Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Life Lessons

A little while ago, Jarbles did a video on her birthday, the second in her now annual “lessons” series in which she describes as many life lessons she has learned as years lived so far. I really liked the idea, and decided to do one for my upcoming birthday. Since I turned thirty-mumble a few days ago I thought I would share thirty-hmnhrmnim lessons I have learned over the course of my life, in typical long-winded Founder fashion.

As with all my blog posts, this may and probably will be edited in future with new content. In fact, given the subject matter, I can see myself adding a new life-lesson every year this blog remains clinging to my humble corner of the internet, so feel free to check back in 12 months or so to see me summarize everything I learned that year with another bit of fortune cookie gibberish. This could well be a life-long project.

So with that, enjoy/I apologize.

1.       Know yourself.

This is my most important lesson. The first lesson I learned in life, and something I consider a lifelong rule. I first saw it emblazoned upon the walls of a classroom in my school in the form of a Shakespearean quote: “This above all, to thine ownself be true”. Because what’s the point in doing anything if you’re not being true to yourself at the same time? It made sense to me on a deep, almost spiritual level.

But to be true to yourself, you must know yourself, and that is far more important. It’s also an unending task. You must explore yourself as you explore this world, including all the new corridors that form out of those experiences. There is a power that can’t be explained in truly knowing yourself. Something that defies words. A sense of perfect order, like looking down upon a completed jigsaw puzzle and comprehending that every piece is in its place.

Knowing your place in the universe, knowing exactly what it is that should and does fill your footsteps makes it so that you can truly claim your body and your life as your own. You are a being of indescribable complexity and inexplicable specificity. You are unique. Like a god. Like a force of nature. There’s only one of you, and only ever COULD BE one of you, and that uniqueness is indestructible, and it’s yours­. Knowing that creature is to know the things that only that creature could ever do. Knowing that power lets you harness it.

It is important to know many things, to always keep learning and bettering yourself. But all other things are learned by and filtered through the self. Everything starts there. Knowing yourself is like securing the platform that holds up all of the knowledge in the world, and mastering its use. After all, if you don’t know yourself, what’s the point in knowing anything else to begin with? Who’s learning it? Or is that knowledge merely its own master?

2.       A person is defined above all else by their principles.

It’s easy to label yourself a good person, or a rationalist, or a healer or leader or anything else. Walking the walk is a different story. To be the best that you can be, you need more than just idealism. You need to be able to enforce your own self-actualization. You’re not defined by what you do; otherwise we would all just be bags of mistakes. You’re defined by what you keep doing­. Whether or not you learn from your mistakes, whether or not you are improving as a person. That’s what counts.

As an intelligent being is it incumbent on you to think. Think about everything. Ponder on matters ethical and moral, philosophical and scientific, spiritual and mundane. Learn what your positions are on various different matters, and whether those positions are sound. Establish the parameters of your being, and then stick with them. Even when it’s hard, even when facing adversity.  So long as the best information you have access to is telling you which path is the right one, be true to those principles.

Knowledge starts within, but change starts with what kinds of rules you are willing to live by. I have mine, many are in this list. I follow them even when I don’t understand them, because I trust the judgement of the person I was when I made them, and I understand that as people we are prone to moments of fallibility, anger, cruelty, neglect and many other harmful behaviours. You’re only a good person if you can continue to act as such even when under the influence of such negative feelings.

For example, I won’t kick a man when he’s down, even if in the haze of the moment I really want to. Why? Because principles make the man, and if you only follow your principles when it’s easy, they’re not really principles, are they? Could there be any true honour in such a person? And what about you? If you could break yourself down into a series of statements, what would they say about you? Is that the person you want to be? Is there anything missing from that figure?

Find out what kind of person you are, and if there’s anything in that person you don’t like, work on it. Become someone who is proud to be defined by the principles by which they live their life. Which leads me to my next lesson…

3.       It is possible to change yourself.

NOT EASY. But possible. Habits can be broken just as they were learned, new habits can be forged from the stuff of the old. You can bend your personality into a better shape. But it takes time and work.

I don’t recommend you do it the way I did, but I am proof that it can be done. What I did is to pull on every thread in my conscious mind and untangle my entire sense of self. Unsatisfied with the way I was, I sought to deconstruct myself, and rebuild myself in a better image. I borrowed personality traits from all over. The best people I knew, the ones I admire. I introduced behaviours and inflections, improved ways of thinking, changed my accent, I even added personality flaws. I took the broken eggs life had given me and worked to bake them into a cake.

Personally, I would recommend a more incremental approach. What we think of as self is really more like a big, complicated computer program. And each line of code is really just a different habit. We are smorgasbords of habits. Rituals, routines, repeated actions, we learn to navigate this world by building a series of pre-programmed behaviours into ourselves, so everything we encounter isn’t always like the first time we encountered it. We have this recorded response to fall back on. Habits are incredibly easy to form, but almost impossible to break.

But if you learn to read the base code of yourself, you can bypass that by overwriting old habits with new ones. Practising new behaviours until pretence becomes persona. Some things can’t be undone. Some things are just hard limits imposed on you by genetics and circumstance, but even those things you can’t control – you can learn to control HOW you choose to respond to them.  Turning every negative into a positive is just a question of perspective. Skills can be learned, attitudes adjusted. The only true obstacle you have is how motivated you are to change – and believe me, I understand that motivation is a very REAL obstacle.

But it is possible. Everything you want to be IS possible. Why? Because…

4.       Human beings are infinitely capable.

What do I mean by this? I mean that people can do almost anything they set their mind to given time and effort. That's the human superpower, and if you stop to think about it, it's goddamned amazing. Every time you see someone performing some amazing skill on TV and think to yourself “man, I wish I could do that”, what’s really happening there is someone who never tried something is watching someone else who DID. The fact that other people can do those things doesn’t prove that they are better than you; it proves that PEOPLE can do those things. And here’s the important thing. You are a people. Realise that. Don’t assign limits to yourself.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that things like age, disability or illness are not legitimate limiting factors; of course they are. All I’m trying to say is… don’t undersell yourself. Whatever obstacles you do have in life, never let them be your defining factor. If you can’t do one thing, you can do INFINITE other things. The number of things that are truly walled off from you, that you are utterly incapable of achieving is far, far smaller than the endless list of unexplored options you may be right for. There are SO many things we assume we could never do; until we try.

