattered during my childhood. I have work to do. I know it will be a constant struggle but for once, I am not doing this thing, I am not taking on this incredible difficulty, for anyone but myself. I am not looking for approval. I am not trying to please anyone. I am not trying to fit in. I just want to be whole, like I imagine I was once, and whats more; I finally fucking want to be me.
Because that is another thing about this toxic sort of insecurity, it strips you of your individuality and authenticity. You get so caught up in making sure that you are presenting the best possible image of yourself according to the perceived expectations of friends and family and society. You never just let yourself be you. Whatever that looks like. Because you think that you are never enough. That you will never be enough. That the unadulterated truth of you is magnificently lesser than the truth of anyone else. I just want to be enough to myself so that I can finally feel like enough for someone else.
And this is my task going forward. I want to let myself be me. I want to be proud of myself and to celebrate my accomplishments and let other people celebrate them with me. I want to let people compliment me and appreciate me without thinking they are stupid for not seeing my deficiencies. I want to open up to the world and let them see the pain and sadness and absence in my heart that lives alongside all the bounty I think I have to offer.
I am slowly realizing that I don’t have to hide my faults from others. I don’t have to try to be better than the world, because I never will be. No one is ever going to love me for any accomplishment or single trait anyway. They are going to love me for the unique, beautiful, and slightly dignified mess I have made of the entirety of my life. They are going to love me because I combine all my accomplishments and mistakes into a single unique package that is distinctly me. That is why anyone comes to love anyone else in this world. Because all the pieces of you, the heavy and the light, the bright and the dark, the good and the bad, hit the light in a perfect kaleidoscope of color and reveals an image that only you can create.
So, there is one single thing I need to remember. There is one single thing that I need to carry around with me in my head and my heart to act as that constant anecdote to the poison of my insecurity. It is that I can be the very best at only one thing. I can be better than anyone in the world at one thing if I practice at it and make it a priority. And that thing is Me. No one can be a better me than me. I just have to be that and in being that I might actually approach something of the self love that I have lacked for so long. I might approach security. I might step out of the shadows and find a little bit of light.
But first, more than anything, I want to say sorry to everyone that has been affected by my insecurity. All the girlfriends that I have hurt because of my jealousy and my inability to open up in a way that allowed any trusting connection. All the friends I have tormented with it. All the good people that have been caught up in my never ending quest to fill a hole so deep inside my soul that it sucked out the love and possibility of any amazing situation I ever had. I am truly and unequivocally sorry. There was not a single one of you that did not display an amazing amount of patience and kindness towards me when I never deserved it.
And lastly, the hardest apology to make or accept, is the one I need to make to myself. Not the me now but the little boy I was that watched his whole world leave him in the dark. I need to apologize to that little boy whose father left when he needed him the most. It wasn’t your fault, buddy and it had nothing to do with how worthy of love you are.
I realize that I never allowed that little boy to grieve. How could he? He didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t know a big part of his world, something so critical for loving, was being taken from him right before his eyes. You don’t realize how long forever lasts until you are staring at the growing absence and you know it’s never going away.
So, I want to hug that little boy that I was the same way I hug my boy when I can see the tears welling in his eyes. I want to pull that little boy close and tell him that he is going to be ok if he can just see what is happening for what it really is. That someday he is going to be ok. I want to let him cry and scream and gnash his teeth and curse the world and then I want him to know that I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry for all the pain that this is going to cause you but you have to promise me not to close yourself off. You have to promise me to not let this break you because if you can just keep your heart open long enough, if you can just love yourself enough, the world is going to love you back. Love you back in a way that you deserve.
Fuck. That shit is hard to write and it pulls at something so deep and buried and painful. I won’t even pretend that it makes it go away. It’s still there but it’s a start. A place to build from. I am giving it life and in doing that I may be able to end it. I know that I will never stop trying. I know that I have a lot to give and I am going to keep giving it.
