The Badass Power of Wu Wei

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The Power of Wu Wei—Poet on a Mountain Top, Ming Dynasty

Many of us go through life trying to impose our will on the world. Sometimes it works—we finally get the promotion that we’ve been battling for, after endless late nights and newly-sprouted silver hairs; our animalistic efforts towards a female are rewarded with a wild, no-holds-barred evening in a hotel room, or our headstrong child finally gives in to our relentless requests to scrub the dishes. Often, it doesn’t work. Our snarling, snake-like manager takes all the credit for himself; the girl in the bar with the magnificent breasts sneers at our lowly attempts at flirtation, and our little-bastard-of-a-son blocks us with the noise-cancelling headphones that we paid for.

Life is—as fiery Italian footballer Gennaro Gattuso so eloquently puts it—”sometimes maybe good, and sometimes maybe shit.” It’s the messiest thing we’ll encounter, an enormous, warping ball of the most twisted and wonderful nonsense we can hope to imagine, the taming of which is difficult for even the most skilled circus performer. The world will do what the hell it wants, regardless of our sweaty exertion.

Somewhere in the undulating, gorgeously-green slopes of Classical China, in an ancient time known as the Spring and Autumn period, an insightful, unknown character saw the world’s indifference with perfect clarity, and when combined with the idea that life is easier when you go with the flow, came up with the Taoist concept of wu wei.

Wu wei, when translated literally, means “without exertion.” It’s the idea that each of our actions should be performed spontaneouslybased on the conditions of the moment. The staggering number of events that have led up to this moment in your life have created a set of conditions that are almost entirely outside of your control, and by acting in accordance with these inevitable conditions, you’re giving yourself the best chance of success, and not locking yourself into battle with an unbeatable world that, quite frankly, doesn’t give a shit about you.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

Lao Tzu, founder of philosophical Taoism

Wu wei can also often translated as “non-action”which sounds like an advocation to be a lazy deadshit, but is actually the idea of being more effective when you’re not forcing a situation. We cannot hope to persistently control a world that is hell-bent on doing what it wants. Instead, we can take each situation as it comes, and act in accordance with the unique conditions of the circumstances. The alternative is a path to teeth-grinding frustration. The expectations that we bear, and the force that we use to impose them, are the source of much irritation and resentment.

“[Unrealistic] expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Rumoured to have originated in 12-step programs

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that kids roughly under the age of seven have a tendency to believe that they can affect the outcome of a situation simply by thinking it, as though the very thought of pushing your little brother off a revolving see-saw would actually cause it to happen. He named this magical thinkingwhich as adults, is exactly what we’re doing when we have unrealistic expectations. It doesn’t make a shred of difference whether we expect something to happen or not. Going with the flow—wu wei style—is a much more favourable attitude.

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.”

Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969

Wu wei is not a call for unbridled apathy, in which we float through the world like stoned spectres, drooling and desireless, but instead an invitation to let go of our expectations, taking each moment as it comes. It’s turning your boat around and paddling with the stream, rather than against it. So much energy is wasted in trying to mould the world into our desired shape, and while we do have some success, we’re often left frustrated. Though desire, ambition and action will remain as undeniable and important forces in our lives, we must accept that our plans will often be thwarted, and that instead of descending into despair, we might consider adapting to the developing situation in the spirit of wu weiproviding us with an effective and delightful buoyancy in which we no longer have to partake in fruitless battles against an unconquerable opponent.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, founder of philosophical Taoism

The concept of wu wei is similar to the Buddhist concept of Upādāna, which can be referred to as attachment, clinging, or grasping. When we become attached to our expectations, in our desire to dominate and regulate our world, we suffer. For the orange-clad, baritone-omming buddhist, the cessation of attachment leads to Nirvana—a liberation of the soul, similar to the feeling one might expect when you finally become free of worries, after a lifetime of carrying them. Timone and Pumbaa were probably buddhists.

Similarities to wu wei can also be seen in the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which teaches the futility of trying to control that which cannot be controlled, as if the statement isn’t already obvious enough, and yet still dismally overlooked by so many us. The stoics believed that you should live according to your values, while preparing yourself for repeated, inevitable disappointment, because most of the time, the world doesn’t play to our rules.

“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

To be a practitioner of wu wei is to bestow yourself with additional energy, usually wasted on combative, headstrong styles of thinking. You’re no longer paddling against the stream, but using its natural energy to propel yourself forward, and in the process, enhancing your own vitality. Once the unnecessary need to fight has been expelled, you can move forward with increased finesse and competency, towards a brighter, less quarrelsome future.

The East has much to teach us, with Taoism a worthy forerunner. Wu weiand its emphasis on going with the flow, must surely be one of the most liberating ideas to emerge from that mysterious continent, encompassing the ability to relieve a great deal of mental stress, and move forward with an accepting, permissible attitude, in which the hardships of life are efficiently dealt with.

Hooray for wu wei!

How to Have Better Experiences—Mindfulness with Mona Lisa

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Mindfulness, not mobile phones—Image from Keep Calm and Wander

A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I spent the morning touring the Louvre museum in the elegant city of Paris. The museum holds a vast collection of beautiful, illustrious pieces of art, and a portion of history so rich that one feels as though they’ve taken a ride with a loony whitewashed scientist in a DeLorean.

