The One Reason to Complain

Image from Pixabay

Complaining is mostly a toxic behaviour. Many of us can bear witness to the gloominess that washes over us when we’re in the company of a serial whiner—we’d tear down walls to escape the situation. Every self-righteous word seems to vanquish a little bit of your soul. Suggesting a fix for the thing being complained about is futile, because that isn’t the desired outcome. Incessant whiners just want to whine, making the mustering of our own empathy nigh on impossible. People of this kind are often infected with deep-seated bitterness—their lives don’t match their expectations, and instead of having the courage to fix what’s bothering them, they relinquish the responsibility and complain instead. It’s much easier, after all.Th

There’s lots of reasons that people complain, with most them being counterproductive to our mental health. For many of us, the hardest one to resist is physical pain. Hurting is horrible, and it comes with a tendency to vocalise the experience, whether it be groaning, grunting, or divulging to our partner in monotonous detail about every unpleasant sensation. Emotional pain is just as extreme, and carries similar effects. Others may grumble for its bonding power—many a friendship has been forged in the fires of Mount Gloom; our judging and whining is met with nodding heads, and we become a little bit closer. We simply can’t believe that so and so would do such an awful thing, and by stating this fact, we’re elevating ourselves above them, dismissing the possibility that we’d ever act in such an animalistic way. Nothing is more self-congratulatory than a high horse. We’re recruiting an army of like-minded whiners—together we can set this crooked world straight!

Being spoiled is another major factor. A hungover barista forgot to put chocolate sprinkles on our cappuccino, and we can’t find the words to express how much of an idiot he is. He has one job to do. Later on our flight is delayed by an hour, and it’s literally the worst thing to happen to anyone, ever. Never mind the fact that air travel is one of the greatest of human inventions, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have it. This type of spoiled demeanour is often paired with a lack of control, fuelled by our desire to direct everything so that it works out exactly as we want it to. The instant our expectations aren’t met, a complaint flies from our lips.

Uncomfortable silences can also act as complaint enticers. If you’re with friends and an extended spell of silence falls over the group, it’s common for someone to whine or gossip about something in order to extinguish the awkwardness, particularly for older people, who tend to mop up complaints like leftover gravy. Whining feels good—it’s infinitely preferable to the tension of silence. Every complaint strengthens the neural pathways dedicated to complaining, making the road more likely to be travelled. Before you know it, you could be a serial whiner.

So should complaining be avoided at all costs? Not entirely. We all experience strong negative feelings from time to time, and bottling them up isn’t a good strategy. You may be depressed about your tedious career, and need to talk about it with your partner. If we’re to retain our sanity, we absolutely must talk about such things. Our position the most important consideration— are we playing the role of the victim? The poor helpless individual who can’t get ahead in life no matter what we do? Or are we venting our frustrations in order to make things clearer to ourselves, and our partners? Are we having a conversation which leads us down the path to a solution? If you’re complaining about something and you have no desire to improve it (or it’s outside of your control), your whining will probably make you feel worse in the long run. The next time it pops into your head, you’ll be more likely to complain about it again, because you’ve trained yourself to do so. 

The next time you catch yourself opening your mouth to complain about something, you might want to consider your position. Do you actually want to fix what you’re whining about? Or are you just assuming the role of a whimpering victim? The difference is crucial.

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” 

Eckhart Tolle

How to Find Hidden Beauty

Image from Pixabay

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect”, relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect”, and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro”. It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge for some well-earned rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us that incredible beauty can be found in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

The Bonding Power of Humour

The thought of being independent is appealing to many of us, to be able to act like the pristine lone wolf, roaming the rugged lands and fulfilling every need by itself. To survive autonomously is to be clothed in power, lacking the requisite of outside help. Such people are almost impossible to find within our species. We each have a stark dependency on others, whether it’s the food from our local supermarkets, the shelter of our apartment complexes, or our innate need for emotional closeness. The fields of evolution and psychology strengthen the idea of our social necessity, teaching us that in order to thrive in this world, we must get along with our fellow humans.

Of all the behavioural quirks that we exhibit as a species, there’s one that stands out as an accomplished bonder of people, an action that reduces our distance by wrenching us together in the most enjoyable way imaginable—humour. Laughter is a potent weapon in the battle for social acceptance; a razor-sharp cutlass, the nimble swishing of which makes ardent conquerors of us. It’s a universally adored behaviour with the power to turn strangers into friends, friends into lovers, and lovers into lifelong partners—the solid bedrock of many a successful relationship, and the foundational beginnings of new ones. A good sense of humour can transform our lives from a solitary and lonesome quest into a glorious fellowship—filled with playful nudges, digged ribs, and riotous laughter. With humour thrown into the mix, our dependence on each other is made not only palatable, but utterly delicious. It’s one of a small handful of things that makes life worth living.

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Audrey Hepburn

Some of our dearest memories are created from periods of turbulent, knee-slapping hilarity—that Sunday afternoon in a pub garden, the nip of the winter’s day fought off by the heat of amusement as your impish friends make joke after joke; an early evening spent lounging in bed with your partner, relentlessly teasing and chuckling until your cheeks hurt from smiling; the time after a festival when you used a traffic cone to mimic a cow, and the local creatures seemed convinced by your efforts to communicate. These moments are more valuable than all the sparkling diamonds of the world, and they come about by making a concerted effort to be funny.

Every attempt at humour is a gamble, with either a gain or a loss in social kudos; wide-grinned, beaming faces, in which a glorious victory has been won, or looks of hardened stone, eliciting bored apathy. A failed attempt at humour can be awfully embarrassing, and our aversion to loss can make cowards of us. But the gamble is worth it, because victory is nothing less than unbridled connection to our fellow humans; a shared sense of joyous camaraderie. Embarrassment is fleeting, but friendship is long-lasting. The only way to discover our particular kind of people is by having the courage to put ourselves out there. Jokes are friendship-detectors, which light up our future companions after every ridiculous quip that we dare to make. Who cares that our critics remain silent and stony-faced? We’ll probably never be friends with them anyway. When it comes to being humorous, the gamble is almost always worth it.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Attempts at humour can dwindle as we grow older and become more comfortable with ourselves, because we’re less inclined to impress others. This is a tragedy—our lives can become dull without regular bouts of laughter, its colour desaturated until drab and dreary; an existence of humdrum seriousness, in which ambition positions itself front and center. We forget the absolute joy we felt in the throes of a tickle attack from our mother, or the time we hit our grandad square in the eye with a snowball, with him turning up later wearing a pretend medical patch. We swap our superhero outfits for business suits, and in the process, forget what’s really important—a tongue-in-cheek crack at your friend’s new tattoo; a return from holiday with every square-inch of your desk covered in tin-foil, or an uninterrupted, no-holds-barred re-telling of your brother’s insane party antics. The confidence that age brings is an undeniably good thing, but it can be accompanied by insidious complacency, in which we’re so self-assured that we no longer see the social importance of cracking a well-timed kitchen joke among colleagues, or putting a whoopee cushion underneath your grandmother’s worn-out armchair. These are the actions that make us truly loveable—every daring quip strengthens our bond with our audience, creating a wonderful sense of belonging. Laughter is the ultimate social adhesive.

“Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.” 