I know that at least someone reading this is saying to themselves, right now, “that’s easy for you to say”, you’re saying “you don’t understand, I CAN’T”. And you’re wrong that I don’t understand. Asking you to try does not mean I am trivializing how difficult it is, or even how impossible it seems. Look, unless you know me well you won’t understand just how sincere I am in saying this, or that I am not merely paying lip service to my own point, but believe me, I am just the worst. I speak from no privilege, with no presumption, and with absolutely no advantage. I have, when in the darkest pits of my own self-loathing and despondence, discovered within myself, at times, an amazing well of strength I didn’t know was there.

If I can do that, ANYONE can. Literally fucking anyone. It’s not like tapping into a waterpipe, you can’t just unload a torrent of free willpower by thinking nice thoughts. But you are SO much capable than you know, and if you think your struggles stand in testimony against this, think again. Think instead about how much strength you needed just go get through those times? Sometimes the superpower a person has works round the clock just to keep them looking normal, like if the Hulk had to drag a moon everywhere he went. He would be too tired to do anything else, but he still is that strong. And so are you. You have that power, and you can discover new ways to harness it.

, my friends. Try. You may surprise yourself. And if you feel compelled to tell me that you could NEVER be as good as those truly great people you admire?

5.       Fuck modesty.

Modesty is one of my biggest pet peeves, so I’m about to open a big ol’ can of fuck this all over your face. What is modesty? It is the socially engineered expectation of pretending to be ashamed of your own accomplishments. No, it is not humility. Humility and modesty are totally different things­. Now, look, what I just said is sketchy, and I did consult a dictionary to be sure. It turns out that the definition of humility DOES mention the word modest. But here’s the thing, the definition of MODEST is about five paragraphs longer – and all that extra baggage is my point.

Humility is a kind of dignity in strife. A form of remaining grounded to reality and not allowing your pride to run away with itself. Modesty, however, is an extreme. Modesty tells us that we should never laud our own accomplishments. That we should trivialize and play down everything we do well. That enjoying any aspect of yourself is ARROGANT or EGOTISTCAL. Well FUCK THAT. No it isn’t. This is a form of the social bullying virus I have written about here in the past. People who react to someone else being pleased with themselves about something with vicious words like egotistical neither understand that word’s meaning nor what they are really reacting to.

Here’s the real issue. Being a social species, we are compelled to a certain democratic standard of behaviour. Voices in unison form consensus, consensus dictates what is seen to be correct. This means that as a general rule, what everyone agrees on becomes the expected reality. Nobody likes being punched in the face; so face-punching isn’t allowed. You get the idea. But what everyone agrees on isn’t always a good or correct thing. There are many things we all share in common that are profoundly negative. For example, INSECURITY. People who are extremely self-conscious (read: EVERYONE) will feel resentment towards those who seem to be at peace with themselves, or even, gasp, shock, chagrin, CONFIDENT in themselves, even if but for a fleeting moment.

This negative response is EASY, and so it is COMMON. So common that we have constructed a social protocol in which people are unconsciously peer-pressured into expressing a self-deprecating sentiment against themselves at every possible opportunity, just to ward off the very IDEA that they are daring to believe in themselves. They are SO pressured into this mind-set that they literally feel SHAME if they don’t downplay their accomplishments. This is not healthy. This is not good. If how you conduct yourself is dictated for you by other people’s issues, you have an obligation to break the mould. Fuck modesty. Be proud of what you have actually accomplished.

6.       Always be honest.

This obviously sounds like a good rule in general, but it’s also the sort of banal, meaningless drivel you would expect to hear from every tofu-guzzling yoga instructor you’ve ever seen prancing about in crocs and a toga talking about how to harness positivity with homeopathic chakra realignment. It sounds just enlightened enough to be unobtainable and boring, while being unrealistically disconnected from the human condition. But here’s the thing; it’s NOT.

Being totally, 100% honest at all times is nowhere near as hard or as volatile as it sounds. Now I won’t lie to you and say it won’t get you into any drama or rub anyone the wrong way, but these are, after all, MY life lessons, not necessarily ones that will be good for you. But on the whole, at least among your true friends, it will spare you more drama than it will ever cause. People will come to learn that you don’t pussyfoot for their benefit around the facts which they inevitably have to face anyway. They will come to see that you always tell the truth, and so they can COUNT on you for that when the truth is what they really want.

If everyone always said exactly what they meant without waxing their words or obscuring their opinions with layers of socially-ingrained vagueness, the world would be a much better place. No more of the he said she said bullshit, no more two-facedness or putting on a false smile when what people really need to see is a raised eyebrow. Honesty isn’t just a tool of the sickeningly righteous; it’s a tool for the pragmatists. It solves more problems than it could ever create, and it leads us more directly to where we want to go without diverting in a wide birth around other people’s delicate egos.

7.       Stop caring about what other people think.

This is something you will be told again and again throughout your life, and probably have been many times already – but it doesn’t matter, because you’ve never really listened to it, and never will. You will not really assimilate this perspective until you reach your own, personal “ahah” moment and realise what it actually means. There is an elective club of “don’t give a fucks” that roam this world undetected by anyone else, with such a lightness to their movements that we can almost single one another out from a crowd. People who hit rock bottom hard enough to break through the other side and there discovered the punchline to life’s sordid joke.

It sounds trite and simplistic, but it’s true. It sounds like what everyone says to their friends during hard times, but no one ever really embraces it until they have no other choice. And when they do, they find a kind of liberation that can’t really be put into words. To have all of your social anxieties and baggage boiled away until all that is left is this tiny morsel of a being, the real, unsullied you. Beset from the junk. The thing you thought had rotted away under all the mounds of garbage and deep wounds to your soul. But you’ll find it. You’ll realise that you legitimately can NOT care about what other people think of you, and hold your head high where once you slinked, cringingly around unlit street corners.

I can’t stress this enough. I know you’ve heard people say it a million times. But it is OBTAINABLE. All of your confidence and insecurities are tied to this mirror you have trained to your face at all times, displaying a twisted version of yourself that you imagine others see, until you are so self-conscious that you can hardly remember how to walk. But you can, and one day will, toss that mirror aside and march boldly through the crowds without the slightest of cares. I’m not saying not to LISTEN to people, but you don’t have to invest your own self-worth in what they say. I just wish people didn’t have to get psychologically broken before they figure this out, as so often seems to be the case.

