A modest proposal, with apologies to George Orwell

I agree with President Obama’s proposal for universal pre-school from the age of four. But he has not taken this good idea far enough.

Any reasonable person will have to agree that education is a critical ingredient in the perpetuation of a society, and of it’s flourishing. The more education, obviously, the better. Well over two millennia ago, Aristotle noted that “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” Nothing has changed in this regard–this is simply not in dispute.

The younger education starts, the better it is. Science has established that babies start learning the moment they are born–that would be the perfect time to start education. But parents vary greatly in quality. They can’t help it, they are the product of our current terribly imperfect and unfair system.

What we really need is a standardized system that raises children from birth. What power exists that could create and manage such a standardized system? Only government.

With a government child-rearing program in place, every child would be guaranteed the best chance of a standardized, controlled education. An education that would remove all traces of sexism, superstition, false ideas and ignorance from the populace. Only trained government employees, following strict dictates, would be allowed to interact with the young citizenry. The children would grow up without ever worrying about their nutrition, housing, medical care, or any economic or racial inequality. All citizens would be equal from birth.

Don’t need colleges anymore–government. Don’t need all those redundant libraries and confusing websites–government. There will be a branch of government that makes sure people are not confused by falsehoods. There will, in fact, be a war on falsehood, and we will root out the offenders and prevent their intellectual violence.

This would solve all the social problems associated with youth crime and misbehavior. And with these problems eliminated from children, it would not be long–a generation–before they are eliminated from society, and soon this society would see to the elimination of these unnecessary imperfections from humanity as a whole.

If having schools care for kids during the day is convenient for working families, how much more convenient for people to not have to bother with raising children at all?

Since the government would raise citizens from birth, the archaic and outmoded, highly unworkable institution of marriage will no longer be needed, or even permitted.

The whole “reproduction thing” is such a hassle anyway. Who has time for all this mate selection crap? No. Single citizens are the most productive citizens, though of course women of childbearing age would need to carry to term the fetuses that result from government conception labs where genetic profiles allow the government to optimize the population. I mean garbage in, garbage out, right? We may as well apply the technology at hand for perfecting the raw material of which society is fashioned.

With no need for marriage, finally society can be rid of the ills of sex. Think of it! Gender itself could be erased. Yes, people have slightly different anatomy, and some people are tall and some are short–so much the better for fulfilling the needs of society.

And society would become perfect. Not a stray thought would cross a mind. The will of the scientific government–what sane person disagrees with science?–would simply pass into manifestation as people would simply have no idea how to disobey or resist. Perfect order. Perfect equality. Perfect peace, security and tranquility. The end of every social problem that has plagued humanity since we first stood upright on the ground.

Utopia, at last.

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The One You Feed

Wolf Image with text of cherokee legend.

This short telling of the legend, within the graphic above, strikes a deep chord within me. It’s merit is in the simplicity of the mental image, and the ease with which it illustrates a concept that is very easy to forget or miss: every act, every thought, every choice feeds some aspect of ourselves. And starves others.

We’re not just beings, we’re becomings, and who we are becoming flows from every choice we make, whether consciously or without consciousness. Every choice is self-creative and self-destructive at the same time. For me, the wolves are symbols of virtue and vice, behaviors that are in some way natural, but may be healthy or unhealthy.

For example, it is difficult for me at times to remember that every news story I read makes me aware of more things I care about, yet are totally outside my control. This is a potent way to feed worry. And feeding any worry gives power to worrying as a general feature of your mental life.

I have come to regard worry as a personal vice. It is natural to worry, but it is not healthy.

There is, of course, a corresponding virtue, called conscientiousness, both natural and healthy. This is being concerned about, mulling over, staying conscious of, even obsessing a bit at times, over things we do have control over–this is how we successfully live in accordance with our values.

When I worry, I’m using that capacity to seek solutions to matters of concern on things I do not have control over. And so the capacity is deprived any opportunity to add anything positive. It’s completely frustrated, and so it does not wind down. It keeps running. Each additional worry of this kind uses additional mental resources in unending and futile searching.

So I treat news a bit like a person on a diet might treat chocolates: an occasional indulgence.

Being aware of the distinction in my life between healthy conscientiousness and excess worry is a key to managing the naturally anxiety-prone nervous system I brought with me into this life. If I’m feeding worry, then it is as if unattached, psychologically pure energy becomes colored by that worry, and it takes the form of anxiety. If I’m instead feeding creative awareness, that energy is colored by creativity.

It’s the same energy, it will energize whatever is going on in your mind.

