Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Essence Of Freedom

Life is too hard and too risky in the eyes of many. By contrast, others are such proponents of a virile existence, demanding great courage and giving great pride, that they are ready to leave the coziness of their home to scale Mount Everest and breast the elements for the sheer joy of conquering the summit. Whatever the perspective, the nature of things remains unchanged. There are rules, necessities and duties, and limits, possibilities and impossibilities. Until doom, one can accept them and make the best of them, much to one’s pleasure and honor, or one can do the opposite and suffer the consequences. The choice between these two options is the very essence of freedom. Personally, I have no use for the second option: a self-inflicted misery that is without the slightest doubt a pitiable way of life.

The first option, on the other hand, is a pleasurable and honorable alternative that I find compelling, though uphill. It is applicable to any situation encountered in the course of one’s living venture, provided one is not unfortunate to the point of being hopelessly unable to cope. The range of this applicability corresponds with the range of one’s adaptability. It is normally considerable, despite the tendency to cling to old gratifying habits even after they have become impracticable or unsuitable, owing to a change of situation. One can be weaned from such habits onto new gratifying habits, in the same way as a baby can be weaned onto solids. The more the change is significant and one is reluctant to adapt to it, the more the weaning process is difficult and long in producing the desired effect. Again, the only option worthy of one’s attention consists in taking things as they come and making the most of them, for one’s sake and that of others. The reverse is foolish and harmful, a deplorable waste of humanity.

On the whole, the power to live in a well-adjusted and high-minded way and the freedom to choose this way in preference to the alternate, illegitimate, way are the foundations of the life one builds. The exercise of this power does not necessarily imply a principled resignation toward the status quo. One may be faced with a remediable evil that calls for a struggle to remedy it, effectively and rightly. In that case, living in a well-adjusted and high-minded way entails accepting the need for this struggle and the means of waging it, and sparing no effort to attain one’s end. Ills are a test of will, an opportunity to show dignity.

They are also an opportunity to probe and appraise one’s inner resources. Over the years, I have improved my situation and especially my attitude, whose negativity was the most unfavorable and improvable aspect of my life. In so doing, I have discovered my true richness. Nature has endowed me with an adaptable capacity for happiness within the limits of my changeable reality. According to my observations, this capacity is not unusually great, compared with that of most people. I am even tempted to think it is somewhat lagging behind. Eleven years plus to adapt in triumph to my physical disability is no feat for the Guinness Book of World Records!

During that time, the riddle of life had more or less baffled me. Yet, laboriously, with the help of many books and much thought, I had managed by degrees to clear it up, enough to find a meaning to my life. This riddle is comparable to a mire: The slower you go through it, the deeper you get into it. Perhaps thinkers are commonly untalented in the art of living and their saving grace is their dogged determination to redeem this lack of talent by dint of studying the human soul. Amusingly enough, these untalented individuals are often perceived as gifted, once they have seen the light and reflected it with the numerous mirrors of an elaborate analysis, after a tentative and protracted search in the dark.

This sort of overcompensation is typical of people who experience difficulties in a certain area, but refuse to admit defeat. While some fare well in this area with a minimum of effort, they try hard to overcome these difficulties, with the result that they often fare better than the others. Their redeeming feature is their willpower in the face of their shortcoming, which they use as a reason to redouble their efforts, not as an excuse to throw in the towel. This is a recipe for a worthy success. They discipline and surpass themselves, and thus proudly turn things around.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


What is wisdom? But first, what are the conditions that render it desirable, if not necessary, and what is its essential purpose?

Life is a desire to live, and better still a desire to live happily. As we strive to satisfy this desire, we encounter obstacles that complicate or frustrate our efforts. This complication or frustration amounts to suffering because it stands in the way of satisfaction.

Wisdom is designed to help us cope with this suffering. It is an adaptive product of reason in the face of tough circumstances. Thanks to it, happiness is conceivable and achievable in spite of everything. It is therefore the supreme good.

