Geek confession; I love fantasy books. Particularly Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; Rand’s journey towards becoming the Dragon Reborn in order to defeat the Dark One has kept me entertained for over a decade now. I love it so much I have to choose very carefully the time I start a new book in the series because productivity, social life and my general ability to function significantly diminishes until it’s finished.
Hiking his way up to Mount Everest base camp in a singlet, shorts and flip-flops that he eventually swapped over for sneakers (clearly born and bred in the UK.), I met another fantasy book fan recently. Not satisfied with at least 3 readings of each of J.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Olly brought, as his reading material for the trip, a book outlining the history of Middle Earth, in a dry, chronological way as good history books should.
So Olly got it when I explained that sometimes, having grown up in a religion like Pentacostal Christianity and then leaving it, can feel like waking up from living in a fantasy epic. Talking with him reminded me how religion’s characters and plot give meaning to life; the Creator, the war against the Dark One, each person destined to carry out a mission, the reverberation of every move you make potentially echoing in eternity… only to wake up and discover it was a dream. A fantasy. None of it was real.
Clarifying the purpose of life is one of – if not the – hardest thing to do after leaving faith.
It’s not just the eventual dying away into nothing rather than living on forever in eternal bliss that is disconcerting.
No, no. There’s plenty more where that came from.
It’s the complete vastness and randomness of the world and the sudden insignificance of our own place in it. When human lives are suddenly reduced to nothing more than a coincidental grouping of atoms and self-consciousness, rather than eternal players in an epic (but when you think about it also sort of pointless) battle between good and evil, it’s so easy to slip into a space where lives, consciousness, waking, breathing, anything really, seems completely pointless.
I had my peak of despair, although not the only one, about the purposeless of life on the beach a few weeks after arriving in Malaga at the beginning of this year. I looked up from my towel and stared at the high rise buildings, tiny boxes piled on top of each other, each box containing a life, or a number of lives, that did nothing more than scurry about their day, waking up, interacting, stressing, laughing, crying and then sleeping again, only to do it all over again the next day. And the next day after that… and the one after that… like an advanced civilisation of ants.
Ironically, the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes sums up the feeling up entirely. Why store wealth? It will only be left behind for some idiot to squander. Why do good things? Wicked people and righteous people have the same fate befall them. Why pursue pleasure? It all becomes empty in the end. Greatness? It will be forgotten. Posterity? Just two generations on, I don’t know and don’t care about even the name of my great-grandparents.
When life no longer echos in eternity, as we were told it does, its so easy to wonder… ‘Is there any reason to bother?’
Of course… there is…
Moving outside of the viewpoint that only eternal actions or actions that others see or remember have any meaning is truly liberating. Discovering the joy and, in the non-spiritual sense of the word, miracle of actually being alive reverses the drive of life from the need to be significant to simply being grateful for this self-consciousness and the opportunity to experience this world and all the challenges and joys life offers. Instead of beginning with the great expectations of eternal life and a grand conquest, we begin with the incredulous fact that we are simply here and self aware, all odds against odds. This is the foundation on which we can build up purpose and meaning; simple awe and wonder at being alive.
That was a short paragraph outlining the conclusion of a very long journey. For those of you who have made the same journey may have arrived at different conclusions and I’d be interested to hear about them. I’ll be posting more blogs on this purpose / existentialism / meaning of life conundrum, from voices other than my own as well but for now, I wanted to introduce you to a great little book on the subject by a Holocaust
prisoner and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
One of my favourite websites, BrainPickings, does a wonderful write up of it here if you’d like to see some excerpts. If you’re working through your own search for meaning, after waking up from the Fantasy Epic, Viktor Frankl’s book is a must-read.
La Tomatina Festival is about five minutes of trying not to gag from the smell as you slosh around between strangers in a sea of dirty, crushed tomatoes flooding the street and eventually the air… and about six hours of waiting in lines.
