Poem: Trying To Find That Me

There are three of me,

one is who I am,

the other is who I want to be,

and the third is what you think I am,

all three never aligned.

 

One of me is chained to the past,

constantly trying to break free,

the shadow is heavy,

unrelenting,

always following, always reminding, always showing,

what I’m trying to overcome.

 

The other me is strapped to a conveyor belt,

shaped and molded by foreign hands,

but it’s the loving touch that hurts the most,

that conforms the most,

for to disappoint love is hellish,

rather disappoint the other me.

 

That me who is free,

who wanders through the dimly lit path,

traversing the unkept road,

content,

self-content,

(om)

broken chains, disfigured parts,

(om)

peace at heart, peace with love,

(om).

 

Who I am

wanders around

trying to find

that

me.

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not venture as yet to assure you, or even to hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally, there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of a change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people, it is a matter for congratulations when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick. (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

How many among us walk around with sickness without realizing it? Part of the issue is the everydayness of life. People have to look after their children, work most of their waking hours, pay bills, sit in traffic, be surrounded by people they don’t like and so on. Just the simple act of smiling can be tough let alone the need to take care of oneself physically. Just exercising for 30 minutes can be seen as a win. After all of this, where do you get the time to take care of yourself mentally? To be reflective? To realize that you may be sick?

I think many of us understand that we could be better than what we are but just don’t know how to navigate life properly in order to become better. The day to day breaks us down, grinds us into these beings who aren’t fulfilling their potentials.

We accept this individual that life has made us and believe that person is you. We tell our children about growth and change while we stay the same. We feel as if a word like ‘potential’ is reserved for those who haven’t been molded by life.

However, such belief and acceptance is usually the result of not being reflective, of not controlling your mind and allowing your mind to control you. Your mind is great at manipulating your thoughts to rationalize the person you are. It doesn’t want you to grow because that requires effort which is accompanied by struggle. The mind wishes to be comfortable, the path of least resistance and so, we too walk this path and will keep on walking this path.

Life would be so much easier if someone could come along and fix all your issues with a snap of their finger. A genie of some kind but that’s not how life works. In reality, apart from your close family and friends, no one really cares what you are going through. That’s because everyone is going through something. So, if you want to improve, regardless of the stresses of your life, the first step has to be reflective, to acknowledge that you are sick.

One way to achieve this reflective nature is by cleaning your room, as Jordan Peterson often says. Too many times people point the finger outwards and blame others for the way their own life is. You can’t improve as an individual if you are constantly blaming others. Once you turn the eye inwards, look at yourself, see the mess in your room, see the symptoms of sickness and start to take ownership for them, you can slowly see the change in your character.

In the same vein as clean your room, Jocko Willink‘s concept of extreme ownership also makes you confront your own actions. Extreme ownership essentially says that everything that isn’t right in your life is your fault. This may be harsh and perhaps untrue in some cases but by taking on this responsibility you feel a sense of control. If it is all your fault then you are also able to change it. Your actions caused the sickness, your actions can cure it.

Another way can be through mental warfare. To go to war with yourself, as David Goggins did, to push your limitations through such extreme pressure that you only have two choices: Improve or quit. Goggins initially did this through his rigorous studying schedule which included writing out whole textbooks by hand over and over again in order to overcome his learning deficiencies. Discipline and work ethic built through such a task then helped him physically overcome the barriers of Navy Seal training and ultramarathon running.

Goggins was able to shape his mind through work but it was only after he understood that he was sick and that the only person that can cure him was himself.

Perhaps the end goal is to become a friend to yourself. A good friend, a true friend call you out on your mistakes, tells you you’re acting poorly, makes sure you know that someone cares for you, that someone is holding you up to a certain standard, someone who is pushing you past your perceived limitations and that someone can be you. You can keep yourself in check if you are strong enough mentally. But before strength comes the acceptance of weakness, before you can get the medicine, you have to know that you are sick. But once that is known, you must also understand that you are the strength, the cure, the medicine.