8.       Never make assumptions.

This is a rule that has served me well. Conjecture can be useful, but if you proceed with anything on the assumption that things ARE a certain way, without any evidence, you’re almost always going to find that assumption backfire in your face; especially if you have my luck. The truth is this is a major problem with society. People have become so coddled that they don’t understand the difference between fact and opinion anymore. They feel entitled to their ignorance, almost like it's some sort of religious right. They get their opinions from angry people on TV and have lost all capacity to care about fact-checking - and when you confront them about this, THEY feel oppressed.

The only reason to fear reason is when you know the truth is likely not on your side. This isn't something to try to protect yourself from, it's something to embrace. I don't know is an acceptable answer, and it's the reason for you to go looking for the truth. Don't make the mistake of filling in the gaps in your knowledge with fantasies about how you would prefer things be, and then start defending their existence as if arguing with reality might change it. This is nothing less than the worship of ignorance. If you treasure your beliefs more than the truth, more than how you WANT things to be, you have sacrificed your credibility upon the altar of mental weakness. 

Truth should be your ALLY, not your enemy. Life works better when you are INFORMED. When you come into a situation knowing what to expect and how to handle it. The best way to achieve this is to get out of your own way. Have your first impressions, by all means, just shelve them afterwards until they become relevant and focus on the facts that you KNOW before making any decisions. If something seems obvious, that’s the greatest reason to reconsider your opinion. The more certain you are, the more closed off you are to other options. Those options potentially represent the things you don't know, and regardless of your pride, there will always be a vast order of magnitude more things you don't know than those you do. 

9.       See the best in people, not just the worst.

This isn’t easy to do, especially in a world this flawed. Sometimes it seems like there are more idiots than rational people. More bigots and hateful minds that those in search of peace and harmony. But I think it’s more the case that every person is a spectrum unto themselves.

It would be foolishness to deny the animal within. We all have one. A beast, buried in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, under layers of social repression and obligation. It comes out in us during weak moments, those venomous words you spit at those you love when stressed to your limits, those moments you went for the jugular, and don’t really know why. Every drop of anger or hate you have ever felt, however little that may be, condenses somewhere in your psyche and feeds this beast, and I think to be truly enlightened we must acknowledge and control it, rather than deny its existence.

Some people have less control over that compulsion for cruelty, and since human beings are prone to irrationality, their beasts will creep out in the cracks of their personality, latching onto subcommunities, ideologies, certain types of people or practises. The very notion of righteous anger is inherently contradictory, because while sometimes anger is an understandable response, it’s still just an outlet for that beast. It’s just a situation in which we have social permission to be cruel and hateful, and we relish those excuses. This dark side of humanity is something we must be aware of, lest we allow it to control us.

Why are there so MANY instances of hate and negativity? Because we are ALL flawed people, and different people have those flaws in different parts of their personality. That doesn’t mean that any of those people are just bad to the bone. Yes, it is very depressing that so many are so quick to cruelty, but consider this. With very few exceptions, an act of love is what brought us all into the world. And the human larval form being so pathetic, it took several more months of dedicated love to raise us from tiny, hungry, screaming demons that anyone with an ounce of sense would throw out the window into something that could at least conceivably take care of itself.

That’s why no matter how much of a cynic I can be at times, I never quite give up on humanity. Because look at us. Look at US. Several billion testimonies to the intrinsic good of mankind. Billions of souls raised at the teat of sacrifice and unconditional kindness. Aided by hormones and social obligations, sure, but at the same time… we all exist because someone gave up literally years of their live to wiping both our tears and our arses without hesitation, without condition, and without asking anything in return. People loved YOU enough to wait on you hand and foot, to defend you from all the harshness of the world for at LEAST a good number of years.

So it isn’t the case that the world is filled with mostly individuals who hate, and some who love. We are spectrums, existing across all frequencies of emotion. The world is filled entirely with people who love, and a great many who failed to reach than standard in at least one area of their lives. The truth is, we’re all just fallible. We’re all idiots. We just have dedicated areas of specialty for our stupidity. (That’s the part of me that is, in fact, still a cynic). But it won’t help you to focus only on the negative. Notice it, by all means, and attack it with all the strength you have, but draw that strength not only from yourself, but from the knowledge that an equal, if not far greater amount of love exists in the world, too.

THAT is what you’re fighting for.

10.   Other people’s lives are your business only to the extent that THEY affect YOU.

I’ve never been one to shy away from bringing other people to task when I think there is a problem with their belief system or their values. And I don’t always wait for an invitation to do so. I do consider it the duty of every thinking person to attack misinformation and disinformation, to challenge the faulty consensus, to cure social diseases with or without consent, and to tame the wild horses of other people’s imaginations. But one thing unites all of those concepts; ­harm.

If I think you are harming people, or by way of inaction or complacency, allowing harm to be forwarded through you, I will take that on. This is the true basis of morality. Some philosophers consider wellbeing to be the basis, but I respectfully disagree. If wellbeing sits at the heart of morality then we are obligated not only to prevent harm, but to create health; and while that is morally laudable, I do not believe we all have a duty to all make each other’s lives better, only to not make it worse. Anything more is a pleasant bonus, not an obligation.

So if you think someone else’s lifestyle is some form of attack on your moral sensibilities – ask yourself only this. In what way does it harm you? If two people of a combination of sexes, gender identities, skin colours, religious affiliations or anything else should couple, and you find that morally offensive – ask yourself if that’s REALLY morality? Because if you can’t identify the difference between YOUR personal preferences, and morality, that makes you a dangerous human being. Someone who walks around without any actual grasp on what morality is should be receiving medical attention, not preaching at other people.

And I don’t just say this because this is my soap box. I have to remind myself of this, too. It’s a conscious, and difficult decision to turn a blind eye to people spouting what I consider to be hateful messages about immigrants, flawed political ideas, to be in love with the idea of millions of people walking around with guns. These ideas sicken me. But I have to draw a line between ideas I consider to be bad, and the people who hold them. I will challenge bad ideas all day, but I’m not going to make it my mission to act like their personal preferences are actually injuring me. Even if it can sometimes feel that way.