Now, I suspect that some people who will read this article will come to see all my writings in a different light now. I suspect they will be less keen to follow my advice or to believe that I am worth listening to because of my confession here today. And you know what? I am ok with that. Today at least. Today I am going to be enough for myself. Today I am going to be proud of myself for letting this out into the world. Today I am going to give myself that ‘atta boy that I should have given myself a long time ago. Today, I don’t drink the poison.
Throughout our lives we are asked to take on many roles. Parents. Siblings. Employees. Spouses. Friends. Lovers. All of these roles come with certain expectations of action and responsibilities of being, and most of us adopt these expectations and responsibilities without giving much thought about what it actually means for our identities, our personal freedom, our responsibility, and our self-expression.
And in that lack of consideration lies a major problem for Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a problem that comes out of our full, unadulterated adoption of these roles when we exclude the responsibility of our freedom and when we wear those roles as masks to shield us from the anguish of being and becoming who we are truly meant to be. This problem, as detailed by Sartre in his seminal work, Being and Nothingness, is known as “bad faith”.
Now, before we give a more detailed definition of bad faith it is important to define a few terms that are crucial to the understanding of this concept.
Facticity and Transcendence
Sartre sees in all of us two facets of our existence that shape and mold the person we are in any given moment. This duality is facticity and transcendence.
Our facticities are the given particulars of our being – the details of our life that make up who we are at any given moment. Sartre refers to these facticities as “being-in-itself”. The color of our eyes. Our height. Our age. Our parents. Our environment. Our previous choices. All of these are examples of our facticity. They are the concrete details of who you are and they collectively make up one facet of who you are in life.
Within the boundaries of those facticities lies the primary extent of our freedom. We will discuss the Sartrean idea of freedom later in this article but for now, let us think of our factities as the fence around the complete freedom of our existence. There are some facticities that can certainly be overcome by choices we make, but a majority of our facticities are unavoidable barriers that influence the extent of our freedoms.
What this means is, our facticities preclude us from certain opportunities. By mere fact of certain things about myself other things about myself are simply not possible. No matter how much I would like, I am not going to be able to step back on a football field and be competitive with actual football players. The facticity of my age and body remove that opportunity from my being. No matter how much I would like to not be an old man whose body is slowly eroding away into a useless bit of flesh, I am beholden to the facticity of my age.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we attempt to make of ourselves “objects” of being in the world. We attempt to take on the identity of a thing, denying the responsibilities of our choices from moment to moment that we have as beings. In this denial we seek to mitigate the responsibility we have to choose in any given moment who we actually are.
Transcendence, however, is the ability to go beyond the majority of our facticities and to move towards something that we can imagine we want to be. Sartre refers to this as “bieng-for-itself”. It is our ability to create ourselves in the world and actuate the possibilities of our being. To put this another way, at any given moment we are more than just the facts of our being, we are also what we can imagine we will be and we project that possible future self into the world.
Where as facticity might be considered the present circumstances our existence, transcendence is the future circumstances we can imagine ourselves being in from the choices we make now. It is a moving beyond those facticities that we can move beyond to create new facticities of our being that we believe will make us into who we would like to be.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we completely ignore the facticity of our being. Facts about our being that makes us who we are and what we can become. If we ignore these facts we are attempting to make of ourselves something that does not and can not ever exist fully because it has no faciticty of being to anchor it into the world. It is merely a projection of a possibility.
The key for Sartre with these two concepts is that they both anchored to our radical freedom and as such, our freedom needs to be recognized to find the balance of them.
Freedom. Not the flag waving, give me liberty or give me death, 2nd amendment sort of freedom. The idea of freedom that is the most prominent common thread among all Existentialist philosophers goes deeper than that.
When we are talking about freedom in existentialism we are talking about our responsibilities of choice in any given moment. In every moment of our lives we are tasked with the responsibility of making a choice. Go this way or go that way. Pick this person or pick that person. Take that job or take this job. Be angry or be sad. You get the point. Every single moment we decide what we are going to work towards and who we are going to be in this world. We also decide the value of our facticities. We decide what those facts mean and how they will impact our lives.