The most soul destroying moment for my tomato fight partner in crime, Ledia, and I was after the fight was over. Our eyes traced a static line up three blocks of street, deep with other red, wet and shivering people waiting for the shower. There was nothing for it but to lope onto the back of it. We waited two and a half hours, every 10-15 minutes a wave of movement working its way slowly up the queue as tomato encrusted bodies bent down to pick up bags or kick them one metre forward before returning to shivering and cursing the organisers. Hating life.
At the one and half hour mark, Ledia left to go find some food – hot food with lots of grease please – inevitably at the end of another long line. She returned an hour later just as we were about to enter the showers. I engulfed my hot dog in about 10 seconds, discarding the last couple of mouthfuls to turn to what I’d really been waiting for, a bucket of hot chips.
Yellow, salty, steaminess crushed into my mouth as fast as the little toothpick could pierce a bunch of them. Blue lips turned red again just for a moment before I wiped the tomato sauce away with a stiff hand. Warmness spread through my stomach. Loving life again! Halfway down emptying the bucket, I noticed a group of three girls standing to my left behind us in the line, English by their accent, also plastered with tomato juice layers and freezing t-shirts, eying the bucket of hot chips exactly as I would have been if I were them. I knew what they were thinking cos it’s what I would have been thinking.
‘Give me some. I wish that girl would give me some. Please, for the love of god, gimme some damn fries.’
My first thought was, ‘These are my hot chips. I bought them.’ and I magnaminously planned that when I was definitely finished having all that I wanted, I would share the leftovers.
My second thought was, ‘If I were them, I would want some hot chips.’
Later that night, our group of friends walked from a restaurant to the front of a 5 star hotel. We thought it would be easier to get a taxi or three but it wasn’t. The hotel refused to make a call for us as we weren’t guests. I called from the driveway and once organized, walked inside the hotel lobby and sat on one of the couches at the back to wait. It was freezing cold outside and I’d been bed-ridden with a chest infection just days before.
The spanish door man sidled over. ‘Please ma’am, could you leave?’
‘You are not a hotel guest and are not allowed to sit in the lobby. You will need to leave.’
I blinked furiously a few times. No, I replied. I’m sick, wearing a nice dress and not bothering any of your patrons. I will not go outside into the cold.
The rest of the conversation involved me refusing to budge or buy a drink to legitimize my position on the leather seat while he pretended to use his phone to call security guards to throw me out.
‘I will not help you be a bad human.’ I explained in completely inadequate Spanish, ‘It is a bad thing asking a sick person to go out into the cold.’
My hotel lobby. My bucket of fries. Mine, mine, mine.
Do you know that movie Hotel Rwanda? It depicts the story of hotel owner Paul Rusesabagina during the Rwandan Civil War. When the Hutus are endangering the lives of all Tutsi’s, including that of his wife and children, Paul manages to secure his family behind the walls of his upmarket, luxury hotel. He then risks his life, and the lives of his family, to take in more than 1200 other refugees, hiding them away and eventually negotiating for their freedom.
We like to think that if we were the people on the other side of a safe hotel door while a minority group was in danger of being slaughtered we would open the door and let them in.
But would we?
Can we even share a bucket of warm fries with a bunch of strangers who really want them? Can we let sick people sit in our 5 star hotel lobbies for five minutes to avoid the cold? Can we open our shores to the relatively minute number of people who genuinely seek refuge in our huge and insanely abundant land? Every day, we make decisions between protecting ‘mine’ and simply being a decent human being.
I shared the fries. The hotel guard let me stay. What does it cost to open up ‘mine’ and make it ‘ours’ instead? I didn’t go hungry. The hotel lost no money.
Don’t let Mine drown out Human. Share the fries, people, you won’t go hungry.
So… I was thinking about Love this morning.
Sitting on the floor of my apartment by the balcony in a square of sunshine,
Walking the Caminito del Rey (The King’s Little Walk) I realised something.
