A woman yelling

Years ago, I attended a week-long summer camp for high school students with deep intellectual and artistic interests.  

Every morning, the host organization’s leader would make us go out in the yard, run a bit and then sing the national anthem. Sometimes, if we hadn’t followed all instructions the day before, we would have to run a bit longer. At other times, like when we went out hiking, some of us might get shouted at or be given a lecture about military discipline. At yet other times, we would be instructed about morality or reprimanded for basically being teenagers.

Now, the exercise of this kind of strict authority annoyed me to a great extent. If the camp leader had been in the military (the draft being mandatory for his generation) we, on the other hand, had not. Why then submit us, the high school students, to the same kind of rules and discipline that men fighting for their lives have to live under in order to survive?

I did not always agree with the approach nor the reasoning behind it. There is a particular way in which men involved in the military end up. It makes them seek and require of others almost complete control over the smallest of details. Often, the result is an overly rigid and conservative worldview that sees deviations from tradition as a prelude to chaos. Naturally, this kind of approach was bound to rough up some feathers with a group of teenagers, including me.

Yet, by the end of the camp I ended up having huge respect for the camp leader. I had not changed my mind much. I still did not see the point in his unnecessary rigidity. However, there was a something alluring about his conviction. There was a lesson in the way he acted and thought even if I ultimately disagreed with him.

To be fair, to say I simply disagreed is to leave out the emotional side of the interaction. Indeed, not only did I disagree, I was also furious inside. There were many time where I simply felt fed up with the whole ordeal.

Nonetheless, I kept listening and tried to stop emotions from clouding my judgement. As long as I could see a point in the camp leader’s behavior, I tried to learn from him. And exactly because I was aware of my emotions, I forced myself to look for a point in his behavior twice as hard as normal. Eventually, I came to see that he had his own point of view and principles behind it. That, I could respect.

***

Sadly, today the new normal for emotionally charged conversations is to be offended and try to shut down any further communication. Instead of a warning in the service of greater attention to the other, anger has turned into an excuse to deny all attention whatsoever. 

Far from a mere assault on curiosity, such attitude towards emotionally charged disagreement is also a conscious choice of division among us.  Continue reading The Anger is Why You Have to Listen

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If there is one thing adult life has too little of, it is definitely spontaneity.

Frankly, that’s hardly surprising — the unspoken image of success has long been defined by leisure-free days full of plans, meetings and hard work. Time is money, after all, so there is no place for slack.

To be fair, the result sure is an economically productive culture. However, nothing comes for free. Such endless pursuit of productivity has gradually eaten up much of our lives. The very same planning procedures that rule over our work lives have gradually spilled over into the way we approach everything else. 

Most painful for me is how friendships and all relationships in general have increasingly become subsumed by a frustrating wave of precise scheduling. It is becoming less and less possible to say to a friend “hey, let’s go out” and have your social wish met. Just like a premature “I love you”, such an appeal feels strange because it has divorced itself from the normal timing for such things. Indeed, with friends and acquaintances, these days you have to plan early. You just cannot be spontaneous. Moreover, you have to have a reason why. 

Personally speaking, inside of me the reason has always been clear. “I want to spend time with you”. But saying that rarely works. Spontaneously starting to miss somebody is simply not an acceptable reason. So, all of a sudden, I really want to see that new movie. Or I am dying to go ice-skating, but, oh well, I would feel too lonely on my own. In other words, I make up a reason and go with it. Otherwise, I risk staying alone.

Now, I hate the above dynamic so much. Why should there be a reason for a meeting in the first place? At the workplace, I get it. You don’t want to waste time because money is at stake. Moreover, having reasons for this and that provides accountability and allows for a rational post-game analysis. Business is rational and it’s all about efficiency.

Yet, few of us are too sad if our relationships aren’t efficient enough. We don’t lose sleep over suboptimal interactions. What’s more, sometimes all we want from relationships is to turn our brains off, to stop thinking and start feeling instead.  Continue reading In Praise of Spontaneity

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Sometimes I find that I all I need to brighten my day is just a dose of beauty. So, I decided to start a series of posts with pictures/music/performances/etc that I feel demonstrate the beauty inherent to life.

For today, I chose the topic of snow.

For me, snow is a symbol of winter and brings back many childhood memories. It  also has a very alluring side to it, especially when combined with the green of fir trees or the light blue of the winter skies. Snow is thus a great way to kick start a series dedicated to finding beauty in life. Continue reading Snow

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I wake up.
I open my eyes and get up.
Once again, I set out looking for a way to be better and freer today.

Day after day, in this search of self-improvement, I always find myself choosing between various approaches, strategies and mindsets. Sometimes guided by the fashions of the day, I open the latest trendy self-help book and read. At other times, I question whether that was, after all, the best I could have done. Such books usually sound too good and too easy. Their prescriptions are cheap and their descriptions of the good life devoid of any personal meaning. Indeed, most self-help books rarely sound like they apply to me with all the pain and suffering inside my soul.

