International conflicts: only multiple directed partiality can save us

Trump is wrong in one-sidedly blaming the Palestinian authorities. Corbyn is wrong by mainly blaming Israel. Everyone is a victim and an aggressor to a more or lesser extent: we feel hurt and we have hurt, and the other feels hurt and has hurt us. Only acknowledging the duality of ourselves and the duality of each other can resolve any conflict. Therefore we need multi-directional partiality, which means taking alternately sides of different individuals in the Israel-Palestine conflict: now see the conflict from the eyes from one stakeholder, and later see it from the perspective of another stakeholder, and ask the different stakeholders to listen to each other. This is possibly the only skill that can help us out of a long history of polarisation and generations of hurting and feeling hurt by each other. Everyone feels hurt. Everyone has a sense of injustice. Everyone has contributed in one or another way to polarisation and escalation. Everyone feels entitled to get heard and get compensated for their wounds.

build bridges

It won’t help to only take the side of only one party: “poor Israelis and bad Palestinians” or “poor Palestinians and bad Israelis”. Everyone needs to get heard, even though that may feel difficult.

We seem to have lost the ability to take the time to listen. We seem to have lost the ability to meet each other face to face, particularly in an era dominated by media which earn their money by selling exciting news and false truths. There are too many one-sided political and financial interests for the international community.

Alternately listening to the different sides is difficult when there is an acute existential crisis due to imbalanced power structures. In that case, the dialogue starts with creating safety and demanding an immediate cease fire, and starting by taking the side of the immediate victims although this should not imply that their perspective should be the only perspective in the long term conversations.

The international community has a crucial role to play in the multi directional partiality and creating immediate safety for the victims at this moment. They should demand a cease fire. Most of all, they should have a clear presence as a guide with multi directional partiality. Unfortunately this seems difficult as many countries have a one sided view and have political and economic interests, which became very clear with Trump. Without multi directional partiality, the international community escalates the situation, like Trumps decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The EU seems to have a reasonable response, speaking horror about the deaths, demanding an immediate cease fire, and asking all sides not to escalate the conflict with provocations and violence.

I have been involved for many years in project COME, Communications in the Middle East, which is based on multi directional partiality. Every year we organise a meeting between young Palestinian and Israeli people on Cyprus. The main method is to create a space in which they can share their perspectives, tell how they feel hurt, and how they feel entitled to demanding justice from the other. They take turns in sharing their perspectives. This helps them to see how much everyone is hurt; the other is hurt like themselves. They see their tears, they look them in the eyes, they are together as humans. This also helps them to understand their own contribution to the polarisation. In sum, the participants start to see the human face beyond the stereotypic picture of the enemy. They also start to acknowledge how the other sees them. A former doctorate student of mine has studied the effects of this intervention (mixed methods). She concluded that multi directional partiality helps to humanise the other, and see their human face. This is more than simple empathy as it includes seeing oneself from the eyes of the other. It also is about tolerating paradoxical feelings and tensions, and abstaining from demanding immediate justice from the other party.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was also brokered by leaders and mediators who dared to have a multiple directional partiality. Similar to the reconciliation Committee in South Africa. Many more examples can be provided from the field of Conflict and Peace Studies.

My belief in multiple partiality is based on the experiences in former Eastern Germany DDR as a child. I helped to tear the Berlin wall down (OK, just hammering some chips off the concrete). We went through Checkpoint Charlie and visited friends at the east side. From a wealthy country we drove to very poor regions, literally only meters away from each other.  I remember the fears. I remember the risks that people had to take, for instance when they showed us the secretly hidden photo copier which was the core of the activists’ activities of building change. The walls were unnecessary. The walls created injustice. It took a long time for Germany to heal, and still until today there are differences and the historical pains are there. But they have been united and have learned to live together again. This process of unification was not an easy road, it was bumpy. Let’s not build or maintain new walls! Let’s bring down the symbolic walls between ethnic groups, between rich and poor, between countries such as UK and EU. People should never be divided. However it seems as if our walls nowadays are higher and stronger than the concrete walls I grew up with.