What’s more, we are fully aware that making one choice essentially closes the door on the other choice. We can never return down that road and pick that thing instead of the other thing, so we know we are losing something of a future we can only imagine. That feeling, that knowing that we are completely free and utterly responsible for making and reaping the consequences of every choice in our lives, that feeling is referred to by Sartre as anguish.
Anguish is the felt experience of our responsibility towards freedom. It is that low, churning wave in our heads that never lets anything settle.
We have already established that you are constrained by your facticity in regards to your freedom but within those constraints you must still decide freely and perpetually the value of your factities and the trajectory of your life within those facticities.
That is the sort of freedom that Sartre believes we try to run from, by hiding in your facticity or your transcendence to avoid the responsibility of choosing. And in that neglect and denial of freedom lies the concept of bad faith.
What Is Bad Faith?
Bad faith, in its simplest definition, is an attempt to escape our absolute freedom in every situation and resting purely in either our facticity, being-in-itself, or resting purely in our transcendence, being-for-itself. It is an attempt to avoid altogether the question of who we should be in any situation by either fully adopting the roles we play in life or by never admitting our facticities.
It might be easier to think of bad faith as a denial of one of two things; who you are now or who you could become.
Sartre provides two examples of these concepts of bad faith in Being and Nothingness that capture these definitions. The first example is someone who adopts fully there facticity to the exclusion of their transcendence. In Sartre’s writing this takes the form of a waiter who lives entirely within the role of “waiter” and denies any sort of individuality he has in his own being.
Sartre sees the waiter as “too precise” and “too mechanical” in his movements and expressions. Sartre accuses the waiter of “play-acting” at being a waiter. Now, we need to clarify a frequent misconception here about what Sartre has a problem with here and what puts the waiter in bad faith.
Sartre does not take issue with the prospect that the waiter is acting phony. What Sarte takes issue with is the fact that the waiter is trying to become the “object” of a waiter. He is trying to act out the precise definition of a waiter-object and by doing so the man is trying to identify himself as an object, whose essential nature is already predetermined and who can rest solely in the facticity of that predetermined nature that is given to all waiter-objects. This man is denying his freedom and responsibility to choose how he is to act in his job by merely adopting the role of “waiter”.
The other example Sartre gives is that of a homosexual who appears to be living fully in his transcendence by denying the facticity of his being. This is a man who engages in homosexual behavior on a regular basis but refuses to acknowledge the facticity that he is in fact a homosexual.
He views his homosexual behavior as past experiences, facticities that do not point to who he really is, and instead insists that they are anomalies of his behavior and not indicative of his actual being. This man is resistant to adopt the label of homosexual, as he knows that, once applied to the facticity of his being, it imposes a sort of limit on his freedom to be other than that.
Sartre does offer other examples of bad faith but you get the point.
Bad faith can exist in one of two ways and both ways are a denial of authenticity, to Sartre. They are a denial of our freedom because both deliver us the opportunity to remove ourselves from the requirements of choice in any given moment and allow us to alleviate the burden of responsibility for our choices by making us mere objects instead of what we are, radically free individuals that have a responsibility towards authenticity.
I have written about the existentialist concept of authenticity in a previous article but I think it is important to briefly revisit it here, as it is directly related to the concept of bad faith. The idea is that, after we have come to join the two aspects of our life into a symbiosis, after we have assured the “valid coordination” of our facticity and our transcendence, only then are we are ready to approach our authenticity.
According to Sartre, a life lived in true authenticity is one of constant choice. It is a live lived with the responsibility of freedom where one considers their facticity, applies the appropriate value to those facticities and then works towards their transcendence within the confines of those facticities. That is how we come to be our authentic self in any given moment.
Authenticity, then, is the affect of an absence of bad faith. It is most certainly a created thing by each individual, and not a thing discovered, but when you can live within the understanding of your facility and the acknowledgment of your transcendence you can see honestly, not only what you are and what you have been, but what you can become. You will form a perfect union between what you were and what you will be and in that union will rest what you are. And that is the strength of identity that comes from the Satrean idea of bad faith.
