Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

AJ told me about his childhood in Ghana, his plight as a refugee, and how his abiding faith in God had seen him through to this day. He told me about his dream to start a school for child refugees – a school with a joyous curriculum, so that children from war-torn lands would not suffer impoverished imaginations as a result of their disrupted lives, and could see the opportunities available to them in their new land.

‘Children have spirit’, he told me. ‘We must open their eyes to the possibilities of life, so that their spirit may flow into beautiful activities’.

This sounded good to me. I decided to help AJ out. He didn’t have a business card, but I took his number and walked away. Months later, I realized that I’d never made the call.

We all have a story like this. One day, we say, I met an extraordinary person. While we were different in certain respects, something about this person resonated with me. Chatting with them was fun and inspiring. I felt like if I got to know this person, it might change my life. And it scared me away. We generate excuses. ‘I’m too busy for a new friendship’. ‘I’m too set in my ways to deal with someone from a different background, with different opinions and beliefs’. ‘What am I thinking – coffee with a stranger?’ In short: ‘I am happy as I am, safe in my comfort zone’.

I look back on my encounter with AJ Emmanuel with regret – not just for the lost opportunities it might have offered, but for the fact that, in this instance, I’d failed to live up to my own teaching. Inertia can beat the best of us. Opening oneself to new friends and possibilities is challenging. It is not just the challenge of starting new conversations, which can be awkward enough. It is the challenge of making time for the friendship, and of taking on new obligations and responsibilities. It is the challenge of negotiating differences between new friends and old, or of segmenting one’s life into different groups of friends, acknowledging that the whole group is unlikely to get on.

The difficulty of incorporating new friends into one’s life goes some way to explaining why social networking sites like Facebook are so popular. These sites enable you have hundred of friends and scarcely have to set aside time for any of them. Real friendships are a labour of love – with the emphasis on labour. It is no surprise that we tend to shy away from them.

There is a limit to the number of friends that one can expect to build into one’s life. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has calculated that the size of the human brain indicates that we have evolved to thrive in groups of no larger than one hundred and fifty people. In most cases, our circle of close friends is much smaller than this, depending on our levels of amity. Some people are satisfied with one or two close friends. Others cultivate a wider circle of acquaintances, though there is always a tendency to privilege a core group. A tight knit social circle can make for a comfortable social life. Still, it is important not to let one’s circle of friends become too tight. The security of cliques and gangs can easily become a constraint, narrowing our horizons and limiting the range of powers that we are able to put to use. When change comes hammering at the door, we find that we are unprepared for it. We lack the agility to rise to the occasion and strike out on a new path in life.

I recommend a more ambitious attitude and approach to socialising. This involves learning to live from the heart. We should be open to the chance of friendship in everything that we do. By opening your heart to the people around you, you’ll find you learn important truths about yourself. You’ll learn about your talents, dispositions, and ultimate possibilities in life. You’ll learn about what you are truly capable of thinking, feeling, doing, and being.

I lacked the courage to follow up on my encounter with AJ and convert our conversation into a genuine friendship. Still, I was open to the possibility of friendship between us, so I learned something about myself that I hadn’t appreciated beforehand. The reason that AJ and I clicked and resonated like we did is that we shared a common passion. AJ expressed this passion in his desire to create a school to empower kids and open them to possibilities. This passion resonated in me. I found myself deeply inspired by AJ’s enthusiasm, and I recognized the same enthusiasm in myself. On some level, I had grasped and processed this insight before. But it wasn’t until I met AJ that I grasped it clearly, and saw that it could be central to my purpose in life.

I don’t know what path AJ took in life. I hope that he established his school for child refugees. I know what I did though. I started teaching Philosophy for Change.

Thank you AJ Emmanuel. Meeting you triggered a turning point in my life. Our encounter helped me get clear on a core facet of my person. This has literally changed my life.

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This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 4 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.

Live from the heart: cultivate your powers and unleash your whole person

leonardo-vitruvian-man-bLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. His life is a testament to human creativity. Over six decades of creative action, Leonardo showcased gifts as a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, architect, engineer, inventor, botanist, and musician. His contributions are remarkable for their consistent brilliance. Leonardo’s paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are touchstones for the history of Western art. In his sketchbooks and journals, Leonardo developed a new visual language for representing bodies and surfaces, which fed into his painting and gave his figures an unprecedented realism. Leonardo’s studies of the natural world made a decisive contribution to the embryonic sciences of anatomy, hydrodynamics and physics. His architectural and engineering designs included bridges, irrigation projects, villas and cathedrals. His notebooks brim over with fantastic inventions, including diving equipment, armoured cars, flying machines, musical instruments and more.