The museum’s most illustrious piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for which the halls of the establishment are peppered with sign posts. As we sauntered ever closer to the famous painting, it became increasingly difficult to swing one’s arms in a casual fashion, and we found ourselves assuming a penguin-like waddle. We finally reached the section in which it was housed, packed to the rafters, to discover that we couldn’t see the painting because the view was almost entirely blocked by arms held aloft, taking pictures with mobile phones.

It’s astonishing to think that the vast majority of the museum-goers standing in front of the Mona Lisa weren’t using their god-given eyeballs to look at it, but instead believed it more important to look at it through the lens of their smartphone’s camera, because heaven forbid they’d miss the opportunity to take a picture of a famous picture. Many of us have become so detached from our own senses, and so obsessed with modern technology, that we’re abandoning the opportunity to actually experience the marvels that are in front of us. A smartphone camera is no substitute for a fortuitously-evolved pair of eyes, with capabilities to distinguish the tiniest, delightful details within a painting. Neither does it house a curious brain, the ponderous stirrings of which add fresh colour and satisfaction to an art-viewing experience. It just takes a crappy, distanced picture, which can be trounced by thousands of professional pictures on the internet, and is probably going to be glanced at a couple of times before never being looked at again. Meanwhile, the time that should have been spent examining the picture and appreciating its beauty has been lost. Only through concerted mindfulness are we able to open up our senses fully.

In another section of the museum, we witnessed a middle-aged Asian lady frantically dashing across the hall, taking a picture of a painting before darting to the next one. She seemed genuinely stressed about this arduous task, as though missing a painting would result in her beheading upon reaching the museum’s exit. It was hilarious to witness, but also quite depressing. She was so desperate to capture her experiences that she failed to experience them. This is like visiting one of Paris’ mouth-watering restaurants, taking a picture of the menu and then leaving. All she seemed to want was a record of the moment; a far-cry from the magnificence of the real thing.

This behaviour isn’t limited to museums. The digital age finds us consistently immersed in a hypnotising world of bits and bytes, at the expense of just experiencing the exquisite world around us. Our phones cannot tell us what the local park smells like after a long-awaited rainfall, or convey the sweet crispness that permeates the air. They’ll fail to transmit to us the feeling that emerges when looking up at the magnificent dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a heavenly beam of light illuminating the exquisite carvings below. A digital recording of your child’s first steps, in which your eyes are fixed onto a small screen to make sure you’re getting the perfect shot, is a dismal travesty.

The only way to fully experience these things is to put our devices away and pay attention. It makes no difference how many pixels our cameras can capture, or how high the frame-rate of our video. When our attention is focused on recording the event instead of experiencing it—so anxious to freeze the moment in time for eternity—we’re relinquishing what’s valuable about it: the experience itself. This might be considered a kind of meta-existence, in which we’re stepping outside of the real world in order to capture and record information about it. This reality seems unbelievably perverse, and yet, so many of us exist in this way, unaware that we’ve become record-keeping spectators in our own lives.

Our only hope is to resist our unrelenting desire to capture our experiences, relinquish the absurd virtual likes that we’re addicted to, and look a little closer at the world around us. Our lives are enriched through mindfulness, and impoverished through obsessive record-keeping. Our blessed senses open up a world of marvels, which can only be properly appreciated by paying attention. How can one even consider prioritising a virtual Facebook like over the sensual delights of the Niagara Falls? Or witnessing an American bald eagle soaring above your head, instead of fumbling to open your camera app?

The Mona Lisa is ruined when viewed through a digital screen. If Da Vinci painted her in our time, one might argue that her half-smile is one of mocking condescension, in response to the knowledge that most of her audience are living a hollow, ghost-like meta-existence. If we put away our cursed phones, her smile might broaden into something wondrous to behold.

Why Longing For The Weekend Can Make You Unhappy

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It’s almost the weekend.

Those words can be heard from legions of employees across the globe, from colourless, drab offices, to arse-crack abundant construction sites. They’re often responded to with nodding, relieved heads, as though this week of miserable servitude has been more torturous than a spell at Auschwitz. Just one more day of the unassailable grind, and we’ll be blessed with meadow-prancing freedom.

It’s almost the weekend is another way of saying our lives are tough, and we need a break; a declaration that resonates for many people. Adult human life – with obligations to shelter, clothe and feed ourselves – can feel depressingly arduous, so the weekend becomes a highly anticipated hiatus in which we massage away the stresses of full-time employment. Weekends were invented for this reason, and help to keep us an acceptable amount of sane.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the respite of Saturday and Sunday, but the commonplace utterance of it’s almost the weekend, while seemingly innocuous, is a damaging attitude to take. Whenever we make this proclamation, or find ourselves on its receiving end, we’re openly stating that we’re displeased about the time we spend at work, and that we cannot wait for it to be over. While this may be true, it’s reinforcing the idea that employment is something to be avoided at all costs, further tarnishing our attitude towards a mandatory practice in which we’ll spend the majority of our time on Earth. The more we whine about something, the worse it becomes in our minds. It’s almost the weekend is just a sorrowful, victim-like whinge, which serves to strengthen the idea that employment is an abomination, and that we should all be able to live in the woods like daisy-wielding, unwashed hippies. Until the boffins of this world construct super-robots who can safely do our bidding, or unless you’ve decided to spend your life shamelessly sponging off the government, work isn’t going anywhere soon. The woeful sufferer who oozes it’s almost the weekend commands respect from nobody, themselves least of all. It’s a defensive, miserable attitude in which life just isn’t fair.

