My society (I’m not sure about yours) is completely saturated in a “self-help” phenomenon.

There are books to guide you towards making money at home, being creative, adapting to a new job, attaining self-actualization, finding Jesus, losing weight, making friends, being gay, and an endless list of niche topics. I occasionally do editing for woman who has made a very successful career out of telling mothers they need to take a break every once in a while.

On one hand, this can be interpreted as encouraging. People want help, they want advice and guidance--and it’s there for the taking, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Psychoanalysis for Dummies.

On the other hand, a lot of self-help literature is pure made-up malarkey and is more geared towards selling books to suckers than actually helping anyone. It’s half-baked, under-researched fluff.

However, there are some running themes in a lot of today’s self-help literature that is far from useless and rooted in good intentions. I’m speaking mainly of creativity and positivity.

You see, creativity is in all of us. We all do it, we all create psychosocial reality. This doesn’t mean the next great symphony is kicking around in your head or you’re entirely capable of ushering in a new era of architecture. It means that you have, many times in your life, been confronted with a challenge and you’ve conquered it.

How did you do it? First of all, you had a positive attitude about this challenge. Really, think about it. You never accomplished anything you didn’t want to, were unwilling to, and thought you honestly could not accomplish--unless a large amount of luck came into play.

In the right context, you can harness your creativity again. Unfortunately, creativity is a buzzword that is often misused. When something goes horribly awry in a business, for example, middle managers and executives gather their troops in a boardroom somewhere and ask them to get creative. Imagine the bigwigs at Exxon Valdez gathering their accountants and salesmen, chomping on cigars and saying, “Listen fellas, we’ve caused a major oil spill, a real environmental disaster. We’re going to need everyone to get creative.”

Well, the accountants and salesmen go back to crunching numbers and cold-calling Middle-Eastern refinery managers. Meanwhile, the folks in the PR department have got a real challenge and their running with it--not to mention the clean-up crews in Alaska.

See, that’s the keyword often left out in self-help literature about creativity: challenge. Without a challenge, you’ve got nothing to be creative about. And a challenge is something highly personal. Only you can know what is and what isn’t a challenge.

Beyond that, challenges are, by nature, difficult. They take positivity and the courage to power through fear and the unknown. To quote THEE:

“Courage does not remove fear: it simply enables progress despite fears.”

For me, being a writer is a challenge, with everything that goes with it. I’m afraid that I don’t have the intellect for it, that I’m really not a good enough writer, that the work will dry up and I’ll be unemployed. I’m sure you can draw some parallel in your life. I have to occasionally remind myself to be positive, to harness courage and move forward, to trust that I can change my reality.

Here, we’ve struck at the heart of the self-help wave. Social phenomena are a reflection of their society and one could infer that my society is afraid. We’re afraid of failure and our own shortcomings and we need to harness our courage, get creative with our challenges and endeavors and make progress as a collection of individuals and as a society. There is much more to being creative that we will explore in time, but this is a great place to start.

Other People

I’d love to say that the existentialists were spot-on. I love the existentialists. I like their ideals and most of them were poets or playwrights or filmmakers or constructed these grand metaphors that read like the bible. I mean, they were ambitious artists as well as philosophers.

But the unfortunate truth is that they were only half right.

We are indeed free beings, autonomous in so many ways. In reference to my last blog--My Personal Endeavor--I am free to want a wedding in France for example.

But let’s face it, in so many ways; I am at the mercy of other people.

The concept of other people can take many forms. It can be those who are instrumental to whatever endeavor you happen to be embarking on. It can be the police or even your entire society. It can be the people in the groups you travel in.

Essentially, in psychosocial reality, we’re autonomous on the “psycho” side of things and constrained on the “social” side of things.

This doesn’t mean you can never achieve your goals or pursue an endeavor, it just means you’re operating within some limits.

We are free to choose what we want, but constrained in how we go about it or if it is even possible to go about it.

The trick is to be adaptable. At some point, the constraints on you and your endeavor may force adaptation that turns the endeavor into something different, something that is no longer your goal, at which point it is completely natural and fine to move on. However, flexibility, a willingness to adapt, commitment, and diligence can often carry you to something similar enough to your original goal.  