I own the planet.
Technically, the ‘Most Dangerous Walkway In the World’ is closed. For good reason.
It looks right now like a railway from a Crash Bandicoot game; giant holes – big enough for a child – drop away into nothing, huge sections of the track are completely missing and it careens around corners without safety rails before running along next to abandoned transport tunnels into the middle of nowhere.
Walking through a path, just Andy and I and land we’re technically not allowed to be on, gave me an epiphany.
This earth is mine.
It was like a black and white picture just inverted; previously I’d been thinking “I’m only allowed to go on certain bits of the planet. The bits authorities say I’m allowed to go on”. In that instant I was thinking, “I’m allowed to go on most bits of the planet.”
It was a small realisation, a single layer peeling away.
You probably have these layers too; ‘being respectable’, ‘the right way to do things’, ‘the smart way to do things’, ‘our family’s way of doing things’. All cultures and upbringings create these layers as part of forming an organized society. Problem is, they limit our understanding of who we are and what life has to offer us.
So now that I own the planet, I thought I’d share the steps I went through to getting there. Here’s the 9 realisations, or layers peeling off, I’ve had over the past 10 years.
1. I’m Okay With Me
If you don’t like yourself other people won’t like you. This truth forced me to change my default thinking patterns ingrained from years as an awkward control-freak, zealous teenager to ones of self-acceptance. Mostly. 😀
2. God’s Okay With Me
Despite two decades of listening to preachers say ‘Jesus loves you’ and ‘His Grace has set you free from guilt’, it wasn’t until I was a Bible College student that I really felt grace. The feeling that God was constantly disappointed me with broke during one of Phil Pringle’s bible college classes.
3. Some People Don’t Like Me. That’s Okay Too.
Teenage social interaction issues (okay, okay, being a Loser in Highschool) meant I developed a fierce skill for cataloguing people’s opinion of everything I said and did in my late teens. By my early 20’s I was exhausted and had hit a ceiling of social acceptance that could only be broken by moving into a space where I stopped giving a fuck about making everyone like me. Ironically it’s this very attitude that means most people do.
Or they’re just too scared to behave otherwise?
4. Life doesn’t fall apart if I don’t pray and read the bible
My very first Experiment With Truth; I honestly thought that in six months of not praying or reading my bible I’d be on my knees begging God’s forgiveness and to bring me back into ‘close fellowship’ with him. My life didn’t fall apart. It got better actually.
I experienced first-hand that the only difference between a life with a relationship with God and a life without a relationship with God was a lack of guilt. And guess which of the two lifestyles that particular freedom fell into!
5. God Doesn’t Exist
This one brought so many freeing possibilities I could write all day about it. I sort of do. With the death of God came the realisations that:
There is no such thing as Sin
I am not a sinful person, inherently bad, made of black stuff from the inside. I am at worst a neutral being with DNA and experiences dictating instinctual responses but with the intelligence to overcome them if I felt so inclined. At best I am a good being working towards some form of enlightenment.
I Don’t Need To Save People From Hell
It doesn’t matter how good the Cheesels are, any party is ruined by someone trying to evangelise you. It’s sort of hard to avoid the topic though when your job is a Pastor. Once you know someone’s not a Christian you’re sort of obligated to give them the gospel message; so that, you know, when they go to hell they know they deserved it. I was avoiding talking to new people because of it and literally clapped my hands in glee on realising I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
I Can Do Whatever I Want With My Life
The woooorrrllllddd is your oyster baby! There is no blueprint for your life that you have to discover through hours of prayer or listening to your leaders or following the holy spirits prompting in the little moments blah blah blah. Life is what YOU make it and it’s a totally blank space! This is wholly exhilarating and terrifying all in the same moment.