When I notice the feeling of worrying, I take a moment to consider how much control I have over it, what can I do about this? Can I find a productive approach to resolving this? If so, I take a moment to do so, or make a note to take some time to further consider the matter. If not though–and it is often the case that it is something I cannot, no matter how I would like to, control–I practice once again at the skill of setting that worry aside, of defusing it, letting it go. In this way, I try to feed the wolf of virtue and starve the wolf of vice.

This approach is applicable to a broad range of becoming. As you practice becoming more conscious of what you are thinking, choosing, saying and doing in the course of each day, you may find it helpful to think about what you are feeding in yourself, and what you are starving. If this thought or action does not reflect your values or desires for yourself, exercise your veto.

The cumulative effect of this has the power to completely change your mind, your experience and your life.

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A letter about science

This is a letter I wrote to Cara Santa Maria, a science columnist at the Huffington Post. I thought it might be of some interest to readers of Forging Soul.

Cara,

I watched your talk with Joe Rogan and you’re obviously a very intelligent and articulate young woman. I disagree with your conclusions on some things, but I understand why you are where you’re at. I’d be willing to bet there is no way I could change your mind, and I have not read your writings so maybe I am off base here, but I would like you to consider something.

At no point in the development of science have humans been right about everything they thought they knew. It is unscientific, and in fact irrational, to believe that people 100 years from now will not look back on the science of today as not just incomplete but frighteningly naive, in some cases foolish and destructive.

The idea of bleeding people as a medical practice goes back to Hippocrates and was practiced into the 1900’s before being abandoned. Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who discovered that washing your hands after dissecting corpses, before you delivered babies saved lives…he ended his life in a mental institution and was ridiculed and ruined by his fellow physicians. You see, at the time there was no theoretical basis for accepting his finding–germ theory had not yet been developed.

The history of science is filled with examples like these.

Perhaps you think we’re somehow different now than we have been for every moment of our long human history. It’s a common enough belief. I’d ask you to be wary of this belief.

You’re young and smart. As you get older, I trust that you will learn that science is advanced as a result not only of filling in ever tinier gaps in existing knowledge, but in discovering things that are in contravention to what had been established science. I may not know much but I know that this will continue to be the case, and will always be the case.

The leading cusp of true science is a turbulent boundary zone where skepticism and honest, unprejudiced inquiry are inescapably mixed with the a lot of science denial and things even I would consider woo woo. In your vigor defending the established science, vigilance against unthinking acceptance of scientific orthodoxy will serve you well, and serve science and thus humanity.

I was prompted to write this by your obvious reverence for Carl Sagan, someone I deeply admire as well. Look into the meetings Carl had with The Dalai Lama, and you will see Carl Sagan being what I consider to be a role model for a scientific–and yet intellectually humble–mind. That humility is the place in which new growth can occur instead of just growth into the gaps. It may not fit with your image of the power of the intellect and reason, but humility–the willingness to consider the possibility you might be wrong–is the actual source where the power of reason originates.

If we all had a bit more political humility as well, we might actually see more of the fruits of working together instead of just dreaming of them and lamenting their absence in our world as we fight over every detail.

Best Wishes,

Mark Kenski

Update 2/15/13: I think this letter stands on its own, but if you are interested in another 1384 words on the subject, you can find them here on my personal blog.

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Pain and Transcendent Beauty

  How a Master Helped Me See the Fruit of Pain

Photo by cjeremyprice on Flikr http://www.flickr.com/photos/superclops/1262311790/I haven’t written in months, too dark, too unsettled and wounded to thread the words together.

Enough.

Time for clarity and direction. Time for a walk in the woods.

A cardinal called over the dry crunch of gravel as I pulled into the wide, empty lot. I locked the car and slammed the door harder then I intended. Cell phone abandoned on the passenger’s seat, I slung my day-pack over a shoulder and began to walk. A familiar trail-head guided me through reclaimed farm land and fields. The fields soon gave way to young, sapling forest as I turned down the smaller trails, seeking the distant, older forest beyond the range of casual walks.

I fumed through the fields, anger and hurt rumbling in my heart as the swish and sway of sapling limbs and reaching branches whispered calmly to me.

I love the forest. Another world, calm and patient, waits beneath the cool canopy. Shadows and filtered day fill the space beneath thick limbs and sunlight hungry foliage. It’s a world comfortable with the play of living grays and sprinkled light.

Step by step calm filled me. I took it in, breath by breath, until the logjam of emotion began to clear.

Disappointment, failure and loss had blinded me, burdened me and crushed me with its emotional weight. I couldn’t see beyond the walls of that pain or remember who I was free of its prison.

My eyes adjusted, discerning a thousand shifting shades of gray moving with the wind and slow breath of the forest. Moving through perfumes of fallen leaves, moss and moist dirt, I followed footpaths to their eternal source.

