When the wave rolled back

Image: Alexander Calder

We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery and bravado. I would not say we were wicked; they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, and I most of all. The chief thing was that I had come into my own money, and with that I threw myself into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The passage above is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is the account of the elderly monk Zosima’s youth, recounted by the protagonist Alyosha. This passage struck me when I read it last night and I wrote the section down as the first thing I did this morning due to it reminding me so much of my own approach to life in my ‘youth’.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been increasingly thinking of past behaviour and how hedonic and aimless so much of it was and how all I was interested in over the course of many years was where I could find fun and pleasure. It is interesting to me that it is only recently, during the last couple of months, that my own opinion of my old life has so rapidly shifted, shifted to a point where I sometimes find it difficult to recognise the motivations of that old self.

“We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery … they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, I most of all.”

This was what university and the emerging adulthood period of life was for me. There was a feeling of pride. A sense that what we were doing was right, smart even. That we knew we were ‘making the most of it’ by sewing wild oats and getting our kicks whilst we could, before it was too late.

I always thought when I was younger that I had to see and do as much as possible so as that I could stave of future regret and not have the chaotic mid-life catastrophe that eventually engulfed my father. I realise now how misplaced some of these notions were, how pursuing fun and distraction only drove a chasm in my own life, a void in which I lost a sense of meaning, purpose. My expediency regarding work and university led me to feel that whatever it was I was doing over those years didn’t really matter. There was no wisdom in the drunkenness, debauchery or hedonism but it did ultimately yield wisdom, wisdom of what not to do.

The move to Hong Kong was the apex and termination of this ultimately unsustainable trajectory. We went to Hong Kong out of boredom, chasing fun, status, money; and the pressure, heat and brightness of that fascinatingly strange place incinerated this old part of myself, revealing an old truth and an old vein of understanding that I had lost. During this painful process, one which is still unfurling, it was as though I rediscovered a part of myself which had been occluded by the fog off all that I had tried to distract myself with. I realise now that I was blinkered and blinded by the light reflecting off the wrong values, values which I had never really stopped to consciously consider.

What is likely true is that in desperately trying to not repeat the same mistakes as our parents we simply blunder on, smashing into things on the periphery of the tunnel vision that focuses so determinedly on avoiding their bad examples, instead creating our own.

The remedy for this appears to be living as truthfully as possible. Of not giving up the potential you know is within you simply because it is difficult and will jeopardise your security and comfort at that moment. Manifesting what you intuitively know to be right seems to me at this moment to be a bulwark against the future corruption of your psyche. The difficulty of course is finding that moment of clarity, a still moment when the fog has lifted and you can not only see, but know that truth. What this might mean is that in order to find it you first need to jump into that fog.

The universe in our heads

Image by Matthias Hauser

The more science discovers and the more comprehension it gives us of the mechanisms of existence, the more clearly does the mystery of existence itself stand out

Julian Huxley

The universe is in our heads. The mind itself is our universe of experience with all the accompanying complexity, contradictions, wonder and awe. We create the ideals and meaning within that. Our mind within mirrors the vastness of the universe above. Similar to how we only know the small spec of space that houses our world, similarly do we only understand a small part of our minds. Our knowledge of experience is so limited to our immediate field of senses that we are blind to all the possibilities of different experience that lie latent within us. The complexity of the environment around us is filtered out through our evolutionary survival mechanisms, meaning that we only see a fraction of the world in our daily experience.

The brain has more connections between its 100 billion neurons and 40,000 synapses than the universe has stars. It is as though our brain is a small projector and all it requires for the universe to be fully rendered above us is an input that will illuminate this hidden wonder for us. All of the firing, connecting, suppressing, communicating, the storms and calm and synchronicity are the micro-equivalent of the cosmic weather that rolls above us. We have evolved over millions of years to be focused solely on what yields the most evolutionary benefit, filtering out all that is superfluous to our immediate gain, and as a result we have a very narrow focus on what the world is. It is a fascinating thought to realise that our lived experience is unique to us and that an aeon of experience is sitting, unbeknownst to us, within our minds.  

Self-help & the religious impulse

The religious impulse and the enormous appetite for self-help must stem from the same part of the mind. If we can boil religion down to the search of and alignment with an ultimate truth that transcends our individual existence, then we can see how easily self-help literature can fill the gap of those who have left religion behind. 

The fundamental essence of so much religious literature focuses on the way to live your life. Jesus offered his own life as an example for those who wished to enter ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. The most salient message from Buddhism is the path to enlightenment, with Nirvana the ultimate goal. In Chinese philosophy Taoism (or Daoism) means “The Way” which is visually represented by the line that splits the black and white hemispheres of the Yin-Yang symbol, a symbol that encapsulates what is required to live a life that is balanced and harmonious with self and community.

