Sunday, 19 April 2015

'Feast on your life': Tom Hiddleston on Derek Walcott's "Love After Love" for accepting ourselves

I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.

- Tom Hiddleston on "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott, a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. VIII Festival Internacional de Poesía en Granada, 2012. Source.

In Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden, actor Tom Hiddleston (known for roles in The Avengers and War Horse) selects "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott as his choice for the anthology.

He describes how he reads the poem often, at least once a month, as an antidote to "the madness and mayhem of modern life, where every man seems committed to an endless search for the approval and esteem of his fellows and peers, no matter what the cost". After all, as the actor explains,

Most of us are motivated deep down by a sense of insufficiency, a need to be better, stronger, faster; to work harder; to be more committed, more kind, more self-sufficient, more successful. We are driven by a sense that we are not, as we are, 'enough'.

"Love After Love" alternatively, is "like a declaration of unconditional love" that asserts "we are each of us whole, perfectly imperfect, enough." We can read it to become more aware of the present moment, gain a sense of calm, and feel grateful for what we do have, rather than what we do not. It's a powerful piece of writing that achieves this.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self [...]

Read the full poem here, in Walcott's Sea Grapes anthology, or his Selected Poems

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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lessons on how to survive from Laurence Gonzales's Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales and stoicismI'm fascinated by Stoic philosophy and "survival mindsets". I read a lot about how we can tailor our thinking to help us get through both everyday challenges and the most difficult of circumstances, and recently came across Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales.

I enjoyed the author's application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, alongside the anecdotes he chose (including that of the wonderful Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who spent 4 days stranded in the Sahara desert).

Here are a few lessons from the book to get us started on our survival education.

1. See the beauty

Steven Callahan (born 1952) is an American sailor, author and inventor who is known (amongst other things) for having survived 76 days adrift on the Atlantic Ocean in a liferaft.

As we can see in his autobiographical Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea, he was clearly attuned to the wonder of the world. Upon seeing a rainbow, Callahan wrote that, "I feel as if I am passing down the corridor of a heavenly vault of irreproducible grandeur and color." And after 53 days at sea, he described how:
I am constantly surrounded by a display of natural wonders... It is beauty surrounded by ugly fear. I write in my log that it is a view of heaven from a seat in hell. 
We can also link this to Viktor Frankl's survival of life in concentration camps, which he describes with so much reference to nature's beauty in Man's Search for Meaning. Tolstoy's Pierre also undergoes a similar experience during his captivity in War and Peace.

2. Be there for others

As I wrote about both the Boyhood movie and Walt Whitman, a life is made up of connections to others and we thrive on human contact. Think about how you can help others.

Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. - Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

3. Develop a stoic mindset

Read the philosophers, strengthen your mind, be grateful, and understand what's important to focus your attention on. Change the things you can, accept the things you can't. It comes in useful.

In summarising Marcus Aurelius's teachings, Irwin Edman wrote during World War II, in his introduction to the Meditations, that: "Fortitude is necessary, and patience and courtesy and modesty and decorum, and a will, in what may for the moment seem to be the worst of worlds, to do one's best".

On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use

- Epictetus

4. Know your stuff

If you're embarking on an adventure into nature, have a deep knowledge of the world you're entering. As Marcus Aurelius encouraged, "Of each particular thing, ask: 'What is it in itself, in its own construction?'"

The story of Christopher McCandless, narrated by John Krakauer in Into the Wild, is inspiring in his decision to leave the chaos of modern life for simplicity in nature (having been inspired by Tolstoy). However, I also think it provides a lot of lessons on what not to do.

5. Learn to face reality

The first rule is: Face reality. Good survivors aren’t immune to fear. They know what’s happening, and it does “scare the living shit out of” them. It’s all a question of what you do next.

Whether we are in the wilderness or experiencing the challenges that life throws at us all, I think that Laurence Gonzales has created a good toolkit to get us started. 

P.S. To follow-up from something I wrote in my ebook a few years back, I still think we should all carry a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius around.

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Saturday, 4 April 2015

Lessons on failure from Pierre in Tolstoy's War and Peace

I've posted before about Tolstoy's "Rules of Life" and desire for self-improvement, both of which generally led to failure rather than any real progression. War and Peace tells a similar story, as my university dissertation research into Pierre Bezukhov's path from "absolute scoundrel" to splendid husband and father suggests.