And I started to remember me.

The miles stripped away pain and bleeding emotion from me, leaving me strangely empty and alone. I had accommodated my pain, embraced it and welcomed it into my heart. How much had I relied on the pain as a crutch, a shield, an excuse?

I didn’t like what I was becoming, what I let the pain make me, bitter and paralyzed. It smelled of death.

Finally, almost unexpectedly, I arrived.

A Black Walnut tree rose like a rough-skinned ogre from the forest floor, wide and dark. Cloaked in an air of brooding power, it ruled the forest before it. Roots, hard as stone, held the earth tireless and sure. Its long twisted limbs, knotted and arthritic from centuries of disease and raging storms held a thick, distant canopy of fresh, flickering leaves.

And the burls. The old walnut was afflicted and long suffering, covered in dozens of large, angry burls like bark-covered medicine balls bulging from its stout trunk.

Fantastic.

In the fork of two high roots, I sat with my back to the old tree and drank from my canteen, thinking about the tree.

Black walnut is valued for its strength, color and grain. Burled walnut is a treasure. Every scar, knot and burl leaves its mark in the wood, adding natural strokes of color. Beautiful, organic patterns in cocoa browns, dark reds and buttery hues sweep, turn and flow through the old, hard wood.

All that beautiful wood shaped through centuries of suffering. Looking up at the tree, the gnarled mass of knots and open wounds, I felt as if I was seeing the mirror of my emotions.

I knew my pain wasn’t special. Life has always been hard. Pain, loss and suffering have always shadowed our days and hovered in the darkness of our nights.

Why? Why is this our lot I wondered for a long time beneath the walnut tree.

The wind picked up, I heard it move through the forest until the old giant creaked behind me.

Some of the finest furniture in the world is made with burled walnut. The dark old giant is worth a small fortune because it has stood naked to centuries, making it’s heart a wealth of warm, rich beauty. Beauty born of adversity.

Life is a risky enterprise, the child of conflict. The good is defined by the bad. Joy is wedded to sorrow and life is the sister of death. The place between existence and annihilation, is the torn, blood-soaked ground of life. From that unlikely ground grows transcendent beauty.

Simple beauty is fragile, untouched and unmarred. It exists sheltered in memory or in a thin slice of time. It is the illusion of a moment. But transcendent beauty is something else.

Transcendent beauty is the beauty of scars and broken bones, of hardship endured, challenges faced, and taking another step after love is lost and dreams are crushed. It is the best part of us digging deep, tapping eternal strength and struggling on. It is shaped by time and adversity like marble of hidden wonders before the sculptor.

Transcendent beauty spans a lifetime and beyond. The attributes of endurance, the virtues of standing and pulling through settle in your soul. As weakness and illusion fall away, you are left with strength and the kind of beauty that carries you and defines you.

Soon I smell a change on the wind. The forest moans as the clouds roll in and the shifting stars of sunlight on the forest floor dim. In moments the canopy shudders under the first drops of rain.

The sum of your character, your soul, is the one thing, the lasting treasure in your possession. No matter what you face in life, what losses of fortune, social standing or love you suffer, your soul can grow in strength, depth and beauty – transcendent and eternal. That part of you will make its mark on the universe and carry forth in the greater ecologies of mind beyond the confines of this life.

I dug my jacket from the pack, stood and planted a palm on the walnut’s thick, rough bark to say good bye. Above me, limbs stirred the sky and the wind played a symphony of leaves. As lightning flashed through the clouds, I felt the old tree vibrate and move–alive under my hand.

How many storms had it faced in its long life? How much disease, how many insects eating its heart, how many storms and long winters had it endured?

I felt a sudden, deep connection to the tree, a bond of struggle and perseverance. A bond of life. The wonder of that moment illuminated the wonder of living, the wonder of my life.

I was done with the anger, done with the pain. It was time to heal and push through.

I looked up into its massive branches and distant leaves dancing in the storm until the rain poured into my eyes.

What a beautiful thing it had become.

I sat back down between the walnut’s roots, sheltered in transcendence and smiling.

We would face this storm together.

 

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Doing The Work

Picture of a miner from the Thomas Fischer Rare Book LibraryPerhaps one day, when people ask me what I do for a living, I will be able to honestly say “I’m a blogger.” For now, that is still a dream.

Markus and I both live in the real world, struggle to pay the bills, and wrestle every day with the things we write about. The past couple of weeks have been focused on doing the work, for both of us, to an extent that we haven’t been able to publish.

We’ve both felt bad about that, but we talked about it and felt it was better to let time pass rather than just write for the sake of maintaining a schedule. I can assure you we’re both committed to putting our heart and soul into this forum and making a difference.