Actually, religion is a good that many rank equally high, since it serves the same purpose as wisdom, if differently. The difference lies in the way religion and wisdom portray suffering and define the meaning of life.

From the perspective of religion, suffering betrays a state of worldly imperfection that is in contradiction with the human desire for perfect happiness. Consequently, life here below – where humans are doomed to suffer – is absurd in itself. Or rather, life is meaningful strictly in terms of means to a heavenly end in the great beyond: A life of virtue prepares the way for an afterlife of bliss. The religious believe this in accordance with the teachings of an inspired spiritual leader, who claims to know the transcendental nature of the hereafter.

While personally I cast a skeptical eye on these teachings, I keep my mind open. They are highly suspicious, but the transcendental nature of their object puts them beyond the reach of any discredit based on conclusive evidence.

Anyway, as I see it, wisdom is independent of religion, though it can complement the latter. According to it, life in itself has meaning, despite its imperfection that people can learn to accept. Better still, they can learn to value this imperfection as they realize that perfection, contrary to popular belief, is not infinitely desirable.

Indeed, perfect happiness leaves something to be desired. By definition, it excludes suffering and hence all forms of complication or frustration. It supposes that circumstances are absolutely favorable – that is, not tough in any way. Therefore, no effort is necessary while every dream is possible. At first glance, this sounds like the most wonderful situation imaginable, and yet taking another look at it will dispel this illusion.

What strange whim, in the history of humankind, has compelled people from every walk of life to leave their cozy home and embark on risky ventures? Perhaps this whim is not so strange after all. A multitude of conquests have been made for the sheer joy of conquering against great odds. The operative word is pride, accompanied by excitement. To conquest-minded people the infinite ease of heaven entails infinite boredom. To them life – together with the struggle that is integral to it – is the very thing that perfect happiness leaves to be desired. It is an opportunity to prove courageous and victorious, though it is also a risk of failing painfully.

Happiness is about grasping this opportunity with courage and gaining a victory over the obstacles that stand between us and success in all the activities that most matter to us. This victory is often strenuous and always limited, precarious, and transitory, and we are bound to lose the battle in the end; but that makes the victory all the more precious and worthy of savoring.

When trying to define the activities in which we most care to succeed, we are forced to study our nature to know our purpose. Our growing wise depends on this study and this knowledge, leading to this definition. It begins with an awareness of our animal will to survive, as survival is the foundation on which life, in the truly human sense, is built. The awareness of life in this sense follows. It takes into account both our humanity and our individuality, as members of society with particular tastes and abilities to which a wide range of activities are suited.

The clearer we are about our purpose, the more we can live our lives with determination and passion, and so with a greater chance of succeeding and achieving happiness. The reverse is equally true. It therefore stands to reason that in striving after wisdom we lay the groundwork for success and happiness.


Since wisdom is the art of coping with suffering, it starts with a willingness to tackle it head-on:

a) Such is the harshness of our condition that we suffer, sometimes greatly or worse, insuperably.

b) Such is the richness of our nature that we can learn to live happily, or at least serenely, within the limits of this condition. This entails us either pursuing goals that are not only desirable or honorable, but also attainable, or resigning ourselves to the inevitable.

Admittedly, a great many suffer whose suffering is all the more problematic as their wisdom is still largely in the making. I remember my own past as a young unhappy and suicidal man who composed dark poems. My negative attitude compounded my difficult situation, and I lacked the awareness of my ability to improve both. Today, I feel deeply connected with those who live in the limbo of gloom. Even if my words only reach one of them, they will not have been written in vain.
I have recently come across some dark poetry, reminiscent of mine in my young days. The author – Melyssa G. Sprott – is a young talented woman whose youth has been poisoned by abuse and other hardships. Her suffering and her talent have inspired me to feature some of her work and respond to it. Note that my responding to it in a positive manner testifies to my being help-minded, but note also that my responses are written in a spirit of humbleness. I don't claim to provide a remedy; I just try my best to give some useful insights.

