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Much of the following will be phrased in first-person, not because I find (too much) narcissistic pleasure in doing so, but because the narrative is one that is not unique to me whatsoever.
A Tradition of the Blind Leading the Blind
As a teenager, I lived by three immutable ideals:
1. Islam -- the Saudi-exported variety practiced in most of Pakistan
2. Hard work -- the American Dream brand common in immigrant families
3. Duty -- the filial type inherent in elder siblings
I did not inspect them. I simply inherited them, saw how they had been useful to my parents, and accepted them as the Way. And then I went about practicing them.
My high school had a student-run Honor Code that aligned quite well with these home values. Back then, I possessed more discipline and higher pain tolerance than I have exhibited throughout most of my twenties.
However, I actively chose not to scrutinize the principles underlying these rules, and so my adherence to them was fragile. The rules seemed clear enough, but without understanding the Whys, my understanding of them was tangled.
Given enough random external stress, I would either break or calcify -- two states that are not very becoming of humankind inhabiting a world in constant flux.
Heresy in the Land of the Blind
During college, I “broke.”
As it turned out, my immutable rules were quite feeble, poorly structured, and weakly understood. Exposure in college to such a wide array of lifestyles put my own in serious jeopardy.
However, as fortune would have it, this exposure came from people whom I grew to admire over my time in college. And so I eagerly shattered my idols and engaged in many years of Dionysian self-destruction, via excess and self-indulgence.
Such destruction released an immense amount of potential energy. I began reassembling the tattered remains of my old rulebook and noticed all the possibilities it had concealed from me: uninhibited expression, nomadic exploration, social experimentation, taboo books and ideas, other music, other art, other religions, etc, etc.
It became an addiction to consume more and more and more.
The Man with One Eye Is King
Almost eight years later, in 2016, I sat in the Juilliard courtyard, watching young parents walk about with their children.
It was a stark contrast, their sense of purpose and direction cast against my flip-flops, wrinkled shirt and shorts, MacBook with terminal and text editor open, “funemployed”, living on a futon, sucking my savings dry while I sought a life without structure or obligation or duty or God or routine or responsibility, alienating myself from my family and my girlfriend (now fiancee!) and most everyone else around me.
This trajectory bears resemblance to where I see American society today. Our old forms of meaning ascribed literal, static, and unchanging interpretations to the world, while the world continued changing and transforming in dynamic old-yet-new ways.
The stressors of increased exposure to ourselves (through television, telecom, and the Internet) cracked society. We grew vain, we grew self-obsessed, we grew scattered, we grew paranoid. We celebrated our human spirit, believing that we had liberated ourselves from the shackles of rigid organization, hierarchy, rules, and expectations. We found new opportunities and possibilities in the fragments of the colossus that we had so effectively destroyed.
In the process of increasing our human ambitions, we also lost our old conviction and sense of purpose.
Self-Renewal Is Commitment
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road.
The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.’
To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
- GK Chesterton, The Thing
We are a strange species in that we learn best to understand something by breaking it. We untangle our knots by destroying ourselves in the process. And then we slowly entangle ourselves in new knots to begin the process anew. This happens at the individual level, the community level, the societal level, and every order of magnitude in between. John Gardner called this perpetual tension and process “Self-Renewal.”
“An individual cannot achieve renewal if he does not believe in the possibility of it. Nor can a society.”
I had hit rock bottom at the end of 2016, and the proverbial climb back up, with many slips and regressions, has involved a deepened commitment to practice. Not to perfection, but to practice. Such a commitment relates to a deepened belief in the possibility of renewal, that with concerted effort, renewal can be labored towards.
We can grandstand all we want about change and growth, but the reality is most of us find self-renewal unbearable. Why? Because it is necessarily painful. It requires breaking an old, comfortable part of yourself and reshaping it into something else, and doing it repeatedly.
The pain of self-renewal is why we conversationally believe people don’t change. It’s a convenient narrative because it justifies certain habits as a matter of one’s nature -- they simply cannot be changed. But then we frequently see people change almost everything in their lives after a tragedy or near-death experience.
Commitment Is Practicing Self-Renewal
You can practice self-renewal. You can commit to it being the one immutable reality of life. And through this process, you develop your own system of ethics, one that is fluid yet consistent.
Through conscious labor, you don’t need to wait for the proverbial train wreck to come force you to change. This is a thread of realization that connects the yogis and the artists to the athletes and the fighters.
So much of our lives play out as reactions to external stimuli. Much of what we do is pretty automatic. You can pretty reasonably predict a person’s lifestyle by observing what these stimuli are and how reactive they are to them.
Commitment to anything short-circuits this automatic process and untangles you from your reactions. It deepens your understanding of yourself.
Lifting weights and exercising regularly commits you to recognizing your body is a dynamic, changeable system.
Cold showers commit you to cold being a conditioned reaction.
Regular meditation and breathing practices commit you to a fluid relationship with the Self and the world.
Focused practice of a craft (painting, writing, playing the guitar, dancing, cooking, etc) commits you to a mind-body integration with a particular medium of expression.
Spending time with family commits you as a being that influences and is influenced by the world and people around you.
Commitment to any of the above is a slow process (I struggle hardcore with this). But with sustained commitment, we witness some interesting forms of renewal. In computational terms, the set of symbols you use to describe yourself in relation to the world transforms. In mystical terms, the barrier between You and Not You dissolves. In physiological terms, you learn that your mind is your body and that has a huge influence on certain systems (blood pressure, respiration, “fight or flight” responses, etc). Your cardiovascular health improves, your autonomic nervous system gets stimulated, your mitochondria operate at full tilt. You sleep better, feel better, connect better, move better. Your body and your mind grow stronger, more nimble, and more resilient in measurable (and entirely immeasurable) ways.
And with that strong base of commitment, you can finally start thinking about doing something meaningful with your life.
Hope you enjoyed reading! Happy Sunday and until next time.