When I was 9 and I was helping to knock down the Berlin wall with my family, I learned then that walls cannot be a permanent solution. When I was 26 I was standing at another wall, the wall in Bethlehem and this was the only time I have ever used graffiti: “build bridges not walls”. However it’s easy for me to point the finger at the walls built by others, but I’m trying to prevent the symbolic walls that we are building in our daily lives but it’s hard work as apparently we human beings like the illusionary safety and control of walls and separation. We are afraid of otherness. However only meeting the other can heal us from our fear, from us needing these walls. Ultimately we build walls not against the other but against ourselves.

Let’s start chipping off pieces from our walls between each other. Therefore I believe that our only hope comes from multi directional partiality.



From the dictionary of family therapy:

Multi directional partiality
The term Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) apply to the therapist’s ability to adopt the position of each of the family members and even that of an absent member. The therapist is neither a neutral umpire, nor someone who stands ‘above the fray.’ He or she actively takes the side, during the therapy, of each of the family members, being guided in that task by his or her empathy and sense of fairness. This implies that he or she gives each person the sense of being someone important, someone who counts and whose desires he or she is trying to understand, while at the same time letting each person know that he or she is trying to support everyone in the family. Such a concept may be compared and contrasted with the concepts of neutrality and ‘siding’ with. For Boszormenyi-Nagy, the therapist must plead the case of each of the members of the family in turn, both of the nuclear and the extended family, including deceased members. He must therefore show partiality, but must do so with everyone, both avoiding an attitude of ‘benevolent neutrality’ and refusing to join any pre-exisiting coalitions. This multi-directional partiality is the preconditon for restoring mutual trust within the family and for maintaining the credibility of the therapist, both of which are necessary if a therapeutic process is to be engaged.

The Selfie Stick Tourist

17 August 201720800011_2033071663594583_5213073090535436687_n

The archetypical selfie-stick tourist: an existential essay on archetypes, tourism, cultures and religions

One of my biggest loves is travelling to countries far away. The more unfamiliar other cultures initially look, the more I will realise how much I have fundamentally in common. Our fundaments are the same: all of us have the same basic needs, need food, protect ourselves against the extremes of the weather, want to love and be loved. We also face similar struggles in life, from the most mundane struggles to realising that we are vulnerable beings who will die one day. We are all in awe of this mystery called “life” and formulate our personal answers to this, albeit via the help of different-looking symbols, myths, cultural rituals and religions.

While I am writing this in the restaurant of my hotel, I automatically smile as I hear two women in the kitchen bursting into laughter. When we see an authentic smile we smile back, when people truly laugh we join their infectious laugh. When someone is in pain, we will cry with them. Even we may not understand their language, culture or looks. Our brains are literally wired to empathise (as research on “mirror neurons” shows), and it takes a deliberate step to resist empathy. Thus, people are not born racist, supremacist or hegemonist: they have been made to counteract their natural wiring of empathic connections, by their upbringing, religion, ideology and relentless mass media. Furthermore, there is a liminal frame of time, between the age of 4 and 9 years, when children learn to put themselves explicitly into the shoes of others, but their upbringing could damage this development (of course with exceptions such as autism).

20840996_2033071706927912_1816121420298863488_nThus, we seem to have had an abnormal psychological development, when we are distracted from our human commonalities and instead focus at superficial cultural differences. For example, when I travelled on the bus yesterday, I heard a large-sized American boasting about all the trips he had done –quantity of travels seemed to trump quality for him. He continued with long rants about the ignorance and lack of education of “the people here”. As I expected, the first thing he did when he exited the bus was getting his selfie-stick out and demanding a local to have a picture with him. I call this modern archetype “the selfie-stick tourist”, of course with a reference to the timeless symbol of people enjoying extending their phallus. The need to continuously make and publish pictures of yourself instead of pics of others or together with others is inherently narcissistic: you focus on yourself or yourself-in-your-surroundings instead of on the surroundings per se. Sartre would say that selfie-stick tourists are in “bad faith”. That is, this American only connected with locals from his perspective. He stuck to his role of being-a-tourist, and he expected others to fulfil their role to serve him as tourist. However, we are able to throw the selfie-stick away, empathically connect with other people and try to see the world from other people’s perspectives.