Sean O’Casey

To laugh with another person is to momentarily love them. All cares fall away for the briefest of moments, as though we’ve been permitted temporary entry into a heavenly Nirvana, before stepping back into our anxiety-wracked bodies. There’s nothing quite as effective at bonding people than humour, and our efforts to make each other laugh can create formidable affinities, reinforced with every new joke. Our dependency on each other can be transformed from a position of hesitant obligation, to eager devotion, in which every snicker, chuckle and howl makes us appreciate each other a little more. The strenuous journey of life, in which the highest snowy peaks and lowest boggy troughs must be traversed, is made worthwhile only if we have companions walking beside us, and laughter is how we acquire them.

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” 

W. H. Auden

How Nature Can Improve Your Health

aerial-view-beach-beautiful-462162Image from Pixabay

By the year 2050, 70% of humanity is expected to live in cities across the globe[1]. Our already gargantuan concrete jungles will continue to grow, swollen with millions of ambitious jostlers, immersed in the higgledy-piggledy game of life.

The sheer scale of our cities can quickly become tiring; their excitement a jangle on our overstimulated nerves, as though being repeatedly zapped with a cattle prod. While there’s much to love and appreciate—delicious coffee; bars awash with friendly, tipsy faces; the soft twinkling of densely-packed skyscrapers—cities can quickly become overbearing, creating a longing for the soothing calm of the wide outdoors: an expansive wood with zigzag walking paths; a serene national park, echoing with the warbles of luminous, tippy-tappy tropical birds; or a soaring, snow-tipped mountain, so utterly glorious that it appears to have been designed with the purpose of taking your breath away.

Nature can be a formidable conqueror of stress. A plodding amble beside a bubbling stream, away from the merciless chaos of modern civilisation, can do wonders for the soul—cortisol levels dampened, ruminations hushed[2], and contentment heightened, as though everything is just as it should be. The smokey topaz hue of a soaring redwood, the millions of blades of fulgent grass that encroach upon it, and the red-tailed hawks that float on the overhead airwaves, are all unquestionably perfect. Their flawlessness bathes us in appreciation, and though it’s tragically difficult for us to realise, we’re an expression of the very same universe, and share their perfection. What’s to achieve, if everything is already sublime? Nature’s sole ambition is to perpetuate into the future—a bespeckled leaf-toed gecko doesn’t dream of sitting in the boss’ chair one day, head swollen with status, nor does a mountain assume that it’ll be more attractive if it attains a gym membership, in an effort to enlarge its craggy north face for the ladies. Everything is already exactly as it should be.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
—Lao Tzu

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
—John Muir

For entry into its realm, nature demands our ambition as payment, returned a little lighter upon exit. With our opportunism all but vanquished, there’s nothing to do but open up our senses to the majesty that we’ve gained access to—basking in the tranquility of a tulip-strewn meadow, bobbing in the gentle waves of the Spanish blue Mediterranean ocean, or doggedly trudging up the gruelling slopes of a serrated limestone mountain, offering views that would melt the heart of the most ardent industrialist.

4k-wallpaper-beautiful-bloom-1487010Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

The inconceivable grandeur of nature can have a powerful diminishing effect, reducing us to tiny specks lost in a vast landscape, and inviting us into a perspective that fills us with humility. There’s nothing quite as humbling as standing before a colossal thousand-foot granite mountain, or watching as a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice detaches itself from a glacier, slamming into the ocean and throwing up a wall of formidable water. Such things are mightier than us, and we must prostrate ourselves before them. Worthier gods couldn’t be found in all the galaxies of the universe.

“Nature is not vying for our attention or demanding anything from us (unlike the media, advertisement and the entertainment industry) but instead always remains in the background, awaiting like a long lost friend, our attention to reignite the friendship once again—for free.”
—Joshua Krook[3]

The term “humility” is derived from the Latin word humilitas, in turn related to humilis, which can be translated as “grounded” or “from the earth”[4]. To be humble is to return to the place from which we came—a homecoming that instills us with a contented sense of belonging. The vast majority of our evolutionary past was spent in the wild, rustling through swathes of elephant grass on the African plains, or darkened by the shadows of oak trees, immersed in a murky deciduous forest. It’s no wonder that we feel so at home among nature—homo sapiens have spent 98% of their history in it. There’s no denying the magnificence of modern living, with its glistening, expansive cities, but in the depths of our soul, some of us feel most at home in the wild. Our desire to “get away from it all” might be translated as a longing to return to the peace and solitude of a wide-set mountain valley, echoing with the hungry cries of circling golden eagles. We feel a profound affinity with nature not just because of our dependence on it, but because we are it. Our tendency to think of ourselves as separate from nature is a grave error. Humans are the universe expressing itself in a unique way—one single form of expression among billions.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
—John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

For those of us lacking in the faith of an almighty, monotheistic god, or struggling to identify what gives voice to our hearts, nature can provide us with the meaning that we so desperately crave. When gazing upon the rouge-painted slopes of a rolling autumn hill, reflected in the stillness of a shimmering lake, the beauty of what you’re observing is the point of everything, pacifying the need for any kind of ultimate purpose. The soaring significance of nature is often achieved in the most beautifully simple way—not an embellishment in sight, nor any need for bells and whistles, just a torrent of water suddenly suspended in mid-air, then cascading downwards in glad acquiesce to gravity, quietly dissipating until there’s nothing left but fine mist.

G6G6D0UAngel Falls, Venezuela

“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays (The Desert)

The immobilising awe that we can feel as we gaze through a vista in a sun-kissed coastal town, blue sea twinkling in the distance, is a connection to an astonishing universe that requires no point other than its own existence. Awe entwines us with the natural world, strengthening our affinity with this effortlessly ravishing planet that we’re so incredibly fortunate to be a part of.

“Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir

Nature’s cadence is one of easy-going plodding—the sweeping Himalayas took 50 million years to form[5], and here we are dashing about like industrious mice, busy busy busy, hoping to achieve even the tiniest thing of significance. It’s impossible to savour something when possessed by a speed demon, hell-bent on achievement, forgoing the joy of peaceful dawdling—doing nothing more than luxuriating in the moment. When we find ourselves gawping at the sun-blistered chasm of the Grand Canyon, the sheer spectacle transforms us from madcap hares into attentive tortoises, forcing us to appreciate its majesty at a more fortuitous pace, one in which we’re less likely to become the victims of a premature heart-attack.

“Nature is a labyrinth in which the very haste you move with will make you lose your way.”
—Francis Bacon

Nature applies a much-needed brake on our ever-increasing acceleration, led astray by the belief that status-fuelled achievement can somehow offer us contentment. All of that nonsense is quickly forgotten when we find ourselves ambling down a countryside-lane, tasting berries as we go, happy with nothing more than the natural delights of the earth.

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays (Nuptials at Tipasa)

Our world is truly magnificent, with so much goodness to offer us. And yet, much of this beauty is in danger of being lost to the ravages of global warming, fuelled by humanity’s unrelenting greed. It’s a tale of incomparable tragedy—as we choke the earth, we choke ourselves. We must do everything in our power to protect our planet, lest we destroy its irreplaceable delights.

It isn’t too late for us to slow the damage, but we must do our part. With collective action, we can help to protect the pristine solace of our natural world, so that we may continue to become willingly bewitched by its abundant enchantments. Our planet can only take so much abuse—the danger that we face cannot be understated.

Never before has something been this urgent. This spectacular world of ours can endure into the everlasting future, its breathtaking magnificence open for all, but only if we become fully conscious of the significance of the problem, accept that the responsibility for change lies with us, and take repeated and consistent action. If we work together, we can save this fantastic world of ours.