Examples of this are almost too commonplace to mention, but I’ll throw one out anyway:

You like news. You can write. You’ve dreamed of writing for a big newspaper like The New York Times. Why? It’s prestigious, it’s a steady, decent income, and you get to pal around with like-minded characters who share your passion for foreign policy and a well-written obituary.

You’ve followed your dream and gotten a degree in journalism and you’re all ready to start embedding yourself in foreign rebel army regiments. But you take a look at your life. All of your loved ones live 2,000 miles away from New York and your spouse certainly doesn’t want you interviewing Islamic insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan--there are some “other people” you probably don’t want to associate with! Not to mention, newspapers all over the world are struggling to stay afloat and they only hire reporters when one of the three left on their staff dies or finally writes that book on the inexplicable rise of kittens getting stuck in trees.

So what do you do? You can go off to New York and probably fail because, well, that part of your endeavor just didn’t fit into your current social conditions. Or you can use what you’ve learned and still be passionate about news writing and reporting. Start a blog or freelancing. It’s not The New York Times, but you might find you really love what you do.

These are some of the realities of being human. It’s the endless push and pull of an individual and his social conditions. There’s always the constant intervention of other people.

Having a purpose, a goal, must be balanced with the surrounding conditions in which the goal must fit.

It’s quite an obvious reality in nature. A palm tree cannot survive in the Russian steppes. A polar bear would quickly die in the Sahara.

But for man, our strength is adaptability, for we thrive in all of these conditions and we have thrived in every social condition. This is in part because they were our own making, but because, on a smaller scale--an individual scale--we must work with what we have.

My Personal Endeavor

I’m getting married. Thanks, yeah, that’s nice of you to say, thanks. Just look for my wish list on Amazon for the gifts. Here’s the kicker, I’m getting married on the French Riviera.

A little background on my personal endeavor:

I’m a writer. My fiancée is a translator. These are good jobs, fulfilling jobs. We don’t punch the clock or take orders from middle-managers. We make our own hours and we can work from the couch or a coffee shop. But let’s be honest, we’re not exactly the financial elite. We don’t influence legislation with our own think-tank. We’re not thinking about an upgrade for our personal jet. In fact, there are three dents in my car from when a shelf fell over in my mother’s garage. They’ll probably never be fixed.

But some time ago, we spontaneously decided we’d get married on the French Riviera. I can see you sharing that cynical laugh with my friends and family. “You’re crazy,” you’ll say. “Regular people don’t get married on the French Riviera! Movie stars and society-types get married on the French Riviera.”

Perhaps you’re right. Why would we do that anyway? I don’t know. We like France. We’re romantic. Of course, my fiancée’s family is all in Europe, so that helps.

Here’s the thing, you don’t just decide that and it happens right? We can all agree on that. But something happens. Two things actually--willingness and purpose. These two happy friends just pop into existence. You can’t really have one without the other. If you were just willing with no purpose, then what are you willing to do? If you have purpose without willingness, then nothing is going to happen because, let’s face it, you really don’t want to do it. Any personal endeavor must begin with these two phenomena.

Let’s assume that we, the happy couple, have achieved purpose and willingness, obviously there are many more hurdles to be overcome in our personal endeavor. We’ve got to figure out where exactly we want to have the wedding, how we are going to get there, and how we’ll pay for it. We’ve got to convince our employers to give us some leeway for a little while and deal with our 3 year-old daughter, who gets bored when it takes too long to make her chocolate milk, so we can only assume a 13 hour plane ride will be hell.

To figure out the answers to these questions, we’re going to need some serious communication. This is where things get really interesting. Communication is, in fact, how humans create their reality. It’s the clincher, the lynch pin, the great creative force. But communication is tricky. There’s a bit of push and pull when it comes to communication. A balance needs to be achieved between the informal conversations that my fiancée and I have that clarify these questions and the raw facts that are the framework of reality that we’re working within. Remember, as we discussed in a previous blog, all reality exists within some social context.

