Last year and most recently, a week ago, I had a pretty serious run-in with my own mortality. Suffice it to say, neither experience was particularly pleasant, although I came through them quite well.
Blasé as I've been about these events, the possibility of my life ending has set me to thinking about a lot of things. Why a Mars Rover ostensibly drew a 'penis' on the surface of Mars, for instance.
But what I think about most frequently is what deep insights I would like to leave my lovely young daughter who's now 5, going on 6, should anything happen to me.
Here's my attempt at trying to impart the advice I think I'd want her to get from me. It'll likely end up being sentimental and clichéd, but let's face it, most advice is.
Time Gets Away From You
No matter how productive you are, or how calmly you flow through life, there will never be enough time.
Don't sweat it. Just know this is true and try to give your full attention to the things that matter.
I'm terrible at giving my full attention to things that matter. I hope you do better.
Learn to Forgive
Events and people will make you angry. That's a good thing. Injustice should make you angry. You're a human being, not a door mat.
But try not to let that anger rule your better judgment. Anger is empowering. Righteous anger is the siren that lures you to your destruction.
Use anger to recognize that action needs to be taken: an injustice righted, a dear one protected. Then let it go as if you were holding a hot skillet by the wrong end.
Forgive people. They deserve it. Don't let them continue to hurt you, but do forgive them. Most importantly, forgive yourself. You deserve it most of all but it's the hardest thing in the world to do.
Anger is a sword that cuts both the one who wields it and the one it is wielded against. Forgiveness is at once the most compassionate, and the most selfish, thing you can do. You don't forgive people only out of kindness. You forgive people so you don't damage yourself with the ill-feelings you carry around for them.
Similar to anger, guilt is a dangerous emotion. When you feel it, take a good look at it, see if you actually did something you disapprove of. If so, see if you can do something to ameliorate the situation and, barring that, try to learn from your mistake and avoid repeating it in future.
Then let go of your guilt. Beating yourself up about mistakes constantly is futile and does nothing for you. Trust me, I speak from experience and have the bruises to prove it!
Yeah. The hippies weren't all wrong.
It's an uncool thing to say, but love the world. Negative emotions are so easy. It's easy to see the bad.
We're all flawed, though. Nothing's perfect. Perfection comes from fully accepting imperfection. That's the real secret to love. Butterflies in your stomach are like bubbles in champagne, they tickle you for a bit, but they're not why you drink.
Give your heart, but don't suffer anyone to toy with it.
Jealousy is an emotion that arises naturally in us. But combat it with rationality. If you love someone, then you must trust them. If you do not trust them, you must re-evaluate if you want to bare your heart to them.
Keep an Open Mind
Learn languages from different language groups. Each language has words for things that don't exist in any other. Those words often indicate a unique perspective on the world, a unique way of looking at things that doesn't translate into any other language.
Revere all knowledge. Don't get sucked into inane discussions of whether literature is less important than physics. You will be richer for knowing about either. Richer still for knowing both.
There is no single truth for anything. We only ever get a glimpse of the whole, like those blind men and the elephant. See how many perspectives you can see. Pester intelligent people who disagree with you and try to understand how they look at things.
Understanding is not agreement. You can understand an opposing view but still hold to your own.
Travel. See the world and understand how diverse it is. Try not to judge people.
Read the Tao Teh Ching
The Tao Teh Ching by Lao-Tzu is like wisdom on crack. It isn't the Truth, and it shouldn't be a religion, but there is a subtlety there that is rarely expressed so well.
Yes. There are many other great and wise books that you should read. But read this one at least once. Or 60 times, like I must've. Whichever.
Read as much as you can, whenever you can. Read scraps of paper. Read the manifestoes of saints and bigots. Read about sex. Read about religion. Read about science. Read about the psychological make up of serial killers. Read about Genghis Khan and how enlightened his rule was in many ways. Read your telephone bill. Read everything.
Just maintain a critical mind and don't believe everything you read.
Listen to Your Body
The mind is important, but it doesn't know everything.
Take pleasure in physicality. The touch of a lover. The adrenalin of moving at high speed. The invulnerability of operating in 'the zone'. The comfort of hugging your child. The feel of the wind and the sun, or a hot bath, on your skin.
Never be ashamed of your body. No matter how scarred, wrinkled or fat it gets. Anybody who is secure in theirs won't try to make you insecure about yours.
Do have a care for your health though. Don't force your body to extremes too frequently. It's better to leave it functioning optimally in case you need to push it for a real emergency.