So, What Does Any Of This Mean For Our Lives?
For that answer I present two exercises that we can call upon in our day to day experience of living – thought experiments of sorts that can help us expose our own potential for bad faith in our lives and help us to live towards our most authentic self.
Ok. So, look at your life right now. What does it look like? Have you let go of your long term goals or projects or ideas in favor of the role you have to play right now? Are you trying to be the “ideal” parent or the “ideal” partner or the “ideal” worker, deriving your value from the measures you can take of how close you are to the factual definition of those things and turning yourself into an object of those definitions?
If you have so closely tied your identity to a role that you have to play in this world, forsaking the individual dreams and goals you have, then you are living in bad faith. You are not being honest about the choices you have to not be that thing. As much as we would like to try to tie our personalities to our role identities to excuse ourselves from the freedom of choosing who we are in any given moment, we can not. To do so would make you nothing more than an object in this world. A bundle of mere facticities.
Now look at your life again but instead of focusing on the facts of your existence look at the things that you do everyday. Look at the condition of your body. Look at the quality of your thoughts. Look at where you live and how much money you have and the people around you. This requires a sincere amount of honesty. You can not go into this with any sort of denial. These facts have to be as close to objectively observed as possible.
Ok. Now. Who do you act like you are? Do you act like you are healthy even though you eat like shit? Do you act like you care about people but behind their backs you are cursing them every way you can? Do you live in a toxic environment but act like everything is fine, or act like you have money to spend with friends on bullshit but are secretly bankrupt? If the things you are doing everyday do not align with the thing that you are presenting yourself as, then you are living in bad faith.
If you are pretending to be something you are not, acting as though the facts of your day-to-day existence have no bearing on who you actually are, then you are in denial about an essential ingredient what makes you, you.
The reality for Sartre is that we are both, a facticity and a transcendence. Both are equally important and meaningful to our attempts at living an authentic life. We have to come to embrace the anguish of our freedom of choice in every moment of our being and accept the responsibility of that freedom and the consequences of the choices that we make as we move towards the projects of the world that excite us and promise us our future transcendence.
Is this easy, no? But it is a whole hell of a lot more rewarding than simply condemning yourself to becoming an object in the world and blindly adopting the role responsibilities that society places on us or denying the reality of who you are now because you can imagine yourself being something different in the future.
So now you are left with another choice in your life. A choice that will cause you pain either way. You can either endure the disharmony and deception of living in bad faith or you can endure the anguish of authenticity. There will be pain in whatever direction you choose but at the end of one you will be created by the reflection of an empty life, a life half-lived of self-deception and at the other you will be greeted by your authentic self, the you that is only possible through a balance of who you are now and who you want to become. I know what I am going to choose.
We are moving into the season of change – of renewing our commitment to transformation and of reasserting our dedication to a better life. Soon we will resolve to adopt or give up habits and lifestyle choices that will move us towards our future, better self. In short, we have come upon that blank parchment of possibility known as resolution season.
And that means every blogger worth his salt is going to have the requisite resolution post decrying how to begin, why you will fail, and what you can do to make those resolutions stick. Well this hackney blogger is no different in that regard, but I wanted to approach the topic of resolutions from the mindset of philosophy. Big surprise, huh?
We might think that philosophy is not relevant in helping us to achieve our resolution goals, but there is a particular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had something to say about the difficulty of change in regards to resolutions – be they for the new year or simply for the new you. It is that philosopher we will explore in the hope of strengthening your resolve and to help you in achieving your resolution goals for this new year.
Why Resolutions Fail
Sartre, in his seminal work Being and Nothingness, presents his exploration of resolutions by looking at the radical freedom that we have in every moment and what it means for our ability to support the conviction of our resolutions. In his example he looks at
“the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble any more and who when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away.”