You might have a truly dreadful job, or work in a toxic environment with psychotic, scarlett-faced managers who would remedy you with a cane if they could. If you’re in fortunate enough circumstances, dusting off your CV is an obvious response to hating your work. It’s certainly easier to be a forlorn coward, continuing on with your sorrowful employment while meekly declaring that it’s almost the weekend, but this does nothing to better your situation.

If you have responsibilities that forbid you from finding superior employment, or are restricted to a tiny pool of jobs, then for the time being the situation is out of your control. Similarly to those with fewer restrictions, dismal utterances of it’s almost the weekend are doing nothing but reinforcing your role as a deplorable victim, whose sufferings are worsened by the role you’ve assumed.

It’s almost the weekend is a desire to escape from your life, to flee from an uncomfortable situation instead of valiantly confronting it. We can learn a great deal from pain and discomfort; taking flight the moment it appears is relinquishing an opportunity for personal growth, in which valuable lessons may be unearthed. Railing against wretched situations (such as abuse) is required in order to effect change, but most of the time it’s better to say yes to the happenings of our lives. Escapism is an outright rejection of the present moment, the eternally ongoing instant in which we all live. It’s almost the weekend is a futile attempt to break away from the inescapable now, into a future that only exists as an ethereal concept in our brains. While there’s nothing wrong with occasionally looking forward to something, consistent mental projections of the future, and how grand it would be when we finally have some relief from the difficulties of the present, is no existence at all. It’s wishing our lives away until we finally reach our expiration date, at which point we might wonder why the hell we didn’t actually live.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.” —Alan Watts

In addition to dragging you downwards, it’s almost the weekend is dreadfully boring. You could be asking your colleagues about their weekend away with their family, or harmlessly teasing them about their obvious coffee addiction. Whining about the fact that it’s almost the weekend will earn you few friends, which are a commodity more valuable than gold.

Surviving can be tough; we all have to earn our keep. There’s a choice to make when it comes to our mandatory employment – bristle and complain about it with utterances of it’s almost the weekend, escaping into a future that doesn’t technically exist, or face your hardships head on with heroic courage and fortitude. Only the latter can bolster your chances of happiness and fulfilment.

Life is easier if you embrace change

greg-rakozy-38802-unsplashPhoto by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Our universe has an insatiable tendency to change. Since the moment of its spectacular inception, in which a singularity of unfathomable density and temperature exploded with the strength of a million gods, the cosmos has undergone endless, beautiful revision.

The formation of subatomic particles – the tiniest specks known to us – went on to form larger atoms, raging stars, colossal planets, and expansive, glittering galaxies, all vacillating from one state to another, without purpose or need for reason. The horizon-spanning landmasses that support our species are constantly shifting back and forth, forging snow-laden mountains that soar into the luminous sky, or deep subterranean trenches that lay forever hidden in the impenetrable darkness. 99 percent of the species to have existed on planet Earth – over 5 billion unique groups – have found themselves extinct, subject to the relentlessly changing nature of our universe, in which each organism plays their short role before relinquishing their atoms to another venture.

The entire universe is, and always has been, in a state of flux. If the cosmos were a sentient being, one might assume that it behaves this way in order to keep things interesting. After all, nothing induces boredom quicker than a stale, changeless situation, lacking freshness and surprise. Variety is what makes our planet so intoxicating, and yet, as a species we have a foolish, unremitting desire to cling onto positive experiences, in an attempt to prevent their escape. We wail and squirm when a period of delight transforms into mediocrity, as if the cosmos will heed our complaints and alter its immutable proclivity for change. We frantically try to grasp onto every morsel of happiness that befalls us, praying that our kitten-like grip will somehow hold on, but failing every single time. We revolt against the inevitably of change, and it makes us depressed.

Two religions of the mysterious East – Buddhism and Taoism – can help us with this problem. Alan Watts – an influential figure who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the West – called Buddhism the religion of no religion, due to its non-dogmatic, practical, and philosophical nature. Taoism has similar qualities. You won’t find a single prayer-receiving god in Buddhism or Taoism.

Buddhists believe that personal suffering is caused by our implacable tendency to become attached to what we desire, whether it be a pleasant emotion, removal of death, freedom from pain, or anything else that we crave. Surrendering our attachments leads to Nirvana, a state of blissful peace and liberation. When you consider the flux-like, constantly changing nature of the universe, this makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s impossible to become attached to anything because it’ll soon change into something else, and by foolishly trying to lengthen the experience by clinging onto it – as though our grasping will prevent its transformation – we’re condemning ourselves to disappointment.

What is required is an unrelenting acceptance of our universe’s fluidity, in which we must enthusiastically immerse ourselves. We can no longer live under the foolish assumption that we can trap our positive experiences in a large jar and climb in with them whenever we’re feeling blue. Agreeable situations will emerge, be enjoyed, and then naturally transform into something else. We suffer needlessly because we revolt against the universe’s love of change.