Sketch of Pierre by M.S. Bashilov, to which Tolstoy responded: 
"His face is good (if only there could be more of a tendency
to philosophizing in his forehead – little wrinkles or bumps
over his eyebrows), but his body is small  – it should be wider
and stouter and more massive."
Pierre is one of my favourite characters in literature. He's goodhearted and a character I aspire to be like in many ways, but he's definitely not without his flaws. His literary life is littered with false-starts, misjudgements and failures, but this is all so... authentic.

While I'll be writing more about Pierre's transformation (I've written before about how War and Peace can help us to find direction in life), for now I'd like to embrace his failures.

Here are just a few of them.

He volunteers for foolish drinking games

Dolokhov, one of the many negative influences in Pierre's life as a twentysomething, drinks a bottle of rum while sitting on a window ledge. Immediately afterwards, Pierre also jumps on to the window-sill, shouting, “I don’t even need a bet. No, I don’t. Tell them to get me a bottle. I’ll do it … Just get me a bottle”.

Fortunately for us and for Pierre, the bet is postponed and never happens. Lessons to be learned: heavy drinking doesn't end well, nor does copying stupid friends.

He ties a policeman to a bear and throws them both in the Moyka

While Pierre doesn't drink rum on a window ledge that night, he does tie a policeman to a bear, drop the bear in the Moyka river, and is banished from the city with the rest of the "absolute scoundrels". Needless to say, this fuels society gossip for some time, although one or two remain convinced of Pierre's good nature behind the peer pressure.

He always seemed to me to have an excellent heart, and this is the quality I value most in people. [...] So young and burdened with this wealth, what temptations will he have to resist!

- Princess Marya, who sees Pierre's mishaps for what they are

He admires the wrong people and is seduced by appearance

In Pierre's early twenties, when life is at its most chaotic, he not only misjudges situations and choices, but also people. Lacking a positive role model, he is envious of the malicious, empty and pretentious Anatole Kuragin. Perhaps, we think, this is a mistake he has to make in order to move forwards:

His face was fresh and flowing, his hat sported white feathers and sat at a jaunty angle, showing off pomaded curls with a sprinkling of fine snow. ‘Now that’s what I call worldly wisdom!’ thought Pierre. ‘He can’t see beyond the pleasure of the moment, nothing worries him, so he’s always happy and contented. What wouldn’t I give to be like him?’ he mused, full of envy. (651)

He marries for looks and is promptly cheated on

Pierre's marriage to Hélène is a big mistake, no doubt about it. His second marriage seems a lot more positive, however, and by the end of War and Peace we feel he's learned his lesson. On his marriage to the beautiful Hélène, he ponders:

"Oh, why did I say ‘I love you’?” he asked himself over and over again. At the tenth time of asking a quotation from Molière occurred to him: "How the devil was he going to get himself out of a mess like that?" and he laughed at himself.

He believes he is destined to kill Napoleon according to numerology

This is probably the most ridiculous of Pierre's errors, and hopefully not one we can align too easily with our own experience. By lining up the French alphabet alongside a list of numbers, Pierre thinks it is his duty to "put an end to the power of the beast that was Napoleon”. Pierre clearly isn't thinking very logically, especially considering the manipulation of word order and spelling required to get to this point. The fact that he also ends up saving three people instead of killing Napoleon also says a lot.

l’russe Besuhof - exactly 666! This discovery shook him. How, and by what means, he was connected with the great event predicted in the Apocalypse, he couldn’t tell, but the connection was there beyond doubt.

When you're faced with failure or mistakes, think about Pierre

We all fail often, and we all have a lot of mistakes left to make.

While Pierre does learn from his mistakes and rarely commits a similar one twice, he doesn't stop failing. His intentions, values, intuition and social circles do change, however, and this marks his true transformation.

Maybe you need to avoid some negative influences, or spend more time thinking through a decision. Perhaps, however, the failure was simply unavoidable, or at least all part of a our constant learning experience.

Without the failures and mistakes of its characters, I don't think War and Peace could be anywhere near as authentic. I'd like to think the same about our own lives too.

“Pierre looked into the sky, into the depths of the retreating, twinkling stars. "And all this is mine, and all this is in me, and all this is me!" thought Pierre. "And all this they've caught and put in a shed and boarded it up!”

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Sunday, 15 March 2015

Linklater's Boyhood: finding meaning through family and connecting with others

Mason Evans, protagonist of Boyhood, at the movie's brilliant ending. Photo source. 

