The Shocking Truth About Yourself

As recorded by J.D. Bentley August 5th, 2014

You were born into the most prosperous, exciting and opportune time in the history of the world.

Technological innovations allow you to browse, share, save, and distill petabytes of information; to take courses from world-class teachers and institutions without getting out of bed; to travel cheaply and quickly almost anywhere in the world. You can see more, taste more, learn more, do more than previous generations thought possible.

But you don’t. Not usually. Instead, you live this life—if it can be called living—as a mass of anxiety and confusion. What is your purpose? What is your calling? Who are you? You know there are eight planets in our solar system that orbit around a sun, which is itself a star, which is a massive ball of plasma that emits light and heat, of which there are billions and billions in the universe, and that the universe started with the Big Bang an incredibly long time ago. You know all of this and much more, but you do not know yourself.

You only sense some amount of brokenness, some internal lack, something that ought to be fixed about you. Your intentions become entangled with your actions and your pride so that you can no longer interpret what you mean to do, what you ought to do, and what you actually do as anything but a mess of hypocrisy and failure. Amusingly enough, those around you, experiencing you as objectively as you yourself experience the cosmos, have a much firmer grasp on who you are than you do.

You want to fix this. You want to know your purpose and to follow it through with the utmost determination. How do you figure yourself out? This world you live in has tried to commodify everything, even that which can’t be commodified, like purpose. It wants you to think the answer can be sought (or, more probably, bought) from a relevant expert: a psychologist, a guru, a doctor, a motivational speaker, a megachurch pastor, a fitness trainer. You turn to so-called self-help books and programs wherein an equally broken (though wealthier) human being reveals how to unbreak yourself in some small way.

This is the root of your problem: that you are depending on so-called experts of questionable expertise to solve problems for which a solution cannot be bought.

Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (a self-help parody and the only self-help book worth buying) puts it this way:

With the multiplication of technologies and the ascendance of experts and expertise in all fields, the self has consented to the expropriation of every sector of life by its appropriate expert—even the expropriation of its, the self’s, own life. “I’m depressed, Doctor. What’s wrong with me? If you are not an expert in the field, a doctor of depression, can you refer me to one?”

Thus, the rightful legatee of the greatest of fortunes, the cultural heritage of the entire Western World, its art, science, technology, literature, philosophy, religion, becomes a second-class consumer of these wares and as such disenfranchises itself and sits in the ashes like Cinderella yielding up ownership of its own dwelling to the true princes of the age, the experts. They know about science, they know about medicine, they know about government, they know about my needs, they know about everything in the Cosmos, even me. They know why I am fat and they know secrets of my soul which not even I know.

There is an expert for everything that ails me, a doctor of my depression, a seer of my sadness.

Here’s the shocking truth about yourself: you have forfeited the work of virtue, the work that fortifies your soul and solidifies your vocation, for slick marketing and easy (but useless) answers.

Your brokenness will not be addressed and resolved in a 12-step program revealed by a blogger in a $10 ebook, but by avoiding the greatest evil and practicing the greatest good. And none of it is new or novel. It’s the same path written about and followed for millennia. It is tested and freely available, but difficult.

The greatest evil is this: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. Avoid those and you’ll arrive at their polar opposites, which are the greatest good: humility, charity, chastity, kindness, temperance, patience, and diligence.

If you lack purpose, if your life is a mess, then you are surely practicing, in some measure, the evils and failing to practice the good. There’s no easy fix for that. There’s no expert for that. There are no “12-steps” or “30-days” that can turn that around for you. It’s a choice made daily and fought for by the minute. It’s exhausting.

But it’s the only thing that works. Anything else is snake oil.

Wheresoever Warfare’s Waged

As recorded by J.D. Bentley July 16th, 2014

It is too easy to mistake life’s trajectory as a single upward-sweeping motion, one that has each man climbing from the penultimate plateau to the crest of the mountain. Once there, once he achieves all he has set out to achieve, his difficulties smooth out into nothingness, he succumbs to a well-deserved stasis, and he lives out his final days.

But that is neither the reality of life nor a worthwhile goal. A man who works long enough, hard enough, who suffers and struggles, who climbs resolutely, will finally pull his exhausted frame to the top and find not the peak it appeared to be, but the foot of a much larger mountain.

Once the initial obstacles are overcome, he is not rewarded with the once-and-for-all eradication of pain and strife. He is rewarded with the mind, body, and spirit those obstacles have given him, and he is gifted with a greater set of obstacles—a steeper climb, a taller mountain—that will further refine his being. Once a man overcomes a set of obstacles, he has proven to himself, to God, to the universe, that he is capable of handling more. So more is given.