When I was writing the privacy policy for the site, I removed some of the default tracking and inadvertently disabled the subscriptions. Not that it affected many people, but that contributed to it being quieter than normal around here. I hope to get that straightened out soon.

Thanks for coming by, and if it’s ever quiet in the future, why not take the opportunity to look at some of the older posts, there are a couple gems back there!

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Overcoming Soul Stickiness

Flowers growing from the fallen leaves.
New life springs from the fallen leaves.

I’d like to have a fresh new shiny topic to write on this week, but the truth is I’ve still been thinking a lot about attachment and detachment.

Thanks to the reflection prompted by the excellent comments on the last post, I’ve gained a bit more perspective on what  detachment is, and what it isn’t.

Now, when I suffer, I’ll try to ask myself how I am avoiding the present by sticking to the past.

Kathryn explained in her comment:

Forging soul, living connected to your inner being is about an awareness. It is about seeing each moment that you are experiencing as simply that…a moment.

And every moment passes. Every moment teaches us something. Every moment is an experience that helps our souls to grow.

Detachment doesn’t have to mean that we become numb, or emotionally disconnected, it, to me, is about a my point of clarity. It is about understanding that I can indeed walk through this world with an open heart, unafraid of experiencing pain, because even if I do cross paths with it, or a less than pleasant experience, it too will pass.

That is so beautiful…you’d never know that Kathryn has a wonderful blog of her own, where she hones the ability to write with such clarity and feeling, would you?

And Fran, another blogger-friend, gently warned me in her comment that the detachment I am so wary of is a bit of a straw man; the real detachment spoken of by the ancients was more subtle and deep:

You can still feel compassion, love, etc. But there is a ‘knowing’ that this is what it is in the moment.

I could have quoted the Tao Te Ching to present such insights. But isn’t it wonderful to have living wisdom to draw from? How rich our lives are when we have friends that heap treasures on us every day…

I’m finding that for me, the way to get at this is not so much by thinking of attachment and detachment separately, but to think in terms of stickiness, and how to overcome it.

By default, when I am not paying attention to it, my mind is pretty sticky.

I latch on to the good experiences so that when the time comes for them to pass, they have to rip a part of me off to get free. Thus wounded, I keep holding on to the empty air. The result is the experience of emptiness and loss–I can’t embrace the next thing waiting to come into my life because my arms are wrapped firmly around a memory.

Negativity tends to stick to me too, and keep me from being able to welcome the next moment into my consciousness.

In both cases, what I am struggling with is letting go, not the general quality of being detached.

The way to flourish is not to live a life pervaded by detachment. Embrace each moment of experience. But cultivate a willingness to let go–both of things that seemed good, and those that seemed bad.

It seems like a paradox. Were you ever really attached if you can detach so easily? Just one of the many paradoxes of life, I suppose. Through practice, I believe you can be passionately involved in each passing moment, but at the same time learn to be less sticky; learn to let the flow go on inexorably, without so much resistance from your expectations and desires.

Time passes, things change. We can’t do anything about that. But by using attention and will to immerse ourselves in the present moment while letting go of the past, we can live with greater serenity.

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On Detachment, Truth and Loving Your Child

Mark and Nathan KenskiMarkus pointed out in his last post that even an emperor of Rome in it’s height, Marcus Aurelius, did not have the luxury of enjoying a profound attachment to his children–a thing most of us take for granted as a natural, even necessary, part of life.

Markus draws great inspiration from the stoics. As do I. One of the core understandings of stoicism–one shared with other wisdom traditions–is this: life is change; attachment to any one detail of life may result in a moment of intense joy, but must inevitably lead to  loss; loss brings suffering. And this suffering is avoidable if we would choose instead to be attached to the flow of change, to the whole song of life, and not any one note.

This concept is a bedrock understanding of reality that can be a firm foundation for reasoning about one’s life. This aspect of reality has not changed since Aurelius’s time and is not likely to change in ours. But. It has it’s limits. Markus’s post is, to me, about finding these limits for one’s self.

One luxurious exception Markus allows himself to this core principle of his own stoic-influenced philosophy is being in love with his children: living with a kind of intense bond that would have been pretty much impossible in the past. To me, this is exactly as it should be.

In the Rome of 180 AD, one could reasonably expect most of their children to die young. Attachment was a recipe for disaster, grief and sorrow. In our time, especially within the core of civilization, one may experience not just a moment of joy, but a lifetime of it. We may well make it to our own death without suffering the loss of a child. It’s a risk each person has to weigh for themselves.