If you’d like to learn more about the devastating effects that global warming is having on our planet, check out these awesome shows on Netflix:

References

1. Gregory N. BratmanJ. Paul HamiltonKevin S. HahnGretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross, Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
2. Jill L. Ferguson, 5 Benefits of Being Outdoors
3. Joshua Krook, Cezanne’s Writings and Finding Meaning in Nature
4. Wikipedia, Humility
5. The Geological Society, Continental/Continental: The Himalayas

Why Laughter Is the Ultimate Weapon Against Meaninglessness

melanie-dretvic-699931-unsplashPhoto by Melanie Dretvic on Unsplash

If we widen our scope from our narrow, subjective point of view, to the entirety of our colossal, shadowy universe, this species of ours, with our hairless bodies, opposable thumbs, and mounds of belly-button fluff, might be described with a single, incisive word: inconsequential.

We’re really quite tiny. Puny, in fact. There isn’t much that we can do of consequence in our lifetime—even with the lifetime of every humanbefore the steady march of time crushes us underfoot, when we return to the eternal obscurity of pre-birth. We’re all living on borrowed time, as quick as a cursory snap of the fingers, and then oblivion. Our destiny is one of triviality, authored by the fluctuating nature of the universe, whose brutal indifference lives by only a single, ironclad rule—things must change. The universe doesn’t make exceptions. Whether it’s in the next few hours, or the next few billion years, eventually, our species is highly likely to perish, lost to the eternal darkness of the abyss.

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Depressing nihilism? It doesn’t have to be. Our irrelevance can offer us a beautifully light-hearted, devil-may-care attitude. If nothing really matters, and everything we slip and strain for will eventually crumble into dust, what’s to take seriously? Is it really worth spending twelve hours a day chained to your office desk, expression of hardened-stone, assiduously beavering away to climb a career ladder that will be annihilated soon enough? Our mortality affords us the ability to be blasé—a reminder to check our overbearing seriousness in the face of obliteration.

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”
— David Hume

There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as someone who takes themselves too seriously, as though their bustling ambition is their ace-up-the-sleeve against death, securing their immortality. These are the Donald Trumps of the world—ruthless, lacking in humour, hell-bent on control, and without any sense of their own pointlessness. All ego and no spirit. Can you imagine Trump actually having fun while swanning around the immaculately-kept fairways of his Mar a Lago golf resort? Excessively serious people are all work and no play, even when pretending to play. Though their efforts may help to position them atop a towering hierarchy, their humourless attitudes will wreck their ability to enjoy it. They lack the capacity to see their existence as it really is: hopelessly frivolous.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”
Marcus Aurelius

Life is hopelessly frivolous for all of us, and appreciation of this fact—contrary though it may seem—can stoke our sense of humour until it becomes a blazing inferno. We can bristle and weep in the face of our impending doom, or laugh raucously in its face, fully aware of how ridiculous, magnificent, and wonderful it all is. Laughter is rebellion against the meaningless of life. A master of living carries a light heart.

When a Zen Buddhist finally attains enlightenment after decades of practice, they say that there’s nothing left for them to do but have a good laugh[1]. They’ve perceived a fundamental truth—everything that they sought was already within them, and their strivings can be considered as all but meaninglessness. How else to react to this insight? With a serious, hard-boiled expression? Or with laughter?

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh

The word nirvana literally translates to “blow out” or “extinguish”, which is exactly what happens to your absurd seriousness when you realise the insignificance of it all, no longer harbouring delusions of grandeur, but instead viewing your existence as a wave in the ocean, the flap of a starling’s wing—nothing more. As our seriousness wanes, our playfulness and sense of humour increases.

“[Laughter is a] sudden relaxation of strain, so far as occurring through the medium of the breathing and vocal apparatus… the laugh is thus a phenomenon of the same general kind as the sigh of relief.”
—John Dewey

The earnest among us harbour an innate desire for control, as though we can shape and mould our world into something concrete and everlasting. The playful perceive the futility of such actions—a belly laugh that destroys all illusion of authority over Mother Nature, as if her defeat were ever possible. Good humour is the ability to sense the uncontrollable complexity of the world—an attitude which when translated into words might say “fuck trying to control that wily nonsense”.  In the frequent moments that we become lost in our lives—teeming with seriousness after having forgotten that it’s all just a game—a knee-slapping, riotous howl of laughter might be the most effective way to put everything into perspective.

“Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out in laughter.”
—Longchenpa

Part of a comedian’s job is to draw attention to people who take life too seriously, magnifying their absurdity in comical ways, and transforming gravity into frivolity. There’s no easier target than a stiff, po-faced gentleman with a head full of ambition, whose piss must be taken in the name of tomfoolery. Loftiness is only permitted when sprinkled with humility. Laughter is the razor-sharp weapon that can pierce solemnity, which is why someone like Ricky Gervais can get away with pummeling a room full of movie stars, or make light of something as tragic as the holocaust. Humour is like bottled relief—two large teaspoons taken every four hours can lower stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower blood pressure[2]. Comedians may as well be physicians.

“The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world.”
—Václav Havel

To be humorous is to temporarily abandon reason, which is rendered worthless during moments of laughter—throwing logic out of the window because it’s all so silly and pointless. When the absurdity of our existence smacks us directly in the face, and we fully regard it for the first time, all that we once deemed important—getting rich, being successful, driving a sports car, etc.—can dissipate into nothing, followed by a sublime sense of relief.

“Don’t take life too seriously; nobody ever makes it out alive anyway.”
—Van Wilder

A sense of humour is like psychological armour against the tragedy of a meaningless existence—a shining suit of Mithril, with every precious link curved upwards into a smile, poised to charge the enemy with a grin on our faces. The universe has spat us out without our consent, and to make matters worse, demands our dissolution after a few short decades. How better to respond than with unassailable mirth?

A hardy sense of humour is an effective rebellion against our absurd existence—a rightfully judicious decision that can turn our story from one of depressing, all-too-serious tragedy, to mutinous, laugh-out-loud comedy. Laughter has the power to turn us into insurgent gods, and though life will never be able to offer us any concrete meaning, during our times of cackling rebellion, for the briefest of moments, it no longer matters.

“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
Marcus Aurelius

References

1. Alan Watts, The Way of Waking Up
2. The Power of Positivity

The Psychological Driving Force That Makes Social Networks so Successful

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Francois de La Rochefoucauldimage from The Art of Manliness
For a poodle-haired French philosopher born in the elegance of a post-Renaissance Paris, a social network would describe the group of friends that he spends his time with, sipping tea in a lavish French salon while discussing the deepest topics of life. Francois de La Rochefoucauld is a philosopher famed for penning a short book of stinging, pithy maxims, aimed at eliminating the illusions that we have related to our own behaviours, with particular emphasis on our desperate need to impress other people.

The gargantuan, overgrown beasts that we call social networks today might be unthinkable for someone from La Rochefoucauld’s time, but despite being beyond that generation’s reach, the man himself would probably have had a lot to say about them. One his greatest skills was his ability to perceive the underlying motives behind people’s behaviour, much of which is focused on our longing for social approval—a desire that forms the foundation of modern social networks. Without the “like” button, there probably wouldn’t be a Facebook, an Instagram, or a Twitter. There may not even be a Medium. La Rochefoucauld was able to fully appreciate the power of social approval, and the extent to which it drives our behaviour.

