In Defense of Cynicism

A follow up to yesterday’s post, In Defense of LARPing.

Cynicism didn’t always have the connotation it does today. It was a school of philosophy concerned with accepting unchangeable elements of reality and rejecting attitudes and behaviors seen as superfluous, overly sentimental, or driven by passion instead of reason. It was similar to Stoicism.

In the best of times, cynicism may seem a bit silly, callous, or like a wet blanket. But in the worst of times, cynicism is the strongest foundation for hope and optimism.

In yesterday’s post, I shared this story:

In The Silver Chair, a book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, the characters are trapped underground by an evil queen. Her magic begins to work on them and she has nearly convinced them that the world above ground doesn’t exist. The more they try to describe it to her, the more she mocks and convinces them it’s a LARP. They are imagining some glorious world because they’re too childish to accept the one they inhabit. At the last moment, the most humble creature among them steps forward and tells the queen he doesn’t care if it IS all make-believe. If a few children can make-believe a world so much better than this, it must be a pretty cheap world and he’d rather keep believing in the delusion. At that, the spell was broken.”

What I did not mention is that the character who breaks the spell by choosing to LARP was a cynic. And it’s no accident he was the only one able to break it.

Earlier in the story, that character was constantly assuming and accepting the worst. He’d say things like, “We’ll probably fail or die along the way anyway, so we might as well go this way”, or, “Doesn’t much matter because I’m sure we’ll get rained on no matter what.”

On the surface, he was a downer. Especially when the weather was fine and no major challenges lay in their path. But when things got the darkest, he was the least shaken.

He had already made his peace with the worst possible outcomes. Every day, he began by considering the evil that might befall them, assuming it would, accepting it, and then proceeding on.

Because of this, when he evil queen had them under her spell, he was the only one who couldn’t be manipulated into giving up.

She tried to make them feel like fools for believing in an outside world they had no proof for. He already accepted the fact that he was a fool.

She tried to make them fear her wrath if they didn’t comply. He already accepted that she’d probably kill him.

Evil had nothing on him, no threat that could stick, because he had already considered and accepted the worst. He was able to choose to believe in the idealistic hope of a wonderful world precisely because he accepted the possibility of an evil one. What could she do to him that he hadn’t already mentally done to himself? Why not choose to rebel against her if his life was forfeit anyway?

It is honorable to hold on to hope – a form of what I called LARPing yesterday. But the strongest kind of hope is built on a foundation of fearless acceptance of what may befall you.

In dark times, watch the cynics provide hope.

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In Defense of LARPing

The followup post, In Defense of Cynicism, is here.

Recently, I keep seeing advocates for human liberty calling others who want the same thing LARPers for owning guns, trying to be “ungovernable”, and other forms of embodying their ideas.

The intent, I think, is to avoid naïveté, and to slap them with the cynical reality that their guns and rebellious T-shirts won’t stop a government that has already imprisoned the entire populace in their own homes, banned gatherings, etc. It’s too late for pretend acts of resistance, the state is too strong, so the desire to buy more guns or be more rebellious is worthy only of mockery. These LARPers would crumble at the first real battle.

It may be true, but it misses something.

LARPing is imagining yourself in an epic story, as a powerful hero. To get in that frame of mind, LARPers adopt the garb, language, and mannerisms of the heroes they pretend to be. It’s a form of elevating and inspiring oneself. Sometimes cheesy and silly, sometimes delusional or even pathetic.

But sometimes it works.

Sometimes LARPing is a fake-it-till-you-make-it that elevates the person doing it. Sometimes the bonds formed around the LARP and the heroes being emulated work their way into the LARPers and make them better people. Sometimes they even make the world better.

Passionately living and speaking the ideals of liberty, even if in unrealistic, make-believe ways, is not a bad thing. Maybe it’s naïve. Maybe people will find that out the hard way. But idealism sometimes to the point of delusion is the foundation for all breakthroughs, epic stories, innovations, and expanded freedoms, individually and culturally.

