Voltaire as guide for the perplexed in life

Facebook, 13 September ·

During my recovery from intense recent life events, I have started re-reading Voltaire. He is the first and possibly most influential –and most misunderstood- existential philosopher and fighter for justice. He has many important messages for our time, particularly for those who feel overwhelmed by all developments in the world, both man-made and natural disasters. Since the age of 14 I have felt fascinated by him, I have identified with his character and his existential struggles, and I feel inspired how he overcame his difficulties in life. Now again, he helps me to express my thoughts and feelings.

Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet) developed an existential crisis in 1755. By then, he was still in grief over the loss of the love-of-his-life Emily du Chatelet who had died six years before. He was suffering from bad physical health, both of his bad back and intestines, which led to the saying that someone cannot be a good philosopher when they are in good health (I must be a very good philosopher then 😉 Voltaire had just bought a mansion on the border between Switzerland and France, so that he could flee to Switzerland when the French politicians were prosecuting him, and he could run to France when the Swiss protestant priests were going after him. The RC Church had upscaled the prosecution of people under the Spanish Inquisition, trying once again to get control of the people who were becoming more enlightened. Voltaire knew many cases of human injustice, being a prolific author of political plays and novels, and writing to popes and kings in defence of individual victims of injustice. His eloquent rants against the oppressive establishment of kings and nobles –like the Trumps, Mays and Murdochs of his time- are well-known.

In 1755, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami flattened Barcelona, killing hundreds of thousands. This triggered Voltaire’s existential crisis. He described his crisis in a poem that went viral, ‘Poeme sur le Disastre de Lisbon’. But this poem did not only address the injustice of natural disaster but even more the narrow-mindedness and man-made disasters of his time.

Voltaire starts his poem writing: “Unlucky mortals! O deplorable earth! All humanity huddled in fear! The endless subject of useless pain! (…) We’re surrounded by the cruelties of fate, The fury of the wicked, and the snares of death. (…) All the animals, all sentient beings, born under the same law, are condemned to live in pain and die just like me. (…) Everything is at war: the elements, animals and man. We must confess: there’s evil on earth. Its source remains unknown to us. (…) Man crawls, suffers and dies – All who are born die in this empire of destruction. Our frame of nerves and bone Cannot sustain the shock of the elements: This mixture of blood and dust was assembled to dissolve. The quick, sensitive nerves nerves Were made for pain –the minister of death-, So the voice of nature tells me.” Life is an endless struggle. We inevitably face man-made and natural disasters, this is given with our biological makeup which makes us sensitive beings. Voltaire seems to agree with Hinduism and Buddhism –which he had started to study in this period in his life- that we should accept life comes as it comes, in all its darkness, pains, evil and paradoxes. Sensitive humans will experience pain everywhere, particularly beings who have their eyes and hearts open for the injustices in the world. That is a paradox: the more you fight for justice, the more injustice you will see. This was also Voltaire’s experience. If we want, all of us can experience and see these pains around us, the pains of rejection, and of political oppression. And also the pains of random fate, the destructive powers of nature, in storms and disasters. A century later, Schopenhauer would be indebted to Voltaire in his philosophy of evil.

After 1755, Voltaire’s work may be regarded as a structural unravelling of our human attempts to deny or avoid the raw, faulty, painful and dark sides of natural and man-made worlds and disasters. In his poeme, he differentiates three different ways how we try to alter reality.

First, scientists try to explain the situation. They project their pre-conception of the world as a machine on reality, and when something goes wrong in reality they try to find the mechanical causes of it. Everything is Humean cause and effect, including any evil that we encounter. If we feel things happen randomly –including near-miss plane crashes, homophobic attacks, Brexit, or storms like Irma-, that is merely the result from not having scientifically examined the situation good enough. Voltaire doubts this paradigm. Of course, retrospectively we can always find a “reason” why something happened. But this line of cause-and-effect did not always happen necessary, there seems space for randomness. For example, it is not necessary for this piece of sand to be precisely lying here; if it would be one millimetre aside, the universal order would not suddenly change (except when you believe in magical thinking such as chaos theory). Nature and world events are not completely a closed system.
There is abundance in nature and world events, with some branches of events becoming successful and others not: we need to see actions as a family tree, Voltaire writes, where some branches of the family will not have many descendants and will die out, while others have many descendants – consequential effects- and continue. As we are mortal beings with limited senses, we cannot identify which lines of cause and effect are necessary and which are random. Thus: “We know nothing and fear everything, Nature is silent – we appeal to her in vain.” Thus, we can try to intellectualise and scientifically explain what happens to us, and this may give us some consolation and may help us to improve our ways of living to prevent some possible future events, but we will never be able to understand everything.

However, before 1755, Voltaire seemed to plea the opposite, for education and reason as ways to overcome our animalistic flaws. This opinion brought him in many intellectual fights with the philosopher Rousseau, who wrote that educational and rationalising attempts like these are precisely the reason why people become corrupted. After his existential crisis, Voltaire’s philosophy seems to come closer to Rousseau, although he would never openly admit this. Several centuries later, we seem to have become now even more adamant in believing that we can control and know everything –and possibly we have indeed progressed in certain areas- but still airplanes are vulnerable to possible disaster, and humans are vulnerable to hate and violence. There will always be something we cannot control or explain. There will always be failure, and our illusion to explain and control situations too often make things worse.

Second, some people say that we are the cause of everything that happens to us, albeit in material, spiritual or religious explanations of the events. People said it was pride that caused the Lisbon disaster. People say that the disastrous hurricane Irma is the result from the climate-denying politicians in America. Some individuals suggested that I should get the message from being in a plane that nearly crashed, and I should become aware how I am living my life as this caused my near death experience in the plane. A Freudian even told me to investigate my death wish. So I caused this plane to crash almost? This sounds too narcissistic to me. Such ways of reasoning help to psychologically personalise impersonal fate and random events. Like Janoff-Bulman says: to be able to live our daily life we need the idea that events are not random but explainable and that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Something bad happened to me, so I must be bad? This way of reasoning helps to continue our illusions in daily life, but we have no logical justification for this. Like Voltaire wrote: “As the dying voices call out, will you dare to respond, To this appalling spectacle of smoking ashes with, This is the necessary effect of the eternal laws (…) Seeing this mass of victims will you say God is avenged. Their death is the prices of their crimes? What crime, what fault had the young committed who lie bleeding at their mother’s breast? Did fallen Lisbon indulge in more vices than London or Paris which live in pleasure?” In my airplane which almost crashed last week, there were babies. Did these babies ask or even cause the plane to nearly crash? Let’s hide for the killer babies!

We read the same way of ridiculous reasoning in the modern book of Rhonda Byrne, “The Secret”. Things happen for reasons which may be hidden to us, but we can learn to see why things happen and we can even learn how to control it. She calls this the law of attraction: you attract what you intend. So apparently, I asked for my plane to crash or for a homophobic assault, and the people in Florida attracted Irma. Of course, having a positive mindset will help us to see life more positively and to focus more on positive possibilities; this is what psychologists call “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Byrne’s way of reasoning also cannot be refuted: it is unfalsifiable, as all failures will be reinterpreted as a confirmation of the theory (Karl Popper would have been furious about Byrne!). For example, if something does not work out, we say “apparently I did not have a right enough intention and a next time I must try harder”, and the theory is confirmed again. Scientific research has proven that the law of attraction does not work statistically, and it only works when you add these logical fallacies. However, I do understand the wish in a personal and explainable universe: it is frightening and overwhelming to realise that things can happen to us for no personal reasons and that we are mere vulnerable and mortal beings. The problem is that we can severely hurt each other when we apply Secretian ways of thinking to others, and for example tell them “you are not only victim of this situation, but you have consciously or unconsciously asked for this”. This is severely unethical. I do not only suffer from the trauma of being a victim of a near-miss plane-crash but also of people telling I apparently asked for it myself even though they cannot precisely tell how I asked for it (“just study yourself well enough and you will find the reason why this happened to you”). Apparently, we people have not progressed much in our reasoning since Voltaire’s era.

