A Long Drive With Me

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I once heard that you’re never lonely if you like the person you’re alone with. Sounded simple enough, only to discover that most people I know don’t like who they are. Obviously that self-loathing or dislike is rarely displayed overtly, but that’s only if you don’t know what to look for. However, that’s beside the point. On a trip I undertook from Johannesburg to Cape Town yesterday by car, I found myself contemplating what it means to be just me, by myself, without distractions, or definitions, or perceptions to meet. It was interesting.

I realised that the quiet moments are never quiet. What the mouth restrains the mind shouts out loud. My mind drifted to past relationships that I abandoned and relationships that abandoned me. But interestingly though, there was no bitterness attached to the memories. It was simply recollections of events that passed. Events that add to the compilation of moments that personify my life, but hardly ever defining moments. I gave up the ghost of the past a long time ago. It wasn’t difficult to do. I just stopped investing in it.

So this journey by car, almost 14 hours straight, with no one but my thoughts and some nostalgic tunes to keep me company, allowed me moments of pause that is otherwise not possible in the daily clutter of life. It wasn’t a matter of leaving life behind, or trying to escape the race. It was more a moment intended to take a breath. A deep breath. Time to reflect, or not to reflect. Time to allow my mind to travel its own path without deliberation or purpose. It was then that a sobering realisation dawned on me. What was it that defined who I am today?

Surprisingly, I found the radio or the music I had selected for the trip to be an intrusion quite often. In fact, so much so that even the sound of the icy wind howling outside proved to be a distraction when I turned down the audio. But the intrusion was not a harsh one. It wasn’t so because it resurrected unwanted memories or anything like that. Quite the contrary, it imposed on my quiet time with me. Those tunes and noises prompted a response. It demanded attention. I didn’t want that. I wanted time for solace. Time to reflect on whether the path I am travelling is a good one, or the path that I have travelled was in vain. It was time to take stock, but not deliberately so. Perhaps, all this simply prompted me towards considering whether or not there is purpose to being me.

But even such considerations were not entirely the focus of my thoughts. There was no specific focus. That was the beauty of it. I had the soft nagging of deadlines in the back of my mind, but not loud enough to prevent me from stopping to find beauty in the gravel by the roadside. Beauty that is ignored because we’re always too busy with important things, like living up to expectations, or maintaining specific appearances. The bee at the side of the road didn’t care that no one was looking. In fact, after shoving my phone up close to capture the moment, it didn’t seem to care that I was looking either.

But clichés aside, there is a more important truth to all this. A few wild flowers or straggling bees in an abandoned space is not what lent that space beauty. Nor did it detract from it. It simply was that way, independent of my appreciation of it. The fact that I found a moment to pause for long enough to admire and appreciate it in its natural state is what afforded me that moment of beauty. But such appreciation did not alter that scene in any way. Whether I appreciated it or not, it was still true to its nature. Perhaps in that is the life lesson I needed to take.

Doing what I need to do, independent of affirmation or consequence, should not taint my intent behind doing it. The value or beauty that I choose to offer the world should not be based on how I want it to be received, or how it is appreciated or reciprocated. Instead, it should simply be an expression of me. An expression of the sum total of my life’s lessons that inform a more sincere offering without remuneration. But it still did not answer the question that begged a definition of who I am.

I’ve always maintained a romantic notion that stated that I choose not to be defined. I think that ceased to be just a notion yesterday. In fact, probably a long time ago, but yesterday it became a conscious un-subscription from that notion. Definition by definition implies a final state. It implies a completed form, or a finite outcome. I am not yet final. I am not yet fully formed. I will never be fully formed and therefore will never subscribe to a specific definition. Except when I take my last breath. At that moment, and only at that moment, will the sum total of my life’s experiences declare my final definition, and only against that will I be judged.

By those that consider the whole of me, I may be judged fairly. But by those that remain invested in only a single moment of time from a distant memory, they will only be able to judge an abstract moment of what I lived. Their fixation on me, and inadvertently on their own singular moments, will rob them of the beauty of the whole because they opted to remain defined from fear of the belief that they may not be able to exceed what they have already achieved. Some remain rooted in a moment that defined their insignificance, and the fear of discovering that they may be even less significant than that prevented them from being more.

