Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learn from the pigeons



Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo.—Paul Simon

Think about it. What are animals doing all the time? Look at squirrels or sparrows. They're hustling around trying to find something to eat, or trying not to be eaten, or building their nests. Hustle hustle hustle. And hey, it's not really their fault. If you had coyotes or cats to watch out for you'd be pretty skittish too. Like the Bee Gee's song "Stayin' Alive." And then there's instinct, driving them to procreate, migrate and probably a few other things that end in -ate. So yeah, everything in the animal kingdom is doing all it can to stay alive. 24/7. Everything except well, pigeons.

Pigeons hang out. While every other animal is scrambling around in a survival frenzy the pigeons are lined up on a wire or light pole somewhere hanging out. Sometimes I imagine what they're saying to each other.

Hey, we've done enough work for one day, what's going on with this hot weather of ours?

Look at all those poor people scrambling around in their cars, honking, rushing, stressing. Glad we're not them!

Ah, life is good!

Pigeons have broken the instinctual stranglehold other animals suffer under. They're mellow. And they're social. You never see pigeons alone. 

So why not us too? Can't we live the same way? Say the same things?

'Hey, we've done enough for one day.' 'Our house is nice enough as it is—we don't need a bigger one.' 'Let's all meet down at the coffee shop for a nice chat.' 

They say dolphins and whales are smart, and they may be, but the real animal geniuses are pigeons. If only we could be more like them.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Be a different person each and every day


Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.—Oliver Wendell Holmes

As human beings we are made to surpass ourselves and are truly ourselves only when transcending ourselves.—Huston Smith

If you're completely satisfied with who you are, I suppose this post won't appeal to you—you don't need it. But if you're anything like me, this sort of thing gives a great deal of hope.

Stretching. That's what it boils down to. I have a screensaver on my computer that says: If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you.

Again, if you're perfectly satisfied with who you are, you don't need it. But the rest of us do.

Not that we necessarily want to be challenged all the time. But being challenged is what's good for us. It's where life is.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.

That's it, shooting the gulf is where power is, is where life is. So maybe the challenge we could live without. But we can't live without the life. So no challenge, no life. Or perhaps, no challenge, only half a life.

And taking on challenges can be like a drug. Once you start taking them on you need more and more of a challenge the next time to be satisfied. Oh, it may take a while to get to that point. In fact, it may take a long while—for the longest time every challenge may only seem like a way to make us suffer. But you can get to the point where challenges are exciting. Like the old saying goes, There is a fine line between anxiety and excitement.

Challenge yourself enough and you'll cross that line.

If you want to live, you'll challenge yourself. And if you keep challenging yourself, pretty soon you'll come to love challenges, and your life will be a thrill a minute, and you'll be a stretched person, a different person each and every day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

More is different

"More is different." It's a line by the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders. It's simple enough to be profound, and yet it goes against the grain of what many think today with their notion of 'the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.'

Mr. Norretranders shows that notion to be a fallacy. More is different. He explains in his wonderful book The User Illusion how life evolved from the simple to the complex. And it evolved thusly from repetition. Specifically from the repetition of the same thing over and over and over again.

In a different context, consider the idea of splitting a slab of marble. The marble could conceivably take ninety-nine blows from a hammer and not split in the least. And yet that hundredth blow might split the slab from top to bottom. More is different.

The notion of banging your head against the wall. Conventional wisdom would say to stop. Find a way around the wall. 'More is different' would say, 'Keep banging. One more knock might knock the damn thing down.'

From my personal experience I can report that there is definitely something to seemingly irrational persistence. I used to be lousy at a lot of stuff and just pigheadedly stayed after it until I became pretty darn good at it. Oh, I haven't pursued everything that way—I gave up on playing the guitar in a hurry ('put your fingers here on the neck and then shift them onto an entirely different position' What!!). But most stuff I've stuck with.

My favorite saying in life is: ruthless striving overcomes everything.

I remember the story by Kate Chopin called "The Awakening" and the line: "I have overcome everything!"

Overcoming is how my life has worked. It's like that pounding on the marble, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. There really haven't been any sensational breakthroughs, no clearly demarcated lines of achievement crossed. But there have been many soul-satisfying moments of, Hey, I can do this thing now. This thing that has baffled, demoralized, intimidated, exhausted me for so long has been overcome.

No great intelligence, no superior genes or talent. Just simple ruthless repetitive striving.

And overcoming.

More is different.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Other worlds are just a blink away


We're living on the verge of different worlds. Sure, it doesn't seem like it. It's the same old world, day after day. But think about it. A car accident. A winning lottery ticket. A bad diagnosis at your annual check-up. One moment, flash, and your life is forever altered. It's like entering a different world.