Third, Voltaire’s hardest attack was on people who were saying after the Lisbon disaster “all is well in the best possible of all possible worlds”. That is, they did not only believe that everything happens for a reason, but also that whatever happens is for the best. Something else could have happened, but that would have been worse. The Lisbon Disaster, the storm Irma or my near-miss plane crash were the best possible scenario. For example I “could learn from this” or “develop character”. Voltaire became furious in response to these arguments: “What! Do you think this universe would be worse, Without the pit that swallowed Lisbon? Are you sure that the great eternal cause, The Creator and Knower of all things, Could not have thrown us in this miserable world, Without volcanoes seething under our feet? Do you set this limit for the Supreme Power? Would you forbid Him for exercising mercy?” Voltaire ridiculed this way of reasoning particularly in his book “Candide” (Candide meaning “naïve” in French); the main character asks at the end of the book: “So you are still saying we live in the best possible world, even after we barely survived the earthquake in Lisbon, we were prosecuted, we were hanged, we were enslaved, we were…” In modern spiritual reasoning, the figure of God has been replaced by terms like “The Universe” or “Spirit”, but the reasoning is similar. Apparently I have to learn something in life, therefore these things happen? Nonsense! The problem lies in the word “therefore”: bad things can happen AND I can subsequently learn something from them, but I have no evidence at all that bad things happen TO teach me something.

Many of my clients seem to reason in such ways, when they are confronted with a life-threatening disease: “Apparently, I must learn something from my cancer”. My answer can sometimes be very direct: “I personally think that you MUST learn nothing, but you may decide to be wanting to learn something”. Bad things happen AND we have the freedom to learn about life from them.

This is what Karl Jaspers wrote in 1913: we are confronted with countless numbers of “boundary situations in life”. These situations can tell us about the nature of life: there will always be failures, struggles, fights, counter-currents and paradoxes in life. It is up to us to subsequently accept this nature of life, and let this enlighten our life, by living life to the fullest within our given limitations. We can live a meaningful and satisfying life, even in the most dire situations, like Viktor Frankl described about his personal concentration camp experiences in his book “Man’s search for meaning”.

Boundary situations can remind us of this potential that we always have. This is not a necessary potential, like a naïve cause-and-effect way of reasoning, but as humans we have at least the freedom in our mind to find a more meaningful perspective or intention towards the situation; possibly this more positive focus could even help us to realise unexpected parts of our potential. My systematic reviews of empirical studies confirm that individuals are often indeed able to find more meaningful perspectives in dire situations and experience “post traumatic growth”. However, this does not mean that these events had to happen to help them grow: being reminded of our potential by possibly random life events is not the same as being forced to use our potential by our life situations.

Where does Voltaire leave us? Scientific explanations are limited, we cannot personalise events, and we cannot say that we live in the best possible world.

First, Voltaire suggests us to set aside our attempts to avoid or deny reality as it reveals itself. Even though these attempts may be understandable –as these are our efforts to cope with disasters-, they will not help us on the long term. Instead of searching for a system in reality, we can start assuming that there is no system and doubt all attempts trying to find a system. We are aware of the limitations of our human faculties of sensing and reasoning. Like Voltaire allegedly once said: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Thus, Voltaire suggests phenomenological bracketing before Husserl wrote about this at the end of the 19th century. Voltaire writes at the end of his poem: “With the balance in hand, he [the philosopher Bayle] teaches me to doubt, He, great and wise enough to need no system, Has destroyed them all and battles even himself. (…) So what is the verdict of our greatest mind? Nothing: the book of fate is closed to us.”

Second, we need to stay open and let nature and events unfold itself, in all its beauty and evil and without us attempting to reinterpret, like Voltaire wrote “be without system” (“etre sans Systeme”). This is a way-of-being that the existential-phenomenologist Levinas seems to refer to in his works in the 20th century. Levinas wrote that our immediate experience in reality is prior to all the intellectual and emotional “systems” that we put on our experiences. Like Jaspers wrote some decades before Levinas, there will always be something in our experiences that will not fit the system that we try to enforce on reality: there is always something, someone or Someone not fitting or different, an “alterity”. Our philosophy should not start with examining our systems, but alterity –that what does not fit in our cognitive-emotional system but which has a strong appeal and authority to us. Events like the Lisbon Disaster, 9/11, near-miss airplane-crashes or homophobic attacks are strong experiences which have an undeniable immediacy in their experiential nature. These events can remind us of how reality may be before we put our systems on it, the failures of our mind and the eternal struggle that life inevitably confronts us with even though we do not want reality to be this way. Voltaire’s later works focus at such life-enlightening events, all reminding us to keep an open mind for reality as it emerges. Similar ideas can be found in the works of the later philosophers Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Third, we need to unmask false philosophies and religions which enforce their system onto people: “Forced religion is not religion: it should convince, not force.” (Voltaire in: Traite sur la Tolerance). Some authors have said that Voltaire was atheist, similarly to philosophers he influenced, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Yes, Voltaire criticised all organised religions –Christianity, Judaism and Islam-, and some of his religious parodies even sound racist and islamophobic or anti-Semitic in my modern ears. However, these authors could not have been more wrong: they mistake Voltaire’s refutation of naïve and oppressive types of religion for complete denial of anything spiritual or religious. In many other texts, he wrote about the freedom of religion, and about the importance of believing in something bigger than ourselves and our systems.

Voltaire even established his own church, called “Deo Erexit Voltaire”, erected for God by Voltaire. The religion in this church was most likely mainly about rituals and texts reminding the believers to have an open mind for reality as it reveals in our experiences, without imposing our systems on these experiences. Rituals and ceremonies can stimulate a sense of awe for the beauty of the universe, how things happen and how we are who we are. It seems better applicable to call Voltaire a deist, an agnost or even refer to nature religion. Voltaire was full of awe for the mystery of the universe, and how things have emerged as they have emerged in the Creation. But without attempting to make his sense of awe into an absolute explanation. His sense of awe was not a scientific explanation, it was his free stream of experiencing and being. Voltaire’s religiosity was in-between the extremes of the naïve religious dogmatists and antitheists, like his tomb tells about him: he fought the atheists and the fanatics (“Il combattait les athees et les fanatiques”).

Fourth, we need “balance”, as Voltaire wrote in the poem. With this, he does not refer to the Aristotelean vice of modesty or middle-class bourgeois conservatism: “just be always in the middle, and avoid the extremes in life, and you’ll be fine”. As a person, Voltaire was the opposite of such a conservative system: he was a person of extremes, not afraid of provocation. (He would have made a good punk!) He tried to live life to the full –with romantic escapades, wild parties, continuous travelling, exploring as many different fields of study as possible, and fighting against many types of injustice. However, he balanced by not becoming fixated in positions and systems. Balancing means always questioning the systems that you live in, a system of thinking, daily life habits, or our societal constellation. Balancing also means accepting our limitations and embracing the eternal struggle that life inevitably confronts us with. Furthermore, this also means tolerating paradoxes ambiguities and ambivalences which we come across on our journeys through life.

Balancing also implies being able to hold apparently paradoxical positions, which actually do not oppose each other but can be seen and combined as two different dimensions, such as combining scepticism towards religion with awe for the universe and its possible mysterious Creator, or fighting atheists and fighting religious fanatics at the same time. This is a cornerstone of my personal philosophy, and I have written much about this “dual attitude” (eg 2014, “Meaning and life’s givens” in JPSC). In my forthcoming handbook on meaning in life, I will describe the history of “meaning in life for sceptics”, and without explicitly referring to him, Voltaire is one of the clear examples of this. Yes, it is possible to live a meaningful life while being sceptical, as I will show below.