The resolution to not gamble is there in the gambler – it exists with strength and force and is brought to the front of his mind as soon as he sees the table – but he understands that there is no force within the resolution itself that is actually preventing him from gambling again. There is nothing tangible in the commitment that he can rely upon that will allow him to keep his resolution. The decision to not gamble has no ability to enforce itself on my actions. In short, the gambler has the freedom to gamble again at any time, despite his decision to not want to.
What’s more, he must face that freedom within him to gamble or not to gamble every time he is confronted with the opportunity. He must stare down the anguish of his freedom and reaffirm his resolution countless times and forever. There is no power in his resolution that does not come from his perpetual choosing of it.
Ignoring Your Freedom
So it is the same for you and the resolutions you have made. You do not have the luxury of referring back to your personal promise to yourself that you make on December 31st and think that it alone is powerful enough to prevent you from going back on it. You have to reaffirm that choice everyday in every action because you are condemned with that level of freedom.
Your resolutions have no power to compel you to act in accordance with them. They are merely ideas that you want to make real. They represent a very real desire for a better life or better health or better finances but they only exist as thoughts that require you to bring to actionable life. To that ends, you must determine, again and again, to take that action to which you before resolved to take.
And therein lies the difficulty of keeping and maintaining resolutions. Because you are lacking one or all of these three components:
- Vigilant awareness of the freedom of temptation
- Resolute strength of your decision to change
- A willed power to choose rightly again and again
These are the three critical points of resolution success, according to Sartre. Does he use different more philosophically robust language to talk about these things? Yes. But I don’t think it is necessary for us to throw around big words just to get to the heart of the matter.
What Sartre is saying is, when we make those initial resolutions it seems to us that we have “established a real barrier” between ourselves and our past behavior. We want the change badly. We think that simply in making it the resolution is burned into the depths of our being, and as such, will prevent us from committing to actions that will break our resolution. And in this thinking we fall under the hypnotic, deterministic trap that we have already changed simply because we so deeply want to change. But no great change comes without great effort and thinking we have changed is a far cry from actually changing.
How To Make Your Resolutions Stick?
To use Sartre’s own words:
“I must re-create [my resolution] as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from [breaking it].”
In short, in order for our resolutions to be a successful mechanism for change we must re-enter the experience of the first emotional reason for our resolution. We must return to that visceral passion and bring it to mind perpetually – as though it were the first time – with all the agony, pain and cost of failure. Through that revisiting we are able to find the strength necessary to defend our resolutions to ourselves and find the will to change the negative habits that have become so ingrained in us.
You have to return to the resolution in it’s full force. Something which Sartre calls “synthetic apprehension of the situation”.
Re-envision Our Failure
What this means is that we must re-envision the results of our failure. When faced with a choice of adherence to our resolution, or the breaking of it, we must relive, with the greatest and gravest of detail, the pain of failing to uphold our decision. The pain of being overweight and out of shape and the price it demands on our health and future. We must relive the sickness and costs of our smoking on ourselves and our family. We must relive the misery of our current monetary situation and the stress and anguish it brings to our lives. We must relive all the past reasons that pushed us to our resolution and we must imagine the future state of our lives if we fail. Then we must use those as motivation for our resolution and return to them as often as necessary to make the resolution stick.
In order to see our resolutions through, we must commit again and again to them. We do not have the luxury of simply referring back to our original decision to change. We are forced, through the burden of our perpetual freedom, to reaffirm, time and time again, the strength and force of our decision. An exhausting proposition but a necessary one to make our resolutions real.
But there is hope. There will come a time when it will become easier to stick to your resolution because you will become your resolution. Sartre refers to this as “transcendence” but how we understand is as, “becoming the person we imagined ourselves to be”. It doesn’t matter what we call it because we all know what it feels like and it will not be something outside of you that you are forcing on yourself. It will become a habitual fact of your being and not a temporary affirmation you must constantly resolve to affirm.
There is nothing wrong with desiring deeply to change something about ourselves. It is in fact a great and courageous exercise of our personal freedom to decide to make better what became ruined in our lives. It is never too late to face down our problems and decide to take up arms against them. But there is a stubborn difficulty that must be acknowledged in trying to stick to our resolutions. A difficulty that is born of our perpetual freedom to choose our direction in every moment of life.