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all. (Seneca)

 

Socrates & How To Think For Oneself

To think for oneself can be a difficult process especially if you harbor self-doubt, as many people do. Self-doubt causes us to conform to the opinions of other people. When you are unsure about yourself and your own reasoning, you naturally flock to the group consensus. Such actions are even stronger when the group consensus is what is considered to be the norm or “common sense”. The sheer number of people supporting one argument is enough for you to doubt anything contrary.

However, if one is to have an “independence of mind” as Alain De Botton puts it, we cannot take what we are told without critically examining it. It is the reason behind a statement that is supreme and not the number of voices speaking. It is reason that allows us to oppose socially sanctioned practices and ideas.

Many people adopt the beliefs and opinions of others without reason.

Other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. The reason for this simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically.

How does one examine beliefs logically?

The answer lies in the life of Socrates. He was an individual who used his love for wisdom, for philosophy, as his guide. Such love put reason at the center and not traditions, norms, opinions, popularity, etc. His process was simple but it required a disciplined individual to practice it on a daily basis, hence why so many people rather divert such responsibility and adopt other people’s beliefs. But in order to be an individual, one must examine life for him/herself and see what they believe to be right and what is true to them.

The following method is known as the Socratic method of thinking and it can help one to examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of their own but those of the society they are living in as well.

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

(The Consolations of Philosophy)

Often times the truth is discovered by finding out what something isn’t. What statements are not true, what beliefs have exceptions, what opinions are based on falsity and so on. Through such critical thinking, you begin to formulate your own thoughts and understandings and hence, begin to think for yourself.

 

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Poem: Neither Here, Nor There

Different is this land, from

the one I was raised in, there

the noise of all kinds distracts the soul, here

the silence, so readily attained, is avoided through sound, there

my eyes set upon the worst of man, here

I see the division of man, there

the love for one another seeps through the awful, here

one must remind people of love, easily

do people judge and hate others here, there

they judge and hate those who reflect their own image, here

the abundance is a problem to the soul, there

the lack of leaves the spirit withered, both

are imperfect, neither

is better than the other, I

am the product of two lands, with

the sins of each, as well as the grace, neither

here nor there, in no man’s land, attempting to understand the self, by

which I’ll understand others.

What Do You Know?

I know two things: I haven’t experienced life as much as I need to and that I’m not who I wish to be.

Too many times I grab a book hoping for some life-changing epiphany. A perfectly constructed sentence that blends into another sentence and another and together it forms a paragraph that is aimed at me, written solely for me which will snap my life into place.

Or so I hope.

Perhaps that’s another thing I know, that I passively hope too much.

I’ve often looked for people who I wish to be like. Great writers, artists, men and women, people who have sacrificed, people who are disciplined and people who work hard. Simple criteria’s. Yet, I fail to emulate such people. They too, like words in a book occupy my thoughts for a little while until some impulse or desire makes me forget about them.

Reminders. That’s another thing I know. I need constant reminders of what I need to do, who I can be, what life can be. I suppose that isn’t too bad after all if Marcus Aurelius needed to remind himself to be calm, to be clear-headed, to treat people with kindness then perhaps we all need reminders in our lives.

Otherwise, I’ll be back where I started. Searching for answers about how I should live my life. Hold my hand and guide me onto the path I should be walking. Correct my wrongs, layout the blueprint for me to copy, let me be you.

If only life was that simple. That easy. Even the simple easy life I currently live isn’t enough because I haven’t earned it.

That’s another thing I know.

I’ve often read how everything you need you already possess or how we need to look inwards and not outwards for answers. For a long time, I didn’t know what this meant but recently I feel like I’m starting to understand. I won’t count this understanding as another thing I know but perhaps I know my feelings and I know to trust my feelings or intuition or whatever you want to call it.