Fifth, Voltaire criticises simplistic ideas about meaning in life: “Man is a stranger to himself, He wonders: ‘What am I? Where am I going? Where am I from?’ We are atoms tormented in this murky soup, Swallowed by death like the playthings of fate, With eyes to see and guided by thought, We thinking atoms have measured the heavens, We rush towards the infinite, Though we neither see nor know ourselves. This world, this theatre of pride and error, Is full of unfortunates who speak of happiness, They complain while seeking well-being, None of them wants to die or be reborn. Sometimes, in our lives consecrated to pain, The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears, But the pleasure flies, passing like a shadow. Our sorrows, regrets and losses are without number, For us, the past is a sad memory, And the present awful if there is no future, And the sleep of the grave takes every thinking being.”

Voltaire suggests here, that in response to the sorrows of our bitter life, we often flee to hedonism and illusions about our Eternal Meaning Of Life or about a Life After Death. These are our ways of overcoming our sadness of death and evil. However, these hedonistic experiences and illusions ultimately fail, when confronted with death: they cannot factually overcome death, although they can give us a temporary feeling that we can. All this focus on the self –what am I? Where am I going? Where am I from?- is mere pride and error. We cannot know any answers for certain. In the 21th century, this has possibly even become worse with the invention of a full “happiness industry” (William Davies, 2015). But ultimately we have to admit that we have no absolute answers: “we remain a stranger to ourselves”. The only thing we know for certain is that we will suffer and die.

In my forthcoming book on Meaning in Life, I will argue that the question about the individual meaning in life became for the first time in history popular around the 16th century. Before, only philosophers or church fathers asked questions about individual meaning, and they subsequently gave their answers to the laymen. Ordinary beings were expected to take their position in the great chain of being: if you are born son of farmers, the meaning of your life is to be a peasant. You were not exposed to alternative systems, thus you accepted this system as you did not know any better. If you did question this societal-divine-cosmic order, the church would condemn you and the nobles could expel and prosecute you.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment started questioning and doubting these pre-given systems. For the first time in history, ordinary people started to ask the question “how can I determine and live a meaningful life, without being told by others or by my place in society where I was born?” For example, Voltaire was expected by his parents to become a lawyer or judge, but he refused to do so and it took a big personal battle to live the life he wanted as author. Liberation was not a positive experience for everyone. Many problems arose after liberation from the social expectations, as people were missing the guidance of others telling how to live their lives, and even worse, people did not really know themselves and what their meaning was: “man is stranger to himself”. Voltaire described how people struggled to determine their own meaning, by seeking mere pleasure and engaging in unethical actions without the fear for eternal punishment. Other people turned to philosophers and clergy who offered their systems, and they became even more rigid than ever before like the Spanish Inquisition. Voltaire rejected this hedonism and neo-conservatism similarly as the old oppressive system in which individuals were told how to live their lives.

Sixth, Voltaire did not end by merely saying that we should accept life as it is, and not to clamp ourselves onto false belief systems. He finishes his poem as follows: “Once a caliph, in his final hour, Prayed to God whom he loved, ‘I bring thee, O only and almighty king, That which in your immensity you lack, Faults, regrets, pain and ignorance’. But he could have added hope.” The last word of this sad poem is hope. Voltaire describes hope as: “One day all will be well – this is our hope. All is well today – this is the illusion”. To be able to live our daily life, we need to hope (like Janoff-Bulman wrote something similar in the 20th century, and which has been empirically proven in many empirical studies). Here is Voltaire’s duality: scepticism and hope can go hand in hand. We can hope that we can live a meaningful life, we can hope that God exists, etc. He wrote for instance: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” This is how we can live a meaningful life despite –and possibly thanks to- our scepticism to life. As we do not know what is absolute truth, we can only hope for it. In our daily life, we live our lives with the illusion as if we know what is true, although we are aware that this is just an “as-if”, an illusion, and not absolute truth.

Many philosophers such as Nietzsche have elaborated Voltaire’s philosophy of as if. The 19th century philosopher Vaihinger believes that it is not worth asking whether religious and metaphysical doctrines are true in an objective sense, since this cannot be discovered. We should only ask whether it is useful to act ‘as if’ they were true. Vaihinger was not interested in ontological truth, but about the practical importance of belief systems: in his ‘as if’ philosophy, he accepted and justified patently false fictions as pragmatic non-rational solution to problems that have no rational answers, such as questions about how to live a meaningful life. I think that Vaihinger could not have foreseen the emergence of our “alternative truth era”, in which obviously inaccurate tweets from a deluded president are taken more serious than long lines of scientific research. Voltaire would have disagreed with Viahinger, as Voltaire promoted duality: we may need some illusions to be able to live a meaningful life in this world of pains and sorrows, but simultaneously we need to keep our scepticism. We can hope that things MAY become well, but we cannot say that things ARE well. Some people can hope that whatever Trump says MAY be true, but we cannot say that his tweets ARE true. We need to critically analyse all belief systems. This is where we could find a balance: live a meaningful and satisfying life, while critically questioning ourselves.

Seventh, Voltaire’s phenomenology and sense of awe led him to an approach to meaning in life that was new to his time. Without pre-given systems, he tried to stay open for whatever life brings and to embrace its twists and changes, its beautiful and nasty experiences. His later religious texts breathe a sense of respect, fear and wonder for the miracle and mystery of life. He had experienced death and life’s limitations very close, and in response to this he seemed to have developed this sense of awe. He embraced the opportunities and risks that life brought him, which literally brought him all over Europe, meeting people from the street to the highest kings and rulers. His biography clearly proves this, as described in the brilliant biography by Pearson: “Voltaire almighty, a life in pursuit of freedom”. Voltaire lived life to the fullest, and with full intensity. Voltaire possibly stood at the start of a vitalistic movement, which attempts to live life intensively. Tristan Garcia wrote in his book “La vie intense – Une obsession moderne” how since the Enlightenment people have started to search for an intensive life, exploring all experiences, depths and particularly heights in life.

Eight, not scepticism but fighting for just social communities is Voltaire’s final answer. Voltaire wrote the novel “Candide” two years after the poem. In this book, he ridicules the idea that we can always find a system in the world and events around us, and that whatever happens is for the best. At the end of the novel, the reader cannot believe in the optimistic and deterministic systems anymore, and must become sceptical. However, similar to the poem, scepticism is not Voltaire’s last answer. In the last pages, he describes how the main character Candide has started a commune to live together with others and Candide told others that instead of philosophising, they should do like him: cultivating our garden (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”) This is pragmatism for daily life. Without food we will die. We must focus on our survival. Do what is needed. Possibly also have positive illusions about the world which we need to be able to continue without being overwhelmed by life’s sorrows and pains, but without absolutizing these illusions. Possibly also be hedonistic, but without becoming totally superficial. Voltaire has possibly sketched here a very modern lifestyle. Similar down-to-earth lifestyles can be found at the end of modern classic novels, such as Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” and Michel Houellebecq’s “Possibility of an island”. We could even recognise this in postmodern movies from directors such as David Lynch. Balancing, pragmatism, scepticism while living life to the fullest and experiencing life as meaningful within life’s limitations, without any pretentions but open for the unexpected and the unexplainable.

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Many of Voltaire’s plays, including Candide, end with the creation of a positive social community. Voltaire’s own biography also shows how he created his own community on his estate Ferney-Voltaire, between France and Switzerland, with the church Deo Erexit Voltaire in the middle. He offered work for farmers (admitted, while he got rich himself from selling the crops), with fair payment and humane living circumstances and even a church. Many later political philosophers have tried to build similar communities, such as Frederik Van Eeden’s Walden in the Netherlands, Karl Marx, and housing coops in the UK and all over the world. Thus for Voltaire, being pragmatic and living a meaningful life seemed to ultimately mean living a life harmoniously with others, and helping others. Voltaire’s ultimate personal meanings focused on establishing social values, revealing injustice and fighting for justice, freedom and equality.