Take the stairs whenever possible.
Learn a Martial Art
It's always good to know how to handle yourself. Hopefully you'll never need it, but it helps your confidence.
Learn How to Dance
I'm a terrible dancer.
Learn how to move on a dance floor on your own and with a partner. There are few things more fun and worthwhile.
Sing! As often and as loudly as you can! I don't feel bad about giving you that advice because, fortunately, you take after your mother and at 5, you already have a phenomenal voice.
Do What's Right
You will inevitably fail at this occasionally. The point is to strive for it each and every time. Be honest, be fair, think of others.
This is all character is about: doing the right thing no matter how hard (please understand that justifying, for instance, mass genocide with this argument is twisted).
Sometimes being kind is more important than doing right. This is a very tricky call to make, but you're wise enough to make it.
Don't Just Live for Yourself
There are a lot of things going on in the world. People are dying of hunger and illness. Animals are losing their habitats. Cruelty. War.
I haven't been an activist myself. While I often agree with their goals, I just as often disapprove of their methods. It has been a failing of mine that I have not contributed more of my time and energy to doing something about the state of the world. I am thinking about it and I hope I leave behind a better example than I have up until now.
I do try to make a difference in the lives of those around me.
If I have to explain this one, it's already too late.
Responsibility and Power
Power and responsibility are two sides to the same coin. If you do not take responsibility for something, then you can't influence it.
If you say that someone makes you mad, then you make them responsible for your emotional state and give them the power to determine how you feel.
Take responsibility. That's how you empower yourself.
You can't control what happens to you, but you can try to control your response to what happens.
Don't be too cynical to be happy; or to share in the joy of others. Basta.
I'm not the best person to give advice on money. If I were, I'd have more.
But here is what I know:
- Don't spend more than you have. I occasionally do that, it rarely ends well.
- If a deal looks too good to be true, it usually is.
- People get crazy for money. Don't be one of them.
- Don't lend money you can't miss. If you lend something to someone, do so because you want to lend it to them, not for the return. It's always a pleasant surprise if you get it back.
- Try not to borrow money. If you do, pay it back.
- Too much money can be a curse, as surely as too little money.
- Don't focus on money, but don't neglect to manage it either.
- Money is a means to end, not an end unto itself.
As to earning money, Confucius say: "Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life." That's a good thing to strive for, but remember that work is not play. The moment you do something to survive, you are no longer playing at it. Find a job you love, just make sure you look at the bigger picture.
I guess I had more to say on the topic than I thought.
There's no such thing. You can take precautions, and you should. But no one and nothing is completely safe. That doesn't mean you should cower in fear!
Courage is feeling fear and pushing through it anyway. Don't let others panic you into doing terrible things in the name of security and safety.
I've never understood why people strive for fame. It's good to be recognised for your accomplishments, but accomplish things because they're worth accomplishing. Not for the recognition that'll proceed from your achievements.
In today's world, fame is more often a burden than it is a benefit.
Science and Religion
These are difficult topics. I'm just going to give it a go so you know how I think about it. Everyone has to find their own way in this.
The scientific method is the greatest tool man has developed thus far. Maybe something will come to supplant it in future, but right now, it's the best thing we've got. Science gets abused a lot in the dirty politics of the world. But pure science, without agendas, is the best thing we have to dispel illusions and try to understand the world as it is. Study it, understand what it is, and don't let ignorant opinions mislead you about its value.
Science doesn't have all the answers. It is a tool in our toolbox. Don't let it have more importance than it should have.
Religion is a hotly contested topic around the world. I try to respect people's beliefs. I don't think religious people are superstitious or any such nonsense. Personally, I'm not a big fan of dogma and religious tradition. I'm of the school of thought that says, "Use what works for you." I think, if there is a God, then it should be possible for every individual to commune with Him or Her directly, without intermediaries. I suppose you could classify me more as a mystic in this respect. This is not to say there is not much wisdom to be had from religious tradition. Quite the contrary, but I don't think it is right to follow dogma for tradition's sake. I don't believe that is what true religion should be about.
Do I believe in God? I'm not sure. If there is one, I guess I'd define it as consciousness, some form of awareness not unlike the Tao that permeates everything. I have trouble believing in an anthropomorphic God sitting in judgment of me or anyone else.
It's not surprising that Politics are debated as hotly as religion. People like their ideologies and hate seeing those threatened.