It doesn't have to be big things, either. A smile can save a life. There's a documentary called "The Bridge." A 24/7 camera was set up and it recorded all the suicides and suicide attempts of those who jumped from the Golden Gate bridge. One of the jumpers said (on the long walk that led to the bridge): "If one person would've smiled at me, I wouldn't have jumped."

You're down. You're suicidal. Someone smiles at you and you want to live. You're thrust into a different world.

Homeostasis, Freud called it. The tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. That's what we as human beings instinctively shoot for, the great Viennese psychiatrist postulated. And yet, how one tick of the clock can upset that process.

Even for a nation. Think of the impact of 911.

Stability is over-rated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called Black Swan (not the movie of the same name). A black swan is an event that comes as a surprise, has a powerful impact in our lives. It's something we "didn't see coming."

We think we know so much. We think we can predict so well. We can't.

Better to be uncertain, to live in a healthy doubt. I like the saying, "There is only hope for you to the degree that you are unsettled."

Life thusly accurately prepares you for those other worlds that are lurking just a blink away from the one you're living in.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Surrender to win

Battling your way through life? Yeah, life is a fight, and sometimes you can barely keep the fight going. You're strained, stretched. No matter how hard you try nothing seems to work. And you've tried everything and you get the same result—nothing. No, worse—you're going backwards.

Ever think maybe it's time to give up? In a positive way, that is.

It's counter-intuitive. Big time. And it's nuanced, as well. As the saying goes—it's like "not giving a crap with a positive attitude."

Giving up only makes sense, though, if you feel there's something that will take over to help you when you do.

From Sting's song "Invisible Sun":

There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone. There has to be an invisible sun. That gives us hope when the whole day's done.

I'm not into wasting my time believing something that's not true. But I am thoroughly convinced that something knows better than I do about the best way for me to live.

The few times I do manage to give up and go with that something I have been led. And into places far better than I was headed on my own.

It's a challenge. It's hard giving up control. But it's worth it—and it's such a relief.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just do it (what you can)

I was really stuck in my life at one time. Oh, on the surface I wasn't doing so bad. I was married, had a lot of (mostly drinking) friends, a college degree. But on the inside I was a mess. Thing is I thought I should be able to do things a married college graduate with lots of friends should do. But the fact of the matter was that the mess I was on the inside wasn't going along with that plan. So I was stuck.

I couldn't be my image any more. I was just the mess. So I wasn't out there getting a big job and hauling in the big bucks. I wasn't going to be winning any fancy awards. I didn't have what it took to be a hero. About all I knew at that point in my life was that I was hosed, and I couldn't see any way out of it.

Then I discovered a single bit of information that changed my life.

Somebody told me that if I couldn't do all the high-falutin' things I wanted to do, I should just do what I could. Seems so obvious but it was revolutionary to me.

So if I couldn't get that big job, I could still do the best I could at my crappy little job. If I couldn't be a superstar, I could at least say a kind word to the mailman or smile at an old man waiting for the bus. Everything counted. Even if it was just effort and not results. I started counting days that only had one line in my journal—"Tried hard and failed."—as successes.

Doing what I can has been my motto ever since. It's freeing. It works. Don't worry about what you can't do (and feel you should be able to). Just do what you can.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Are you seeing stars?

No, not in that way. :) In the way of looking up into the sky.

If stars appeared only one night every thousand years, how we would marvel and adore them. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is magical. We're given such a gift and yet 99% of our lives we don't appreciate it. To be born. To live. To experience this earth. Its joys. Its sorrow. Its majesty and squalor. It's all a gift, a magnificent gift. Yet we don't see it.

Perhaps some people see it when they near the end of their lives (or if the end is thrust upon them). Then suddenly they have a keen appreciation of life, of how very precious and magical it is. Otherwise, it's hurry hurry hurry. Hamsters on a hamster wheel.

Sometimes I think about life in terms of technology. Everything man-made requires a power source. It needs to be plugged in or needs a battery. And yet, we don't. We walk around untethered. Yes, life is magical. Want proof there's a God?

Think about your life. Life is God manifested.

And the Emerson quote. How utterly true is that?

I think of people who fly on airplanes. So many of them pull the window shade and play video games on their phones or watch a movie. I wonder what Gallileo or DaVinci or Isaac Newton would've given to go up in a jet, soaring above the clouds, the mountains. They would've been breathless with excitement, with sheer wonder.

And we can be too. If we slow down enough to appreciate this wonderful, magical thing we are so privileged to experience, this thing called life.