6. Sometimes Bad Things Are The Best Things
The social stigma around divorce, in and out of the church, kept my marriage going for at least two years longer than it would have, had we just been in a normal relationship. It was terrifying to make such a permanent blot on my life history and I was sure I’d be crying on the floor of my bedroom for at least six months after it happened.
Cept I wasn’t. There were at least 9.7 times more moments of complete joy at my new found freedom than despair. In fact, I can only really remember a couple of moments of loneliness. Too busy partying with all my new friends maybe.
It made me question what we define as ‘bad’ and why. Why do we define marriage as good and divorce as bad? Surely if it didn’t end well, it’s actually the marriage that was the bad idea and the divorce that was the good one?
7. I Can Make My Own Decisions About What Is Good For Me
There’s a hundred-thousand different ways to live a life; focus on friends, create a business, build a family, stay single, get rich, work with the poor, have one relationship, have five relationships… after chucking away the Christian idea of an ‘ideal life’ I wondered why we’re so hung up on certain social ideas of an ‘ideal life’.
Good education, lifelong relationship, a job with lots of money… maybe those things are good for you but maybe they’re not. Society changes its mind all the time on the best way to live; so don’t listen to anyone and focus on finding out what works for you.
Thanks to a book titled ‘Mindsets’ my good friend Johann insisted I read, my perfectionist, result-based focus is slowly dissipating into creativity, enjoyment of the moment and pride simply in learning. A hunger to challenge myself is replacing the desperation to simply win.
Who knew life was so much more enjoyable this way!
9. The Planet Is My Playground
The more I explore it, the more I realise that as a human I inherited the planet. The entire thing. Every part of it, mountains, valleys, streams is available for me to explore and use as the playground for my life.
As an owner of The Earth, I have written a letter to all of it’s inhabitants:
The planet – your experiences, your beliefs, your time, your self – is a giant Playground… experiment, make mistakes, learn, ask questions and most of all explore.
Ken Ilgunas lived in a van while a graduate student at Duke University.
Naturally, he wrote a book about it. It’s titled ““Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt to Freedom,”Which confused me, primarily because of this paragraph:
“My secret was making it impossible to make friends, I was sleeping in temperatures as low as 10 degrees, and as a bachelor living in tight quarters, I was constantly inhaling air riddled with strange odors. Worst of all, I felt a terrible loneliness settle deep into me. To compensate, I began to sing and talk to myself with unprecedented frequency. Walking back from the library one night, I spotted a few mangled slices of pizza lying in a box on the lawn. A savage hunger roared in my belly. Has it already come to this?”
When did freedom for the Western world become defined as being cold and lonely at night and only being able to eat rice and vegetables for dinner? Isn’t this the stuff we’re trying to rescue the third world from with our micro-lending programs and innovative recycling inventions?
Perhaps it was the retelling of this moment that pushed me over the edge.
“Knowing that my tax refund was coming, I slackened my Spartan standards: I bought a case of beer, I dined at a restaurant twice, and at the field station I slept in a heated room on a comfortable bed. But treating myself made me feel a strange sense of guilt, as if I’d cut some corner I promised myself I wouldn’t cut. During my third night at the station, beleaguered with self-reproach, I dragged my sleeping bag outside and slept on the pavement under the stars.”
He was too guilty to sleep in a bed he had already paid for.
It’s possible I’m just sensitive to the word ‘guilty’, with my religious history and all. If he had said, ‘I just preferred to be close to the ground and sensing the real world around me instead of a bed’, I wouldn’t have minded so much.
But he was too guilty to spend money to sleep comfortably and warm?
Other people sleep outside as well. Society tries to help them.
It’s like he has swapped the burden of consumerism and the need for stuff for the burden of asceticism and needless misery.
I’m all for anti-materialism. I feel as sick as the next person about the lines for the new iPhone 5 and people spending $500 on a pair of shoes.
But… have we gone so far in attempting to compensate for our ridiculous excesses that we now don’t even appreciate basic standards of living?