Learning to connect with locals without a selfie-stick is like learning to walk without crutches after a broken leg. We will be limping and hurting in the beginning, when we try to empathise and authentically connect. The first thing we will experience is an embarrassment about ourselves. We realise how exploitative and invasive we are, even when we are tourists in good faith. For example, I tried to connect with the tour guide, but he could only respond in tour guide manners . I succeeded to temporarily break through his masquerade by making jokes. To some extent, I do understand why he stuck to his script, as he told me that he sees about 40 new tourists every day. Possibly he has tried authentic tour-guiding, but he may have failed as tourists expected him time and time again to function as the archetypical guide. Furthermore, the mere fact that I am here as foreigner in his place is inherently hegemonic and intrusive, and therefore it is hard work to break the cultural borders between us.

I wonder how it was like to travel in the time that the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung was journeying around the world, around the midst of the 20th century? To which extent were tourists and tourist-guides stuck to their modern-archetypical roles? (At least they did not stick a mobile phone on their symbolic phallus!) Like myself, Jung loved meeting people in distant cultures. He tried to see the world from their perspective, and after he had met individuals from many cultures, he started to realise that –despite the superficial differences- we have much fundamentally in common. We do not only have our biological and psychological desires in common, but also hopes, dreams and myths. We seem to use relatively similar symbols to express and grasp the mystery and struggles of life. Jung called this “archetypes”, symbolic structures which we see in all cultures. For instance, last evening I went to the dance performance of the Hinduistic Ramayana myth, and I saw many similarities with Shakespeare’s Richard III. There were also many similarities with the story of a performance in a local tribe that I have visited in Northern-Ghana ten years ago. It is the old-time story of boy-meets-girl, girl-doesn’t-like-boy, boy-meets-rival, boy-goes-on-heroic-path, boy-proves-himself-to-girl, boy-returns-to-girl, boy-wins-heart-of-girl. Jungians have particularly focused in this story on the role of the female, the mother-symbol, and the role of the shadow, the black part of ourselves that we usually do not see or do not want to see. Additionally, Joseph Campbell tells about the cyclical stages that the hero in such stories go: disappointment forces them to leave their daily life, go on a heroic journey, and return after heroic success.


Personally, I do not believe that we have a universal pre-given rolodex with symbolic templates in our head, from which we pick some templates when we tell stories and myths such as the Ramayana. Instead, I think that the similarities between our stories world-wide are due to the fact that all of us face similar struggles and mysteries in life, and that we can only express ourselves with the limited means of our human capabilities of mouth, hands, feet and body. Thus, when Jung spoke of archetypes, he revealed the existential commonalities of humans in all times and cultures. When I read the later philosophical work of Jung, he seems to have a similar existential and non-psychoanalytic understanding of archetypes. I think it is a big fallacy to see archetypes as psychological “things” (this is called “reification”, thing-ifying): instead, archetypes are expressions of our existential way-of-being. This is precisely the psychologism that existential philosophers and psychologists such as Heidegger and Jaspers warned us for. They tell that by reducing our subjectively lived reality to “psychological things”, we get rid of some of the complexity and mystery that is inherent to life. We may like to think about life in terms of psychological models and diagnoses, because this can (temporarily) help us to experience life as explainable, controllable and benevolent.


