Category Archives: Essays

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One cigarette

I wake up in hell. My back hurts. My back always hurts since I came here. Something happened in Kuwait when I was dragging equipment through the sand in a windstorm. A ripping in the muscles I think. Now the endless hurt. Groaning, I rise from the bed, pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I grab the pack off the night stand. Cheap Iraqi cigarettes. I find it ironic that I am pulling little streams of smoky death into my lungs daily that are marked with the brand name Miami.

This trailer park I live in is a very different world from Miami. Nothing I’ve seen in Iraq resembles Miami. Here I sit, pulling on my cigarette named Miami. All I can think about is the nature of death. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve seen it fall from the sky at random. The realization that there is no god becomes stronger with every moment I spend in this place.

I take a drag and ponder it. The idea of a just and loving god is ridiculous to me. The idea of any intercessory supernatural force is asinine. Here I am, in the middle of a war, trying to make sense of the universe. Fatalistically pondering the blue sky above and the waves of heat radiating off the paving blocks under my feet. The world around me is peaceful for the moment. I am keenly aware of how deceptive the moment is.

We are fragile. I am surrounded by chaos and a city in which slow, murderous retribution is playing out on a daily basis. Murder squads roam the streets at night. Men in trucks position themselves as close as they can to where I live and lob mortars into the neighborhood, hoping to kill. They don’t know I exist, but they hate me nonetheless. If they could take a drill to my head and make me suffer, they would. Every day I am exposed to the savage effects of the worst behavior that humanity can dream up. Rape. Torture. Outright murder. Most of it is being done in the name of god. The cigarette’s vapors fill my lungs. I relish the calm, this sanctuary of reflection under a sun we all share, and upon whose light we depend for continued survival. I think about how humans used to worship that sun and call it a god. There have been many gods in the history of this species. As far as I can tell, every one was invented to fulfill a desire to be more important than the inventor actually is or was.

This planet is a backwater in the universe. The universe is a cold, uncaring place.

All the good and bad things that happen on Sol are either cause by natural phenomena or humans. There is no supernatural force manipulating anything. Miami is only a fleeting state of mind, and I am not important.

They taught me about Jesus, who came to die for my sins, and in whom I have no faith. Legends say Jesus was hung on a cross at 33. My cross is this place, a cigarette named Miami, and the uncertainty I feel about this war that surrounds me. I can never come back from here. I will never be the same. It is already harder to laugh. Harder to talk. Harder to care about what happens next. I am numb, but the cigarette that is my cross reminds me I am still human. It is making the fingers I hold it with warm. The cigarette is almost done serving the purpose it was made for while I am still pondering whether I was made for any purpose at all.

I stub it out on the paving blocks, blow out the last cloud of smoke, and suck in another breath of Baghdad. I wonder if there is any growth I can find in existing today. Surely, there must be. My back hurts. It always hurts now. One cigarette is never enough. Life is a series of addictions.

I think about how, at some point, somewhere nearby, someone else must have been caught up in a narrative opposite mine. One that felt like heaven. I hope to myself they can hold on.

A memory for Raya.

Dear Reader, Essays, Stoicism

Mapping life

“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” –Seneca, Moral Letters
Always have a plan. I plan using mind maps. The plans don’t always work out. That’s okay. The framework was there, and I knew what it was that I was trying to achieve. Below is an excerpt from my short book, Kick Ass: Take Control of Your Life.

“Getting where you want to go can be accomplished in any number of ways, but I find that one of the best is to create a visualization. The simplest way to set goals is to start by picking the dreams you want to achieve and visualizing them. I use mind mapping software for this purpose.   Concept-mapping and mind-mapping software are used to create diagrams of relationships between concepts, ideas or other pieces of information. It has been suggested that the mind mapping technique can improve learning/ study efficiency up to 15% over conventional note taking.

It is more than worth a few hours of your time to develop a mind map. You can use a mind map for anything. There are a variety of free tools for creating mind maps. I use Freemind, which is available for several computing platforms. As the name suggests, Freemind is completely free of charge. It produces output that looks like the images below, but it can be formatted to your own needs. With such visualization tools, you can map out your life in just a few minutes or hours, depending on how much detail you want to visualize. Road maps don’t need to be pretty although you can spend time making them that way. A road map should be functional and should tell you the basics of what you want out of life.”

If you’ve never used a mind mapping tool, why not take a second to try one out? You might find that a map of where you are and where you want to be is a useful tool.
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More than a selfie

“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b– 40a

Every little choice adds up. It may not seem like there is a huge difference whether you spend the next half hour watching TV or going outside to find something beautiful to photograph. Twenty years from now you won’t remember the TV show. If you took the picture and framed it to hang on the wall, chances are that you will have an anchor point in time that draws you right back into whatever moment it was that you captured two decades ago. Those little anchor points are what determine whether your life has real meaning.

If you ask 100 people what gives their life meaning you will likely get 100 answers. In order to create meaning in your life, a sense of purpose is key. Meaning doesn’t just happen. It is created through narratives. You are in control of the narrative of your life, and that control is represented in thousands of choices that your brain makes every day. What you put in your mouth and what you put in your head determine who you become, and what the arc of your existence looks like.

Modern life tends to present too many choices, most of which are like fast food. They taste great but ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied because the content isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy because it generates no meaningful sense of purpose. The online game World of Warcraft is an example. The game allows you to create characters who inhabit a fantasy universe that is fun to explore and full of interesting creatures you can kill or be killed by. The game has its own economy and system for ranking players. Creating an avatar is fun. Entering a massive world full of other people who are exploring it along with you using their own avatars is fun. You even have a sense of purpose at first. Your avatar grows in power and gains skills. You can buy magic armor and weapons to aid you in completing quests throughout the game’s imaginary world. The problem with World of Warcraft is that the more you give, the more it takes. To get your avatar to the highest level possible takes an investment of hundreds if not thousands of hours of your life, as well as paying the fees to continue playing month after month. Let’s say you have the time, funds and motivation to climb the game’s ladder all the way to the top. What now? Your reward is that you’ve sunk hundreds to thousands of hours into becoming…what exactly?