Thus, both in his work and particularly his life story, one can see the importance of the fight for tolerance and justice. This could be justified pragmatically, as “tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.” Similarly pragmatic, my review of hundreds of empirical studies confirm that such social and higher meanings such as fighting for justice are associated with larger and longer-lasting psychological and physical well-being than materialistic and hedonistic and self-oriented meanings. However, Voltaire also ethically justified the fight for justice, in a way that resembles the later philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to some extent. Voltaire described both in his poem and in his play Candide that we should let go of our systems and perceive life as it comes.

This is a different type of meaning in life than what we are used to think of in Anglosaxon countries: this is what French call “sense”, which is derived from the Latin word sentire, perceiving (Instead the term “meaning” comes from the Dutch-German “meinen”, which later became “moyen” in French, which can be interpreted as: common, medium, average.) Voltaire phenomenologically perceived the world and its events in their totality extremes and paradoxes, and he did not try to explain it with his own preconceived systems.

As his texts and personal life show, what emerges from this open perception of the world is a fight for justice, freedom, equality and tolerance. That is, when confronted with the evil in the world –seeing the pain from other human beings, face to face- this is our most meaningful answer. The pain of others –in Lisbon, after the storm Irma, in nearly crashing airplanes and homophobic attacks- is immediate and intense, and cannot be denied or avoided. This immediacy –before we put our belief systems on it- calls us to pragmatic action for justice.


I have recently experienced unexpected negative life events, such as a near-miss plane crash. I have tried not to put my theoretical or spiritual belief systems on these events. I simply stay with the fact that this happened. These events have given me the opportunity to reconnect with what is ultimately important for me, and to become sensitive again for the pains and injustices of others against which I want to be fighting. Most of all, these events have made me feel deeply connected with the people around me. I have received so many warm words of support and recognition, that they fill me with love and life. I feel connected more than ever before.

Of course, these events are also deeply frustrating and saddening, but my frustration and sadness tell more about my belief system than about life. I can try to say “I should (not) have done this or that”, but these are just false retrospective explanations for the unexplainable. The only I can do, is to remain silent, open my arms, and let the stream of life flow through me: what comes will come, I will answer how I can answer, and I will do what needs to be done.

My reading of Voltaire has opened my eyes for what he calls the genealogy of events. He suggests that in life, endless numbers of events happen. Some events will cause other events, and some events will not lead to anything else. Like the near-miss airplane crash did not lead to my death –this possibility did not happen- but it led to me writing this text for example. Events are like a family tree: some branches of the family stop as children die or do not get children, while other branches progress as they are followed by other generations. This resembles Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which Darwin assumed that given unlimited time and unlimited variations, combined with a survival of the fittest, some options will be successful and further develop while others will be unsuccessful. In our universe, there are endless numbers of options and events, where some are part of a long chain of cause and effect, and others are not.

Thus, both Darwin and Voltaire assume that the universe is not completely determined but there is freedom, both in nature and in people. Before species emerge or events unfold, there is a potentiality, or like Heidegger writes: being is being-in-possibilities (“Da-sein ist Da-sein-konnen”). Some possibilities will be realised, others will not. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle explicated such a sense of possibilitas/dynamis, but this experience of potentiality seemed to disappear during the Enlightenment, as the full universe became explained as systems and mechanisms. Voltaire fought this reductionist deterministic view, and together with Aristotle and Buddhists, he tried to make his readers aware of the dynamic Being of life.

I call this “the abundance principle”, which can be the source of a deep sense of awe. Anyone who has ever been in a rainforest will immediately understand what I mean by abundance. In jungles, there are unlimited numbers of plants, trees, animals, bugs, etc. There are unlimited possibilities, with many shoots and small young trees. Only a few of these possibilities will actually make it into big trees. But these small trees still contribute to the totality and abundance of the rainforest. A large tree has been small once: without small trees which fail, other trees would not have succeeded. Like the seed of men: some will fertilise the eggs of a woman, but most seed will die; however, the likelihood of success would have been nihil if there would have only been one seed. Life needs abundance to flower. Similarly, negative events are the result from the same abundance that results in fulfilling life events. This totality, potentiality and abundance of life is what I am in awe of. My experiences of recent negative life events have made me in awe of the universe, similar to what the later Voltaire described after his existential crisis. It is this stream of life that makes life worth being lived, even if this stream also brings rocks and sticks which may hurt.

Events like this make me immediately and undeniably aware of this stream of life. I am full of awe for all life events and nature. I even search for situations in which I can become more aware of this abundance, for example by going on holiday in the rainforest, like the author Thoreau writes about his decision to retreat to the forest: “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life (…) and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” (Thoreau, 1854, p.25). This is life. And I am in awe for it.

You can find an English translation of Voltaire’s Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon here:

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Life is like climbing mountains

Mount Kinabalu. 27 August. I am walking the steep path to the summit. Going there is a must, friends have told me. This is the highest and most beautiful mountain of Borneo, with views over large rainforests and impressive mountain ranges. I put my foot on a thick tree root, and grab a branch to lift myself up. Be careful, do not grab a loosely hanging vine or rotten tree, but catch a stable tree! One step done. Many more steps to follow. I almost slip on the wet limestone, but my other foot quickly steps safely on a dry stone. I make a deep bow to walk under a bamboo stem hanging low over the path.

My foot steps on white flowers; I look up and see intricate orchids above me, attached to a tree, with their roots in the air. Meanwhile, the sequoias -cricket-lookalikes- are making their prrrting and sissing sounds. I recognise the birds from my other jungle walks, although I have no memory of their formal names. Here is the tumble dryer bird: woosh, woosh, woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh. And there is the mobile phone: tring-tring. I even occasionally hear the what-what frog. Squak-squak! Is that the famous multi-coloured hornbill, possibly even one with something that looks like a helmet on its beak? Like all the time I have spent in rainforests the last weeks, I can hear them but cannot see them. My hunt for the hornbill fails again.

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I look through a gap in the dense bushes and trees along the path. At my right, a ravine drops into the depth of a valley packed with trees in all tints of green. Apparently, some individual trees have not received the note about the required height, as they rise their necks and crowns above the surrounding trees. From the distance, clouds are arriving in the valley, mystifying the valley with mist, like laying veils on a bride. This veil quickly becomes a full-face burqa, as within minutes the valley gets covered by clouds. The air starts to feel thick, and the humidity possibly runs up to 100%. My clothes start to get moist, and quickly get drained by drops of rain. Drip-drip-drip. Flush-flush-flush. Thick straight lines of rain wash my clothes and give the path a muddy make-over.

My breathing becomes heavier. My heart pounds in my throat. I have to stop climbing. Deep breath-in, breath-out, relax, let my heart rate normalise. Walk again. Up the steps, climb the stones, go over the tree roots, push myself through the mud closer to the summit. And stop again to regain my breath and my normal heart beat. OK, let’s go slower. No, I still lose my breath. It is as if my lungs do not get enough oxygen. My head starts to feel light, while a pumping headache starts to grow. This is stereotypic altitude sickness. I know it. Although I have never experienced this before in my life, even when I climbed the much higher Himalaya in Nepal.

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The mountain was hard physical work. When I was climbing the muddy path in the torrential rain, I started to question my own motivations. Why am I going up this mountain? Because my friends told me to? That is not a good reason. Because of the nice views and beautiful nature? Yes, I have seen great nature at the bottom of the mountain, and I will possibly see that later today at the summit or tomorrow when I climb down in better weather. But now, I can only see rain and mud, and I hear nothing else than rain rattling on the leaves. Am I enjoying this? Yes. Or no, I suffer. Does this mean that I want to stop and go down? No. I want to continue. Persevere. Isn’t this paradoxical? Yeah, but the hostel in the mountain is not far. Why do I want to go there? Possibly like the motivation of sports people? They put themselves up for a challenge, and find meaning and pride in overcoming the physical challenge. Yes, it seems like that: I know I will enjoy the sense of “I have done this, despite the challenge!” Am I trying to prove myself to others or to myself? No. I am simply enjoying pushing my boundaries. Authentic meaning via physical achievement and building character. The psychologist Dilthey wrote how the physical resistance and challenge of nature can reconnect us with the totality of our self, particularly the parts we have forgotten when we are too stuck in our mind. We cannot deny the immediate reality of physical struggle, and our ways of overcoming this. Fifty years after Dilthey wrote this, the meaning-therapist Frankl described how a possible pathway to living a meaningful life is experiencing pride in overcoming physical challenges.