The time I spent with me yesterday is time that is rarely experienced by most. Not because I am better, or more capable, but simply because the saturation of fear and self-loathing defines more souls than life itself ever did.

I am me. And I am not yet complete. I am not a work in progress, nor am I a commodity for sale. And I am yet to be defined.

Trials of Success

Too often we consider the hardships of our lives to be the trials we endure. Trials, however, are relative to our perception of what our true goals are in life. In our aspirations to be successful, or more accurately as is true in most cases, to be perceived as successful by others, it’s easy to be distracted into believing that that perception is in fact the goal. If the higher priority is how I’m perceived, and the lesser priority is what convictions I am loyal to, it stands to reason that I will lose sight of my convictions and find myself to be unfulfilled when the taste of success brushes my palate.

I struggle to speak plainly these days. I think this struggle is related to the audience that I have become aware of. I miss the days when I was able to quietly contemplate the fascination of life without a need to articulate, share it, or worse still, get affirmation for it. The more I exposed my thoughts and philosophies to others, the more I attracted like-minded individuals into my space. At first this offered comfort given my need to be sane. Sanity, for me, was determined by whether or not the logic in my head was relatable to the people that I perceived as having normal and clutter-free lives. Little did I know it was all a mirage.

I once read that if everyone were to throw their problems into a pile for everyone else to see, we’d all reach in to take our own problems back, because the problems of others will seem that much more daunting. Perception is probably the true currency of human engagement. We polarise towards that which appears to reflect our struggles or aspirations, assuming that our perception of the same defines its purity as well. These are the mirages we create for ourselves, especially when we’re so outwardly focused that we forget the ‘why’ that exists internally only.

It is the same ‘why’ that is lost when we find success in a public setting. Setting out to change the world is a goal we set when we’re not popular because that isolation often gives us a raw view of everything we think is wrong with the world. That perception changes as we begin to access the niceties. The trinkets that feed the ego and extend our spheres of influence, leading us to believe that changing the world is suddenly possible, and not just an angst-driven dream of a teenager. But soon after this realisation dawns the realisation that in order to continue influencing, we need to remain relevant. Unfortunately, that relevance was spawned from the success we enjoyed when our isolated thoughts became mainstream to those around us. That is the fork in the road right there.

The struggle that I struggle to articulate this morning is that remaining focused on the change I hoped to inspire in the world becomes increasingly difficult as the popularity and its fruit grows. Suddenly I find myself distracted by the subconscious desires I held as a child when I saw the popular kids being smothered with attention and acceptance while I remained the odd one on the outside of the circle peering in. The thirst that went unquenched for so long is suddenly blinding in its fulfillment. It’s akin to that moment when breaking fast on a hot day and taking that first sip of ice cold water. The struggle of the entire day of going without food or water instantly dissipates and is quickly replaced by the intense satisfaction of being able to trace every droplet of relief as it ran through my body fulfilling a need that is so base in its nature, that no amount of success or attention could surpass it at that moment.

Sad then to note that the innate desires that went unfulfilled can so easily overtake lifelong convictions in a moment of acceptance. Acceptance by the same groups that we once saw as part of the problem. The attention whoring that goes with success is ironical. It’s the rise to fame that in fact becomes our fall from grace. But it’s a fall that only we can recognise internally, but rarely do we allow it to be on show externally.

I suspect that I have said much without saying anything at all. The struggle to articulate becomes stronger as I find my philosophies embraced. The need to recede echoes louder than ever. I must withdraw from the charade before I become one with the mirage. If this is the angst I feel with such a small dose of popularity, how much more vacuous must be the existence of those that actively court such popularity instead?

Once I Know Why…

I find it strange when I encounter people that are convinced that only once they understand why they made the mistakes they’ve made will they be able to move forward in life. Or worse still, why they were treated the way they were, only then will they expect or demand better. The irony in this is so blatant that it’s like not noticing the air you breathe until someone suffocates you. Funny how this thought process is equally suffocating and stifling to those that subscribe to it.

Why then do we insist on knowing why before we’re willing to take the next step? I mean, we wouldn’t be able to tell that we were treated badly or that we made mistakes unless we knew the opposing truth to it, right? In other words, the moment I know that I want or deserve something better, it means I know what I don’t want. Again a blatantly obvious truth that most miss. So the question then arises as to why it is that we choose not to act on this knowledge?

