The Darkness Within

Ghostly view of the bay

We all have a dark side. For some, it follows us around like a childhood ghost, just visible in the corner of our eyes. And then it’s knocking on the door, demanding to come in. Like we would ever want to welcome that dark guest into our lives.

But we do.

Your dark side goes through life gathering up anxieties and worries and stores them for those moments when you wake in the middle of the night and need something to be fearful about. And then you start the worrying game, worrying about things that matter but about which you can do nothing and worrying about things that don’t matter but seem so utterly overwhelming.

It helps to have a safe place to go. Not a physical place because you won’t always be able to go there. No, it needs to be a place inside your head where the child you once were can think about fireside stories, of cups of hot chocolate, and your faithful dog. The happy memories that create a warm glow, keeping you safe from the perils of the world.

We also need to know what triggers the darkness. Many of our fears and anxieties were laid down when we did not have words or sufficient thoughts to understand them. And then those terrors and dreads are there to drown our emotional state in blackness without the logic of any rational explanation.

In many ways, it is better that we acknowledge the existence of our dark side because denying its existence is like denying your enemy. Putting your head under the blanket in the middle of the night while the darkness grows stronger inside you.

So when darkness comes knocking on your door, ask what it has to say. Ask why you should let it in and what miseries it has brought as unwelcome gifts. What past regrets, what future anxieties does the dark side want to unwrap.

The truth of who you are is a bright light that shines from deep inside you. It is a light that creates happy memories and beautiful futures, like photo albums of human treasures. It is a light that fulfills your ambitions and denies the threats of failure that stop you from ever beginning. It is a light that can extinguish the suffocating darkness.

You need it to shine. And the world needs to see it. The light was there at the beginning and it needs to be there at the end.

Saving a Life

New York SubwayThe young man was counting twenty dollar bills in his hands when he moved forward and stumbled and fell on the subway tracks. It was right in front of me. I looked urgently at the digital sign above. It said a train was arriving in one minute. One minute.

A thousand images flashed before my eyes of people caught on cell phone cameras in moments of absolute mortal danger. You always wonder what you would do. What you would do if something like that happened in front of you.

And there it was. An opportunity to do something. Or nothing.

And then I realized I had jumped down onto the tracks, just like they tell you not to do. The same sign scrolling, “If you drop something on the track, leave it.” But I was dragging him up as best I could and heaving him back onto the platform. Thankfully, another man reached down and pulled him the last few inches to safety.

Looking down, I saw his twenty dollar bills scattered on the rails and I gathered them up and put them in his hand. I don’t know why I did that.

As I sat him up and talked to him, I could feel the air moving forcefully over me. It was the approaching train. The sign was flashing zero minutes to arrival of the next train. The train roared past, its driver, its passengers unaware of how the evening could have unfolded. The Lexington subway station closed because of an incident. People trying to capture video on their phones for the evening news. A young man died on the tracks tonight. Police do not know if it was an accident or a suicide. They are appealing for witnesses.

But he was alive.

I looked at the people around me and saw something I wasn’t expecting. The eyes of strangers set in judgment. Set in their negative judgment for the young man with long hair and dirty fingernails who had staggered onto the track.

There was no smell of alcohol but his eyes were distant, like they had been separated from the violence of the present. And the people judged him.

I felt awkward when he thanked me for saving his life. It wasn’t like the images on TV when you wonder what it would feel like to do something like that. I just felt sad. I was sad for the way we judge people for being down and out. And how we admire those who have more than us.

I went home on the subway, searching for the exhilaration of saving someone who no one cared about. That sign was still scrolling in my mind. If you drop something on the track, leave it.

Unless you want to save a life.

The Risk of Living

Lightning StrikesWhat makes an 80 year old woman jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet? Maybe she wants to prove to herself that she’s finally a risk taker. Perhaps it’s for the thrill. Or just because she can.

Every day we take risks. Most of the time we don’t even think about it because the risk is so stacked in our favor that there’s hardly a risk at all. Like eating raw oysters. Or taking a taxi ride in New York City.

Then of course there is the opposite of risk. Comfort. Being so comfortable where we are that we never want to risk losing what we have. But without risk, life is very dull indeed.

Sometimes it helps to think in extremes. To wonder about your life if everything was to change overnight. What would you risk everything for? For your children’s lives? Certainly. To escape an inevitable death? Probably. To gain your freedom from an abusive relationship? Maybe. To leave behind a prosperous career to do something you love?

Risk and motivation are very closely linked. You can’t have one without the other. Most extreme motivation involves taking significant risks. And risks, after all, are assessments of probability. The probability that there is a greater prospect of a positive return over the risk of loss. Or not.

Sometimes others take the risk for us. Like a partner who leaves you. Or a boss who lets you go. But some of the greatest achievements come out of adversity.

Perhaps the greatest risk you can face is the risk of losing your life. Of course, in the end it’s not a risk at all. It’s a certainty. We all face the grim reaper in the final chapter. There is no risk we can take that will save us from mortality. All of our vain attempts at building comfort and security will mean nothing when that time inevitably comes.

In the end we will always wish we had done something more. How, if we could go back in time, we would reach out for what we could have even if it risked losing what we were holding onto.

The human spirit is driven by risk. There is no progress in life without it. And the greatest risk of all is not to live the incredible life you could really have.

And looking back over your life, knowing you were just too comfortable to do anything about it.

The Future is Ours

Crane DawnI was on a flight from Hong Kong to New York recently when I realized something that could change my life forever. How little time we spend actually thinking. I don’t mean worrying about the trivia that fills our minds with useless thoughts every moment of the day. I mean stopping for a considered time to clear our minds of meaningless nonsense and to think about something different, something perhaps bigger than who we are today or the contribution we could make to this life.

And it started me thinking about the ambition of my youth and for a moment I was sad and lost and then I simply thought of something that filled me with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. The thought that ambition is not over until we choose to give it up. And it is our choice whether we live this life with the thoughts of something bigger or lose ourselves in the everyday minutiae of nothing at all.

By thinking about something – writing a novel, starting a business, a charitable cause or whatever it may be – we have a proven chance of achieving it. But all the time we have meaningless arguments inside our heads, reliving the past or worrying about things we cannot change, we are wasting something vital that could change our lives forever – using our minds to create a beautiful and more enriched future.

So now, I am banishing any thought that has no purpose, the internal nonsense that goes around and around and burns up the most important development of evolution, the ability to think for ourselves.

It has taken six billion years to evolve us to where we are today, with the most developed brain of any species. The limbic brain and the neocortex, 3 lbs of jelly that represents the absolute pinnacle of evolution. We can use it to play Candy Crush all day or change the world we live in. In the end it is down to thought and motivation – and the other great gift we have. The gift of freedom of choice.

Don’t waste it.

I have been writing again after many months of absence and I feel thrilled that once challenged, our minds come forward with a mass of creativity, of invention, of wonder. I’m now half way through writing a new book and I feel more excited than at any time in my life.

Be excited for all that can be rather than worried about all that may be or all that was. We have been gifted the greatest thinking machine of evolution, the human mind. And we need to use it.

The future is waiting to be created. And it is all ours.

A Crying Shame

Rainbow LighteningOn our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.

“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.

My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.

It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.

There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.

It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?

Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.

If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.

Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.

But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.

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