“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.” — Alan Watts

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
― Lao Tzu

Life is transition – you can’t pause the show and fix things into place, however much you’d like to. Things come and go naturally – resisting this fact pollutes our souls with misery.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” —Alan Watts

Our existence can be considered a glorious, dynamic adventure, brimming with experiences both light and dark, and constantly exciting. We make our way through a chapter and look back over our exploits, perhaps with a tinge of regret that things have to change, until we’re ready to move onto something provocatively brand new.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac

The ultimate change that we resist is our own death. We desperately want to step outside the confines of our changing universe, so that we may dodge its brutal laws and become eternal gods. Our capacity for memory and prediction allow us to delve into the past and future, which are incredible tools for survival, but curse us with the desire to live everlastingly. Before we developed these skills, the only thing that existed for us was this moment. We had no concept of eternity, nor any desire to become acquainted with it. We were free to live in the forever changing now – a perfectly mindful existence. Mental time-hopping may have helped to escalate our species to the top of the food chain, but it’s instilled a debilitating fear of our eventual demise. Funnily enough, most of us have already died many times over. Our cells are constantly croaking and being replaced anew, including the parts of ourselves that we personally identify with – our consciousness-creating brain cells.

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Memory cleverly pulls the wool over our eyes, creating an ongoing impression of your own identity. But on an atomic level, you are not the same person that you were when you started reading this article.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

The atoms that make up our bodies are so copious, durable and replaceable that there’s a good chance of us containing a little bit of past genius:

“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

On an atomic level, we’re all eternal – the atoms that make up our bodies will eventually depart, to become part of a chunky brown baobab tree on the plains of Africa, a humble poo-pushing dung beetle, or perhaps a future tyrannical politician. Though our consciousness expires, we survive. Humans are simply an insignificant expression of our ferociously dynamic universe; a cosmos that shakes and jives, splattering atoms across the face of gleaming galaxies, mixing and merging until something chimp-like emerges.

Change and variation is what makes our world endlessly breathtaking, and by realising that life would become monotonously stagnant without it, we can start to come to terms with our long and imperfect journey. Fear, sorrow and desperation are equally as important as courage, joy and contentment. Without death, we cannot hope to experience an exhilarating, spirited life. Change is what paints the world with luminous, spine-tingling colour; the dark hues are what make the light so gorgeously prevalent. All we need to do is take a deep breath, and plunge into it.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Why freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

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“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre

I didn’t ask to be born, and neither did you. Despite this, in what has to be the most selfish act that a pair of adults can undertake, a decision was made for our existence, and as a consequence, life was suddenly and spectacularly thrust upon us.

Given that we didn’t choose to be born, we could be forgiven for assuming that the decision-makers in this messy process would be responsible for everything that happens in our lives. But as it turns out, even though mother and father plotted and conspired to establish our fleshy form, the responsibility of our own lives falls to us. I’m hard-pressed to find a comparable event of such cruel and heartless discrimination. If this were hauled before a respectable judge, she would smash her decisive gavel in our everlasting favour. Those utter, utter bastards.

I jest, of course. I’m thankful for my meagre existence and the responsibility that comes with it, I just wish it wasn’t so bewilderingly complicated. Not only are we faced with a million bamboozling choices throughout our lifetime, we’re also expected to make the right one. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t given any How To Make Great Life Choices classes at school. Socrates didn’t teach at my woeful establishment. I just got yelled at a lot by adults who seemed to have spent their earlier years being broiled in a harsh, bitter liquid. None of them ever cooled down enough to offer me a map of life and some orientation instructions.

The problem that we all have is freedom. If you’re currently incarcerated in some god-awful prison with nightmarish, grime-ridden shower blocks, I apologise. But let me explain – freedom is simultaneously the most wonderful and awful thing that we have. It’s wonderful because it offers us the ability to make our own choices, and it’s awful because those choices can be so painfully difficult to make. As the beady-eyed French philosopher Paul Sartre said: we’re condemned to be free.

“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom oh-so generously breaks our heavy shackles, while at the same time crushing us with the obligation to choose from an endless catalogue of options. Do I quit my woefully boring day job and study to be a mechanic? Will breaking up with my girlfriend make me happier in the long run? Should I accidentally trip this screaming, satanic child? These important choices, and an uncountable number of other choices that we’re faced with, can cause us a great deal of anguish. Modern society, with its dazzling and seemingly endless plethora of choice, can make freedom even more debilitating. There’s unlimited choice, and no information on how to choose.

Then there’s the accurate nihilistic notion that life is meaningless, making the responsibility of freedom even more miserable. Why decide to do anything if it doesn’t mean anything? It’s ideas like this that have led philosophers to the prospect of suicide as a serious consideration. Is life worth living if it’s just pointless?

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Thankfully, most of us are too cowardly to place our heads in a makeshift noose, or much too attached to our lives, even though it’s often intolerably bewildering. Though we’re relentlessly faced with a freedom that presents us with important, demanding choices, we love too much about our ridiculous lives to even consider throwing it away.