In The Silver Chair, a book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, the characters are trapped underground by an evil queen. Her magic begins to work on them and she has nearly convinced them that the world above ground doesn’t exist. The more they try to describe it to her, the more she mocks and convinces them it’s a LARP. They are imagining some glorious world because they’re too childish to accept the one they inhabit. At the last moment, the most humble creature among them steps forward and tells the queen he doesn’t care if it IS all make-believe. If a few children can make-believe a world so much better than this, it must be a pretty cheap world and he’d rather keep believing in the delusion. At that, the spell was broken.

Living the adventure – the LARP – needn’t be mocked or dismissed. It may be naïve. It may do nothing. But it also may be the path to freedom. It certainly puts the mind in a better place than the cynical response to it.

“We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.” — F.A. Hayek

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Peace and Silence; War and Words

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.” — Psalm 120:7

I relate to the verse above less than I wish I did.

In reality, I often find myself being for peace, but when they speak, I am for war.

It is easy to be for peace when things are peaceful. But being for peace when you see people threatening, deceiving, and maligning is another matter. War rises up in the chest. The fiery, reactive energy of Mars quickens the pulse and short-circuits the deliberative mind.

Words reverberate an energy, and not always what the speaker intends. The Psalmist was attempting to speak peace, but his words caused a warlike reaction in the listeners.

I have practiced at speaking peace while everyone is for war. I have tried to resist being for war when I hear provocative speech. Sometimes it works, but not often.

Instead, the most peaceful words I’ve found are no words at all.

Times when I just walk away from the words that would make for war, I am able to regain a feeling of peace. Times when I speak back, no matter how hard I try to do so in peace, I feel conflict rise inside me, and follow me throughout the day.

Peace and silence have a tight relationship, just as war and words do.

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It’s Weird to Not Want Anarchy

Anarchy is simply the absence of rulers. It is not chaos, or bomb throwing, or communism.

The absence or rulers does not mean the absence of leaders or the absence of governance. It means the absence of a political ruler – a person or institution that claims the moral right to initiate violence.

Violence sucks. Nobody wants to resort to it. But there are times when everyone agrees it’s morally acceptable to use violence. These times are all in self-defense against someone who has initiated violence. Initiating violence against peaceful people is wrong.

Yet that is all that government is. I repeat, that is all that it is. The single distinguishing feature that makes government different than any other organization is that it claims the moral right to initiate violence. It can enslave or murder anyone it damn well pleases. You will pay its leaders money and obey their rules or they will kill you. Period. There is literally nothing else that defines government as apart from other institutions.

So to want government, or to not oppose government, is to want or not oppose the initiation of violence against peaceful people.

Everyone feels comfortable saying they want a world where nobody dies from cancer. Many people donate to and work towards that world. Nobody wants a world with murder, rape, famine, poverty, or infant death. Everyone openly says as much, and works towards that world.

No one says, “I want some rape in the world”, or, “I want a world where some children get murdered sometimes.” That would be weird.

It’s also weird to not want anarchy.

It’s weird to not desire a world where no one initiates violence against peaceful people. It’s weird to not want a world where interactions are voluntary, and violence is only used in self-defense.

Whether or not it’s achievable, you’d think, just like and end to cancer or poverty, people would at least want to achieve it. Oddly, anarchy is likely far more achievable than most of those other things, as their have been anarchic societies lasting hundreds of years and to my knowledge, no society has been without sickness, premature death, murder, poverty, etc.

Yet hardly anyone wants anarchy.

It’s due in part to confusion around definitions and meaning. Those who wield government power rely heavily upon people not realizing the stark reality of what government is – violence. So they create schools and propaganda and egghead ivory tower discussions and metaphors that abstract away from what government is. Words like anarchy are made synonymous with chaos, and words like law synonymous with order. Classic doublespeak.

So if asked whether they’d prefer a world where violence was only used defensively, versus one where one group of people got to use violence any time they wanted to force anyone they chose to do whatever they wanted, most people would probably say they’d prefer the former. Word magic prevents them from seeing that they just said they prefer anarchy, and most would never agree to it. They’d defend government without realizing the contradiction.

But it’s not only conceptual and linguistic confusion.