The lives that we portray on social media can be vastly different to reality, with only the so-called positive aspects of our experiences shared, in an unconscious attempt to disguise the often banal truth of our day-to-day existences. Like actors on a stage, we slip on a more attractive mask, position ourselves in appealing situations, and carry out impressive performances to trick our audience into believing that our lives are something to be envied. We want to be adored, after all. The problem with such bombastic fakery is that the mask can become to the reality, and who we really are slips from our memory, to be replaced with society’s notion of prestige and success—the existence of an subservient toady.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

A disguise is never suitable for long—eventually we’ll yearn for our heart’s true desire. We must go our own way, lest we live the life of someone else. Social networks are poison to individualism, with each member striving to impress their hundreds of friends, and selling a little bit of their soul in the process. Flattery—and the vanity that seeks it—insidiously cuts away at our uniqueness, until there’s nothing left but a shell, with social media “friends” permitted to fill it up with whatever they want.

“If we did not flatter ourselves, the flattery of others could never harm us.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Much of our social posting—our political rants, jokes, daily gripes, TV recommendations, social commentary, or anything else that we deem to share with the world—can be traced back to our desire for approval, eyes darting to the alluring notification icon whenever it appears, yearning for people to like what we have to say. The scope can even be widened to any interaction that we have with people. As highly social animals, a great deal of our mutterings are made with the intention to impress. How often would you make a comment that you know would agitate your audience, darkening your reputation in the process?

“We speak little if not egged on by vanity”
—La Rochefoucauld

La Rochefoucauld believed that without our own rapacious sense of vanity to spur us on, we’d be a hell of a lot quieter. But as long as there’s admiration to be had, we’ll capture it in whatever way that we can (provided it doesn’t offend anyone important).

These assertions about our good natures may arrive with a painful sting, perhaps a righteous, offended position of denial. Other people may be so insecure as to behave in such sycophantic ways, but me? Pfft. Observe your behaviour more closely, and you may discover that the French philosopher is much more accurate than you’d like to believe.

An overly-contrived person—who we might call a “suck-up” or a “try-hard”—is just someone who fails to impress surreptitiously, like the rest of us. There’s a tendency to dislike these kinds of people, because their pronounced ulterior motive shines a glaring, unflattering light on our own. The traits that we dislike about others are often the traits that we dislike (or flat-out deny) about ourselves. The unfriend button never looked so appealing.

“We have no patience with other people’s vanity because it is offensive to our own”
—La Rochefoucauld

Even the deeds that we deem the most wholesome may crumble under meticulous scrutiny. Why do you really give to charity? To help the unfortunate, or to experience the glowing sense of goodness that accompanies it, and the properly-deserved swathes of likes that attach themselves to the social share? How much of your behaviour is ultimately selfish? This isn’t an advocation to stop giving to charity—the motives behind such acts are inconsequential, because a good deed is being done regardless—but an invitation to be inquisitive about your behaviour.

“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Overcoming fakery in order to live a more genuine life seemed of paramount importance to La Rochefoucauld. A world in which the judgmental eyes of your fellow Facebook friends are banished beyond redemption is a world in which virtue could thrive for its own sake, without thought of reward—a desire to be good for no other reason than goodness itself. What could be more beautiful than that?

“Virtue would go far if vanity did not keep it company.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Perfect valour consists in doing without witnesses that which we would be capable of doing before everyone.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Social networks are an inexhaustible source of fuel for our vanity—a platform that allows us to focus our efforts on getting as much kudos as possible, regardless of its obvious mediocrity, and lack of durability. It doesn’t take much to share a meme on Instagram, but damn, how good do those likes feel? Social networks are an addictive distraction from worthier endeavours—meaningful activities that actually contain the potential to improve our lives, as opposed to having our precious egos soothed with worthless virtual approval.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

Sadly, life is a little more complicated than just doing whatever the hell we want, without consideration of social consequences. Though we may be aching to post a caustic response to our cousin’s imbecilic right-wing social post, self-preservation stays our hand. There’s good logical sense behind our desire to impress—we need other people to survive. Sociality is a delicate balancing act, with soulless flattery on the one side, and courageous individualism on the other. Though it’s possible and infinitely more valuable to sway towards individualism, and live in accordance with our own meaningful values, survival requires us to appear favourably in the eyes of others, or risk wasting away in isolation. The social nature of our species is the reason for our innate vanity, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Though the razor-sharp vision of La Rochefoucauld may cut through the illusion of our selfish behaviours, it doesn’t deter from that the fact that we need other people to survive, at least in some small degree. These people can be found in the world around us, not just as faces on computer screens, characterised by counterfeit tales of perfectly edited lives.

Social networks are vanity on crack, and the acerbic mind of La Rochefoucauld would probably have condemned them to the dust heap of history, where they undoubtedly belong.

Steer Your Way to Happiness by Discovering Meaning

huyen-nguyen-567901-unsplashPhoto by Huyen Nguyen on Unsplash

The pursuit of happiness might be considered the biggest scam in modern history—an endeavour undertaken by millions of people worldwide, straining and toiling to get as much happiness as possible before their inevitable demise.

The idea was first made popular by 17th century philosopher John Locke, gained further fashion after being added to the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, and since then, has been considered a worthy quest for people all over the globe. It makes intuitive sense—what could be more desirable than living a life of happiness, and as such, why not make it our primary goal?

If there’s a halo-wearing God watching, he must surely be stifling a laugh at the farcical irony of the situation, fully aware that happiness cannot be obtained by aiming for it—a phenomenon known as the paradox of hedonism. If he had a shred of his famed benevolence, he might poke his furry face through a gap in the sky and warn us of our ignorance, followed by a simple explanation of how we can live a happy, contented life—by seeking meaning, not happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is often sought through typical avenues such as high-paying jobs—bank account stuffed to the brim with crisp, hard-won notes— careers of admirable status, fawned over by the insufferable sycophants of the world, or wiry Instagram-model girlfriends who have the “perfect” figures, but personalities akin to a group of confused, one-footed pigeons. Such ambitions are tragically misguided. If we want to live a fulfilling life, brimming with long-lasting contentment, the pursuit of meaning is the adventure that’ll get us there. In the words of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl—“happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue”—and it proceeds from a devoted, impassioned pursuit of what we find personally meaningful.

What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart—a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your happiness lies, and its discovery might be the most important task of your life.

Once we hurl the erroneous pursuit of happiness into the trash where it belongs, we can strap on our boots and get started on the more commendable pursuit of meaning. But how do we discover what’s subjectively meaningful to us, to be commissioned in perpetual glory as our North Star—a luminous, unmistakable heading that can determine our life’s direction?

Below is an extensive list of suggestions that serves as a instructional guide, each with their own merits.

Figure out your core values

Our core values typically define our true character—the person who we want to be, as opposed to the person who society wants us to be. When we’re living in accordance with our values, we feel a peaceful, blissful sense of authenticity, able to navigate the world wholeheartedly, with fervent confidence and commitment. In contrast, going against our values feels inherently wrong, as though our soul is in a state of revolt, being coerced into an action that we have no desire to take. It’s how a benevolent charity-worker might feel when being forced to shut the doors of a soup kitchen, with a queue of hungry people still wanting to eat. Everything about the action feels fallacious.

When it comes to your own values, maybe making people laugh is what you love the most, basking in the glow of squinted eyes and rumbling chortles. Perhaps compassion is your forte, and you find yourself flooded with surges of motivation in the face of unnecessary suffering. Maybe it’s relentless kindness—even towards the most spiteful, cantankerous of characters—that fuels your behaviour.

