This week I’ve felt extremely calm. It’s the first time since I can remember that I’ve felt peace of mind for six days straight without self-medicating. I’d like to say I lasted a week, but since first drafting this post and publishing, I crashed enormously hard after two weeks without marijuana. I managed not to give in, but peace of mind is the last thing I would use to describe the seventh day. Still, six days of peace was enough to allow me to get out of my own head and begin to think about others.
It got me thinking though, with so many problems in the world, which one is actually worth tending to? It’s a big question. After all, the problems we choose to solve say an enormous amount about who we are and how we see ourselves.
When money moved me I thought about business. When self-development moved me I thought about identity. Now, compassion moves me and I’ve been thinking a lot about the big issues – wealth inequality, poverty, overpopulation, climate change, animal cruelty, human rights and the like.
Now, I’m stumped. I want to fight for something but I have no idea what. I remember I raised a similar idea with a Portuguese filmmaker six months ago. He and I had clicked almost immediately. I had hired him as a cinematographer for a shoot. The two of us had flown up to Queensland and bonded quickly. On the second night, after a successful shoot and a couple of bottles of wine we were talking deeply on topics like psychedelics, spirituality, and philanthropy. I commented, that I had been thinking a lot about fighting for a big issue. His response was, what makes you think this is your responsibility?
Some would say he was callous but I understood what he meant. There was ego in the way I was going about it. I posed the question from an ivory tower. I believed I had it better so it was my place to help. His question was makes you think you have it better? Again, many would say, of course you have it better, but that’s not necessarily the case. There is an ignorance to believing what I have is what everyone else needs.
In a lot of ways, I’ve been in this place for a while. I’ve looked upon charity as a way of relieving my own empty feelings. As opposed to in a way of truly helping. The difference was guilt. When we attempt to help from a place of guilt all we do is perpetuate stereotypes and hardline the differences in people. What he was stirring was the angle of my thinking. I wouldn’t need to question if I had true compassion. I would simply help without the fuss. That’s what he was getting at, whether he knew it or not. Ego.
I get that now. Sure, I’m still clinging to my ivory tower but I believe I’m climbing down slowly. The problem is when I dig into any issue far enough all I see is hypocrisy and contradiction.
Take for instance the idea of suffering. I searched thesaurus.com for the antonym of the term sadist (a person who enjoys being cruel). My goal was to find a fitting term to describe someone who relieves suffering. Something better than altruist. Three terms showed up. Angel, humanitarian and gentleman. This annoyed the hell out of me. How self-indulgent we humans are. So, unless you happen to be a fictitious divine creature, you have to be human to feel an inclination to relieve suffering?
What about ants and bees who sacrifice their lives for their queen? Or the sperm whale who adopted a deformed bottlenose dolphin calf? Or dogs who orphan cats? Or elephants who pull together as a tribe to raise the tiniest members of the herd? Our nerve.
So, I thought, okay this is one of those semantic problems where we get bogged down in words rather than meanings. So, I decided to look up the synonym of sadist instead. A dozen terms popped up. Three of them were, animal, wild animal and beast. I felt utterly disappointed. The arrogance of us humans. Animal. That’s what we call the most perverted, sick members of our race right? Animals. Beasts. Us humans who actively destroy the world slap our name on definitions of “relieving suffering”, whilst defining those creatures who carry no malice towards others, “cruel sadists”.
I get it. Semantics. These are just words. Still, what else do we have to go by? It all seems so ridiculously ironic. How am I supposed to work out what to fight for when we operate in a sinking marsh of lies?
Take for instance those humans who we consider to be suffering the most. Say, the starving people in Africa. If we pull them out of poverty isn’t the world likely to degrade faster because more people will need more resources? Sure, I get it. We need to develop more efficient processes. Only, if we can’t adopt processes like renewable energy now, how do we expect to do it with ten times the consumerism?
It seems to me in a “planetary-conservationist” sense we are more than likely to increase the suffering on the natural planet by reducing the suffering in humans. Does that mean we should still strive to end the suffering of mankind? This is black and white for most. Of course we should still relieve mankind’s suffering. But to agree to this is to say we value human life above all other creatures. That’s a no-brainer for most, but not for me.
These type of conundrums have always made me feel enormously scummy to be human. This is why I’ve spent so much time trying to save myself. My thinking is that if I’m a human being. A scummy, selfish creature. I should take great steps to mitigate the damage I do to the world and others by considering the choices I make in great depth. Not just choices like whether to put an item in the recycling or the trash, but the tiniest moments. Like to reciprocate a dog’s love when you enter a house. For us it’s 10 seconds of time. For them I’m sure is a sensation of belonging that lasts well over 24 hours. I believe only through each individual taking steps to become the best possible version of themselves can we create a world kindness and beauty.
Only, for me at least, when I dig into what it takes to be the best version of myself it becomes clear that the key is devotion to the service of others. I arrived at this idea in the last fortnight. But this raises a bigger question. Who are the others? The planet? The animals? Other humans?
Like I said, I’m stumped. So I decided to put the question to three very dear friends of mine. I knew that each had a very different view on what they considered to be the primary “big issue” of today. One is devoted to saving the planet, another to relieving the suffering of others, and the third to exploring their best self. For simplicity sake let’s call them the conservationist, the humanitarian, and the existentialist.
I asked each of them five questions about what the big issue was, why, who they believed was most responsible for solving it, what was in it for them, and how they would view the issue if they considered the self to be nothing more than an illusion (ie. what we see and feel is a product of our mind).
