Moral Radar

Though it is not knowable, every one of us has a hypothetical ideal self: an entity that acts out the best possible set of behaviors in any given circumstance.

We cannot know for sure what this ideal would do, but we can, by examining our past, determine what is fundamentally opposed to the morals and sensibilities of this higher version of ourselves. In the realms of science and moral development, failures are among our most useful data points.

head-3001166_640“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” 

-Oscar Wilde

But as useful as such reflections can be, they are not sufficient for the attainment of what is greatest within us. We must not only identify what is contemptible and worst within us, but also what is most noble and excellent not through speculation, but experience.

Philosophies and belief systems, like any scientific hypothesis, must be falsifiable. There are none so lost and undeveloped as those great intellects who do not throw their ideas against the walls of the world and watch for the reaction.

An untested idea, belief, or behavior is a blind spot, and the more we cling to such an idea, the blind we become. By focusing on a blind spot, we see nothing at all.

By acting out our beliefs, and facing success or failure, we move towards perfection. However distant and impossible perfection may be, it can be moved toward. 

Until we have attained a life congruent to our highest ideals, until we have embodied those traits that would allow us to move through the world with grace and courage, it is best not to lapse into comfortable patterns of action.

We must continue to test ideas, not just without our minds, but out in the world, where they can be confirmed or destroyed. Only then can we receive course correction data, and direct ourselves towards the highest good, in accordance with our own limitations and the demands of objective reality.

 

 

 

Tiny Habits

We often think of habits as things to be perceived at the macro level, across long stretches of time. Rarely do we perceive the minuscule actions and thoughts that work in tandem to create what we perceive as a habit.

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“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

Take something as simple as coming home and immediately positioning ourselves in front of a screen for a comforting dose of entertainment.

The action of sitting and switching on the screen is only the last in a long chain of small decisions and allowances that have been made according to previously established and unquestioned patterns.

Perhaps one has a habit of mulling over all future responsibilities on the commute home, whilst listening to radio advertisements that remind the mind of a particular snack’s deliciousness.  This results in a pattern of stress that makes a run to the fridge the only natural action upon arriving at home, and the pleasure of entertainment the only way to drown out an overwhelming stream of disorganized worry.

These tiny actions and thought patterns can be easily observed in the early morning: our minds tend to default to a familiar set of mental images and emotions upon waking. These prime the next set, and those the next, and so on and so forth.

The term ‘autopilot’ is often used, but it fails to convey that autopilot systems are the result of thousands of tiny adjustments, decisions, and calculations that result in a predictable pattern of behavior.

This is why meditation is so powerful. By observing our thoughts for a mere hour, we can see the wellspring from which all of our mistakes, failures, and disappointments come. We can see the reason why day after day, year after year, things remain the same, and problems come and go like so many lights on the highway, each just like the last, stretching out behind us and into the horizon.

The Other War of Art

Creative work is what is left on the battlefield after the fight between the rational mind…and the other thing.

Call it the soul, the unconscious mind, the muse; call it whatever you want because whatever you call it, you are referring to the same thing: that within your mind which you can’t by force of will access or control. 

If you’ve ever put a too-small fitted sheet on a too-large mattress you have some idea what it’s like trying to get “the other thing” to do what you want. She doesn’t listen. She hardly cares about deadlines. She doesn’t like your rational mind too much, though she needs him in order to exist as anything but a brief series of synapses.

It’s a cat and mouse game, and you only win if your rational mind forgets to chase, so that your muse no longer has to run and hide. When that happens, it’s easy to create.

That’s the thing about really hard things: when you do them really well, they stop being hard.

Creativity is indeed warfare, but the muse will only allow your rational mind a victory if there is no violence involved. Both sides must raise the white flag, come out from the trenches, and settle all the disputes peaceably.

War becomes a conversation, the conversation leads to agreement, and that agreement is expressed as an internally consistent artistic expression. Get tactical. Get clever. But if you start resenting one side, and favoring the other, peaceable terms will never be met, and you will never raise a monument in commemoration of the conflict.

 

 

 

Framing the World

We view the world through frames because to perceive everything at once would make life impossible. Some things must be left out, and it is what we choose to ignore that largely determines who we are and how our lives will change in the future.

We don’t construct these frames consciously. They materialize over time, in reaction to pains, triumphs, and hangups of the past.

We ignore what we think will bring us pain, and build the frame around that which we think will bring us pleasure. Unfortunately, our estimations of what will bring us pain or pleasure are usually inaccurate. Many of us have a perverse attraction to that which hurts us because we do not believe ourselves worthy of joy or pleasure.

Good things come to bad people largely because bad people are eminently skilled at believing themselves worthy of good things.