To trust such a thing is simple because your self is always talking to you. When I finish a writing session I feel happy. When I struggle through a workout I feel accomplished. When I do something that I find uncomfortable or difficult I feel proud. When I repeat a habit I’m trying to break I feel shame. When I cheat on my routine I feel guilty. When I lie I feel bad. Immediate feedback follows my actions.

That’s another thing I know: In life, we must act and not be passive.

It’s strange how often we ignore our own voice in order to follow the instructions of others? How come you trust yourself less than you trust someone else? The only person you will ever know completely is yourself, then why not believe in yourself?

Decisions become a little easier if I start to follow my feelings.

My mind tells me what to do and what not to do. My mind tells me that I can be more than I am. It tells me what habits to break, what behaviors to practice. I know I can trust my mind for it knows me, it knows my feelings, it knows my deepest desires and needs.

I suppose that is another thing I know. Perhaps the most important knowledge I have is to trust thyself.

Understanding The Ordinary Men Who Massacred The Innocent

How did a unit of ordinary German civilians participate in massacring innocent Jews?This question is explored In The Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning. Additionally, what does this say of human nature? 

The book chronicles the Reserve Police Battalion 101 which was comprised of truck drivers, teachers, business owners, waiters, and other ordinary occupations. The book shows the slow devolution of morals and the evolution of group/mob mentality which allowed these seemingly ordinary people to commit horrible acts.

An important fact that needs to be acknowledged is that the soldiers and the officers involved in the terrible acts were aware of their actions and how wrong they were. Major Trapp offered the soldiers a way out of committing the act in turn showing that he understood the severity of their actions.

Trapp then made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. (p. 2)

Neither did the German leadership lack awareness of the psychological damage such acts can cause upon the soldiers involved. The following are the order issued by Colonel Montua of the Police Regiment Centre:

The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. (p. 14)

Additionally, the soldiers also understood how evil their actions were.

Upon learning of the imminent massacre, Buchmann made clear to Hagen that as a Hamburg businessman and reserve lieutenant, he “would in no case participate in such an action, which defenseless women and children are shot.” He asked for another assignment. (p. 56)

However, not every soldier protested and neither did they take Trapp’s offer to step out of the killing line. According to Browning, the two main reasons for this were conformity and habitation.

Conformity is defined as a behavior in accordance with socially accepted conventions or standards. The main reasons why soldiers conformed were that they did not want to be viewed as cowards by their fellow soldiers and neither did they wish to separate themselves from the group.

Nonetheless, the act of stepping out that morning in Jozefow meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was “too weak” or “cowardly.” Who would have “dared,” one policeman declared emphatically, to “lose face” before the assembled troops. “If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others in the first place,” said another who subsequently asked to be excused after several rounds of killing, “I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward.” (p. 72)

The predicament the soldiers found themselves in was simple, either be good and not commit the horrible evil and be labeled a coward along with group ostracization or commit the evil act and be accepted.

This is an example of how adaptable man can be. In order to deal with the psychological knowledge of what they were doing, some of the soldiers began to rationalize their actions as if they were the ones doing good. One such rationalization was that whether or not they took part in the shooting, these Jewish civilians were going to die. However, it’s the second kind of rationalization that was even worse as a thirty-five-year-old metalworker said:

I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers. (p. 73)

Another feature of man’s ability to adapt to the demands of the environment can be seen in the case of habituation. The initial killing was difficult but with time and with more “practice” such an act became easier and easier and less psychologically demanding because this was what was asked of the participating soldiers.

Habituation played a role as well. Having killed once already, the men did not experience such a traumatic shock the second time. Like much else, killing was something one could get used to. (p. 85)

Once killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of the these men’s behavior. (p. 161)

In the months since Jozefow many had become numb, indifferent, and in some cases eager killers; others limited their participation in the killing process, refraining when they could do so without great cost or inconvenience. Only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that embodied them to employ patters of behavior and strategems of envaion that kept them from becoming killers at all. (p. 127)

So, even the horrible in us can persevere. Which for me raises the question of if there is inherent evil in us. In the book, Ervin Staub raises this notion of how evil that comes from ordinary thinking and is acted upon by ordinary people is the norm and not the exception. Meaning that acting in an evil manner is not “special” to us and that each one of us is capable of it (p. 167). Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, proposes the notion that man adapts to the role provided by the society he or she is in (p. 167). The soldiers in the reserve police battalion 101 needed to be killers and so, they became killers.

