Us vs. Them, as per Tom Gauld

Simple Messages, Stupid Lives. The Extremization of the World

It’s one of humanity’s more interesting characteristics that many a person will go beyond the known and the ordinary.

Where another animal may go to new places while looking for food or new territory, but will usually stay in its habitat, a human being may decide to “venture out into the unknown” or climb a mountain simply (as George Mallory famously stated) “because it’s there.

Tell a person that something cannot be done, there will be some who feel challenged to prove the statement wrong.

It isn’t the worst of our characteristics, in all the boundary-pushing and exploration and, hopefully, learning it leads to.

The problem, however, is that we are increasingly seeing an extremization of the world, sometimes in feats, most often mainly just in the messages that are being spread (including by and about those feats).

Us vs. Them, as per Tom Gauld

Us vs. Them, as per Tom Gauld, “You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack”

We fear extremism in e.g. the Muslim world, and when it strikes, it makes headlines and breeds fear. But it rarely ever even touches the lives of most of us not living in the hotspots of conflict in the Levant or other places that are affected daily and directly.

Daily extremization – in the way online and increasingly also political discussions go, in the way life advice is being shaped and shifted, in simple practices and messages that are around us all the time – meanwhile, strikes at us constantly.

Take sports, for example.

All that has come to count is, increasingly, the points made, the times achieved, the new records.

Of course, that is the measure of success and the measure by which comparison is easiest.

It is also, however, the measure because of which doping is rampant, longer-term prospects and health concerns of athletes are given short shrift, and technology is both being driven to extremes and being restricted.

Take marketing and product choices, e.g. for food.

It is either outrageous claims designed to appeal to customer’s likes – the natural, the functional, immune-boosting, fat-shedding, energy-giving – or merely the lowest of prices and the highest of quantities – Take 5, Pay 2; Lowest Price Anywhere – that count anymore.

Quality and qualities that are real but not immediately appealing and instantly apparent just don’t stand a chance in comparison. Advertising, in the process, gets ever-more in-your-face.

Aiming to make your life more interesting? Priceless. Living it for the "likes"? Urgh.

Aiming to make your life more interesting? Priceless.
Living it for the  extremes that garner “likes”? Urgh.

And, of course, just look at your social media feed.

Buzzfeed-like headlines, Upworthy-style links; “unbelievable-what-happens-next”-s and “10-strange-things-you-didn’t-know”-s are everywhere, everything just asks for your attention. And the attention is grabbed and not let loose the easiest by – you guessed it – appealing to the basest and arguing with the most extreme.

It would not be such a concern if it were only in social media, marketing, and sports, but everything is increasingly going to extremes.

Your food isn’t really good enough anymore if it isn’t functionally useful and Instagram-worthily beautiful, strictly paleo or strictly vegan or at least sure to be gluten-free.

Your training isn’t worth it if it isn’t an all-out Crossfit effort that leaves you panting; even in yoga, it seems like people increasingly aim to impress and “win.”

Your life certainly doesn’t stand the daily average scrutiny of your social networking circle, let alone the social comparison against the groups we see every day  – in TV series or documentary formats or in magazines and the news.

If you are just average, you are nothing.

If you want to be something, anything, it seems you have to go for the action.
Do something worthy of attention and shout it from the rooftops.

You didn’t just eat breakfast, you have to have had the best breakfast muffin bacon burrito ever!

But hello, special snowflake, the majority is average.

And average isn’t even so bad, it’s most of a life.

Even emperors went to the porcelain throne, and they did so on foot, to boot.

Even the richest of people had and have their heartbreaks, their disappointments, and more than a few average and just plain ordinary experiences. Some, as the saying goes, are so poor they have nothing but money…

Ordinary life, in fact, isn’t just the usual, it is also easily the better.

Sometimes it just takes a simple slow run

Sometimes it just takes a simple slow run

We need a ceasefire. A view not just from peaks but also from valley floors, and far along from the middle flanks of our perspectives.

Quit it with the extremes, the ever-more-exaggerated, the extra-extraordinary.

Take a breath.

Get to calm.

Enjoy just simply being alive, discovering simple foods, enjoying gentle motion, looking at the grass beneath your feet, and watching the people in your street. And not tweeting or instagraming it.

Growth may happen outside the comfort zone, but life is not lived in the extremes.