Idleness and comfort are evils. We are transformed and we excel in the struggle. Struggle is good. Warfare in this fallen world is the natural state, and wheresoever it is waged, we are winning, whether or not it appears so.

For though warfare makes clear our weakness, our fatigue, our incapability, and our disordered and errant ways, it does so that we may know exactly where and how to direct our efforts and our armies. And though we never seem to overcome the enemy, that we put ourselves in the battle daily is evidence enough that we have not lost.

Were there no struggle, were there no fight, were we not made ever aware of our shortcomings, then surely the enemy would have overtaken us without our knowing and discarded us as uninteresting and useless pawns.

Only in the fight do we live. And it is only in our struggle we encounter all the ghosts of a greater man clawing his way to the surface.

Supposed To & Should

As recorded by J.D. Bentley June 11th, 2014

By seven that evening I found myself traveling inch-by-inch alongside a thousand Brazilians, all of us constricted into a narrow, suffocating stream by booths hawking batata rosti, churrasco, bolos e tortas, and any other food you could want.

There was a stage at the far end of the square, sometimes with live music, but mostly not. Mostly recordings of the tackiest forro or funk or samba, not that you could tell. At a distance, the sound system was only capable of relaying a persistent booming bass line. Up close, you might catch glimpses of melody and words if you weren’t too distracted by the rhythm rattling your ribcage, heart and all.

There was no room for anything in the middle of the square, and very little room on its outskirts. The people were loud and hurried and rude and “having fun” in whatever sense people who enjoy parties say they are having fun. That is to say, it was the epitome of an event I would, on most days, choose not to attend, an amalgam of conversations that could not be heard and annoyances that could not be avoided.

But I remained composed and unbothered.

I attended that same party at that same square the year previous and it nearly destroyed me. The kids throwing firecrackers at my feet, the cacophony of spontaneous horns, bells, and whistles erupting from all directions, always a short distance from my unsuspecting ear. The pushing, shoving, bumping, nudging through a mass of obnoxiousness under a cloud of absolute boredom. “These people,” I would think, “are the least considerate, are the most terrible, are the least likable, are the outright dumbest people who have ever existed.” As the night wore on, blame transformed into hatred transformed into victimhood. These people who ought not have even registered to me became my oppressors, were at fault for every slight discomfort and irritation I experienced, were the determiners of my circumstances and thus, in some ways, my owners.

But not this year.

One cannot read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and not be transformed by his thoughts, and I am no exception. Last year, in the midst of that strange crowd, I set myself up for battle. The good versus the evil. The righteous versus the wrongdoer. Me versus them. The crowd transgressed against common courtesy and good manners and they needed to be corrected. And rather than make the best of the night, I cultivated anger and I became miserable.

And that is all the difference. The same circumstance, the same place, the same time, but now I was changed because I did not view these disagreeable people as enemies, but as people who were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. That’s not to say that what they did was right or good or defensible, only that whatever they were doing was exactly what they were supposed to be doing at that time. It was all I could expect them to do. They owed me nothing and paid me no mind and they went on behaving as their nature—the one to which they were predisposed and also the one they cultivated—demanded.

Those outside of myself act as they are supposed to and there’s not much I can do about it. Instead, the only variable in this equation is me. The only thing I can manipulate absolutely and predictably is myself. The others are behaving as they are supposed to, but given what power I have over myself, I can’t ask merely if I’m behaving as I’m supposed to, but if I’m behaving as I should. My thoughts inform my actions and the actions reveal the man. So first, I must control my thoughts that I can control my actions that I can become the man I aspire to become.

At any given moment I can ask myself, “Am I doing as I should (in order to become this better man)? Am I doing what He would do?” The answer is often no, which leads to an immediate correction, even if only a slight correction.

When the focus is on doing one’s duty, doing what one knows to be true and good and worthwhile, then the circumstances are inconsequential.

I left the party that night without an ounce of resentment or anger or regret. I was not annoyed in the slightest because when I felt such a thing coming on, I would ask myself, “For what reason?” If people were acting obnoxiously or inappropriately, but acting within the confines of their nature, a nature which I had no sway over, then what was it to me?

A man only loses when he throws himself to his passions, when he forfeits discipline and self-control and submits to emotionalism and that childish selfishness that demands others do exactly as he would like them to do.