We must acknowledge this burden of our freedom and recognize the necessity of reaffirming our resolutions in every moment. We must retreat back to the force of our original decision and relive the emotions that pushed the resolution to the forefront of our minds. Only in the strength of those visceral, emotional recollections are we able to constantly choose the right action that will help us see our resolutions to reality.
We must reaffirm, with constant force, our resolutions through a developed awareness of ourselves, our actions, and our intent. It is in that tiny space of freedom awareness that the success of our resolutions most lie. That awareness and then the discipline to choose rightly.
And that is the Sartrean recipe for success regarding resolutions. It is not easy. There are no short cuts and it is completely up to you in every moment to make your resolutions last, but in this personal responsibility and choice lies a wellspring of self-confidence, self-determinism, and strength that can carry fully into the rest of your life.
In his book Twilight of the Idols or How To Philosophize With A Hammer, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says;
“From life’s school of war: What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Nearly all of us have run across some version of this pithy aphorism before. It has sunk its teeth deep into pop culture and it’s easy to understand why. We want it to be true. We want to believe that the things we endure, all the heartaches and pains and sufferings and troubles, have a purpose. That by enduring them we actually become something more than what we were. A better, stronger more resilient version of ourselves.
And you know what? Nietzsche was right. Science has once again caught up to philosophy and found evidence to support the claim made by Nietzsche. Ok. Fine. I don’t want to be disingenuous to the astute readers of my articles so I will say that science hasn’t completely validated this argument from Nietzsche. But if science were also in the game of pithy aphorisms they might say something like this; “From life’s school of war: There are things that can kill me, but in smaller doses they can make me stronger.”
The No Shit Disclaimer.
Now, before we go any further let’s quickly acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes. Some things that don’t kill you can make you weaker. Duh. I am not saying everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I can say, with the sound backing of philosophy and science riding in tandem, that some things that might kill you in large doses can make you stronger when applied in smaller doses. It is a concept called hormesis and is backed by sound science.
It should go without saying that we are not to take Nietzsche literally in his statement. He himself suffered physical and mental maladies that stole his health and his mind. His syphilitic wasting away to nothing did not make him stronger. There are countless physical and mental diseases that are not going to make you stronger and I would not trivialize the suffering and misery that some people deal with on a daily basis by suggesting otherwise. I watched my uncle suffer through one of those diseases, and I know the pain it can cause.
What Nietzsche wants – what Nietzsche always wants – is for his aphorisms, while intended to be jarring and shattering, to be more slowly digested. They are to be chewed on and savored and finally swallowed after all the flavor has been wrung out of them.
We need to understand the underlying intent tied to a statement like the one above. Especially from Nietzsche, who was the emperor of aphorisms. What he is doing here is celebrating the opportunities of conflict in our lives as moments of growth. As moments of opportunity to prove the strength of the values and ideals you claim to hold. These struggles and pains and miseries that bend you, but do not break you, are opportunities of growth.
It may sound like Pollyanna, self-help, bullshit, but it’s not. There is plenty of science to back up this claim of philosophy. We see in nature that some potentially deadly applications of external factors can actually be beneficial when applied in smaller, more controlled doses.
So, what I want to do is to explore both of theses ideas of hormesis. The philosophical and the scientific. Because – as most often is the case in the relationship between philosophy and science – each individual understanding strengthens the understanding of both. And there is tactical, practical value in each if they can be understood.
What is Hormesis?
Simply put, Hormesis is a positive response to exposure to some “toxin” that might otherwise be harmful in larger dosages. This is a term that was spawned out of toxicology in 1943 but the concept was being explored in the late 19th century by science and philosophy together, and I want to return the theory to those two birth parents in order to get more from it.