A better life, and a better world, is not built on money and commerce and the attention economy and the rush of ever-faster, ever-greater, ever-more, breathless panting and pandering and heedless rushes into the known and advertised and promised to be oh-so-great.

It is built on a foundation of calm and common sense, learning and growing and remaining able to appreciate the extra-ordinary.


Free Will and the Non-Self

The force of habit, the readiness to do things signaled by activation potentials in the brain before it has ever entered into our consciousness… neuroscience has been looking at the matter of free will, and it looks as though “how to truly live in this world” is a silly thing to ask. We live here anyways, as the bodies we are, tossed and turned by reaction patterns – but without quite as much conscious control as we believe ourselves to have. Continue reading


The Exploratory Lifestyle – Setting Out to Become at Home

Joseph Rock on Horse, in YunnanThe age of adventure, the era of explorers – it all seems a thing of the past.

Now, the best you can do is action sports and extreme travel – but there’s a big difference: The earlier explorers didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into, and went to the white spots on the maps not just for the heck of it, but also to increase knowledge.
Or at least, that’s what also happened and was the reason given to their supporters…

These times seem far gone. Continue reading


What’s Your Home Philosophy?

It’s quite common to ask travelers about their travel philosophy – Or get travel writers to simply expound it.

Do you need luxury or go frugal; travel lightly and live out of one bag, or have kitchen and sink with you in your steamer trunk, but need a porter to get around? … All well and good (and I think there’s quite a bit to learn from that), but we spend most of our time off the road, in one place. And yet, how often do people ask, What is your home philosophy?

Of course, you can simply be born to a place, never leave it, know your usual ways around, and feel at home there. Creating deep roots with a place is hardly the worst thing.

In this age of consumerism and car-based cultures, it is only too easy to not really be at home where you live, though. Never thinking about it may be easier than having to think and decide yourself, but it may not only be less truly at home, it also is less prepared for the disruptions that increasingly happen, as people need to get uprooted for education or work, are displaced by natural catastrophes, or want to go somewhere else… and yet, search for a place to call home.

Just Visiting, or Really Living?

The fundamental question I see, then, is to know – or explore – what home you can and want to have. – Do you want to be rooted in a place, have it grow to be your home as memories organically create connections with the place and the people? Or do you want to be more of an island unto yourself, making a home wherever in the world you may go?

A simple acceptance of the place you are is quite commendable and admirable; it certainly is very common – but it can all too easily get parochial or reactionary. If you feel comfortable enough, but still don’t know so much about the place, then you may be living there, but you are just like a visitor.

A deeper intimacy with the place you were born and/or live, on the other hand, is one factor that might actually make it a home. At least a part of the feeling of being at home is, after all, simple familiarity.

And if you want to move around? Then, part of the learning to be at home will still be familiarity, the knowledge of where you are. It will get even more important, in fact.

So, either way, you can’t expect to be totally at home if you just want to wait and see. You may feel it, but you aren’t quite. Truly being at home in this world is an activity – the act of living there, not an instant feeling. Of course, feelings matter, not just familiarity.

Home Is Where…

For many of us, I dare say, home is where you put all your stuff. And whether you are hoarding or deciding to live with just 100 Things, it will be a part of where – or more definitely, what and how – your home is.

Clearly, this is one easy way a place, nowadays, grows infused with memories and (seems to grow) to be comfortable. It’s also an issue where we tend to fall out of balance, however. Not so few people pathologically hoard anything and everything, and even the majority (the present writer included) have lots of stuff that just piles up. It seemed the right thing to get at the time, and then ends up unused or even a second version of something that you already had, and therefore, a waste of money.

Thinking about belongings and the feeling of home, meanwhile, can be another good way of deciding about the importance of things, as well as of turning a place into a home:

When belongings get so overburdening, it seems like the place belongs to them, and so much money goes there, you don’t have as many reserves as you could have, it becomes a problem. You get stuck.
Finding out what (few but good things) you actually need in support of yourself and what you want to do and be, makes it easier to really be, rather than possess (or be possessed by all the stuff ;-) ), however.

Furthermore, having some things which make you feel at home – even, maybe especially, if they should be small “unnecessary” knick-knacks – helps really make yourself at home, no matter where these things may have to be transplanted. In fact, the very process of thinking about it helps already… both to realize what is important, in both practical and/or emotional respects, and to consider your attitude towards (a) home.