Surely what we aim for in a society is for every man and woman to meaningfully contribute, that is, to swap their labour in return for life-enhancing goods and services, with enough time and resources available to enjoy whatever their passions are; children, reading, philosophy, travel, adventure, the beach…
Every other website I come across these days is decrying this ‘awful regular life of 9-5’ work, stuck in a job with a mortgage, paying for stuff you don’t need.
All those people buying the books the websites sell are doing it with money they earned from a normal job. Same with the people paying to listen to the talk about some latest adventure climbing up a mountain. There are gymnasiums for this guy to shower in because someone started a business. People can only offer a room to crash in for the evening on bucket list trips around the world because they took on a mortgage.
What annoys me is the self-righteous rhetoric about how ‘free’ his life is compared to all these other normal people with a mortgage and stuff. These people made it possible for him to live that life. If everybody did as he did… well, not everybody could do as he did.
And that’s the point. I disagree with any philosophy on living that is not applicable in it’s entirety to all of humanity. I throw the same accusation against this ridiculous receipt which is at the other end of the spectrum.
Forsaking relationships to have $12million in the bank is as destructive and selfish a philosophy as forsaking having a girlfriend and your own shower to live debt free off other’s utilities out the back of a parking lot in a run down bus.
Society has come a long way and while we don’t need a new iPhone every year, for most people, coming home after a hard day’s work to cook a delicious tasting risotto before opening a good bottle of wine with a loved one is just the stuff life is made of. Maybe if you’re in India it’s a curry.
It’s not excessive. It’s just good living.
As a bonus, within limits, this can be done by the majority of the population without the economy collapsing. *thumbs up* Living in caravans isn’t the answer, thank the stars. Something like the below video maybe?
But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight – there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
– Ana Patchett, What Now?
Where did this thought come from…?
That success was a process of building, one after the other, step by step, block upon block and that if you miss one, you have no choice but to simply accept the fate of your tower of accomplishments being a little bit less than the others who didn’t get it wrong the first time.
Because it’s not true.
Well, okay, it is true. It’s true in the sense that most people you meet who seem to have a comfortable life have done this very thing. Worked their way up a ladder of some sort, moving companies maybe but taking their time, year on year, project by project to secure the next level of accomplishment.
I’m not talking about that sort of success though.
I’m talking about the sort of success that gets you invited to do Commencement Addresses. The sort of success that’s built from changing things or making a difference. The kind of success that on your death bed you know was worth all the effort and sacrifice.
I reckon that at least 90% of these sorts of people (note: very scientific survey done there) had at least one, if not two or more, times in their life where they were completely lost. And not just for a short time.
Ellen DeGeneres didn’t get work for three years after she came out as a lesbian.
Bobbi Brown (of the make-up variety) didn’t get started until she was 34.
Suzanne Somers (you may remember her thighs from the thighmaster) sat on the couch for a year after she got fired for asking to be paid the same as men.
We all know JK Rowling’s story…
And then there’s the famous Steve Jobs getting fired from his own company. He was also a University drop-out.
Every single one of them points to these times as the foundation of personal traits that made them successful. The place where they lost their fear of failure, learnt about what was really important in life and found strength within themselves to keep going against bad odds.
Being uncertain, unsure and insecure is not an indication of future failure.
Being lost is essential to discovering your own path.
I’m just going to write that sentence again because I need to hear it:
Being uncertain, unsure and insecure is not an indication of future failure. It is essential to discovering your own path.
Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined. – Ana Patchett.
This moment then, this sitting alone in a cafe in a random city in Spain, feeling hopelessly lost and confused, a ball of uncertainty about the things I’m saying in (an admittedly small) public arena, an empty notebook of ignorance about life and myself reflecting an unmerciful glint into my eye, simply possessing an insatiable curiosity and a desire to be productive, to create and to contribute in some way that comes from in me instead of dictated to me is, actually…
…the very stuff Life is made of.
Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and then by all means you should follow that.