So shall we make a general rule of revising the wisdom of the past to better fit the changed world we find ourselves a part of? Perhaps we should just make it up as we go along?

Many would say no: there are sacred and immutable truths expressed within faiths and philosophies, and opening them to personal interpretation, picking just the shiny pieces without immersion in any faith is the definition of a dilettante. And a fool. Like a diet exclusively of cake and candy, it would be a very bad idea, right?

I have sympathy for this answer, because there are sacred and essentially immutable truths. The existence of our consciousness in time, and the implications of that as they relate to the experience of joy and suffering, is one such immutable. Like death, it is a fact of life.

But the only way you can tell such truths from things that are no longer true is by using all of the capacities and faculties we have at our disposal, particularly reason. Over time, with enough practice, one develops the capacity to accurately discern what is true for one’s self.

Even the truths we hold most dear only come to life as we gain understanding, not from the simple repetition nor logical manipulation of the empty words that package them.

Markus said in his last post “I fail by the standards of the old masters. I am vulnerable.

Perhaps a more precise formulation would be: having studied the best answers that the wisest people across time have been able to derive for themselves, and having undertaken to labor with an honest heart at discerning the realities of my own life, I have–for now–set these standards of my choosing, to which I will strive to be faithful.

As emperor, Marcus Aurelius tried to improve the treatment of slaves by their masters. For his time, he was remarkably enlightened. But he did not abolish slavery in the empire. In his world, some were destined to be slaves and some masters. The world could be no other way. There were things about the reality that he lived within that are just not applicable anymore.

It’s a delicate line. There is positively a danger to merely skimming the dense material in the wisdom traditions. Wisdom traditions are rich with ideas that resemble drugs in their potency more than cake or candy. To be careless in one’s eclecticism is a bit like wandering into a pharmacy and helping ourselves to a few prescriptions because we like the way the pills look. On the other hand, the traditions themselves contain, often overtly, descriptions of the necessity of this attitude of using all our faculties to come up with a wise, realistic, and effective approach to life.

The best example of this I can think of is called the Kalama Sutta. Buddha explains that there are many ways to be confused: tradition, rumor, scripture, surmise, axiom, and so on. There is one way to find truth:

when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

Jesus speaks of this when he says, in Matthew 7, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Marcus Aurelius himself says in book six of the Meditations:

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.

The truth is that which does no harm, lacking that; the truest does the least harm.

If you accept the freedom to choose, I believe you must also accept the framework that guides you in the effective exercise of that freedom: an experimental, open, honest, rigorous, empirical approach to what leads not to momentary satisfaction, but to deep, lasting happiness and the widest possible benefit. I hasten to add that the empiricism that I speak of admits evidence of the heart and psyche into consideration equally with evidence of the senses. As individuals, we each live in a reality mostly composed of our own mind-stuff–not directly accessible to others–it is absurd to think we can (let alone should) limit ourselves to the objectively verifiable fragments of that larger reality, since those fragments include relatively little of direct relevance to our lives.

This is how to forge your own truth from the raw materials our lives now provide us in such bewildering abundance. It’s hard work and there will be many errors on your way to proficiency. But it is the best way to find your own way in life.

In the specific case Markus talks about in his story, it is detachment that one must balance carefully. Detachment is a valuable and powerful tool, and therefore it should not be used without care and knowledge. Rather we should use it as a sculptor uses a chisel–with all the artistry and skill we can muster. For it will, just as indelibly, shape our lives.

Detachment allows one to live within the flow without being cast wildly about in the currents. But it can also be a way to avoid living. There will be plenty of time when we are dead for us to take detachment to the hilt.

It seems to me that if we are alive for some purpose, then that purpose necessarily involves living life, not withdrawing from it. Living life necessarily involves some attachment, even some profoundly deep attachments. This must balance the desire to avoid suffering, and drive us to focus on avoiding only avoidable suffering–in ways that do not prevent us from fully living.

It is quite true, in a sense, that “life is suffering.” That’s ok with me. I’ll take it as it is. Because it is just as true that life is joy. And love, and goodness and meaning.

If there is no possibility for suffering, there is no possibility for joy. There is no possibility for meaning or goodness. To the extent you are secure from suffering; you are already dead. I guess I’m too enraptured with the wonder of this gift of life to be ready to seek the type of enlightenment that transcends all suffering just yet.

A large part of what Markus and I want to write about, and discuss with you, is differentiating necessary, natural and unavoidable suffering, from unnecessary and foolish and avoidable suffering. Learning to endure the former with grace, and learning to avoid the latter as much as we’re capable of.

