The Critical Point // Trace Your Path Backward

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Continuing from “Accept The Pain”:

The second step is to examine your current circumstances, how you got to where you are, your achievements so far, and the hidden assumptions about your life and possibilities. Whatever you have been doing with your life has not been a waste, and your path to the present has shaped you as a person in both good ways and bad. The key at this stage is to dispassionately analyze your life’s story until now, its characters and events, and evaluate the assets and liabilities you have inherited from it.

When we pause for such reflection, we begin to realize that many of our past circumstances led us to create rules for ourselves that we have adopted across our lives. These rules might have value in certain applications, but applied too broadly, limit our range of motion and close us off to valuable experiences and rewarding relationships.

As you relive some of the painful experiences that led you to create such rules, you will have to determine how to relax or remove these self-imposed barriers. When you reflect soberly, you see that in a particular instance something negative happened as a result of a certain action, but that not all–not even most–actions of the same kind would have led to that outcome. As a result, the rule you made for your life has to be amended.

Event by event, rule by rule, looking back on your experience not only removes impediments to your future possibilities, but it also strengthens your self-confidence. As you see what hardships you have endured so far, you begin to understand that you really are resilient. This confidence is part of the foundation for the life you want to build.

 

This is the fifth part of “The Critical Point”, an essay written by Exosphere founder Skinner Layne. You can read the fourth part here. The next chapter is “Examine Your Identity”.

You may download the full essay directly here.

The Critical Point // The Hangover and the Recovery

Continuing from “Heaven is Hell”:

Recovering ourselves from this extraordinary self-deception is difficult, but it can (and must) be done. Indeed, recovery from such condition is the first truly meaningful work we will do in our lives. There are two ways to recover from a post-intoxication hangover: getting intoxicated again or rest & nutrition. In the long-run, only the latter really works.

A few words of caution before we explore this process.

The pursuit of a meaningful life is hard work and perhaps many people might think it is not worth the effort. For many people it may be better to respond to the hangover with another round of intoxication. It’s an approach that works–for a while.

Just like physical intoxication, more of the same always provides temporary relief to the pain. That is, until the liver fails and all of the regrets of abusing one’s body over the years begin to set. No longer able to drink, the alcoholic with the failing liver is forced to live in the worst of all possible worlds–where persistent, chronic pain coincides with the impossibility of relief and the pervasive awareness that it was all self-inflicted.

There is little difference in the metaphorical realm of intoxication and hangover. There comes a point in most people’s lives beyond which they can no longer delude themselves or fill their time with pleasurable distraction, and they live in deep regret of their lost time, missed opportunities, and wasted life. Those who do not reach this point have merely died drunk. Some people reach this point very early in life, even in adolescence, while others are able to maintain the ruse well into middle life and even old age.

Still, your giant follows you wherever you go.

Nevertheless, to gaze upon your giant, wherever you are, is painful and difficult. To wake up every morning and do the work necessary to build from nothing the work of your life, to create your magnum opus, is to suffer alongside the experience of intense joy. Every high is higher, every low lower than anything you have ever encountered before.

You must consciously decide to emigrate from Mediocristan, but citizenship in Meaningland comes at a price. The price is your comfort of average, your soma of stability, your security blanket of false acceptability. You must check them at the border–the customs agents of Meaningland won’t permit you to enter with them in your luggage. Indeed, there is not much you can bring with you on this journey. Only yourself, your thoughts, your will.

 

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; 
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

-T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

The border crossing is treacherous, with dangers lurking around every corner. From here to the other side you will encounter ferocious animals, poisonous plants, raging rivers, and towering mountains all trying to stop you, all trying to slow you down. You will have to endure hot and cold, desert and glacier, rain and drought, flood and famine. The scenery is incredible, but your feet will tire, your back will ache. When you think you should be halfway, you will look at the map and see you have just begun.

When you look up to see the border to the other side, you will look down and discover there is one last river to cross, deep and flowing fast, as cold as ice. You will be tempted to quit and turn back. But you must persist.

As you arrive, tired but relieved and full of accomplishment, there will be others to greet you, others who have made the same journey. You will eat and drink together, sharing stories of the voyage, and then when you are rested, it will be time to begin the real journey. It will be even longer than the first, even more uncertain, but by then you will be prepared, you will have practiced, and most importantly, you won’t be going alone.

 

This is the third part of “The Critical Point”, an essay written by Exosphere founder Skinner Layne. You can read the second part here. The next chapter is “Accept the Pain”.

You may download the full essay directly here.

The Critical Point // Heaven is Hell

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Continuing from “First Thoughts”:

From childhood, through adolescence, university, and entrance into the world of “employment,” we have slowly lost the ability to think original thoughts, or even to think old thoughts but anew for ourselves. This is why we are possessed with anxieties and boredom and feelings of meaninglessness. We have tried to build our lives with the templates of others and when our expected outcomes have failed to materialize, disappointment floods us. In response to that flood, we do not try to find the origin of the water to shut it off, but rather we cloak ourselves in what is at best a mostly ineffective rain suit. Upon complaining that we are wet, we are told that the rain is just part of life.