So, at those latter times, I easily wave goodbye to motivational videos and speeches. Greatness does not move me anymore. Excellence becomes mere entertainment, not at all the way ahead. Watching freedom and success turns painful and highly unrelatable. A sense of being lost manifests itself whenever I dare face perfection in the eyes.

Nonetheless, the time is not ripe for despair. So I do not stop my search, but this time I decide to focus less on what is good and more on what is bad. After all, if hope and dreams of a distant and unknown heaven have proven disempowering., then maybe fear of the depths of hell will be a better guide. Ultimately, imperfection is the name of the human condition much more often than perfection.  Continue reading Staring into Hell is the Best Way to Reaching Heaven

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All throughout my formal education I always felt uncomfortable with the tacit assumption that uniformity was acceptable or desirable. Why was the whole system structured so that every one studied all and the same facts and figures from all and the same textbooks in all and the same subjects? Why did choice have to be so severely restricted?

These days, we often talk about diversity. We say we value it because it exposes us to unique stories and perspectives; because it disperses power throughout society. But why do we treat diversity predominantly as a rare ore to be mined by enlightened institutions instead of something that can be actively nurtured and created? Continue reading Taking Diversity Seriously means Fostering Individuality

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Ever since the Enlightenment, the significance of faith has fast been slipping down all throughout the West. We all know the standard story why. Faith was found to be of little epistemic value. It could not rival the utility of reason. Careful thinking was a better guide to life than blind faith in gods, religions, priests and thousand year old books.

As far as religion goes, I am a child of the Enlightenment. I think reason should have the upper hand in our decisions and beliefs. Yet, I have always felt uncomfortable with anyone who wished to deny the role of faith wholesale.

It is true. Faith leads to no knowledge. Believing in fairies is not a proof of their existence. And I’m sorry if it’s news to you, but Santa isn’t coming to your house in a few weeks — and not because you’ve been too naughty! Faith is indeed useless at providing new knowledge. If the debate was merely on this point, then the winners, reason and sensory experience, were crowned many years ago.

But is faith, properly understood, really about knowledge?

Continue reading The Role of Faith in the Modern World

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Ah, feelings, the color to our days, the rhythm to the beating of our hearts!

Feelings and emotions can be highly useful. Some feelings, e.g. love, kindness and gratitude, continuously bring joy and satisfaction to our lives. They help us bond with others and enter into meaningful and growing relationships with them. In a sense, such positive feelings constitute the very fabric of our wellbeing. Moreover, they are often our deepest source of spiritual inspiration and meaning.

Others feelings, e.g. anger and pain, can mobilize us to change ourselves and the world around us for the better. Were it not for those darker feelings, major political, social and personal injustices would not enrage us towards change. Historical civil rights movements all started with a feeling of rejection, anger, humiliation and confusion. In a way, these feelings have often served as an inner alarm against the evil in the world. But even more is true. Feelings such as the experience of suffering or grief may indeed be difficult to bear. Yet, they are probably the greatest tool we have for highlighting the blessings unknowingly enjoyed in the past. It won’t be unjustified to say that gratitude is the child of pain. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

Nevertheless, despite all of their utility to many practical matters, feelings are still not an infallible guide to reality. Moreover, no feeling, positive or negative, can be spared this judgement. Continue reading You Don’t Have to Believe Your Feelings Every Time

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Abstract art - freedom through creativity

Years ago, when I first started thinking about life and its meaning, I came to realize that achieving personal freedom was one of the necessary prerequisites to a meaningful life. Indeed, without the ability to determine my own purpose guided by my innermost interests and passions, life seemed dull and colorless. No one from without could bring as much satisfaction as I could operating from within.

But there was more to freedom than that. Indeed, freedom was not only a prerequisite to a meaningful life. In a way, freedom itself was to have found meaning already. Exercising my artistic passions freely was and still is the freedom that allows me to transcend the pains inherent to life. Being healthy, i.e. free to use my body as I wish, allows me to find satisfaction in sports and exploration of the world. Freedom of speech allows me to have my ideas heard and acted upon.

Through a deeper analysis I gradually came to another important realization. The reason why freedom was important to me was because it allowed to me to create a world closer to the one my heart and mind desired. So perhaps not every exercise of freedom made sense after all. However, every creative one did. And so my search for meaning led me to explore creativity.

But what exactly is creativity? In a narrow sense, it’s what artists, musicians, painters, photographers and a few select others do. It is certainly connected with art, but little else. In other words, it’s a specific skill that is certainly far from universal. Indeed, how could creativity understood this way ever be relevant to an athlete? Continue reading To be Free is to Create

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