With his dwelling on “probably…” Markus alludes to the way he still clings to a bit of avoidable suffering, but you can see that he is aware of this, and working it out. It may be a price to be paid, but I consider his choice to pay it a wise one, considering it is such a small price to pay for the enduring enjoyment of one of the greatest experiences life has to offer–being a loving parent.

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The Price of Loving Your Child

We may neglect a particular strength for the costly luxury of a deeper virtue. 

Little Girls Feet

I found a lump on my daughter’s leg the other day. It sat prominently on the face of her tibia, just under the skin. I wasn’t alarmed at first. The shin is a full contact zone for kindergartners. All manner of bumps and bruises pass their time on a kid’s shins, but this was different. No bite, no bruise, no apparent contusion, just a small knot of growing angst.

I usually deal with my worries in a Stoic fashion. I think ahead, imagine the possibilities and steel myself against disaster. I harden myself. I wait and I endure as did Zeno and the long suffering Marcus.

Yet I fail by the standards of the old masters. I am vulnerable.

Driving the kids to school a week later, on a clear and sunny day, I see the lump in the rear-view mirror. It peeks out from beneath my daughters pink skirt, riding up and down on that happy, bouncing little leg–larger. A cloud passes over.

I make an appointment with the pediatrician. Later that day I leave work, remove my daughter from her tiny kindergarten lunch and drive her to the doctor’s.

She’s greatly concerned with the possibility of a shot. She asks for my assurance there will be no shots. I tell her the doctor only wants to look at her leg. It’s not a shot visit, just a look at the bump visit. This calms her and squeezes my chest.

I sign in to the doctor’s office and she finds a Dora book. In minutes we’re ushered into our room. She pulls out the footstool from beneath the examining table, exercising secret knowledge I lacked myself. She climbs up on the table and happily reads her book, such a big, good girl.

She chirps on about Dora, the Map and their quest for the missing flute, all innocence, bright and cheerful, feeling perfectly safe by her Daddy. I see that the skin above the lump is tight and a little shiny, catching a hint of the florescent lights.

She has a scar on her forehead from a skipping mishap and crashing into the corner of a wall. She split her head open enough for me to see her skull before the blood began to run. She sang songs on the way to the emergency room. Cheerfully she chatted with the doctor, who put nine stitches in her head. She asked about his kids and how he became a doctor. And she asked me how the florescent lights worked above.

She’s as bright as they come, reading smoothly at four and doing math in her head, but she’s less-than-graceful. She careens through the day fearless, laughing and running without looking ahead.

I’m always looking ahead at what is, what isn’t and what might be–all phantoms, light and dark.

I watch her read as we wait. She giggles at the funny parts, hazel eyes wide and smile sudden. I’m struck by how much I love this kid, how unrelenting and crazy in love I am with her. Stricken, vulnerability in that love.

Marcus Aurelius, living in an age of unbearable child mortality, watched most of his fifteen children die. As a Stoic he practiced a studied detachment to shield himself from agonizing grief. “Your children are leaves. The wind scatters some of them on the ground.” It sounds harsh and it is – damn harsh. But what choice did a parent of that era have?

She’s still giggling at Dora and asking me why the exam table is covered in paper instead of plastic wrap.

Evil winds prowl the world, but I can’t bear the thought of this leaf falling. I am captured, trapped. My happiness has moved to that love, standing on it, the solid boulder in the river. Without that stone, that purchase I would quickly sink beneath the churn, welcoming it to escape the grief.

The equation has changed. We get to watch our children grow. Gladly, happily, madly we invest everything in the few kids we have. They infest our hearts like some incurable parasite, sucking the life from us making us want to give more.

Marcus counseled us to kiss our children at night and remembering they may be dead in the morning. I know why he said it. I understand the necessary wisdom of it. Marcus couldn’t afford the luxury of loving his children the way I love mine. It was the only way a parent could keep breathing, keep eating and face the next day, a day lacking the music of one small voice.

I understand it, but it’s too late for me. If this leaf falls to the ground, I go with her.

The doctor arrives and after a brief examination. A harmless cyst is the diagnoses. “Let’s wait a month and see what happens. Probably nothing to worry about,” she says offhandedly.

Probably.

That’s the price we pay for the luxury of our love. The human equation has to be balanced; we need our quota of suffering. If grief doesn’t befall us, we have to make our own. ‘Probably’ will torment and haunt me like all the other things that can go wrong, can hurt her and I can’t control.

Love is purchased with suffering and I gladly pay the price.

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How To Make Fear Your Ally

I’ve struggled most of my life with fear and anxiety–at times been crippled by them.

Decades of experience are no guarantee of expertise, because simply doing the same thing wrong a million times teaches you nothing. But I’d like to share what I’ve learned and let you be the judge.