Identifying the core values that motivate you are an effective way to discover personal meaning. One way to achieve this is to browse through James Clear’s list of core values, select five that have resonating appeal for you, and then consider what actions you might be able to take for each value. For example, if you have a burning aspiration for fairness, you might want to consider a career as a slick-haired, hotshot lawyer, or perhaps march for the awareness of an intolerable social injustice. If wisdom is your thing, you might nip down to the local library and borrow a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to absorb the emperor’s extensive stockpile of smarts. If it’s friendship, make a concerted, ongoing effort to socialise with your buddies, old and new. Write all of this down, so that you can refer back to it if you’re ever feeling aimless. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to discovering your values, you might consider taking this free values assessment.

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”—José Ortega y Gasset

Contemplating the traits of your personal heroes can also help to identify your values. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently been thrust into the limelight after the terrorist incident in Christchurch, and though she was already well-known for her progressive, wonderfully liberal stance, her composed handling of the tragedy has won the hearts of people around the world. What we admire in others, we also admire in ourselves. The traits of our heroes provide strong clues as to our own values, whether it’s the authenticity and kindness of Jacinda Ardern, the humor and optimism of Winston Churchill, or the creativity and determination of Albert Einstein. When we live by our values, we channel the spirits of our personal heroes.

Guiding values can also make our lives easier, offering straightforward answers to the relentless and difficult decisions that befall us, endowing us with the strength we need to battle through adversity. Ambiguity vanishes with a strong sense of personal meaning—we know what’s important, and we know what do. Through meaning we find courage.

Living in accordance with your core values is one of the most effective ways to have an honest, meaningful, and happy life.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Experiment as much as possible

The old adage you don’t know what you don’t know tells us that we need to experiment in order to find meaningful pursuits. You’ll never know that you’re a veritable speed demon capable of smashing Nürburgring lap records until you strap on your helmet, climb into the racing seat, and slam your foot on the throttle. Curious experimentation is a snow-covered sherpa that leads you to momentous places. With willingness comes discovery, and the capacity to unearth life-changing interests, altering your course in drastic and thrilling new directions.

Roman Krznaric—author of How To Find Fulfilling Workbelieves that experimentation is one of the most effective ways for us to find meaningful employment. Theory only gets us so far—all of the books or conversations in the world can’t tell us what it’s actually like to work in a particular role. We need to get our hands dirty, going so far as taking a sabbatical and trying to get some unpaid work in our desired roles. This is obviously impossible for careers that require specialised training (such as nursing), for which conversation and research are the only real methods. But for many jobs and hobbies, experience is the best educator, offering tangible and extensive real-world understanding.

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” —Andre Gide

Fresh experiences help to broaden our view of the world, uncovering exciting new aspects for us to explore. Birthday coming up? Ask for an experience instead of a product. Not only will you get to do something strange and unfamiliar, but your personal well-being will be kept safe from the corruption of excessive materialism. An evening spent in front of a pottery wheel—softly humming Unchained Melody while your teacher observes your archaic technique—can be infinitely more valuable than the latest electronic contraption that repeatedly steals your attention.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”—Thomas Jefferson

Books can also be potent primers for new interests—piquing our curiosity by offering the perspectives of fresh and compelling minds, opening up entirely new avenues for us to explore. This is something that makes Medium such a wealth of information—we’re able to experience the world through the stories of ordinary, everyday people, each with their own captivating tales to tell.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain

Look back to your childhood

robert-collins-341231-unsplashPhoto by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Kids are the masters of existence—they know what they want, and they pursue it emphatically, not stopping to worry about whether it’s the right thing. The immeasurably wise Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “time is a game played beautifully by children”, whose unerring mindfulness and focused attention on the present could put even the mighty Buddha to shame.

“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

If you enjoyed something as a kid, chances are you’ll enjoy it as an adult. Our motivations are warped by maturity—we start to ask ourselves why we’re painting a goofy-looking giraffe in luminous acrylic shades of orange and cream, as if there must be some underlying reason for it. This absurd argument can be extended to our entire lives: why do anything? Painting a necky mammal can be just as rewarding and pleasurable as a night in a 5-star luxury hotel. It doesn’t have to have to be sold for hoards of cash, or posted on Instagram for surges of feel-good chemicals. We can just paint for the sake of painting, for nothing more than the process itself. Age can introduce an unnecessary focus on the end result, with fantasies of status and glory fogging our brains, masking what’s truly valuable—doing something that you love, just because you love it.

As children, there was no need to dredge up reasons for doing something—we did it purely because it resonated with us, holding our attention for an extended period of time until we were ready to move onto another glorious mini-adventure. Our expertise was never a concern; the perplexing limbs of our physically-deranged giraffe never bothered us. We just loved painting, because it was meaningful to us.

Figure out what energises you

On Monday morning of every work week, a million defeated groans are released into the earth’s atmosphere, with the prospect of another day at work. Motivation can be an incredibly tough thing to muster, particularly for things that you don’t enjoy. Money has limited impetus, with the remainder of a work day spent fighting an internal battle to procrastinate, whether it’s flicking through the tripe on your Facebook feed, the vainglorious bullshit on Instagram, or the endless but often insipid entertainment on Reddit.

When you find something that naturally energises you—an activity that repeatedly draws you back into its clutches—procrastination becomes much less of a problem. Though it may be bursting with difficulty, accompanied by an uncomfortable skepticism about our own ability, we still harbour an unusual, pulling urge to keep at it, because for whatever mysterious reason, we’ve found something that is meaningful to us; something that charges our souls with driving energy. It might be a natural fascination with taking apart greasy old car engines, meticulously cleaning the parts and then putting them back together again. Perhaps you find yourself girding your proverbial loins before starting a thousand-page book on advanced economics, excited at the prospect of becoming a stock-market genius, but nervous about the bewildering mathematics. Whatever your nuanced jam, it belongs to you and you alone, and it energises your spirit through meaning.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”—Vincent Van Gogh

Figure out your motivators

There’s two types of motivation—extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when you’re driven by an external factor, such as money or social status. Though this type of motivation can be strong for some people (money can be an intense driver), it isn’t something that we really want to do. The behaviour can be provoked with a juicy dangling carrot, but when the carrot is removed, the behaviour stops. Intrinsic motivation—on the other hand—is doing something for its own sake, because it’s personally meaningful to you. These activities are naturally vitalising, forging an innate desire to complete them. You’re much more likely to return to intrinsically motivating tasks.

Much of what we do contains a mixture of both intrinsic, and extrinsic motivations. Writing down your honest reasons for undergoing an activity can help to determine their motivational makeup, in order to determine whether they’re genuinely meaningful to you. These are my reasons for writing:

  • I want people to benefit from my ideas, so that they can live better lives (intrinsic)
  • I enjoy writing in an entertaining, descriptive way (intrinsic)
  • I want to improve my writing skills, in order to become a freelance writer (intrinsic)
  • The positive feedback that I get from other people makes me feel good about myself (extrinsic)

If most of your reasons for doing something are extrinsic, and unless you’re happy coasting through the process without any real passion for it, or without the desire to become a true master, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere. It’s possible for an extrinsically motivating task to turn into something intrinsic, and for this reason remains valuable for broadening your range of hobbies, but if the majority of your reasons remain extrinsic after a decent period of time, you should consider moving onto something that makes your heart sing. Extrinsically motivating tasks are somebody else’s obsession, not yours.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What are you willing to suffer for?

alen-rojnic-1217057-unsplashPhoto by Alen Rojnic on Unsplash

You may have a burning desire to be a glorified rockstar, assaulting the strings of your electric guitar while a thousand starry-eyed fans sing along to your lyrics. But are you willing to spend endless hours alone, strumming away at your instrument, until your brain is frazzled and fingers red raw? Are you willing to endure the drudgery of long-distance travel, arse squashed into the padding-shy seat of a minivan, driving towards another tiring, late-night gig? Are you willing to undergo the pain, frustration and risk required to become a master of your art?