It makes me feel alive. Thou shalt live intensively (see Tristan Garcia: La vie intense, une obsession moderne).

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That is, the physical challenge also forces me to be in the here-and-now. I cannot think about the life that I have left at the foot of this mountain, and the challenges that I have left home. I can only think about the next step, about the next breath and the next beating of my heart. People seek physical challenge to feel alive and to reconnect with their body, with nature, with life, with the world around us. Out of our head, into the stream of experiencing. Like the client that I ‘cured’ from his chronic depression by suggesting to join a jogging group. And like the bodyguard of a politician whose very inconvenient agoraphobia disappeared when he started to work out at the gym. Or the woman whose chronic negativity temporarily disappeared when she broke her arm. Our bodies are not made to work full-time at a desk, become rooted in a sofa in front of a flat screen, or to exchange the skin of our hand palms for mobile phones at which we stare all day long. Even here on the mountain, too many young people do not look around, but stare at their phones, make pictures or listen to the loud music coming out of their phone. Contradictory, these phon(e)y boys are at the same time engaging in sports and physical challenges, which are some of our few culturally accepted ways to feel embedded again in the here-and-now (although they simultaneously push the here-and-now away with their phones: they want to experience the flow of being-alive but as soon as it comes they push it aside). Everyone can find their own way of reconnecting with themselves via their body. We are physical beings.

What brings you in the here and now? What meanings do you find in nature?

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Nightmares of a dystopian Europhobic future

Facebook, 28 September ·

Unaware of the fright that is about to happen, I am sitting in the bus, leaning half asleep against the window with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand. My daily trip to work. There is the morning silence around me that you can get on the public transport, when your fellow travellers are in a similar state of mental morning daze, obsessively staring at cat-pictures on their Facebook or reading made-up gossips about the pop stars in the morning newspapers, all suggesting that “all is well in the world, nothing to worry about”. If it were only true! We are all still half asleep. A trip as usual.

Until now. The bus suddenly stops, not at a bus stop. I see a van of the riot police with flashing orange lights in front of the bus, blocking the road. Heavily armed police men stand at the exits of the bus, ready with their semi automatic guns. The doors open and an officer enters, shouting “ID’s please”. The men start to check the identity documents of my fellow passengers. A young officer comes to me, and I hand him my ID card. He looks briefly at the card and immediately his eyes shout hostility at me. “What is this?” “My identity card.” “Don’t you have another one?” “No, this is a valid card from the European Union, you can read on the card that all nations should recognise this. The British government has an agreement with the EU.” The police officer looks again at the card and asks his superior to advise. The supervisor quickly shakes his head and tells me: “Do you have any other evidence of your right to stay in the UK?” My eyes are wide open and I raise my shoulders in disbelief. Is this really happening? They can’t do this! A strong anger growing in my stomach. The supervisor speaks again, in a demanding tone: “You are under arrest. We will bring you to a deportation centre where you will be expelled per direct.” I start to stutter: “but… but… I work here, I have a job… I rent a room… All my belongings are here… What about that?” “We have nothing to do with that. You are here illegal and will be expelled. Your belongings will be repossessed and sold by the government; the profits from these sales will pay for the costs of your deportation. You can be lucky that we don’t demand you to pay all costs, as that would be tens and tens of thousands.” ” I want a sollicitor!” ” Under the red terrorism code we don’t need to grant you that. You are illegal here and a threat to the country. This is the will of the people. They don’t want you here.” The young police officer grabs my hand and pulls me out of my chair. My cup of coffee falls on the floor. I start to shout to my fellow passengers: ” Help! Do something! They violate my rights!” But the others are rigidly looking at their phones and newspapers, pretending not to hear and see anything. “You are guilty by letting this happen!” I shout to them, without any positive effects. One man behind me kicks me on my leg. He looks me aggressively in the eyes and sticks his middle finger up to me. He does not look extraordinary, nothing remarkable, not with a big swastika in his forehead or horns growing on his head; he is merely a fellow passenger who had just been sitting silently next to me in the bus. Meanwhile, the young police officer pulls my hands behind my back and locks them in cuffs. He pulls me outside the bus, but he needs to drag me as I resist to walk. He doesn’t care, he just uses all the force he has.

Two days before. I am in my home. A good friend is visiting me. We are having a good time, with some wine and deep conversations. We share our worries about the world but feel supported by each other. Suddenly we hear something outside like drums, accompanied by grumble-chanting male voices. My friend and I look surprised to each other. I walk to the window. I see a group of about fifty men marching through the street, all in black leather with big red swastikas on their back. In their hands, large torches are burning. My stomach is turning around. My muscles tension. A rush of adrenalin flows through my body. I see a police officer in front of my window. Suddenly I am outside and ask the officer what is happening. He turns to me and says : “They are using their democratic rights. You should hide if you don’t want to be in trouble.” Immediately, I run back to my friend inside, whispering: “You must hide!” I know she is Jewish and the nazi’s may come for her. I read panick on her face. I feel not afraid, I feel strong, knowing that I will defend my friend. I will hide her. As I am privileged. The nazi’s won’t come after me. They can’t for instance know I’m gay. So I should be fine. Should I?

I wake up with a scream. My heart is pounding in my throat. I’m grasping my breath. I look around. This is my bed. My cupboard. My painting. My table. My tiny room. I am fine.

Fortunately these were merely nightmares that I have had the last two nights. They are not reality and they won’t become reality soon, I think. However the dreams reveal some of my deepest fears. I am afraid about what is happening in the UK. Neil Faulkner wrote about this in his book “Creeping fascism”: it is creeping, slowly but steadily and the direction of the development is crystal clear. In the 30s people were told that their nightmares would not happen, but these happened.

The worst is the uncertainty. Yes possibly and hopefully, a hard racist Brexit will not happen. But there is a possibility that we will go into the wrong direction. I know I’m not the only European without a British citizenship who feels emotionally affected by the uncertainty. The mental and financial costs of the Brexit vote are already tremendous. Theresa May is making it even harder by not wanting to guarantee our right to stay. We are a bargaining chip, a chip with feelings and our feelings affect the quality and value of the chip. We are even already rolling out of the UK en masse, not because we know that we have no future here, but because we don’t know : we cannot bear the uncertainty, because the only thing we can be certain about is that this uncertainty will last very long. I would like to send a claim to Theresa May for financial compensation for unnecessary and deliberate harm to my mental health. Who wants to pay my solicitors?

The uncertainty that Theresa May has already created directly leads to structural discrimination of EU citizens who have no permanent right to remain. For instance my landlord has asked me to move as she is rebuilding the house (this is my seventh forced unexpected move in four years living in London). All estate agents in my area answer the phone politely but when they ask me to spell my name, they immediately ask where I am from and whether I have the right to remain permanently in the UK. Their response? No, they are not allowed to accept me as I am not British.