As a cultural figure, Leonardo da Vinci sets a high bar for the rest of us. Few of us could hope to match his success in such a diversity of pursuits. Mostly when we dabble in fields beyond our professional training, we wind up conceding that, while we may be happy apprentices, we will never be grand masters. Yet, we shouldn’t be discouraged by this. While you and I may never enjoy the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, we can nurture and explore a plethora of talents and abilities, just as he did. Leonardo gives us an ideal to aspire to, even if we can’t match his achievements. He is someone who cultivated his full potential to think, feel, do and be.

[Read more...]

Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more...]

Hour of the mayfly: life and death the Existentialist way

thinredlineEver stared death in the eye? If you’ve not had the pleasure, like Pfc. Don Doll here in this shot from Terence Malik’s Thin Red Line, I recommend a thought experiment. Imagine that, right now, you are teletransported to the heart of a military conflict. Ker-bang. One moment you are surfing the internet, next moment you are knee deep in the mud with bullets hissing through the elephant grass about you. An explosion thows you down. Shit is real. You could be dead in an instant.

You want to run, cry, call for your mother. But there is no escape. You crouch low in the grass, taking deep breaths. Yout heart is booming in your chest. You are alive – for the moment. This simple truth has enveloped your entire consciousness. How strange it is that you didn’t reflect on this before, you think. Why, all your life, you’ve been stumbling about as if in a dream. Now, all you can think is: I’m still here! Life is not an abstract concept. You are living it, right now.

Death is in the moment too. Amid the explosions, shots and screams, the truth of human mortality is shockingly clear. Death is not something that lies far off in the distance, like the closing scene of a movie or the final chapter of a book. Death can come anytime, anyplace. The bullets are in flight, the bombs are descending. The hand of death may be on you now.

This is the truth of human mortality. Face this truth and it will change you.

[Read more...]

Positive abundance: when less is plenty

Ocean Rock PoolA good friend of mine, Gina, recently moved from Sydney to Yamba, on the northern New South Wales coast. Gina had been working as a project manager for a US-Australian cloud computing company while helping a number of local not-for-profits and social good initiatives kick butt on the fly. After years of holding space at the centre of a social innovation storm, she needed a break. Yamba was just the ticket. Nestled at the mouth of the Clarence river, festooned with pristine beaches and silvery waterways, Yamba was voted Australia’s best town in 2009. For Gina, it was the perfect place to rest, rechange, and reorient herself. It was time to shake free of things that were no longer important to her and refocus on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The first thing she noticed was the quiet. Yamba is still – particularly after lights out. Decimal levels pick up gently in the day: the cawing of parrots, the mumble of passing cars, an occassional leafblower intruding on the calm. Gina took to rising at dawn, taking walks along the beach, and meditating in the afternoons. Her body found a different rhythm, settling into Yamba time, shaped by the sun and tides more than the movement of the clock. Soon, the quiet didn’t seem empty anymore. The silence was rich and overflowing, full of the burgeoning murmur of life.

Then the sense of isolation set in. Gina had moved to Yamba with a view to sewing together the network for a new not-for-profit. Without a job, she had plenty of time to reach out to friends and associates to spread the word. The trouble was, it was hard to do anything beyond that. Back in Sydney, Gina would have followed up a call with a coffee date and kept in touch with her contacts and acquaintences by dropping in on seminars and events about town. Now she was on the outside of this activity, just when she needed to be diving into it. She began to panic. The sense of isolation made her feel torn in two. Part of her was snugly cocooned in the rhythms and flows of Yamba. Another part of her was hammering on the walls of the cocoon like a butterfly impatient to be born, reaching beyond Yamba, trying and failing to connect with the flows of the city. [Read more...]

Be a meaning maker: Sartre and existential freedom

remainsofthedayStevens was the butler’s butler. At Darlington Hall, where he’d worked his entire life, he exemplified the butler’s virtues of dignity and forebearance. Stevens’ self-identity hinged on his dignified façade. Over the years, he’d become so adept at maintaining this façade, he’d become it.

Stevens was the butler’s butler. Nothing less – and nothing more.