These religions and philosophies are very different in how they manifest and have influenced the cultures where they have become dominant, however what unites them is their talk of “The Way”, the path you should follow if you wish lead a good life.

The self-help guru steps in where the religious authority has departed (or was never present). They offer the promise of a heaven on earth through devotion to The Way they are proposing. The self-help author, whether it is fitness, business or the arts, talks in terms of a set of principles or a path that needs to be followed in order to begin achieving your dreams and living up to your potential. These stories are intended to be a collection of wisdoms designed to open your eyes so that you can see, find and then stay on the path to salvation (whatever that may be). No wonder the seeming inexhaustible appetite for self-help, these stories are ones that we have been telling ourselves since the beginning of time.

A response to Hunter S Thompson on meaning and living the good life.

A young Hunter S Thompson

This fictional letter was written in response to a famous letter written by Hunter S Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. The original letter can be found here on the wonderful Farnham Street Blog

Dear Hunter,

Your letter, of which I have re-read numerous times, has been an anchor to my thoughts over the past week. You write that only a fool would let himself give advice to another, I suppose only a fool would ask another man how he should live his life!

My letter to you is a reflection of my own dissatisfaction and so I took your suggestion and read up on Sartre; and Existentialism more broadly.

“Existence comes before essence.”

I suppose this phrase is an arc across what you wrote in your letter last week and which is the basis of, as you call it, your credo.

So, we have no core essence in us, no centring counterweight or default setting. We are simply the sum of our experiences and our perspective is coloured by all that we have known? Sartre found this a liberating thought as it means we are not constrained by who we THINK we are, or what we have experienced, rather we are completely free to invent ourselves and as such, carry a burden of responsibility to do so.

It is this burden on my shoulders, which has caused me to write to you and shamelessly ask for your help in bearing it! I have all the knowledge inherent within me to make a choice and yet I am asking you to help me!

I know you well enough to know you are convinced by Sartre’s belief and I want to be convinced by it too, however his nihilistic vision of humanity does leave me a bit cold.

This way of living requires an iron free will and the inner strength to be able to swim against the tide. If we are simply the sum of our experiences than that is our essence and our entire perspective, and the framework for which we make decisions is shaped by what has gone before. Whilst we have a certain freedom, we are not truly free because the decisions we make are based on the information we glean from the experiences we have and some of those experiences will have closed doors on us, for better or worse.

I like Sartre’s premise that we are unencumbered to choose our own morality, but I am not one hundred percent convinced that this individualistic framework for making decisions will allow us to make better ones. Isn’t that why I am writing to you? So your advice will allow me to make a better decision than the ones I have already made?

You say in your letter that a “man must choose a path that will let his abilities function at a maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his desires” and whilst I completely agree with this sentiment, I think that the handle for everything is in the KNOWING of what those desires are. 

How can we truly know what we want? You say that the goal must conform to the man, that we must not adjust our lives to a goal which is ever shifting with our perspective, and yet our desires, the core of what pushes us to act as we do, is also constantly shifting. If we cannot pin down our desires, then we cannot set a path to achieve them and more worryingly, cannot maximise whatever abilities we have.

If we have no essence and are simply the sum of our experiences, then our self along with our desires is continually changing. The consequences of this is that any life we build for ourselves will be built on the shifting sands of our fluid perspectives.

This world view, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is a bleak one in my view. This hyper-responsibility that our true self is purely our own creation, ties in with the individualistic culture we live through. If there is no ‘essence’ to what it is to be human, then there is nothing for us to rally around, and yet we organise into collectives almost by instinct, because we want to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

It is because of this why I think we are more than the sum of our experiences. Our foundation is our heredity, all the way back to our ancient ancestors. I believe this heritage and the experiences of our ancestors and what they learned impacts how we behave in a way that is subconscious, but which we implicitly understand but maybe can’t articulate. Our desire to organize into collectives – religions, communities, families – stems from our universal ability to see a small part of ourselves in each other.

So, whilst we are free to choose and have a responsibility to do so, our choices do not exist in a vacuum and there are numerous factors which colour our judgement and constrain those choices. Despite this I know that we must make a decision, taking action despite the inherent uncertainty, otherwise we will be in the nightmarish scenario of having our decision made for us by circumstance.

Once again your letter has been a great totem for my thoughts and has allowed me to get these thoughts onto paper. I don’t plan on counting myself among the disenchanted for much longer, it is time to start connecting the dots.

Your friend,

Hume