The last agent who asked me about my right to live permanently in the UK, I answered in detail: “I have the human right to live anywhere on this planet. Any time. For any duration. As I am a human being. Borders are invented by narrow-minded selfish individuals who are too anxious to share what they see as their righteously deserved property. Nobody can claim that they have more rights to a certain piece of earth than others. Like nobody can claim that others do not have the right to inhale oxygen. It is random fate that I was born to my parents who lived at a random place of the world. We are all indebted to our parents, and not to ourselves that we are born where we are born. We are all victims of random fate. It is historical fate that owns the total planet earth, and not one individual has the right to claim any part of that earth. Nobody has the right to any part of this world, all of us are temporary guests to the host of fate. Too many guests have outstayed their welcome on this planet, and too many people have neither paid anything back nor shown their gratitude to the fact that they have been given the miracle of life at a welcoming place in this immense universe with many uninhabitable planets, at this relatively quiet time in the turbulent history of this planet which has seen many meteorite impacts and volcano explosions. Too many Brexit voters (I assume not all) seem structurally ungrateful. They are not under threat or pressure from a fight for survival in daily life, like in poorer countries. They do not need to run for their lives because of a volcano or earth quake is shattering their dreams. They think that they created the right for this piece of earth, albeit by their mere being born here. They do not realise that it is a miracle that they were granted the possibility of life, here and now. There is no sense of awe. There is no mystery. There is only narrow-mindedness. Or possibly they are grateful and full of awe, but they are afraid for fate. They are afraid that fate could randomly turn against them, like fate has randomly given them the precious gift of being here at this place at this moment in time. By denying the existence of randomness and fate, they do not need to be afraid.
So you ask me whether I have the right to remain here in the UK? Do you dare to claim that you have the right? I am a grateful member of this community, trying to repay earth in any way I can, and fill of awe for the miracle of being-here. This should convince your landlords to accept me, as a fellow guest to this planet.”

No, I did not get a house via this estate agent. And of course I did not use such eloquent words, but my message was clear. Poor agent, he must have been thinking he was speaking with a madman. Possibly he was. Was he? Am I crazy to think that nobody can claim the right to any place on this planet?

Of course we should responsibly use the guest rooms that we are given during our existence, and we may want to be more pragmatic about what we share with whom and when, if that is in the long term benefit to the house and if that shows gratitude to our host. But the full terminology of “our rights” is a disgrace to our host that is random fate, living in the house of planet earth.

Of course fate does not exist as a person or entity. Fate is the expression of a personal experience: I am born at a certain place in a certain time and I will shape my place for a bit for a short period, or I will go to another place which I will temporarily shape; but before me, next to me, and after me there are others, and this experience of the totality is what we call fate. Or some people call this Purpose or God’s Plan. Regardless of the name that individuals have given this experience in history, all philosophies and religions seem to show a sense of gratitude, awe and respect. But with the secularisation and scientification of society, individuals seem to have lost touch with this experience, and even seem to be afraid of this experience.

I am grateful to every moment I am here, wherever that is on earth, in the UK, Borneo, or elsewhere. If fate brings me somewhere else, I will go there with a sense of awe. But I refuse to accept intolerance, discrimination and power games, where that violates the rules of our host, and where that hurts too many other guests. I will not move when people try to force me, while they are not in gratitude and awe for what they have been given. I will fight to see the human faces, wherever and whenever I can. I will fight for every individual’s right to be alive and for their ability to embrace their fate in gratitude and awe.

Why am I sharing this story (and similar personal stories) on Facebook? I am not asking for pity. Neither for praise. I am hoping for a moment of reflection and feeling. This is radical political activism for me: the personal is political, and by showing the personal I hope to show you the politics. By showing you the politics, I hope that you will see your own person and the politics that you are embedded in and that you are co-creating. And I hope to share hope: alternative perspectives are possible. We can change. We can change. When we start to recognise and value what we have been given in life.

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Surviving capitalism

Facebook, 2 October · London ·

Surviving capitalism: ideological reflections on a meaningful economy
The neoliberal system is receiving more and more criticism because it pretends to be neutral, while it actually enables only a small establishment to enforce their meanings on others. Instead, the aim of a meaningful economic system is to enable the largest number of individuals to live a meaningful life, via work consumption and freedom, without enterprises markets or governments structurally manipulating what individuals experience as meaningful.

What would a meaningful economy require? Let me fantasize (we will speak about the feasibility later):
1. Developing a new economic paradigm;
2. Meaning as economic progress: Assessing the economic progress of a country in terms of the number of individuals who are able to live a meaningful life (like Bhutan, but they focus only on happiness which is much more superficial and more prone to commercial and governmental manipulation);
3. Economic focus on meaning: Focusing economic activities on long-term meaning instead of superficial happiness; someone’s sense of meaning is more than success or a manipulatable sense of quick happiness, but it is about their intuition of their long-term motivations and sources of well-being in life;
4. Meaning as development: Acknowledging that individual meaning is the main driver of economic progress and prosperity as individuals do only commit in economic activities because of the meaning that they experience in these activities, and the internal motivation that drives them (‘the baker of Adam Smith’ does not bake bread merely because of economic self-interest for getting rich, but because of the meaning that baking has for him, including being able to feed his family, implying that the meaning of his family is the primary driver of his contribution to the economy; this is ‘meaning as development’ and not merely ‘freedom as development’ as Amartya Senn writes; the Maslowian ‘hierachy of needs’ and Marxist ‘historical materialism’ may need to be inverted, to start with our perceived meaning); a meaningful economy is a productive and resilient economy, resistant to shocks;
5. Meaning manipulation is unethical: Acknowledging that forcing or manipulating others to follow our meanings is unethical, and that by imposing external meanings, individuals will be less innovative and productive;
6. Different meanings: Accepting that different individuals experience different things as meaningful: for example, some individuals experience work and money as important, and others friendships, caring for others and higher goals; equally valuing and rewarding different types of contributions to the economy as meaningful, including care and being-cared-for;
7. Materialised meaning: Acknowledging that perceived meaning is primarily material-embodied, and only theoretically reflected and verbalised when it fails; therefore, we should examine differences in material conditions for realising different meanings by different individuals, and examining which and how material conditions could be realised to enable the largest number of individuals living a meaningful life; that is, enabling individuals to develop their own meaningful paths in career and life, for example via basic income or a developmental bursary from the government (‘micro-credits’ or ‘stakeholder grants’), which may be partially donation and partially a repayment system; research have shown that these activities are more cost-effective than the current benefit systems, increase productivity and self-efficacy as individuals are able to make meaningful life changes;
8. Meaningful education: Continuous re-educating individuals in what they experience as meaningful and how they could achieve that in their professional and social life, and the balance between both; teaching how to find their own meaning despite the influences from others marketing and media; focusing education on professional and life skills to survive the economy, including creative, collaborative, logical and critical thinking; as many individuals have lost their intuition of what is meaningful for them and for society; realising this for example via education and training; acknowledging that individuals at different points in life have different learning needs, and creating a ‘learning society’, based on free life-long education; education and academic research should be value-neutral and not influenced by commercial interests;
9. Meaningful innovation: Stimulating innovation via independent universities, and commercial research and development, for instance via subsidising and partial public ownership of research, inventions and start-ups; minimise bureaucratic hindrances to develop new products or services and start new economic initiatives;
10. Mental health: Rethinking mental health to include pressures from individual’s socio-economic circumstances; invest in meaningful mental health care to support individuals live a meaningful life despite society’s pressures;
11. Work/life balance: Optimising the balance between work and leisure time, so that the largest part of life is dedicated to meaningful activities; for some individuals this could mean working more hours than others if these activities feel meaningful;
12. Right to meaningful work: Enforcing companies to offer the right to meaningful work to employees, and forbidding meaningless work activities, such as specialised repetitive activities in a factory line, and replacing workers with robots for meaningless work; minimising the role of meaning-less activities in the financial sector, for instance decreasing the creation of bubbles and derivates, and focusing financial sector on supporting concrete visible economic activities such as in the construction industry (‘stones for finances’);
13. Non-manipulative marketing: Rethinking the role of marketing and Public Relationships that we allow in society; forbidding and controlling radical manipulation and structural spreading of ‘alternative facts’; minimise monopolies in news and media; creating and controlling public broadcasts which reflect the broad perspectives and lifestyles in the population;
14. Representative government: Minimising governmental interference in how individuals define their meaning and how they live their lives. This implies developing a transparent democracy, with parliamentary proportional representation reflecting the different opinions of different individuals in the population, transparency over governmental policies and negotiations, forbidding politicians to spread ‘alternative facts’, restricting donations and information sharing by lobby groups, reinstating of independent researchers and academics in evaluating governmental policies, and using well-designed representative population surveys as one of multiple sources in policy development.
15. Meaningful work in communities: Stimulating bottom-up economic activities and community building, as most economic activities happen in relatively small communities, and individuals in all times and cultures perceive a strong sense of meaning in communities;
16. Meaning in times of crisis: Interpreting the downward spiral of an economic recession and financial crisis in terms of the perceived meaning by stakeholders; acknowledging the role that public announcements by experts and government have on the meaning and trust that individuals experience in the market; acknowledging the perceived meaning of commercial and governmental investment on the meaning and trust that stakeholders experience in the market;
17. Realism: Acknowledging the economic, financial and societal restraints to a meaningful economy, such as awareness of limited resourced and finances.
18. Phases: There could be several phases in the development of a meaningful economy, starting with identifying for ourselves how we can live a meaningful life within the existing system (‘building meaningful islands of anarchy and energy within the capitalist system’), building alternative communities, public awareness raising activities, and if needed directly opposing the existing system. Different individuals may find different activities meaningful at different moments, as individuals engage in political activism for different reasons (e.g. not everyone wants to protest, etc); the cycle of activism and societal change should acknowledge these personal meanings (see ‘meaningful activism’ on activistwiki.net )