We’ll have to talk at length about the trip, the wedding plans. We’ll bounce ideas off of each other. Some the other won’t like and some will seem like total brilliance to both. We’ll muse about French food and the beach and remind one another that we need to budget time for our little daughter to run around and get her “wiggles” out. These informal conversations will shape our view of what the trip and the wedding will look like.

But this communication is useless without a little harsh reality. We’ll see that plane tickets are $1,200. The house we want to rent is another $2,000. We’ll realize that’s the best option is to fly to Frankfurt and rent a car to get to France. We’ll have to grapple with the mathematical reality that the house we rent can sleep 10 people, but 16 are coming.

The interplay between the informal conversation and the formal, fact-based information will force adaptation and require flexibility.

Luckily, we’re old travelers who have quite a bit of experience in these matters. In THEE, willingness, purpose, and communication are called “transcendent” levels because they let us float above whatever exists, dipping in and out, and dreaming of something new, different or better. There are three more, which we’ll talk about sometime, where we have to put effort into what does most definitely exist to get the result we want (called “actualization”). Between the two, we’ve got experience, bridging the divide and stabilizing or de-stabilizing your (or my) personal endeavor.

Following the formula doesn’t mean success. It’s more like a map. Having a map doesn’t tell you where to go, or the route to get there, and it most certainly doesn’t mean you will make it. But would you want to travel in an unknown land without one?

It is entirely possible that our experience will make us realize that the whole idea is bonkers, that we’ve overstepped our abilities and resources. The formal account, the harsh reality might bring us to the same conclusion.

Stick around for experience and (hopefully) actualization.

What it is to Be Human

What did you do today? And “nothing” is incorrect.

Philosophy and religion, in their truly infinite range and scope, have grappled with the question of what it is to be alive, furthermore, what it is to be human. They’ve wondered what or where is consciousness. They struggle with choice and free will. They’ve tried to order the universe or have even given it over to chaos.

The avid reader of philosophy is often blinded by the complexity, the tossing-about of multisyllabic, esoteric, arcane language, the seeming equally infallible logic of opposing viewpoints, and the ideology. What are the answers?

Let’s make one thing clear: I’m no sage. I am no genius and I do not claim to possess special knowledge. But so much of this is perhaps quite a bit simpler than the last 3,000 years or so of philosophy would have us believe.

We are here to do.

Wow! Do I get my Nobel Prize now?

I could leave it at that, but let’s examine the implications. If this is true, wouldn’t that imply that we are free to do? I think so. Ok, let’s give a round of applause to the existentialists. If we are here doing something, it would stand to reason that we exist, correct? Thank you Descartes, you are dismissed! You were so, so close. Let’s see, I think I am going to take a leap here and say that whatever we do exists in some sort of context. If what you do is drive a car, then you must exist in a society with cars and gas stations and driver’s licenses and roads and you probably have to go somewhere that isn’t within walking distance and presumably has a parking lot. Welcome to the party post-modernists.

Doing is what it is to be human.

But where does doing come from?

Here’s where things get a tricky. THEE calls it “Will.” But Will is a bit mysterious--as most origins are. It might be where consciousness meets biology. It could have something to do with the drive to survive. Really, it’s just a word that THEE uses to describe the source of creative energy and potential in people. Finding its location is not really important because we can all agree that it’s there somewhere. Every time you do something, anything, from the mundane to the triumphant, you’re using that energy, that potential.

Before you get to thinking that there’s some glowing, effervescent light emanating from you, just waiting to guide you to your own personal utopia, remember that Will is at the root of every human endeavor. That means great works of art as well as horrible crimes against humanity, acts of supreme kindness as well as terrible violence.  Will is both creative and destructive.

Let’s say you’re a car (just go with it). Will isn’t in the driver’s seat; it’s more like the motor--providing blind and directionless energy. If everything is working properly, the energy is used for its intended purpose--to move the car. If things aren’t working properly, the destructive consequences could range from being stranded on a deserted freeway to pieces of metal are flying into the air while highly volatile liquid spews flames at innocent passersby. 