* * *

The following excerpts are from one of Melyssa's collection of poems, entitled "Descent into the Dark." They reveal her aching soul with the moving simplicity of a woman crying for her overwhelming grief.


When I was six,
my father had me convinced
I wasn't worth the air I breathed,
the food I'd cost,
or other things I'd need.
When I was six,
my father didn't want children
or want the wife he kept,
so we were forced to suffer
for my father's regrets.

"Remember to tell him you love him or you'll die,"
Mother sings her twisted lullaby.
"Wish for mercy, pray for death,
await the day he ceases breath.
He'll wake you up at three in the morning
to beat you senseless without warning.
It doesn't matter how still you lie,"
Mother sings her twisted lullaby.

I want to bleed forever,
bleed out my sorrow.
I can't even bear
the thought of tomorrow.
I want this nightmare to end.
I'll close my eyes to the world.
I've been begging for death
since I was a little girl.


How could all this damage
come from such trusted lips?

You throw words like stones.
My heart is breaking glass.

The key you held is the knife you twist.


Nowhere to hide
in the dark of the night.

Sometimes the only comfort we find
is in our own pain….
They'll never understand the calm
of relinquishing all control.

Suffering takes less courage
than it takes to be content.

I didn't choose the less traveled path
of love, joy, and luck.
I chose the other path,
and now I am stuck.

I'm a prisoner of the dark in my eyes.

* * *

Let us take stock of a few harsh facts that are part and parcel of life, not only Melyssa's or mine, but everyone's.

a) The human potential for greatness – great learning and nobility, and great accomplishments – is matched only by the human potential for the reverse. Yes, humans can be and sometimes are monstrously poor-spirited, narrow-minded, and black-hearted, among other despicable traits. These traits may involve genetic or environmental factors that predispose to them, but ultimately they are the fault of the individuals who give free rein to them. The unfortunate thing is, these individuals are a source of suffering not only to themselves but also to those who are at their mercy. Among their victims are children, women, and elderly or disabled people. Actually, even the strongest of men can suffer as a result of falling prey to them. Yet, the others are more vulnerable – especially children who often make the dreadful mistake of blaming themselves for the abuse or neglect to which they are subjected.

b) As a rule, people are neither great nor bad in the extreme. They are relatively friendly and helpful – if you treat them fairly – and they lead decent though imperfect lives. Having said this, they have minds of their own, which may not be in keeping with yours. A man may fall in love with a woman who doesn't care a whit about him, and vice versa. A job seeker may hope for employment at some outfit, where in his opinion he belongs, and have his application turned down by an employer who sees things in a different light. These two examples count among an infinity of possible ones that testify to the same truth: Other people's wishes and yours often differ and you must then (out of respect) compromise or abstain from doing as you please.

c) On a positive note, there is some degree of harmony between nature's purpose and that of humans. As harsh as our life is on earth, we can subsist or even thrive. Yet, this harmony does not alter the fact that both purposes are distinct, always in danger of being opposite.  Just think about the amount of resourcefulness and adaptability we must show to indeed thrive. At best the harmony is labored and confined within narrow limits. Think also about the number of times nature's purpose and that of humans clash, as demonstrated by all manner of nuisances, illnesses, and disasters. In short, the relationship we have with nature is like the relationship some people have with wild animals they have tamed. These animals are pleasant pets provided their needs are catered for. Still, they can turn against their owners for no apparent reason, except that they are fundamentally wild.

As I pointed out earlier, wisdom starts with a willingness to tackle the harsh reality of life head-on. It is the reverse of ignorance, and hence is exclusive of the illusory bliss that accompanies this ignorance. If happiness is possible through wisdom, it is achieved with the full knowledge and acceptance of the harsh reality in question. By acceptance I do not mean a passive resignation toward the status quo in all its harshness. I mean a brave readiness to turn our situation – possibly bad in a number of respects – to good account. And this includes bettering what we are able to better, while making do with everything else.