Some of it I think stems from a social conditioning that suggests that if you didn’t come up with the answers when you were sent to your room to reflect on your bad behavior, then you remain in the naughty corner until you do. That might work until you reach the age of independent thought, but the moment that age is reached, that excuse or crutch falls away. As usual, to best demonstrate a point we must take it to an extreme, so let’s consider the following scenario.

If I place my hand on a hot stove, I know I will burn. I also know that in future I don’t want to burn, unless you’re a twisted sadist, in which case your problem is much bigger than this. Actually not, but let’s chat about that another day. Anyway, so it doesn’t make sense for me to continue to place my hand on that hot stove simply because I am not yet fully familiar with the mechanics or chemistry that causes such burn to happen. So in future, I will either use tools or apparel that will prevent me from burning because I still need that hot stove, or I will find a safer means to heat my food, like a microwave perhaps.

Simple analogy, but apparently not so simple to implement. I think the difference between this and life is also simple. We don’t ever have hope that the hot stove will be able to heat our food if kept cool. So we have no expectation of the nature of the stove to change, or the need for heat to be different. So I guess we could either choose to eat cold or uncooked food, which is distinctly unpleasant at most times, or we adapt our approach to get what we want without harming ourselves in the process. Imagine what it would be like if the food thought it was unworthy of being heated when the stove was cold? Or maybe it would taste better if only the stove would heat it without getting so hot? Or maybe the stove could see how beautiful all the little ingredients were that made the food such a wholesome meal and it would heat it more gently and appreciate each grain of salt and each curry leaf for the struggle they went through to get there?

Seriously though, we get caught in a cycle that causes us to resent ourselves for not being worthy of better, of hoping that the aggressor would be kinder because we can absolutely see with total conviction how capable they are of such kindness and how beautiful they will be in the process, and most importantly, we’re afraid that if we let go, we may not get anything better or at all to replace it.

It all comes down to self-worth. If we don’t believe we’re worth more, we’ll find reasons to resist making the changes we need to make because we’re unlikely to reach the point when enough is enough. At some point we became convinced that unless we have the answers for the past, we cannot progress into the future. What rubbish! The moment we know better from worse, we can make a choice for better. The moment we allow ourselves to experience better, we’ll automatically realise why worse was not good enough. All we need is to know what is preferred, but not always do we need to know why it is preferred.

The way forward is really simple, but requires courage. Do the right thing for the right reason at the right time and everything will be just fine. Stop. That conversation you just started in your head about how do you know when it’s the right time, or what the right reason is, etc., just stop it. That is the circular drivel that keeps you grounded in the past. Focus on the present. And that means that you don’t focus on how you’re perceived, because how you’re perceived requires a projection into the future based on your past experiences, which means you are not present. So let’s try again, focus on the present. Yes, the moment in which you are acting or making a decision to act. In that moment know what you’re feeling and know what outcome you desire. If your decision contributes towards that desired outcome, do it. If not, who are you trying to appease, and are they important enough to appease?

I suspect you just started another internal conversation about what if you see their importance and that you’re hoping that by doing what you think you need to do they may just realise how important they are and therefore it makes it important to appease them…exhausting, isn’t it? It’s a simple process to achieve better, but self-doubt which is spawned by a low self-worth makes it seem impossible.

You don’t always have to know why. You just have to know why not. Start there. The rest will follow. Let a stove be a stove and stop hoping for it to be something else.

The Egosystem (Take II)

EgosystemFollowing on from my previous thoughts about this subject, it reminded me of something that I had previously presented at a thought leadership forum regarding the ego cycle and how it drives us to be who we present ourselves to be to the world. That seems complicated because we complicate life when we present ourselves in a way that does not reflect an informed view of who we are, nor the convictions that we internally subscribe to. I believe this is a result of the above cycle that we go through, most often without realizing it.

Again, it calls for mindfulness, but that is still much easier said than done. The irony is that I’ve often found myself distracted while contemplating what is needed to be mindful. I don’t think I’m alone in such fickleness of focus. At the time of presenting this to a very curious but vocal audience, we had a lengthy debate about whether fear preceded needs, or vice versa. I’m convinced that it follows the cycle that I present here. Fear is a response to a situation, and therefore cannot reasonably be held accountable for the needs that we have. I am convinced that the innate needs that drive us, like wanting to be seen as competent, feeling significant, or being liked by others, is what determines our self-worth relative to our perceptions of how we are perceived by those around us relative to those needs.