You’ve solved no problems in your real world life. You’ve solved no one else’s problems in your real world life. The return on investment is that you are able to defeat powerful imaginary foes in an imaginary world. You may have made friends in the game, but most likely, you’ve never met them in the real world. That means you can’t hug them or share a cup of coffee, or go to an art gallery together. Fantasy can be a healthy escape, but in a modern implementation such as World of Warcraft it is more likely to become a debilitating distraction. Type ‘World of Warcraft addiction’ into Google and browse through the 4 million plus results.

Modern choices trade real meaning for instant gratification. Look around you next time you are in a restaurant. Chances are that many of the people you see will be looking into tiny glass screens instead of interacting with the real world. They are making a choice. Choosing a simulated world where everything is poised and posed over one the one that engages all five senses. One day maybe the simulated worlds we humans and our machines construct will have more depth than the real one, but that time has not arrived. If you are choosing the artificial worlds available in 2017, you are missing a great deal.

Life’s meaning cannot be boiled down to a single meme, or even all the memes you will be exposed to on Facebook during a year. Those memes are not beautiful choices. They distill complex real-world issues into easy to digest bites of information that will ultimately cause brain indigestion.

If you live an existence connected to the Internet, you live in the information age. Unfortunately, a great deal of the information that pops up each time you log on masquerades as something it is not: valuable to finding meaning.

The words you are reading right now are a narrative. There are armies of people motivated by different beliefs churning out millions of narratives at every minute of every hour of every day in the world I inhabit as I type out these words. Most of those narratives will not stand the test of time. They are the equivalent of your current haircut. Haircuts don’t age well. Ten years from now you will probably wonder why you wasted all that time. Choose well, because there are beautiful choices hiding in plain sight. Most of them involve getting out of bed and having an adventure. In real life, with people you can physically touch. That’s the essence of being human.

Next time you have dinner, power off your phone and look into the eyes of each person around the table. Tell them what you want to become and listen when they tell you what they dream of becoming. You’re not a Kardashian, and that’s a good thing. All those choices add up.

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Too much talking and not enough listening

“. . . I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS

I try maintain a roughly ten to one ratio in regards to my listening/speaking. Why do I feel it is important? I know that I do not know much. I know my scale in the universe. It reminds me to stay humble. I know that seeking knowledge is a growth/survival mechanism with a proven track record.

Which brings me to one of the problems I have with the current administration of the executive branch of the USA. As far as I can tell, Trump doesn’t appear to put much value on listening. Or on reality. He appears to be willfully ignoring what is actually happening in the world around him. Don’t take my word for it. Take his.

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” No Donald. Your administration so far is a slow motion train wreck. Your national security advisor lasted three weeks. That’s a new land speed administration failure record.

“Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.” Not even close to reality.

“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.” Translation: Anything that makes me look bad is bad and should be discounted. Reality doesn’t matter, only I matter.

Trump seems to want to attack anyone who questions anything he says or does. He appears hell bent on ignoring the counsel of the very people he should be listening to the most. He turns governance into a circus ring. The new American president has a lot of say about everything, and most of it sounds astoundingly uninformed. The rest of it sounds like blatant, unashamed lying.

That is not leadership. It is the opposite. It is a recipe for failure.

Success or failure often hinge on one’s ability to quietly take in the universe around themselves and contemplate. Those of us who shout the loudest about how great we they are are usually compensating for a lack of understanding. An inability to hear others is dangerous, and perhaps even suicidal in the right context.

We are on a train being controlled by a deaf and blind conductor. I hope the tracks ahead are intact.


Learning to keep your mouth shut

“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” —Epictetus
“One of the most powerful things you can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” — The Daily Stoic

I’ve been practicing keeping my mouth shut. This may seem counter-intuitive if all you know of my existence comes through the lens of my writing. It’s still true. If you invite me out for coffee, or over to dinner, I will spend more time listening to you than I will talking about myself or anything else. If you are discussing a topic that I know nothing about, I will probably ask you carefully considered questions.

Admitting my own ignorance isn’t something I hesitate about. I’m prepared to engage from a position of knowing little to nothing. The goal is to grow and learn. No one expects you to have expertise in every area of human knowledge, or even in a single area. That’s why good leaders surround themselves with those who hold specialized knowledge in various areas. The leader’s job is to take all of the wisdom available and to make informed decisions that benefit society.

Epictetus gets it when he warns us not to worry about how great we are. You cannot trust a person who is fixated on their own importance. Such a person is unable to admit how little they know, and that can be very dangerous. Being able to admit that we aren’t experts in any given area is a critical skill for living a meaningful life.

Even more important is developing the ability to discern the areas of knowledge that are important to you and going after them. If your are surrounded by people who want you to enter the Catholic priesthood, for instance, but your passion is developing virtual worlds, you’ll be well served by developing the ability to tell friends and family, your peer group, or whatever tribe is exerting the pressure to spend your limited time and energy on something you don’t believe in: “I don’t care about that.” You can deliver this information gracefully, and then stick to your guns and pursue opportunities in the life goals that matter to you.

We live in a frenetic world. It is always OK to use filters to keep it from driving you mad. Decide to listen only to what matters, and your existence will grow calmer and more meaningful.