If we must go on, what we need is buckets of courage. The shackles of free choice must be smashed with audacity and determination – storming into the fray of our decisions, polished, hardwood shield raised and glistening sword unsheathed. Battle wounds are inevitable, but the alternative is distanced cowardice, in which we recoil from our lives, too frightened by the perplexity of freedom to tackle it.

The courageous hero takes full responsibility for her decisions, making appalling mistakes, as well as achieving stunning, air-punching victories. Her life isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection anyway? Even if it was attainable, a life of perfect sublimity would fast become boring, because without negativity as a contrast, we cannot understand positivity. They exist as a single, unbreakable scale of experience.

“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Facing the chewy, sour parts of life without giving into the desire to escape – whether through alcohol, drugs, social media, or anything else – is heroism beyond measure. It’s affirmation, not negation, of our lives. A deafening, resounding yesThough life is unquestionably meaningless, by choosing to participate thoroughly, and by acting decisively, we’re creating our own meaning. Our role is of the sculptor, starting his long artistic process with a huge block of marble, resolutely chipping away until something evident and meaningful appears.

We may be condemned to be free, but we still possess the ability to choose our attitude. Should we play the dismal victim, crippled by the deluge of freedom, and the terrifying responsibility that we all possess? Or should we strap on our armour, accept our immutable freedom, and charge headfirst into the world with a battlecry so hectic that it’ll inspire poets? I know what William Wallace would have done.

 

 

Why White Lies Aren’t as Innocent as You Might Think

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Image from postanonym

If somebody you dislike invites you to their house for drinks, is it morally acceptable to blankly refuse, ruthlessly stomping all over their feelings by doing so?

Lying is a near-universal sin among humans. As selfish animals for which some kind of personal gain is usually the priority, society would cease to function if nobody told each other the truth. Trade agreements would fail, employment would become untenable, and personal relationships would crumble like a squeezed croissant.

It simply isn’t possible to get along with each other unless we’re honest. And yet, white lies—those little deceptions that are usually for the sake of the recipient’s feelings—are considered by many as an appropriate and just action. Why upset someone unnecessarily when we can express a small white fib?

Though seemingly innocuous, white lies can be equally as insidious as their black counterparts, for a number of reasons.

Erosion of trust

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships, which when taken away, totters like an alcoholic during a bender, heading for an inevitable crash.

Any kind of lie, white or otherwise, comes with a risk of being discovered. If that happens, trust is diminished, weakening the relationship. Having a conversation with somebody after you’ve found out that they’ve lied about something is unpleasant, and soon enough, you probably won’t want them around at all. Every word that leaves their lips has become tinged with doubt; every action a little more questionable. Their once stellar credibility has been darkened.

Over time, lying destroys human connection, even when acted out of supposed beneficence. Every time you tell an obvious white lie, the person is forced to reevaluate how trustworthy you are, causing serious damage to the relationship.

While you may not want to form a relationship with certain people, lying to them is still a bad idea because they might squeal to others about your lack of authenticity, tarnishing your reputation. It’s tempting to make up a false excuse in response to the unwanted drinks invite mentioned above, but if the little white lie is recognised, your good social standing may be at risk, which is an absolute requirement for survival in our socially-driven species.

You’re depriving people of the truth

White lies can be imbued with arrogance. What makes you so confident that the recipient of the lie can’t handle the truth? Deceit takes away their freedom to make an informed decision about the matter concerned—it’s hardly fair that you make that decision for them, assuming the role of an unrequested parental figure. Their choice may be entirely different to yours.

As naturally subjective creatures, our understanding of the truth isn’t always accurate, but it’s a damn-sight closer to the truth than a lie. Though white lies can have the benefit of preventing hurt feelings, as adults we should be fully aware that life is tough, and sometimes pain is required in order to learn and grow. Lying to protect someone’s feelings is treating them like a child who doesn’t have the mental capacity to deal with adversity.

In addition to this, a person who discovers that they’ve been lied to might start regarding themselves as someone who doesn’t deserve the truth, instilling a destructive unworthiness in which they doubt their own ability to make decisions.

Lies persist

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Mark Twain

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar”

Abraham Lincoln

White lies aren’t told and then conveniently forgotten. They remain for a lifetime. If you’re a consistent white liar, you’d better have an amazing memory, otherwise you’ll eventually be caught. Having to quickly remember and repeat lies can be a stressful experience; worse still, more lies may be needed in order to support the original, creating a gargantuan, sticky web that requires more and more work to maintain. Telling the truth requires none of this.

You’re acting like a fraud

“Every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive.”

Saint Augustine, The Enchiridon

We each have our desires and preferences, and going against them feels inherently wrongTruth, on the other hand, is like swimming with the current. Forgoing a white lie can be undoubtedly uncomfortable, but at least you’re acting in the way that is most agreeable to you; in a manner that is 100% you.

The soul that resides in your fleshy ensemble is beautifully unique, giving rise to one-of-a-kind expression and behaviour. Lies impede your originality, slowly turning you into a boring conformist, living a life that everyone else is happy with aside from you.

Lying also burdens us with cognitive dissonance, that disagreeable feeling we get when our actions don’t match our beliefs. Routine liars are likely to experience this unnecessary, guilt-ridden discomfort whenever they lie, with each deceitful sentence being accompanied by a jolly good bit of mental self-flagellation.