However, the mystery and complexity of life disappears, when we psychologise life. It is like the famous Indonesian shadow puppet play, where the puppet-player moves puppets on sticks behind a white screen, enlightened by a light coming from behind the puppets; thus, the audience does not directly see the puppets but only the shadows of the puppets. The audience usually only sees the shadow of life, and do not see the colours and details that the beautifully crafted puppets have. We need to go to the other side of the screen to see how the puppet player is playing with puppets. This play is thousands of years old, and has a strong spiritual meaning –in contrast with the puppet play for children, which we know in the west. Seeing shadows and not the puppets is regarded as a religious symbol for life, I have been told. One may wonder whether shadow plays were also performed in the time when the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the difference between mundane daily life when ordinary people are like captives forced to see only shadows; only truly enlightened souls can be liberated and see life in the true light, directly facing the objects as they are, seeing the leather puppets instead of merely seeing their shadows. A modern western archetype tells the same story: the movie The Matrix suggests that there is a true world –which is complex, painful and messy- and a fake shadow world called the Matrix -which is simple, automatic, and predictable-; we have to decide in which world we want to live. Similarly, we can symbolically interpret archetypes in two different ways: as psychological shadows, or as a direct existential expression of life as all of us face. Archetypes are not the psychological shadows of how we live our life, it is directly the way how we live our life. (Of course, often we may have difficulties distinguishing both, particularly when light is dim, and we do not know whether we are seeing the puppets or merely their shadow).

20882179_2033071033594646_960611407643997665_nThus, I argue that cultural and religious symbols can express life how we immediately experience it. We do not need the mediation of a play such as the Ramayana dance performance that I saw, to live our lives. As we already live our lives! We automatically connect, we empathise, we live, and we are in a flow. Thus, cultural and religious activities and symbols should not merely be regarded as psychological defence mechanisms, like Ernest Becker suggested in his book “Denial of Death” and Irvin Yalom in “Existential Psychotherapies”. Becker and Yalom are the intellectual selfie-stick tourists of their time, who impose their artificial models on the complexity and mystery of life. Instead, we should understand cultural and symbols as unmediated modes-of-existence. Existential anthropologists such as Michael Jackson (no, not the singer!) have interpreted archetypes in similar existential manner. Thus, we live and construct our lives BY symbols, not VIA symbols.

Neurological-anthropological research suggests that the development of our neocortex is associated with the development of the skill of symbolising (cf. the book “The mind in the cave”). Of course, this is a chicken-or-egg-story. We cannot say what was first: the development of the neocortex or the symbolic function. The terms “brain” and “psychological functions” are reductionist symbols which psychologise our existential reality. This seems to be a false dichotomy, as both are explanations of the same development, albeit that one explanation is in neurological terms and the other in existential-symbolic terms. Like all symbols, neurological-anthropological symbols may help us to see a part of ourselves which we usually do not see. Therefore, let’s analyse what the neurological-anthropological symbolic story tells about us. When humans started to live their lives in the symbolic immediacy instead of in the mere biological immediacy –while they developed their neocortex-, this meant a large jump in our evolution. The neo sapiens started a different route than their ancestors. To explain this, let’s return to the topic of empathy. Empathy seems to be primarily a function of the old brain, for which we do not need the neocortex. Ethological research have shown time and time again how all animals have an empathic capacity, particularly primates. Simultaneously, research shows how this empathic capability can be undermined by physical threats: when our survival instinct is triggered –for instance due to an actual or imagined lack of resources- we may override our empathic instinct. When animals perceive that they are in danger, they will fight, flight, freeze (and more recently, researchers have added “feed”, to describe how animals instinctively help others in response to existential threats). When human beings perceive that they are in danger, they may show similar behaviour as animals, but they can also express this at symbolic level. We create and live in our symbolic stories as ways of coping with threat. Again, these symbols are not mere psychological mechanisms or objects, but they are our lived reality.