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Someone said it!
I mean… someone positive said it in a lovely way that was, incredibly, still inspiring. I say it all the time, but, like, usually under my breath or at the back of my brain where I don’t crush anyone’s dreams.
A friend told me yesterday that if he was an outsider looking at my Facebook page right now, he’d think “Weirdo”.
Apparently it’s to do with all the religious stuff. I’m obsessed or something…
It started all these wonderful thoughts going around in my head like:
“I should just keep the religious stuff on the MsClair facebook page. That’s why those people clicked the Like button anyway…”
“There’s probably some non-weird stuff I could post for a change… I’ve got that hilarious cat picture. Everyone loves cat pictures.” ——>
Which is totally normal because who would want to be weird?
In a way, I think we all want to be weird. Until we are. And then we don’t want to be anymore.
Because its lonely. And a bit nerve wracking.
When I finished doing my make up in the mirror this morning I looked at myself after thinking one of these thoughts.
And something inside just released.
I’m not going for Facebook Likes here (which, let’s be honest, would make a change).
And because it’s my life… I can be weird if I want to!
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Contracts. Honestly. Is there any more useless way to chew through our natural resources?
Today I opened a Spanish bank account and signed up for ADSL internet. Both companies printed off 20 page contracts which I didn’t read. Mostly because they were in Spanish so I can’t. But also because I never do. Don’t frown. I’m willing to bet any money 99% of people sign these things without ever reading them.
But that’s beside the point. The point is, I have paper I don’t need. Lots of it. This information would be much more convenient as an electronic file. I could search it for keywords. I wouldn’t have to work out where to store it so I don’t forget where it is. And it wouldn’t cease to exist if my house burnt down.
So why do I, in this age where newspapers are going out of business because ‘everyone accesses information online’, need a paper contract?
A signature. That little squiggle I moulded off my Dad’s when I was 17, morphed into a change of last name when I was 21 and is now, at 27, nothing more than a bunch of swirls of differing heights skittering across the page. I squiggled it four or five times on each contract (one for me, one for them) while thinking that this was absolutely the most absurd custom humanity refuses to update.
Not only is the paper contract useless and likely to get lost in a cupboard before rotting away, but the signature its designed for is totally useless as well. Shops require a PIN for me to use my credit card or else ID like a driver’s license. With no more than a couple of hours practice anyone could forge my signature. How long has it been since a judge genuinely asked someone, “And is this your signature at the bottom of the page Sir?”
If its been recently, that’s a problem. Firstly because the judge would be holding paper which has probably had at least 10 photocopies of it made for the various parties involved. And secondly because it would imply we still believe in the uniqueness of a fancy swirl. Let’s not kid ourselves; it was the best we could do for a good few centuries but now it’s time to move on.
There are so many technologies out there that allow us to use electronic signatures instead of real ones. Why is no one making the corporates use them? Why are the corporates not switching to it themselves when it saves so much money in time, paper and storage? If the only thing between all the money I own in the world and a hacker is a set of 8 letters, I’d be more than happy to apply the same security level to a contract in a language I can’t read.
Perhaps alternatives fail us because paper is still so cheap. Why inconvenience customers into signing up for an electronic signature when we can just plough through a rainforest instead? It’s expensive for banks to deal with forgery. So let’s make it expensive for banks and shops to deal with paper. Compulsory introduction of electronic signatures for all contracts. Price-floors. Higher taxes. Something…
Don’t get me wrong. Signatures are a wonderful part of this age’s culture; an artistic expression all of our own choosing that represents something indelibly important about us – our name. I’ll honestly feel sad for my kids if they don’t get to create one. The thrill of signing your signature in front of a complete stranger for the first time is practically a right of passage.
I’m pretty sure though that they’d prefer clean air and natural habitats. And freedom from scrounging through filing cabinets unable to remember whether you filed under date, company name or contract type. For goodness sake…Read More