We do not have to stretch far to bridge the gap between Nietzsche’s presentation of hormesis, as it relates to the mind, and the biological hormesis that was birthed in science. Nearly every reference that you find to it in medical literature comes with its very own reference to Nietzsche already in it. Our task then is to build upon what is already being implied.
I think the divergence of the philosophical and scientific presentations of hormesis lies in the 2 different forms that hormesis takes.
The 2 forms of Hormetic Stressors: Psychological and Biological
Post Traumatic Growth
The philosophical presentation of hormesis lies primarily in the psychological forms of stressors. These are the mentally taxing events of life that we all face. Some events are more traumatic or potentially debilitating than others, but even in the traumatic events we can find room to grow stronger. This idea has been validated in a study done detailed in this article from the National Center for PTSD.
In this study, we find the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. Post Traumatic Growth is the idea of “how growth arises through the resolution of an adversarial tension between pre-existing assumptive worlds and the new trauma-related information”. What does this mean?
This definition is perhaps most eloquently summed up in a quote by psychologist, neurologist, and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl when he wrote,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This means that we can find opportunities for growth if we can break down our assumptions about events that have happened to us and unravel the strain that these events can bring by integrating new information about what has happened to us.
We do this in a few different ways. One of the recommended approaches is to engage in benefit finding. Benefit finding is about breaking down our assumptions about our difficult situations. The idea is to try and find potential benefits of the situation. This is not always easy, and we should be honest with ourselves about the benefits, but if we are diligent and disciplined in investigating our situations I think we can almost always find some benefit to them.
The other activity to aid in growth from our traumas is to focus on positive changes. This means consistently and positively taking stock of your life in regular intervals after the traumatic events that happen to us and bringing to light those positive changes that you have made since those events.
Both of these activities require an honest personal inventory and retrospective reporting. This means digging deeply into difficult feelings and thoughts, but if we can manage the stress and strain of that investigation, we can grow from the traumatic events that otherwise threaten to break us for good.
Nietzsche may not be the first philosopher to propose the philosophical idea of hormesis. The Stoics philosophers may have advocated for the proactive application of hormetic ideas in their call for intentional discomfort. I have written about this before, and a great deal of that article is tangentially related to the ideas of hormesis, but I did not directly speak to the hormetic opportunities involved in intentional discomfort so I want to elaborate on that. (I do urge you to read the other article so you completely understand the concept of intentional hardship in Stoic philosophy)
By choosing to forgo some essential luxury or undertake some hardship for a short amount of time, to temporarily tax the complacency to which we often live our lives, we can strengthen our sense of gratitude for what we have and notice the hardship that other people face. We can respond to that suffering with compassion and be more prone to help out of a sense of understanding and empathy.
A compassionate response to difficult situations is just as important as a hard response. Strengthening does not always mean making you harder. Sometimes it means making you flexible. We are not building something impenetrable here with our lives. We do not want to keep everything out. We want to be able to handle everything that comes in. We want to build something substantial. Something that has weight and that can withstand the weathering of time and experience. And sometimes that takes the form of a stronger understanding of the struggles of others by choosing to undertake struggles of your own.
Yes. Philosophy itself is a hormetic stressor. Challenging the mind with new ideas, new insights, new knowledge is going to tax your mind and what’s more, it is going to tax your beliefs. That is what is strengthened, and needs to be consistently exercised, through the hormetic stress of philosophy. Your beliefs and idea about the world and your place in it.
By spending time challenging our own and others beliefs about the world, with the intent of sincerely understanding and approaching some form of truth, we rip and tear at the very fiber of our being and those rips and tears will be repaired by a deeper sense of understanding and a stronger sense of conviction and meaning for your life.
Philosophy, when done right, pushes the boundaries of our understanding, assumptions, beliefs, and ideas. It is the greatest way to work our intellectual muscles and come to a form of reasoning that is robust, meaningful, and potent. Doing philosophy, thinking deeply about life and your place in it, can be difficult because the answers we are seeking have to be unearthed through brutal self-honesty and rigid intellectual discipline but in that work of philosophizing is your chance to rebuild your belief system to something stronger and better able to withstand the malaise of meaning that can come from an unexamined life.