20841983_2033071646927918_1016526761513247215_nThe Ramayana story that I saw yesterday gives many examples of how we symbolise existential threats. This narrative is one of world’s oldest myths, coming from Hinduism, and it was performed as a ballet in Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in SE Asia. Frankly speaking, it took some time to get past the cultural differences. I have never seen this type of dancing, and heard this type of singing and the use of the gamelan. I had thoughts like “they sing off tone”, “they do not dance synchronically” and “this is a weird unnecessary complex story”. However, I decided to symbolically put my selfie-stick away (no worries: I do not really have a selfie-stick, I meant this metaphorically!). I immediately felt embarrassed for my western biased thoughts. And I started to see similarities with the story lines and symbols that I have seen in Shakespeare and African tribal plays.

Subsequently I wondered what this dance tells about their way-of-living? It showed awe for the mystery of life, literally with smoke and devils on stage. The complex story line showed the complexity and paradoxes of life, which we cannot reduce to a simple Hollywood-film-plot. In life, we are torn apart between different people and between different sides in ourselves and in life, symbolised by the princess, the king, the admirer, the rival, the devil, the monkey king, etc. The Hindu spiritual realm has countless gods, representing the overwhelming complexity of life. Hindus tell that we often feel intuitively attracted to certain gods, because they are a shadow part of ourselves which we do not see. However, these gods are not something different than us (like western religions tell): in Hinduism, every individual person is a reflection of God, is a part of God and it is the rightful pursuit of a person to fulfil their objectives in life. Thus, gods are not psychological symbols which we use, but we are a living part of the symbolic-divine realm. We live the symbolic realm, and we do not merely psychologically create the symbolic realm (Hinduism does not have the subject-object split which Descartes taught us in the west). This is the phenomenological immediacy that philosophers like Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl and Heidegger wrote about. I am Shinta, I am Rama, I am Rahwana, and I am Hanuman. In the dance, there were continuous fights between these different gods that we fundamentally are. That is, we face endless struggles and tensions in life.

The dance also revealed that there can be more than struggles in life, particularly when struggles are broken by the power of love for others. For instance, the princess Shinta was stuck in a magic circle, from which she was liberated when she gave aims to a beggar. The highlight of the show was a large fire on stage, which killed Hanuman, the white monkey god. At that part of the performance, I was thinking that all good forces are destroyed, and that defeat is the only answer we have to life. However, this fire also meant the start of a fundamental transformation in the performance (this is also where the Indonesian version of the Ramayana story differs from other Ramayana stories for instance in India). The fire was followed by a resurrection of the monkey-god, and by the god Rama building a bridge which connected people and helped the good monkey-soldiers to fight the evil monkey-soldiers. Fire even purified the princess Shinto as she had lost her purity during the story; thanks to this purification, she was pure enough to marry the god Rama. Jung has similarly described how our experience of “the dark night of the soul” and our “crucifixion” –going as low as we can in life-, can help a powerful transformation. Of course, for Jung the end is not “and they lived happily ever after”, but the start of new symbolic journeys in life, as we will go on new journeys as transformed beings.


As a modern westerner, I had difficulties accepting the stereotypic roles depicted in the Ramayana dance. Women need to be feminine, men masculine machos. Kings should marry queens and laymen -“the monkeys”- are there to serve their Lords. Individuals find The Meaning in their life by doing what is expected. These are the archetypes of the servant, the mother, the king, etc. We are stuck to our archetypical roles, and it is impossible to resist our roles. Thus, the core message which I initially received was “you must fit into the social-divine order, and do the role that you are told to”. Of course, this clearly depicts the Hindu cast system: when you are born in one particular social class, you cannot change in this life; possibly, you can change in your next life, when you have obediently served your role in this life. Similarly, tourists must stick to their role of selfie-stick-tourists and tour-guides to mechanically guiding them? However, when the play is not regarded as indirect symbols but as a direct expression of life, one could also argue that I am all the different roles at the same time. This seems consistent with the large Hindu realm of gods. We all participate in the one god Brahma, and it is us human beings who split him into different smaller gods (remember, that only in the west we make rigid distinctions between subject and object, between self and other). We are all gods at the same time. We worship the god who we need at this moment in our life, like the part of ourselves that we usually do not see as this is hidden behind the puppet-play screen. We may temporarily focus on only one role, but this can change and in the end we are all roles at the same time.

