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.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Price of Comfort

What price do we pay for comfort?

I think it is nothing less than the soul’s ability to strive. When cloistered and coddled, protected from the chaotic element, our internal worlds become chaos in order to compensate.

The human mind delights in problem-solving and implodes when challenges do not present themselves, and so we invent challenges, viewing the world through a lens that makes a comfortable sitting room appear to us as a lion’s den.

We walk through the streets more terrified than our ancestors on the open savannah, more scared in confrontation and minor difficulty than they when standing face to face with some monster out of the black.

We cannot look into the black without seeing monsters, whether that darkness is within or without. Every space the human eye glances upon becomes populated with angels and demons, snakes and centipedes.

But the lions and snakes do not cause a permanent state of internal disorder and misery. They are defeated, or we face death.

Invented challenges neither die nor entirely defeat us; they prowl and circle us and reduce us to cowering, tricking us always into thinking they are about to strike, and never striking.

The threat is the strike, their imagined presence is the only weapon they have, as evidenced by their vanishing on those rare moments when we confront a real threat, that demands of us utter attention and focus.

Against the Modern Illusions

It seems we as modern humans do not so much expend energy as we do conserve it for no practical purpose, like bears forever preparing for a hibernation from which they will never awake. And even when we do expend our energy, we seem to seek out the means by which we can best “let if off” as if it were meaningless heat. Instead of thundering down mountain paths, we sweat over electric treadmills. Instead of building relationships with new people, we fritter away our social and sexual energies through the vicarious experience of watching; watching porn, watching television, watching sports, watching movies. We favor the illusion of experience over the experience itself, out of our basest properties as objects and living beings: inertia.

Why stand if we can remain sitting? Why talk if we can remain quiet? Why silence ourselves when the rant is already in progress? Why quit the job if we can continue business as usual, however miserable that business may be?

Luxury has made us unhappy because luxury has denied us the necessity of almost constant productive action, in the manner of our ancestors. They knew rest and recreation, but only in the purest forms, of the manner which we love but so rarely achieve; the making of crafts, the bonfire storytelling, the cooperative hunt, the rearing of the community’s children, and the act of sex with those whom we have known and appreciated for decades.

The graves of our fathers mean little to us, those of our grandfathers even less, and of the great-great-great grandfathers, who are they?

With the means to worthwhile expenditures of energy so limited, and so overwhelmed by illusions that pretend at fulfilling our soul’s most ancient and natural desires, we find ourselves passing years, decades and lifetime in dissipation. 

We dissipate the sexual desire with masturbation, out of fear of what might occur if we faced what we truly needed. We dissipate the desire for intimacy with illusory relationships with fictional characters and celebrities. We dissipate our general urge towards progress and achievement with games that allow our brains the tantalizing dopamine trickle that true achievement provides with a power that is a thousandfold the greater.

We did not merely allow this progression towards addiction to feeble and unsatisfying illusions; we purchased it. Every new means of fulfillment of the energetic urges seems a gift to those who have forgotten what it is to distinguish between hard-earned happiness and momentary contentment.

The only way out is through pain. Pleasures that do nothing to enhance our lives as a whole must be discarded if the modern human is to rise above a tolerable existence. The exhilaration of our ancestors is available to us. Their impetus was necessity; ours must be discipline.

Faith in Creativity

Prioritizing creativity makes very little rational sense until your output can earn you an income, and significantly affect the lives of others. Yet artists toil in obscurity and poverty nevertheless, sometimes finding an eventual redemption, and sometimes not.

Above all else, creativity is an act of faith. A faith in one’s own ability and worth, in the face of years of past mediocrity, and a future containing even more. Artists go to their canvases like prospectors to a potential mining site. They try not to get their hopes up. They try not to despair when things begin to go wrong. They try not to give

They try not to get their hopes up as they search for gold. They try not to despair when things begin to go wrong. They try not to give up until they absolutely have to. But both artists and prospectors conceal a deep hope that the next attempt will be the supreme success that changes everything.

But if success is your only impetus to creative action, a prolific artistic life will be impossible. Your own imagination will seem a dark forest, full of wrong turns and predators waiting to arrest your movement towards a completed work.

Be prepared to wander, and excited to get lost. Understand though you possess a compass, it does not always point true north. Aimless circles are a necessary part of creative navigation, and we all must trace thousands before the correct path can be found.

Giving Up and Getting Out

How do you know when to quit?

Simple answer:

You don’t.

Every success story has years of toil, struggle, and failure before the redemptive ascendancy to the desired state of being.

Every failure has the same beginning, but with no redemptive end.

Strange to notice that failures are either those who quit too early and those who gave up far too late.

Perhaps no one factor determines our future success than our ability to select promising endeavors and abandon them before we fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, without giving up just when a breakthrough is about to occur.

How high do you want to go?

How low are you willing to fall?

There is a point at which the pain of continuing is worse than that of giving up.

But is that at the point at which we should quit?

 

Of Effort and Magic

Great writers will often type out great works, just to feel what well-structured language feels like as it comes out onto the page.

Painters learn by copying the great works with an exactness that forces them to the same solutions and techniques that the masters used.

In school, we learn science by repeating experiments that were once groundbreaking and demonstrative of the Universe’s foundational laws.

Great athletes review film, generals study battles from the past, and musicians must learn the songs of others before they can compose their own.

In learning and perfecting any skill, there is a constant balance between the fresh energy of the beginner and the studied discipline of the master. It is the interplay between these poles that generates true excellence. Neither the undisciplined talent nor the technically skilled but stagnant veteran creates works that resonate and endure over large spans of time.

It is the serendipitous convergence of tremendous effort and spontaneous inspiration that fixates and mirrors the vicissitudes of the human spirit. Western culture tends to revere the spontaneous more than the cultivated, while in the East this value is flipped.

In spending our novice years in a long apprenticeship, prostrating ourselves before and imitating the great masters, we create the substrate in which our own coherent style and the accompanying techniques may arise.

Piccaso, both a great master in his middle and old age, as well as a prodigy in his youth, articulated this notion eloquently.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Not everyone is destined to paint like a child. But every great artist and craftsman have some novel contribution for the greater culture, and the pursuit, as well as the honing of that gift, is of great importance no matter how meager its impact may appear to be.