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Go and Stand on Hallowed Ground

November 27, 2011 — 30 Comments

I suppose it is a contradiction that someone like me who so firmly guards against the narrative fallacy would be such a deep believer in hallowed ground. But I am. See, those who ascribe to this school of thought simply believe that there is something to be gained from going to old places, places where people died or where great things happened. And that by standing on this ground are transformed by it.

There you can experience what Hadot calls the “oceaniac feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, to realize that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in this instance, that you can ask yourself the important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?

The battlefield at Vicksburg. The canals and palazzos of Venice. The forum in Rome. The streets of Tombstone. Old South Meeting House in Boston, the grounds of Harvard. The Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park. I’ve spent a lot of time in the American South. Part of the reason I like it is for its hallowed ground potential. Huey Long trained at the gym where I work out. As far as I know, the heavy bag I hit is still in the same place he learned to box. The building I write this in is 200 years old. How many people have passed through it? Wasted time? Enjoyed themselves?

I don’t always even need to physically step in these places or, if I do, spend more than just a few moments. I’ve driven slowly through the streets of old Birmingham, I didn’t really see why I needed to get out of the car. The thoughts are the same.

Violence. Money. Death. Politics. Sex. These are the themes of humanity. Nothing makes this clearer than hallowed ground of every era. To see your face in a statue and understand how little has changed since then—since before and as it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another one died. Here a cruel rich man lived in this palatial home…

Yet where are they now? Nowhere. Their works? Mostly gone. As William Alexander Percy wrote, even most extraordinary individuals like his father, “who warmed and led and lighted our people,” are barely remembered. Their name and deeds will be soon forgotten. And ours, which pale in comparison to theirs, will too. What does it matter if “soon” means tomorrow or 1,000 years from now? This is what hallowed ground can teach us.

We are left only with first principals: be a good person; do what you love. Contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up and be happy with that. On hallowed ground,  we can channel the energy of the accomplishments of the people who came before it, the passage of time having long stripped them of their vanity, and direct it properly in our own lives.

Of course, it is possible to take the wrong lesson from hallowed ground. Like Caesar, weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander, that’d he’d conquered fewer nations in the same amount of time. It should not spur our ambition, but chasten it. It is a flash lesson in humility. We are put in our place, and yet at the same time, left with a sense of the magnitude of possibilities.

We read the biographies of great men and see similarities in ourselves. We see a plaque for a division that fought and was slaughtered, and it might pain us to know that we’ll likely never warrant even a generalized marker like that. We fail to realize all of these events are just blips on the larger radar of life. The difference in posthumous recognition between Ulysses S. Grant and an infantryman means nothing to either of them. And in turn between Grant and a greater general—Ghenghis Khan, let’s say—matters less still, even though one’s achievements echo louder and have for longer than the other. All dead. All trod upon by you and I today.

Take comfort in that fact. That decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennia earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt the same things you feel, struggled with the same thoughts. They have no idea that you exist, but you know that they did. Embrace the power of this position and learn from it. It is an exhilarating moment, let it propel you.

Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, because it helps you reconcile yourself a bit better with the mundane. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain today, and that anyone can go and—to quote Murakami—breath death into their lungs like a fine dust. Breath it in so it becomes a part of you. Do it as often as you can, whenever you can: go and stand on hallowed ground.

Missing the Point

November 22, 2011 — 46 Comments

Running to train for a marathon is like being a good person so you can get into heaven. The means is right but the end is all wrong. You glorify a bogus God.

For this plug in any sort of exercise, spiritual or physical. And for marathon, you can plug any of the pointless competitions, recitals, readings, exhibitions and other bullshit forms of external validation that we try to graft on to intrinsically valuable pursuits.

Getting up and going for a run everyday doesn’t need to be “justified” a few months later by competing to finish an arbitrary number of miles in a certain amount of time against a bunch of other unhappy losers. No, you run because keeping a healthy body and clear mind is part of your job as a human being. Because it’s a commitment you made to yourself that you’re obligated to keep no matter how tired, how busy or how burn out you feel. In other words, it’s practice—proof of your ability—in always having a little bit extra in you.

We slap these things on because we want to ruin them. We are afraid. We are afraid of making ourselves the project. So we trivialize it with some meaningless goal. This way it’s not our responsibility or our burden, only some activity we engage in. It’s an obligation with an expiration date. We’ll never have to question why we do it, why it’s the right thing to do, because there is a nice big easy answer: the race, the Bible, whatever.

And then we wonder why it never fills the void. Then we die and realize there is no heaven and that we missed the entire fucking point.

Be a good person; Do what you love

November 10, 2011 — 36 Comments

I no longer remember who said it to me, but I can still hear the words. “Do what you love. Be a good person. Those are your only two jobs in life.”

In practice:

First, to be fair and honorable. To make mistakes and know it—and forgive them. Don’t slow down traffic or recline your seat on airplanes or any such other make-the-world-worse, externalizing nonsense. Know others and think of them often. Pick up the check whenever you can. And try to do these things with one word in mind: unconditional.

Being good at something is not sufficient reason to do it for the rest of your life. But loving it is. Work on the things that make you stare out car windows or not even hear someone say your name repeatedly. The things that make you forget what time it is. Be certain that what you do for hobbies and vacations are not the gasps of a suffocating man but your common breath. Learn how to love many things, simple things, and it’s even easier to do them all the time.