Those perceptions become entangled with our desires, which stems from our ego which will never be fully and accurately defined, similar to love. So the challenge is to find a comfortable finite point at which the contemplation of the cycle makes sense without excluding any important considerations in the process. Our perceptions are therefore tainted by our belief in our abilities to solicit the perceptions that we wish others would have of us. In other words, if I wanted to appear competent in a specific setting, I would need to be convinced that I am an authority on the subject matter being discussed in that setting. If I simply desire that perception of competence, but I doubt my competence on the subject, chances are great that I would be evasive, defensive, or downright bullish in that setting at the slightest hint of being challenged or undermined. Stated simply, if I do not know, but do not want others to know that I do not know, I employ every defensive technique I have in my arsenal while being careful not to be overly aggressive in order to maintain the façade. Simple, right?

Probably not. If it was that simple, more people would get it. But perhaps they don’t get it because they over-complicate it with the distractions of the trinkets that we adopt to define our self-worth and the potential value of our contribution to society. Perhaps we subscribe to the tokenism that we despise, like needing a degree or certificate before determining the competence of an individual, simply because we are incapable or unskilled in the ability to determine the credibility of information based on the information presented, rather than its source.

But this all still sounds more complicated than it really is. I think the simple truth is that we need to embrace the fact that we are attention whores by default. The ethics and principles with which we seek such attention is what makes us either whore-ish or admirable. Not that it’s impossible to admire a whore, but nonetheless, I digress. It’s the same for all our interactions with society and the prevailing norms. If we act within those accepted norms, we’re embraced or at the least, accepted. If we don’t, we’re isolated, or ridiculed, or simply dismissed when we attempt to contribute. The question then arises as to whether or not our convictions in our views are stronger than our need for inclusion. When the former trumps the latter, we change the world. When the latter prevails, we become whores.

Welcome to the club. Perhaps I’ll attempt to expand on the rest of the cycle in a future post if I am able to retain the mindfulness that is called for when dealing with such a subject.

Anger

Anger is a result of failed expectations. When you find yourself losing your temper, consider which expectation you’re allowing to define your self worth.

Zaid Ismail

The Egosystem

Egosystem (n) – A complex set of defenses designed to stave off criticism or intelligent conversation with the aim of retaining our preferred status quo. In the corporate world, often presented as a plausible excuse to resist change and establish empires.

It’s the same egosystem that causes us to grow defensive in the face of opposition, where we feel persecuted if our opinion is not accepted. The irony is that we employ such defense mechanisms with the aim of protecting ourselves from a perceived threat, when in fact that defense is what harms us most.

Exhausting is the effort it takes to wear down such defenses so that a whole life can be lived. Exhausting for both the whistle blower and the victim. We’re often so focused on defending ourselves from being the perceived victims of circumstances and others around us that we fail to protect ourselves from becoming victims of ourselves.

In a world that is engineered to create victims in order to create new capitalist markets, the corrosive mindset that it spawns quickly sets the tone for how we perceive our worth relative to the world around us. I used to think that I interacted with various ecosystems as I worked my way through life, or simply through an average day, but the longer I live, the more I realise that it is the egosystems that drive the events around me rather than any ecosystem I previously perceived.

When I fail to recognise those egosystems, I inevitably get drawn into it and find myself trying to defend my contribution in a space that is already contaminated by the egos of others. There is no value that can be demonstrated in such a setting. You either play to the egos that you’re surrounded with, or you disrupt. When you play to it, you become the disrupted and inevitably find yourself toeing the line to a tune you didn’t choose. But it offers inclusion and feigned acceptance, which is comforting at a superficial level. But because most of us live superficially, we willingly subscribe to such a toxic social setting. Not always limited to our social circles though, and in fact, more prone to exist in our professional circles where almost everything becomes a measuring contest.