Self corruption

Bad habits are easily formed. One small white lie, seemingly harmless, leads to another white lie, eventually assembling an unstoppable 2-tonne snowball of destructive deceit. Indulging in wrong-doing becomes quickly comfortable, making other types of immoral behaviour effortless. Slowly but surely, your once grand character is warped into that of an unloveable scoundrel, with whom nobody wants to take on a lovely dinner date.

We’re being selfish

Though lying is often distressing, telling white lies can also be extremely uncomfortable, because you’re revealing a potentially unpleasant truth to the recipient. We might selfishly decide that we’re prefer the discomfort of the lie over the discomfort of the truth.

The truth might also have drastic, life-changing consequences, which we’re not willing to undertake. Consider the wife who has long fallen out of love with her husband, yet continues to declare her love for him daily, because she doesn’t want to destroy his feelings or face the reality of a painful divorce. Though this is perhaps a little extreme to be classified as a white lie, some part of the deception is to protect the husband’s feelings, while deterring an agonising breakup. She’s selfishly lying in order to achieve her own purpose.

Society suffers

Honesty is the glue that holds society together, and lying the crowbar that can pry it apart. We learn what’s acceptable from others, so each lie becomes tacit approval to copy the behaviour. With enough people lying, nobody can truly trust anyone, and society crumbles into non-cooperative anarchy, Mad Max style.

Given the complexity of our world, it can also be difficult to predict the full effects of a lie. Every situation contains a plethora of factors and outcomes that cannot be determined and calculated by our paltry brains. A small white lie might result in detrimental long-term effects that can’t possibly be guessed.

**

Lying, white or otherwise, can have far-reaching and devastating effects on our lives. The only time that lying is acceptable is to deter a serious, immediate threat to somebody’s life, as when an axe-murderer asks whether you’re hiding their intended victim, or when a ledge-skirting, suicidal stockbroker asks you whether their life is worth living. Aside from these extreme and (hopefully) rare situations, it’s better to tell the often uncomfortable truth.

White lies are a short-lived solution, with the potential to diminish your integrity, and the integrity of society as a whole. Honesty, though difficult and requiring a good deal of courage, is truly the best policy.

How to Defeat Shame and Embarrassment

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Brene Brown, photo by fastcompany

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen

Humans, while quite lovely at times, can be a spiteful bunch. The merciless critic within us, that character who always makes us feel better about ourselves, lets loose his disapproving expression or wicked tongue, the recipient of which is cast into a filthy pit of shame.

Shame is a result of undue, unfair, or badly-delivered criticism and judgment, adding to an anesthetized feeling of unworthiness. When we’re experiencing shame, we want to withdraw from the world; to run away from the thing that’s causing us damage. Experience enough of it over time, and we’ll make ourselves so small that we may as well not exist.

Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston who has spent much of her career studying shame. In her extraordinary book Daring Greatly, she explores the devastating impact of shame on our lives, and offers a powerful antidote: vulnerability.

Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to damage, and we live in a perilous world with physical and mental danger around every corner. Surely it’s better to protect ourselves? As it turns out, being constantly guarded is tantamount to being invisible – we must risk vulnerability in order to achieve anything worthwhile.

“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And yes, we’re taking huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.”

Brene Brown

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It’s a prerequisite for progress—you simply cannot hope to achieve anything unless you’re willing to take risks. Every compromising gamble could end up in success, or failure, but you’ll never find out which unless you have the guts to throw the dice.

Shame cloaks us in fear, preventing us from being vulnerable. Every disparaging look that lighted upon us and every small failure that befell us has helped to assemble an impenetrable suit of shame armour that we wear to protect ourselves. Brown is wonderfully candid throughout the book, describing her own farcical attempts at self-preservation:

“All of my stages were different suits of armour that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.”

Brene Brown

If shame is the excavator of quick, cowardly exits, vulnerability is how you board them up. Slowly, with enough practice, you’ll become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable, and though there’ll be times when you’ll want to shamefully escape using the swiftest of exits, you’ll usually possess the strength to stand true, and with a bit of luck, achieve great things.

“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.”

Brene Brown

The hazards of life are thrust upon us daily, and every time that happens we’re faced with a simple choice: cowardly withdrawal, or knightly, engaging vulnerability; to camouflage ourselves and fade comfortably into the background, or put a tentative foot forward, place ourselves in all kinds of jeopardy, and maybe accomplish something that makes us feel like worthy human beings.

“Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

Brene Brown

Though we’re horrified at the prospect of being vulnerable, it evokes unadulterated admiration when we witness it in other people. It’s a trait for which we hold a heartfelt appreciation—this person has the courage to step reluctantly into the abyss, and the audacity to push their chips forward, cross their fingers, and throw the dice. They’re risking embarrassment, loss and failure, but at least they’re brave enough to play.

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”

Brene Brown

“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough – that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing and impressing.”

Brene Brown

Brown places great emphasis on the idea of wholeheartedness, which is living your life from a place of worthiness; a place where you realise that you are undeniably valuabledeserving of happiness, with the courage to be vulnerable. This is a position from which you’ll experience and affirm everything in your life—fear, pain, doubt, depression, amusement, bliss, joy—everything! By answering life with a resounding yes, you’re fully participating in your own existence.