Easier said than done, of course. But then happiness is not about what is easy; it is about what is good and right and can only be accomplished through a great deal of meritorious effort. To make or not to make this effort is the question, which sums up human freedom. And surely nobody in their right mind would forever take the easy option that leads to unworthiness and unhappiness!

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Having said this, even this sort of happiness is a product of positive thinking and positive action, with good fortune lending a helping hand. In short, it is a product of will in relatively favorable circumstances. But isn't it peculiar to imply that happiness can be of one sort or another?  Are there not simply happiness and unhappiness?  I think not. The sort of happiness that the sage talks about is compatible with misfortune. It is preeminently a doing from within – while without, the only prerequisite for it is that the sage be alive and capable of thought. It is a feeling of serenity, of being at peace with his situation and his conscience, as a well-adjusted and fully committed servant of life, of humanity, of God as he sees them.

However conscious he is of the subjectiveness – i.e., the individual limitations and hence the imperfection – of his view, he does live by it with utmost faithfulness, if also with a willingness to reevaluate it critically when he catches himself out in a misstep. His wisdom is forever a work in progress; it is always laced with some form of foolishness, which leaves him open to ridicule. Humility and compassion, plus humor are therefore qualities that he cultivates. He mocks and forgives himself, and above all strives to improve. He shows no complacency, but an acceptance of his humanness that he is intent on bringing to the highest possible degree of truth and nobility. And this delicate blend of resignation and struggle alone – in any situation, favorable or not – is indeed the secret of his happiness, which admittedly is a dry manner of joy that fills the mind rather than the heart.

It follows that this happiness leaves something to be desired: happiness in the fullest sense of the word (a state of fulfillment, when everything is going our way, in terms of results as well as efforts), which is a joy, ever so sweet, that fills both the mind and the heart. When the sage experiences this supreme happiness, he rightly feels blessed, and knows how precarious it is. Furthermore, he accepts this precariousness, or the fact that suffering and ultimately death loom ahead. Only battles are won in the war of life that will inevitably – despite every valiant effort to prevail – end in defeat.

Some will say that happiness in its so-called fullest sense leaves something more to be desired: the power to make this happiness infinite: immeasurably great and unlimited in duration. Among them, some will choose the path of faith, which allegedly leads to a heavenly afterlife, whereas some will choose the path of reason, which admits of no rosy belief based on wishful thinking and unbridled trust. This path leads nowhere as far as the beyond is concerned, or rather somewhere that is unknown – presumably so different from what is known that it totally exceeds our ability to conceive of its nature.

I count among these proponents of reason, these infidels, to whom the only source of meaning is not a paradisiacal destination, whose existence is supported by no credible evidence, but the journey itself, a rugged and uphill journey to be sure, with an abundance of twists and turns, some of which are propitious, others not. This journey is well worth the trouble, in my opinion. It is so independently of the above-mentioned destination, which people are free to pursue blindly or regard with skepticism (and with detachment to boot, in the best case scenario). It is all about the dignity of living and loving and the pleasure of succeeding in these difficult assignments. From this perspective, the purpose of life is none other than life itself, in partnership with our fellow creatures; and happiness is made possible – within certain limits – by our striving to achieve this worthy, albeit humble purpose.

The limits imposed upon worldly happiness may initially stick in our craw, but after due consideration, as we realize that life without these limits would be death, we accept them, and better still we welcome them. Life is by definition a dynamic state that presupposes a perpetual tension between desires and their satisfaction. Render this satisfaction absolute, you resolve this tension and consequently reduce life to nothing; i.e., something as inert as a stone. And this nothing – this inert something – is death, as I just pointed out. Not a brilliant prospect in the eyes of a life lover!