11.   BE what you would ATTACK.

By this I mean, don’t just go after the things you think are wrong. Try to UNDERSTAND them. Try to BECOME them. Consider every viewpoint seriously, as if it was your OWN. BELIEVE it on a deep, personal level, and comprehend why others would rationalize it. Only then are you qualified to make any kind of statement about what is wrong with it. Only when you have successfully put your pride to one side and seriously considered the possibility that you might be the one who is in the wrong can you say you have earned your right to say it’s not so.

This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s borderline sociopathic when you really break it down. I’m saying you basically have to be able to jump into anyone’s head and really understand their point of view. Racists, homophobes, Nazis, scum of the earth. But everyone thinks they’re the good guy, and you can’t criticise anyone by just dismissing them as some sort of frothing deposit from the spillway of pure evil. In THEIR mind, they are in the right. And in order to challenge this, you have to be willing to really TRY to understand why they think that, even if the inevitable conclusion is simply that they are irrational or were raised that way.

I make a point of challenging myself to construct an argument defending everything I want to attack before doing so. Sometimes I even talk myself around, and come to see a point of view other than my own. This is a good thing. Correctness doesn’t start with you, so if you consider your own opinion to be the yardstick by which you can judge what is right or wrong, consider that everyone you disagree with is doing the same. For all you know, YOU’RE the Nazi, and you just never got challenged by someone willing to help you see it. This is why we have to collaborate to refine our understanding of reality. Work together, not against each other. This is why we all must work to keep an open-mind.

12.   Know what you’re talking about

Everybody has an opinion on everything, but unfortunately facts don’t give a damn what your opinions are. I participate in debates quite often, as anyone who knows me can tell you. Those who can handle the debate with dignity and respectability generally find it to be a productive experience. I am known for ruthlessly pursuing the truth, regardless of what it might be, and I don’t waste time beating around the bush of other people’s shallow nerves. But I have my rules there just as I do in the rest of life, chief among which is that I don’t draw first blood, but I do not suffer the fools who do.

So naturally, among those who fail to match my standards in such debates, an inevitable onslaught of insults and accusations will usually follow. Often, they will include something like “you think you know everything”. Of course, the reality is, I don’t think that. But when you appear to know everything, the first conclusion of the weak-minded is that you appear that way to yourself as well. It’s sort of like how budgies can’t understand their own reflection in the mirror, people of this sort of simplicity lack sufficient theory of mind to imagine you having an opinion of yourself that is any different from their own impression of you.

But the impression itself, one which inspires such ire in those whose understanding of logic extends as far as “but Bill O’reily said…”, comes from the simple fact that I don’t express any opinions on things until I first know what I’m talking about. You see, it’s the easiest thing in the world to appear knowledgeable. You simply have to be knowledgeable.  If you prepare for a debate before having it by seriously considering every viewpoint and looking into every angle, you end up armed with an arsenal of retorts and responses to every possible challenge. The result is that, to their perspective, you seem to be some miraculous font of correctness that they just can’t defeat.

Of course, among your more rational peers, this will be less a source of resentment and more a mark of distinction. And this doesn’t have to be limited to debate. This is a general life principle. It’s better to know what you’re talking about before opening your mouth than to opine with impunity. There are so many times when you might unwittingly perpetuate a falsehood, or contribute to the virality of a dishonest meme or story by passing it on without fact-checking. These things have consequences. They contribute to cultural attitudes, and if such things could be traceable, you just might find you helped cause a pandemic that ruins lives.

13.   Use what you can do, to tackle what you can’t

You know, growing up I was far more timid and reclusive. I wouldn’t talk much because I couldn’t seem to find the words to say the things I wanted to say. I had difficulty expressing anything, so in the end I just said nothing. It wasn’t until late high school that I discovered I had an affinity for writing. I enjoyed it because it allowed me to take my time. To choose the perfect words. By holding open the speech bubble until I had hacked away at the dictionary and refined everything I wanted to say to a distilled form, I gradually increased my speaking vocabulary as well. I became more expressive, more confident.

When I found my words, I also sort of found my place in life. I realised that some problems can be tackled indirectly, by using what you have. What you’re good at. You might not even know you’re good at it yet, but it’s there. Your passion. Your creativity. Your ART. Waiting to be discovered. And when you find it, you can use it. Maybe not to pay the bills or to right all the wrongs in your life, but you can use it to express the things that can’t be expressed any other way. And you don’t have to do it for anyone else’s benefit other than your own. If you can’t do something you want to do – look at what you CAN do, and find a way to turn that into a window to the life you want.

14.   Turn your weaknesses into strengths

An extension to the previous life lesson. The point of this one is to say that even if you have barriers in the way of your progress, don’t always view them as obstructions. Sometimes, they can be an obstacle course, a playhouse to be tackled and defeated, or even a fulcrum by which you can gain leverage over your future.

If you’re ADD – harness your imagination and creativity. If you’re an insomniac, recognize that you are just too strong and vitalized to be held down. If your body is in pain, guess what? You have a superpower! No one can handle pain like you can. Misery grants empathy. Despondence teaches gratitude. You’re not limping, you just take your time. You see things clearly in the interim between steps. You’re not paralyzed, you’re an observer, like a sentient mountain that can watch the seasons pass in peace.

There is a perspective by which you can come to view the charge of every bad thing in your life as the potential energy for a good thing. Anything that makes you recoil in fear or revulsion is granting you an elastic boost against some other obstacle. Every blow taken is a blacksmith’s hammer forging you into something stronger, or the loading of emotional ammunition into an immensely powerful weapon. Take your weaknesses, and learn from them. Learn how to paint them onto your targets so that your life in chains has instead become a life of specialized training, making you better prepared than anyone for taking on this world from the specific vector that only you can use.

15.   Learn by doing.

Learning doesn’t come easy to everyone. I am one of those people. You could sit me down to a lecture explaining exactly how to do something, and for some reason it just won’t sink in. I can crack open a textbook and read it so many times I cold quote it verbatim and still not understand what it actually says. Some people are just like that, and to an extent I think we all are. But that’s okay. You don’t have to understand everything BEFORE you try to tackle it.