As a very old tradition, Hinduism has many different branches. Personally I have always been impressed by the ancient Buddhist-Hindu philosophy of Sunyata which is reflected in the Hindu myths and tradition of the Advaita Vedanta. Sunyata focuses on the existential emptiness or void of life, which is in line with the Middle-Age Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and the existential philosopher Heidegger (whose works I know well; cf. Werner Marx book on Heidegger and Eckhart). Sunyata invented phenomenology before Husserl popularised the phenomenological concept. Sunyata even developed the path of the mystic, which has later been copied by the Christian mystics in the Middle Ages (purgation, illuminatio, unio). Kierkegaard described similar stages in life, like aesthetics, ethics and religion.

Phenomenology, Kierkegaard, the mystic path, and Sunyata all tell that we should not focus on the superficial forms and themes, but have an empty open mind: we are empty, signless and undirected. We think that the shadows on the screen are everything there is in life, but it may not be. We think we are merely archetypical selfie-stick-tourists and tourist-guides, but we may be more than that: we have a larger potential. We can learn to empty ourselves, that is: set these assumptions temporarily aside and have an open mind. Spiritual and phenomenological practices could help us, to realize that this world is primarily empty of self or anything pertaining to the self: selfie-sticks are mere desperate attempts to fill the emptiness of being: behind the camera stuck on our stick, we try to hide the temporariness, complexity, paradoxes and mystery of life. Our empirical world of appearances are like performances on stage: they are “Maya”, unreal as they are transitory, and not absolutely existent. However, at the same time, Maya is all there is at this moment in the here-and-now. When we are in the here-and-now, we can start to experience emptiness not merely as negative –the lack of something-, but the space transforms into something positive: a space for something to emerge. The stage is our life, and our life is the stage where we perform. Similarly, our roles on the stage of our life are transitory, and they are not all there is. The social-divine order is changing, dynamic, and imperfect.

20840996_2033071706927912_1816121420298863488_nThe mystic-phenomenological steps of emptying ourselves can physically be experienced by climbing the Borobodur, one of the largest Buddhist mountain-temples in the world. The Borobudur consists of different levels or floors, similar to a pyramid. Buddhists walk each level clockwise before they take the stairs to the next level. Similar to life, where we often circle around a struggle we need to overcome, before we can grow to the next level in life. By slowly walking at each level and looking at the amazing sculptures on the walls and the Buddha statues, the walker automatically goes into a meditative state. By the time I reached the highest level, I actually felt as if I was in a trance: my mind was empty, void of forms, being in the here and now. The many levels of the Borobudur are categorised into three different parts. These three parts correspond with the Christian mystic steps of purgatio-illuminatio-unio and the phenomenological steps of reduction-destruction-construction which Heidegger differentiated. The lowest part of the Borobudur does not have any sculptures at all, but simply consists of the stairs, the hill and nature. The only thing we need at this level is the right intention that is the right direction to go up the Borobodur, leaving our mundane daily life and strive towards Enlightenment. The middle part consists of five floors of paths with walls at both sides. The walls had intricate stone sculptures, showing daily life activities and our control of our earthly desires such as food, drinking, sex, misuse of nature, and physical violence. While I was walking there, I experienced that I was “walled in”, it felt like a maze. I could not see the surroundings but only the walls. There were large Enlightened Buddha sculptures around, but these stood higher than myself or there were walls between me and the large Enlightened Buddha sculptures. This immediate experience let me immediately feel that forms and meanings in my life such as materialism, hedonism, self-oriented or social meanings are like walls which prevent me from seeing the surroundings of life and which prevent me from connecting with Enlightenment; this is like the screen of the puppet play. The shapes of the walls were also very rectangular with sharp corners. When I reached the end of the level full of forms, I reached the highest level of Enlightenment. There were no forms there anymore, no walls hiding the surroundings, I was at the same level as the Enlightened Buddha sculptures, and all shapes were round and curvy. I felt physically liberated, as I could see far in the distance, I was not walled in anymore, everything seemed round and flowing around me. My mind was empty, and I literally did not focus on my daily life anymore but could almost literally see my daily life from the larger perspective.