Brief history:
The history of economics sees a slow trend towards meaningful economics. Classical economists focused on our survival, and assessed products and services on the basis of their utility to fulfill the needs of individuals. This has led to an obsession with goals and growth in business, governmental policy and also our personal lives. However, the primary survival needs of individuals have not significantly changed, while economic productivity has exponentially increased during the last centuries. This seems to have been caused by the fact that the focus on needs has been replaced by desires and wants, and enterprises and governments seem to be more and more manipulating what consumers and citizens want, via Public Relationships and marketing: we live in a nudging economy in which we want more and more. Several sociologists and economic theorists go one step further, and claim that we live in an emotion economy, where the value of a product or service is not based on needs or wants, but on the nice experiences that the product or service provides. This has created a ‘happiness industry’, where individuals are continuously told that they should be happy and that buying certain products or services will make them happy. This has created two new classes in society: the manipulators and the manipulated. The manipulators define what we should experience as meaningful, and the manipulated are tricked into following these meanings. This is what economic theorists have called ‘The Establishment’ (Owen Jones), ‘Shock Doctors’ (Naomi Klein) or ‘Economy of good and evil’ (Thomas Sedlacek). There are inherent meanings in our economic system, but the discipline of economics seems to pretend as if these meanings are not there (‘ceterus paribus’), and they ignore to emphasize the error and variation in their economic models which hide the meaning-making by individuals. Economics has in the past focused on functional models, and even psychological-economic models such as developed by Kahneman and Tversky, focus on behavioural activities and manipulation of behaviour. Economics have ignored a positive/existential psychological black box, which consists of the subjective experiences, meanings and motivations of individuals; these are ‘hot experiences’ which we can for instance experience when we are in the flow of doing something meaningful, and these are the opposite of the ‘cold behaviours’ that economic models have looked at. Nassim Taleb has for instance shown how hot meanings contributed to the financial crash of 2008-2009. Economic behaviour can be described by the underlying hot meanings of individuals, and economic models could be improved by adding a meaningful focus (although meaning-focused behaviour seems to act more like chaos theory and complex systems theory than simple linear models). I would go one step further, by not only describing but also prescribing a meaningful focus on economy and politics (of course while acknowledging the limitations of this vision, as multiple meanings will be needed to understand the complexity of economic activities). This is the perspective of “psycho-anarchism” (see my entry on activistwiki.net): giving individuals freedom and capability to live a meaningful and satisfying life, while acknowledging the economic and societal constraints of our society.

-How do you feel about this reinterpretation of economics?
-How do you feel about meaningful economics as aim?
-How do you feel we may be able to develop meaningful economics?

About this text
This text is copyrighted by myself. This text is developed as part of my long-term project “Surviving capitalism: how to live a meaningful life in a meaningless system”. Anyone interested in brainstorming and contributing: very welcome (just PM me!). Suggestions for publishers welcome! More scientific articles, books and projects will follow soon.

Relevant background reading:
– Sedlacek: Economics of good and evil;
-The real utopias project: Redesigning redistribution;
-Skidelsky & Skidelsky: how much is enough;
-Csikszentrmihaly: Good business;
-Oliver James: Affluenza;
-Benjamin Barber: The infantile consumer;
-Joseph Stiglitz & Bruce Greenwald: Creating a learning society;
-Richard Sennett: the craftsman; neoliberalism;
-Michael Lerner: politics of meaning.
-Erik Olin Wright: Envisioning real utopias;

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Art is a gateway to the devine

Facebook, 22 October ·

True art is a gateway to the divine. (conversation with Justin Parker)
True art opens existence (Martin Heidegger, the origins of art).
Heidegger describes how the shoes of Van Gogh open the existence of the worker who has just put off the shoes. The worn out state tells about his poverty, the bit of sand and straw that he has just returned from the field. We start to understand his world, his experience of time and space. This piece of art also opens our existence as we realise how we are able to step into someone else’s shoes and join another world. We can change. We are not determined by our situation. That’s a fundamental lesson about our existence. The term is etymologically derived from ek-sistere, standing out. We stand where we are now, but a piece of us stands outside this place as we can change, we can change shoes, step into someone else’s world and change direction in our life. A true piece of art reminds us of this freedom, it gives that wider perspective on life.

My art starts with a world that wants to be opened. Listen to interviews with passionate artists and you will hear the same: we are sensitive to the call of the world that wants us to open them for ourselves as artist, and for the audience. This transcends traditional philosophies of art which start with the artist who wants to communicate something or the audience who projects their own interpretations in the piece of work.

A true piece of art opens existence where existence was closed before. It is a breach in the world as we knew it before. Where existence is opened in a true piece of art, there is apparently an urgency in the world in which we live. Like Monet’s transition to impressionism may be seen as a response to the closed stylised world view of his Victorian era. Like surrealism expressed the underbelly that would spit out two world wars in the same era.

There are many people filling the space in museums and art galleries, but there are few true artists who open existence. I am always in search of a black hole in my universe, when I am going to museums and galleries. I want to be opened to new worlds and to the possibilities I have in life. Unfortunately too many pieces of art do not open existence and even put extra locks on the gates to the other worlds: they confirm our existing world and our existing ways of making art. Conventialism is worse than making no art at all, as it obstructs people to see more than there is here and now. Conventialism is utterly unethical.

A true piece of art is not a piece, but it is an art movement. Every true piece of art has its own art movement. It moves us into different worlds and wider perspectives. It also motivates us, like the word motivation is etymologically derived from movere, to move. True art motivates us in life. Conventional art though puts us in a standstill, makes us standing and not out-standing.

True art invites us to be artists in life, to be opening existence all the time. Opening my own existence and the existence of others. True artists of life are moving continuously as they are moved by a world bigger than themselves. They move others, and they set the worlds around them in movement. They open existence for others and for themselves, and they sketch future movements of art, of life for others. True art of life is a lifestyle of continuous opening of new worlds, like the phoenix and the ganeesha.

The true art of life is divine, because it opens existence. Do you dare to be an artist of life and taste the divine?

Found on Google from metmuseum.org

The poppy industry

Facebook, 5 November ·

Why I won’t be wearing a poppy
For those who don’t know : in this time of year, people in the UK buy red poppies and wear these on their clothes, and the money goes to charity helping war veterans.