Often, we’re more in love with the idea of something than the actual reality. Successful people may seem like fortunately gifted individuals who have sailed to the top of their profession with ease, but their path has been paved with grit, determination, and a ton of hard work. They’re successful because they find such a depth of meaning to their craft that they’re willing to suffer for it; to display the tenacity needed to struggle through the difficult times, when it’s much easier to just give up.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” —Stephen King

“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong

When we find something truly meaningful, the negative aspects become endurable. We’re fully aware that our chosen pursuit carries just as much tedium and pain as anything else, but it’s valuable to us nonetheless, and we’ll tolerate it over and over, because we’ve found something that puts a dazzling glint in our eye; something for which we’ll happily rise from our soft, warm beds in the morning, to spend the day toiling and cursing in order to become masters of our craft.

“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

What would you do if money were no object?

These are the immortal words of philosophical entertainer Alan Watts, who helped to popularise Eastern philosophy in the West. Money is the ultimate extrinsic motivator, and though we need it to survive, we certainly don’t need to spend our lives glued to our office desk for exhausting 12-hour shifts. Research shows that once we have enough money to do the things we want, greater quantities do little to improve our emotional well-being. So why do persist with the ludicrous and stressful rat-race—elbowing and biting our way to the front of pack—when there’s solid and extensive scientific evidence to suggest that we only need to earn just enough in order to be content? With this mindset in place, we can begin our search for an intrinsically, fulfilling career, as opposed to a career driven by the bewitching glitter of gold. A better question to ask yourself would be what would you do if money were less important?

Though it’s a foolish, utopian notion to assume that everyone can have their dream job, it’s perfectly realistic and achievable to aim for jobs that are good enough; for a career that motivates us intrinsically for the most part, yielding an appropriate wage for our life’s desires. There’ll always be aspects that we dislike — searching for the “perfect” job is folly, a consequence of unrealistic and unachievable expectations. But a career that motivates and challenges us, while still being a bit shit from time to time? That’s a worthy goal.

“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” — Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

What do you lose yourself in?

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with discovering the fascinating concept of flowthe sensation of losing yourself in an activity, productivity maximised, and all sense of time lost. When we’re in this state, we think of nothing else but the task at hand—it’s pure, unadulterated focus, often referred to as being in the zone, and considered by Csikszentmihalyi to be the “optimal experience” that one can have. Moments of flow have the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flow that they disregard basic needs such as water, food and sleep.

Have you ever found yourself in a state of pristine concentration, so immersed in the activity that all else ceased to exist; chatter of your internal monologue temporarily repressed, and equipped with a razor-sharp sense of awareness? This is the experience of flow— an intrinsically motivating, meaningful enterprise where you should probably be devoting your time.

What would you do if you couldn’t fail?

Fear of failure can prevent us from participating in difficult, meaningful activities, paralysing us until the opportunity passes, and we’re made comfortably safe again. Failure can be characterised by feelings of intense embarrassment, frustration, regret, powerlessness, and most importantly, a strong sense of shame, leaving us feeling bad about who we are. These are vigorous motivators against doing what we find to be personally meaningful. Using your imagination to expel the prospect of failure can help to make valuable pursuits seem more encouraging, with less reluctance to participate.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” —Robert F. Kennedy

The fact of the matter is, you’re going to fail repeatedly, especially for something difficult and worthwhile. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s better to fail, than to have never tried. Those who regularly fail are the most courageous among us. Imagining failure as a non-entity can offer the heroism needed to identify and undergo meaningful endeavours.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”—Michael Jordan

What would you do if you only had six months to live?

Death can feel like a faraway, dreamlike concept, best kept locked in the dark corners of our minds where it can be ignored, until the day that it bursts into view, fierce and unrelenting. At this point, the wasted hours of our lives come into sharp focus, and we might start questioning what we want to do for the final stretch of our life. Are you happy to keep on doing your 9-to-5—commuting to the office for another six months of depressing drudgery—or would you prefer to stay at home with a captivating novel? Perhaps you’d like to spend the time reconnecting with long-forgotten family or friends, the company of whom lit up your life in days gone by, but tragically fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s finally time to fill the spare room with an expansive train set, with multi-platformed stations, chubby conductors, and freshly-painted townspeople?

When time becomes more limited, it also becomes more precious, and we’re left wondering how we really want to spend it. If you only have six months to live, what are the most personally meaningful things that you’ve do?

“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” —Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love

What are your natural talents?

black-and-white-blur-boy-392027Photo by Pok Rie from Pexels

Intelligence is a multi-varied concept, with nine different types that we can exhibit. Some people are able to run their eyes over a page of matrix-like programming code and instantly understand what it does. Others are implausibly agile, able to leap effortlessly between buildings as though equipped with the limbs of an acrobatic spider monkey. Some can string complex but coherent sentences together with ease.

A sense of comfortable gratification washes over us when we’re exercising our natural talents. The activity can feel instinctive, almost second-nature, and we’re encouraged to push harder to advance our skill. Most of us want to achieve mastery over the world—a Nietzschean will to power—so our natural talents can be particularly enticing, boosting our treasured sense of autonomy and self-confidence.

“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it. ”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There isn’t much point in struggling through something for which you have little natural skill, because there’s a good chance you’ll give up anyway. Only those with iron grit who are backed by a strong extrinsic motivator can muster the determination to become masters at such things. Most people get frustrated, give up, and move onto something more befitting of their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this—why waste your time on something that doesn’t suit your particular type of intelligence? Our natural talents, and the innate desire to exercise them, can be valuable sources of personal meaning.

“Hide not your talents, they for use were made,
What’s a sundial in the shade?”
—Benjamin Franklin

Listen to what others say about you

Your friends, family and colleagues probably know a great deal about you—perhaps more than you’d like. The words that you choose and the tone used to deliver them; the body language that you adopt; your unique way of solving problems—all these things construct a unique personality that the people close to you can readily identify, making them a valuable source of information about yourself.

That comment from your overly-enthusiastic colleague about your instinctive eye for design is a hint at your natural talents, as is the constructive criticism from your boss about your poor lack of planning. The raised eyebrows of your friends as you perform a self-composed guitar solo is strong evidence of your burgeoning musical skill, to be sustained if you have the appetite for it.

Other people provide constant clues of our natural talents, which can be registered if we‘re mindfully attentive. There’ll likely be sycophants and phonies along the way who’ll distort your self-estimations, but these are usually spotted easily—insincerity exudes the most pungent of smells. Generally, listening to what others say about you can yield valuable clues to your meaningful pursuits.

Talk to people

The unique preferences of every person who you interact with makes them a goldmine of information. A career in air traffic control may have never been a consideration, until being regaled with tales of the tarmac tower by your wife’s spirited, distant relative. The casual kitchen chat you had with your co-worker about the revived therapeutic studies of psilocybin could ignite a passion for learning about magic mushrooms. The lives of other people can be fascinating and remarkably educational, if you ask the right questions. Most people love talking about themselves, and they’ll spill their soul if you exhibit a genuine curiosity about them. Even more so if you ply them with red wine.