Stevens is the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day (1989). Anthony Hopkins owned the role in the Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of 1993. The story begins in the 1950s, when Stevens receives a letter from an old employee, Miss Kenton, who was the housekeeper at Darlington Hall in the years before the War. The letter rewakens old feelings in Stevens and stirs a sense of loss. Miss Kenton (played in the film by Emma Thompson) was an exemplary housekeeper. She and Stevens had an excellent professional relationship. At a certain point, Stevens became aware that Miss Kenton would have liked their relationship to be more than this. Something almost happened between them. But Stevens couldn’t make it work. He was so caught up in the business of being a butler, and of maintaining a demenour of dignity and discipline, that he couldn’t figure out how to integrate love into his world.

Finally, Miss Kenton resigned. Even in their parting conversation, Stevens couldn’t bring himself to speak to her in any other way than as a butler seeing off an employee.

Now it is the 1950s and Darlington Hall needs a housekeeper. Mr Farraday, the new owner of the house, suggests that Stevens take his car and visit Miss Kenton, to see if she’d be interested in reemployment. Stevens drives across country, and as he goes, he reflects on his life in the 1930s. With the benefit of twenty years hindsight, he is able to see that, at a certain point in his relationship with Miss Kenton, he almost changed direction. He almost broke out of his professional role and expressed his true feelings. He almost changed path in life. And yet he didn’t. [Read more...]

Lines of flight: Deleuze and nomadic creativity

prisoner (1)‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ Thus cries Patrick McGoohan in the 60s cult-TV series, The Prisoner. McGoohan plays a British spy who is held captive in a strange village on an island controlled by a faceless authority. The prisoner, known only as Number 6, has resigned from the secret service. It seems to be his crime. In the opening sequence, we see him burst into his spy chief’s office and passionately submit his resignation; he is subsequently drugged, kidnapped, and whisked off to the Village. We never find out why he quit. The authorities are as perplexed we we are. The prisoner will remain interned on the island until he has explained his actions to Number 1. But the prisoner refuses to do so. Instead, he seeks to escape. Insistently. In fact, the prisoner’s whole tenure on the island (the entirety of two seasons of the show) consists of attempts to escape his captors and flee to the distant mainland.

Captured by the eerie bouncing balls that guard the island, the prisoner is hauled before Number 2 and issued a sardonic dressing down. ‘In a society, one must learn to conform’, Number 2 tells him. ‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ the prisoner replies.

The moment he is alone, he is preparing to escape again. [Read more...]

Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate

cyclopsOdysseus was the hero’s hero. King of Ithaca, he sailed to Troy with an army of men to liberate the princess Helen from the Trojans. Odysseus’ leadership and prowess at Troy made him a legend among his fellow Greeks. Yet, Odysseus had a fatal flaw, and this would be his undoing. Odysseus could master a chariot and a phalanx of soldiers, but he wasn’t always the master of himself. Every now and then, his pride would get the better of him and he would become wild and unchecked, a primal force of passion and fury.

In these moments, Odysseus would forget the limits of his powers. He would believe that he was god-like and untouchable, the master of fate and destiny. He would lose his grip on reason. He would overreach himself and get himself into all kinds of scrapes.

Finally he messed up big time. The epic misfortunes of Odysseus’ life, dramatized by Homer in The Odyssey, hinged upon a single lapse in self-control. Odysseus’ error presents valuable insights into the kind of self-control that we need to deal successfully with change. Most importantly, it indicates how pride, or hubris, constantly undercuts our attempts at self-mastery. We believe that we are masters of the world. We overreach ourselves and wind up victims of the world instead.

Homer describes Odysseus as a master strategist – a ‘man of twists and turns’. It was Odysseus, at the siege of Troy, who devised the plan for getting the Archaean army into the city. Disguising himself as a beggar, ‘searing his body with mortifying strokes and throwing filthy rags on his back like a slave’, Odysseus stole into Troy and read its defences. The princess Helen, prisoner of the Trojans, recognized him and demanded that he tell her his plan. Odysseus gave it up reluctantly. The Archaeans would build a giant horse and put soldiers in its belly, giving it to the Trojans as a gift. It was a crazy scheme but it just might work! Under the cover of darkness, the soldiers would creep from the horse and throw wide the city gates and the Archaean army would come pouring in. This is how Odysseus, ‘master of any craft’, facilitated the conquest of Troy and liberated Helen. [Read more...]

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