“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.”

Brene Brown

“We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”

Brene Brown

“The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success, to their marriages, to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.”

Brene Brown

It’s a choice between shying away from vulnerability and remaining on the sidelines of your life, or taking a deep breath, strapping on your boots, and running onto the field, brimming with fear but truly alive.

“Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.”

Brene Brown

“It’s easier to live disappointed that it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.”

Brene Brown

While we’ll never be able to fully silence shame-inducing critique (whether from ourselves or others), we can combat the crippling feeling of shame by practicing gutsy and relentless vulnerability, stepping into the world as opposed to withdrawing from it. We adore vulnerability in others, and yet, when it’s time for us to enter the fray unprotected, running away becomes a tempting option. When we do muster up the courage to take the plunge, we’re transformed into objects of admiration, and during those moments, we’re living wholeheartedly.

“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?’ Steve looked at me and said, ‘I love you exactly like that.’ Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.”

Brene Brown

Why Kids Are the Masters of Existence

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”

Heraclitus

Life has a tendency to grind us down over the years. Slowly, relentlessly, our limited stay on earth becomes ever more serious, carving deep-set, knitted lines between our once-smooth brows. Our muscles take on a steady tenseness, only able to be softened by the skilled hands of a Thai masseuse. The near-constant anxiety that racks our exhausted brains zaps the dazzle from our once vibrant hair.

It wasn’t always like this. As kids, we had a propensity for joy. We were able to just live in the moment. Young kids have no concept of past or future—they seem to understand, intuitively, that the only tangible thing that exists is now. You’ll never find a young child wracked in anguish about yesterday’s mishap at play school. Nor will you find them frantically worrying about the upcoming visit from their distant, straw-eating, hillbilly cousins.

Kids don’t have any responsibilities, of course, and while this is certainly a factor in their carefree attitude, it’s far from the whole story. Children just seem to have an unwavering commitment to their lives—they never hold back. When a young girl builds a sandcastle, she builds the absolute shit out of it. When she straps on her wellingtons and jumps in a freshly formed puddle, she jumps as high as her legs will allow. When she gets upset, she cries her heart out. There’s simply no time to worry when you’re so busy living.

Why are kids able to become so effortlessly engaged, and how can we imitate the joyous little bastards?

Curious, mindful sensing

“Children see magic because they look for it.

Christopher Moore

An uncountable number of mothers across the globe have, at one point, dashed across a room to prevent their child from putting something disgusting in their mouth. Kids love to use their senses to explore the world. What does that mud-ridden, juicy worm taste like? How does this delicate, floral-covered vase feel when I run my fingers over it? What will happen if I squeeze this ginger cat’s tail?

As we become familiar with the sight, texture and taste of the world around us, it somehow becomes less special. We stop paying attention to the stunning, sun-kissed majesty of our city. Our minds are elsewhere while we wolf down salt-covered, freshly roasted potatoes. The small, thoughtful, love-filled gestures from our partner begin to go unnoticed. We start to take everything for granted.

Young kids find magic and novelty in the world because they pay attention. Their Magellan-like exploration of their surroundings aren’t accompanied by an endlessly buzzing smartphone that yanks on their attention. They aren’t conjuring plans for their next activity while delicately picking a ruby-red geranium in the local park. They do one thing at a time, and they do it wholeheartedly. Kids are the embodiment of mindfulness. They stare so intently that it can make you blush, absorbing every single blemish on your face, and giggling afterward.

“The soul is healed by being with children.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The fact that everything is new and shiny to a kid does make things more exciting, but we can recapture a little of this magic by being more mindful and curious about the world around us.

Instead of just glancing at something, really look at it. Consider its shape, texture and colour. If it isn’t a human who’ll get offended, touch it. Contemplate how it feels against your nerve-packed fingertips. Notice the sound waves that are hurtling and ricocheting their way through the world, which by chance, happen to reach your meticulously evolved ears. Though you may experience the same thing every day, you’re probably still missing a great deal of delightful detail.

Our world has profound depth and boundless beauty, and we just happen to have the right equipment to experience it. Kids know how to use this equipment properly—they’re the masters of their senses. As we grow older, we live more inside our own heads —an existence of imagination, projection and worry, with no concrete reality. The antidote is simply, and wholeheartedly, to pay attention to the world once more. Put your fucking phone away and spend some time absorbing your exquisite, improbable planet.

“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

Alan Watts

Even something that you don’t want to do can become intriguing if you pay attention, from a position of open-minded curiosity. Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, curiosity has a way of transforming the mundane into something beautiful and extraordinary. By withholding our judgment and becoming a little more inquisitive about the daily activities of our lives – scrubbing the dishes, making the bed, brushing our teeth, etc. – they become a little more pleasing. Curious attention turns us into participants, rather than spectators, in our own lives. Kids do this naturally, and this is one of the reasons why they’re so joyful.

Pledge yourself fully to each and every moment, as a child does. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re irritated, be irritated. Kids don’t try to escape their emotions the way that adults do; they seem to understand that soon enough, whatever is bothering them will be over. Our emotional life is a never-ending rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs—the highs can’t exist without the lows.

“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children don’t usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.”