So much of the advice on fear emphasizes how it holds you back from doing things you could do, keeps you in a cage of your own making, deprives you of freedom to be who you want to be. There are times in life this is exactly what you need to hear, because it’s true.

But it’s not the whole truth.

Fear is an authentic instinctive response to some reality.

As it rises, it speaks to the body first, then it’s interpreted by the emotions–it reaches our consciousness as an emotion. Depending on the strength of the response, it often enlists the “muscle” of the imagination. If fear is accustomed to being opposed, it will bring other “friends” too: painful memories, rationalizations that have sensitized you to fear in the past, and so on.

Like all instincts and emotions, fear is a valuable source of information and it has a vital purpose to fulfill. By allowing even the most uncomfortable emotions to fulfill their natural purposes, we cultivate inner peace.

In an important way, fear and its friends are coming to join us in some struggle, and our response many times is to turn from the real opponent and attack them. I’d like you to reconsider the wisdom and effectiveness of that response.

So how do you develop a productive relationship with fear?

  1. Recognize fear and decide to address it. Dismissal provokes it to work harder to get the message through to you. Fear will enlist more and more brainpower to fulfill it’s primal purpose. The smaller brand-new neocortex is no match for the ancient power of the limbic system. Nature did not intend for them to fight–they are built to work together.
  2. So, feel and acknowledge the fear. Understand the message it is bringing. Getting the message releases unwarranted or inappropriate fear, allowing it to go back home where it will wait quietly to dispatch the next message. When you consistently process the messages, fear will harness less and less of your mind to communicate with you.
  3. Once you have the message, respond. Sometimes that response is not much more than to identify the fear as unwarranted, and let it go. There will be times, though, when some kind of action is warranted.
  4. In those cases, use the perceptual acuity and quick thinking provided by the adrenaline coursing through you to formulate a specific plan.
  5. Use the heightened physiological activation that fear already brought online in your body to fight or flee. What you fight might be an actual opponent of some kind, or it might be a bad habit that is jeopardizing something you care about. What you flee from probably won’t be a lion, but it might be a situation that poses some risk, even if intangible. Either way, thanks to fear, your reaction time is faster, your heart is ready, your muscles have been primed for maximal output. Even your willpower is at a peak. Fear has prepared your superpowers–use them.
  6. When you have processed the fear, and responded, then let it go. How do you let it go? Quit holding on to it. Honestly, it wants to go. The brain wants to repurpose all that processing power. Your mind wants to get back to the business of flourishing.
  7. When fear is processed this way, your body will move on to something called the relaxation response. The body stops emitting stress hormones and goes back to it’s optimal mode for living. And you know you got it right that time.

This is letting fear be your ally.

This approach to fear frees you from conflict, frees you to exercise your capacities for your greater purpose. And virtue comes along for the ride: with fear as an ally, you’ll find that courage comes naturally. This new courage is informed by–alloyed with–conscientiousness. It’s not just courage, it’s a prudent and reasoned courage.

Fear not that thy life shall come to an end.

But rather that it should never have a beginning.

–John Henry Newman

You see? Fear’s message may be the most important thing you ever hear.

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The Well of Humility

It Can Take a Hard Lesson to Break the Back of Arrogance

It is true humility recognizes the value in others, but there’s another face of humility. Humility also understands our limits. It sees the ragged edges of our character knowing we are unfinished. I began to understand this with a single drink of water.

Bottom of a well

When I was young and arrogant I carried about 70 lbs of dive equipment down wild trails of the Yucatan. It was sticky, hot and humid. My wet shirt and shorts clung like ghastly velvet wallpaper pasted to my sweating body. Mosquitoes, gnats and unidentified bees swirled about in the steamy air.

I was tired and I was angry.

A group of us had been cave diving near jungle-clad Mayan ruins. It wasn’t too bad walking out to the site at dawn, but walking back to the village after the daily rains and the tropical sun, the evening hike was unpleasant and a little mean.

The two young guys with our guide wouldn’t carry the large dive bag, it was too heavy for them. Being the youngest guy in our group, I volunteered. I was bigger, stronger and full of myself. I thought I’d show those young Mayans what a man could do.

After two hours of watching our “porters” carrying the light bags ahead of me, I was miserable and angrier with every step.

I watched those Mayan men walk deftly down the trail through tangles of roots and vines. They knew how much they could carry and didn’t worry about impressing anyone. I should have learned from their example, but I was too full of ill-founded pride.

When we finally reached the outskirts of town, we stopped by an old well to catch our breath. I must have lost about ten pounds in sweat.

“Is the well OK?” We asked through our Spanish to Mayan translator.

“Sure, sure well is good,” the guide waved as he went to arrange a meal for the party.