Take it from the guy who obsessively plans things to the smallest detail before starting everything. There comes a point where there’s only so much you can do in your head. You have to roll up your sleeves and get a feel for how it all fits together. Explore your tasks with your fingertips, come to know them like you know the streets you grew up in. If not comprehending, then at least recognition can be your guide. It’s only once you get down to the wires and coding that you can begin to see the patterns emerge.

Learning doesn’t come easy to me, but things don’t have to be easy to be possible. Sometimes you just have to find the path of least resistance, and sometimes, paradoxically, that involves going the long way around instead of getting stranded at square one. Get your hands dirty. Try to grapple with the things you don’t understand. There are no guarantees, but you’ll find that there are elements to everything that can’t be learned through standard studying methods. There is an emergence to reality that can only be absorbed through touch.

And when that fails?

16.   Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

It doesn’t make you look stupid not to know something. Everyone has a first time for learning everything, and it can’t all be crammed in during childhood. In fact, it is the willingness to learn which makes asking questions such a GOOD thing. It shows that you KNOW you are not yet done on your journey of self-improvement. There is wisdom in this humility (and yes, this is ACTUAL humility). Asking questions demonstrates that you are aware of what knowledge you lack, and you are actively working to improve it.

Anyone who might call you stupid for asking questions is criticising you for the exact issue you were in the process of correcting at the time, which is as stupid as laughing at an overweight person in the gym. It makes no sense to criticise someone for the problem they are literally fixing as you do it. The real stupid ones are those who have no questions to ask. They’re the ones who lack that curiosity, the innate human drive to become more than you are. That’s the best thing we have, and it should be cherished.

17.   Friends aren’t just the ones you would take a bullet for. They’re the ones who would take a bullet for YOU.

It’s easy to say you would bend the whole world for any of your friends. It’s quite another to know in your heart that the sentiment is not only true, but returned. If you should find yourself compiling a list of your friends and realise it is miles long, then in my opinion, you are not compiling a list of friends. Now it might very well be that I simply have a different standard of friendship, and my usage of this term does not map with yours. That’s fine. I am telling you MY definition of friendship. Because the truth is, in MY view, there is no real way to compile such a list and have those you call friends be in a different category to those you call family.

True friends should be just as beloved, and every bit as rare. In a way, that’s what makes them so precious. And if you don’t know such people yet? You will. Someday, you might even be betrayed by one of them, and foreswear the entire concept. It’s easy to do. And it’s hard to trust someone that much once, let alone multiple times. But the reality is we are not islands. At some point, you end up needing to put your trust in another, and that is not a sign of weakness. It’s a leap of faith. I hope you find people in your life who you know would catch you. Chances are… you do, even if you don’t know it yet. You won’t find them if you don’t remain open to the possibility.

18.   Live as though the world is as it ought to be.

Cynics are those who see what is wrong with the world but find it easier to become part of the problem than the solution. It is those who have been defeated by life who take refuge in cowardly sentiments like “you can’t change the system” or “people are just assholes”. They’re not. Because so long as we see what’s wrong in the world, we share something in common besides the easy way out. We share a drive to make things better. Giving up may be easier, but fighting is how you end the pain.

Don’t wait for social permission to take action. Don’t take a vote before standing up for what is right. If you can see what is wrong with the world, and you have ANY ability to affect it, do not let the cynicism of others paralyze you. If you’re not willing to live the way you think the world should work – you’re a hypocrite, but worse than that, your dreams are wasted on you. What’s the point in wanting for a better world if you won’t do your part to help it be that way? Maybe everyone is as good as you are deep down? Maybe if everyone who feels the way you do took action too, the world WOULD be that way?

That’s all the world really is. People making decisions. Choices that have consequences that ripple like a skimmed pond influencing everyone it comes into contact with. Don’t be the influenced – be the influencer. Compromise when you have no choice, sure. Be affected by others just as you want them to be affected by you. But don’t lose who you are.

19.   Savour every moment.

Or at least the important ones. I know this sounds boring and generic, like the scribbled sentiment of a hallmark card. But really think about what this means. Have you ever suffered a sickness, like a really painful sore throat? And as you sit there fixating on the pain and discomfort, you wish you could remember what it felt like to have a throat that isn’t sore? But because human beings live in the moment and the flavour of past events disappears so quickly, we find it hard to do that.

So do it now. Think about the things in your body that aren’t hurting. Think about the things in your life that are right. What it feels like to have an arm or a leg. The people you still have access to. The utilities you take for granted. Know them, and commit to memory, right now, what it feels like to not have a sore throat, or an upset stomach, or how it feels to have a phone at your fingertips, or to be able to call someone you love and tell them so.

Do this, not because when that bad day comes and you can’t access these things you will then be able to perfectly remember them. You won’t. The flavour of the moment will still be absent.  Do this instead so that when that day comes you won’t be spitting curses at yourself for NOT having taken the time to savour that experience. THAT’S the worst part. That’s where the “I wish I had just one more chance” comes from.

Feeling ill and wanting to remember what “well” feels like is frustrating, but even worse is wanting that, and knowing you never took the time to think about how it feels to be well in the first place. You see, one feels like a frustration that you couldn’t do anything about, but the other feels like a failure on your own part. You may find that you feel just a little bit better on those bad days from knowing that while you had access to the thing you love – you were keenly aware of it.

And if you think it’s too late for you to do this – stop. Change your perspective. Because you are focussing on what you CAN’T change, what you have already LOST. This is about taking inventory of what you have. What could you lose tomorrow that would make your life even worse? Think of those things or people, recognize them, appreciate them, cling to them. Know that you have more than just your pain in this life. This won’t only benefit you in the future, you may just find it benefits you right now.

20.   Expect the worst.

Have a plan for every worst case scenario you can think of, and extras for the ones you can’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced by an unexpected disaster and simply opened my “this specific disaster” box to handle it. I make a point of being prepared for every possible situation, and not just because I’m Batman (although I do have a plan to take down the Justice League should they ever go rogue). I do it because I’ve been blindsided far too often in life. Every time you count on someone else, or trust in the system not to fail you, that’s when everything goes wrong.