This does not mean, however, that life should be devoid of suffering. As Scott Peck writes in the lines of The Road Less Traveled, “life is difficult.” Life will always be difficult. Life will always be a series of problems to be solved. It is the illegitimate belief or hope that one day there will be no more problems that has created the myth of retirement-as-vocation. We will explore this myth in-depth in just a moment, but first we must pause to understand the word “vocation,” as it is central to this entire discussion.

The word “vocation” has Latin roots that mean “to call out” or “calling.” Each of us may have more than one vocation in life, sometimes simultaneously, and at other times in succession. We have general and universal vocations as well as specific and particular ones.

For example, we all have universal calling to maturity and adulthood. We all have a calling to life-long learning and personal growth. We all have a calling to be kind and constructive in our relationships with other people. The extent to which we answer these calls in large part determines our overall joy, happiness, and fulfillment with life. It also determines whether or not we will successfully pursue our specific and particular vocations.

As Emerson writes in “Spiritual Laws,”

Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion. He is like a ship in a river; he runs against obstructions on every side but one; on that side all obstruction is taken away, and he sweeps serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea…For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers. The height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base. Every man has this call of the power to do somewhat unique, and no man has any other call.

The myth of retirement is a false vocation, it is the god of gods of contemporary secular society, and it is worshiped in nearly every corner of the world by people of many cultures and languages. Retirement is the eschatalogical aspiration incepted in us throughout our formative years. Here I do not mean retirement as an exclusively or even primarily economic condition, but rather as a set of expectations.

The economic condition of retirement as life without paid employment is the colloquial use of the term, and while my usage of the term is inclusive of it, it goes well beyond the mere economic. Retirement is expected to be a spiritual condition where we are no longer bothered by the annoyances of living. Retirement is expected to be a life without problems, or “real” problems, at least. The reason it is so attached to economics is that we believe (falsely) that with enough money and no active labor we will not be annoyed by the details of life and that we can exist “at ease” for the balance of our days.

It is in anticipation of this “heaven” that we are willing to sacrifice our present fulfillment, that we are willing to endure the illegitimate suffering of contemporary life. Yet we all know that retirement is a lie. We know that most of us, by the age in which the economic prerequisites of retirement are met, will be physically deteriorating if not already infirm. We know that inflation will erode our financial security. We have met retired people, few of whom seem really and truly happy.

There is a related myth that follows the same line of reasoning, a myth that is more prevalent than the retirement myth in the United States and parts of Europe. That is the myth of the “dream job.” As many people have begun to question the myth of retirement, they have turned their faith toward a slightly improved eschatological aspiration to perfect work.

The dream job variation of the retirement myth goes something like this. You do well in school and get into a good university. You do well in university and then take a low-paying or unpaid internship at a company or non-profit or government agency to “get some experience” and leverage that to gain an entry-level job that will lead to incremental promotions (usually achieved by job-hopping from company to company) that after 5-7 years, will result in the dream job. The dream job consists of doing work that is meaningful with people you like,  and that gives you flexibility with your time. Like retirement, it is envisioned as an idyllic freedom from real problems.

The dream job myth has been debunked for most young people by the economic crisis plaguing the West since 2008 in most cases because the availability of perceived dream jobs is scarce. For the rest, it has been proven a fraud by the sad truth that the dream job isn’t really a very good dream after all.

This state of affairs appears likely to worsen in the coming years.

A third variety of this myth of retirement (again, the spiritual condition, not the economic circumstances) is the start-up myth. This one is really a parody of the other variations, but is taken seriously by some of the brightest and most ambitious people in the world. The start-up myth says that if you can come up with a good idea, you should drop out of college or quit your job and create a “start-up.” You will make a lot of sacrifices for a few months until you raise money from investors, and then at some point in the near future thereafter, your start-up will have the magic number of users such that Google or Facebook will buy you for millions or billions and then you can spend the rest of your life either building more start-ups, doing charity work, or retiring.

Of course belief in this third variety of the retirement myth is like believing you will win the lottery. But because you have heard that somebody did it, you are tempted by it nonetheless. Indeed, it is seductive precisely because there are the rare exceptions where it has been true, just as there are indeed people who win the lottery and hence people continue buying lottery tickets.

If belief in one or more variations of this myth is as absurd as it seems, why, then, do we continue believing in these lies?

Perhaps we believe it because there is nothing else to believe. Perhaps it is the only justification we can find to allow ourselves to go on doing the things we do. Perhaps these false hopes give us ersatz meaning that we are able to convince ourselves is genuine meaning.

If there is any certainty in the matter, it is that we humans are adept at fooling ourselves. We get drunk with lies because sober reality seems like too much to face.

 

This is the second part of “The Critical Point”, an essay written by Exosphere founder Skinner Layne. You can read the first part here. The next chapter is “The Hangover and the Recovery”.

You may download the full essay directly here.

The Critical Point // First Thoughts

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If I were given a single word to describe the experience of what I imagine being in outer space is like it would be “silent.”

We have few opportunities in contemporary life to be in complete silence, both literally and figuratively. Everywhere we go, there is noise. We have become so accustomed to the noise that in those rare moments when we are truly alone with only our own deep thoughts, we become unnerved, even terrified. We pick up our adult pacifiers, these devices we call “phones,” to calm our anxiety by filling the void with the cacophony of the masses all chattering at once. Read more