There is no perfect political system. They all have strengths and weaknesses. In general, I would say a system where the people also get a fair say is preferable over one where they do not.
Countries and prevailing opinions move in cycles throughout history, from freedom to oppression and back again. Like a moth drawn between two light sources, or like breathing.
When things are good, people get lazy and spoiled, they start to take things for granted their predecessors had to struggle hard to achieve. They lose respect for the values that got them their luxury and start to let go the principles that made their lifestyle possible. And then things start to slip towards the other extreme: radicalism, populism, loss of freedoms.
Once people are struggling for basic freedoms, they have to roll up their sleeves and make the hard choices and slowly they claw their way back up to the good times.
It's human nature and history, it's Yin and Yang, and I wonder if we will ever get smart enough to break out of that cycle.
Lots of people talk about winning and winners. Winning is always relative to a context, to rules and boundaries that someone has artificially set up. It's not bad to compete, it teaches you a lot about yourself.
Just don't lose sight of the bigger picture. Maybe someone else needs that win more than you do, would it really hurt you to let them have it?
Don't throw a competition just like that though. If you're committed to the contest, kick ass!
It's great to be smart. Or even to be smarter than everyone else. Enjoy it, revel in what your mind can show you. Savor the intellectual challenges you conquer and the heights to which you will soar.
Don't fall for the anti-intellectuals. The ones who fear progress, the ones who live in a reactionary bubble and sneer at new ideas. There is nothing wrong with being smart, and any one who tells you so is only exposing the depth of their own ignorance.
But don't forget there are many kinds of intelligence. People will always surprise you. Don't be arrogant, and don't think you know better all the time (like I have a tendency to do!). A truly intelligent person knows that they cannot grasp everything and that they will necessarily miss things. You will always be more intelligent working together with others than you will be on your own.
There's nothing worse than false humility. If you're proud of something, be open about it. It strays into arrogance when you look down upon others. Remember, there is always luck involved in anything you do. It takes hard work, it takes skill, but without that little bit of luck, you would fail. Be grateful when things work out.
It's easy to be humble. Try to grasp the size of the universe, then see how insignificant you are. Treat others with dignity and you will come to see their qualities and understand where they are more capable than you are.
Honor is a dangerous concept because it is largely misunderstood. People think it's something they possess that can be damaged or lost. They're right and they're wrong.
Honor is a way of behaving, a way of treating others. If you treat others with kindness, compassion, dignity and maintain their worth, you will be honorable irrespective of anything else. If you do not then you will, indeed, have no honor.
I prefer to ignore this aspect of life altogether and focus on what I'd call "right action". Do what's right, the rest will take care of itself.
Loyalty is an excellent quality to possess, but you can overdo it. Try your best not to break faith with people. Trust is a rare thing to come by in this world and should not be treated lightly.
As the saying goes, courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It's fine to feel afraid, healthy even. We all are afraid more times than we care to admit.
But it's how you deal with that emotion that defines you. In the world today, as I'm writing this, people are turning in their hard won civil rights for some vague security they're being promised. They're afraid and need something to comfort them.
Try to keep your head high, and not stampede with the masses when there's panic. It's not easy, especially once you have a family and children to support.
For me, this is what makes the world go round. If the cynics are to be believed and those talking about entropy and the eventual 'Heat Death' of the universe. If you look 'rationally' at the facts of survival and the realities of life. Then compassion makes little sense. It is every man and woman for him or herself out there, don't you know?
But if we can't be kind just for the sake of being kind, to lend a hand to someone in pain or someone who's suffering, or if we can't give up our comfortable seat on the bus for someone who needs it more, or give the extra dollar or walk the extra mile to improve the environment for everyone. Then what's the point?
If you ask me, this is the quality that separates the saints from the rest of us. If you want to see something resembling a divine spark in human beings, then a true act of compassion is about as miraculous as things get.
Try it out. It takes true strength to be compassionate, to dare to care for others even to the point of acting against your own self-interest. If we humans are ever to evolve into something better than we are now, this is the quality that needs to be nurtured.
Compassion is an expression of love.
You're loved. I just wanted you to know that. We have, and always will, love you. That's important for a person to hear and to believe. I hope you will hear and believe it and I hope you will in time, extend that same feeling to anyone who needs to hear it from you.
If you made it through this whole post, I commend you! If you are gently snoring with your chin on your chest and your iPad resting against your nose, I will bid you Sweet Dreams and a fond adieu.