I suspect many people are unwilling to say they want a world without the initiation of violence because they want to reserve the right to have violence initiated on their behalf.

Nobody wants to admit it in those words. But most people get tired of peaceful persuasion, conflict resolution, tolerance, competition, and individual freedom. They say they want peace, but damnit if they get sick of hearing people speak a language they don’t, they’ll advocate sending men with guns to murder those people if they keep peacefully offering to rent from or work for their neighbors.

People want to protect that little corner of darkness in their hearts. The one that wants to go get the bully with the big stick to beat the shit out of people who won’t give money to their favorite cause, or live as they see fit.

That’s weird and gross.

We can only control ourselves. We must purge the darkness from our own hearts. The darkness that would use the tools of the state to aid in our personal aims. Those tools are always inferior to peace. Their practical results are always worse, and their spiritual corrosion inescapable.

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A Good Story Can’t Avoid Truth

My wife and I are rewatching the Matrix trilogy in preparation for the new movie.

The weird thing about it is that the story is so compelling despite constant efforts by the creators to make it suck.

They tap into the structures and patterns that make for a great, epic, heroic story. They’ve got that thing that a story needs to be great. But it feels like every time those elements become undeniable – when they story implies hierarchy, objective truth, clear morality – the writers freak out and try to undermine it.

It succeeds for a brief period. They subvert the very patterns that make the story so compelling in effort to run from the implications. Yet they seem still to want to tell a compelling story, and even after a reset, the story starts to show the same patterns again. So they try to subvert it again. Yet in trying to tell a good story it comes back. Over and over.

The trilogy would be better if they weren’t trying to run from what makes it great. But a good story emerges, with its structure, in spite of the efforts to avoid them.

I don’t think it’s possible to tell a good story without also conveying fundamental truths about reality.

Truths like the fact that people are not equal in talent, skill, ability, or potential (for good or evil). Truths like the fact that there is good and there is evil, and everything is not just a matter of perspective. Truths like the fact that there is purpose, that the individual is more important than the collective, that something outside of the individual is greater still. Truths like the fact that there are worse things than death. Sacrifice is real and necessary for goodness to succeed. Each individual is responsible for his or her choices. Small choices create big outcomes. Etc.

Some writers try to keep these things out of their stories. To the extent they succeed, they write bad stories. To the extent they write good stories, these elements keep emerging.

The very concept of a story is inexorably intertwined with these structures and patterns.

(I just remembered I wrote about the concept of Truth in art years ago in more depth.)

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Humor is a Sign of Life and Light

The more jokes are told in a culture, the healthier it is.

And the more things allowed to be joked about.

Individual jokes are not always good, or in good taste, or kind. They can be nasty and dark and uncalled for.

But the propensity to joke and allow jokes – the boundaries around what is laugh-at-able and how able a culture is to laugh – directly correlate with good things.

I’ve been heavily bummed out by what seems a decline in humor. Most of the bastions of at least reasonably funny stuff are utterly unfunny these days. There are beacons of light (often coming from the people who a mere decade ago were the least funny of all), but it seems culture is dominated by the weird, the ugly, the dark, the self-serious, the self-righteous, and the grave.

When I begin to get grumpy about this, I realize that being grumpy is the opposite of being funny. To combat the lack of laughs, I should start laughing or making others laugh, rather than complaining.

A good friend with a very dry wit used to say that being unfunny was the greatest crime. Theft, murder; these are forgivable. But an unfunny person?

On an individual level, the statement works as a joke. But on a culture-wide level, maybe it’s not just a joke. An unfunny culture may be the worse culture of all. When humor is not appreciated or tolerated, it’s a sign that the most dangerous things have taken hold.

On the flipside, laughter killed the devil.

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Limits and Limitations

Limits inspire you to break them. Limitations are the point beyond which you cannot go.

Limits are imposed externally and artificially shrink your freedom and identity. Limitations are inherent and internal and represent the boundaries of your being.

Constantly striving to overcome and reduce limits is a noble thing. Wishing away limitations leads to death.

Limits can be used as a tool, played with as a game, negotiated, or ignored. Limitations are a form of protection built into reality and can only be worked with.