For me, I tend to believe them both. I do not think that man is inherently good or evil but is capable of it and does have both of these aspects in them. However, for the most part, man is adaptable and he or she adapts to their environment. This brings up the importance of individual thinking or at the very least, individual principles and limits. For, by following the group and falling into the herd mentality, one is likely to act in a manner that is despicable if that is what the herd demands.

If there is one thing I take away from this book it would be this: Realizing and understanding that I too would have acted like these soldiers if I were in their position.

This realization has made me question the way I act and the standards I hold myself up too because it is clear that if I were to find myself in such a horrible position, I would like to think that I would act honorably and resist the evil. However, that can only be done if I act with honor and speak the truth at this very moment and hold myself up to a high standard so that if I were in such a position, I would not need to hope but rather, I would know that I will do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.

Such standards are what I aim at. At the moment I am far away from them. It is a vulnerable thing to understand how easily man, including myself, is able to follow the instructions of the herd without acting upon his or her own individual thoughts. This text brings forth the understanding of this vulnerable position and I am glad I can think and act in the correct manner now instead of being forced into the shoes of those German civilians. Ultimately, what this text does is that it shows the senseless killing of so many innocent human beings and serves as a reminder of the potential of both good or evil that is embedded in each one of us.

Lastly, in case anyone who reads this is under the impression that by trying to understand the Nazi soldiers, I or the text in any way try to justify their actions, I would like to finish with Christopher Browning’s statement on this topic and as well the words of the French Jewish historian Marc Bloch.

Explaning is not excusing, understanding is not forgiving. (p. xx)

“When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies.” (p. xx)

Reflections: On Self Understanding

Why do you act the way you act?

Why do you think the way you think?

What is your purpose? Your intent? Your understanding?

Are these your own thoughts or someone else’s? Are these your own actions or someone else’s? How do you become an individual?

What obstacles are you putting in front of your own self? How are you lying to yourself? How are you adding to your own suffering and hardship?

What are the things you should be doing? What are the things you should not be doing? Why aren’t you doing them? Why are you doing them?

Why did you make those past mistakes? Why haven’t you fixed them? What mistakes are you currently making? Why are you making them?

Recently, I have come to know one thing about myself. It is that I only want the end goal. I don’t want to work for it. I just want the fruit without the labor. The reward without the work. To go to the Grey Havens without bearing the burden. This laziness and lack of commitment are in me and that must change. For me, that change is a change in perspective.

The end goal is clear but it is the everyday that matters. The process of getting there. Loving the process itself. Understanding and appreciating the struggles of the everyday and not craving for the easiness of the end. That is what it comes down to for me. Easiness. Wanting to be comfortable, to live easy, to have made it. But that has to be a distant thought in one’s mind. The Stoics might advice me to live in the present, to live in the now and not think about future which is uncertain. That advice was true in the Ancient times and it is true now. Living in the present means embracing whatever that is happening, not what is going to happen or what has happened. In the happenings of the now, one must find pleasure and peace. It goes back to the cliche saying about how its the journey that matters not where the journey ends. In stories, it is the transformation of the characters as they go through their ordeals that attract me, not the peaceful or unpeaceful end of the story. For myself, the lesson is in that.

Embrace the now, embrace the work, embrace the hardship. Without it, the end means nothing. The process of living is what should dominate my thoughts, not the calm end. Loving the hardship, not seeking the soft life of those who have made it. They have put in the work, I have not. It’s simple but it’s also difficult to put into action if you are constantly thinking about the end. So, I have to narrow my view to what is in the now and just work.