Our mobile phones are destroying these lovely little moments that we have with people, by offering a temporary reprieve from the inevitable awkwardness that arises during conversation. A second or two of silence, and our phone becomes more appealing than a freshly baked, crack-like Krispy Kreme. Taking our phone out in the middle of a chat is a death knell to the conversation—an announcement that we can’t handle a little bit of discomfort, so we’re reverting to our phones instead, where there’s no chance of social awkwardness, but also little chance of discovering something meaningful through honest, open conversation.

Consider something civil

It doesn’t just have to be about ourselves—deeply fulfilling meaning can be found through helping other people. Altruistic behaviour bathes us in a warm and contented glow, reinforcing our psychological need to relate, and encouraging us to repeat our act. Benevolent prosocial behaviour can provide us with long-lasting, joyful satisfaction.

“For it is in the giving that we receive”—Saint Francis of Assisi

A study from Florida State University found that the “giver” in a relationship had a greater sense of purpose in their life. Our subjective existence instills us with selfishness, but when we shift our focus to other people and act selflessly, without any thought of reciprocation, we often feel wonderful. It’s a win-win situation, creating positive vibes for both parties.

There’s a ton of ways to be prosocial: charity work; helping an old lady cross the street; unexpectedly cleaning the apartment for your partner; making the effort to talk to your often-ignored office cleaners, and much more. These little acts of kindness can provide you with a deep and valuable sense of meaning.

What social injustice bothers you?

Social injustice can stir up intense, morally-driven feelings of unfairness, followed by a powerful motivation to set things straight. Are you bothered by the fact that the American justice system is skewed towards punishing young black men? Consider doing something about it—raise awareness for the injustice through social media; integrate yourself into the Black Lives Matter movement, or learn about the intricacies of filmmaking so that you make your own documentary about the corruption and greed that fuels the American prison system.

Social injustice can light a fire in our soul, and though often accompanied by feelings of anger and distress, there’s also a formidable sense of meaning. What could be more meaningful than helping to battle an immoral discrimination, in order to make the world a kinder, fairer place?

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”—Martin Luther King Jr.

 —

The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—a critically-acclaimed tale of tragedy penned by the world’s finest author, woven with threads of gloomy irony, with the pursuit itself being the saboteur of our happiness. Thankfully, there’s a laudable alternative—the pursuit of meaning. Our lives are but a tiny flicker of flame, lost in the darkness of untold millennia, until we discover the fuel that intensifies the blaze, unapologetically radiating our little corner of the world with dazzling luminosity.

Only through meaning can our light shine at its fullest, bestowing us with lasting, joyful happiness.

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer”—Joseph Campbell

Finding the Good in Lousy People

harry-grout-783336-unsplashPhoto by Harry Grout on Unsplash

It’s 9am on a Monday morning, and the meeting room is filled with the yawning, bleary-eyed faces of a dozen employees, lazily blinking into the iridescent glow of their laptops. As the meeting commences, the usual topics are discussed, lofty goals proposed, and innovative methods outlined. Things are going smoothly, until suddenly, the guy in accounts who seems to thrive on conflict opens his mouth to speak, and his audience inhale the quietest of gasps, taut with the potential of yet another heated discussion.

Though he raises great points, he does it in such a way that grates on people. His choice of tone and level of volume suggest marginal aggression, conveying a desire to control the situation and steer it in his preferred direction. He seems to treat disagreement as a personal affront; an attack on his intelligence, rather than an attempt to achieve a good outcome. His depressing cynicism and compulsive nit-picking has a tendency to stifle the creativity of the group, though he’ll view these aspects as positive—a realist in a world of blinkered idiots. There’s repeated moments of pointless rudeness, which are either failed attempts at humour, or just outright hostility.

If he were to take a personality test, he’d probably score highly on the dark triad of personality traits, particularly narcissism and Machiavellianism—a combination of highly heritable, unfortunate genetics, a flawed upbringing, and plenty of shitty circumstances. His personality might also be labelled as high-conflictan adversarial disposition that carries a tendency for extreme behaviour, and lack of culpability. Though he shares our unwavering freedom and responsibility to be a good person—to treat his fellow humans with agreeable kindness and compassion—the circumstances of his life make it extremely challenging. For this reason, regrettably, and unsurprisingly, most people don’t like him.

Our evolution, and the evolution of every single living thing, was made possible through our attuned sense of danger, increasing our chances of survival and procreation. This has instilled us with a negativity bias, in which events of a negative nature have a stronger effect on us—great for survival, but less desirable when trying to get along with someone cursed with insufferable narcissism. When we’re evaluating someone, negative traits make a stronger impact than positive ones. We might be faced with a character who is consistently kind, fair in judgment, and highly scrupulous, but those favourable attributes can be outshone by a rare, lackadaisical moment of rudeness, which wedges itself into our memories and hooks our attention during future encounters. When a consistently cantankerous, arrogant character comes along, positive traits can be dulled to the point of becoming imperceptible, making it easy to righteously dismiss them as awful people, and while this may be great for our survival (disagreeable characters can cause us damage), it’s a depressingly narrow, biased view.

There’s good in everybody, but sometimes, it’s extremely well-camouflaged. The unbearable character from your workplace could be a shining example of kindness in another environment—a charitable soup-kitchen volunteer on weekends, or an exceptional, unerring role model to his children. The impossible hag at the post office whose grimace could curdle fresh milk might be exhausted after months of nursing her cancer-ridden husband. Your father’s exasperating irascibility—developed from years of inability to be vulnerable, including a warped sense of men don’t cry—is occasionally cut through with moments of quiet tenderness. There’s good in everybody, no matter how small.

ea02af48d9b289e289354f59370f3ba1.jpgPeanuts cartoon — Charles M Schultz

Evolutionary game theory reminds us that the indiscretions of selfish, negative people should be remembered, so that we can display caution towards them in future. Caution is the appropriate, compassionate response because it includes the benefit of the doubt—a person has wronged you in some way, but you’re willing to look past that because they’re a flawed human, just like you. Though they may carry more objectionable traits than you’d like, you’re able to overcome your negativity bias and identify their inherent goodness, however small—a beautifully kind, humanising act, with the power to alter their personality. Kindness begets kindness.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato

Focusing on the good parts of a person’s character transforms them before your very eyes, from a potentially dark, malignant character to be kept at a distance, to a regular, impaired human who deserves to be treated with decency, just like everybody else. Blatant, repeated bad treatment is obviously something that shouldn’t be tolerated—sometimes you need to communicate your distaste, and walk away. Argument or punishment rarely has the power to change people for the good, but compassionate kindness does.

Seeing the good in other people has the potential to evoke the warm and expansive feeling of elevation, which creates an increased sense of appreciation and affection for the person in question, bolsters the original intention, and creates a happier encounter for both parties. It also generates an optimism towards humanity—a necessary antidote to the incessant doom and gloom that appears in the daily news. The good and admirable aspects of a person’s behaviour are examples of moral beauty, and focusing on them can help to break down overly-protective, negative barriers that we previously wedged between us. Aspiring to see the good in other people can cause ourselves to improve, with an increased motivation for compassion, kindness, altruism, and other forms of prosocial behaviour.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”—Leo Buscaglia

There’s also our Reticular Activating System (RAS) to consider, a function of the brain whose many operations include the ability to tune in to a desired goal. By consistently remembering to look for the good in others, we’re more likely to identify little nuggets of goodness that we might have previously missed. Our Reticular Activating System is the powerful engine behind the law of attraction, which rather than being a wishy washy, pseudoscientific concept of positive and negative energies, is actually just the improved ability to identify and attract something when we make an effort to look for it. Search for goodness, and you’ll probably find it.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.”—Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Everyone is just trying their best to make it through the day. Some unfortunate souls may have been born with hostile personality traits, had neglectful or abusive childhoods, or just made a ton of terrible choices. Our natural reaction to such people is dislike and separation—vigilant self-protection, but an inhumane lack of compassion. Most people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and though the task can be exceptionally difficult, overcoming our negativity bias by forcing ourselves to focus on the good aspects of a person’s character makes the world a more gracious, kindhearted and tolerant place to live.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”—John Holmes