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At a Loss for Words

This morning, I read a deeply fascinating article about the limpness of words.

It hit home on several levels, one of which is my personal daily writing. In the last few years, I have struggled to know what to say.

I don’t mean I can’t come up with anything to write. I always find a way to do that as part of my daily habit. It’s that it increasingly feels like what I’m saying it just lines on a page, and not doing the work writing is meant to do of transferring ideas from one mind to another.

The article discusses several reasons I am inclined to agree with. The sudden insanity (and I would add evil) of the world we now live in. The shifting media of communication like Twitter, forcing people to invent a rather silly phrase – “long-form” – to specify what was only a few years ago just called writing.

There was no mention of podcasts or things like Clubhouse “hangout” style modes of communication. Nor did the article mention even lower-level, weirder forms like subliminal stuff, musical stuff, symbols, brainwashing, and magic spells. I think these are very real (though not always intentional) and more prevalent than anyone realizes.

I struggle every day to keep on writing the easy way – the way I’m accustomed to – when it feels less meaty than it once did. But I don’t yet have any notion of how else to write.

It’s partly the medium, but it’s the message too.

What the hell can you say without becoming a doom monger?

Why add more words when the vast majority of word factories today are spitting out lies, contradictions, and propaganda?

The big question is how to write hope and light, when it feels the medium itself of “long-form” writing has been overwhelmed or hijacked by deception or steaming garbage to the point where people are exhausted by the thought.

It’s hard to wrest away the time to develop and share less urgent thoughts, and doesn’t seem very worth it.

But words are the most human of human inventions, which means they are a needed part of any kind of rebirth.

The hope and excitement in the insight that words have gone limp is that new forms of building with them will emerge. They will probably arrive in the nick of time to save us from death by word weakening.

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Live Long Enough to Die

When all else fails
And no more veils
Behind which to reveal

The thing that ails
And drags and trails
No secret left to heal

When bottom nears
And past all fears
You’ve dropped down into dark

Then something clears
And gently steers
You into the last mark

One final shot
Delay now not
The very last to try

What left you’ve got
Leave not to rot
Live long enough to die

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When Definitions Change, Take Heed

I used to wonder why George Orwell was so obsessed with language.

I would discuss this with a good friend who shared the concern for preserving the meaning of words. Definitions change, meanings change, and new words emerge to take the place of the old. So what?

I think I get it now.

It’s not that definitions shouldn’t change, or that we should pass laws to try to force people to keep a language pure. It’s more about how they change.

There’s an organic process of linguistic evolution taking place all the time. Then there are sudden changes pushed in concert by people with agendas. That is not inherently bad, but it is something to pay close attention to.

To work, it must either be organic, or be pushed by a large and influential chunk of the literati. The former provides interesting insight about cultural norms and beliefs, the latter about powerful interests.

When powerful interests suddenly and successfully redefine common words without any change in the facts that would warrant it, rest assured it is not a coincidence or for convenience. It is to change your mind. It is to gain control over the bounds of acceptable thought, not just speech. Orwell understood this.

In the last year, a number of common definitions changed overnight. You can see before and after shots in popular dictionaries. Things like “Immunity”, “Vaccination”, “Case”, and “Infected” have been redefined, sometimes in ways logically contradictory to the previous definition.

No mention has been made of new studies or information that revealed the old definition to be wrong or the new right. They were changed not with intention to better reflect the facts, but with intention to disallow certain thoughts perceived by those making the changes to be a threat to their political agenda.

Such changes are a warning flare. It means people are being corralled and controlled far beyond what they realize. Shifting the bounds of allowable thought is the necessary groundwork for turning people into serfs or slaves.

Pay attention.

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In Defense of Blind Superstition and Ritual

The point of a ritual is to get the benefit of a certain understanding without needing to understand it.

If wisdom is embodied in a set of practices that improve your life, you can reap those improvements without needing to rediscover the causal relationships that make it work.

This feels like something bad. Like blind superstition. It can be. But it can also be very efficient.