And it’s not just about having a plan; it’s about being mentally prepared. There have been times in your life when you have woken up to a nightmare. Whether it was an agonizing pain in immediate need of attention, the screams of a loved one in need or a crash of something breaking. We’ve all been thrown into those situations and had to cope with it on the fly. If I told you this would happen to you in five minutes, the stress of knowing it would eat you alive. Trying to prepare for something like this is like preparing to operate on yourself. Your own survival instincts compel you to reject it. That’s why it helps in the long run if you can begin constructing a “disaster mode”, a calm, rational mind-set which you can slip into when the worst happens. Because when it DOES happen, you don’t have the option of rejecting it.

To do this, sometimes a little more than practise alone is necessary.

21.   Take control of your emotions.

Take it from me, this isn’t easy. Growing up, I was a wild tempest of emotion. More often being taken along for a ride by them than just experiencing. At some point I just kind of overloaded my own circuits and burned them out. It took me a long time to relearn how to feel, so in a way, it’s like I’ve had two childhoods. This has shown me the power of emotion, and the danger of it. More than most people, I have a sense of how emotions should exist to serve your thinking mind, rather than outright taking control of it.

Your emotions are an important part of your nature, the very essence of your being. You would not be you without them. Your emotions help you to understand when something is wrong, or harmful. They keep you running when you need to run, and they keep you swinging when you have no other choice. Emotions are our first warning system against danger – but THEY ARE NOT THE DECISION MAKERS. They can cause you to overreact, or even to react based on wrong information. If someone feels off to you, for example, your feelings might compel you to judge them harshly, but your intellect can analyse that experience and realise that those emotions came from somewhere else.

Emotions present to you the problem, but it is up to your MIND to find the solution. Thought comes first. It has to, because your thoughts are what you are. Your emotions are just chemical reactions taking place in response to what happens around you. To react on emotion alone is to react by instinct, like an animal. It is to surrender your humanity, and all that makes you special and who you are. When your emotions call for you to panic or freak out, simply acknowledge the situation they are trying to alert to you to. Accept the message, and then put those feelings in a box while you take action with thought.

You don’t have to be ruled by your emotions, and you don’t have to supress them. Just find the right place for them, and keep them there. If you really find it so hard to control your emotions, just try analysing them before you react BASED on them. If you can’t find a rational justification for the response, allow yourself to consider the possibility that this emotion should not be in command of your vessel right now. People think that they can’t reason with their emotions, but they can. If anything, reason is what calms them. You only have to try. But I understand this is easier said than done.

22.   You cannot purchase redemption.

People think that owning up to their mistakes is synonymous with taking responsibility for them, and that conflation between responsibility and blame has had tremendous negative impacts on things like rape culture and legal accountability. It’s bullshit. An apology or an admission of fault is not a solution to any real problem, although it can’t hurt. What people don’t seem to understand is that mistakes or past sins are not erased by offering up some sort of sacrificial lamb. They say two wrongs don’t make a right, but what is actually meant by that phrase is that two NEGATIVES don’t make a POSITIVE.

You can’t just sit there and feel bad for what you’ve done and think that balances some cosmic ledger. You can’t try to self-flagellate your way out of the consequences of your actions. They have to be braved. There’s no watchful eye in the sky who can take away your debts, the only way to truly take responsibility is to ACCEPT what you have done wrong, and work to actively CHANGE yourself for the better. Doing right by the person you wronged is a damn good start, but it’s not a way of resetting the scales, and if you’re doing it for that reason then you’re ultimately just acting out of selfishness. You shouldn’t need an incentive to take care of someone you wronged. It should be a natural response.

I’ve seen so many people think they can bargain their way out of the consequences of a situation they helped create, but no, it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t matter if your guilt is sincere or false, if you act out of compassion or rationale. If what you’re trying to do is use some kind of hard labour to work off a debt, you’ve missed the point. It isn’t a debt. There isn’t anything to pay back. Actions have consequences and those consequences ARE how the universe finds its own balance. But the imbalance within yourself has to be resolved with more than a confession. You have to work at yourself. You have a responsibility to not only do right by the wronged, but to make sure you don’t wrong anyone that way again.

23.   Learn from the past. Don’t live in it.

Show me a perfect person and I will show you a person whose life means nothing. The lessons we learn, such as the ones I am now listing, are not exercises in futility. They are part of a journey. On that journey you will make mistakes. You will do things you regret. Now I am not going to tell you to forgive yourself for those mistakes. You shouldn’t. That may be an unpopular opinion, but it is also one easily justified. Just think of those who have wronged you. You may forgive them, and that’s your right. But do they have the right to forgive themselves? No. Regret is there for a reason. It’s to make us better people.

But learning from the past and letting it consume your life are two different things. You don’t HAVE to forgive those who have harmed you, but you shouldn’t live under their shadow at the same time. You shouldn’t forgive yourself, but that doesn’t mean flogging yourself daily. The reason these feelings like remorse or revenge exist are to motivate changes. Whether you want to change yourself, to make yourself less likely to be victimized, or to wrestle some kind of positive change into a world wracked by injustices. Let those feelings motivate action where it is healthy. But if there is nothing to change – let them go.

Don’t let yourself be defined by what has happened to you in the past, even if it has covered you in scars. Don’t let yourself become a trauma with a person attached. You are so much greater than that. Inside of you is a whole universe, bigger and more complex than a thousand lifetimes of regrets and mistakes. These things you cling to are remnants of lessons long ago learned and treasured. And all that pent up energy driving you to act? It comes from the memory of itself, a compulsion to change what needs to be changed as a consequence of those events. If you have done all you can at this moment to rectify those problems – allow yourself to let those clenched fists fall open.

This doesn’t mean forgiving yourself or others. It means understanding that the reason these emotions exist is to compel an action that has already been taken. The reason behind the drive has been satisfied, but people themselves are never satisfied, and that is why you have to intervene. Make a conscious decision to put the past in its place. Learn from it. Let it change you. But don’t let it dominate you. What matters now is your future.

24.   Listen to other people.

It isn’t brave or empowering to just blot out everyone else’s opinions. It isn’t a heroic struggle against adversity, in fact it’s easy. It’s TOO easy.  Anyone can just ignore people they don’t want to listen to. If you think you’re being clever by plugging your ears and singing over the appeals of your peers, then let me tell you, you’re not. Only a fool assumes that nobody else has anything of worth to share with them. What’s really challenging is being willing to hear them out. Whether you like it or not. To give serious consideration to every idea.