On the other hand, many good people who are good precisely because they are so aware of their own shortcomings, do not believe themselves worthy of the good. They start to perceive the good as that which is farthest from their current condition. They reject the good and push it away until eventually, they lose the ability to see it at all. In such a state, every moment becomes painful because there is no possibility of a better future.

Human beings need a better future to aim towards, to fantasize about. In order to have such a vision, one must have a reasonably accurate understanding of what is good and what is bad. Further, one must feel worthy of the good.

Being “present to the moment” is of no use to someone who does not know up from down. All the money in the world is useless to someone who cannot envision a future enhanced by that money.

Examine the frame and be careful to shape it so that all the light in the world is not filtered out.

Enough is Enough

“Enough is enough,” says the alcoholic, teetering on the brink of death and tired of it.

“Enough is enough,” says the abused partner, refusing to let themselves be wounded once more.

“Enough is enough,” says the depressed person,  sick of the sound of his own thoughts.

Is there a more powerful phrase in the English language?

Only “No more” comes close.

When someone says “Enough is enough” and means it, they mark a new era in their life.

The words are generally preceded by events so terrible that we are thankful that they happened, only because they forced us to do what we long put off.

I uttered those words today, and I meant them.

How did I come to that point?

A man walking through the desert with a heavy pack will eventually be faced with a choice: either drop the pack or collapse.

I dropped the pack just before I fell to the ground, and though I’m still on my feet, the Desert remains. I am searching for water.

Probably I will look down and see this Desert is a sheet of ice, and all the water I could need is just inches below my feet. I will see that the years of difficulty were merely the result of an illusion, one that I myself created and so am responsible for destroying.

I look forward to that day of realization. A sure sign of a happy man is one who can laugh at the mistakes of his past.

 

Today I said, “Enough is enough.”

Tomorrow I will say, “Time to begin again.”

The Pit and the Ladder

Everyone has a deep, dark pit that is particular to them.

No one’s pit looks the same, and no one arrives at their pit in the exact same way as someone else.

Some get there by getting lost in the dark and wandering too far from the light they worked so hard to kindle.

Others charge in full speed ahead because they forget what their pit looks like, even if they’ve crawled out in the past and sworn never to return.

Still more people throw down a rope and descend with a smile because they so enjoy the feeling of needing to be saved, of hoping to be saved.

Being in a pit is a good excuse for not doing other things.

Being in a pit keeps us safe from the dangers of the normal world, just as it keeps us isolated from the thrill of challenge and pleasure of triumph.

We forget what those things are when we’re in the pit. We wonder if they were just a delusion. We think to ourselves:

“Is there even a world up there?”

There is a world, even if your pit is so deep that the world’s light doesn’t reach. The proof is the ladder. Just as everyone has a pit, everyone has a ladder.

If there wasn’t a world up there, why would there be a way up?

Finding the ladder means fumbling around in the dark.

As you fumble, you may encounter things you wish you hadn’t. Ugly things, terrifying to touch. You threw them in the pit for a reason, but by doing so you only made it a more terrible place to fall down into.

But no matter how terrible they are, they cannot keep you from the ladder.

The ladder is always there.

 

38 Minutes in Hawaii

What do you do when you wake up to a text informing you of an incoming ballistic missile?

First of all, you surprise yourself.

It wasn’t so much panic or fear that gripped me, but a melancholic sort of clarity. The morning sky seemed all the bluer, and every joke that passed from the mouths of me and my friends seemed all the funnier.

My breakfast tasted far better than it ever had before.

It just so happened that I was with my closest friends, in a beautiful place, and so my mind didn’t provide much in the way of a plan of action. Rather, I seemed rooted to where I stood. Very little was in question; a missile might well be on its way, and well, there wasn’t much we could do about that.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” entered into my internal dialogue and stuck around there as a mantra.

One simple fact stood out as self-evident; if something terrible was going to happen, I preferred to suffer my fate as myself, my best self, surrounded by people I cared about and without having been taken over by terror or despair.

It may say something about the culture of Hawaii itself, and the character of the people who live here, that chaos was not nearly as widespread as you would think.

We like to imagine that many social norms would collapse in the moments leading up to annihilation, but that wasn’t what I witnessed at all. Suicide, drugs, sex were as far from my mind as they ever have been. The fear did not catalyze a desperate bout of hedonism, but something more akin to a flow state. Every sliver of experience received the attention and appreciation it deserves at all times, but that it is so often denied as we go about our daily lives.

For a brief span of time, that modern complacency was eradicated, and the real value of the various components of my life made itself known.

Though it was the result of gross incompetence, I will not remember this scare as a point of frustration or terror in my life. Rather it seems a point of extreme clarity when all that was unessential dropped from view and all that mattered came to matter more than it ever had previously.