It felt painful to go down the steps. I tried to keep my Enlightened mind, but as soon as I reached the carpark I had been tackled by so many hustlers that my mindset had become my daily life frustrated-me again. This is possibly one of the biggest challenges in life: how can we keep the brief moments of exaltations and stay Enlightened in the busyness of everyday life? How did Buddha and the Boddhisatvas live their lives after they had reached Enlightenment? Kierkegaard speaks of a “qualitative jump”: I did not only reach the highest level of Enlightenment by doing one more step up the stairs, but changed my full perception and my full being. As a transformed person, life will never be the same anymore. Having seen the puppet player playing the puppets behind the screen will forever change how you experience the shadow play on the screen. Like Neo in the movie The Matrix who could not simply enjoy his previous life inside the Matrix anymore when he had been outside the Matrix and had seen the lies and illusions that he was fed every day inside the Matrix. Personally, I understand this qualitative jump but in reality there are many slides which bring me back to the lower levels, without maintaining my Enlightenment –like in the game of Snakes and Ladders. It has often been argued “yes, but then you have not really reached Enlightenment” or “you must work harder”. I personally think that this rigidity is inconsistent in the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism.

What does this mean for my meaning in life? As a reflection of God, every human being has to fulfil four objectives in life according to Hinduism (vaguely reminding of Aristotle’s Aitia and Heidegger’s Fourfold): Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. These objectives seem to be about transitioning between emptiness and space, between fulfilling our roles and transcending our roles. For example, Dharma recommends righteous and regulated living, such as fulfilling our role in the cosmic-divine tragicomedy of our life. However, this role is temporary, as we can eventually reach moksha, liberation. Thus, role-fulfilling and liberation balance each other. Similarly, Artha and Kama are balanced with Moksha. Artha means acquiring wealth, prosperity and glory. Kama includes fulfilment of wishes, desires, love and sensual pleasure. When one realizes the futility of temporary gratification and prosperity, one eventually seeks moksha (liberation). According to Hinduism all these four are equally important. If any one of these objectives is done half-heartedly life will remain incomplete. Balancing and fulfilling these four objectives is the highest duty of human being. Thus, we have our human desires and animalistic instincts, but we also have the ability to transcend these. Fulfilling our archetypical roles and getting symbolic support from others may facilitate our transformation process, like in the Ramayana myth. This fourfold tells that reaching moksha is not a qualitative jump after which we can forget the other aspects: we need to balance our enlightened mind-set and daily life. It is a fallacy to assume a distinction between the enlightened levels and the mundane daily-life levels: they may look to be split, but they are all part of the same temple. Thinking two worlds at the same time is particularly difficult for westerners like myself, who grew up with a strong Cartesian idea of sharp, rectangular and walled distinctions between subject and object, god and mortals, me and others, etc. The yin-yang symbol visualises this different way of living.