This is a lesson I learned not through confronting one of my own failings, but through the constant irritation of being one of those people. You know, the ones who everyone else opens up to. The ones who everyone feels compelled to spill their guts to about every deep, personal issue – but who they NEVER LISTEN TO. So I try to listen to the opinions of other people and to seriously consider what they say. The harder I want to disagree with it, the more I force myself to stop and really think about it first.

I’m tired of being right, of being the one who keeps warning others about the disasters on the horizon, only to have them completely ignore me and still get hit by it after all. I don’t mind being the one people come to for advice; in fact I like to help wherever I can. And sure, you have no obligation to take my advice. But at the same time – don’t ask for it if you don’t really want it. I can’t change the fact that no one ever listens to me, but I can at least learn from it and offer them that courtesy. That is something I work very hard at doing.

25.   Never let someone else’s presence in your life be the most important thing about it.

A life dedicated solely to another is a wasted life, and it dishonours that other person as well, as instead of enriching the world in their name, you have become an expansion of their own selfishness, doubling the negative impact they have on the world while keeping the positive impact for yourself. In a way, it turns them into an object. People are not affection dispensers that exist to make you feel good. A true loving relationship is one in which both participants try to bring out the best in the other. Living in worship or subjugation to that person is a waste of your energy and theirs.

And if you can’t find someone to give you equal love and respect? There’s nothing bad about being alone.

26.   Get back up.

Get up. It doesn’t matter how hard you got brought down, it doesn’t matter how many times they kicked you, it doesn’t matter how much it hurts. Get. Back. Up. The fact that you can hurt is the reason you can and will get back up. That pain, as an emotion, represents your thriving will to exist in a state other than defeat. Because there is still something within you that can suffer from imprisonment. You are not so broken that you have accepted the cage, and that makes you powerful.

Maybe you’re just waiting for a sign, for someone or something to give you the smallest hand up, for that tiniest bit of added ease to be an incentive to commit so much energy to the struggle. You can’t count on that in life. But fine. Let this be it. Let this be your sign. This is me telling you that now is the time. Now is ALWAYS the time. And the proof of this is in the fact that you can still be hurt. Because deep down, you still want to get up.

Pain is a symptom of having a WILL to survive. No matter how defeated you feel, no matter how broken you may be, know that there is some part of you, some divine organ in your soul that will not and cannot let you give in. Because if you can hurt, you can want for something, even if it’s just for there to be no more pain. And if you can want for something, you have hope. Those death throes you feel are the spasms of a soul that refuses to stay down until the final count. So get. Back. UP.

27.   You can’t choose to be happy. You can only choose to allow happiness in.

Peace of mind isn’t something you can order up over the phone or download from the internet. It’s not something you can request. It’s just something that kind of finds you, in its own time. And even then, it doesn’t stay. You’re never going to be happy all the time, and you know what? If you were? You would just become desensitized to it. That’s the cruel trick of life. The struggle to achieve which is so intrinsic to human nature is literally designed to be an insatiable hunger.

You’re not SUPPOSED to be able to fill that hole. The higher you climb, the higher you want to climb, because that urge to keep getting better is what has brought us this far up the evolutionary dogpile. It’s why we’re still alive. But it’s also why the richest and most powerful keep trying to accrue more wealth and power. Why those who have everything they could ever want still seem to invariably turn to drugs and corruption.  Endless happiness is like the floater in your eye you keep trying to chase but never catch.

I think you have to have fallen to the deepest pits of despair, and made it your home to really understand what happiness is. To recognize it when it graces the periphery of your ceaseless sensory bombardment. It isn’t a blinding sunbeam that parts the clouds. It’s a glance of soft light that traces the contours of a vase by the window. The gentle swaying of a tree in the wind. The tiny moments when you peer into the cracked stone of a pavement and feel something not quite explainable move through you. The stillness between struggles. Happiness is realising you have the capacity to not be in pain, if but for a short while.

But you have to let it in.

28.   What’s more important?

I don’t know if this is strictly a lesson or more of a general attitude, the lines are beginning to blur at this point. This is something I say to myself whenever I can. It’s a kind of motivating mantra that helps me put things in perspective. Every day I find myself so bogged down with trivial concerns and problems that seem so big. I seem to have so much going on in my head, it can become this chaotic fog of anxieties, obligations, and half-formed thoughts.

What’s more important? I’m not sure I even understand what the question means, but somehow it cuts right through the fog and brings me into perfect alignment with my own centre. I suppose what it really means is… keep your dreams inside you. It’s a reality check. Know what it is you want to do, why you want to do it – why it NEEDS to be done, and always make sure you are moving in that direction. It doesn’t matter how slowly you’re moving, just so long as you’re closer today than you were yesterday.

If you find yourself going backwards, that’s okay. It happens. The purpose of this mantra is not to shame you for your mistakes, but to help you recognize them, so you don’t keep going backwards. Whenever the haze overtakes your eyes, whenever you find life hitting you with obstacle after obstacle and in all the chaos you get turned around, you lose sight of who you are and where you’re going… stop. Ask yourself. What’s more important? The answer isn’t always obvious or easy, but it’s always there. It’s always a truth that lives at the core of you. Seek it. Find it. Cherish it. And then dedicate every moment of your life to realizing it.

29.   Everyone has their own story.

You’re not the only one who has known this pain. You’re not even the most hurt person you know. The truth is we are all tangled in an invisible mess of other people’s plot threads. We all play unseen roles in other people’s experiences. Our words, our presence, the things we do all have a weight to them that cannot be immediately felt, but which change the balance of countless variables around us. Even those you try to keep away from your life to protect them are, in this way, affected by you. They all have their own story, just like yours.

Never consider them the supporting cast in your own. When you close the chat window or hang up the phone, they keep existing. Things happen to them. They change. They hurt. They experience things you can’t imagine. When you next speak to them, do not assume that time has stood still for them or that they are the same people you last spoke to with the same limits or issues. Likewise, if you think you have someone pegged at a single glance, if you think they can be boiled down to the handful of conclusions you reached about them – think again.

You might think someone is lazy because they are poor. Or that they are snobbish if they are rich. You might think the Republican is a monster, or the Democrat is a wuss. But stop and consider the possibility that those other people arrived at the conclusions they did for very real, sensible reasons. They are real people. They have histories spanning years or decades, and you can’t sum them up to one memory or a title. Maybe if you had been in their shoes, you would be like them too. Maybe their stories matter as much as yours does.