Frankl reframed the now cliche question of “What’s the meaning of life?” to one that we answer instead of ask. We’ve been asked this by life, he said, and we must answer with our actions. The way to do this, in my view, is simple: be a good person; do what you love.

The Importance of Having ‘Your Things’

November 3, 2011 — 51 Comments

Part of the philosophical life is simplicity. Variety, despite the saying, is an overrated spice. (There’s a reason that most successful diets reduce the different types of foods you eat to set of standard meals). Look at your closets and your drawers. Chances are they are marked with little consistency, and too much variety. And by extension, waste and weakness.

Pierre Hadot deduced from the Stoic writers the concept of the “inner citadel.” It was a protected core that could be depended on, counted on for protection and strength. For a philosophy, that meant a series of robust principles that provided guidance in every situation. I try to expand this metaphor in my daily life. Our routine, our choices about what we do and what we own, can be pared down and turned into a source of strength. It’s not about compulsive regulation. On the contrary it’s about reducing the needless varieties so you can introduce novel ones without hesitation. (Like quitting a job the second you’re unhappy with it.) Experiment with important things, not how you look.

When you stock your life with things you can depend on and things you can trust, it frees up precious resources. You can say, this is who I am and what I do, I don’t need to put any stock in all that other nonsense. You don’t need to read Hypebeast or those other sites. You don’t need a car to say anything about you because you’ve got one that works that you’re planning to drive into the ground. You can look yourself in the mirror and have no problem with the choices you make or products you endorse. I don’t recall the last time I went shopping. Not because I don’t need things, I do, it’s that I don’t need to look for things. I know what I want. I may go to stores, but I don’t shop.

This is a critical difference and one that is often lost in discussions about sustainability. The real waste is not in materials but in the pointless consumer cycle—that each season or year, companies turn over their entire product offering. They design, produce, market and sell anew constantly. This is redundant and incredibly costly. The slate is wiped clear. Most of the equity earned with last year’s products is discarded and reacquired.

It’s costly for customers too. The real waste is externalized to us, and we are the least equipped to deal with these loses. Hidden in the array of our things were the seconds you spent thinking about them; hidden in the few dollars you saved in price was the unreliability and the unfamiliarity; hidden in it all was the opportunity costs. To be jerked around this way and that way is to be worse than a sheep (who at least is led rationally by a shepherd). It is to be an inanimate object, complete subject to outside forces beyond its control, never allowed to focus on what is important.

The question inevitably becomes well, what is important? The answer: basically everything else. When you limit your choices and variety down, you not only fore a more resilient core—an inner citadel—but you can prioritize further still. (It’s why Seneca and Montaigne practiced poverty on a monthly basis, it allowed them to see clearly what was necessary and what was optional.) You also have more time for others. For your duties. For doing nothing if not to reflect on the fact that you can take none of this when you die—and that that death is not so far away.



Inspired partially by Ben Casnocha’s list, here are some of ‘my things,’ all of which I’ve owned dozens of by now*:

Morning Ritual: I take 8-10 1,000mg fish oil pills (which help with a million things, including depression), gummy vitamins (seriously) and eat 3 eggs, Niman Ranch sliced ham and black beans. With my drink, I usually do two spoonfuls of Mila Chia Seeds.
Food: I do a modified paleo diet, with one cheat day (more on why here)
Pants: American Apparel Schoolboy Pant (for dressier, Bonobos makes a good men’s pant)
Shorts: Lulu Lemon Run Response Short
T-Shirt: Tri-blend or Power Washed
Outerwear: Dov’s Hoody and Winter Jacket from American Apparel
Shoes: Sperry Top Sider
Running/Working Out: Nike Free’s 5.0 (I hate how they keep changing it.) Lulu Lemon Run Response Short. Lulu Lemon Metal Vent Shirt (kills bacteria that smells)

Books: Amazon, always, with Amazon Prime (if its an old book or translation, I stick with Penguin or Modern Library)

*
I don’t want to hear any bullshit about how I can wear or only afford these things because of my job. Only someone trying to rationalize their own situation would claim it was so black and white. We’ve talked plenty about making your own rules. I make mine.


An Interview with Me

October 25, 2011 — 77 Comments

Andrew McMillen posted an email interview he did with me. You can read it here.

At 24, Ryan [pictured right] is a year older than me. I’ve viewed his blog as a kind of counsel since I first became aware of his work. His thinking and writing has, in turn, shaped my thinking and writing. It is fair to say that I wouldn’t be on the path I am now if I hadn’t been closely studying another young male on the other side of the world, fearlessly kicking down doors in search and pursuit of his goals. For a couple of years, Ryan’s ambition, persistence and confidence all directly influenced my day-to-day thoughts and actions. Which is another statement that will make Ryan blush, because it’s a pretty fucking weird thing to type, let alone think.

I am having to put a press kit together and prep for some media stuff anyway, so if anyone wants we can do an open Q&A in the comments. It’d be helpful to me and I know a lot of you have questions since you email them to me. We can talk about anything that is on your mind or anything you feel like I haven’t addressed before.