As a psychologist I have treated many soldiers. Several of my friends are veterans. I have seen the extreme impact that wars have on soldiers and their families. And many of them have fought with the intention to defend the freedom of our countries but also to defend the freedom of people they even did not know, as humanitarian help. I know several secret stories of peace negotiations between countries where eg Dutch and British armies made the difference. I think that these contributions to peace, the good intention and their sacrifice needs to be acknowledged and we should support veterans and their families in their psychological recovery from the army. We owe them.

However as we all know, there are also other sides to the military and particularly the politics behind it. And we should address these sides. But we should not confuse our respect for the soldiers’ intentions with asking attention for the larger picture. This is what seems to happen now : the red poppy and the commemorations are too often not only about the good intentions and sacrifice (anymore), but they are implicitly or explicitly misused by some politicians to justify wars and glorify war heroes. Consequently, wearing a red poppy can contribute to a societal and political basis of support which can be used by the government to go into more wars; thus indirectly these red poppy wearers may create what they do not want: more deaths and psychological traumas. I think people should be aware of how the red poppies can be misused, when they wear a red Poppy. This is why some people wear a white poppy, which symbolises both respect and also a call for peace. At the same time I will not judge anyone wearing a red poppy as I don’t know their personal intentions behind wearing a poppy. At most I can say they may be ignorant or denying the societal complexity of the red poppy symbol.

Let’s further examine the symbolic (or possibly even the imaginary) meaning of the red poppy.

First, I focused on the text above on the good intentions of individual soldiers. By respecting good intentions such as defending peace, I step aside from the argument that the army may not have been effective in creating peace in reality. However are all intentions of soldiers good? Can young recruits know what the complexity of armies means in reality? Are they able to make a good decision to give their lives to the army? I think not: the minds of soldiers often gets manipulated. Many young kids as young as 16 years join the army in the UK with other intentions, as the army seems their only reasonable career option, and they know from the Hollywood movies how cool it is to become a military hero. The reality is often the opposite and several army generals have told me how many of these kids are not mentally ready, and their young manipulatable minds get bend forever. The most extreme example is that the manipulation of young minds is deliberately used by the Israeli army whose psychologists use prescription to brainwash young minds and create an anti-Palestinian nation (this is a fact, not an anti-israel opinion as I have inside information of the programme the soldiers go through). Other countries are possibly not much worse. Many young recruits love the physical drills but they can’t cope with the reality of war; psychologists have hard work making them ready for reality. Much research shows how being in the army can warp your personality; individuals can internalise their military training and radicalise in their opinions (eg due to cognitive dissonance reduction). They need our support, but possibly not the red poppy which sometimes seems to create a pro-army culture of heroism which attracts more young people to the army for unrealistic ideas and intentions.

Second, it is common fact that wars are not only fought for good intentions by governments. For instance there was little evidence for the involvement of Afghanistan in 9/11; instead there is very clear evidence for the involvement of Saudi Arabia, United Arabic Emirates and possibly Russia; Al Qaida was more often trained and living in these countries than in Afghanistan. But these countries have not been attacked. Because it would not benefit the West. Because Bill Clinton has his companies in the UAE. Because the USA and UK are the biggest arm dealers to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Because they need their oil. Facts. We all know that the invasion of Iraq was formally justified by the idea that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he did actually not have. Despite their clear lies, Blair and Bush have not been summoned to The Hague International Tribunal, although their decisions have killed hundreds of thousands. I spoke with some high ranking individuals in the British and Dutch army who told me that there was consensus in the military top that military intervention will not help in Syria. They have send many reports to 10 Downing Street telling how military intervention would further escalate the dire human rights situation in Syria and would increase the threat of terrorism in the West (their reports have shown to be completely correct!). However Cameron ignored these reports and two weeks after he chaired the International Arms Fair in London his government ordered military involvement. It has been estimated that the Syria war has given the weapons industry billions in profit. Partially thanks to Cameron. Unfortunately the poor soldiers had to do as they were told, and they gave their time energy and life for a lost cause. But individuals can’t resign from the army as this would be regarded desertion. Like a friend who was demanded to help in Yemen and he refused to lead drones into the conflict “as this is not our war, and its an unfair war, with Saudi Arabia using heavy arms and British military intelligence against nomadic tribes with few arms or military intelligence”. Or for instance the other friend who trained the Israeli army how to use drones, but the Israeli army subsequently used his skills to attack a school about which they were not sure whether there were innocent children present or not. Thus even though some soldiers may have good intentions, they are embedded in a system which seems inherently mixed with good and many bad intentions, often focusing on making a financial profit and gaining political dominance. The red poppy does not seem to take this complexity into account.

Third, military research shows that wars are some of the least effective means to create a democracy and equality in a country. Changing the mind of one person is already difficult, and thus changing the minds of a full population with a long history is even more difficult. The most effective armies are those who focus on the constructive relationship with the local population such as the Dutch army. A Dutch general told me that a conflict cannot be won by arms but by hearts. Therefore the Dutch army has now sold most of its tanks, while simultaneously posting 900 vacancies for psychologists. Sounds right to me. But the red poppy is primarily worn for those in physical battles, while ignoring the possibly more effective and for certain more humane negotiatiors and psychologists.

Fourth, I wonder when we have a commemoration day for the victims of all wars? When do we start wearing symbols showing the complexity of peace and war? When do the children at school learn all perspectives on wars including the counternarratives? When do we wear poppies for the nurses, the doctors, the psychologists, the teachers, etc? The red poppy culture too often only asks attention for merely one voice while there are many other important voices as well.

In conclusion, I feel that the red poppy is part of a system which deliberately leaves out parts of the full story and which does not solve the problems of wars but further stimulates more wars and more gains for the financially hungry weapons lobby and politicians. Meanwhile I would love to have nuanced conversations about the complexity of this topic, without judging anyone. I don’t judge anyone with the right intention wearing a poppy or joining the army, but I won’t, as I see too much manipulation, too much ineffectiveness and too many unethical intentions.

Let’s create a world in which red poppies will never be needed anymore.

This post is triggered by the strong appeal of my friend Mark Weaver not to wear a “fucking poppy”. I agree with his YouTube message, but his video may have been a bit too short to explain for instance the complexity which I described in this post.

Happiness Gurus

Capitalism gives the idea that happiness can be found by simply following some steps, like ordering a McMeaning. Just read the link below that I saw someone posting this morning. Yes, we may find some temporary superficial happiness when we follow the advice from HappinessGurus. However, like Aristotle already said, true happiness is given to us, not demanded by us. Deep happiness is the result from a non-technical approach of listening to what really matters to us. Interestingly, English terms for happiness and meaning are derived etymologically from terms that are about “getting a quick fix” and the illusion of being able to cognitively control our happiness and meaning in life. Most other languages in the world use different terms, such as “gelukkig” and “glucklich” which imply that this emotional state is given to us, associated with fate. Their terms for meaning (zingeving, Sinn, sense, sensida) have been derived from the Latin sentire, which means perceiving with all our senses. Thus true happiness and meaning are about perceiving what is meaningful to us. This is like listening to our intuition and our heart. Listening to our heart does not follow steps. Our heart loves something or someone for the sake of love, not because we have followed the right steps or our activities are goal-directed. By making happiness and meaning superficial and something we can control, happiness and meaning become commodified, products on the economic market. Capitalism can only survive thanks to this illusion that the economy can make us happy and our lives meaningful. Interestingly, capitalism is the strongest in countries where meaning and happiness are regarded the most superficial and something we can demand, that is in Anglo-Saxon countries where even the terminology for happiness and meaning is superficial. Countries with a fuller perceptive sense of meaning and happiness (with terms such as geluk and zingeving) have a much larger welfare state and show less socioeconomic inequality. I’m now writing a scientific article about this correlation and preliminary evidence indicates modest to strong correlations, which is very significant in economic sciences. The anti-capitalist revolution starts with listening to our heart and intuition and not following the steps told by the media and the business psychologists; this revolution of the heart will undermine the public mechanisms and justification on which capitalism is build. Anti-capitalism starts with a revolution of the heart: join me in this revolution!