20915090_2033071570261259_5227741331187967822_nLet’s return to the question of whether we are stuck in certain roles in life, particularly after we have reached moksha. Of course, traditionally Hindus assume that we can only change roles between lives not within. However, it is similarly consistent with the four-objectives-philosophy, to assume that we can transform within this life. This is also symbolised by the many transformations that the main characters underwent on stage: we can change in this life. However, it is reality that we are always initially cast in a certain role: for example, I was born as a man in a middle class family in the Netherlands, etc. I can rigidly stuck to dutifully fulfilling my role as middle-class man, but this is unbalanced, and Sartrian “bad faith”. Alternatively, I can -at least partially- strive for moksha, see the temporariness of my middle-class Dutch role and for instance become a British punk queer. Being is being-in-possibilities, being aware that we can change, according to Heidegger. This also implies that I should subsequently not get stuck in this new role, but continuously strive towards transitionary transformation. I experience fun and prosperity in my punk scene, for instance during my parties (Artha and Kama), but I do realise that these are partial and temporary, as there is much more to life than this. I realise that I am more than my role, now that I am empathically connecting with locals in this culture which initially feels very distinct to myself.

The American tourist that I had heard in the bus has most likely not understood this spirituality that was shown in the dance, shadow plays and the Buddhist architecture. He ignored his inborn empathic capability, and was in bad faith. He looked at cultural and religious differences, not at our fundamental similarities. As humans, we face similar existential struggles. The dance performance showed that all of us face endless struggles. We follow and create archetypical-symbolic ways-of-living-with-threat, which was shown as gods in the play. The paradoxes, struggles, tensions and beautiful roles are not only external to us, we have the potential of all these roles inside us. However to realise we are gods and become one, we need mystical-phenomenological steps of setting aside our focus on differences. This does not mean that struggles and daily life have disappeared. No, it is a continuing process of balancing and experiencing paradoxes in life. It is here were we can experience meaning in life, in the dance of life.





The Power of Nightmares

Are you afraid that WW3 will happen soon? Do you think the Russians will really attack us? Do you believe that Al Qaida and ISIS are huge powerful networks? Do you think that Palestine is a real military danger to Israel? Are you afraid on the streets of London because you are told about the acid attacks or its homicide figures? Do you believe that immigrants are a threat to the UK and the USA? Do you feel powerless? Do you feel you have no control over your feelings as your feelings have been hijacked by the world events?

Think again :
Who convinced you of this?
What independent information do you have?
What would politicians, media and lobbyists win by making you believe this?
Are your feelings your own?

1. Reclaim your feelings from the mass manipulators by independent thinking and critical research.
2. Use multiple sources of information, eg check not only the BBC but also the Independent, FT, Guardian, RTV, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, Dutch NOS, Trouw or NRC, Belgium Correspondent, etc etc: and do not believe one particular source but use triangulation (that is: when multiple sources with different interests tell the same story there may be some little truth in it).
3. Do not get pulled into the hypes on Facebook, Twitter etc. Give your self a maximum time on social media or go on social media holidays.
4. Never stop criticising your own beliefs.
5. Start with not believing anything from people with vested interests.
6. Do not run away for your fears, because they feed on running away.
7. Have a conversation with your fears: what do they want, where do they live, who are their parents, who are their children, what do they feed on, and what is their weakness?
8. Do not start with believing that your thoughts and feelings are abnormal. Believe that these thoughts and feelings are normal in an abnormal society. The ideas of “mental health” and “craziness” are an invention to convince you that you are crazy and powerless and that you should not try to criticise the status quo.
9. Do not get fatalistic. Fatalism is the result from believing the lie that the world could be perfect only if all these things did not happen that we are told that we should be afraid of. Start without any assumptions. Start with small changes in your daily life and let your feelings of success undermine the fatalistic myth of powerlessness and helplessness.

In 2001, I wrote an award-winning essay in which I claimed that the primary source of power of politicians after 9/11 is making us afraid of fictional nightmares they have created for us, and promising that if we vote for them they will guard us while we can be safely asleep in our beds with our nice dreams. I dare to say that this is the ONLY source of power they have today. But when we do not believe the nightmares they cast for uIs, they have no power: it’s as simple as that. Don’t believe them. And particularly never believe BoJo.

An OK introduction into some modern myths:


The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is a…

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:…/Voltaire+-+Poem+on+the+Li…

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