Boyhood, the extraordinary 2014 movie shot intermittently over twelve years by Richard Linklater, maps Mason Evan’s journey from six to eighteen years old, with all of the challenges and moments of joy in-between. The beauty of the film is ingrained in this detail, or the day-to-day intricacies of experience, emotion and connection.

As Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's father, neatly states,

It's Tolstoy-esque in scope. I thought the Before series was the most unique thing I would ever be a part of, but Rick has engaged me in something even more strange. Doing a scene with a young boy at the age of seven when he talks about why do raccoons die, and at the age of 12 when he talks about video games, and 17 when he asks me about girls, and have it be the same actor—to watch his voice and body morph—it's a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being.

Boyhood is a story of family and connection from start to finish, although it is realistic and not without difficulties. We see sibling disputes, disagreements with parents, and failed teenage relationships that cannot fail to strike a chord.

Mason complains to his then-girlfriend, Sheena, that, "I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I'm just not.", adding that, "I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it."

Sheena replies by asking, "in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What's different? What changes?" To which Mason responds, "Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality."

From one existential crisis to another, Mason is searching for meaning and a way to define his purpose. I love Boyhood's celebration of art and creation, yet as the film closes, we’re left thinking that perhaps Mason's pursuit of purpose lies precisely in the relationships that we’ve seen him shape in the last twelve years.

Reading Harry Potter in Boyhood.

After all, our lives aren't truly marked by the things we tend to obsess over achieving. Working past 5pm every day won’t win a place in your eulogy, nor will having the biggest house of your friends (I enjoyed how Arianna Huffington wrote about this in Thrive).

At one point in Boyhood, during a road trip to Austin, Mason explains why he wants to to delete his Facebook: “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen, I want, like some actual interaction… a real person, not just the profile they put up”.

We don’t need to delete our Facebook, but simply remember that life is made up of connections (as Whitman recently reminded us), and a life is remembered for the impact that it has on others. Creating a mark on the world is often more to do with connecting with others than making a name for ourselves. This is how we create meaning, and quite often it’s how we cultivate happiness too.

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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Navigating a Confusing World with Whitman's "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances"

Walt Whitman photographed at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Samuel Murray, 1891.

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" by Walt Whitman is included in my favourite poetry anthology of last year, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. It is chosen by Stephen Fry in the collection, and it's also alleged to be J.K. Rowling's favourite poem.

I love this poem because it recognises that the world is a confusing place. It's not always easy to find meaning, and I think we all occasionally ponder why we're here.

Whitman seems to be telling us that this is understandable. Yet he also suggests there is a solution of sorts: spending time with those who are important to us, and creating meaning through connection.

The final four lines are worth learning by heart. As Stephen Fry beautifully puts it: "It's Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me".

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Walt Whitman

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

From Leaves of Grass

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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Mastering the art of being brilliant (and how to be one of the super-happy 2%)

During a recent mentoring session I was recommended several books for business and personal development. These were to help me work out where I want to be, where to start, how to become a more confident leader and thinker, that sort of thing.

The books included:

It was this last book, The Art of Being Brilliant, which the mentor really had good things to say about. The book, she told me, helps you to develop the kind of attitude that takes you from good to brilliant in all aspects of life.

The Art of Being Brilliant

We reckon only about 2% of people fall into the category of feeling consistently great.  The “2%ers” stand out a mile. They are enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, effervescent and possess a 'can-do' mentality. Research shows that they live longer, are more productive and raise the happiness levels of the people around them.

- Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker

It's an easy read, at under 200 pages. There are lots of diagrams (simple ones, mind), drawings, and pages to write down your answers to questions. 

The first set of questions includes:

Being brilliant with Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker
  • Think of someone who inspires you. What exactly do they do that makes you feel so brilliant?
  • Who are you at your best?
  • It's your 100th birthday and there's a big family party in your honour. Someone is going to stand up and say a few words about you. What would you like them to say?

The book is full of positivity, and shares "six common-sense principles to transform your life". It sounds quick-fix, but like the authors say, it's really all just common sense that we could do with being reminded of.

If you want to discover what you're good at, make the most of what you've got, and work out where you want to go next, this book is a superb place to start.

A quick warning: this book contains a lot of exclamation marks.

It's safe to say that positive thinking won't let you do 'anything'. However, it is even safer to say that positive thinking will let you do 'everything' better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability which you have, and that is awesome. It works this way. You can walk into a dark room, flip on the switch and immediately the room is lighted. Flipping the switch did not generate the electricity; it released the electricity which had been stored. Positive thinking works that way - it releases the abilities which you have.

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