My hope was that one of them could convince me of their fight so I could find a greater purpose, and perhaps even a cause to support. What I learned was unprecedented.
When I asked the conservationist what problem they believe we should focus on solving most, they said global warming, explaining man’s greed was the root cause destroying the world. Their belief was that educated technicians like engineers, scientists and businessmen were the most equipped to solve the problem. In their eyes if these innovative minds could develop less destructive technologies we could save ourselves. When I asked what drove them to care, they explained that they wanted pristine forests and coastlines, fresh food and healthy communities.
When I asked where they stood on this issue if the self was an illusion, they shared that we monkeys have many many problems, but self-illusion isn’t one. My takeaway was that their picture-perfect world was one without man. Remove man it seemed and the problem was solved. I also took away that the biggest problems are the ones we see.
When I asked the humanitarian what they considered to be the biggest problem, they pointed to poverty. Similar to the conservationist they believed man’s greed was to blame, expressing that those most responsible for solving the problem were the wealthiest of the wealthy. If we could all simply learn to share, the problem would be over in a heartbeat. They explained their motivation for solving the problem was to create a more compassionate world with healthier communities, less “us vs them” and less anxiety brought on by the need to “go out and make it”.
If the self was an illusion the issue seemed pointless to them, but so did everything – us, this blog post, the time it takes you to read it, and whatever you do when you’re done. My takeaway was that all people are corruptible and if we could just teach people to feel compassion and strive for belonging, not materialism, then we could eventually phase out the problem. I also took away that meaning to them was something we all shared in common. Something tangible.
When I asked the existentialist which problem they would solve, they said population growth. Their belief was that if we could curb the population of mankind, most other problems like poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity could be mitigated. They believed philosophers had the greatest responsibility for evoking this change. They hoped this solution would provide them with less contempt for their fellow man so they could attain a more meaningful existence.
When asked what it means if the self was an illusion, they explained that this is the greatest and most overlooked question in existence. If man could take the time to consider such a question they would learn that, much like how an artisan requires many tools to produce a perfect sculpture, we too require many tools to navigate our specific problems. These tools are found in the many planes of existence. For instance, levels of consciousness, subconsciousness, and transcendence. In their eyes, by acknowledging the self is an illusion, we can learn to better navigate our consciousness making us better equipped to use the right tool for the right problem. That tool may be intuition, logic, gut, public opinion.
My takeaway was that if we could encourage individuals to spend more time finding themselves, and seriously contemplating what it means to bring a child into this world, then we could reduce the damage overpopulation has on both the earth and ourselves. I also took away that most problems stem from man’s inability to understand himself. If individuals could entertain the idea that the self is an illusion for even one minute a day we would greatly reduce our need for conflict, possessions, status and the like.
Reading through each of their responses I found myself transported to a different place. I had set out to find an argument that could convince me of a cause to fight for. Instead, I had learned a valuable lesson from each of them. Together these lessons stacked up to provide me with an ultimate answer.
The conservationist taught me that we each have a skill we can use to do good. That instead of simply arguing and picketing our ideas we should take a page out of Elon Musk’s book and get to work making the changes we are most equipped to make. That might be as a businessman influencing policy, a filmmaker influencing awareness, a writer influencing understanding.
The humanitarian taught me that wealth is not in the things that can be taken away from us – money, property, investments. It is in the things that we can carry with us forever – knowledge, respect, love. If we can teach people to find and treasure these things, instead of status and materials, then man is much less driven by exorbitant amounts of money and power, and much less susceptible to corruption.
The existentialist taught me that to know yourself is much more than a pursuit of peace of mind. It is a pursuit of decency. The more we think, the more we understand the miraculousness of existence, and the more we learn to respect and value all forms of life. They also taught me that self exploration is not just a search for why, but a way of assembling a tool-belt, which one can use to help repair the bigger problems.
Together they showed me the ultimate answer. It wasn’t a specific cause to fight, but something much more valuable. Together they provided me with an actionable technique for making change. That being to encourage others to think for themselves. Not to tell them what to think, and not to be disappointed when they go another way, but to simply encourage them to ask better and better questions.
At their core I believe people are good. The problem is that too many people believe they are bad, and act accordingly, because they don’t take the time to ask enough questions. They have desires and ill thoughts and compulsions, and society tells them not to discuss them. To bury them. It means most never get a chance to learn that these feelings are not sins. They are natural. And that through discussion these instinctual primitive fears can be moderated.
Now, I see that saving the world isn’t about a specific cause. It is about each individual asking their own questions, so they can find their own place and their own cause. Not the cause their friends follow, or the cause their parents follow. Not the cause their lover follows, or the cause their community follows. Not the cause that gets their children into the right school, or gets them into the right job. Their cause.
Perhaps this cause is saving animals, or other human beings, or the planet, or themselves. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we ask good questions. Not questions about what to have for lunch or where to go on our next holiday. Not questions that have answers. Questions about morality. Questions about the universe and spirituality. Questions about causes, not just symptoms. Questions about why, not just what. Questions that stir other questions… other ideas… other modes of thinking. Because it’s not the answers that lead to mass change, but the questions.
It means, for now at least, I don’t need a cause because I already have one. If this post can stop you in your tracks for even a moment and encourage you to ask a bigger question than what’s on your daily agenda, I’m changing the world. It’s a small change, but perhaps you’ll be the one to make it big.