People depend on constant communication with others to keep their minds organized. We all need to think to keep things straight, but we mostly think by talking. We need to talk about the past, so we can distinguish the trivial, overblown concerns that otherwise plague our thoughts from the experiences that are truly important. We need to talk about the nature of the present and our plans for the future, so we know where we are, where we are going, and why we are going there.
People remain mentally healthy not merely because of the integrity of their own minds, but because they are constantly being reminded how to think, act, and speak by those around them.
Who are you? And, more importantly, who could you be, if you were everything you could conceivably be?
When ignorance destroys culture, monsters will emerge.
Peace is the establishment of a shared hierarchy of divinity, of value.
That which you most need to find will be found where you least wish to look.
Aim at something. Pick the best target you can currently conceptualize. Stumble toward it. Notice your errors and misconceptions along the way, face them, and correct them. Get your story straight. Past, present, future—they all matter. You need to map your path. You need to know where you were, so that you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. You need to know where you are, or you will not be able to draw a line from your starting point to your destination. You need to know where you are going, or you will drown in uncertainty, unpredictability, and chaos, and starve for hope and inspiration. For better or worse, you are on a journey. You are having an adventure—and your map better be accurate. Voluntarily confront what stands in your way. The way—that is the path of life, the meaningful path of life, the straight and narrow path that constitutes the very border between order and chaos, and the traversing of which brings them into balance.
Aim at something profound and noble and lofty. If you can find a better path along the way, once you have started moving forward, then switch course. Be careful, though; it is not easy to discriminate between changing paths and simply giving up. (One hint: if the new path you see forward, after learning what you needed to learn along your current way, appears more challenging, then you can be reasonably sure that you are not deluding or betraying yourself when you change your mind.) In this manner, you will zigzag forward. It is not the most efficient way to travel, but there is no real alternative, given that your goals will inevitably change while you pursue them, as you learn what you need to learn while you are disciplining yourself.
You will then find yourself turning across time, incrementally and gracefully, to aim ever more accurately at that tiny pinpoint, the X that marks the spot, the bull’s-eye, and the center of the cross; to aim at the highest value of which you can conceive. You will pursue a target that is both moving and receding: moving, because you do not have the wisdom to aim in the proper direction when you first take aim; receding, because no matter how close you come to perfecting what you are currently practicing, new vistas of possible perfection will open up in front of you. Discipline and transformation will nonetheless lead you inexorably forward. With will and luck, you will find a story that is meaningful and productive, improves itself with time, and perhaps even provides you with more than a few moments of satisfaction and joy. With will and luck, you will be the hero of that story, the disciplined sojourner, the creative transformer, and the benefactor of your family and broader society.
Life is what repeats, and it is worth getting what repeats right.
People generally believe that actively doing something bad (that is the sin of commission) is, on average, worse than passively not doing something good (that is the sin of omission). Perhaps this is because there are always good things we are not doing; some sins of omission are therefore inevitable.
No purpose? Then, no positive emotion, as most of what drives us forward with hope intact is the experience of approaching something we deeply need and want. And worse, when we are without purpose: chronic, overwhelming anxiety, as focused purpose constrains what is otherwise likely to be the intolerable chaos of unexploited possibility and too much choice.
If you make what you want clear and commit yourself to its pursuit, you may fail. But if you do not make what you want clear, then you will certainly fail. You cannot hit a target that you refuse to see. You cannot hit a target if you do not take aim. And, equally dangerously, in both cases: you will not accrue the advantage of aiming, but missing. You will not benefit from the learning that inevitably takes place when things do not go your way. Success at a given endeavor often means trying, falling short, recalibrating (with the new knowledge generated painfully by the failure), and then trying again and falling short—often repeated, ad nauseam.
What you need remains hidden where you least want to look.
It appears that the meaning that most effectively sustains life is to be found in the adoption of responsibility. When people look back on what they have accomplished, they think, if they are fortunate: “Well, I did that, and it was valuable. It was not easy. But it was worth it.” It is a strange and paradoxical fact that there is a reciprocal relationship between the worth of something and the difficulty of accomplishing it. Imagine the following conversation: “Do you want difficulty?” “No, I want ease.” “In your experience, has doing something easy been worthwhile?” “Well, no, not very often.” “Then perhaps you really want something difficult.” I think that is the secret to the reason for Being itself: difficult is necessary.