The futility of punishing criminals

kyryll-ushakov-1237177-unsplashPhoto by kyryll ushakov on Unsplash

A skinny, dishevelled boy of 6 sits cross-legged on his dust-covered bedroom floor, hands clamped over his ears so tightly that his fingertips are whitened. The impassioned screams of his booze-fuelled parents permeate the house, filling every room with blackened anger. It’s no use — he cannot shut out the despairing sounds of the people who are supposed to be his role models; the people who are supposed to love him. Instead, they spend their evenings numbing their miserable existence with cold, hard liquor, expelling any remaining pain as vehement hatred. Though he craves nothing more than an evening of quiet solitude, or just a moment of peace in which this misery can be forgotten, he cannot escape the screams.

Add another twelve tumultuous years until his 18th birthday, when he officially becomes a man. At this point his upbringing has caused severe psychological damage, resulting in regular anti-social behaviour, sometimes violence. He struggles to make friends, and the few friends he does have exhibit similar behaviour, having also grown up in desperate, low socio-economic circumstances.

His turbulent life has created a consistent sense of fear and anger, and a strong desire to protect himself. He carries a knife as a result. One winter afternoon, during an escalating argument outside a pub with a former schoolmate, he pulls his knife from his pocket and stabs him through the heart, killing him.

What should happen to him at this point? How should society deal with him?

The typical answer is “prison” — he’s murdered another human being, and deserves to be punished. The public also needs to be protected. But how can we possibly justify punishing someone who has spent his entire life being punished by cruel and unjust circumstances? People who have grown up in better conditions rarely stab people. Dire situations lead to dire outcomes — the man had no control over the circumstances of his life, so as he stood before his opponent, glowering with righteous anger, to say that he should have done the right thing is tragic moral ineptitude.

Hard prison time — in which the prisoners are being punished for their actions, shielded from the public, and rehabilitated — doesn’t work. The United States — a country that boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate — re-arrests almost 67.8% of released prisoners with 3 years, and 76.6% within 5 years. Only a meagre quarter are able to make it past 5 years without committing another offence. In the UK, 65% of prisoners who served a sentence of 12 months or less ended up reoffending. These stats could be even higher, with the strong possibility that some criminals would have reoffended without being caught. While working for the Conservative party in the UK, Douglas Hurd took part in a study which concluded that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse“. A report from the University of Cambridge claims that imprisonment “changes people to the core”, with strong evidence to suggest that the personality adjustments will hinder the person’s chances of rehabilitation. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that even a short stay in prison can affect a person’s impulsivity and attention control. How can an inmate expect to re-integrate with society when their character has been so successfully marred, abetted by morally twisted notions of the punishment should fit the crime?

“If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more.”—Stuart Greenstreet, Philosophy Now

UK prisons are full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As children, they’re 4 times more likely to have run away from home, 13 times more likely to have been taken into care, 25 times more likely to have been a regular truant, and 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications. It’s also 2.5 times more likely for them to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence. Their upbringing is a long stretch of tempestuous instability, during which they gradually take on the corrupted characteristics of their hapless parents, fated for the dark, cold walls of a prison cell — a cycle of perpetual criminality, generation after generation.

Poverty increases the likelihood of mental illness—prisoners in both Australia and the US are fraught with mental health problems. In Australia almost half have a diagnosis from a medical professional, with over a quarter taking medication. There’s similar results for the US. These people are disadvantaged in myriad ways, and we lock them up in dangerous, violent prisons. Would we consider punishing a child by locking him in his room because he has ADHD?

The concept of punishment as a deterrent is a complete failure. Many of the people who commit crimes do so because of their tragic lives, making them prime candidates for empathy and support, not punishment. It’s obvious that dangerous criminals should be kept away from the public, but in an establishment whose main purpose is to help and assist them, not punish them. This is occurring in the Netherlands, which places a strong emphasis on mental health, by assessing, filtering and treating the prisoners based on their unique problems, unlike the UK or US where they’re thrown into general population. The Dutch even implemented a sliding scale of responsibilitybased on the convict’s unique circumstances, ranging from full responsibility to a total lack of responsibility. The Dutch prison system is so effective that they’ve started turning their prisons into housing for refugees. Over in Norway, the recidivism rate is the lowest in the world — just 20% — relying on a concept called restorative justice, which aspires to repair the damage caused by the crime, rather than ruthless, merciless punishment. Psychologist and prison governor Arne Wilson states the following:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”—Arne Wilson

Compare the Norwegian recidivism rate of 20%, with the US rate of 76.6%. This tells you exactly what you need to know about the effectiveness of the brutal and inhumane “hard time” mentality.

Thankfully, some areas of the US are making progress. New York judges have the option of sending criminals to programs instead of prison, which like the Dutch system, are more tailored to the person’s unique needs. This program has a 60% success rate. The state of Kentucky passed a bill that encourages community-based treatment for juveniles, rather than immediate, costly detention. For the younger troublemakers, Chicago is now offering a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program, which has reduced arrests by up to 35%, violent crime arrests by up to 50%, and graduation rates by up to 19%. CBT teaches the youngsters to pause and reflect on their impulsive, often damaging thoughts and behaviours, in order to consider whether they should be doing things differently.

“I’d watched too many schoolmates graduate into mental institutions, into group homes and jails, and I knew that locking people up was paranormal – against normal, not beside it. Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.” — Scott Westerfeld, The Last Days

In Canada, prisoner-afflicted families are being offered family-group counselling, helping to build a closely connected support group that decreases the likelihood of reoffence. It’s believed that this solution is one of the reasons for Canada’s prison population decrease. When we treat criminals like humans and offer them the assistance that they so desperately need, they often respond with the same kindness. Back in the UK, the Midlands watched their recidivism fall to an incredible 10%, after tripling the number of officers whose exclusive responsibility is to deter former criminals from reoffending.

Dangerous criminals should obviously be kept in confinement to protect the public, but the conditions of their incarceration, and the professional help that is offered to them, are key to their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. We cannot maintain impotent notions of the punishment should fit the crime, or an eye for an eye — they’re grossly inhumane, and utterly useless. Prisoners need repeated long-term therapy to manage their mental health issues, and educational programs to help them with their lives and careers. But most importantly, despite their crimes, they need the sympathetic kindness of an entire host of prison and rehabilitation workers, each fully convinced that the way to repair a person’s ravaged character is through consistent and relentless benevolence — the treatment that they should have received from their parents during their younger years.

With compassion, understanding, and a hell of a lot of patience, the revolving door of prison can be smashed off its hinges.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” — Nelson Mandela

 

The Bewitching Trickery of Language

antonio-grosz-327775-unsplashPhoto by Antonio Grosz on Unsplash

Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.

Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow; it’s the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself.

The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.

the-treachery-of-images-rene-magritteRene Magritte — The Treachery of Images

Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that likes nothing more than to spend its day grazing and mooing.

Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say cow can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”—Virginia Woolf

One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.

Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.

“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”—Bharath Gollapudi, Quora

Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”—Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.

A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:

“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”—Riggan Thomson, Birdman

For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.

If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.