Some Words for the Secretly Awesome

Sometimes I come across an article that talks about people wanting to do more with their lives and the author, uncomfortable with this yearning, chooses to mock it rather than understand it. For wanting to do good, for wanting to have impact, for wanting to bring some beauty to the world, these people (we) are chastised.

“Special snowflakes” they say. “Don’t understand the real world,” they say. “Of course you hate it; that’s why it’s called ‘work’.”

The rhetorical device seems to be to divide the world into “prodigies” (who play Carnegie Hall at 7 years of age or get their Ph.D.’s at 16) and “everybody else”. Since you’re not a Prodigy, there’s nothing special about you at all. (1) No matter what skills, talents, and accomplishments you have, you are not entitled to celebrate and honour your deep yearnings. It is absurd for you to have desires for more than a house in the suburbs and a mediocre job pushing useless pieces of paper. Arrogant to imagine that you have, burning in your heart, a Great Work. Even more so to conclude that you should do something about it.

In fact, in this economy you should consider yourself lucky to have that boring job doing something that you suspect might not be entirely useful or ethical. You could be serving coffee.

These words, however well meant, are not benign.  Let us allow that they may be well meant, that the writers could perceive our discomfort as a problem that could be addressed if only we would learn to Accept our Lot in Life. It is the prescribed solution, after all. Yet this does not add to the beauty in the world. Instead, snake-like, it sneaks inside our heads and becomes the voices of doubt.

Having come to a point where we could have freedom, we cannot perceive it.

This is how the system maintains itself. The awesome are tamed. The wild are made servants of the domestic, disciplined by the voices in their heads. Growth is directed, we become espaliers, creeping along the wall, yet knowing in our bones that a third direction exists. The intellect is trained upon other people’s problems, curiosity directed towards the trivial, and the Big Problems languish, because everybody who recognizes them is convinced that they, personally, are too small to do anything about them.

They’re wrong about you.

Yet a moment of caution… being secretly awesome, knowing about the third dimension, doesn’t mean you are better than those around you. It can be so frustrating to watch… because deep down you know… they’re secretly awesome too. They just might not have heard the whispers insistently demanding that they stretch just… one… branch skyward.

And the heartbreaking moment, the one that is hard to look at is this: the girl on the floor of the Bangladesh sweatshop who dreams of nothing more than a chance to work at the sewing machines instead of the clippers… she has this in her, too.

1. If you are a prodigy, you’re still welcome here. We promise not to fawn over you, or to imagine that your life is carefree and perfect. We will treat you, in other words, as a human being.

Enforced Conformity

Enforced conformity undermines the consciousness project of the universe.


The Fabric of Reality

We need a new system of economics. We need one that is hooked into the fabric of reality.

By this, I don’t mean the reality that is made up in our minds. Not the socially accepted parts of the world, the things that are only true as long as we agree upon them. I mean that we need an economics that acknowledges our place as living beings in a living ecosystem, and recognizes that there are such things as energy, entropy and suffering. There are real physical constraints on our activities.

Our economic system relies on maximizing profit, which effectively means maximizing externalities. But there is no “somewhere else” in a global system. There is only “somewhere we are not looking.”

This is what I want us to confront. We are trying to find our own ways to be, to be interdependent, to give back our offerings to the world, and to support ourselves with the fruits of our labour. And we don’t want to do it on the backs of these systems of suffering.

I, for one, would like to be able to look each person in the eye unflinchingly and know that no damage was inflicted on my behalf.

It is why I find discussions of “relative wealth” and the idea of “earning in dollars and spending in pesos” uncomfortable. I did note that I could be wealthy by moving somewhere poor. (This “impulse to empire” manifests on a personal level as well as politically.) But I’m not interested in merely being the best at navigating an unfair and destructive economic system. I’m interested in how we navigate it in ways that help us grow, evolve, link into something better, more beautiful: how we hook our stories back into the fabric of what is Real.

Growing Into…

We didn’t stop growing when we stopped growing up. Just take a look at the proliferation of informal learning and you can see: there is a deep thirst for knowledge, for growth, for learning. This striving is part of what makes us human.

It is also part of a greater arc in our life; the arc of figuring out what it’s all (been) about. Yet it comes with discomfort, especially when it causes us to question what has come, where we are, and what we are doing with our days. What is worse, the desire for meaning, and especially for meaningful work that has an impact on the world, is roundly mocked and treated as a pathology rather than a developmental urging of a healthy soul. Or it is criticized as being a “privilege” (and therefore not a valid concern?)

But what is the alternative? To simply accept the status quo, our lots in life, and the structures we find ourselves immersed in as so much absurdity and get on with numbing ourselves out to cope with the nihilism? I think not! (Camus didn’t think that was a very good idea either.)

Maslow didn’t suggest that we get to the goal of security and then mark time, or worse, run in place on an accelerating treadmill, until we die. Nor did he ask us to spend our lives consolidating ever-increasing social power. No. He saw greater things for human adults, the potential for “self-actualization”.

So, in different words, did Eric Erikson. And Jung. Emerson. Thoreau. Einstein. Ghandi. Aristotle. Any number of psychological, philosophical and spiritual teachers have pointed out that there are meaningful things to work towards beyond social and material success. Yet their visions, collectively pointing at the possibility for a society of beautiful agents in a web of interdependence, remain elusive.

Self-Actualization, Generativity, and Integrity

The term self-actualizing is challenging to people still focused on foundational needs. They see it in terms of selfishness and self-focus, rather than the way that Maslow intended it. He based his description on considering people who had become exemplars in their fields, who had moved on from focusing on their own success to focusing on what their work could bring into being in the world. The focus on looking at this phrase should be on “actualizing”, not on “self”. It points to a sense of “entelechy”, of some deep potential towards which the self is reaching. The goal is not a fully developed ego that has dominated everything in its path.

The tasks of middle life prepare us to step into a role as an elder of a community, a calling to become somebody who skillfully prepares the ground for generations to come, preserves the integrity of what has come before, and helps others step into their own roles as they come due. It is a call to step out of competition with our children and into generativity. It is a call (ironically) to be our most authentic self for the sake of the greater good.

It is grace.

Dree Yer Weird

Life. It’s a funny little thing, isn’t it? Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out,  bam! Something happens and it all changes. You’ve done everything right, or right enough. But time and circumstance have a way of playing silly buggers with your plans.

“Ye must dree yer weird.” Means, “play out your fate” (according to Terry Pratchett and the Wee Free Men.)

It’s not like we have a play book. Or a map. We’re just making it up as we go.

How freeing! How liberating!

How terrifying!

This is not what we were taught!

We were taught to follow the rules, to play by the book, to be good students and good workers, and that things would work out. Yet somehow, things keep happening that are not what we expected. And  one day we find ourselves on the road in a borrowed cloak without a pocket handkerchief.

Metaphorically speaking.


And then? We must play it out.

Here we are, all of us. Not doing what we planned on. Or, perhaps, doing what we planned and finding it not to be to our liking. (I am reminded of the penguins of Madagascar who, having hijacked a boat, arrive in Antarctica, look up at the looming masses of ice in the midst of the tumult of snow and say, “Well. This sucks.”)

What I have to offer is this: there is no book. Everybody really is making it all up as they go. And you can move in directions you’ve never even thought of.

But you have to pick one to find out whether it is “right” or not.