If you were brought up in a tradition of daily exercise and never learned the specific mechanisms that make exercise bring about a better mental and physical state, you’d still enjoy that better state.

The reverse is not true. If you understand everything about what happens in the body when exercise occurs and how it alters chemical reactions, etc. but never actually practice it, you get none of the benefits.

I grew up in the Protestant church and always found Catholics odd. They did a bunch of rituals like praying the Rosary, attending mass, or going to confession, but they never seemed to know any theology. They had no theories of why these things were supposed to help their lives, and they didn’t seem too curious.

Protestants in my circles never wanted to do anything they couldn’t explain with a theology that seemed consistent to them. This resulted in a better understanding of their religious texts and traditions, but a lot less religious practice.

Rituals are an efficient way to embody ideas whether or not you understand them. Again, this can cut in both directions. Many people ritualistically get college degrees with no theories as to what it will do to help their life, and more often than not it’s a huge waste. Blind superstition can be bad. But it is not inherently so. It depends on the superstition.

I sometimes try to get the best of both worlds by not doing anything high stakes without understanding the causal mechanisms at play. But once understood, I try to turn it into a ritual and don’t keep re-asking why and how it works. If it does, keep doing it. I’ve forgotten the specific reasons I was convinced to do certain things more times than I can count. They’re efficiently ritualized now.

In fact, this is how C.S. Lewis defined faith. Continuing to do or believe something you have been convinced is right even in the moment when you’ve forgotten the specific reasons you were convinced, or lost the feeling of conviction. It’s faith in the resolve of your former self’s reasoning ability.

The danger with rituals without understanding is that they might end up harming you when you think they’re helping. The danger of understanding without ritual is that you get no benefit, no transformation, no leveling up.

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Labor is a Verb

Labor is hard. It’s also good.

It’s not only good because it is capable of producing good things, or things that can be traded for good things. It’s also good because as you work, work works on you. It changes your attitude, your body, your mind, and your ability.

When you labor, you push yourself to do more than what you feel like doing. You conquer your nature with your will. Every act of will over nature is a kind of worship; it’s a ritual that brings you into the fullness of the elevated creature you are.

Laboring changes you. You gain strength every time you expend it.

Labor is a verb. It is not a person or group of persons. It is not a category of worker or a type of work. All work is labor. All humans do it. Each individual is responsible for his own labor as he is responsible for his own life. To live autonomously is to labor.

Labor is the mechanism by which we reclaim and redeem the world and transform the wilds into the garden. It’s also the mechanism by which we continue the act of creation and propagate our own species.

When you hear that someone is a laborer and another person is a creator, you tend to think of two very different types of people. But childbirth is a useful reminder that labor is the process by which a new creation enters the world. There is no creation without labor, and there is no labor that is not creative.

Celebrate the act of labor today. By laboring, or feasting in honor of the act of laboring.

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Maintaining the Edges

I keep parts of my property unmown. The tall grasses and flowers are lovely, and it saves me work.

But I always mow a double lane around the entire perimeter and any obstacles or objects like trees or gullies. The edges of the property need to be maintained, or else the property will begin to shrink.

Every few weeks, the mowing around the edges gets tough and the mower struggles to get through it. The thick unmown encroaches on the lower, kempt grass. I’ve got to push back the boundaries regularly. There is no state of neutral. The boundaries are either being actively pushed back, or they are actively encroaching in.

I’ve often thought of this when I publish a blog post or a Tweet or make a career move.

Once you carve out a space in the world, the edges of that space will begin to close in if you don’t actively beat them back.

You’ll get defined, labelled, and categorized. Maybe all well and good – and even quite useful if they are accurate. But they don’t stay put. The categorizations, the public perception of your brand and identity is like the perimeter of my lawn. There’s no stasis. It moves in on you if you leave it unattended.

You must constantly redefine the edges of your identity. You’ve got to bushwhack it when it starts to close you in and reduce your scope of movement. Sometimes that’s unpleasant work. Sometimes it irritates people who were creeping up your lawn assuming parts of it were theirs.

So be it. Keep those edges trim. The wilderness is beautiful to look at and even wander through. But your property has to be maintained or be overrun.

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