Aim at something. Discipline yourself. Or suffer the consequence. And what is that consequence? All the suffering of life, with none of the meaning. Is there a better description of hell?
The mere fact that something makes you happy in the moment does not mean that it is in your best interest, everything considered. Life would be simple if that were the case. But there is the you now, and the you tomorrow, and the you next week, and next year, and in five years, and in a decade—and you are required by harsh necessity to take all of those “yous” into account. That is the curse associated with the human discovery of the future and, with it, the necessity of work—because to work means to sacrifice the hypothetical delights of the present for the potential improvement of what lies ahead.
There is in fact little difference between how you should treat yourself—once you realize that you are a community that extends across time—and how you should treat other people.
Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder. That is because you are now genuinely involved in making things better.
The sense of meaning is an indicator that you are on that path. It is an indication that all the complexity that composes you is lined up within you, and aimed at something worth pursuing—something that balances the world, something that produces harmony.
We do the things we do because we think those things important, compared to all the other things that could be important. We regard what we value as worthy of sacrifice and pursuit. That worthiness motivates us to act, despite the fact that action is difficult and dangerous.
The meaning that sustains life in all its tragedy and disappointment is to be found in shouldering a noble burden.
Have some humility. Clean up your bedroom. Take care of your family. Follow your conscience. Straighten up your life. Find something productive and interesting to do and commit to it. When you can do all that, find a bigger problem and try to solve that if you dare. If that works, too, move on to even more ambitious projects.
Without clear, well-defined, and noncontradictory goals, the sense of positive engagement that makes life worthwhile is very difficult to obtain. Clear goals limit and simplify the world, as well, reducing uncertainty, anxiety, shame, and the self-devouring physiological forces unleashed by stress. The poorly integrated person is thus volatile and directionless—and this is only the beginning. Sufficient volatility and lack of direction can rapidly conspire to produce the helplessness and depression characteristic of prolonged futility. This is not merely a psychological state. The physical consequences of depression, often preceded by excess secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, are essentially indistinguishable from rapid aging (weight gain, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s).
Aim. Point. All this is part of maturation and discipline, and something to be properly valued. If you aim at nothing, you become plagued by everything. If you aim at nothing, you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing of high value in your life, as value requires the ranking of options and sacrifice of the lower to the higher. Do you really want to be anything you could be? Is that not too much? Might it not be better to be something specific (and then, perhaps, to add to that)? Would that not come as a relief—even though it is also a sacrifice?
The properly functioning and integrated individual tempers the desires of the present with the necessities of the future,
But proper discipline organizes rather than destroys.
If you study art (and literature and the humanities), you do it so that you can familiarize yourself with the collected wisdom of our civilization. This is a very good idea—a veritable necessity—because people have been working out how to live for a long time. What they have produced is strange but also rich beyond comparison, so why not use it as a guide? Your vision will be grander and your plans more comprehensive.
A real piece of art is a window into the transcendent, and you need that in your life, because you are finite and limited and bounded by your ignorance. Unless you can make a connection to the transcendent, you will not have the strength to prevail when the challenges of life become daunting. You need to establish a link with what is beyond you, like a man overboard in high seas requires a life preserver, and the invitation of beauty into your life is one means by which that may be accomplished.
We live by beauty. We live by literature. We live by art. We cannot live without some connection to the divine—and beauty is divine—because in its absence life is too short, too dismal, and too tragic.
Artists are the people who stand on the frontier of the transformation of the unknown into knowledge. They make their voluntary foray out into the unknown, and they take a piece of it and transform it into an image.
The artists do not understand full well what they are doing. They cannot, if they are doing something genuinely new. Otherwise, they could just say what they mean and have done with it. They would not require expression in dance, music, and image. But they are guided by feel, by intuition—by their facility with the detection of patterns—and that is all embodied, rather than articulated, at least in its initial stages. When creating, the artists are struggling, contending, and wrestling with a problem—maybe even a problem they do not fully understand—and striving to bring something new into clear focus. Otherwise they are mere propagandists, reversing the artistic process, attempting to transform something they can already articulate into image and art for the purpose of rhetorical and ideological victory.