Home is also, as the saying goes, where the heart is. It can in part be a love for a place, and it can also be a relationship. Now, there are enough single mothers in my circle of friends to know that relationships don’t always work out as planned, but I think that the value of mutually committing to each other and providing each other the comfort to create a home even in the midst of adverse circumstances is highly underestimated nowadays.

To Accept, and Be Accepted

The matter of relationships also points to the influence of other feelings for a place. Or more importantly, of other people in that place. Many a person, I dare say, has been afraid of moving somewhere else, because the people might be unfriendly, and you don’t just naturally fit in. Many a person I’ve encountered, living abroad, went looking for a place that just felt right, found excitement and pleasure abroad – but kept feeling that the people there just rubbed them the wrong way.

It seems to me that the problem is twofold, at least.

For one, we tend to simply not notice the contradictions which exist in places where we have lived for a while, let alone grown up. Accepting them, even taking them for granted, just comes naturally – but so can a feeling that it’s not quite a home, but just the place you happened to be.

The problem with this is that maybe you also just need to accept another place as it is in order to be able to call it a home – but that is more than a bit passive, and also underestimates how much we typically complain about our home towns, home countries (let alone families ;), anyways…

The other side is the acceptance by others. Having grown up in a place or otherwise fitting in makes it easier to feel at home, of course. Constantly being pointed out as being different – as the noticeably foreign person in China is – hardly helps to feel comfortable. Not being called out as different, but discriminated in more subtle ways doesn’t exactly help, either, though. And always just staying on your native soil is not the modern way…

It’s not a matter of what is the right thing for the others to do – and I’m particularly doubtful when people go to exotic places to find a home, and then complain about the locals treating them as an exotic transplant (I don’t like it, either – but I *am* the exotic one in China) – but rather of doing right by yourself.

Maybe you can find just the perfect place of your dreams, the one to call home. I doubt it, though. Imperfections are what makes life interesting. And, admittedly, complicated.

So, you need to find your own “home philosophy,” by which you decide and do what’s right for you. Handling the imperfections of ourselves and this world is easily the most important aspect of it. Life is a balancing act, after all, whether you never move anywhere, or try and feel at home in the whole world.


Pounding the Pavement, Leading a Life

You are, more and more, asked to dream, to aim high, to fly. I’m increasingly taking my cues from running, keeping the feet firmly on the ground, and I think it’s a good lesson.

bj_runDon’t get me wrong. I think it helps to have some goal, to have a bit of ambition. You certainly need motivation, need something that keeps you going. And yet., the physicality of running helps understand life itself better:

  • If you want to run a marathon within the next few weeks, and you are currently a couch potato, chances are dim.
  • If you have great genetics but you don’t exercise, you won’t be as fit as you could be.
  • And even if you have some problems, they are probably not bad enough to keep you from being active – at least once you try.

I go through phases where I run more or less. And I’m not talking about periodization, I’m talking about motivation. About getting my butt off the chair. It’s been a slow progress that has made me into a runner. At first, I couldn’t go for long. By now, I’ve finished a marathon and run-walked an ultramarathon-like event. And stilll I need to go on practicing.
Running is also relaxing, however. It helps clear out my head, do something simple and physical, not only stay in my head with the mental work that otherwise defines me.

As a teacher, and as an independent scholar struggling to really become that (after all, without publications, you aren’t), the lessons from running help:

  • You can’t step into the middle of a marathon and expect to run with the best.
  • You have to start running, though.
  • You also have to keep it up. It doesn’t matter whether you make a new personal best, not even whether it feels all good, necessarily. It matters that you are active, and practice constantly. Fifteen minutes, every day, adds up, too. (Thank you , Chris Brogan, for the reminder.)
  • It’s not “pleasure to do,” it’s “do for the pleasure of it” – the best practice is when you don’t feel like it. You’ll probably come to like it, and certainly like yourself better for having stuck with it when you didn’t quite feel like it. There’s too many of those days, anyways.
  • Pain helps progress. If it’s not too much and if you learn from it. (Do I wish there were a t6 for my writing, though…)
  • You may find things (were) easier when younger, but you can do something that strikes your fancy – like running, like educating, like writing – for all your life, have great and ever-better experiences with it, and continue to grow. (There is a reason I particularly like the idea of ultra-marathons: they are largely the domain of people aged over 35; younger ones tend to fail on the mental side of things.)


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