DO YOU KNOW WHO WHAT YOU ARE…?

January 1st, 2018

180101 oliver burkeman bob mankoff

I’m a great fan of Oliver Burkeman and I’ve had this particular essay languishing in my Pocket file (which I cleaned out and deleted this morning) for a considerable time. That I found this piece on New Year’s Day is fitting. Below is an excerpt, but you really should read—and reread, as I plan to do after I finish this post—the whole essay. Enjoy!

Burkeman, thinking in Misery, failure, death and a slap in the face. Great advice for life from James Hollis for The Guardian, writes:

As a teenager or young adult, I suspect I’d have been equally annoyed. But I discovered Hollis at the right time, a few years back, and his writing was a bracing draught of reality, a rousing slap in the face, a wake-up call—pick your metaphor, but What Matters Most was what I needed.

Hollis is a follower of Carl Jung, so his view of the mind is that the ego—the conscious “voice in the head” that we take to be ourselves—is only a tiny part of the whole. Sure, it has all sorts of schemes it believes will make us happy and secure, usually involving large salaries, public acclaim, or flawless partners or children. Yet in reality (Hollis writes elsewhere) the ego is nothing but a “thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul”. The vast forces of the unconscious—the psyche, or “the gods” when Hollis is feeling more lyrical—have their own plans for us.

The task, for each person, is to figure out what they are, and then heed that call instead of resisting it.

Burkeman (and Hollis) make that sound easy, but I’m thinking this may be the hardest task I’ve ever set myself.

Then they drop this bomb on us:

At any major juncture in life, Hollis argues, we should ask: “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?” There’s something uncanny about this question, which has seen me through several dilemmas since discovering his work. The usual question is “Will this make me happy?” – but few of us, if we’re honest, have much of a clue about what will make us, or our loved ones, happiest. Ask whether a choice will make you larger or diminish you, though, and surprisingly often the answer’s obvious. Every choice, writes Hollis, demonstrating again his splendid refusal to be upbeat for the sake of it, represents a kind of death. So “when we get to junctures like that, we had better choose the dying that enlarges rather than the one that keeps us stuck”.

My recent readings on Stoicism will be a help.

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