Artists must be contending with something they do not understand, or they are not artists. Instead, they are posers, or romantics (often romantic failures), or narcissists, or actors (and not in the creative sense).
Art is exploration. Artists train people to see.
Learn from the past. Or repeat its horrors, in imagination, endlessly.
To orient ourselves in the world, we need to know where we are and where we are going. Where we are: that concept must optimally include a full account of our experience of the world to date. If you do not know what roads you have traversed, it is difficult to calculate where you are. Where we are going: that is the projection of our ultimate ideal—by no means simply a question, say, of accomplishment, love, wealth, or power, but development of the character that makes all fortunate outcomes more likely and all unfortunate outcomes less likely. We map the world so that we can make the move from where we are—from point A—to where we are going—to point B. We use our map to guide our movement, and we encounter successes and obstacles along the way.
We must recollect our experiences and derive from them their moral. Otherwise, we remain in the past, plagued by reminiscences, tormented by conscience, cynical for the loss of what might have been, unforgiving of ourselves, and unable to accept the challenges and tragedies facing us. We must recollect ourselves or suffer in direct proportion to our ignorance and avoidance. We must gather everything from the past that we avoided. We must rekindle every lost opportunity. We must repent for missing the mark, meditate on our errors, acquire now what we should have acquired then, and put ourselves back together.
There is all that is outside of you, waiting to inform and teach you.
If the past has not been ordered, the chaos it still constitutes haunts us.
There is information—vital information—resting in the memories that affect us negatively.
If you allow yourself to know what you want, then you will also know precisely when you are failing to get it. You will benefit, of course, because you will also know when you have succeeded. But you might also fail, and you could well be frightened enough by the possibility of not getting what you need (and want) that you keep your desires vague and unspecified. And the chance that you will get what you want if you fail to aim for it is vanishingly small.
It is not that one must abide by what the other wants (or vice versa). Instead, it is that both should be oriented toward the most positive future possible, and agree that speaking the truth is the best pathway forward.
There are seven billion people in the world. At least a hundred million (let us say) might have made good partners for you. You certainly did not have time to try them out, and the probability that you found the theoretically optimal person approaches zero. But you do not find so much as make, and if you do not know that you are in real trouble.
Your life is, after all, mostly composed of what is repeated routinely.
Here is a rule: do not ever punish your partner for doing something you want them to continue doing.
Allow yourself to become aware of what you want and need, and have the decency to let your partner in on the secret. After all, who else are you going to tell?
Do not be naive, and do not expect the beauty of love to maintain itself without all-out effort on your part.
If the map you are using is missing part of the world, you are going to be utterly unprepared when that absent element makes itself manifest.
Because the future and the present differ from the past, what worked before will not necessarily work now,
It is difficult for any of us to see what we are blinded to by the nature of our personalities. It is for this reason that we must continually listen to people who differ from us, and who, because of that difference, have the ability to see and to react appropriately to what we cannot detect.
We should always have enough sense to keep in mind, for example, that a great predator lurks beneath the thin ice of our constructed realities.
There were many things you could have been. Maybe some of them were more than you have become. But you were lessened and reduced by the demand for social existence.
It is often the case that if something bad happens to you, you should ask yourself if there is something that you have done in the past that has increased the probability of the terrible event—as we have discussed at length—because it is possible that you have something to learn that would decrease the chances of its recurrence. But often that is not at all what we are doing.
I think the more voluntary confrontation is practiced, the more can be borne. I do not know what the upper limit is for that.
It is in our individual capacity to confront the potential of the future and to transform it into the actuality of the present. The way we determine what it is that the world transforms into is a consequence of our ethical, conscious choices. We wake up in the morning and confront the day, with all its possibilities and terrors. We chart a course, making decisions for better or worse. We understand full well that we can do evil and bring terrible things into Being. But we also know that we can do good, if not great, things. We have the best chance of doing the latter if we act properly, as a consequence of being truthful, responsible, grateful, and humble.
If you fail to understand evil, then you have laid yourself bare to it. You are susceptible to its effects, or to its will. If you ever encounter someone who is malevolent, they have control over you in precise proportion to the extent that you are unwilling or unable to understand them. Thus, you look in dark places to protect yourself, in case the darkness ever appears, as well as to find the light. There is real utility in that.