However, when I do become aware of the egosystem that putrefies the air around me, my instinctive response is to disrupt. It’s that long held belief of mine that the arrogant must be treated with arrogance, which has served my sanity well, but my bank account and social circles have suffered as a result. Hypocrisy seeps to the surface when I find myself restraining myself in the face of such isolation or disruption because I lack the will to trudge through the mire that often follows such conviction. But I placate myself by believing that similar to arrogance, hypocrites deserve a dose of hypocrisy. Do I then willingly contribute to the cesspool that I despise? Probably. But I find it acceptable as a response to those that refused to respond to the wholesome goodness of my ego, and therefore deserve a taste of my alter-ego instead.

One of the most scary thoughts for me has always been the knowledge that if I had to embrace the vile behaviours of those around me with the same vigour and conviction as I do my current set of principles, I would be devastatingly effective at politics. Yes, I know, that must sound so arrogant, but that is exactly the point I am making. Being arrogant does not require conviction in principles. It simply requires an indulgent mind bent on self-enrichment and consumerism. Pretty much the ingredients needed to sustain a destructive egosystem.

We’re all capable of being assholes, so a successful asshole is not one that should be celebrated because there are too many principled fools that fell as a result of their manipulations. But principled fools don’t seem to garner much respect either because they appear naïve and foolhardy in their convictions, so it is of little surprise that there is not much respect in this world, let alone respect for the world we live in. The ecosystem of earth is being contaminated by the egosystem of us, but we seem to be looking for answers everywhere but at home.

Sheltered

The analytical mind is quite curious. It sets aside emotion and observes objectively that which presents itself before us. The keener the observation, the less emotional it is. The more emotional, the less accurate the assessment. Yet both these dispositions, emotional and analytical, are needed for a wholesome life.

From personal experience, and my observations of those that I’ve engaged with over the years, it seems that the most analytical are the ones that had the least wholesome upbringing. They were typically the ones that were misunderstood, emotionally isolated, or worse. They generally have unpleasant stories to tell, usually with a snigger and a laugh, as they recount their days of strife at the hands of family members or neighbourhood bullies with a strong cynical undertone. They’re the scarred beauties that have become detached, because attachment is either unfamiliar or holds no appeal.

In contemplating this scenario, I was initially inclined to believe that the opposing tale must be one of emotional cocooning. To be smothered with love and understanding, while nurturing a healthy, if not over indulgent self-esteem, they’re raised by parents who always made time for their quirks and pains, while leading a moderately successful life of measured luxury and homely warmth. Sounds almost idyllic, if not fairy tale-like. But it does happen, so I know it’s a reality, even though it may not be a reality that I, or others like me, can relate to.

As my mind wandered through this meandering path the one word that kept whispering in the back of my cynical mind was ‘sheltered’. The more I considered their good fortune, the more I found myself ambivalently envious of their blessings, while equally spurning their sense of entitled protection. It’s a reality that they depend on because it is the frame of reference within which they were raised. My frame of reference is very different though, and if it weren’t for the sobering moments of my life, I would have been hell bent on believing that they were the enemy. The ones that had it easy while judging the rest of us, while we made it through life the hard way, only to be placed second best to their privileged upbringing.

But the reality is very different from such a jaundiced view of the differences we share. The shelter they find in the emotional wholesomeness with which they were raised contributes to the compassion that we desperately need in this world. The rest of us, the analytical ones, use that emotional deficit to clearly articulate the problem statements that are so elusive when looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles. However, if my personal experiences are anything to go by, compassion fatigue sets in easily with those that see the painful cycles repeating themselves, and having the analytical wit to most often accurately pre-empt a distasteful outcome. At times like those, it’s the emotionally grounded beings that see reason to drag us out of despair and continue to fight the good fight.

But the truth is closer to the reality that both are equally sheltered. Both enjoy the familiarity of their frame of reference that shelters them from the reality of the other. To the emotionally obese, living a cold and detached existence is impossible to contemplate, while the analytical sees the pointless emotional indulgences and sneers at the waste of productive time spent molly-coddling (I hate that phrase!) those that appear too fragile to function without a hug. It’s a despicable envy on both parts that adds beautifully intricate, yet entertaining hues to the panorama of life.

Unfortunately, there are too many that fail to see what shelters them, and in so doing, find sufficient reason to despise the rest that appear to be unfairly privileged relative to their sombre upbringing. At some point, the choice to accept or deny our own privilege becomes ours, and ours alone. Life is cliched like that. But we’re often so intent on proving that we’re not as common as everyone else, that we exclude ourselves from the very same collective that we belong to, while yearning for acceptance.