If someone seems to have changed, or if they now hold views you didn’t expect of them, inquire as to why. Learn about them. Take a few steps of their journey with them rather than just dismissing them out of hand. Chances are, they’ve learned a few things you could benefit from as well. You don’t have to manifest their views in order to respect them.

30.   Don’t be afraid of tasking risks or seeking out new opportunities.

This is a lesson I have learned, but not internalized. Fear and the resistance of obstructive circumstances can be hard things to face. Perhaps even insurmountable. But the fact that I am not practising what I preach on this one does not make the lesson wrong. It means that I am proof that it is right. I am stuck at square one because I have yet to embrace this lesson, and I know I am wrong for not doing so. Don’t be like me. Be better.

31.   Never make promises you can’t keep.

As a kid I always longed to visit Loch Ness. Something in my spirit called for me to be there, and I’ve never figured out why. My parents always promised to one day take me there. That never really happened. It's nobody's fault, we were a poor family. And it’s not a big deal now, but it was a major disappointment to me at the time. That was probably around the time I first decided that I wouldn’t take promises lightly. But I’ve been disappointed far worse many more times since then, and this has only compounded how seriously I take them.

Broken promises sting like the worst papercut, whether it’s the broken trust of a colleague who lets you down, or the almost always unsustainable vow of eternal love. Living in a world where we can count on one another is so important, particularly to us, as a social species. That’s why it always wounds our hearts at least a little bit when other people fail us, and so much more when we are betrayed. Deep down, I don’t really believe that other people can be counted on. I’ve been betrayed too many times myself, been disappointed by too many people to really believe that. But I’d like to. And that’s why I live by example on this one.

When you make a vow you are taking a hypothetical future and converting it into a fact. You are staking your honour as a human being on that reality coming to fruition. Promises are more than just words, they are assurances of trust, a stable wall upon which those who are in need will lean in difficult times. Even a small promise, something seemingly inconsequential, carries encoded within it your intrinsic trustworthiness. Letting people down when you have given them that stability, that reassurance in the future has a negative effect on you, and on the rest of the world. Take your promises seriously, or don’t make them at all. This is the only way you can help cultivate a society where we can count on one another.

32. Count your victories (Not just your defeats)

I bet if I asked for you a list of every mistake, every dumb thing you did, everything you got wrong this week you wouldn’t have to think all that hard to come up with one. But who is counting everything you got right? That’s just not how the human mind works, right? I mean, how do you count how many times you DIDN’T trip up?  But YOU know what your limitations are, probably better than anyone else. You know what you struggle with, what’s difficult for you. If you are trying to improve yourself, if you’re trying to expand your horizons, and all you’re counting are the trips, how can you ever make any progress? For progress to be made you also need to CHART it, to RECOGNIZE when it happens, otherwise, how can you know if you’ve progressed?

There isn’t a scale for what constitutes a valid success. Everyone’s life is different. It’s more about what challenges you’re dealing with, and how they personally affect you. Don’t let anyone tell you that if your biggest problem is getting out of bed and facing the world in the morning, that’s not enough to be considered a real challenge. We define challenges not by some objective standard, but by how CHALLENGING they are, and that is necessarily a personal definition. The best singer in the world might find no challenge at all in singing a particular song, that doesn’t mean it should be easy to anyone else. Likewise, if just walking from one room to another is a challenge for you, for whatever reason, the fact that it would be easy for most people doesn’t negate that difficulty.

Whether it’s physical or emotional, every single day you are fighting against the resistance of your own limits, and every day you advance a lot further than you realise. Don’t just set your course – chart it. Recognize your victories as they come. Some days it will be one step forward - three steps back, but here’s the thing, you KNOW, now, that you can handle that step forward. But no one ever had to convince you that you could fall a few steps back, did they? That’s why it’s important. Because in the grand scheme of things, that one step was a permanent expansion of your frontiers, you pushed the borders of your world just a little bit further than they were the day before, and if you don’t think that’s a victory, you’re crazy. It is. But you have to let yourself be proud. Today you did several things, probably MANY things to be proud of, but all you’re thinking about is the coffee you spilled this morning.

It’s easy to be conscious of your defeats. Life trains us to be that way. And you should be- that’s how we learn. Unfortunately, you have to train YOURSELF to  be just as aware of your victories. It’s as hard for me as it is for anyone, but trust me, your life gets a lot better if you recognize and reward the progress you make, when you make it. Because the truth is, we’re all going somewhere, and we’re all trying our best. Today, you’re a little bit closer than you were yesterday, EVEN if today was a bad day. Stop and think about it, and you’ll see I’m right. 

33.    And finally, this above all else: Times will be hard. Sometimes they will be harder than the worst times you’ve ever lived through. But they will be better, too.

People have a tendency to be so negative. It’s like the bad things in life stick to us while all the good things seem to rot away with time. Scars remain but caresses leave no marks. Pain stays with us while kisses are forgotten. As human beings, we fixate on the negative, we stew in it until it’s pickled into our souls and we can’t get away. Sad memories, loss and failure become a part of us. We get so used to seeing the bad that we forget that good can exist too.

But that’s just genetics. We’re prone to negativity for survival reasons. It’s the evolutionary advantage of fleeing in terror from every sound. By only believing in the bad things we have a higher chance to survive when the bad things are real; and there is a legitimate advantage to that. We SHOULD be aware of the bad.

But look, we’re more than just animals. We are the part of the universe that can think and feel and analyse. The part that looks upon itself in awe. So we have a responsibility to BE more than animals. Animals can get by on instinct and reaction alone, but we can’t. We have to be able to maintain our sanity as well as our bodies. To do that, we have to internalize the fact that however dark our nights may be, there can and will always be a sunrise.

That goes for you, too. The person reading this right now. You’ve lived through hard times, and they’re far from over. Life is a constant struggle. But that’s not ALL it is. Whenever you have a good day, remember it. And next time you have a bad one, remember that those good days exist. Whenever you triumph over your own shortcomings, or defeat the adversity in your life – REMEMBER that you did it. And next time you face an un-climbable wall, remember what happened to the last one, and break right through it. You’re stronger than you think you are, and dark days will always be bright again.

At least, that’s what I choose to believe. That’s my hope. May it be yours, too.