I bet you’re wondering what (or who) is in the driver’s seat. Well, it is the elephant in the room. To start you off, check out the 7 realms of endeavor and we’ll talk about it more next week.

But as a sort-of lesson-of-the-week, if you can take anything away from this post, let it be that there is, in all of the complexities of life, something very simple, elegant, and mysterious at the root of what it is to be human, something beautiful that we all have in common. If we can understand it, and its implications, a better person and a better world could be possible.

Double Reality

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.” -Kierkegaard.

Maybe you’ve had those conversations with your friends, a few beers in your belly or just feeling vulnerable and open for whatever reason, and you asked them: “What if life is just a dream?”

It’s laughable isn’t it? It’s so cliché! Life isn’t a dream, silly! We can reach out and touch it. It’s our wooden or brick houses, our metal cars, the chairs we sit on, the food we eat, the air we breathe. It’s the other people we know, the dust and dirt, waking up in the morning--every morning. It’s work and family, studies, bills, obligations, TV shows, and our parents and friends. It’s repetition and consistency. We have children, they grow up, we get old, we die and then they do the same. It’s verifiable, solid, and everyone we know sees and hears and feels and tastes and smells it too.

I’m not writing this to try to say that this isn’t the case. Sorry to disappoint. But I do want to make a distinction. I want to propose that there are two realities. They often seem like one, and understandably so.

One reality would exist if there were no humans. The Earth would still be a spinning rock in space, orbiting a bright yellow star, ever an unquestioning slave to the forces of gravity and entropy. The trees would still grow, and when they grew too big and the wind blew, they would buckle under their own weight, crashing to the ground with groans and crackles while their branches snapped and tore at neighboring trees until nearby forest creatures startled at the sound of a dull thud as they met the ground. The sky would still suck water out of the oceans and dump it on the land where rivers would flow through sprawling grassland and past content, lazy herds of four-legged herbivores, ever watchful of the predators on the fringes of their view.

The other reality is our own deliberate creation and positive choice. The cars and houses I mentioned before, the chairs, the bills, the children, the music we listen to, religions, ideas, political systems, successes and failures, parties and festivals, friendships and families, books, schools, artistic masterpieces, love and hate are all manifestations of this reality. It is as small as a tiny child picking up a toy and examining it and as large as two great nations going to war.

These two realities merge and interact and play off of each other. The buildings we build and the cars we drive and even us--the human race--occupy physical space and become a part of the landscape. Even the chemical composition of the atmosphere is, in part, a result of this reality. But where did all of this come from?

It all came from the synthesis of thought, choice, and action. The child picking up a toy, driven by curiosity, altered her reality, physically moving something as well as making a new entry in her brain, an entry that may influence her future reality. The two warring nations, driven by complex social and psychological phenomena, decide their future would benefit from the destruction of the other. Political forces, another manifestation of psychosocial reality; emotion, technology, ideologies like nationalism and ethnocentrism--all manifestations of psychosocial reality--merge to create a situation where people’s lives end or are drastically altered and the entire history of the world is changed.

This reality is within our control and it is no less real or significant than the physical, empirical reality that would exist without a human presence.

Of course, it still isn’t a dream. We don’t get to bend space or time or force others to adopt our vision. We are not entirely free. But we are still so incredibly free. All that the human race has ever achieved, as individuals and as a whole, all of the triumphs and tragedies, the beauty and horror was people actively and willfully creating this reality--psychosocial reality.

Everyone realizes this on some level. It has been acknowledged in some form by the world’s great thinkers and artists and is a theme through all of human philosophy and religion. (For a great illustration of this, click the “theme” link and check out the dropdown menu “See the Variety of Names.”)

However, studies and understanding of psychosocial reality still go relatively unacknowledged as potentially useful and relevant, except in some abstract, maybe spiritual sense. The purpose of THEE is to make an understanding of psychosocial reality useful and valuable to us.

What does all of this freedom to choose mean to us, to you? What could a greater understanding of psychosocial reality mean in the “real” world? Let’s explore it together. I don’t want to start with conclusions but it can mean a new life or a better employment situation or a more enlightened society.