Without hesitation, I raised the well’s bucket and filled my empty canteen with cool water. I drank most of my canteen with deep, greedy gulps.

As the next member of our party lowered the bucket for his water, an old man emerged from the trees.

“No! No! Esta malo,” he said pointing to the well.

Shit.

I could feel the water sloshing around in my empty stomach. Our group turned to me at once, nervous at first, then my friend Jim started to laugh.

“I guess we’ll find out how just how malo it is”

“Ah, it’s probably not that bad, tasted fine to me,” I said pouring the rest of my canteen onto the ground.

The guide returned and started arguing with the old man in Mayan. The old man walked away shaking his head and muttering in Mayan. We asked the guide about the well and the guide shrugged his shoulders.

I worried at first, but as the evening wore on I felt fine. We enjoyed a huge dinner and headed into town where some obscure celebration was taking place. There was dancing, singing and a flurry of hazardous fireworks. Small children tossed about sticks of dynamite, and rockets, that seemed to be Russian military surplus, arching wildly and unpredictably through the night.

We drank great amounts of local beer, ate more, dancing enthusiastically and badly. We laughed and partied with a backdrop of explosive local color.

Later I noticed the first worrying rumbles from my gut. “Those beans and chili burritos are joining the party,” I thought, then dismissed it as a mere nuisance.

More beer, more chili, and more “dancing.”

Then, at some groggy point in the night, alarms sounded. My stomach started back flips and a series of maneuvers obviously meant to dislodge itself from my body. In moments I had to find a restroom – immediately.

I lost sight of my friends and had no time to search. “Bano! De Bano!” I pleaded with passing strangers. I rushed where fingers pointed. Behind an old municipal building I found a door labeled ‘Banos.’

Frantic, I fumbled with the rattling doorknob, and stepped into the dark room. Sliding my hands up and down the rough, sticky walls I failed to find a light switch. I felt something on my head. “Ah, a pull switch,” I thought yanking the chain. A dim yellow bulb blinked on and I beheld a sight that has haunted me to this day.

I could just make out a cement bench beneath squirming layers of human excrement, maggots, beetles, roaches and huge coppery centipedes. Dark turds lounged about the bench and floor like grotesque patrons of a sewage spa. A black, gaping hole opened in the middle of the bench like the trap-door to inconceivable nightmares. There was brown splatter on the walls and, God help me, thick blotches on the ceiling that hung down like moist, brown stalactites. For a fraction of a second I wondered how the hell that was even possible. In my shock, I inhaled a single breath. Aaaagh!! The smell was beyond description.

I turned to flee, sandals sticking a moment in the thick puddle on the floor.

I ran for the nearest jungle in desperate pain.

Within fifty yards, I found the cover of trees. Madly I unbuttoned my shorts – to late. Another explosion echoed through the town. The boxers were finished. I stripped down and held on to a tree as I erupted again and again.

When things calmed down, I kicked a shallow grave and buried the boxers. I wiped with leaves and pulled up my shorts. I got about four steps before my bowels exploded even more violently. Off came the heavy shorts and I lurched to another tree.

Twenty minutes of cramping pain, moaning and groaning I was empty. I think a left a kidney behind when I finally staggered from the jungle, plaid shirt wrapped around my bare ass. I must have looked like a zombie Scotsman emerging from the trees.

Children and old people ran from me as I reeled my way through town. At one point I recognized the young man who couldn’t carry the dive bag. He stared, dumfounded then turned and quickly walked away.

Guess I showed him.

I found our car and crawled into the back seat. At least the car was a rental. My friends got me back to our rented hut where I spent a feverish day in a hammock. Sweating, shivering and swatting away mosquitoes, I had time to think.

I thought about those the Mayans who refused the too heavy loads and moved easy. They were wise enough to walk without the burden of pride.

The world can bring you down in a moment, with an army, divorce, financial ruin or a nasty bacteria. It will recenter your pride and shatter your arrogance – If you’re lucky.

Arrogance poisons the soul.

Arrogance leaves you vulnerable. It places your worth in fragile illusions at the expense of growth. Humility is powerful because it is a virtue that facilitates growth.

The arrogant man is drunk on his reflection, thinking himself complete. His soul will atrophy and wither, dying alone in a coffin of mirrors.

The humble man knows he is unfinished. He is open to the day’s lessons, the wisdom of others and the demands of growth. His soul knows love and beauty while growing through life.

I was arrogant and blind, but life slapped me down and pierced the illusions of my arrogance.

Often I think back to that night in the Yucatan, grateful for its lesson. I learned a little humility and I began to grow.

For me, the well wasn’t malo after all.

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