The Dahai Lama

Be content with what you have

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.”

Lao Tzu

As we mature from teenagers to adults, responsibility bears down on us like a truck with a sleeping driver. Suddenly, we’re no longer able to freeload from our parents, and the obligations that we’re burdened with make life much more serious. Kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or the security of their job after a recent company takeover. Their basic needs are fulfilled, often thanklessly, without question.

As adults, we’re always going to feel the squeezing pressure of earning a living, but we can minimise that pressure by learning to be content with what we have. How happier will an extra few thousand dollars a year really make us? Is it worth consistently working until the small hours of the night, and depriving yourself of sleep to get it? Most of us intuitively know the correct answer to this question, and yet we do it nonetheless.

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”

Pearl S. Buck

While playing with a toy, young kids aren’t putting plans in place to get a bigger, better toy. They’re too busy living and experiencing what’s in front of them. Ambition is just a foolish concept pursued by grown-ups. Why strive for more when you can’t appreciate what you already have?

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

Socrates

Perpetual, irrational seeking of more and more stuff is also resulting in the dreadful consequence of a smothered and poisoned planet, which has reached a crucial tipping point. Materialism has even shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. We assume that more stuff means more happiness, but it’s a tragic mistake that might end up killing millions of people.

By learning to be content with what we have, our greedy desires for more will lessen. We won’t need a promotion in order to buy that enticing, V8 sports car. Our financial responsibility, and the pressure that comes with it, are reduced to something much easier to handle. Like kids, we can begin to fully appreciate and become involved with what’s in front of us.

Psychology has shown that keeping a daily gratitude diary is a great way to become more content with your life, because it forces you to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lacking.

Treat life as a game

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“[The world is] an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white, pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted, tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.”

Alan Watts

Unless you’re religious, you’d probably agree with the fact that life has no ultimate meaning. As such, it’s our challenging and enduring task to imbue it with meaning that’s wholly personal to us. We decide what makes life meaningful, and while this absolute freedom can swing between being crippling and liberating, it’s an undeniable and staggeringly beautiful fact.

Life doesn’t have to be so serious. Hindus believe that life is a game, born out of creative play by a divine god. Games are supposed to be enjoyed, not played to be won and conquered, like an empire-builder with stunted self-confidence. A game is played for the enjoyment one experiences while playing; there’s no end goal in sight—it’s the playing that counts. One doesn’t dance in order to reach the end of the song, we dance because we enjoy the process. The end game is a fool’s game.

For children, their whole existence can be described as a game, and their unremitting investment in playing through the good and bad parts of it are what makes them masterful participants.

Our existence is only serious because we assume it to be. By treating life as a game, it becomes more nonchalantly light-hearted, and our petty little worries are destroyed by a fresher, brighter perspective.

Do what you love

If a child is drawn towards something, they’ll use whatever means necessary to get it. There’s no need for them to rationalise why their heart is set on certain toys, activities or people, they just want them and enjoy them. Not much changes with the approach of adulthood—certain things just happen to intrigue us, which is why settling into a personally appealing career is so critical to our happiness. Kids don’t usually do things that they don’t want to do—why the hell would they? They’re motivated intrinsically, solely by what interests them.

Of course, gaining and maintaining employment isn’t quite as simple. It’s doubtful that we’ll work jobs that we love all the time. This seems to be an increasingly common assumption that should be expelled for the sake of our mental health—a utopia-like job, perfectly suited to you, is highly unlikely to exist. Even if it did, it’d be almost impossible to find. Instead, we should focus our efforts on finding employment that is good enough; on a role that fulfils us for the most part, but will probably still irritate us at times.

**

We all lost something on the way to becoming adults, stolen by an education that equipped us for survival, but robbed us of our enthusiasm. Though the responsibilities of life will forever be a burden, they don’t have to drag us to dark and depressing depths. As difficult as it can be to recognise, our existence contains much that we should be grateful for.

Anxiety doesn’t have to be the most familiar emotion in our arsenal. Our passion for life can be rekindled by imitating the kids, those masters of existence, for which time is a game played beautifully.

The hero – the ultimate weapon against suffering

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“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell

If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.

Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.

Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.

As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.

There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.

The victim

The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.

Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.

If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.

The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.

The hero

The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.

Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaning into suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats

The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.

**

Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.

The choice is yours.

“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck

Free Will Theories Explained—the Paedophile Who May Not Be Responsible for His Crimes

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Some free will theories have drastic implications for personal responsibility

If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?

This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex—an area that regulates social behaviour—created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.

This dark situation is a question of free will—should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major free will theories emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.

Hard determinists

“Life calls the tune, we dance.”

John Galsworthy

Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined—it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.

Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia—free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.

“There is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe”

Wikipedia on causal determinism
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Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility—if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances? Determinism is one of the most concerning of free will theories.

It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose those events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.

From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.

“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.”

Baron d’Holbach

Libertarianism

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians—we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.

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Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Libertarians believe in agent causationour powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.

Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.

Compatibilism (soft determinism)

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory—if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions. In this particular situation, this position might be considered the harshest of the free will theories.

Degree of control – a new approach

Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation—whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.

In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.

To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.

Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel—the outcome is the same, after all.

The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.

While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern—the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.