This is the most obvious example of a hormetic stressor that you can find out in the wild. Good old fashioned exercise. That sweat-inducing, muscle-tearing, tendon-stretching, bone-jarring beauty of working your body. I personally love it and the biggest reason is because of the hormetic response of it all.
I know that if I work out hard and can endure the temporary pain of pushing my body through difficult athletic endeavors that I can shape and form my body and the entirety of my health in a way that keeps it fit and functional for a longer time.
But I also know that, if I never take a break and I work out constantly to a degree my body can’t handle I would break it and, pushed far enough, I would eventually die. It is on of the easiest examples we can conjure to illustrate the principles of hormesis as they exist from a biological perspective and an example that is one we most often want to adopt in order to improve our lives.
If you have not heard of the Wim Hof Method from Tim Ferriss or Lewis Howes or Kevin Rose or countless other lifehackers, you must be living under a personal development rock. One of the three pillars of Wim Hof’s Method for better health, mental and physical, is cold immersion therapy.
Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, you progressively acclimate your body to colder and colder experiences of immersion. Why would we do this? There are countless benefits of cold immersion including improved immune function, improved fat loss, improved sleep quality and balancing of hormone levels, just to name a few.
I have taken daily cold showers for the past three years and I can tell you personally that it is the highlight of my morning routine. The instant, breath stealing shock of the cold on my skin brings everything to life. It is an immediate awareness and focus of attention on the moment and on the feelings of your body and mind.
I come out of that shower feeling sharp, energized, and ready to take on the world and those are only the mental benefits that combine with the physical benefits listed above. If you really want to experience the joy of a single hormetic stressor my recommendation is cold stress. Is it insanely difficult to discipline yourself to step into a cold shower every morning? Yes. Is it worth the stress of it all, physically and mentally? An unequivocal, fuck yes!
Science doesn’t prescribe a one size fits all with fasting. I commit to one 24 hour fast per week and then regular intermittent fasting for most of the week. This is my sweet spot and it is just the right amount of discomfort for me to benefit from without moving into down right destruction of my body.
As someone who works out hard, daily, I understand the need for proper nutrition and how that relates to energy and strength. Intermittent fasting is a completely legitimate method of nutritional eating that provides you with all the nutrients you need to continue to lift hard, heavy, and support a healthy weight and physique. Many people with better fucking abs than me swear by it and the science backs it up.
What you get most from it from a scientific perspective is something called autophagy.
Autophagy is basically the cellular process of recycling. When the body is in a fasted state it disassembles dysfunctional cells in the body and uses the materials from them for some other use. That’s pretty fucking amazing, isn’t it? When you are fasting your body will go looking around for dysfunctional or degraded cells in your body and break them down to use the spare parts to fix other cells.
Autophagy has been linked to improved aging and health and has been identified as a key cellular concept in keeping us youthful and in good health for a longer period. This means that fasting, in a controlled and meaningful way, can extend our lifespan and not only that, make those additional years more youthful and more meaningful.
This is an obviously non exhaustive list of hormetic stressors. There are so many more examples out there, both philosophical and biological. My intent was not to cover all of them, but to give you a starting point to explore the concept of hormesis, philosophically and biologically.
I want to be perfectly clear about something before I end this article. This theory of hormesis has nothing to do with not being weak. It is not a call to swallow your tears and “act like a man” or whatever other masculine bullshit that people want to make it about. There is a great deal of strength and power in tenderness and vulnerability. Sometimes it is the strongest and most courageous thing you can do and that is part of the strength you need to recognize when you look at these hormetic stressors.
None of these stressors are going to feel the same to everyone. Some people will have a more difficult time with things that other people will find easy to bear. Everyone should know and understand their own capacity for suffering and should reach as far outside of their comfort zone as much as possible. That is where the opportunity for growth lies. That is where the struggle becomes something that aids in our growth and that is where you will find Nietzsche’s, and natures, strength to endure.